Attracting over one million visitors during its first eight months of life, Zaha Hadid's Riverside Museum in Glasgow has apparently been a huge success.

The siting of the museum has long been an issue of contention. In an attempt to 'reconnect' Glasgow with the Clyde, the building sits on the north bank of the river, cut off from the West End of Glasgow by the Clydeside Expressway. From the viewpoint of optimistic Glasgow City Council planning policy, it was perfectly legitimate to assume that the placement of such a large piece of civic infrastructure here could form some sort of connection, or indeed cultivate further development along the river edge. But if a visitor might be so unconventional as to attempt to travel to the museum on foot, he might be forgiven for viewing such commercial optimism as naive, and certainly as a failure.

The former industrial site has no existing street pattern, so consequentially the museum sits as a building 'in the round,' with only the river to respond to as an edge. The concertina shell of the building ascends in height towards the river, presumably as a response to this singular point of reference. It is possible to perceive this from the south side of the river, from half a mile along the Clyde expressway, and during a final approach to landing at Glasgow Airport, but from the immediate vicinity of the building itself, the north facade feels very much like the south. The response to the river is essentially the same as the response to the car park. It could be argued that there is opportunity here to take from the best of public buildings in a similar context. The Royal Danish Playhouse in Copenhagen by Lungaard & Tranberg (2008) might be one example, but the architect gives us no such subtlety. Instead the building’s response to context is akin to that of a supermarket to its Tarmac.

But the site response is not simply a story of north and south; the museum is situated at the confluence of the Rivers Kelvin and Clyde, a site which forms a corner to the river. The design of the museum makes no acknowledgement of this either. Similarly, the east facade is treated as equally as the west in the manner in which the grey standing seam zinc undulates across the pinnacled roof and creates walls where there are no trusses left to clad. The east and west edges of the building are residual; mere resultants of the envelopment of the frame. The undulation of the plan contorts to form a small recess in the western facade, which I’ve no doubt is labelled 'courtyard' on the planning drawings. The ubiquity of the skin permits no animation of the ground level facade treatment, and consequently no element of the programme brings enjoyment, enlightenment or relief to this space. Though this dark little space may be the only tangible concession to the specific and special 'corner' condition of the site, it amounts to little. Rather than a courtyard, we receive a draughty 'non-space', a place enriched by neither site nor scheme. The landscape design works hard to provide character and purpose to the place, but ultimately we are reduced to making the best of what's left when an arbitrary shape makes an arbitrary space. The beautifully detailed windows in tinted glass are carefully positioned to appeal to the camera lens, but architecturally make no other contribution.

The form of the building is not difficult to read, the concertina roof form is intended to echo the myriad of industrial sheds connected with the shipbuilding industry that once lined the banks of the Clyde. One can only marvel at the great depth and rigour of the historical and contextual analysis undertaken by the architect. Other than this rather shallow attempt at an architectural relevance, the rationale behind the remaining design decisions are a little more difficult to decipher. The plan form resembles a sharp 'S', or a curvy 'Z' shape, and unfortunately for most visitors, is best viewed from the air, where at the very least, the wilful gesture of the lazy hand of a great creator can be observed. But from ground level, where ants, dogs and humans interact with the structure, the plan form has no real significance.

Once inside the building, the design cues are even less evident. The zig-zag of the plan has the strange effect of dividing the building into segments. Upon entry, the first space encountered can be perceived as almost square, whilst the sharp edges of the concertina roof form dictate that we have entered a linear building, and the beginning of a route. Moving towards the centre of the plan, the building narrows significantly to create a bottle neck. The roof form flows elegantly through this straight, and provides a dramatic visual link between the sections, but one of the chores of museum design is that one must clutter ones powerful dynamic spaces with exhibits, and unfortunately these deal with the building's change in direction rather less elegantly. As the majority of the exhibits are long, linear objects, (vehicles in fact) the employment of two sharp changes in direction leaves them disconnected from each other and isolated from this implied route. The central space feels like a cluttered mess, closer to a major transport accident than an exhibition.

