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Magnum opus

Payal Uttam looks at Frank Gehry's Opus Hong Kong, which promises to stun with both its looks and its prices

 

'Starchitects' like Frank Gehry designing luxury apartment blocks are a novelty for Hong Kong. Opus Hong Kong has just been unveiled and is expected to break all records for residential leasing and sales here. Located on upper Stubbs Road, the sleek glass 12-storey tower has 12 apartments, each with a customised floor plan. Gehry describes them as 'individual houses in the sky'.

'This is going to be one of the most iconic buildings in Hong Kong,' says Mandy Wong, national director, leasing and relocation services at agents Jones Lang LaSalle. 'We expect record sale prices and rentals.'

Designed with an unusual twisting torso, the block has a wave-like glass skin. Almost every room has floor to ceiling windows, with a view either over Victoria Harbour or up to Mount Cameron behind. Every unit occupies a separate floor, aside from the ground floor duplexes, which each have their own pool and garden. At 6,000 to 6,900 square feet, these are among the biggest units in Hong Kong.

All this comes at a monumental price, and Martin Cubbon, chief executive of the developer, Swire Properties, revealed that the total development cost for the building was HK$27,000 per square foot. While Swire initially said it planned to retain the block and lease the units, it now says it would consider selling, Cubbon said, 'if someone came along with a very big cheque'. Since his announcement, the buzz surrounding Opus has grown in volume.

So far the Opus has been a magnum of hype, with elaborate press tours designed to talk up the project as much as possible. The apartments are still in the 'soft marketing' phase and have yet to hit the market, but the rumour mill is working overtime. Swire is playing its cards close to its chest, with no prices released yet. They are rumoured to be hovering around a breathtaking target sale price of HK$80,000 per square foot, but local property agents feel a more realistic asking price would be in the HK$50,000 to HK$60,000 range. With a name like Gehry's on the building, the developer is undoubtedly relying on star power to up the ante.

It seems a sure bet that whether for sale or lease, the Opus units will set new records for super luxury residential property in Hong Kong. Parallels are hard to find, because of a scarcity of huge flats at the top end. Currently, large units approaching 8,000 sq ft at The Lily, a comparable property in Repulse Bay, lease for approximately HK$470,000 a month. Flats measuring 4,888 sq ft at another expensive address, the 12-storey Tavistock on Tregunter Path, were renting for HK$340,000 a month at the end of last year. Wild speculation aside, of which there is plenty, on a pro rata per square foot basis, this would put Opus rents in the realm of HK$500,000 to HK$600,000 a month, rising incrementally with each floor.

Since releasing the architect's designs in 2009, Swire has gone to considerable lengths and expense to create a local profile for Gehry. In 2011 it mounted an extensive exhibition of his work in Taikoo Place, as well as a series of talks and film screenings. When the building was completed, the company flew journalists in on private helicopters and ferried them to and fro by limousine.

The Opus is more than just a unique block of flats: it marks a new direction for Hong Kong residential design. In a city where developers construct often unimaginative cookie-cutter apartments at a breathless pace, the Opus stands apart as an impressive one-off. 'It has a sense of individuality, which doesn't happen much in Hong Kong,' says Jason Carlow, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong's department of architecture. 'It's become the urban built environment of the city, this idea of repetitive buildings and repetitive floor plates creating residential towers so that every apartment is the same.'

Unlike your average box-like skyscraper, Gehry designed a curved, organically-shaped tower with an open-plan layout. Stepping into an Opus apartment is like entering a glass cocoon. The windows are curved and the layout circular, with rooms flowing around a central core. In most units, the master bedroom, dining room, living room and family room open out onto sprawling crescent-shaped balconies. Gehry strategically placed the functional parts of the apartment, including the kitchen and utility rooms in two stone towers, with smaller windows at the back of the structure.

The twisting glass columns on the exterior also serve as structural supports. By placing them on the fa?ade, Gehry created more flexible interior spaces, which residents can adjust.

'Instead of compartmentalising everything, there is much more of an open flow of spaces. It's a very different model to something like Island Crest or some of the other branded high rise towers,' Carlow says. 'In this case, the architect didn't sacrifice quality and space to try to push more profit.'

In recent years, luxury properties have been the victim of shrinking room sizes. Agents say that in recent years with a lower efficiency rate is applied to most of the new residential buildings: usually now 75 per cent compared with some old developments with 85 to 90 per cent.

Edina Wong, senior director, residential leasing at the property agency Savills, says: 'Supply for spacious luxury apartments is actually very low. Property prices have gone up so high and rents are bringing very low yield.'

Smaller rooms make commercial sense. The value of a property shoots up with more bedrooms, the professor says. The scale of the Opus takes residential interiors in a different direction: most of the 6,000 sq ft apartments have four generous bedrooms.

Looking at the luxury complexes of recent years, Opus bucks the trend. Carlow sees other developers creating more extravagant common areas with facilities like swimming pools and cinemas at the expense of apartment size and layout. 'There seems to be a trade-off between more larger, more open, flexible spaces and amenities that are stuffed into the podium,' he says. While the Opus has two swimming pools and two gardens for communal use, they are located on the rooftop. The gym facilities located below also occupy minimal space, hardly interrupting the scale of the apartments.

Gehry's buildings have revitalised cities such as Bilbao in Spain, but the impact of Opus on Hong Kong remains to be seen. 'I think what the Gehry building signals is that Hong Kong is becoming more interested in design, but I hope it's not just interested in the designer,' Carlow says.

Inside the Opus

A mob of reporters gathers at the foot of architect Frank Gehry's first building in Asia clamoring to get inside. A bespectacled man in a black turtleneck emerges from around the corner. He looks up. It is Gehry inspecting the finished building for the first time. 'What do you think?' he asks. The crowd murmurs approval. 'So we don't have to tear it down?' Gehry jokes, a playful glint in his eyes.

