Hong Kong’s new M + museum is a beautiful contradictory study

Reflection is virtually the perfect metaphor for the opposing sentiments swirling around the institution’s opening celebrations: one elatedly touting M + as “Asia’s premier visual culture museum,” the other condemning leadership of the museum for giving in to Beijing’s influence by complying with China’s new national security. Law. Implemented in July 2020 after a year of pro-democracy protests, the law clamps down on a wide range of dissenting actions and documents. Just days before the opening, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei publicly accused the museum of censorship for not exhibiting his works, with a series of photos showing the artist giving the middle finger to various seats of power, including Tiananmen Square. .

The massive LCD coating of the new M + Museum is an impressive addition to the Hong Kong Skyline. © KEVIN MAK COURTESY OF HERZOG & DE MEURON

Architecture is caught in the middle, a nearly billion-dollar venture designed to be the star of Hong Kong’s cultural scene and a critical hub for redevelopment along West Kowloon’s reclaimed coastline. Herzog & de Meuron and Hong Kong-based architects TFP Farrells were selected as winners in a 2013 competition. Their three-story concrete podium is perched in a park-like setting and topped by a skinny office tower of 14 floors, both clad in dark green glazed ceramic tiles, inspired, according to the architects, by the reed profile of bamboo. This study of the Swiss franchise relaxes on the approach, softening into a series of public and semi-public outdoor spaces that start at ground level and rise to a rooftop garden and terrace seating overlooking the famous vertical town planning of Hong Kong Island.

Such a horizontal topography is relatively foreign to a sloping city traversed by stairs and escalators. Visitors can enter from all four sides of the building. Most M + galleries are on one floor, thirty-one out of thirty-three, which calls for suburban comparisons. “A wide, flat promenade can usually only be experienced in shopping malls, convention center or airport,” says Ikko Yokoyama, chief curator of design and architecture. “But at M +, visitors can enjoy a long and continuous stroll through gallery after gallery without being disturbed by commercial offers.

interior of the atrium
The main hall of the M +, supported by heavy structural concrete columns, opens onto the adjacent spaces through narrow and cavernous openings. © KEVIN MAK COURTESY OF HERZOG & DE MEURON

This kind of expansion could only be achieved on new land: the museum site, like much of the West Kowloon Cultural District, is an artificial landscape created by filling the Kowloon Seaport with earth. Initiated in the late 1990s, around the British handover of the city, and further conceptualized in the late 2000s, M + is a component of a Foster + Partners master plan for the district. Bolstered by proximity to West Kowloon Station, the terminus of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong express rail link, the nearly 100-acre project envisions a chain of parks and cultural buildings brought together by a waterfront promenade. water.

“We had to work with the non-existent,” explains architect Wim Walschap of the virgin slate site. However, the MTR Airport Express and Tung Chung Line underground tunnels pass directly under the museum. Rather than avoiding these axes, Herzog & de Meuron incorporated them into their design. They dug to create what they call a “found space”. Walschap draws comparisons between this dramatic underground gallery and the great Turbine Hall of the Tate Gallery in London. Both are infrastructure-wide and present opportunities and challenges for curators, such as how to do an exhibit in a space crossed by five mega steel trusses. “We had the tunnel to anchor the building to the location, then we started stretching the building and connecting it to the sky,” Walschap adds.

aerial view of the museum
The M + is composed of two volumes forming an inverted T. Its tower is covered with a giant LCD screen for displaying art, while its podium filled with galleries is topped by a green roof. © KEVIN MAK COURTESY OF HERZOG & DE MEURON

The West Kowloon Cultural District, located along the southwestern edge of Hong Kong’s densest district, is, in many ways, the cultural gateway connecting Hong Kong and mainland China. Before the protests and the pandemic, it was becoming the main cultural destination of a city-state that was beginning to be seen by the West (and itself to some extent) as a center of art and design in Asia. from the South East.

