Daan Roggeveen believes that if China’s museum boom produces a herd of white elephants, you can’t blame the architects.

It’s a hot and humid Tuesday evening in August when I make my usual evening run along the Huangpu river. While cargo ships slowly move their loads of sand and coal downstream, I pass a violinist playing a Paganini solo on the double-deck bridge. Welcome to the Westbund, Shanghai’s cultural hotspot. 

This waterfront area was originally set up as a manufacturing and logistical hub during the industrialization of China. Only a few years ago the area was full of factories, hangars, warehouses and oil tanks. During the World Expo of 2010, the zone was transformed at lightning speed and the industry moved to the outskirts of the city. The district was appointed as an art cluster, and many museums and galleries were set up there in the past decade. 

Cover and above: Located in Shanghai, the OPEN Architecture-designed TANK museum was founded by contemporary art collector Qiao Zhibing. Photos: Qingshan Wu

The Long Museum designed by Atelier Deshaus, museum TANK by OPEN Architecture and the Yuz Museum by Sou Fujimoto opened their doors along the Westbund. Later this year [this article was originally published in 2019], the David Chipperfield-designed museum for the Centre Pompidou opens in the area as well. In a recent interview in The Art Newspaper, Chipperfield explained his frustration with the design process for the museum: ‘When we asked, “What will be in the museum?”, the answer was: “We don’t know yet.”’ The architect described the programme for the museum as ‘incredibly generic, which was a bit frustrating’. 

The past two decades have seen a museum boom in China. An average of 100 museums per year (!) have opened in China in the past years. This is all part of a policy by the central government to upsurge the cultural infrastructure in the country. The official target is to grow the number of museums in China to one museum per 250,000 inhabitants by 2020. Since this target is rather quantity-driven, content and curatorship often lag behind. 

Growth is also stirred by a mounting interest of the real estate industry to include culture as part of its developments. Shopping mall K11 developed the art mall, HOW Art Museum is a museum hotel. The museum has become a tool for urban development. 

Westbund's Long Museum by Atelier Deshaus. Photo: Shengliang Su, Xia Zhi

I also experienced this myself when my office was working on various museum designs for clients: many museums are conceived as a Kunsthalle, rather than a museum with a fixed collection. This means that our design process for museums is not so much driven by the collection, but rather by meaning and museum typology. Content follows Concrete. 

China’s radical transformation from a rural to an urban society has confronted the design profession with massive opportunities – and challenges. Many (cultural) projects tend to have programmes that are highly undefined, and volatile. Content tends to emerge and change throughout the design process and even during construction. Programme-based design is dead in the era of permanent change. 

Hence, this museum boom has lead to a vast number of iconic, yet underused museums throughout the country. At the Westbund, Long Museum, Yuz Museum and the like were initiated by art collectors with massive collections. Other places in the area are building up a team to push the institution. 

But many museums in second- and third-tier cities in China are merely vanity projects, driven by the ambitions of local politicians. Hopefully, time will transform these structures into meaningful places of art, education and collectivity.

Daan Roggeveen is the principal of MORE Architecture, with offices in Shanghai and Amsterdam. He’s the co-author of How the City Moved to Mr Sun, Progress & Prosperity and The Amsterdam Agenda. This column was originally featured in our Nov/Dec 2019 issue, Frame 131. Get your copy here.