After Two Years, NAMOC Still a Mystery, but Gehry’s Design Sparkles at MOCA

Written by
Nouvel image from FT
Final, winning design for NAMOC, designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel and Beijing Institute of Architecture Design. Photo: SMP

One of the byproducts of the kerfuffle surrounding the MOCA “New Sculpturalism” show is that Frank Gehry now has a room of his own, in which sits one of the most compelling exhibits on display: sketch models and drawings illustrating the unfolding of the design for his firm’s entry in the prestigious competition for the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, known as NAMOC. Even though Gehry Partners was eclipsed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, the firm chose to exhibit their design — renderings, below, show a rectilinear building of power and calm with an irridescent facade made of a material Gehry created called “translucent stone” — because, says project designer David Nam, “it is a project that we are very excited about, and developed in depth over one and a half years.”

Now some are wondering if the putative winner of the competition for the colossal 1.3 million square feet building will even get to realize his design.

Final Competition Model Models
West Elevation of Frank Gehry’s final design for NAMOC, now on show at MOCA; courtesy Gehry Partners

This weekend the South China Morning Post reported that the commission “still has not been approved by China’s new leadership,” and that “adding to the uncertainty is the new administration’s frugality campaign that has frozen all spending on new government office buildings. The mammoth size of the planned art museum, though intended for public use, may run against the policy of the new leadership under President Xi Jinping, who pledged an end to the building of ostentatious public buildings.”

Mysterious Competition

This lack of confirmation only prolongs the mystery of a competition that started in 2010, when more than 150 architects first responded to a call for entries to find an architect for the colossal NAMOC structure, which would be six times the size of the existing museum.
The Bird's Nest, designed by Herzog & De Meuron for the Beijing Olympics
The Bird’s Nest, designed by Herzog & De Meuron for the Beijing Olympics

The state-run NAMOC is the most prominent of a trio of buildings being planned for a site next to the Herzog & de Meuron–designed National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest.  As reported in Architectural Record last year by Aric Chen, the project is part of a broader effort to draw more people to visit the area, post-Olympics, and is also probably the most symbolically important cultural building on the boards in China. . . It is central to China’s ambitious plans to develop its cultural infrastructure and “soft power.”

After the first round of submissions, twenty offices were then invited to submit designs, among them OMA, UNStudio, and the Chinese architects Yung Ho Chang, Zhu Pei, and Ma Yansong of MAD. From these, five finalists, including Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron (who withdrew from consideration) and Moshe Safdie, were asked to make revisions.

Shortlisted proposal NAMOC by Chinese architecture firm MAD.
Shortlisted proposal for NAMOC by Chinese architecture firm MAD.

Finally it came down to a race between Pritzker prize winners Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry, a race that became highly political, with Gehry giving Xi Jinping, when he was China’s presumptive next president, a tour of the Walt Disney Concert Hall during his visit to Los Angeles, and, according to sources in China, scurrilous rumors that then French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered China help smoothing relations with post-Qaddafi Libya, and its oil, in exchange for giving Nouvel the commission.

Nouvel scheme black 2
Image of an earlier design for NAMOC, credited to Jean Nouvel, that appeared on Chinese web sites earlier this year

Even though competing architects learned in July of 2012 that Nouvel had been selected, an official announcement was not expected until November, after the national government went through its once-in-a-decade change in leadership.

But that announcement never came, and little was heard of the project until May of this year when the French Le Figaro published an “exclusive” about Nouvel’s win, and then the British Financial Times followed a few days later with a story extolling the design’s “stroke of genius.” The form of the building was a gesture based on a “single brush stroke,” Nouvel told the Financial Times, that “contains all of Chinese culture – painting, writing and the energy of Chi.”

Then, in late July, an online design magazine called Dezeen reported, without crediting a specific Chinese official, that Nouvel “has been officially declared winner of the competition.”

