National Maritime Museum of China by COX Architecture traces its marine heritage

The museum in Tianjin city consists of five fan-like architectural pavilions that protrude towards the port harbour, symbolising an open palm reaching out from China to the world.

by Meghna Mehta Published on : Mar 18, 2020

China's first National Maritime Museum, designed by Australia-based architecture firm COX Architecture, is now open to the public. It marks the end of a six-year process that began with winning an international design competition, and then followed by an intensive design and construction process. COX Architecture won the competition for the design of the project in 2013, after an eight-month intensive design competition process that involved multiple stages of client and stakeholder feedback. The Museum’s design is characterised by a distinctive form, which reaches out into the bay from a large waterfront parkland, behind which a new city district of Tianjin, called the Binhai New Area is currently being developed.

The museum’s design is characterised by a distinctive form that reaches out into the bay from a large waterfront parkland | National Maritime Museum of China | Cox Architecture | STIRworld
The museum’s design is characterised by a distinctive form that reaches out into the bay from a large waterfront parkland Image Credit: Courtesy of Terrence Zhang

Initial watercolour sketches by Philip Cox, the founding partner of COX Architecture, show the evolution with compelling metaphors, which were later resolved or emerged – jumping carp, corals, starfish, moored ships in port and an open palm reaching out from China to the maritime world. Without resorting to literal meanings, some have been more directly expressed, such as in the geometric pattern and textures of the cladding, also functionally designed to shed heavy snow loads during harsh winters typical in this part of China.

  • A sketch by Philip Cox shows the initial water colour sketch | National Maritime Museum of China | Cox Architecture | STIRworld
    A sketch by Philip Cox shows the initial water colour sketch Image Credit: Courtesy of Philip Cox
  • The museum symbolises an open palm reaching out from China to the maritime world | National Maritime Museum of China | Cox Architecture | STIRworld
    The museum symbolises an open palm reaching out from China to the entire maritime world Image Credit: Courtesy of Terrence Zhang

The pavilions designed in the museum are the central focus of the design. They provide a constant connection between the inside and the outside, making the user experience the landscape, and is a key organising device of the plan, choreographing the movement and navigation through the spaces. During the development of the design, both physical and digital modelling were used to carry out and test the strength of the building structure. This approach helped improve the quality of outcomes and assisted communication beyond any language barriers. Revit, Rhino, BIM and other design softwares played an important role in coordinating and delivering the project. To cater to structural stability in an earthquake prone area, the solution includes giant seismic portals, each resting on massive ball joints that are designed to move when there’s seismic disruption in the landscape. A system of symphonic drainage has been built into the ‘skin’ of the building weaved into the building’s organic form.

  • The pavilions designed in the museum become the central focus of the design | National Maritime Museum of China | Cox Architecture | STIRworld
    The pavilions designed in the museum become the central focus of the design Image Credit: Courtesy of Terrence Zhang
  • Interiors showing the display and exhibits showcasing the maritime evolution of China | National Maritime Museum of China | Cox Architecture | STIRworld
    Interiors showing the display and exhibits showcasing the maritime evolution of China Image Credit: Courtesy of Philip Cox

This innovative process for a project catering to this scale and complexity aided its deployment through parametric computer modelling to be resolved concurrently. The physical models focused on human scale and interaction, while complex geometric algorithms resolved the doubly curved building ‘shell’ and its related cladding system. The energy for the building is predominantly sourced via geothermal mechanisms, being drawn from 100 metres below the building.

The design comprising four wings focuses on the themes of the ‘ancient ocean’, ‘ocean today’, ‘journey of discovery’ and ‘the age of the dragon’. The three-storey museum covers 80,000 square meters and contains six display areas and 15 exhibition halls. The interconnected spaces provide visitors an opportunity to understand and interpret China’s maritime evolution in relation to events in Europe, America, and wider Asia.

