V&A at Fumihiko Maki’s cultural centre, Shenzhen

Words:
Tim Abrahams

China’s first major design museum is on a mission to convert the nation’s manufacturing base into a more creative one. Who better to advise than the V&A?

An oasis of calm in an urban jungle.
An oasis of calm in an urban jungle. Credit: Design Society Shenzhen

One of the most important foreign ventures undertaken by a British cultural institution arrives in uncertain times and with Brexit dominating every political and cultural discussion. It is understandable if rather unhelpful that the V&A’s work in Shenzhen is subsumed into a story about the need for Britain to now use its ‘soft power’ outside Europe. This means little to the Chinese. If you pick apart the unfamiliar language that has been used to describe this venture, one can see a longer history that better explains why the V&A has opened a founding exhibition in China’s first major design museum and – for a fee – is providing this new institution with advice.

 Although the new museum is called Design Society, it is not a friendly union of designers. As its director, Ole Bouman, explains, design is intended more as a verb than a noun. As an institution of huge importance to China, the museum sees itself operating rather as the Victoria and Albert Museum originally did in the mid-19th century: nothing less ambitious than converting the manufacturing base of a nation into a more creative, design-led one. The Chinese were looking for partner organisations in the west to found the museum with and were sold on the V&A when they learned the story of its provenance. 

  • Landscaped civic space as much as museum.
    Landscaped civic space as much as museum. Credit: Design Society
  • The atrium provides a further civic function.
    The atrium provides a further civic function. Credit: DesignSociety
  • Maki museum expertise in North America translates well.
    Maki museum expertise in North America translates well. Credit: Design Society
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There are other unfortunate namings that obfuscate quite what an ingenious step this for an institution like the V&A. It has been paid by the Chinese development partner to provide content and expert advice to this new organisation. The actual name of the museum, designed by Fumihiko Maki, is the Sea World Culture and Arts Center. Alas, this doesn’t mean design is exhibited amid leaping dolphins. In the 1980s, when the great ideologue of China’s economic liberalisation, Deng Xiaoping, visited the special economic zone in Shenzhen that he’d helped create, he was shown this particular site to the west of the city, looking out to the hills on the northern side of Hong Kong. Impressed by the land reclamation programme, and with no apparent knowledge of the marine park in Orlando, he dubbed the entire area Sea World. Deng is still treated as a founding deity in an area that produces 90% of the world’s electronics. He made the fortune of many here and what he says still goes. Another important name is that of the client: the China Merchants Group (CMG). Set up in in 1872, this commercial enterprise was nationalised in 1949 and was allowed to keep trading in Hong Kong as a means for the Chinese state to engage with filthy capitalists. In 1978, the company was chosen to open up the mainland economy to the international market. CMG set up a pilot project in a 200 hectare area very close to where the museum now stands.

  • Values of Design at V&A Gallery, Design Society, by Sam Jacob Studio.
    Values of Design at V&A Gallery, Design Society, by Sam Jacob Studio. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Values of Design at V&A Gallery, Design Society.
    Values of Design at V&A Gallery, Design Society. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Truth to materials in the Values of Design show at Design Society.
    Truth to materials in the Values of Design show at Design Society. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Soft power communicated through design history.
    Soft power communicated through design history. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum
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Fumihiko Maki’s 71,000m2 building may sit in an upmarket suburb of Shenzhen but it is close to the cradle of the modern city with a stunning view across the Pearl River delta. The architecture is both simple and effective. Three large volumes rise out of a simple four storey podium; one is a theatre looking towards the mountains, another is a large function room overlooking the delta and the third looks towards the town. These raise the height of the building to six floors, creating a robust counterpoint to the architectural exuberance around it. Most importantly, though, the podium is landscaped and paved, becoming a public space full of nuance and sudden vistas of the delta and back along the coast to Shenzhen.

