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online since  2008-10-11
Zendai museum by Susan Moore

Food for China’s soul

By Susan Moore

Published: October 11 2008 02:09 | Last updated: October 11 2008 02:09

The largest museum in China is under construction in Shanghai. The 20,000 sq m Zendai Museum of Modern Art is due to open in March 2010, a month before the Shanghai World Expo. Indeed visitors will have to pass through the museum’s extraordinary metallic “archisculpture” forest in order to get to the expo. Along with a multi-purpose performing arts hall, it is the centrepiece of the $300m Zendai Himalayas Centre, designed by the distinguished avant-garde Japanese architect Arata Isozaki for the 44-year-old entrepreneur Dai Zhikang.

Dai is far from China’s wealthiest man – the 2007 China rich list of the Hurun Report, which tracks the wealth of Chinese individuals, places him 65th, with an estimated net worth of $1.3bn. But he has probably committed more funds to public arts projects, from fine art to film, dance and traditional opera, than any other person in the country. He also founded the more modest Zendai MoMA – Shanghai’s only entirely privately funded museum – which opened as part of the Zendai Group’s Thumb Plaza development in the new Pudong district of the city in 2002. Under the direction of Binghui Huangfu, it has mounted an impressive series of exhibitions, seminars and educational programmes.

When Dai and I meet in his office opposite the museum, it soon becomes evident that this most unassuming of self-made men is a visionary: he talks of building communities that are more than just bricks and mortar, of feeding the soul of a new China obsessed by material wealth and of having the confidence to continue the development of a local culture arrested for 150 years by colonialism and communism.

In a country that has spent the past five years relinquishing responsibility for its new and underfunded museums – almost all of which are operated on a commercial for-hire basis – Dai understands only too well that the role of nurturing any form of culture has become the responsibility of the individual. He is enough of a pragmatist to realise that in order to build museums, concert halls and theatres he has to develop a business model that will support them.

It has been a steep learning curve. After university in Beijing, Dai worked as a banker and stock trader, based partly in Germany. In 1998 he diversified into property development and transferred his office and family from the south of China to Shanghai. “I wanted to get to know the city through its history, culture and traditions in order to work out how to position my business in Shanghai,” he explains in careful English. “I looked at the architecture built by foreigners on the Bund and at the traditional buildings of China. I wanted to find a way of improving on the past when developing the city.

“I realised that Shanghai was just copying the rest of the world without any desire to be creative,” he continues. “I wanted to create something that was good for our hearts and spirit. I realised that I should not only build houses but facilities. Beauty is not material, it is community.”

He began reading about art and architecture, talking to scholars and travelling the world to seek out what was good. Thumb Plaza is a development that would be unremarkable in the west but was novel in Shanghai for its combination of apartments, shops, hotel, cinema, spa, museum and even a church, and where cafés and restaurants with every cuisine imaginable spill out over a pedestrianised area.

The plaza takes its name from Dai’s first serious art purchase. “When I went to the Shanghai Art Fair in 2002 I found a piece by the French sculptor César Baldaccini, ‘Thumb’. It was easy to understand and I figured out that it would be very popular with the public, so I bought it for the plaza. The unveiling ceremony got a lot of media coverage. From that time on, people have presumed that I was a very big collector and I have been deluged with material.”

In fact, he did go on to buy more international art for himself. “Then I gradually began to think about the local culture developing. I found that local Chinese contemporary artists had begun to be very hot. I tried to catch up, but I have been very slow. I have no background in this field.” He has bought more classical Chinese art. “I have even used my property in exchange for collections of classical and modern Chinese ink paintings,” he smiles.

“Contemporary art is still very new for the general public here, and it is not very popular,” he explains. “It is important for us not only to have exhibitions but to educate too. We invite students and their parents. The majority still do not understand. We need to continue to do this day by day, year by year. I made the decision that so long as my company can support it, we will do this forever. This town is always talking about money. I realise culture, art, spirit, are much more important.”

As for the hugely ambitious Himalayas Centre, he says: “It began as an idea, and graduated to a dream. It has evolved gradually and many people have helped me in this process.” Its inspiration was the Pompidou Centre in Paris. “In the beginning I only thought about building a museum,” Dai continues. “I thought this is a simple thing, it is a simple space, I am a builder and that is what I do. It will only cost me a few million US dollars. But when I invited Arata Isozaki to be the architect and we began to develop the idea, all that changed. It is a huge investment and a very complicated job. I had to think very carefully about how to make the art activity and the business help one another.”

The scheme grew to embrace not only the museum but a performance hall, an office space designated for designers and the creative industries, the inevitable shopping mall and a five-star “art hotel” for which everything has been designed in a contemporary Chinese style. It also boasts a 5,400 sq m sky garden.

Isozaki fulfilled Dai’s criteria of being a world-class architect working in a modernist idiom who also had a deep understanding of Chinese history, culture and philosophy. For the long, low central section of his scheme, Isozaki has drawn on the traditional imagery of lin, or forest, to create striking organic sculptural forms. Flanking this gleaming metallic forest are the crystalline cubes of the creative complex and hotel.

While Shanghai strives to construct ever taller buildings, the Zendai Group opted for the horizontal. “The Himalayas are not a mountain peak but a mountain range,” explains Dai. “They are also the world’s newest mountains and the source of all civilisations in Asia. What I dream of for the Himalayas Centre is an Asian cultural centre. We will continue to support Chinese artists in the creation of their work but we also intend to support an exchange between China and the rest of the world, Asia in particular.”

Most museums in China are exhibition spaces rather than permanent collections. Says Dai: “We are not in a hurry to expand our collection. The first reason is the cost, the second is that we should take our time to decide what we should do.”

For Dai, the whole of the Himalayas project is about culture and community and quality of life. It is also a statement of intent: “If I can succeed in this project, then I can do others elsewhere.”