Futuristic form with echoes of the past

Imagine a screenshot of an electrocardiogram. Then imagine that jagged shape being made into a cookie cutter, and a sausage of modelling clay being fed through it. It takes on the ECG profile but, as it squeezes through and gets longer on the other side of the cutter, it begins to twist and snake around. Now imagine the resulting form in metal and you have, more or less, Zaha Hadid’s design for Glasgow’s new Riverside Museum.

Facing the bleak remains of the once cacophonous Govan shipyards on the opposite bank of the Clyde, the new £74m museum by the Iraqi-born, London-based Hadid – still the world’s most successful woman architect – has a quiet, oddly static presence. Its eccentric profile seems to refer to the rusting sawtooth roof of the (just) surviving shipyards opposite, the huge cranes standing pensively on sentry duty to guard the fragile remains of the city’s industry. The shimmering zinc scales that envelop it echo the greasy grey skies above and the silver stretch of now quiet water. But the fluid mass of the museum also evokes the huge, complex curves of a ship’s hull. It is odd that such an abstracted building should produce so many metaphors, so many memories of place and industry. Yet it does.

The ECG extrusion shell envelops a fluid interior that flows like a river from the museum’s entrance to the Clyde. The ceiling is a stunning, upside-down landscape of rolling peaks and valleys, a pleated surface that sucks the interior along with it.

It also crowns the most extraordinary column-free space, a volume that seems to flow and swerve, in counterpoint to the museum’s resolutely still collection of machines for transport and movement.

And what a collection it is. Focused on objects with Glasgow connections – local trams, an anti-nuclear protester’s caravan from the Faslane naval base, the heavy products of local industry – the collection carefully balances delicacy and mass: exhibits range from steam locomotives to slender racing bikes, from seductively streamlined vintage cars to intricate model ships. It eschews the trainspotterish taxonomies of many similar collections, achieving instead a warm humanity.

If Hadid has been criticised in the past for creating museums that refuse to genuflect before the art they contain, for designs that see the building as at least as important as its contents, at the Riverside Museum, something is softening. The space is an exemplary exhibition hall that unambiguously leads the way yet allows the visitor to wander freely within it. Despite the complexity of the roof and the space crammed nearly solid with cars, engines and the machinery of motion, it is impossible to get lost. Strips of light form lines in the ceiling pleats, like car headlights in a long-exposure photo, leading the eye to the building’s open ends – to views of the trains and traffic outside the entrance or, at the other end, to the waters of the Clyde and the spindly masts of the Glasgow-built tall-ship the Glenlee.

There are a few nagging problems with Hadid’s new museum, though. One is the shape. It may well emulate a particular blend of industrial, metal-clad opacity and echo the riveted pseudo-seamlessness of a warship’s hull but it does nothing to anchor a new urbanity on this stretch of neglected riverside. There is nothing here for the future to key into and the building, successful and surprising as it is, can only stand as a singular object, giving no clues as to what kind of landscape may be encouraged to form around it.

Then there is the front façade, a fearsome plane of alienating black glass encased in metal. This is not a language of civic generosity but of a defensive fear of what that future context might be. And finally there is the colour inside. Somewhere between pistachio ice-cream and phlegm, it evokes the dim, joyless atmosphere of the postwar institutional interior, of hospital lino and municipal paint. I understand that the museum directors were adamant that they did not want to present the museum as a white box, as a neutral container for sacred art. They have succeeded.

The building is also far more conventional than Hadid’s previous museums. There is none of the giddy sculpting of ground planes, none of the baroque twisting and pulling of surfaces into ribbons and ramps that characterises her most adventurous work. Maybe it was thought sensible to introduce Britain to her oeuvre gently – Riverside is only her second completed building in the UK, whereas in continental Europe she has built extreme architecture for decades.

Despite these misgivings, the museum is a powerful and memorable building. Just along the Clyde you can see Foster & Partner’s Armadillo conference centre and beyond that the elegant silvery box of David Chipperfield’s new BBC headquarters, but there are no signs that this post-industrial landscape is being sculpted into a piece of real city. Instead it remains a city of bits, the stranded buildings appearing like huge hulls half completed in dry dock. Perhaps that is in itself the perfect metaphor.

Glasgow Museums

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