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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 .
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
Architects: Cox Architecture
Local Design Institute Partner: Tianjin Architecture and Design Institute (TADI)
Key Consultants: Arup, Lord Cultural Resources, Urbantect
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