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Moscow Museum’s Cantilevers Dominate

Many of the galleries in the National Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow will offer fantastic views across the city
Many of the galleries in the National Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow will offer fantastic views across the city. © Heneghan Peng

A contemporary art museum in Moscow has been designed with a modern flair, featuring large cantilevered boxes and a shiny metal exterior.

February 18, 2014—In the center of a flurry of new development, the City of Moscow is planning a dynamic new contemporary art museum designed as a series of stacked, metal-clad, cantilevered volumes. The National Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA) was created by the Russian Ministry of Culture and established in Moscow in 1994. For years it occupied a complex of factory buildings that had been used to make theater lighting gear. While the NCCA established branches across the country, the central museum eventually ran out of space. Traffic concerns helped kill the idea of expanding the museum at its existing site, so instead, the mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, proposed relocating the museum to Khodynskoe Pole, the site of an old airfield.

Last summer an international competition was held to select an architect for the project. The competition, which drew more than 900 applications and lasted six months, was won late last year by the Ireland-based firm Heneghan Peng, with assistance from the international engineering firm Arup.

The site, in northwest Moscow, borders a semicircular park on its front side and a large shopping center to the rear. Additional plans for the area include two hotel and office complexes and a new subway station.

A huge loading bay for the shopping center is directly behind the site, so the Heneghan Peng design team placed the museum on a type of arcing plinth at ground level to shield the museum from the mall’s back-of-house functions. The plinth also provides parking for the museum and space for mechanical services. 

Aerial view of the National Center for Contemporary Art that will rise above a park and a large shopping center

Located on the site of an old airfield in northwest Moscow, the
National Center for Contemporary Art will rise above a park and a
large shopping center. © Heneghan Peng

While the museum measures nearly 500,000 sq ft, it is nonetheless dwarfed in mass by the shopping center to its rear. Responding to the mall’s size was one of the challenges of the design. “The museum should be a vertical element so it reaches above the shopping center and can be seen from quite a distance,” says Róisín Heneghan, a cofounder and a director of Heneghan Peng.

As stunning as the cantilevers are—they seem to resemble a precariously balanced game of Jenga—they do serve a purpose. “It’s quite a constrained site in one direction,” says Heneghan, “so the cantilevered volumes extend to the east and west but are aligned in the north-south direction, towards the park.”

Surprisingly, given its form, the NCCA has a circulation scheme that recalls the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Visitors will ascend to the top of the museum via an elevator in the building’s core, then slowly work their way down through the galleries, along stairs situated at the perimeter. “As the stair comes down, there’s a sense of moving from side to side that develops the form of the building,” says Heneghan. “Then we started to realize if we had these terraces, we could have these outdoor areas,” so the museum is punctuated with sculpture galleries on terraces, all offering commanding views of the city.

As the lower floors are approached, an escalator whisks visitors back down through the lower levels, where restaurants and a lecture theater are located, along with the museum’s storage and administrative offices.

Night view rendering of the National Center for Contemporary Art that displays its shiny metal facade

The facade of the building will be clad in a shiny metal to help
reduce the building’s weight and give it a modern, futuristic
appearance. © Heneghan Peng

The 17-story structure will stand about 90 m tall. The NCCA is 45 m long on one direction, divided into three bays of measuring 15, 12, and 18 m, respectively. The elevator and stair cores are located in the central, 12 m zone. There are 10 cantilevered sections—five on the east side, five on the west. Those sections are between 6 and 10 m tall; and though they’re not quite as enormous lengthwise as they appear in renderings, they’re close. The cantilevers range in size; some extend 10 to 15 m but some extend 35 m. According to Arup, additional winter gardens planned for the gaps between some of the cantilevered sections will create a central section of the museum, 36 m wide, with columns that go down to the foundations. Heneghan notes that the depth of the cantilevering boxes allowed for deep beams spanning between the outer perimeter walls.

Structural engineer Francis Archer, Ph.D., MIStructE, an associate director of Arup, says the firm has conducted two feasibility studies for Heneghan Peng on the project: one utilizes structural steel, the other uses reinforced concrete. The structural steel approach would be faster to construct, would be lighter, and could be fabricated off-site, which, according to the description of the structure provided by Arup, would result in tighter tolerances and higher quality control.

The structural steel approach would use internal raking columns to support the building. “You can actually trace ‘coat hanger’ lines, diagonal lines, up from the central cores, which reduce drastically the span-to-depth ratio of these cantilevers,” Archer says.

With the steel, he adds, you might have a 15 to 8 m ratio, for example. “Mostly the aspect ratio is pretty good,” he says. “But that is at the expense of having raking columns inside the gallery spaces on the upper floors.”

Lateral stability would be gained through the use of shear walls, which would occur around the perimeter of the two large circulation cores. These cores could be constructed as laterally braced steel frames, though it’s common in steel framed structures to create the stability cores alone in reinforced concrete. According to Arup’s structural description, these could be slip-formed or jump-formed well ahead of the surrounding steel columns and floors.

On the other hand, using reinforced concrete for the entire building offers better thermal mass performance than steel, which is meaningful in Moscow’s cold climate. Reinforced concrete may also prove more cost effective.

The concrete proposal would use two outer concrete walls as book ends on the building with small openings and possibly significant posttensioning, Archer says, to “do most of the heroics of the cantilever.” From there, deep cross beams on the perimeter of the building would cut across the center of the building and join with the primary load-bearing walls on the opposite edge.

Having helped Heneghan Peng during the competition phase of the project, Arup engineers hope their firm can serve as structural consultants on the project as it moves forward. The design is undergoing a value engineering process, and once that is complete, Archer says, “We’ll give the pros and cons, advantages of each [material]. Big structures usually have this concrete-versus-steel debate. The answer is different in different places.”

When asked about the slick metallic exterior, Heneghan said, “It’s kind of slightly shiny metal, not meaning to be facetious.” The exterior surface is still being finalized. “We suggested stainless steel or shiny metal.”

But why metal at all? For one, it’s not heavy, and will help reduce the overall weight of the structure. “The other is it doesn’t seem like a stone building,” she says. “It’s a bit more futuristic.”



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