Twisting Steel in Wuhan

Studio Libeskind’s first project on the Chinese mainland pays tribute to Wuhan’s industrial past


A silver arc floats above a landscaped plaza on the site of Wuhan’s former steelworks. At its highest point the structure offers occupants views of the city, while lower floors overlook the surrounding plaza and gardens. The crescent-shaped building, known as the Zhang ZhiDong and Modern Industrial Museum, opened to the public last year, and it marks Studio Libeskind’s first project on the Chinese mainland.

Executing an ambitious project 12,000 kilometers from the firm’s head office in New York was nothing out of the ordinary for Daniel Libeskind, who routinely designs projects in far-flung places like Chile, Kenya and Lithuania. To facilitate the firm’s ethos, he sent Chinese-speaking architects to Wuhan. And the team found creative ways to communicate the studio’s vision, including life-sized models. ‘Building a good building is not just a nice photograph, it’s about how to construct it in a well crafted way,’ says Libeskind.

The museum’s curved form and steel-panel facade references both Chinese pagoda architecture and the shape of ships on the nearby Yangtze River, while its central volume rests on what Libeskind describes as a pair of steel and glass ‘legs’. ‘It’s almost like a piece of a sphere that’s been elevated to create really a vital public space.’

Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, is considered central China’s hub; equidistant from Beijing and Hong Kong, it is also known as ‘China’s thoroughfare’. The city was the birthplace of China’s steel industry, and the symbolically modern structure, crafted in glass and steel, is intended as a public hub that celebrates Wuhan’s iron and steel culture as well as the illustrious 19th-century Qing dynasty politician who pioneered it.

‘At the turn of the century Zhang ZhiDong went to Europe and bought whole steel mills,’ Libeskind explains. ‘He was the first to produce steel for railways and weapons. It was the real modernisation of China. He was of course reviled during the Cultural Revolution, but he’s come back into focus as a major thinker and a major visionary for what can come out of China.’

The apertures in the museum’s predominantly metal skin are configured to optimise views and natural light, with the glazed atrium in particular radiating sunlight into the gallery spaces. Permanent exhibitions on the lower floors focus on Zhang and his contributions to the industrialisation of China, while temporary exhibitions are held on the top floor.

Having established himself in Europe and the US somewhat late in his career, Libeskind is primarily known for civic projects predicated on memory, such as the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the 9/11 Memorial in New York, that give shape to historical and cultural trauma. With the Zhang ZhiDong museum, the architect shows a more playful side, a design that looks back while also buoyantly forward.

From its location among the city’s steel factories to its materiality, the museum references Zhang’s legacy and Wuhan’s, while also proposing a new public landmark for a new era. ‘It’s a very dramatic building that tells the story of Wuhan, the story of Zhang ZhiDong and the story of the future,’ Libeskind says.

Text / Sophie Kalkreuth
Images / Hufton + Crow