Their proof was a comment that had been posted to Dezeen earlier in the month by Olivier Schmitt, an advisor to Nouvel. He wrote then: “By a notification sent on July 25th 2012 and signed by the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC), Jean Nouvel (Ateliers Jean Nouvel) and Beijing Institute of Architecture Design (BIAD) have been declared winners by the jury of the international competition for the construction of the NAMOC in Beijing.”

The comment followed an article in Dezeen about the Gehry project, which had elicited positive comments from readers.

View of the CCTV building from street
View of the CCTV Building in Beijing, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren

But the report in the The South China Morning Post suggests the commission is still in question. In response to requests from DnA, Jean Nouvel’s office says they will not discuss the project until September.

Meanwhile, the Post story also reports that Chinese architects have been outspoken in their criticism of the project, its scale, location and the fact that “much of modern Beijing has been transformed by the works of Western architects. Striking examples include the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Frenchman Paul Andreu’s ellipsoid dome of titanium and glass surrounded by an artificial lake next to Tiananmen Square, and CCTV Headquarters, the radically shaped 44-story skyscraper on East Third Ring Road in Beijing’s central business district designed by OMA’s Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren.”

The Western frontrunners did work in association with Chinese firms and artists, and the shortlist of twenty included Chinese architects, who did not make it to the final cut.  But Ma Bingjian, director of the Beijing Traditional Architectural Design Institute, told the Post: “We have many architects of our own,” “I don’t understand our decision makers’ blind worship of Western architects. In the invasion of Western culture, we need to make efforts to preserve our own architectural traditions.” (For more on the Chinese mania for reproducing historic and contemporary Western buildings as well as their quest for a homegrown architectural identity, listen to this DnA).

Design Process a Mystery Too

Final design for NAMOC by Zaha Hadid
Final design for NAMOC by Zaha Hadid

To add to the intrigue surrounding the NAMOC project was the process of the designs themselves, for the most part kept under wraps while subject to a lengthy back and forth with the NAMOC representatives.

The process involved three rounds — first the concept phase, then the primary design phase, then response to client feedback and further technical development — and entrants were bound not to publicize images, but somehow some renderings appeared on Chinese websites, around March of this year, that purported to be of Jean Nouvel’s scheme at the second stage.

Chinese calligraphy influenced Jean Nouvel, who purportedly designed this earlier design for NAMOC
Chinese calligraphy influenced Jean Nouvel, who purportedly designed this earlier design for NAMOC

Images showed a smooth black, ark-shaped box, similar in volume and massing to the schemes by most of the other finalists. A source in China who asked for anonymity, said that while he had not seen the second round scheme, he had heard that it was “unacceptable because it was all-black and the officials didn’t like that,” and believes these images might illustrate Nouvel’s second-round submission.

Le Figaro included in its May report images (below) of calligraphy by the artist Chinese artist Shi Tao (1642-1707) who had inspired Nouvel with his belief that “A single line is the source of everything in existence.”

Meanwhile, the Gehry office was developing a project with grand scale whose lyricism lay in the treatment of the facade, clad with a new glass material developed by the firm that they call “translucent stone.”  According to project designer David Nam, who designed the MOCA display, glass buildings are typically not considered appropriate for government building China, so the firm adapted the material, making it solid, thick and textured to give it translucency and “gravitas.” “Evocative of the most precious Chinese materials, it has the qualities of jade,” the firm wrote in their project description.

Final Model Models
Mock-up of “translucent stone” facade for NAMOC; courtesy Gehry Partners

“Of all the materials we explored, we found glass to be the most transcendent and symbolic of Chinese landscape paintings, of moving water, of the mountains covered in mist. . .” Art behind the cladding, such as the Wu Guanzhong art banner shown in the image above, or the exhibit banner, top, reflecting russets and golds, would be visible through the “stone” in an ethereal way.

