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Riverside Museum, Glasgow, by Zaha Hadid Architects

The beautifully built Riverside Museum proves hiring Zaha Hadid was the right thing for Glasgow, writes Rory Olcayto. Photography by Hufton + Crow

It’s November 2005, and Zaha Hadid is in Glasgow to unveil new images of her competition-winning design for the city’s Riverside Museum.

Planned to replace the existing Museum of Transport on a site down-river from the centre where the Kelvin flows into the Clyde, she explains to an audience of architects: ‘It’s a simple idea. The building is connecting two waterways so it is a liquid, fluid design – a third metallic river.’

But it is also ‘a building with its own skyline’, generated by two cartoonish townscape elevations, one facing the motorway and the other facing the Clyde. The metaphors are mixed but the message is clear: the building is a new link, a symbolic declaration reuniting the city and river. It would be Hadid’s only visit to the city until tonight, for the opening party.

Now that it’s built – and beautifully so by contractor BAM – that metallic river, frustratingly, mainly goes unseen by the public. But there are many other ways to enjoy this cavernous, deformed metal-clad shed that combines surreal sculpture with brand power and public space in true iconic fashion.

Its elevations look variously like a pulse, a signal or statistics on a graph. Inside, the underside of the roof is Tron-like, strips of light tracing the smooth, sculpted peaks and troughs. Is this a film set? Or a homage – the stacked cars in the main hall recall Le Marbeuf, the Citroën building in Paris by Albert Laprade and Leon Bazin. Framed alongside the towering cranes of Govan’s shipyard, or the majestic Tall Ship Glenlee by the quayside, the scene could be straight from fantasy fiction.

If, as Charles Jencks notes in his 2005 book, the mixed metaphor is ‘absolutely typical of the iconic building’, then the Riverside qualifies hands down. In fact, the Riverside could be the purest, most effective piece of iconic architecture this side of Dubai. And Glasgow, which exalts the starchitect like no other British city, is the perfect host for this unusual, freakish £60 million building.

Norman Foster built his ‘Armadillo’ concert hall on Clydeside in the mid-nineties. A decade later, David Chipperfield’s BBC Scotland HQ emerged on the quayside opposite. On a far smaller scale, Rem Koolhaas has designed a new Maggie’s Centre, while Stephen Holl will add to the Glasgow School of Art – right opposite Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece. But the Riverside is the city’s most coveted prize: an icon designed by the world’s most famous architect, a still-valuable currency in the abstract league of world city rankings.

In 2003, when the idea for a new transport museum took shape, council leader Charlie Gordon declared his desire for ‘a Frank Gehry or a Norman Foster’ to design the showpiece attraction. When the competition was announced the following year, the entry process for the multi-million-pound scheme appeared to serve this end. Interested firms were asked to list three comparable completed projects, despite warnings from Peter Wilson, then editor of Arca, the journal of Scottish architecture: ‘The situation is similar to the Scottish Parliament. The way the rules were formed for that competition excluded 99 per cent of Scottish architects,’ he told the Herald. ‘That was a scandal that must not be allowed to happen again.’

But it did. Sort of. In the end, Gareth Hoskins made the shortlist, but was knocked out, according to the press, in a final-round face-off with the London-based starchitect. Yet the winning scheme was light on detail. Seen from overhead, it resembled little more than a brushstroke of molten chrome. But the central idea, a single-span, metal-clad, combined wall and roof structure enclosing a large flexible internal space, would prove a strong one.

At the time, local architects groaned. One wag on the popular forum archiseek.com commented: ‘Hadid’s design is not a big shed, it’s simply… a big Z. Basically: Zaha woz ’ere.’ Another moaned: ‘Imagine being given the opportunity to build one of the city’s major buildings and apparently not giving a toss about it. Ms Hadid doesn’t feel she has anything to prove here.’ Neither comment is fair.

