Grand Canal Museum Complex is a winning competition entry held in 2019. Proposed by an Architectural firm established in Basel in 1978, Herzog & de Meuron is a partnership led by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron together. The Grand Canal Museum Complex is situated in Hangzhou, which is the imperial former capital of the southern end of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal.

Significance of Grand Canal

The project pivots around the narrative of the Grand Canal, which was built in 468 BC. It is the oldest and longest canal in the world, which stretches 1794 kilometers (1115 miles). It establishes a water connection from Beijing in the north and Hangzhou in the south. The canal has aided China’s agricultural, economic, and cultural development, as well as promoting urbanization along its banks, putting a significant mark on the natural landscape of China. 

The Grand canal belt provides the richest agricultural area in China. This Second Golden waterway of China (the first one is the Yangtze River) inhibits some of the famous cultural relics of China, including the ancient water towns. And Hangzhou is home to one of China’s most famous water cities.

The Grand Canal Museum Complex by Herzog & de Meuron: Linear Museum Complex - Sheet1
Grand Canal in Hangzhou_©cgtn

Symbolic of Chinese Culture

The proposal started with one momentous line. Reminiscing the bold and beautiful Chinese brushstroke, the proposal took a symbolic stance of the Great canal. The brush stroke narrates different stories: its colossal architecture functions in the agriculture of China’s eastern plain, its importance as a communication route throughout Imperial China’s period, and its cultural brilliance until today.

“Here, the water and the museum face each other, creating a visual and material dialogue between the subject and its narrator. The museum is reflected in the water and the water in the museum’s facade.” 

This elegantly curved facade is made up of huge concave cast glass pieces that resemble the shimmer of flowing water while accentuating the Grand Canal’s natural beauty. There is a continuous conversation between the Museum and the Grand Canal through people, landscape, activities, and buildings.

The Grand Canal Museum Complex by Herzog & de Meuron: Linear Museum Complex - Sheet2
Water & Glass_©Herzog & de Meuron

The idea of the Floating Museum

The structure respectfully sits in the center of the site. It cohesively stands with the canal by lifting itself from the ground by 12 meters. The space beneath the floating museum has been cleared, providing more covered and shaded public space for Hangzhou residents and tourists. This also helps in establishing a cultural and public life for the residents and tourists.

Strategically, major public programs are located under the floating museum, like the grand ballroom and a banquet room, which acts like magnets for activities, as well as making crowd-drawing events more accessible. By placing these activities at the entry-level creates a fluidity in the movement of a user in the complex.

The Grand Canal Museum Complex by Herzog & de Meuron: Linear Museum Complex - Sheet3
Floating Museum_©Herzog & de Meuron

Influence of the Built Landscape

On the east side of the site, facing the Grand Canal and connected to the city by its proximity to the major road, a huge mountain-shaped convention center-hotel complex anchors the museum. This panoramic view illustrates the ancient Chinese ideal for harmonious integration of people, structures, and their natural surroundings: “water in front, the mountain in the back.”

The “mountain” like structure pierces each level of the Grand Canal Museum to connect them, producing a “vertical city in which various activities complement one another to form a synergistic whole,”. The master planning of the Museum complex is done in such a way that it provides an urban landscape basin from the Grand canal to the museum, driving them inside. 

This proposed landscape represents the past of the Great canal by rippling water reflections, present by respecting all the tangible and intangible characteristics of Chinese culture and future as an emerging new development. The trail that meanders across the project’s vast terrain is a representation of China’s many regional floras, linked by the Grand Canal’s route.

Great Canal Museum_ ©Herzog & de Meuron

Hangzhou is a city of multiple identities. It has been repeatedly rated as the most commercial city in mainland China. Home to many industries and emerging with an overwhelming Early, medieval and modern history. With this perfect geographical location and relevance of the urban realm in the “ancient” water town of China, the Great canal had already established connectivity. 

The proposal of The Great Canal Museum complex by Herzog and de Meuron not only strengthens the multiple facets of the city, but it revives the significance of the canal by symbolizing and personifying it through the built environment. The canal and the museum stand as a testimony of their time, one from the past and one for the future, respectively.

References (n.d.). 528 GRAND CANAL MUSEUM – HERZOG & DE MEURON. [online] Available at: 

‌ world, S. (n.d.). Herzog & de Meuron wins competition to design Hangzhou’s Grand Canal Museum. [online] Available at:

Kelly (2019). Grand Canal in China, Da Yun He. [online] China Highlights. Available at:


Vaishnavi Gondane is trained as an architect and has grown to be a hybrid thinker. She is a research enthusiast in the field of art history and architectural theory. She believes that reflecting on history and theory will help to develop a sensitivity towards culture and heritage.

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