Its impressive list of facilities mixes international and local businesses, including the Xiqu Center (an incredibly sculptural opera house by Canadian company Revery Architecture), the 16-story WKCDA (West Kowloon Cultural District Authority) tower by Herzog & de Meuron, The Mills (a former textile mill turned by local company Thomas Chow Architects into a business incubator and design center), the future Lyric Theater Complex by Dutch architects UNStudio and the controversial Hong Kong Palace Museum by local company Rocco Design Architects. The palace is slated to open in 2022, the palace is dedicated to Chinese history and culture and will display artifacts from the Forbidden City, a move considered by many to be indicative of Beijing’s influence over greater aspects of life in Hong Kong.

room interior showing works of art
The galleries on the second floor protrude from the central atrium. A spiral staircase leads to the rooftop sculpture garden. © KEVIN MAK COURTESY OF HERZOG & DE MEURON

In 2018, Herzog & de Meuron completed Tai Kwun (also in West Kowloon), a contemporary art space and heritage center within the former Hong Kong Central Police Station, a relic of colonialism including buildings historic prisons dating from the 19e century. The architects added the JC Museum of Contemporary Art and restored some sixteen historic structures. (In a strange twist of adaptive reuse, many other old buildings that were once a sign of British control are now filled with shops and restaurants.)

But John Batten, art critic and collaborator of South China Morning Post, notes that there has been a huge increase in security in the city over the past two years, and West Kowloon’s cultural facilities are no exception. “Tai Kwun has become a prison again – there are security cameras and guards everywhere,” he says. “The overall landscape may have changed, but in many ways it’s back to normal. Colonialists have changed. It was Great Britain, now his China.

Not so long ago, the West Kowloon Peninsula was the site of critical art and design that today might be deemed too political under the auspices of the National Security Act. In 2009, political and performance artist Kacey Wong launched a tiny houseboat from this new shore and paddled out to sea. Created as part of the Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism / Architecture, the 4ft by 4ft cube clad in pink tiles drew attention to the impossible living conditions brought about by a booming real estate market. The work of art, titled Paddle home, is now part of the M + collection but is not visible.

room interior showing works of art
Installation view of Individuals, Networks, Expressions in the South Galleries © KEVIN MAK WITH THE AUTHORIZATION OF HERZOG & DE MEURON

Earlier this year, Wong left Hong Kong for Taichung, Taiwan. An active participant in the 2019 pro-democracy protests, he expressed his anger that the law restricted artistic expression and his fear for those arrested for not respecting it. He, like Weiwei, accused the M + of censorship, a charge that management did not effectively dodge. The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority oversees M +. In a media preview, its chairman Henry Tang stressed that the conservation team will comply with all laws, including the National Security Act, noting that “opening M + does not mean that the artistic expression is above the law. It’s not.”

“We always knew that 2047 (when Hong Kong is on the verge of officially losing its autonomy status) would come. The task now is to communicate the complexity of our city, ”says Marisa Yu, architect and executive director of Design Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting design research and dialogue. Yu was also chief curator of the 2009 Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Urban Planning and Architecture Biennale, the first cultural event to take place in West Kowloon. “Everyone has their own challenges and futures, but we have a collective responsibility to turn them into something positive. “

room interior showing works of art

Aric Chen, director of the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam and chief curator for design and architecture at M + from 2012-19, was part of the team that built the museum’s strong design collection. The credits extend from 20 to 21st centuries and include neon signage that was part of Hong Kong’s urban fabric (and is now endangered), a site template for the 1988 Metroplan West Kowloon Reclamation Concept by Taoho Design, and the Archigram archive set.

“It was a refocusing exercise at a time when people were still talking about the world becoming an increasingly multipolar place; a condition in which everyone would be at the center (their own center) and at the periphery (someone else’s periphery) at the same time, ”explains Chen. As of the present moment, he is concerned, but like Yu, points out the very real complications that artists, writers and citizens of Hong Kong face on a daily basis. “In practice, I think those in Hong Kong will have to learn to negotiate it, as those in mainland China are already doing. There is room for maneuver, but maybe less and less, ”he says. “Those of us who come from further afield should resist oversimplifying and narrowing it down in a one-dimensional way. “

Indeed, while the opening of M + affirms the relevance of Hong Kong in the world of art world, it also makes visible the unresolved and inevitable tensions between the residents and the Chinese government – emergencies which since 2020 simmer just under. the surface. Those involved in the city’s cultural scene speak cautiously but remain optimistic about a new public space showcasing contemporary architecture and design, and the museum’s mission to represent a Hong Kong perspective that goes beyond the usual clichés. The Herzog & De Meuron building is therefore less a flashy cultural arts center than a repository for a town and region steeped in history.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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