With MVRDV’s Crazy New Animation Museum, Can China Outmuscle Pixar?

The museum is part of a state-funded push to make animation a key export for China. But that strategy, while good for architects, might be wrong-headed.

Today you might say that all roads lead to China. The country’s a manufacturing powerhouse, producing everything from agricultural fertilizers to iPhones. (Its economy recently overtook Japan as the No. 2 slot after the U.S.) And now it’s positioning itself as one of the largest exporters of ” animation” The Chinese government is pouring buckets of greenbacks into gaining the upper hand in cartoons, where it has traditionally lagged behind the West. Its latest play for dominance is the soon-to-be-built China Comic and Animation Museum (CCAM), designed by Rotterdam-based MVRDV as a cluster of six 3-D thought balloons, which looked to us, at first, like a group of intergalactic condos.


The museum is part of a grand urban plan in Hangzhou that includes a series of parks, a public plaza, and an expo center — all meant to establish the city as the animation capital of the world. CCAM will be the complex’s crown jewel, with a budget of $130 million and more than 340,000 square feet of programming broken into eight interconnected volumes.

These wacky balloon shapes are designed for an even wind pressure

Amsterdam-based exhibition architects Kossman.deJong configured the spaces for large crowds and both short and long visits (watch the video above for a guided tour). Once inside, visitors ascend to the permanent-collection gallery, which is chronologically arranged in a nautilus-like spiral; the temporary exhibition space is more open and flexible. An interactive exhibition space featuring a blue screen, stop-motion displays, and a giant 3-D zoetrope, leads to a mammoth — geek alert! — comic-book library containing several dizzying tiers of books and workspaces. Three theaters, including an IMAX, offer a total of 1,111 seats, and a multipurpose education area occupies its own bubble. Every now and then, visitors get a sense of the surroundings from rounded windows punched into the walls of the exhibition spaces and from the view from atop a rooftop bar.

Believe it or not, these wacky, thought-balloon shapes are aerodynamically designed for an even wind pressure, lowering the need for air-conditioning. And the box-in-box construction, engineered by no other than Arup, allows each volume to be heated and cooled separately.

All these fancy buildings might not actually help the economy.

Of course, even if China does build this thing — and given that it’s China, they probably will — you have to wonder whether this really is a worthwhile investment. Many China experts grumble that all these fancy buildings don’t help the economy in the long run, because they’re not what China actually needs. Far better would be affordable housing in city centers, which could draw new pools of workers from the countryside. And it remains to be seen whether top-down investments can really foment innovation on a grand scale.

In short, it’s the architects that stand to gain the most. Your average Chinese person, maybe not so much.


About the author

A former editor at such publications as WIRED, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Fast Company, Belinda Lanks has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Observer, Interior Design, and ARTnews.