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Along the banks of Shanghai's Huangpu River, five decommissioned aviation fuel tanks once stood abandoned on an empty industrial site. Today, these tanks and the surrounding site—forgotten relics of the city's former Longhua Airport—have been given new life and relevancy by OPEN Architecture. Over the course of six years, the five tanks were converted from waste containers to a vibrant contemporary art center, with galleries and other public spaces housed within the tanks themselves. One of the world’s rare examples of the adaptive re-use of aviation fuel tanks, Tank Shanghai has attracted millions of visitors since its opening in March 2019 and has solidified its place in the city’s contemporary art scene.
Conceived of as both an art museum and an open park, Tank Shanghai sets itself apart as a sanctuary for both people and nature. Open, accessible, and seamlessly integrated with the surrounding landscape, the project not only pays tribute to the site’s industrial past, but also seeks to dissolve conventional ideas of site limitations and demarcations.
Tank Shanghai’s design purposefully rejects the idea of a bordered site. Long, sloping landscaped meadows down to and around each tank gallery offer open access to the street and riverside, inviting visitors and passerby to move freely between the city, nature, and art. Amidst the backdrop of Shanghai’s many more exclusive cultural projects, this gesture creates surprising social inclusivity. Many of those who come to the Tanks do so not only to view an art show, but also to jog or picnic on the project’s undulating landscaped lawns. This unusually open approach to the museum space has already brought about unexpected benefits and inspired new operational models for the art center. Within a year, Tank Shanghai has hosted not only high-profile art exhibitions but also a fashion week, book fair, art festival, and AI conference. By introducing new audiences to the traditionally closed-off space of the art center, Tank Shanghai has brought unprecedented energy to the formerly industrial neighborhood and to the southwest banks of the city at large.
Central to the project’s design is the merging of architecture and landscape through a Z-shaped “Super-Surface”—a 5 hectare landscaped swath of trees and grasses which connects the five tanks and weaves different elements of the site together. Two of the tanks sit above the Super-Surface, while the other three sit halfway below, creating free-flowing indoor public spaces and offering opportunities to access each of the tanks’ galleries from beneath. Entrance ramps to each tank are wrapped with steel panels, which enter into dialogue with the curved structures of the existing tanks; steps around the tanks double as seating for the café. Floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights flood these otherwise dimmer underground spaces with light and allow gallery visitors to observe seasonal changes in the park landscape beyond.