ZHA’s Glasgow Riverside Museum 12 years on

Fitzgerald is very animated about the museum’s purpose, and where the value is added. ‘You do not build museums for enthusiasts,’ he says. ‘They come anyway.’ Instead, he advocated for a huge, flexible space in which they could curate objects to tell more diverse stories: of gender, of disability, of race, of class. ‘So what I wanted to do with the Riverside is not call it a transport museum … our brief was about making the museum inclusive and accessible, to reduce barriers … you’d be amazed how many architects [at competition stage] didn’t get that.’

‘The brief was about making the museum inclusive and accessible … you’d be amazed how many architects didn’t get that’

He’s more inclined to see fortune and good timing in this project; whether working with ZHA at an ideal point – ‘five years later, we couldn’t have afforded you!’ – building on the experience of a client team that knew how to commission large capital projects, or a fortunate transition in client from the council to Glasgow Life. Mainly though, there seems to have been a shared transparency and ambition across the team.

Hayley Chivers is a Design Council expert and founder of the Vers Collective

Architect’s view

People in the café

Fitzgerald had been adamant that they didn’t want ‘a fancy shed’, and ZHA’s modelling prowess has clearly pushed the extruded profile typology to the extreme. Hoffmann and I conclude that this kind of building can’t exist in the orthographic world – it’s beyond plans or sections. ‘We do have drawings of the outside, but they only help you so much,’ he says. ‘I don’t even know if we had elevations on the inside, we just built it from the model. You can’t describe it otherwise.’ My eyes pan around this glass reinforced gypsum (GRG) interior; the smooth, unending curves draw you in. ‘Nothing distracts from the shape,’ Hoffmann continues. ‘There’s a rhythm and an order to everything.’

The zinc curved façade

Fitzgerald speculates that this united approach might be harder to find in today’s procurement landscape. ‘Quality is something the public deserve; a building should last … with ZHA we didn’t need a clerk of works … it’s their reputation on the line too.’

In the exhibition

I mention to Hoffmann that I’m finding it hard to stand far enough away from the building to feel I’m really appreciating it. He nods, saying it’s best understood through the CATIA model, or from the biplane used to photograph the finished build. It’s true that the haptic ‘midi’ scale is not the source of the building’s potency; rather, its ambition exists at the maxi and mini scale – in the epic ‘god’ view, and the painstakingly crafted, hidden details. This is an objet d’art, scaled straight from 1:50 model to larger-than-life size. Hoffmann agrees: ‘It’s a piece of sculpture.’

Fair point, and one both Hoffmann and I can take on the chin. Yet it’s only a 20-minute walk to Chipperfield’s BBC Scotland building, Fosters’ Armadillo Arena and Richard Horden’s Glasgow Science Tower, and Fitzgerald agrees there’s an opportunity to create some sort of cultural trail, pointing out older heritage all along the waterfront. Yet without a cohesive way to connect them, and no thanks to a wall of student housing blocking the view from the station, the Riverside Museum is deprived of neighbours – an icon without an appropriate context.

Just don’t call it a transport museum.

Hayley Chivers with project architect Johannes Hoffmann

Fitzgerald was keen to commission ‘a Gehry or a Foster’ right from the off, to ignite the Bilbao effect in Glasgow’s shipbuilding hinterland and drive a once heavy industrial area into the tourist economy. ZHA won the competition partly because it understood that so thoroughly. ‘People might not think of ZHA as being public-focused,’ says Fitzgerald, as Hoffmann nods in agreement. ‘But actually, their submission was all about maximising the site, connecting with the river, the landscape. Libeskind sent us a squiggly drawing and I think I jokingly said: What do we do with this: frame and auction it?’

Much of what they have achieved here is exactly that: a huge idea, executed in fine detail without any concessions in between. As Ward says: ‘That’s what they asked for, and that’s what they got.’ Hearing everything that went into the building is overwhelming; the sheer scale and graft involved. As we leave, I think I’ve finally pinned down my unease – the building forces us to be in two mindsets at once. It is an object that belongs in a display case, hand tooled and intricately carved yet it’s also a chassis containing an assemblage of objects, curating stories about our past, directing our view to the future: forcing us to reconcile what we create with what creates us; a display case for a million stories of human ingenuity.

