Nearly a decade in the making, its opening pushed back by the pandemic, M+ finally greeted Hong Kong last week. The billboard-like façade of the 700,000-square-foot art museum, designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, lit up the budding skyline of the West Kowloon Cultural District with a wall of 5,664 LED tubes. Blue, red, and green from the institution’s logo made watery stripes in Victoria Harbor.
The reflection is practically the perfect metaphor for the opposing sentiments swirling around the institution’s opening celebrations: one elatedly touting M+ as “Asia’s first global museum of visual culture,” the other condemning museum leadership for yielding to Beijing’s influence in 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 swath of dissident actions and materials. Just days before the opening, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei publicly accused the museum of censorship for not exhibiting his artwork— a series of photos that depict the artist giving the middle finger to various seats of power, including Tiananmen Square.
Caught in the middle is the architecture—a nearly billion-dollar undertaking 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 of a 2013 competition. Their three-story concrete podium is perched in a park-like setting and topped with a skinny 14-story office tower, both clad in dark green glazed ceramic tiles—inspired, say the architects, by the reedy profile of bamboo. This study in Swiss bluntness relaxes on approach, softening into a series of public and semi-public outdoor spaces that begin at ground level and rise into a roof garden and terraced seating overlooking the famously vertical urbanism of Hong Kong Island.
Such horizontal topography is relatively alien to a city pitched into a slope and navigated by stairs and escalators. Visitors can enter from all four sides of the building. Most of M+’s galleries are on a single floor plate, some thirty-one out of thirty-three, begging suburban comparisons. “A wide, flat walk can usually only be experienced at shopping malls, the convention center, or the airport,” says Ikko Yokoyama, lead curator of Design and Architecture. “But at M+, visitors can enjoy a long, continuous stroll around gallery after gallery without being disturbed by commercial offers.”
This kind of stretching out could only be achieved on new land: The museum’s site—like much of the West Kowloon Cultural District—is an artificial landscape created by filling in Kowloon’s seaport with earth. Seeded in the late 1990s, around the British handover of the city, and further conceptualized in the late 2000s, M+ is one 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 scheme envisions a string of parks and cultural buildings knit together by a waterfront promenade.
“We had to work with the non-existing,” says architect Wim Walschap of the blank slate site. Underground MTR Airport Express and Tung Chung Line tunnels, however, run directly under the museum. Rather than avoid these shafts, Herzog & de Meuron incorporated them into their design. They excavated down to create what they call a “found space”. Walschap draws comparisons between this dramatic, subterranean gallery and the grand Turbine Hall at the Tate Gallery in London. Both are infrastructurally-scaled and pose opportunities and challenges alike for curators, such as how to make an exhibition in a space crossed by five steel mega trusses. “We had the tunnel to anchor the building to the location, we then started to stretch the building up and connect it to the sky,” Walschap adds.
The West Kowloon Cultural District—situated along the southwest 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 prime cultural destination for a city-state starting to be viewed by the West (and by itself to an extent) as a center for art and design in Southeast Asia.
Its impressive roster of facilities mixes international and local firms, including the Xiqu Centre (a fantastically sculptural opera house by Canadian firm Revery Architecture), Herzog & de Meuron’s 16-story WKCDA (West Kowloon Cultural District Authority) Tower, the forthcoming Lyric Theater Complex by Dutch architects UNStudio, and the controversial Hong Kong Palace Museum by local firm Rocco Design Architects. Slated to open in 2022, the Palace is dedicated to Chinese history and culture and will exhibit artifacts from the Forbidden City—a move seen by many as indicative of Beijing flexing influence over greater aspects of Hong Kong life.
In 2018, Herzog & de Meuron completed Tai Kwun, a contemporary arts space and heritage center within Hong Kong’s former Central Police Station Compound, a relic of colonialism across the harbor from M+ that includes historic prison buildings dating back to the 19th century. The architects added the JC Contemporary art museum and restored some sixteen historic structures. (In a weird 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 contributor for the South China Morning Post, notes that there’s been a huge increase in security throughout Hong Kong in the last two years, and its cultural facilities are no exception. “Tai Kwun is a prison again—there are security cameras and guards everywhere,” he says. “The general landscape may have changed, but in many ways, it’s gone back to normal. The colonialists have changed. It was Britain, now its China.”
Not 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 Law. In 2009, political and performance artist Kacey Wong launched a tiny floating house from that new shoreline and paddled out to sea. Created as part of the Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture, the 4-foot by 4-foot cube clad in pink tiles called attention to the impossible living conditions driven by a skyrocketing real estate market. The artwork, titled Paddling Home, is now in the M+ collection.
Earlier this year, Wong left Hong Kong for Taichung, Taiwan. An active participant in the 2019 pro-democracy protests, he expressed rage that the law was curtailing artistic expression and fear for those who were being arrested for not observing it. He, like Weiwei, accused the M+ of censorship, a charge that leadership did not effectively dodge. The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority oversees M+. At a media preview its chairman Henry Tang emphasized that the curatorial team would comply with all laws, including the National Security Law, noting “the opening of M+ does not mean that artistic expression is above the law. It is not.”
“We always knew 2047 (when Hong Kong is set to officially lose its autonomous status) would arrive. The task now is communicating the complexity of our city,” says Marisa Yiu, architect and executive director of Design Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting design research and dialogue. Yiu was also chief curator of the 2009 Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture, the first cultural event to take place in West Kowloon. “Everyone has their own difficulties and futures, but we have a collective responsibility to transform them into something positive.”
Aric Chen, director of Rotterdam’s Het Nieuwe Instituut and lead curator for design and architecture at M+ from 2012-19, was part of the team that built the museum’s robust design collection. Holdings span the 20th and 21st centuries and include neon signage that was famously part of Hong Kong’s urban fabric (and is now threatened), a site model for the 1988 Metroplan West Kowloon Reclamation Concept by Taoho Design, and the whole Archigram archive.
“It was an exercise in re-centering 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 the periphery (someone else’s periphery) at the same time,” says Chen. Of the current moment, he’s concerned, but like Yiu, stresses the very real complications faced daily by Hong Kong’s artists, writers, and citizens. “Practically speaking, I think those in Hong Kong will have to learn to negotiate it, the way those in mainland China already do. There is room to maneuver, though perhaps less and less,” he says. “Those of us from further afield should resist oversimplifying and reducing the situation in a one-dimensional way.”
Indeed, as the opening of M+ asserts Hong Kong’s relevance in the global art world, it also makes visible unresolved and inescapable tensions between residents and the Chinese government—urgencies that since 2020 have simmered just under the surface. People involved in the city’s cultural scene speak carefully but are still optimistic about a new public venue that’s presenting contemporary architecture and design, and the museum’s mission to represent a Hong Kong perspective that goes beyond the usual clichés. Herzog & De Meuron’s building, then, is less a flashy cultural arts hub and more a repository for a city, and a region, in the throes of history.