Rockbund cultural hub to balance traditional and modern architecture

A Shanghai art museum that is part of a group of buildings being restored, reflects the area's new cultural identity

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 5:19am

With no shortage of new dramatic architectural landmarks in China, it is notable that one of the most intriguing design projects to emerge in recent years is not a monumental skyscraper, but the restoration and subtle extension of a historic contemporary-art museum on the northern tip of the city's famed Bund.

The narrow, six-storey art deco building - originally home to the Royal Asiatic Society and the first public museum in China - is part of the restoration of an ensemble of architecturally diverse historic buildings referred to as the Rockbund Project.

During the early 19th century, the project's location overlooking the intersection of the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek was considered so strategic that the British government selected it for the first British settlement in Shanghai. The restoration area comprises six early-20th-century listed buildings and five further significant historical buildings. Each presents in a different style, with materials and colours representing the city's distinctive 1920s.

The restoration of the 1.6-hectare mixed-use area, led by Shanghai Bund de Rockefeller Group Master Development, aims to transform the long-neglected site into a new luxury cultural hub including hotels, retail spaces, offices and apartments.

At the helm of the Rockbund Project is British architect Sir David Chipperfield, 59, whose offices in London, Berlin, Milan and Shanghai employ more than 200 people. He brings considerable experience in balancing traditional and modern design, with the reconstruction of the 19th-century Neues Museum on Berlin's Museum Island - in collaboration with Julian Harrap - seen as a model for how to modernise historic buildings without losing their authenticity. In addition to leading a team of international architects to revitalise the buildings, David Chipperfield Architects was also tasked with the restoration of the facades and interior conservation areas, interior design of all public spaces, new-build additions, and the interior design for the project's first signature building, the Rockbund Art Museum (RAM).

The restoration concept began with painstaking cleaning to remove years of grime without further harm to their original fabric. At the same time, the historic patina and aged surfaces were kept as far as possible, to avoid an artificial upgraded look.

Over the years, there have been various additions and conversions, and these were carefully removed to restore the buildings to as close as possible to their original state. Where new facades have been created, designers used equivalent materials - exposed brickwork and "Shanghai plaster" - to create a homogenous architectural look.

Some structures have been added to create rooftop extensions and - notably along the southern edge of the planning area - "expand" the Andres & George Building to create Rockbund No6. The original three-storey facade is being renovated with new storeys in the form of a stacked construction.

The brick-clad 60-metre tower will become the second new-build project on the Bund in 60 years, after the adjacent five-star Peninsula Hotel, which opened in 2010.

According to Mark Randel, managing and design director of David Chipperfield Architects Berlin, the project "creates an opportunity to talk about the meaning of historic building fabric in our cities. The responsibility of contemporary architecture is to build spaces for the people of our and future generations, but also to preserve historic buildings in order to sustain the memory and to learn from the past".

The museum, which opened in 2010 as the project's first completed building, includes four storeys of exhibition space and a café. There are outdoor spaces on the newly created Museum Square and facilities in the historic building next door - the cashier hall of the National Industrial Bank of China - to accommodate large art installations.

The focus on the protection and restoration of buildings with culture at the core of the Rockbund design concept is a refreshing departure from some of China's "urban preservation" projects where historic structures are often replaced with replicas. With a year to go before the project is completed, RAM has already distinguished the area from numerous other revitalised retail enclaves in the city.