The 83-year old architect is the genius behind some of the most-talked-about buildings of the century. A winner of the Pritzker Prize, an industry award, he has near mythic status in architecture circles. Gehry's achievements include the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and The Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Chicago. Perhaps his most recognised work is the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, a surreal work of swirling titanium plates. Gehry has now made his mark in Stubbs Road with his twisting glass tower, Opus Hong Kong. The luxury residential block houses 12 apartments, three private gardens and five swimming pools. The site, purchased by Swire Properties in the 1940s, was the former residence of the managing director of Taikoo Dockyard.

Opus Hong Kong was Gehry's first major project in Asia. 'It's pretty dynamic and exciting, the scale of it and the access to it. In New York, you don't get a view like this unless you go up in the Empire State Building,' he says with reference to the site's elevated vantage point on upper Stubbs Road.

Although Gehry has never worked in China, he has long been fascinated by the culture. 'I started studying Asian art in college. I spent a lot of time looking at Chinese landscapes, which I've always loved. California is closer to Asia, geographically but also culturally,' he explains.

That Gehry drew inspiration from traditional landscape painting is immediately evident when looking at Opus. The prominent features are a series of glass-enclosed columns gently wrapping around the fa?ade. Gehry wanted them to resemble reeds swaying in the breeze: 'It's static, but if you look at it the twisting of the building makes it look like it's moving.'

Organic, soft-edged and sinuous in shape, Opus appears to have sprung from the mountainside. 'I think there is the feng shui part of that,' Gehry says. 'It's more part of nature than normal residential buildings. They may have windows but they are flat against the wall. There is no engagement.' Opus has a curved glass skin, so the windows protrude, transforming each room into 'one huge bay window'. Not only does this give the illusion of the landscape spilling into the room but residents feel part of the landscape. The apartments are encircled by a series of balconies, Gehry's 'boat decks' in the sky.

In contrast to the undulating glass forms, Gehry has stacked a series of angular stone planter boxes carrying greenery at the building base. They are clad in the same Spanish stone tiles that were used for his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Gehry envisioned Opus as a structure rising from a quarry, the blocks of raw stone suggesting a sense of possibility.

'I don't think this would be built in an American city. Well maybe now after they see it,' he says. 'This is a different market, a unique market.' Aside from the good fung shui, Gehry designed the building in response to the living habits of the Hong Kong Chinese population. To get acquainted with the culture, he sought the help of an insider. 'I had a partner working with me who was Hong Kong Chinese [Edwin Chan] so I had an in-house expert.'

Gehry deliberately created spacious layouts, for example, to allow for large family gatherings. 'You don't find this in the US. Big families don't move into apartments. Usually it's couples,' he says. 'So the children's rooms were designed to be as important as the master bedroom here.'

Asked if he looked at domestic architecture in Hong Kong before starting work on Opus, Gehry jokes, 'Well it's hard to miss it.' What does he think? 'Well it's like every city in the world, it's kind of mediocre, except for a few buildings,' he shrugs. Gehry agrees that it has been a while since an interesting building went up in the city. 'I guess if I look around, I like Cesar Pelli's stuff but there's not much.'

Yet the problem is not a lack of skill. Gehry insists that there are a lot of 'really wonderful' architects practicing in the region. 'We just discovered Wang Shu [a Pritzker Prize-winning architect from the mainland] I think if more real talent was given opportunity, it would flourish. China is building so quickly, they are almost missing the point.' With the emphasis on speed, quality is being lost: 'The environments will come back to haunt them if the buildings are not well done. And they have a history of 'well done'. I see them only paying lip-service to that in their discussions and their evaluations of buildings.'

Is he interested in doing more projects in Asia? 'If somebody asks me, but they've got to hurry up. I'm getting older and it's a long flight,' he jokes. 'Well, the rap on me is that I'm expensive, that my buildings are expensive, but that's not true,' he adds, turning serious. Although Gehry's designs are clearly more complex than the average Hong Kong building, his firm utilises a computer modelling program that allows its architects to control costs and minimise waste.

'Most residential buildings don't hire architects like us, they are so pro forma that it's difficult,' Gehry says, explaining why he has only done a handful of apartment projects. 'It's only recently that it's happened. The Spruce Street one was just a fluke.' He is referring to his latest high-profile residential project, a 76-storey residential tower in New York. Located on Eight Spruce Street, New York by Gehry, which has curves similar to Opus.

He insists that his buildings are more than just a pretty face. When it comes to form versus function, making spaces livable is a priority. 'Most apartments are cold and lifeless. Here you start with something that feels good, so you get a running start,' says Gehry, gesturing at his surroundings. 'It's comfortable. You can tell, right?'

Gehry does not believe in designing only for the wealthy. He hopes that his work can also inspire lower-cost projects. 'I don't want to do cold, isolated, abstract things that force people to live a certain way,' he declares. 'I want to make architecture that people can relate to and engage with to make their lives better. I'm an idealist, a humanist.'

FACT BOX:

Gross floor area of building: 68,242 square feet. Unit size: 6,000 to 6,900 sq ft. Units per floor: one above ground level. Duplexes: two on the ground floor, each with private entrance, pool and garden. Penthouse: on 12th floor, with access to a private rooftop pool. Bathrooms: up to five per unit, with high quality fixtures. Window type: curved floor to ceiling glass in every room, aside from kitchen and utility room. View: 270 degrees, unique to each unit, because of twisting shape of the building. Parking spaces: 23 (+1 disabled). Number of bedrooms: each apartment has four en-suite bedrooms and a family room. Facilities: shared gym, two rooftop communal swimming pools and two rooftop garden terraces.

 

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