It is clad in grey granite panels, which have the same tone as cheap concrete but cost more. The slight haze caused by the maritime conditions requires stronger tones. This is one of the only bum notes in the whole building which is otherwise grand and spacious. Formally Maki has clearly understood the true function of this building in this setting – to be a shared public space that can also provide a sense of discovery. He lets form flow from it in a manner that has been largely ignored in the cultural projects built in China since the turn of the century. When President Xi recently pronounced an end to ‘weird buildings’ he was attacking local politicians for building prestige projects. The Sea World Cultural Center containing Design Society may be a prestige project for CMG but it also has an important civic function.

Explaining design to a nation that is rather good at it.
Explaining design to a nation that is rather good at it. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

Inside a massive central atrium provides a further civic function. Off this are the main workshops and educational spaces, places to eat and boutiques. On the ground floor are two large exhibition areas housing three launch exhibitions. One on Maki himself is just boards on a wall; a brief testimony to the rigour in the work of this unrelenting modernist and how successful it has been in North America. There’s also an exhibition on digital design that is largely ruined by MVRDV’s clumsy design, which sacrifices vital display space for the creation of an utterly pointless agora on the upper floors: a rather patronising suggestion that the roof of an exhibition is the primary space for fomenting democracy in an authoritarian state.

It also has an unabashedly ambitious national function: to act as a vanguard for a new approach to making industrial products and to make China a place that conceives of innovation rather than just the site for it to take place in. Luisa Mengoni, an expert in Chinese art, who moved to Shenzhen in 2014 to deliver the V&A’s offering to Design Society, has been exploring the nascent design scene emerging out of the electronics industry and, perhaps more importantly, fostering links with education institutions that are slowly beginning to appreciate its status as craft is inadequate and putting the subject at the forefront of their offering.

If the V&A’s exhibition Values of Design, superbly curated by Brendan Cormier and designed by Sam Jacob Studios, is a sign of the cultural transactions taking place between Britain and China then it bodes very well for the health of both museums. The opening exhibition could have riffed on Chinese objects in the V&A Collection, and created a visual mea culpa for Britain’s colonial past in the area. It must be said that the Chinese right now seem largely uninterested in exploring this period and are urgently striving for a better future. The motivating concept for the curation of the exhibition has been utility, and Cormier has made a brave, positive call on how that might be defined. Two more travelling shows will arrive from the V&A before the contract expires in 2019. 

  • That solves several problems. Swiss Army Knife in the exhibition.
    That solves several problems. Swiss Army Knife in the exhibition. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Contemporary not. These are British mass produced shoes from 1820.
    Contemporary not. These are British mass produced shoes from 1820. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum
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Values of Design is divided into seven categories whereby design is judged. It is a wonderful example of the subtle shifts in meaning and experience good design can produce. Each section has a defining material. In the Cost section marble and plywood are juxtaposed, referencing both the entrance halls in South Kensington and the packing crates used in its archives. For the section on Performance, vitrines are made with dichroic glass that changes in opacity as one moves along it. The films by Alice Masters are simple yet universalist, opening out the premise of the exhibition to the world beyond. Each of the 250 objects chosen from the V&As archive also offer a subtle impression of the host institution’s range of expertise: a Dior dress, an Olympic torch, a silk handkerchief imprinted with a map of France for intelligence agents during the Second World War, a set of netsuke.

And yes, much has been made of the soft power the UK is exhibiting by engaging in this cultural project, particularly as it comes so soon after the Louvre was opened in Abu Dhabi. While the V&A has done a great job in providing the Chinese with what they needed – everything from sound advice on how to protect your building to the nature and purpose of curation – soft power is an elusive end goal to which museums are not always best suited given that they are repositories of often very uncomfortable historical narratives. What is most interesting and significant is that, at the behest of the Chinese, the V&A has returned to its core mission; to help improve the industrial production of a nation by displaying excellence. That is good for the V&A as much as it is for its host nation.