Hong Kong’s Skyline Icons: M+, the Museum Made to Order

When Suhanya Raffel became executive director of M+ in 2016, she inherited an institution that is uniquely ambitious in its goal: creating a museum that is locally rooted but world leading, with a focus on visual culture that spans everything from the sculptures of Antony Gormley to weatherworn neon signs to 1960s Japanese rice cookers. M+ was already organising a constant stream of events and exhibitions, and it had amassed the world’s most significant collection of Chinese contemporary art. But it didn’t have a home. 

“Making the museum works on two levels,” says Raffel. “There is the museum and there is the structure.” 

Now, after years of anticipation—including construction delays and an undisclosed cost overrun—the physical structure of M+ is finally open. Designed by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, which was also responsible for the Tate Modern, The Vancouver Art Gallery, Tai Kwun and many other cultural institutions around the world, the M+ building is Hong Kong’s newest skyline icon, rising 17 storeys above the shores of Victoria Harbour. It is very large—65,000 square metres—and remarkable for its unusual form, which consists of a razor-thin tower atop a huge podium. It’s also notable for the massive LED screen that covers the entire harbour-facing façade of the tower. As far as its outward appearance is concerned, this isn’t a museum that looks like many others. 

It has been just over a month since M+ opened to the public, and the response has been enthusiastic. Despite the pandemic, which has closed Hong Kong’s borders to the outside world, more than 230,000 people visited the museum in its first four weeks of operations – more than the average monthly attendance of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). “It’s thrilling,” says Raffel. “There’s no other word for it.”

There has been no shortage of media attention, especially in the context of Hong Kong’s precarious political landscape. Arts reporter Enid Tsui offers a comprehensive analysis of M+’s challenges and opportunities in the Post Magazine, while Zolima CityMag contributor Ilaria Maria Sala provides a thoughtful review of the museum in The Art Newspaper. But there’s another side of the story as well: the architecture. M+ is arguably the most significant new building dedicated to culture that Hong Kong has ever seen. So how does it measure up?

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the M+ building is that it was designed in tandem with the museum’s curators. That is a rare opportunity for an institution of this scale. By comparison, the Tate Modern was fashioned out of an old power station, an

d MoMA long ago outgrew its original home, a Modernist building completed in 1939, and it now occupies a hodgepodge campus in Midtown Manhattan. 

The road to the M+ building started with an architectural competition in 2012, when six shortlisted firms—Herzog & de Meuron, SANAA, Renzo Piano, Shigeru Ban, Snøhetta, and Toyo Ito—participated in two workshops with the museum’s curatorial team. “We could test out our ideas,” says Herzog & de Meuron partner Wim Walschap, who led the M+ design team. “We got very good input which was helpful for the final submission.” The process continued after the Swiss firm won the competition. “We had discussions about daylight, views towards the outside or not, the diversity and dimensions of galleries,” he says. 

Those discussions shaped the building that exists today. When visitors first enter the museum, they are greeted by a cavernous concrete atrium, the Lightwell Hall, that Raffel describes both as “cathedral-like” and “an internal square – a very generous space for Hongkongers.” Above is the bulk of the museum’s galleries, as well as the tower, which is visible through a skylight. Below is the so-called Found Space, which was excavated around the Airport Express and MTR railway tunnels that pass underneath the building. 

Initially, says Walschap, the tunnels were presented to the architects as an “obstacle” that needed to be dealt with. “There was even a suggestion to put a big concrete slab on top and to go from there,” he says. But the architects had another idea. “Instead of hiding it and ignoring it, it could be the element in this location that really anchors the building. We are in a situation, West Kowloon, that is completely reclaimed land. Only 25 years ago, it was still part of the harbour. And of course you have to create a building in a situation where there is no context. By digging out this space and exposing it, the building was given a raison d’être.” 

The geometry of the Found Space gives it an unexpected dynamic – a wrinkle in the fabric of a building that was built as a tabula rasa. And the raw concrete that defines it draws a parallel to the 1970s industrial blocks of neighbourhoods like Fotan and Wong Chuk Hang, where Hong Kong’s contemporary art scene flourished in the post-industrial years of the early 2000s. There are other nods to the local context, like railings that bring to mind the grey metal fences that dominate Hong Kong’s streets, and transparent hanging light fixtures that are reminiscent of the red lamps found in the city’s wet markets. All of this helps the space avoid feeling totally alien, despite the fact that—as Walschap notes—it is an entirely new structure built on land that was created within recent memory.