When images of Nouvel’s winning scheme appeared in Le Figaro and the Financial Times, the project was revealed to be similar in massing to the black box, but now had a much lighter facade, appearing to reflect the landscape in gold and russet tones. Nouvel told the Financial Times,  “It was imperative to make the museum a part of the landscape, to integrate  it. .  . sometimes you see the landscape reflected, with trees and green: it is a game of mirroring and reflection, matt and shiny  surfaces and screens.” It is unclear from the rendering if the facade is opaque and reflective or translucent. “You see people in the thickness of the wall,” he adds. “You have the feeling  they are walking through the thickness of a brush stroke. It is always alive, with a sense of movement inside.”

The current iteration is also a far cleaner version of the project that reporter Aric Chen saw last year, when Nouvel was declared winner; Chen described it in Architectural Record as a “pastiche of envelope treatments: steel cut in decorative patterns, stenciled glass recalling Chinese ink brushstrokes, and a splash of parametricism, all explained via references to ancient Chinese poetry and philosophy.” Renderings of this phase of the design were never released.

Some people have spotted superficial similarities between Nouvel’s final version and the Gehry project. One commenter on Dezeen wrote, “Gehry’s and Nouvel’s designs seem relatively similar (at least from the renderings that have been made available). They are both large monolithic, shiny, rectilinear volumes that use the ‘play of the brilliants’ to transform their facades. However, Gehry’s proposal seems better executed and far more interesting than what I have seen of Nouvel’s design.”

Ultimately, say sources in China, the choice of architect for NAMOC will have had as much, if not more, to do with domestic and geo-politics as with the specifics of the design, politics that are rife with byzantine power plays. And interwoven with the politics is China’s still evolving role on the international cultural stage.

Chen himself, who earlier reported on NAMOC, now holds the position of Curator of Design and Architecture at M+, an emerging art museum in Hong Kong. M+ is being touted as a rival to NAMOC; the New York Times called the two institutions “twin titans of contemporary Chinese culture.” M+ is itself  building a new home, to be designed by a Western architect:  Herzog & De Meuron, the Swiss firm that designed the Bird’s Nest (above) in Beijing.

Back to MOCA

West Elevation of Gehry design for NAMOC, with Wu Guanzhong art banner; Courtesy of Gehry Partners
West Elevation of Gehry design for NAMOC, with Wu Guanzhong art banner; Courtesy of Gehry Partners

Meanwhile, back to the Gehry design and the exhibit at MOCA.

It has been fashionable among young architects and critics to criticize Gehry’s work as overly showy and excessive (a critique that overlooks the historical precedent and humanist planning that underlies his work).

But his scheme for NAMOC does seem to represent a serene and artful variant on “classical” grandeur, rendered human-scale in the textured and kinetic surface treatments of the “translucent stone.” (It also brings to mind the the Eisenhower Memorial that became such a lightening rod among traditionalists in Washington DC, but also feels like a reinterpretation of the classical in many of its features, including its axial planning and the large-scale woven mesh “friezes.”)

In fact, one self-described “student” commenting on Dezeen about the NAMOC design, wrote, “I hate to say this, but this is pretty good.”

This student is not alone. The Gehry design is drawing praise from local architecture buffs — yours truly included — who admire its mixture of gravitas and urban presence and lightness and sparkle, not to mention the museum’s organization around a series of public spaces and its proposed green roof. Is there another client and location where LA’s most important architect could leave his mark in “translucent stone?”

One site that has been floated: a museum in midtown Los Angeles. . .

Gehry’s design for NAMOC is on exhibit at MOCA in tandem with “A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture From Southern California.”

calligraphy for Nouvel project

More links:

For more on the strange world of international architecture competitions, read about this film:

For more on the Chinese mania for reproducing historic and contemporary Western buildings as well as their quest for a homegrown architectural identity, listen to Bianca Bosker talk on this DnA about “Original Copies”.

For more on Frank Gehry, from a recent interview with Los Angeles magazine:

And here is Curbed’s take: