National Maritime Museum of China

China's first National Maritime Museum has now commenced formal operation, the culmination of a 6-year process which began with an international design competition, followed by an intensive design and construction process.

The Museum has a distinctive form which reaches out into the bay from a large waterfront parkland, behind which a new city district of Tianjin, called the Binhai New Area is currently being developed.

It is a landmark project comprising four wings, focusing on the themes of “the ancient ocean,” “ocean today,” “journey of discovery” and “the age of the dragon”. The three-storey museum, covering 80,000 square meters and containing six display areas and 15 exhibition halls. These halls are interconnected so that visitors are provided an opportunity to understand and interpret China’s maritime evolution in relation to events in Europe, America, and wider Asia.

COX Architecture was awarded the project in 2013 after winning an 8-month iterative design competition process involving multiple stages of client and stakeholder feedback. The building comprises a series of interconnected pavilions that cantilever out over the water in a ‘fan-like’ formation from a central reception hall. This central space is both for transition and exhibition and provides access to the upper of the two exhibition levels. On the lower level, stores for non-exhibited collections are co-located on-site to enable artefacts to be easily distributed to each of the adjacent exhibition spaces.

From Philip Cox’s initial watercolour sketches, the design evolved and certain compelling metaphors either resolved or emerged – jumping carp, corals, starfish, moored ships in port and an open palm reaching out from China to the maritime world. Without resorting to literal mimicry, some are more obviously expressed, such as in the geometric pattern and textures of the cladding, also functionally designed to shed heavy snow loads during harsh winters typical in this part of China.

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The articulated pavilions provide a constant connection between inside and out. The user experience exists within the landscape and is a key organising device of the plan, helping to orientate visitors on their journey experience. During development of the design, both physical and digital modelling was carried out to test the building structure and many of the key details of the design. This approach greatly improved the quality of outcomes and assisted communication beyond any language barriers. The process was innovative – especially for a project of this size, scale, complexity and location – in its deployment of parametric computer modelling that allowed both scale and detail to be resolved concurrently. Physical models focused on human scale and interaction while complex geometric algorithms resolved the doubly curved building ‘shell’ and its related cladding system.

Energy for the building is predominantly sourced via geothermal, being drawn from 100 metres below the building.

The museum held its soft opening in May 2019. Admitting up to 1,000 visitors a day while operations are refined and while exhibitions are fully installed. Full public operation is anticipated by in October.

Brendan Gaffney, National Director for COX, based in Brisbane said:

“The National Maritime Museum of China is justified in its ‘landmark’ status…it is a remarkable building borne of a remarkable process. It is a project that’s totally at home on the global stage. It is testament to the commitment of our open-minded and collaborative client and to our team, whose talent and tenacity in equal measure ensured this building stayed true to its vision in every possible detail.”


150,000m2 of site, 80,000 GFA. Of that, 39,000m2 of exhibition.

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Scale: When compared with the size of the Sydney Opera House the NMMC is two and a half times larger in terms of both length and site area.

55,000m2 of aluminium façade, 3,500m2 of glazed façade. The façade thickness is 828mm to accommodate the aluminium façade, the rain screen, the standing seam, the insulation, the interior lining and any substructure within that.

17,000 tonnes of steel for the primary structure alone, not including the secondary structure.

The largest structural cantilever is almost 42 metres in length.

One of the challenges we had was that because this building is curved there’s no defined wall and ceiling. This was a challenge because building Codes in China refer to walls having B-grade fire rating and ceilings that should have a higher, A-grade rating. Because of the curvature it wasn’t possible to define where the walls stopped and the ceiling started, so everything had to be the highest grade in fire rating.

The project was a massive team effort in terms of time. We’ve calculated that it’s equivalent to one person working continually for 11.6 years on this single project.


Revit, Rhino and BIM played a huge role in coordinating and delivering thus project. It resulted in the biggest digital model we’ve ever worked with.

The solution includes giant seismic portals, each resting on massive ball joints that are designed to move when there’s seismic disruption in the landscape.

There is syphonic drainage built literally into the ‘skin’ of the building. This was very difficult to achieve because the building’s organic form (as opposed to being flat). This drainage captures grey water for future use on site on the dry months.

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The roof is arrayed with high efficiency solar panels in a ‘solar farm’. This, in addition to thermal underground heating warms the building during the harsh Tianjin winter and on cooler days.

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