  • The interconnected spaces provide visitors an opportunity to understand and interpret China’s maritime evolution in relation to events in Europe, America, Asia | National Maritime Museum of China | Cox Architecture | STIRworld
    The interconnected spaces provide visitors an opportunity to understand and interpret China’s maritime evolution in relation to events in Europe, America, Asia Image Credit: Courtesy of Terrence Zhang
  • Pavilions and its organic form radiating out | National Maritime Museum of China | Cox Architecture | STIRworld
    Pavilions and its organic form radiating out Image Credit: Courtesy of Terrence Zhang

Further, the building comprises a series of pavilions that cantilever out over the water in a ‘fan-like’ formation from a central reception hall. This central space enables transition , providing access to the upper level of the two exhibition spaces. On the lower level, stores for non-exhibited collections are co-located on-site to enable artefacts to be easily distributed to each of the adjacent exhibition spaces.

Brendan Gaffney, National Director for COX, based in Brisbane said, “The National Maritime Museum of China is justified in its ‘landmark’ status… it is a remarkable building borne of a remarkable process. It is a project that’s totally at home on the global stage.”

  • The building comprises a series of pavilions that cantilever out over the water in a ‘fan-like’ formation | National Maritime Museum of China | Cox Architecture | STIRworld
    The building comprises a series of pavilions that cantilever out over the water in a ‘fan-like’ formation Image Credit: Courtesy of Terrence Zhang
  • Details of the façade showing 828mm thickness with aluminium and glazing | National Maritime Museum of China | Cox Architecture | STIRworld
    Details of the façade showing 828mm thickness with aluminium and glazing Image Credit: Courtesy of Terrence Zhang

Due to the building’s curved form following no defined wall and ceiling, the team faced many challenges. And this had to be addressed because building codes in China refer to walls having B-grade fire rating and ceilings that should have a higher, A-grade rating. As the curvatures made it difficult to define where the walls stopped and the ceiling started, it was all the more necessary to have the highest rating for fire protection. With both the client and the architects lauding the efforts put in by everyone, it was later calculated that the time put on this project was equivalent to one person working continually for 11.6 years.

  • Elevation of the National Maritime Museum of China | National Maritime Museum of China | Cox Architecture | STIRworld
    Elevation of the National Maritime Museum of China Image Credit: Courtesy of Cox Architecture
  • Plan - National Maritime Museum of China | National Maritime Museum of China | Cox Architecture | STIRworld
    Plan - National Maritime Museum of China Image Credit: Courtesy of Cox Architecture

The roof of the building is arrayed with high efficiency solar panels in a ‘solar farm’. This, in addition to the thermal underground heating, warms the building during the harsh winter in Tianjin, China .

Quick facts:

  • When compared with the size of the Sydney Opera House, the National Maritime Museum of China is two-and-a-half-times larger in terms of both length and the site area.
  • A total of 55,000sqm of aluminium façade and 3,500sqm of glazed façade have been used.
  • The thickness of the façade is 828mm to accommodate the aluminium façade, the rain screen, the standing seam, the insulation, the interior lining and any substructure within that.
  • 17,000 tonnes of steel has been used for the primary structure alone.
  • The largest structural cantilever is almost 42 m in length.

Project Details:

Name: The National Maritime Museum of China
Location: Tianjin, China
Client: National Maritime Museum Preparatory Office Chinese Government and Tianjin Municipality
Project size: 80,000 sqm
Site size: 1,50,000 sqm
Completion: 2019
Architects: Cox Architecture
Local Design Institute Partner: Tianjin Architecture and Design Institute (TADI)
Key Consultants: Arup, Lord Cultural Resources, Urbantect

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About Author

Meghna Mehta

Meghna Mehta

An architect by education and a journalist by passion, Mehta pursued a crossroad between her two interests. Having completed an M.Arch from CEPT University in Ahmedabad, she has worked in the field of architectural journalism for over 5 years. Besides content generation for STIR, she continues to teach in architectural schools in Mumbai.

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