In terms of engineering, craft and detailed architectural design, the Riverside excels. It is, quite simply, immaculate. The Rheinzink pre-patinated, zinc-panelled, standing-seam system is tailored to perfection, with 24,000 panels made on site. As project architect Johannes Hoffmann explains: ‘From the concept stage onward, we saw the design as an extrusion through the building. The zinc panels express and accentuate that geometric idea with the standing-seam line layout,’ suggesting iterations of the ‘skyline’ elevation set deep within the extrusion. Inside, the detailing is equally rigorous: 2,000 GRG panels make up the elegantly moulded ceiling, and the floor is polished concrete (see AJ 19.03.09 for an article on the servicing).

The plan, covering 10,000 square metres, is simple. You approach the building across a new public square. Entry to the hall – which holds over 3,000 exhibits: trains, trams, buses, bikes, cars and a unique collection of model ships – is through the north elevation, from where the undulating ceiling flows southwards towards the glazed elevation on the Clyde. Office space utility rooms and the Clyde Maritime Trust headquarters hug the east and west facades. In these areas, an additional floor level has been inserted, but the interior is largely, says Hoffmann, a glorified shed.

There are some gorgeous details: the polished ‘enamelled’ GRG finish on the underside of the elevation ‘skyline’ is a seductive pull, while the glazing, some of it curved and set flush against the zinc standing seams, is tailored to perfection. Few metal buildings can match this quality.

However, there is a major drawback that almost stymies the project’s success. The Riverside could in fact spend years marooned in a sea of tarmac. There are fears the adjacent Yorkhill Quay will be used as a giant car park now that mixed-use plans for the area have been stung by the economic downturn. Furthermore, a footbridge across the Kelvin linking the museum with Glasgow Harbour and Partick, the nearest transport hub, will not be in place until 2013. There is a real sense of disconnection, barely mitigated by the neat landscaping by Gross Max that skirts around the building.

It’s a recurring theme in Glasgow’s recent history. Like the other ‘silver darlings’ that line this section of the Clyde – BDP’s titanium-clad Science Centre and IMAX cinema, Foster’s Armadillo, as well as Chipperfield’s pristine box for the BBC and the original windowless hangars of the eighties-built Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre – the Riverside is a one-off that could have been dropped anywhere. The spaces in between are so vast, so windswept, that even the Koolhaasian ‘bigness’ of each project fails to generate a strong enough sense of place. Glasgow may have bagged a stunning icon, but the townscape of the lower Clyde seems only marginally changed.

Yet Glasgow, a city in love with big, bold stories, thrives on cultural memory. Somehow the Riverside has captured that energy and made a home for itself amid the city’s mental landscape. Artist Patricia Cain was drawn to the site and recorded the building’s erection over three years (AJ 21.10.10). Her work has struck a chord with the Glasgow public, who have flocked to her show at the Kelvingrove gallery.

Much of the appeal for Cain lay in the monumental scale and sheer oddity of the Riverside’s form, as well as its resonance with Glasgow’s shipbuilding past. Now the city has a record of the museum’s construction that is more visceral than site photos, more challenging than technical drawings. Few other buildings, or architects, would inspire such a response. Perhaps Glasgow City Council, in its desire for an icon designed by a starchitect, has known this all along.

Credits

Start on site February 2007
Completion December 2010
Gross internal floor area 11,300m2 (excluding basement)
Form of procurement Competition won in 2004
Total cost £60 million (excluding fit out)
Cost per m2 £5,310
Client Glasgow City Council
Architect Zaha Hadid Architects
Project manager Capita Symonds
Structural engineer Buro Happold
MEP consultant Buro Happold
Fire consultant Buro Happold FEDRA
Acoustic consultant Buro Happold
Landscape architect Gross Max
Lighting design DHA
Cold cathode Inverse Lighting Design
Exhibition design Event Communications
Main contractor BAM Construction
Estimated annual CO2 emissions Not supplied

Readers' comments (1)

  • I think Chipperfield was poorly served last week by Joseph Rykwert's workmanlike review of the Hepworth Gallery, this in comparison is very well written indeed and a pleasure to read. It's also concise and written by someone who obviously understands the city, the river and the competititon process for major building projects in a city looking for European recognition. I now agree the appointment of Hadid was right for Glasgow but that does not make the project design any less bizarre. As for the quality of the detailing, we'll see tonight though it does look incredible, I agree

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