National Maritime Museum of China

Cox Architecture

This project won the international competition to design China’s new National Maritime Museum to be located in the port city of Tianjin close to Beijing. The competition was held over 6 months in three stages, each unusually providing jury feedback to those competitors selected to progress.

The design comprises five hall structures radiating out to the port harbour and converging in a central ‘Preface Hall’. Functionally, the idea is to bring all visitors up a rampart to an elevated level and access from there either of two split levels which occupy each hall. This strategy enabled the collections and operational centre of the museum to be located immediately under the Preface Hall with direct lower level access into each hall.

The halls are sequentially from west to east a Hall of Nature and Oceans, World Maritime Civilisation Hall, Chinese Marine Culture Hall and Historic Vessel Hall. A Temporary Exhibition Hall projects forward of these and a fifth hall to the west accommodates public education, business, research and curatorial facilities.

The museum is fronted by a ‘maritime plaza’ where maritime re-enactments and other open air events are intended to actively engage the museum with the city. It is marked by an observation tower also acting as the museum’s energy plant.

The architecture is expressive of multiple interpretations (such as an open hand, anemone, corals, vessels in port), not as obvious metaphors, but as enticements for visitation and exploration of a multifaceted set of experiences within.

The Planning

The brief for the National Maritime Museum of China required it to be developed in two stages, such that the first created a ‘complete’ museum and the ensuing stages minimally disrupted the first.

Our strategy was to create a central hub, on the upper level the main ‘Preface Hall’ and below it the Collections Centre. Radiating out from this hub are the four main themed halls, each two levels so that both the movement of visitors and artefacts could directly occur from the central hub.

The radial plan facilitates indentation by water bodies from the harbour so that visitors can visually experience ongoing maritime life while appreciating China’s maritime evolution. These water bodies also provide for floating exhibits of vessels able to be accessed from pontoons out from the halls.

As well as radiating movement lines, interconnecting bridges facilitate cross-movement between the World Maritime Civilization Hall and the Chinese Marine Culture Hall (and its associated Historic Vessel Hall) with the idea of enabling visitors to appreciate parallels between World and Chinese maritime events over the centuries.

The Structure

The brief sought the ability to construct its 80,000m2 before the end of 2015 with piling to commence in August this year.

This demand compelled competitors to devise structural systems able to be rapidly assembled without diminishing the museum architectural solution.

Working with Arup, we devised a system of tilted portal frames, comprising a set number of components that enabled three-dimensional curvilinear forms and spaces to be created. A key part of the system is that the frames can be installed, together with the roof of prefabricated triangular metallic cladding cassettes, prior to erecting the exhibition halls inside.

Thus the design not only expedites the construction process, but liberated the architecture to accomplish our architectural objectives.

The Architecture

Our objective through the process was to eschew contemporary ‘iconic object’ trends and to create multiple experiences through a series of linked components. This strategy was also to optimise engagement with the water and to draw the landscape of a proposed adjoining ‘maritime park’ into and through the museum.

The articulation into a series of pavilions also facilitated an alignment of a space between the halls with the planned major axis through Tianjin’s Binhai district so that this axis continues the vista through the museum to the harbour beyond.

The fluid forms of the pavilions are designed to evoke a wide variety of maritime interpretations without obvious references, and to define the museum as the National Maritime Museum of China. These interpretations could range through rolling waves, an outstretched hand over water, a coral or sea anemone, a small fleet of moored vessels in port, or perhaps a school of auspicious jumping carp. However, our more pertinent aim was to shift this direction of Chinese museum architecture away from the monumental to the humanistic, and this aspect dominated the jury’s thinking in selecting our design in the international competition.

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