Hoffmann is in a poetic mood when we meet under the visitor entrance. For him, the building is symptomatic of Glasgow’s wider regeneration, from which ‘springs the idea of merging the city and the Clyde, expressed in the overall form … ultimately, it is a pathway, leading you from here to the river.’ Maybe. With huge gestural forms like this, the narrative gymnastics are mostly for our own amusement and seem divorced from such a bold, formal move. As we walk around extruded zinc sides and chamfered glass faces, we can both agree that the façade’s scalelessness is ‘compelling’, a perfect example of flamboyant, mid-noughties ZHA.

Looking out from beneath undulating roofline

Amid all this gyrating, pulsing geometry, two things cause the eye to stutter. I’m reluctant to raise them with Hoffmann, given the huge effort and achievement of this building. Plus they’re out of his control. The first is points of brown effervescence along the two inner roof valleys – the ceiling is leaking. Kept column-free thanks to a siphonic drainage system which discharges to pipes concealed in the façade structure, the wavy ceiling conceals another epic point of collaboration between ZHA, Buro Happold and the contractor, BAM. Hoffmann concedes the roof ‘might be clogged…’ then a little defensively  adds: ‘There is a maintenance schedule in place that just needs to be fulfilled.’

The second hiccup is that only 40 per cent of the cold cathode lights are still working. I’d been gazing up wondering if it signified something akin to morse code. Again, Thompson laughs. No, the lighting always had a 10-year lifespan and LEDs have evolved sufficiently since to become a viable replacement. The problem is getting up there now the museum is full of precious things. As we stare up, he sighs, adding: ‘It’s a wee bit complicated.’

What confronts me is a finely-tuned, painstakingly modelled machine. It’s like approaching an Airfix model of the Death Star

Hoffmann and Ward’s united front paid dividends in a building that seems to be as much about craft as any historic restoration project. Ward agrees. ‘We always said this building is hand crafted on a super-sized scale,’ he says. ‘We needed people who were joining us, were interested in hand crafting, and didn’t want to just do productivity and make money.’ Part of that was getting to know people, socialising, building relationships – insisting that the supply chain attended ‘philosophy meetings’ (yes, really). Some of it was accommodating new processes, like a temporary workshop on site so each of the 24,000 zinc panels could be hand-templated between the ZHA model and the building superstructure.

There is definitely a rhythm, although I am still quite distracted. It makes sense that a transport and technology museum would have this sort of dynamism, this explosion of architecture, interiors, curation and narrative. I just don’t quite know where to start. So we immediately switch down scale to talk details, starting with the rationalised band of MEP services at the first floor: a perfectly aligned datum, bringing together the ground-floor ceiling and the first-floor finish; balconies, bridges and picture windows all snapped into a border grille that swoops and swerves with the walls. It looks so easy, so logical, yet anyone who has worked with a service engineer knows that it is not, requiring huge persuasion within the design team. Hoffmann is keen to credit the collaboration with Buro Happold’s Glasgow office. ‘They were very up for the challenge,’ he says.

‘Not everyone may pick up on this, but some people will,’ says Johannes Hoffmann, as we squint upwards through the morning sunshine towards the Riverside Museum’s heroic roof undulations. Won in a public competition by Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) back in 2004, this transport and technology museum opened on Glasgow harbour in 2011. For six of those seven years, Johannes was the project architect. Naturally, he has come to accept that much of the effort and expertise involved in delivering 11,000m2 of epic space will never be understood.

Visiting the museum with Hayley, I was delighted to see that it remains hugely popular post-pandemic. Packed to the rafters with exhibits (doubling the number on display) it’s teeming with life of all ages. Particularly, school classes still thoroughly enjoy the space and the myriad objects on display.

It wasn’t the first JCT 98 we had managed (that was Maggie’s) but the scale and complexity of the building coupled with the two-stage tender process was certainly a steep learning curve. We soon discovered that delivering over two stages means the onus to contain costs is truly placed on the architect as every individual package has to be delivered to a set budget – and the budgets in this case were not high.

They are standing on the bridge at the elbow crook of their building, taking it in turns to nod thoughtfully as the other speaks, adding details to each other’s reminiscences. Ward remembers: ‘You’d say: look, this is iconic, people are going to talk about this for years. Bring the best version of yourself to work every day. It’s about changing the narrative from business as usual.

The extra effort this form of tender requires from the architect in terms of redesign and revisiting of information cannot be overestimated. We learned quickly that in order to maintain control over our design and the quality of the delivery, we needed to first achieve control over the costs.

