Why has a Chinese architect been chosen to put a spiralling viewpoint in the Netherlands' first migration museum? Because the Fenix " a historic, harbourside warehouse that will house the museum " stands in what was one of Europe's oldest Chinatowns.
Beijing-based Ma Yansong, founder of MAD Architects, will add a "theatrical staircase" to Rotterdam's Landverhuizersmuseum, eddying through the centre of the building to a rooftop observation deck.
Today, the old storehouse sits among the dockland cafes and bars of the Katendrecht, a hip, post-industrial area on the southern banks of Rotterdam's harbour. Rehabilitation of the once desolate waterfront area " ravaged by fire and war " began in 2007, and will continue with the Fenix's restoration.
Having taken the West by storm with innovative buildings such as Toronto's gyrating Absolute Towers (nicknamed the Marilyn Monroe for their hourglass curves), and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, in Los Angeles, currently under construction, for film director George Lucas, MAD Architects will be undertaking its first public cultural project in Europe.
"The staircase draws on the formation of a tornado, and has several landings that provide access to the different gallery spaces. It gives visitors the opportunity to meander and explore the museum from different perspectives, and concludes above the rooftop as a panoramic lookout point offering views of the riverside, and city beyond," says Ma, of the staircase that will be built over the next three years.
Not only will he create the staircase and viewing platform, but also a public atrium connecting the ground and first floors of the museum with the rooftop.
Ma " China's "starchitect" and "the first to conquer the West", as one Dutch paper recently declared " says the commission came out of a chance meeting in Berlin last year with the Dutch art historian Wim Pijbes.
For Pijbes, managing director of the Droom en Daad Foundation (Dream and Do Foundation) behind the renovation, Ma was the natural choice because of Katendrecht's history of Chinese migration.
The sprawling 12,000 square metre (129,000 square foot) red-brick building was inaugurated in 1923 as the largest warehouse in the world. Remarkably, two railway lines cut through the original, 360-metre-long complex and are still apparent today.
Its history ties in with the arrival and departure of thousands of transatlantic passengers from the surrounding riverbank embarkation points around this time.
Among them were hundreds of Chinese sailors, who worked on the steamships of big shipping companies. In the 1920s, some 2,500 Chinese, mostly seafarers and their families, lived in Katendrecht.
"We could choose who we liked; that was our luxury," Pijbes says, "but here there was a Chinese connection."
Ma will help Pijbes realise the creation of Rotterdam's answer to New York's Ellis Island museum " a place that tells the "universal and timeless story" of migration.
"The Fenix will be a symbol for the city of Rotterdam, a city of migrants today, but from where an estimated three million people left for the New World," says Pijbes, who found it strange that a country where migrants make up about a fifth of the population had no such showcase. The US$6.4 million renovation of the warehouse seeks to honour their legacy.
After seven years at the helm of Amsterdam's famous fine arts museum, the Rijksmuseum, Pijbes is helping Droom en Daad in its mission of investing in art and cultural projects in Rotterdam.
For Ma, the fact that the project has him working in the former Chinatown bears no personal relevance, although he says "it is important culturally for my work as an architect".
"It was here on the Katendrecht that one could find opium kits and the first Chinese restaurant in the Netherlands, possibly in Europe," he says.
He also feels the transformation of the old factory into a museum will see "this forgotten part of history brought to life once more".
"It is important to remember the people and the events of our past … and we wanted to create something that elevated the experience of moving through the space and taking in those stories, as well as provide points of contemplation and reflection into our design," he says.
Pijbes unabashedly admits he wanted to lend some wow-factor "fun" to the museum through MAD's involvement, and that Ma achieves that with his vortex-like staircase, "possibly built from carbon fibre".
"We wanted to create something that is visually dynamic and animates the historic building, while trying to preserve as much of the original structure as possible " and keeping the number of supports to a minimum, so that they are not visible " to make the tornado appear as if it is floating," he says.
A city still in the making " with a hyper-modern look as much by choice as force, owing to extensive second world war bombardment " Rotterdam will benefit from the addition of a dynamic public landmark, Ma says.
"The staircase has been designed as a sculptural artwork, visible from both sides of the warehouse. So we are creating this urban corridor between the buildings, with open sight lines towards the riverside and the city, animating the waterfront and acting as a conversation piece," Ma says.
Given the war erased much of Rotterdam's history, Pijbes says, "through these buildings you can feel, smell and touch the narrative of the city, its identity, and trace back this city's history and the way it was connected with the world through these migrations. Just like Canary Wharf in London or HafenCity in Hamburg."
"New ideas need old buildings," he says, "to give a sense of place. Monuments can offer inspiration for future generations."
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