Walschap describes the main entrance as a kind of filter between the Found Space below and the galleries above. “It gives you a sense of orientation upwards and downwards,” he says. “From there you can start to navigate through the building.” There is a large exhibition space that can be easily reconfigured, along with the museum shop and the Moving Image Centre – each a “little cluster that can operate independently,” he says. Then, “the further you travel into the building, you start to have these white cube art galleries with a more intimate scale.”

Beyond the white cube space are several galleries clad in bamboo, giving them a warmth that contrasts with the raw concrete in the atrium. It’s one of three key materials that define the museum’s space, along with the raw concrete and glazed charcoal-coloured ceramic tiles, which are found primarily on the building’s exterior, but which have also been used on some interior walls around the main entrance. 

The tiles are as much a practical solution as they are a nod to the ubiquity of ceramic tiles in Hong Kong’s built environment; they are found in the flying eaves of Chinese temples as well as on the surface of ordinary apartment blocks. “We wanted to have a material that has a long lifetime that is durable that can deal with the conditions there,” says Walschap. “It’s very close to the saltwater, we are in a typhoon area, there’s a lot of rain, and so on. We wanted to have really durable skin, and of course glazed ceramic is perfect for that.”

From a distance, the dark hue of the tiles give the building an imposing appearance, but it is softened by the way they catch the afternoon light and send it dancing across the surface. The same light infuses the tower’s interiors. “It’s a very thin tower, just 10 metres wide,” says Raffel. “It’s very transparent, full of light, and you can see both sides of the harbour [at once]. It’s an incredible sight.”

 The tower is used for the museum’s offices and archives, so most of it will be off-limits to the general public, except for some food and beverage outlets on the top floors. But the tower is also the most public part of M+, thanks to LEDs embedded in the ceramic tiles, which create an enormous screen that is being used for video projections from 6pm to 11pm every evening. “Most of the people enter our museum through that screen,” says Raffel. So far, the museum has been using the screen to showcase its collection, but there have also been short video clips about topics like technology and mindfulness. There are also commissioned works, the first of which is a series of 10 one-minute animations by French artist Vincent Broquaire. Each video is a cheeky look at the design and construction of the M+ building, including one episode in which the weight of a wrecking ball is used to inflate the museum’s tower.

The screen is one of the more controversial aspects of M+. There has been plenty of idle chatter on social media—not to mention in real life—about whether it will be used for genuinely provocative artworks or whether it is just another video billboard in a skyline already full of them. “The use of the LED screen will be interesting: can it be used, and how, for artistic screenings? Or, will it only be practical for promotional and advertising screenings?” asks art and design critic John Batten. Raffel says it is “an evolving space” and that another series of videos, this one by Amsterdam-based digital design studio Moniker, has already been commissioned for early next year. 

Another way that M+ reaches outside its walls is the public space in and around the building. One of the reasons the tower is so skinny is to free up a large amount of space on top of the building’s podium, which is a public garden that will host performances and art installations. But the podium and tower is also just a part of what Herzog & de Meuron designed. There’s also a tower home to the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority’s offices and a block dedicated to M+ storage and conservation, which is windowless except for a rectangular vitrine at ground level where passersby can watch the museum’s workers restoring neon signs rescued from the junk heap. 

As far as the building is concerned, it seems many visitors have been left with a positive impression. Architect Clover Lee says she was initially put off by the way the ceramic tiles—which stretch up the façade like a slatted screen—seemed to obscure the harbour view. “But then I realised that if you want to get a panoramic view of the water, you have to walk closer to the glass, which makes you consciously walk away from the art,” she says. “I thought it was done quite well. It was intentional.” 

Some visitors have privately expressed reservations about the Found Space. “I think there’s been a bit too much back-patting by the architects for the feat of opening up the basement since the resulting space is kind of awkward,” said one. But the M+ collection is impressive enough that such spatial concerns are secondary. “It can be a very good and rare thing for a museum’s architecture to be overshadowed by its collection,” said the visitor.

John Batten says the museum “surprises in its simplicity.” In other words, this is not starchitecture, where the architecture calls attention to itself at the expense of whatever it houses. And for a museum with the ambitions of M+—and a whole future ahead of it—that’s not a bad thing. “We’ve been a museum without a building for quite a while,” says Raffel. “There’s a lot of potential.”

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