Huge National Art Museum of China still not approved

Beijing has not approved project nearly a year after French architect was commissioned

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 4:01am

With Hong Kong's M+ Museum due to open in 2017, it was widely believed the city would enter an intense rivalry with Beijing as a new centre for art and culture in Asia. Now, such ideas seem premature.

While Swiss architecture studio Herzog & de Meuron was picked in June to design a grand 75,000-square-metre arts museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District, it remains unclear when - if at all - Beijing will proceed with its own mega-sized art museum on the capital's northern outskirts.

It has been almost a year since French architect Jean Nouvel won the highly coveted commission to design the 130,000-square-metre National Art Museum of China (Namoc) that will be sited next to the National Stadium. However, Nouvel's conceptual design, which was inspired by an ink brushstroke, still has not been approved by China's new leadership.

An official announcement of his winning the commission was expected to follow. There is still no word of the decision. In the meantime, Nouvel's team is said to have been working with the Beijing Institute of Architecture Design to fine-tune the design.

Adding to the uncertainty is the new administration's frugality campaign that has frozen all spending on new government office buildings. The mammoth size of the planned art museum, though intended for public use, may run against the policy of the new leadership under President Xi Jinping , who pledged an end to the building of ostentatious public buildings.

The new national art museum was to be the biggest in the world when completed in 2015, to reflect China's status as a cultural superpower.

"It's possible that the new government may cancel the project," said Shan Deqi , professor of architecture at Tsinghua University. "Many of our officials are focused on projects that show off their work achievements while relegating the livelihoods of the people to second place."

He added: "At any time in our history, launching huge construction projects never brought good results. China's first emperor Qin Shihuang built the Epang Palace; Empress Dowager Cixi used money intended for the navy's modernisation to build the Summer Palace."

Li Hu from OPEN Architecture studio in Beijing, who was invited to participate in the competition but later withdrew because of the political nature of the project, also disapproves of building the world's biggest art museum.

"I don't think it is necessary to make it so big," he said. "If the government can reduce expenditure and build a smaller version, then I would lend it my support."

Even though the government has not yet given the project a green light, several Chinese architects and art critics have criticised the project. On June 19, architect Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, whose bid was eliminated in the first round of competition, used his column in New Beijing News to call on the management of National Art Museum to reconsider the location.

"A national arts museum is the cultural heart of a country and should be in the centre of the city," he wrote. "In some way, the location of the museum embodies the taste and openness of a city and exemplifies its emphasis on culture and arts."

Ma finished his article by urging management to give Chinese architects a chance to create a modern art museum that could merge into its surroundings.

The current plan locates the new art museum on the northern axis of ancient Beijing, at the centre of a new museum precinct. Two other museums are the Chinese Arts and Crafts Museum and the Sinology Centre. The museum district was intended to help attract visitors back to the area after the 2008 Olympics.

The existing National Art Museum of China was designed by Dai Nianci (1920-1991) and was one of 10 major buildings built to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. Completed four years later in 1962 and renovated in 2004, the museum is in a busy commercial district in the city centre. The planned new Namoc will be six times its size.

Many of the objections to the new museum project stem from the fact that much of modern Beijing has been transformed by the works of Western architects. Striking examples include the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Frenchman Paul Andreu's ellipsoid dome of titanium and glass surrounded by an artificial lake next to Tiananmen Square, and CCTV Headquarters, the radically shaped 44-storey skyscraper on East Third Ring Road in Beijing's central business district designed by OMA's Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren.

"We have many architects of our own," said Ma Bingjian , director of Beijing Traditional Architectural Design Institute. "I don't understand our decision makers' blind worship of Western architects. In the invasion of Western culture, we need to make efforts to preserve our own architectural traditions."

When the design competition for Namoc was launched in 2010, it attracted proposals from more than 150 architects worldwide. Twenty design practices were then invited to submit designs, including Chinese architects Yung Ho Chang, Zhu Pei and Ma Yansong. By the final round, there were no local architects among the five finalists - Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron (who later withdrew from consideration) and Moshe Safdie - three of whom are Pritzker Prize winners.

"The National Art Museum will house two millennia of traditional Chinese fine arts works. Our scroll paintings need a different exhibition space from oil paintings of the West.

"I'm against giving such an important cultural institution to a Western architect," said Liu Chuanming , an art historian in Beijing.

Jeffrey Johnson, director of the China Megacities Lab at the Columbia University's School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in New York, said that to build responsibly was a duty shared by the architect and client.

"It is true that China has provided many architects the opportunity to realise projects that would otherwise be difficult or even impossible elsewhere. Architects from around the world have built some of their most radical buildings in China," he said.

"However, I think it is too easy to only criticise the architects. Often designers are asked by their clients to design monumental and iconic structures that can often seem out of place or scale. We can see this in 'vanity' projects where iconic structures are erected for political and short-term gain."

Johnson thinks that it is very important for cities to retain and promote local identities. "The preservation and adaptive reuse of historical buildings should be balanced with new development. By promoting innovation locally, new identities will be created."