Another strange consequence of the inexplicable curve is the Glasgow Street. In its former home at Kelvinhall, the previous Transport Museum also incorporated a street scene, similar to a film set, designed to emulate a typical piece of inter-war Glasgow. The new museum has a revised version of this exhibit, which has curiously been tailored to fit its new home. The artificial street has been constructed to comply with the random curves of the building, creating a street which incorporates two tight bends in the tromp l'oile tenement facades which sweep obediently through the space. Most visitors to the city, and certainly any visitor with an appreciation for its architecture will be aware that Glasgow is famous for its grid plan, and its streets of tenements are largely curve-free. In this city, occasionally, the divergence of a street causes a ‘gushet’ condition- the tenemental version of the Flatiron Building. In parts of the West End, there are crescents that normally adhere to the traditional plan, but I cannot recall ever seeing a tightly constricted 'S' bend. Such is the conviction in the genius of this utterly arbitrary move that the client is happy to allow this representation of Glasgow to be mauled and distorted by a regrettably short-sighted piece of design.

Whilst the building may be seriously flawed as a piece of civic architecture, its responsibility to present the museum's collection should be paramount. By far the best part of the exhibition is an ingenious conveyor system displaying the museum's collection of model ships situated on the first floor. It's simplicity and elegance does justice to the exceptional calibre of the exhibits, and its rational planning permits quite a large group of visitors of different ages (and heights) to view the models simultaneously. Regrettably, the majority of the remainder of the collection is not presented with such success. The large locomotives are breathtaking examples of Victorian engineering, but when viewing the trains, on a moderately busy day, the general experience is rather cramped, permitting only long oblique views of these giants. If the budget had been apportioned slightly differently, and a little less money had been spent on the sensational, if vastly over engineered roof structure (which is now, of course, hidden from view) potentially the building could have been a few meters wider, creating a little breathing space for visitors and exhibits. As compensation for this, it would be beneficial to view the trains close up, and enjoy the detail of the engineering of the locomotives. This opportunity is squandered by an extremely badly designed system of 'information' panels. These lumpen white plastic shapes incorporate lighting which shines up onto the exhibits, and up into the eyes of the viewer, making a closer inspection of the object awkward at best and impossible at worst. This issue constitutes one of the most serious flaws of the design of this building, and one which seriously obstructs any educational requirement within the brief.

The lighting throughout is astonishingly bad, designed to accentuate the image of the building and not the illumination of its contents. The high level steel spine that supports the bicycle collection in a drastic vortex at the centre of the building is an impressive gesture, although the bikes are high in the air, and viewed largely in silhouette. Is this necessary? Surely it is possible to combine imaginative display and appropriate or even adequate lighting design?

In the final space, the building continues to rise in height to address the central mast of the Glenlee, moored on the Clyde as a permanent exhibit. This provides a large vertical surface to the flanks of the building, an opportunity for the architect to wallpaper the rest of the exhibits: specifically the much-loved car collection. The cars are stacked on top of one another on shelves clad in glossy black polycarbonate. I have no doubt that the internal elevation drawings of this exhibit look stunning, and a self indulgent 'fly-through' animation from a weightless perspective would exude excitement and drama, but as a solution for museum design, it has undoubtedly ruined the collection. The lowest level of automobiles is accessible, but subsequent shelves rise to such a height that even from the opposite side of the building, they are almost impossible to view properly. Part of the success of the previous exhibition was a layout which allowed visitors to wander amongst the cars, for older folk to reminisce, and to show their grandchildren the cars of the past. The museum offered the opportunity to look inside at the dashboard and gain a little understanding of the technology of a bygone era, and to contextualise the design of motors on the road today. To look up and see an exhaust pipe and a tail light 10 meters above you is not conducive to learning, or entertainment. This unique and essential opportunity is now lost, and for what reason?

The project brief for a large complex building of this nature presents a list of requirements. It is the responsibility of the architect to prioritise them. In creating a building that makes some kind of visual 'statement', to distinguish it as a structure of civic significance, it could be argued that this building meets the brief. Through the application of the ubiquitous 'style' of the Hadid office, the building is indeed visually distinct, but in creating it so, the architect complies with just one item on this list of requirements. To prioritise this above all else is a recipe for a very limited and shallow piece of architecture.

The practice of designing a building is difficult. It requires the architect to balance the poetic and pragmatic, to read, understand and respond to the context, historically and culturally as well as physically. The practice of making a spiky, wavy shape is difficult to detail and construct, but not difficult to design. The great task of the engineering and manufacture of something as visually striking as the Riverside Museum provides a convenient smokescreen to conceal the lack of attention given to a long list of unsatisfied design requirements.

Surely Glasgow deserves better?

Simon Chadwick