In the Forest, in the City

All photos by JJ Acuna from the Wanderlister

To get to the Asia Society’s Hong Kong Centre, you must go up. Up from the MTR through shopping mall escalators, up the steep slope of Justice Drive, towards skyscraping apartment towers and the jagged ridge of Victoria Peak. So it’s a surprise that when you finally arrive, the most defining aspect of the new cultural complex is a serene sense of horizontality, like a thin cloud resting against the side of a mountain.

That was the plan from the very start of the project, when New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien made their first visit to the site in 2001. They were there to design a new Hong Kong branch for the Asia Society, a New York-based cultural organisation founded in 1956. The centre includes a gallery, theatre, multi-purpose hall, bookstore, café and gardens.

“We’d been to Hong Kong nearly ten years before, so we thought we knew a little bit about the city, and we certainly knew there were areas of beauty and nature that intersected with the city, but we’d never been given a site like this,” says Williams.

What they encountered were the ruins of the Victoria Barracks, the earliest remnant of British military presence in Hong Kong. Four Victorian era buildings remained on the site, including a former laboratory, a masonry store and two buildings used for the manufacture of explosives. A drainage channel, known locally as a nullah, snaked past them, carrying water downhill from the mountains.

“It was astonishing, a kind of wonderland. We were stunned at how wild and uncivilised it seemed to be. It was like something out a film,” says Williams.

“Like Raiders of the Lost Ark,” says Tsien. “It was a complete jungle, this crazy place in the middle of the city where giant banyan trees were growing out of abandoned buildings and people were camping out, yet it was across the street from Pacific Place [shopping mall] and the British Consulate. It gave us this idea of a lost civilisation.”

The compound’s unassuming nature inspired the architects to create a complex that seems to retreat into its surroundings. The first building encountered by visitors is the multi-purpose hall, a low-slung, contemporary structure clad in dark stone and large windows that focus attention on the adjacent greenery. Stone walls reveal views of a waterfall and the rushing water of the nullah – a deliberate nod to the programmed nature of traditional Chinese gardens like those of Suzhou, which Williams and Tsien first visited in 1978.

Another reference to Chinese gardens is the double-decker zig-zag bridge connecting the multi-purpose hall with the historic structures. In this case, though, the meandering form was a happy accident, created to bypass a grove of trees home to a colony of endangered fruit bats. Walking along the lower deck is an immersive experience, surrounded by trees and the water of the nullah, and it amplifies the rawness of the natural surroundings.

Across the bridge lie the former explosives magazines, which now house a gallery and theatre. “They have a simple beauty to them,” says Williams. “We decided to restore them as faithfully as we could to their era.” One of the buildings, Magazine A, had high ceilings and extra-thick stone walls that made it a perfect choice to house the gallery. “The walls are so thick we didn’t have to insulate them,” says Williams.

These are some of the last buildings of their kind in the world, according to Lee Ho-yin, director of the University of Hong Kong’s architectural conservation programme. “Explosives magazines became obsolete in the early 20th century with the invention of safety gunpowder,” he says. “Rarity is an important architectural value.”

It wasn’t long ago that such buildings would have been demolished without thought. “It’s a very different project for Hong Kong in terms of historic conservation and adaptive reuse,” says architect Jason Carlow, who designed an interpretive installation that allows visitors to explore the history of the Asia Society site. “Tod and Billie really respected the existing historical architecture of the site and they produced a building that has a fantastic relationship to the landscape.”

Carlow’s installation takes the form of a geometric sculpture with seating and touchscreens. Located in the centre’s main entrance hall, it is made of Corian, which Carlow chose in conjunction with Williams and Tsien. “I’ve always appreciated their material sensibility. We wanted to be very subtle about our work, so that it didn’t interfere with theirs too much.”

Williams and Tsien are known for their thoughtful use of materials—one critic said their work “begs to be touched”—and the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre is no exception, making use of stone and reclaimed teak that is understated but nonetheless highly textural. It’s one strategy the pair use to make institutional buildings feel intimate and accessible.

“We always begin our designs from the inside,” says Tsien. “We’re very concerned with the interior. That has to do with thinking about the experience of people as they’re inside and less about thinking of the building as an object from the outside.”

“We have a very strong belief that architecture is there to serve others,” says Williams. “We want to make sure the building last much longer than our lives. The site has been around for 150 years already. I’m certain it will now be here for another 100 years.”

This story was originally published in the April/May 2012 edition of Surface Asia.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Friday June 08 2012at 10:06 pm , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Environment, Heritage and Preservation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “In the Forest, in the City”

  • Andrea says:

    Exciting stuff. It’s great to have such prominent architects respond to what is probably the most underutilized and special trait of Hong Kong visually, the lush greenery. I hope it inspires local practitioners (or better still, developers) to rethink the kind of approach that brought us the likes of 1881 Heritage….