‘Then you’d start seeing what was being built. So Johannes and his team are here, and the subbies are coming up and asking me “What’s he saying this time?” “He thinks we can do better” “Oh WHAT, he still thinks we can do better?” … and we push them, to the point where I’d say: Johannes, I think someone’s going to hit you.’ They both laugh and shrug.

We’re discussing the making of the building, and I’m fan-girling about how well the window and door reveals align with the seams of the zinc panelling, with access panels centred on each sheet. Hoffmann is pleased I’ve noticed – ‘it’s one for the design geeks’ – but, 12 years later, he’s not done snagging his creation. ‘Well, I’m not sure we’d have been very happy about that …’ ZHA even designed its own concealed box gutter, with a zinc over-panel continuing the seam line. ‘We had a gutter model to make sure it discharges properly … and had it tested in an institute,’ he says. Is he aware of how elite, even niche, that is as an approach? ‘Yes, but you have the opportunity to do that for bespoke elements.’ Yes, if you’re Zaha.

When I ask Hoffmann about any lessons learned from the building, and the ceiling in particular, he appears ambivalent, accepting of a little wear and tear. Yet when you look at the ZHA projects completed around the same time – the Evelyn Grace Academy (2010) and the London Aquatic Centre (2011) – it’s easy to see evolution in their approach to achieving parametric interiors. Besides, if the hordes of enthusiastic 10-year-olds are anything to go by, only the architecture nerds have noticed anyway.

We’re returning on a bright day in early June. I’ve taken the Glasgow subway as close as possible, then guesstimated the 10-minute ramble to the site along a graffiti-embellished greenway. After a wrong turn next to a four-lane flyover, I eventually land on a gargantuan expanse of Chinese granite, the public event space that squares up to the museum’s frontage. Hoffmann is proudly wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the building’s silhouette: a design now also sported by Glasgow’s rugby team – emblematic of the iconic and emotive nature of this project.

Looking back, it is hard to believe that, even then, we managed to deliver a project of this nature for just under £60 million.
Johannes Hoffmann, director, Zaha Hadid Architects

Project data

Conjuring a finished building from a 3D model is no easy feat. Across the board, the most reverential tones are reserved for Jim Ward, lead contractor of BAM Construction, now Scotland regional director. Back in 2005, he was one of several contractors interviewed; favoured for being collaborative, rigorous and fair. In person, he is still keen to strike a balance between creative excellence and level-headed pragmatism. He and Hoffmann seem to have a ‘good cop, bad cop’ dynamic, which they both describe as ‘fundamental’ to their working partnership. ‘The subbies knew they couldn’t get between us,’ remembers Ward. ‘We were like two parents.’

The building achieved practical completion in December 2010 and opened mid-2011 – seven years after we won the competition. This is a lengthy period in anyone’s lifetime and as we individually gained valuable experience on the project, so our office matured over this period.

As we walk around the main exhibition space afterwards, it’s clear this radical stance has continued to evolve since the museum opened. Yes, the large, clear spanning space has infinite opportunities, but for visitors with additional audio or visual needs, or those who find large, loud spaces overwhelming, there’s relatively little the curators can do to temper the cacophony. Yet they’ve found ways to include British Sign Language in the e-displays, and I find posters for the monthly autism-friendly visit plastered all over the building.

Yet the skill and rigour in the delivery is irrefutable, not something I had anticipated. I imagined the acrylic swoosh of a Zaha painting, rendered large in reality but at grainy resolution around the details; a flashing hanging off here, something wobbly over there. What confronts me is a finely-tuned, painstakingly modelled machine. I am drawn to the immaculate zinc panel walls rising vertically. It’s like approaching an Airfix model of the Death Star – precise, delicate, obsessive. Hoffmann is satisfied with this summary. ‘We tried to co-ordinate everything,’ he says, ‘making sure everything has its place, everything is intentional. It was … a lot of effort.’ I dread to think.

For Lawrence Fitzgerald, chief project officer for the build on the client side, the outside of the building has moments that are ‘relatively anodyne’; he’s more passionate about the epic space around and within, the endless potential for community events and outreach. There’s no denying that the museum is packed full of charisma, commanding the view even from the Clydeside Distillery, half a mile away. Yet it is also isolated out here. Plans for a casino and hotel have mercifully been abandoned so, for now, the building forecourt has no eastern boundary, bleeding all its drama through the car park and on to the A814. It’s outside of the project team’s control but it would be more believable as a regeneration catalyst if there were more evidence of neighbourly change.

Delivering our design to our exacting standards for the city and people of Glasgow was both demanding and enjoyable – but also a huge privilege.

