Zhang Zhidong, one of China’s most renowned officials, made his mark on history through his sweeping industrial reforms during the Qing Dynasty. It’s only natural that the new museum dedicated to him, lying in the heart of Wuhan’s steelwork districts, has a similar modern sensibility. Designed to recall the city’s history while simultaneously looking towards a dazzling future, the Museum of Zhang Zhidong appears to defy gravity, its soaring, ark-like structure clad in geometric steel panels that declare its intentions to innovate and inspire.Completed only a few months ago in May, the museum is the brainchild of Studio Libeskind, founded by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, in collaboration with China’s largest property developer, Vanke. In the past, Studio Libeskind has dreamt up studio-defining wonders, ranging from the elegant Jewish Museum Berlin (2001) to the glittering Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (2007). Three decades since being founded in Berlin, the Museum of Zhang Zhidong is the studio’s first foray into mainland China.
“It’s an adventure to build a building in China,” says Libeskind. “You have to be able to adapt yourself to surprises—it’s not as if everything is laid out and everything is transparent. Things will change along the way.”The building was erected in Zhidong’s original seat in Wuhan at the turn of the 20th century, marking the beginnings of a new cultural hub. The enormous, curving steel-panel facade is hoisted above the surrounding square by two steel and glass “legs,” horizontal buildings comprising of the entrance lobby, main stairs, museum store, library and administration offices. The open plaza that lies shaded by the museum below supports a living marketplace, bustling with activity. The grounds are paved with local stone with materials salvaged from the site demolition, creating patterns of radiating rings, acting as a compass that points outward towards China’s major cities, the names of which are inscribed into the surface. The museum acts as a gateway that “visually and urbanistically” links public sites of historic significance such as this plaza with China’s rapidly shifting urban environment. The distinctive look of the museum appears to symbolically reflect this, with the facade’s shape an allusion to the winged roofs of traditional pagoda architecture and the ships on the nearby Yangtze River. This nostalgic design contrasts the modern materials used to construct the building, creating a rich sense of hybridity.
The interiors of the museum are bright and welcoming, with the design of the exhibition halls spearheaded by Diameter Narrative Design. The sheer materiality of the building is immediately felt from the inside, as visitors need to scale the main staircase to access the exhibition spaces above. Each gallery in the museum was built to optimize natural light, with the glazed atrium and meticulously placed openings in the building’s metal skin ensuring that sunlight reaches the gallery spaces. The museum also contains well-placed vantage points to observe the city, with the semi-circular auditorium on the second floor featuring an oculus that allows a panoramic view of the old steelworks. Further views of Wuhan can be accessed via a lattice opening at the apex of the building.The exhibition spaces all detail the life and contributions of Zhang Zhidong, divided into four distinct sections. The first, introductory section compares contemporary and historical views of Zhang Zhidong. The remaining sections concern the innovative and forward-thinking ideas of Zhang Zhidong; the practical implementations of these ideas; and the overall worldviews of Zhang Zhidong’s contributions to industrialism. A large portion of the exhibition showcases various collaborations with local artists, utilising contemporary and interactive art, once again combining the historic with the new. The top floor of the museum also allows space for temporary exhibitions, lending the museum versatility. In a move that is uncommon in China, Libeskind created full-sized mockups for the Museum of Zhang Zhidong during the project’s conceptual stages. This practice was rooted in Studio Libeskind’s desire to create a building that was sustainable, with audacious and perfectly-aligned elements. The designs sought to simplify the construction process as much as possible, with the studio using panelisation to make possible the construction of the museum’s complex curves. This process appears to have paid off —the building is bold and inventive in its stature.
“It’s not just imaginary buildings we’re building in an imaginary sort of way,” Libeskind proclaims. ‘”For the Museum of Zhang ZhiDong, my goal was not to simply create another museum, but to give Wuhan and the region a new destination.”