A Thoroughly Modern Museum (Riverside Museum of Transport and car 39T, Glasgow, UK)

Two beauties from Glasgow this week, one inside the other, and both slightly unusual subjects for this blog.

Opening in 2011, the Riverside Museum of Transport on the north bank of the Clyde near Partick, Glasgow, is notable not just for its transport-related contents (hence its interest to this blog), but for being the most architecturally significant modern museum of transport in the UK (and therefore definitely of interest to this blog). It sets a standard which makes other modern transport museum buildings  look, frankly, dull. There’s nothing wrong with what’s inside those buildings, I hasten to add, but the Riverside Museum achieves the double; having great contents housed in a fabulous building.

Riverside Museum of Transport, Glasgow. @copy Daniel Wright 2013
Riverside Museum of Transport, Glasgow. © Daniel Wright 2013

Zaha Hadid is the architect responsible for the Riverside Museum. She’s got some form on transport, having also designed (amongst others) some spectacular stations for the Hungerburgbahn (Innsbruck, Austria), and the tramway line B terminus at Hoenheim North (Strasbourg, France). For a long time at the end of the twentieth century, Hadid was most famous for what she hadn’t got built, in particular the Opera House at Cardiff Bay, Wales, and some even suggested her designs were too difficult to build for real. It took ages before she got anything built in Britain, where she is based (it was 2006; the Maggie’s Centre at Kirkcaldy, Scotland) but she has since become much more noticed by the British public for her brilliant Aquatics Centre at the Olympic Park in London.

Mainland Europe took to her a lot more quickly, and she’s created plenty of extraordinary buildings there, such as the Phaeno Science Center (Wolfsburg, Germany, right by the station).

I’ve seen her described as a deconstructivist, and certainly the Cardiff Bay Opera House falls pretty well into that category, as does the Hoenheim North tram terminus. But many of her works don’t feel quite like the buildings which are typically described as deconstructivist. London’s Design Museum suggests (here) that Hadid’s work is “baroque modernism…Hadid shatters both the classically formal, rule bound modernism of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier and the old rules of space — walls, ceilings, front and back, right angles. She then reassembles them as what she calls “a new fluid, kind of spatiality” of multiple perspective points and fragmented geometry, designed to embody the chaotic fluidity of modern life.” And to be honest you won’t find a description better than that to sum up the Hungerburgbahn stations, or the Phaeno Science Center, buildings which feel as though they have been moulded from some single lost, plastic, starting element, and then pulled, pushed and twisted to create buildings where walls, floors and ceilings flow into one another without clear break points.

The Riverside Museum, then, is almost conventional by Hadid standards, not least in having identifiable walls and a roof. But it’s not like any transport museum I’ve ever seen before. In plan, it’s a sort of zig-zag shape, and the roof is formed of a series of deep folds. Hadid says the building is supposed to represent a wave or pleat flowing from  city to waterfront (you can read more and see some design and construction images too, here). Others have suggested the roof recalls the shipbuilding sheds which used to be a common sight along the Clyde. The building is clad in zinc which shines on a sunny day, and also works surprisingly well on a rainy day (like when I visited) when it echoes the leaden skies. The building is open at both ends, with huge glass walls allowing daylight to the enter the building.

DSC_1077
Roof and glass wall detail, Riverside Museum of Transport, Glasgow. © Daniel Wright 2013

Thanks to the work of engineering consultancy Buro Happold, Hadid’s vision of a column-free interior has been realised. It’s a big space for a roof to be supported only by the walls, and I assume it’s even more complicated when the plan of the building and the roof itself are of an unusual shape, as here. The inside is as spectacular as the outside, if possible more so. The contours of the building flow along the sculptural ceiling, which also has a very neat lighting design. The exhibits line the walls (literally – there are shelves of full-size cars, as if you’ve been shrunk down in size and walked into a model car display cabinet), or hang from the ceiling (the bicycles are displayed on a Moebius strip-shaped infinite velodrome), as well as on the floor where you’d expect to find them.

Cars line the walls at the Riverside Museum of Transport, Glasgow. © Daniel Wright 2013
Cars line the walls at the Riverside Museum of Transport, Glasgow. © Daniel Wright 2013

But most notably, the inside is green. We’re all familiar with white-walled museums and galleries, but this one is pistachio. It takes a bit of getting used to. Glasgow Museums says (here), “Zaha Hadid Architects in consultation with the exhibition designers, Event Communication Ltd, chose the pistashio green colour as it provides a warm and welcoming interior space that is sympathetic to the museum collections.” Who am I to argue? After a short while it didn’t seem so odd, and it makes an interesting change from white.

Another view of the green ceiling and clever lighting at the Riverside Museum of Transport, Glasgow. Oh, and there's a Glasgow tram in the foreground. &copy Daniel Wright 2013
Another view of the sculptural green ceiling and clever lighting at the Riverside Museum of Transport, Glasgow. Oh, and there’s a Glasgow tram in the foreground. © Daniel Wright 2013

The museum has a nice little recreated street, complete with subway station. In that subway station you can find Glasgow Subway car 39T, dating from 1896. I’m always wary of doing vehicle design because it opens up a whole can of worms about which trains/buses/trams are attractive and which aren’t (you wouldn’t believe the amount of time some people can spend arguing around the subject), but I couldn’t resist the interior of 39T. Here’s a general view:

Interior of car 89T, Riverside Museum of Transport, Glasgow. &copy Daniel Wright 2013
Interior of car 39T, Riverside Museum of Transport, Glasgow. © Daniel Wright 2013

…and here’s a close-up of the painted glass in the partition.

Wood and glass partition detail, car 89T, Riverside Museum of Transport, Glasgow. © Daniel Wright 2013
Wood and glass partition detail, car 39T, Riverside Museum of Transport, Glasgow. © Daniel Wright 2013

It’s Victorian fussiness at its best. It’s like being in a Victorian parlour which has unaccountably been transplanted to a city metro system. This carefully hand-painted floweriness is of no functional benefit, being mere decoration, but is just lovely. I’m not saying modern metros should follow suit, except in putting as much care and attention into the travelling environment they provide, but it made me smile.

How to find Glasgow’s Riverside Museum of Transport

The green arrow marks the location

6 thoughts on “A Thoroughly Modern Museum (Riverside Museum of Transport and car 39T, Glasgow, UK)

  1. Never seen any images of this building before – stunning/beautiful! Many planning departments across the land would have had that well watered down, pardon the rivery pun, at a very early stage to something – erm – box/planning authority shaped! I have to keep looking at it… genuinely brilliant! Loving that ‘pistachio’ interior too!

    1. Yes, I think Glasgow City Council understood what the building was all about, and all credit to them for granting permission for an unusual and striking building. I’ve really warmed to Zaha Hadid’s work over the years. I wasn’t quite sure about it at first but the more I see the more I like. I’ll be doing some more entries on her work in the future.

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