West Kowloon Cultural District

M+ architects wanted to design a building worthy of the art inside

The architectural firm chosen to design M+ faced a tough challenge - make it blend in with the skyline and worthy of the diverse works it will house

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 February, 2015, 6:31am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2015, 11:40am

In architecture, everyone is a critic. To some, the minimalist inverted T-shape of Hong Kong's planned M+ visual culture museum is an elegant urban statement. To others, perhaps expecting an architectural spectacle more like the iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, it appears disappointingly understated on a skyline dominated by the 118-storey International Commerce Centre Tower.

But to Swiss architect Jacques Herzog, whose Pritzker Prize-winning firm Herzog & de Meuron won the prestigious commission, the debate is a natural part of the urban development process.

"The success of public projects like M+ is very dependent on the architect's ability to create a building that has a transformative character, that offers people new opportunities which create a collective sense of ownership and pride," Herzog explains during a visit last month to inspect progress at the site. The project is at an early stage, with piling works under way.

"It is not just about the art and contents. It is also about engaging and collaborating with the public. This is one of the great design challenges architects face today."

Scheduled for completion in 2018, the 645,000 sq ft building will take centre stage in the 40-hectare West Kowloon Cultural District. It will also be one of the largest museums of modern and contemporary visual culture in the world, featuring art, architecture, design and the moving image.

The museum drew early criticism for its high-profile acquisition of Western works before those of Chinese artists, but M+ executive director Dr Lars Nittve says it deliberately embraces a global concept of art. Thanks to several significant donations - most notably the largest and most important collection in the world of Chinese contemporary art, donated to M+ in 2012 by Swiss collector Uli Sigg, and a HK$1.7 billion budget to build its collection - 2,400 artworks (apart from the Sigg Collection's 1,510 works) have been acquired so far.

The building itself takes the form of a large horizontal slab that will house exhibition spaces and galleries topped with a semi-transparent vertical structure that will be home to a research centre, a curatorial centre and retail, dining and entertainment facilities. It will feature multiple entrances on different levels.

Herzog & de Meuron's successes not only involve converting a gritty industrial power plant in London into Tate Modern - one of the most visited modern art museums in the world; it was also responsible for the acclaimed Parrish Art Museum in New York and Perez Art Museum Miami in Florida.

"From our experience, the Tate was so successful because it became a public platform for people to meet, whether they were going to the museum or not, and that should also be the case here in Hong Kong," says Herzog, pointing out that the M+ museum will not sit as a solitary structure but within an outdoor space designed to encourage activity and interaction. Visitors will see art immediately as they enter the vast lobby.

"They don't necessarily have to go and look for the art. They will be surrounded by and breathing it," says Herzog.

In practice, this means opening the museum both psychologically and architecturally by providing inviting access points to what may appear to be a large, intimidating building. Herzog says the design team have also taken care to avoid replicating the typical form of urban museums elsewhere, in which lower levels are often dedicated to galleries while offices or condominiums occupy a tower above.

"One of the things I am most proud of with the M+ concept is how everything in the horizontal slab and what you see in the tall part is all about the museum. This is very different to what you find elsewhere," he says.

The building will also incorporate "archaic local elements" such as concrete and tiles that are familiar and robust.

The glass facade features a series of sun-shading horizontal louvres lined with unobtrusive LED lights that are designed to transform the building when illuminated at night.

"During the day the building uses its strong physical side, and at night the light comes to the fore and makes it almost virtual," says Herzog.

Working on a largely vacant reclaimed site offers its own contextual challenges, but Herzog says that just as at Tate Modern - a former power station whose tanks were integrated within the museum as engaging new "found spaces" - excavations beneath the M+ site will partially reveal a cross-harbour tunnel. The infrastructural form will permeate a purpose-built subterranean, large-scale installation space as if it were an archaeological dig - a clever meditation on Hong Kong's extensive underground infrastructural network.

Herzog rejects criticism that the museum's simple T-shaped form is too restrained to lead the emergence of the cultural quarter in West Kowloon.

"Decoration is boring and hides more than it reveals," he says. "Great buildings ideally are about structure, ornament and space as one thing. If you look at the projects we've done in the past five years, they are pretty naked and bold. We try to make it as stupidly simple as possible, and that is more difficult."

For example, says Herzog, the choice of the slab's form was not just to keep the building's height down, but also helps to create a large "screen" facing the skyline. The silhouette reflects the city's skyline but avoids competing with it. Herzog describes this as "a subversive moment akin to how pop art takes something and makes it even more than it is."

If you look at the projects we've done in the past five years, they are pretty naked and bold. We try to make it as stupidly simple as possible, and that is more difficult.
Jacques Herzog

Nittve stresses the importance of the building, saying it is a museum, not an office or residential complex, and has a symbolic presence.

"It stands out as unique, confident and different against the backdrop of Kowloon's massive skyscrapers, while the facade functions as a large projection screen signalling the moving image as an important element of the museum's content," he says. "The use of a ceramic facade also signals longevity; this is not a building for the coming 40 years but for 100 years or more."

Herzog adds: "We see art as a very important part of contemporary society." He cites Miami as an example of how art transforms the way people understand their city.

"This is a unique opportunity to build an institution and a platform that offers something Hong Kong does not yet have. It is such a beautiful city, but everything is about pragmatism, and art is anything but that."

Herzog is especially keen to see the city's arts scene expand to include a broader mix that takes on board fashion designers, graphic designers and photographers. M+ has already presented exhibitions such as a collection of outsized inflatable sculptures and an online show last year to highlight its growing collection of neon advertising signs. The glass tubes containing neon and other gases form a unique graphic element of lighting that was integral to Hong Kong's architecture. Both shows exceeded expectations, drawing 214,000 visitors to the installation site and 396,000 page views for the neon show.

M+'s interior will reflect this sort of diversity and an appreciation of how art is displayed and enjoyed in a way that museums in the 1980s and '90s ignored, says Herzog. "We would not like to have just one kind of art on show in the building," he says. "Luckily, here, the museum director and his curatorial entourage clearly envisage many different types of art to become equally important elements of visual culture: film, dance, installations, classical shows and other art forms. There is great diversity."

M+'s curator for design and architecture, Aric Chen, says the multidisciplinary nature of the collections meant the interiors had to allow for a variety of narratives and displays while easing transition from one space to the next.

"We drew a clear distinction between flexible and adaptable spaces. There have been many experiments in museums around the world where flexibility essentially became vast spaces that could be divided up for shows, but, for us, adaptability offers a strategy with a framework that allows things to evolve - for instance, galleries that are broken up into several suites with different possibilities."

Herzog says his firm's history has been about bringing art and architecture closer together.

"We know the Sigg Collection quite well and that is why we were hoping we could do the M+ project," he says. "The new institution needs to respond to all these different art forms."

A well-designed building helps people understand their city in a different way, he adds. Most importantly, a museum should never be about the architect. "It is not about being modest. M+ is not about me; it is about people and artists infusing it with their identities. My role is to provide conceptual strength and rigour.

"Architecture needs craftsmanship; otherwise, it remains just wallpaper and cannot compete over time with other offerings in the lives of people." [email protected]