Casting New Light on Architecture

M+

Rendering of M+

In Hong Kong, a city with an increasingly toxic political atmosphere, where the future looks uncertain and just about every small endeavour is greeted by controversy, M+ is one of the few bright spots on the horizon. That’s not to say the 60,000-square-metre, HK$5 billion museum of visual culture has enjoyed a smooth ride; there has been grumbling about its entirely foreign cast of curators, its aloofness when faced with the political sniping of the local art scene and its ability to work with a budget that seems increasingly inadequate, given rising construction costs. But this is Hong Kong’s best chance at seizing its moment in the cultural spotlight, when the art market is booming and global attention is shifting away from the West – and, so far, M+ has been striking the right notes as it composes its identity as a fresh-thinking, innovative institution.

That was in evidence in its recent architecture exhibition, Building M+, a showcase of the museum’s future home and a sneak peek at its growing architecture collection. Hosted last January at Artistree, a cavernous exhibition space in the bowels of corporate Taikoo Place, the show greeted visitors with a procession of models depicting the six finalists in the international competition for the museum’s design. These were followed by a large scale model of the winner, by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, which came in for ribbing because of its stark, tombstone-like form. But it is clearly the best of a sorry bunch; somehow, despite the talent involved in the competition—including Toyo Ito, Renzo Piano, Shigeru Ban, Snøhetta and SANAA—most entries were haphazard and even goofy, with little regard for the interdisciplinary focus of M+, which aims to bridge art, architecture, design and film. (One of the designs actually consisted of boxes stacked upon one another like Lego pieces, as if to emphasize the difference between these different fields.) Though unexciting, the winning design at least offers the museum programmatic flexibility. “They won because they understood the importance of creating dialogue between these different platforms for culture instead of just compartmentalizing everything,” says museum director Lars Nittve.

That’s where the remainder of Building M+ comes in. As Nittve reminded visitors on the exhibition’s opening day, a museum’s structure is ultimately just a shell; it’s ultimately “a place to negotiate contact between the content and the audience.” And here, M+ seems to be doing some very interesting work. Under the leadership of design and architecture curator Aric Chen, the museum has begun piecing together a collection that takes a deliberately Asian view of architecture, a perspective apparent in its very first acquisition, a series of drawings from Frank Lloyd Wright’s work on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, a 1923 structure that drew inspiration from Japanese and Mesoamerican architecture. Wright is the most American of architects, but his time in Japan left a lasting impact on his work, in terms of scale, relationship with nature, the use of local materials and integration between outdoors and indoors.

Chen calls this phenomenon a “cross-transfer,” and one of the major preoccupations of M+ will be charting “how modernism has changed as it crosses through time and cultures.” He points to another American architect, Paul Rudolph, who was considered dépassé when he began working in Asia in the 1980s, but whose work here marked an intriguing evolution beyond the Brutalism for which he was famous. “When we look at him from our position, in our context, he’s quite interesting,” says Chen. “It’s one example of how a museum can give a new angle to existing stories.”

It’s this eagerness to shed new light on architecture that made the exhibition so exciting. Artworks like Cao Fei’s RMB City—a prototypical Chinese city modelled in the role-playing game Second Life—and artefacts like the Hong Kong government’s 3D rendering of the city, displayed in a video that swooped like an eagle through the digital landscape, placed much-needed emphasis on the urban context rather than buildings themselves. Remo Riva’s brilliantly stylized renderings of Exchange Square, a rather dull corporate complex from 1985, highlighted the mismatch between architectural vision and reality. Reconstructed models of long-gone Hong Kong landmarks, including the 1970s-era Peak Tower and James Kinoshita’s brilliant headquarters for Hong Kong Electric, vaulted improbably over a hillside waterfall, revived forgotten treasures from a city that has never truly valued its architectural wealth.

There were missteps, to be sure. One of the models included in the show was Rocco Yim’s design for the Opéra Bastille in Paris, one of three first-place winners, but one that was not ultimately built. Chen said it was included because it illustrated Yim’s knack for understanding urban connectivity—the design allowed the surrounding street pattern to permeate the building—but surely this would have been better achieved through a critical look at Yim’s real-world projects, including the Hong Kong government headquarters and IFC Mall, which are essential components of Hong Kong’s cityscape, yet flawed in many ways and hardly celebrated by the public.

But any such lapse in judgement was far outweighed by strokes of brilliance, such as the focus on architect Tao Ho’s short-lived design office in Kowloon Tong, an eco-friendly complex made of 24 shipping containers that reflected the improvised architecture of nearby squatter settlements. It was too far ahead of its time, something made clear by an exchange—made public for the first time by the exhibition—between Ho and the Buildings Department, which declared the structure illegal and ordered it removed. Ho played for time, needling the department for its officiousness and narrow vision – two of Hong Kong’s worst qualities, which M+ luckily seems set to overcome.

Peak Tower

Model of the 1970s-era Peak Tower

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday March 31 2014at 05:03 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Interior Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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