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Monday, January 20, 2014

Book Review: New Museums in China

New Museums in China by Clare Jacobson
Princeton Architectural Press, 2013
Hardcover, 241 pages

As of 2013 there are supposedly 3,500 museums in China. This is about 1,000 more than two years before that, but still only roughly 20% of the number of museums in the United States. Of course, quantity is not the same as quality (both in terms of architecture and exhibitions), but Clare Jacobson's book on new museums in China shows that the country can boast of some of the best new architecture for museums anywhere on the planet. Jacobson highlights 51 museums in 31 cities, a smattering relative to the thousand museums supposedly completed in just the last two years, but enough to illustrate the variety of approaches to museum commissions in China, from quasi-vernacular designs to alien forms that call attention to the buildings more than their contents.

Jacobson, an architecture and design writer based in Shanghai, discusses the view from her windows of the construction of the Shanghai Nature Museum, acknowledging that elsewhere the museum's sheer size and architectural ambition would be news, but in Shanghai it's just one of many museums underway, a blip on the radar. Elsewhere in the introduction she lays out why so many museums are being built in China (investments in art, a rising interest in philanthropy, etc.) as well as the fact many of them are private collections and what all this means for the architecture created to house art. Like the descriptions of the 51 buildings, the introduction says a lot in a few words, giving the book a focus on providing context and telling stories. 

Each building is presented with color photographs and drawings. Such is the norm these days, but the descriptions benefit from featuring quotes from the architects, revealing how Jacobson searched for stories (as well as her reporting for Architectural Record) by talking with architects rather than relying on press releases and information available online. Nevertheless, it would have been beneficial (if difficult or unrealistic) to also include snippets from the clients that are exhibiting the art and commissioning architects to make strong statements. Regardless, Jacobson's book is an important and essential one covering an aspect of China's building boom this century. The country may be criticized for the unsubtle ways of demolishing traditional architecture in favor of predominantly ugly, large-scale housing (something of a cliche now), but the museums collected in the book show there is still room for well considered architecture in China by foreign and local architects alike.

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