NOT SO LONG AGO the idea of a giant art museum overlooking Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour sounded like a pipe dream. That it could rival MoMA in New York or Tate Modern in London seemed out of the question. There were no curators, no collection and certainly no building. But a lot has changed in the past few years.
Since 2011, when Swedish curator Lars Nittve came on board as executive director, the West Kowloon Cultural District has built a team of top-notch curators, acquired more than 3,000 works of art and signed on Pritzker Prize-winning architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron to create just such a museum, the M+, and though the building is not slated for completion until 2017, the project has been generating increasing buzz.
In January, Herzog led a Herzog & de Meuron team to Hong Kong for the Building M+: The Museum and Architecture Collection exhibition. The fifth pop-up show organised to drum up interest in the project, it offered a closer glimpse of the plans for the HK$5 billion edifice.
When the competition for the museum design was announced in 2012, the Swiss firm leapt at the opportunity. “We’ve been following the West Kowloon Cultural District master plan for quite a while,” says Herzog & de Meuron Senior Partner Ascan Mergenthaler when we meet before the exhibition opening. “It’s such an enormous and important development that it was on our radar already from the beginning.”
Of more than 80 entries, Nittve says Herzog & de Meuron’s was an obvious winner: “It’s a phenomenal, striking and sort of iconic type of building. What ultimately set them apart was that they really understood the brief, what we’re trying to achieve.” Teaming up with local partners TFP Farrells and Ove Arup & Partners HK, Herzog & de Meuron proposed a stark, futuristic structure shaped like an upside-down T.
The centrepiece of their design is a tall square tower with a metal screen that Mergenthaler compares to a cinema screen, intended to serve as a canvas of sorts to display massive video works by artists, exposing people to what’s happening inside the museum. “So the programme or the core idea, the artistic message, is already visible even when you’re across the harbour on Hong Kong Island,” says Mergenthaler.
Herzog and de Meuron have a reputation for thinking outside the box when it comes to designing art spaces. Not only are they the masterminds behind Tate Modern, London’s celebrated museum built within the structure of a former power station, but they also designed the much-talked-about, foliage-clad Pérez Art Museum Miami. More recently, the superstar duo worked with artist Ai Weiwei on the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics and designed the hotly anticipated Central Police Station compound revamp in Central.
Asked what inspired the design of M+, Mergenthaler replies, “We basically started at the ground and literally anchored the building by excavating the underground tunnel of the Airport Express.” While the team first saw the tunnel, which cuts through the site, as an obstacle creating planning difficulties for their vision of an underground space, it quickly transformed into the starting point of their design. Exposing this “found space” proved inspiring. “We thought it was very interesting because it created this kind of displaced landscape, which offered unique opportunities to show not only art but performing art, architecture, design, installation, all kinds of things.” Above this sunken area, they decided to place a horizontal slab consisting of more formal exhibition spaces.
Mergenthaler explains that the tone changes as you move from the underground space up into the various viewing galleries. “For the entire below-ground found-space landscape, concrete will be very dominant, so it’s very rough and raw, whereas the podium level and gallery level will maybe be a more traditional palette with a wood floor, chipboard walls and beautiful ceilings.” Rising above this horizontal building space is a diaphanous tower with office spaces, restaurants, lounges, a library, a research centre and a sky garden.
Instead of erecting a museum that’s a solid mass with a single narrow entrance, their aim is to break the mould and create a welcoming environment: “It’s very important that the building is not elitist at all. It should make you curious and make people want to engage with it,” says Mergenthaler. The horizontal slab is deliberately suspended above ground level, leaving open courtyards and plaza areas for people to enter from all sides. “We lifted it up so it’s not a block. The actual building mass is hovering. It lures you in. It’s inviting,” he explains, pointing to a gleaming white model of the building. “You can come in from the waterfront promenade, you directly flow into the building when you come from the park.”
Among the most exciting aspects of the design is the scale of the building, sprawling over almost 650,000 square feet, with the entire site, including parkland, covering 41 hectares. In space-starved Hong Kong, where exhibitions are crammed into tiny venues, the museum’s sweeping gallery spaces will offer a rare chance to interact with massive works of art. “It can function as an inspiration for creators here, whether they’re artists or architects, because before now it’s been very hard to see major things that are happening in the art world,” says Nittve. “A lot of Chinese contemporary art is very space-hungry now. It’s very different from Picasso paintings, where you can show 15 of them in the same room; in the case of Chinese contemporary art a single installation can be several hundred metres.”
Alongside plans, models and drawings of the yet-to-be-built museum, the Building M+ exhibition at ArtisTree also showcased almost 100 exciting acquisitions from the architecture collection. Assembled in less than a year, the collection now contains more than 1,000 works and is the largest of its kind in Asia. Among the most fascinating are a detailed model of Chung Wah Nan’s Peak Tower (one of Hong Kong’s lost landmarks), rare Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Rudolph drawings and a monumental photograph by Andreas Gursky of Hong Kong’s HSBC Main Building. “It’s an early taste of what you can do with a museum like this, the stories you can tell, the memories you can evoke,” says Nittve, who noticed several people getting teary-eyed before the model of the old Peak Tower.
These pieces add to the museum’s various acquisitions, donations from Hong Kong collectors and a massive donation of 1,463 works of contemporary Chinese art from Swiss collector Uli Sigg in 2012. The Sigg acquisition instantly made M+ one of the world’s leading museums for Chinese contemporary art from the mid ’70s to present. This January, it was also announced that one of China’s most prominent collectors, Guan Yi, donated 37 major works of Chinese contemporary art to the museum. Several of them have great historical import – including all the works from the renowned Canton Express exhibition that was a part of the 2003 Venice Biennale. “This is quite unique because it is, to my knowledge, the first time a Chinese collector has donated anything of this significance,” says Nittve. “And of course it’s extra unique because he gives it to a Hong Kong museum.”
With the museum’s collection continuing to grow, and construction of the building due to begin this autumn, the prospect of a serious institution for contemporary art in Hong Kong seems closer to reality than ever before. Asked if he thinks the building will inspire more Hongkongers to take an interest in art, Nittve replies: “Of course, that’s been my life’s work. I hope that it will make people think about art and use it as a way of understanding themselves, their lives and society. If we don’t have that effect, we’ve failed.”