I was also glad to see that, despite some sporadic vandalism, the building, overall, is ageing well and gracefully. The zinc cladding is still a delight and made all the hard work and preparation (large-scale mock-up) worthwhile.

Same for the waveform ceiling – it’s actually a separate geometry from the outer roofscape, a second landscape modelled by ZHA, all the way down to the GRG movement joints, then co-ordinated to host fire-detection systems, cold cathode lighting and gigantic fixing points for feature installations, designed in tandem with the curatorial team – an epic achievement by all counts.

In the same breath, though, Fitzgerald is circumspect about the museum’s role in the harbour regeneration. ‘We know from our research that we need to be “destination attractive” so we chose a brilliant building … but like the transport-nutter market, or the art-nutter market, the architecture market is quite … niche?! People’s main motivation when taking their kids out for the day is not “let’s go look at the architecture”.’

Children in museum window overlooking the Clyde

Not that it was always easy working with an architect who ‘demanded excellence’ at every turn. ‘Jim Heverin [director at ZHA] came up one day to look at a window. And the GRG surround wasn’t exactly as it should have been.’ Ward pauses for effect. ‘He said to me “I can’t see the view for looking at this detail” – like the workmanship was so offensive to him, it was blocking the view. And it really stung me!’ Hoffmann laughs, stroking the window reveal. ‘So we fixed it. And the next time he came back, he could see the view.’

Airtightness at 50Pa 3.97 m3/hr/m2
Overall area-weighted U-value: 0.20 w/m2k
Predicted design life The site and building ground floor was raised to withstand a 500-year flood event. All major building components, including zinc and internal GRG lining, have a design life above 50 years.
Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >2%/>5% This is a museum building, where daylight must be strictly controlled. Hence the main part of the building is designed like a tunnel with glazed elevations to either end. This shields the exhibits from direct sun and daylight. Windows in the façade of the exhibition area permit specific views out that coincide with and relate to exhibits. In office areas, plenty of daylight is provided. As a result, the percentage daylight factor as an average is not available but also meaningless as different areas have different needs.


Hoffmann is strategic in his perspective, practical in his methods. ‘I learned on this job that you have to keep a handle on the cost, because otherwise you can be argued out,’ he laughs. ‘Someone says “you just be the creative guy, we’ll look after the cost” – no. If you allow this to happen, people don’t take you seriously anymore and it all gets taken away from us.’ The solution? Run workshops between the primary steel, secondary structure and suspended ceiling manufacturers, persuade them to combine their systems and co-ordinate their programme on site. ‘We saved something like £800,000.’

Museum manager Stewart Thompson chuckles when I raise the architect’s perspective with him – it’s high on the list of things he’d like to sort out. But he’s very clear. ‘The roof gutters are all maintained,’ he says. ‘Roof investigations are still going on so we don’t know exactly what’s wrong with it yet.’ The damage isn’t ruining the space but the blemishes stick out against the smooth perfection of everything else. Besides, the smoothness causes its own problems, with some visitors getting lost and disoriented, the number one question to staff being ‘where are the toilets?’ So right now, wayfinding is top of his list.

Start on site November 2007
Completion December 2010
Gross internal floor area 11,300m2
Construction cost £54 million excluding external works; £59.6 million including external works; £74 million for overall project cost, including quaywall and enabling works
Construction cost per m2 £4,780 (excluding external works)
Architect Zaha Hadid Architects
Client Glasgow City Council
Structural engineer Buro Happold
M&E consultant Buro Happold
Quantity surveyor Capita Symonds
Project manager Capita Symonds
CDM co-ordinator Capita Symonds
Main contractor BAM Construct UK
CAD software used AutoCAD, Catia, Rhino
Exhibition designer Event Communications
Landscape designer GROSS.MAX
Lighting designer Inverse
Fire safety Fedra

Sustainability data

I’m still grappling with the epic scale as we pass under the black, glazed end-section, through a lobby pod and into the exhibition hall. My knees buckle under the sensory overload. It’s vaulted, swooshy, enormous, unending, bright green, uplit and packed full of stuff. Stuff on pedestals, stuff hanging off walls, off ceilings and cantilevered from first-floor balconies. I’m gawping, blocking the entrance for two busloads of excited primary schoolers. Once they start pinballing from exhibit to display case and back again, I have to ask Hoffmann to repeat himself over the sound of their joyous screeching. ‘This is exactly how it was intended,’ he shouts.