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A view from the terrace at Shanghai's Centre Pompidou

What’s a museum without a collection? Typically, the artifacts come first, followed by the buildings that house them. But in Shanghai, the newly opened West Bund Museum reversed the order, creating a vessel for culture that preceded its contents, with an inaugural exhibition program finalized only as construction neared completion. Opened to the public on November 8, the museum arrives in Shanghai as a nascent collaboration with France’s Centre Pompidou – and as an architectural statement piece.

Designed by David Chipperfield Architects, the complex emerged from a brief to create a museum of three interlocking volumes, each of which can host a distinct program. With the design developed well before the nature of the museum was finalized, the proverbial blank canvas was an auspicious point of genesis for Chipperfield’s pared-down aesthetic.

Centre Pompidou Shanghai, West Bund Museum, David Chipperfield

Located on the west bank of the Huangpu River, the museum joins an 8.5-kilometre-long strip dubbed the Shanghai Corniche. The formerly industrial area is rapidly being redeveloped as a cultural hub, already boasting a riverside pavilion by Schmidt Hammer Larsen. At the heart of this evolving milieu, Chipperfield’s unadorned design announces itself as a cluster of simple rectilinear volumes clad in opalescent glass.

The main entrance to Shanghai's Centre Pompidou and West Bund Museum

It’s a commanding yet contextually attuned presence. Flanked by a wide boulevard that turns to hug the river just north of the site, the museum negotiates both a changing topography and a constrained plot. On a triangular parcel at the northern tip of a new public park, the complex gestures to its surroundings, meeting the low-lying river bank with a broad staircase that leads to an elevated terrace overlooking the water.

The terrace opens out to a dramatic view of Shanghai across the river – the urban jumble framed by Chipperfield’s crisp white lines – while the stairs lead down to the riverside’s museum lobby and cafe. Joining together the museum’s three boxy gallery volumes, the light-filled double-height lobby is accessed via both riverside and roadside entrances, creating a permeable passageway through the heart of the complex. With the three gallery boxes contoured into the topography and a pedestrian link woven through the building, the West Bund Museum slides into its surroundings with a grace that mitigates its bulky scale.

The lobby and museum shop

The three galleries are organized in a pinwheel formation around the lobby. All three volumes are 17 metres high and divided into two tall levels. While the upper level of each gallery houses exhibition spaces, the lower floors vary in function, accommodating art studios, educational spaces and a multi-purpose performance venue.

Inside the exhibition space while art is being set up for display

It’s all trademark Chipperfield. The museum’s rooms are unencumbered and aesthetically balanced, with a sense of purity that befits the “white cube” of the museum. (Following the announcement of the Centre Pompidou partnership, however, the almost-finished space was tweaked to better accomodate the program).

A hallway by the windows at the West Bund Museum

Titled The Shape of Time, the inaugural exhibition showcases 100 works by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Joan Mitchell, Marcel Duchamp and Cy Twombly. Over the next five years, the partnership between the West Bund Museum and the Centre Pompidou will continue through a combination of rotating and semi-permanent exhibits across the three galleries.

exhibition space at the West Bund Museum

As the Chinese-French collaboration evolves, so too will the Shanghai Corniche. In all, some 20 cultural venues are planned for the strip, including Sou Fujimoto’s Yuz Museum and Johnston Marklee’s Shanghai Center of Photography. For now, there’s the West Bund Museum: an icon that’s expressive in its simplicity.

French Connection: David Chipperfield Unveils Shanghai’s Centre Pompidou

The West Bund Museum opens with a newly announced partnership with the Centre Pompidou.

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