"It's a museum of the 21st century, but locally inspired throughout," says Jacques Herzog exclusively to Perspective of the new cultural space in Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District
Swiss architectural pioneer Herzog & de Meuron (HdM) has blazed a very singular trail across the globe's architectural landscape with its material interventions, at once countercultural and provocative, yet without ever screaming for attention. As co-founder Jacques Herzog makes his way around Hong Kong's nearcompleted M+ structure in the West Kowloon Cultural District on an autumn afternoon, he pauses to consider the moment. "I feel like I'm the museum's first visitor."
Dressed semi-casually in jeans and white shirt, Herzog is tall and talkative and matter-of-fact in his observations. How does he like the visit? "I'm positively surprised by the scale and proportions of the building," he notes, standing on the structure's podium, sounding invigorated for a man whose practice is four decades and more than 450 projects old. For the record, M+ is building number 415 in Herzog & De Meuron's portfolio. "The view underground and up through the podium I like very much."
Herzog explains how architects, much like members of the public, only have renderings to go on, not a three-dimensional version of a structure. "Yes. I like it, but I don't know how others will react, and I don't know how it will feel when it's finished; especially with art in it." Art will transform the spaces, he says, and give it a scale that in some way helps the architecture. "And then the architecture in a museum should feel good. It should make people want to visit, and explore the different gallery spaces and learn more."
Herzog's sentences flow, cantilever, arc and spiral much like his buildings' stacks, staircases, high-rises, pitches and subterranean slopes. He assembles, models and remodels conversation like one continuos morphological experiment. Adjuncts of insight, a historical ballast, a futuristic floater.
How did he feel the first time he set foot on the newly reclaimed ground of the West Kowloon site in 2012 and considered the challenge? "I found it very intriguing; nothing was here. And it was very difficult to do something from scratch. That was hard." And then the lights went on and everybody found home. "We discovered this preexisting infrastructure underground, the Airport Express tunnel, and what may have appeared to our competitors as something of a handicap, we found interesting. We turned that handicap into an asset and I think that was the key moment of our design. We decided we didn't want to hide it but unveil it. That's what rooted the project."
M+ are frontrunners and they have a special way to go, because they don't have the great historically built collections that you have in museums such as MoMA, or Tate Modern. M+ is about finding new ways. It establishes a different balance."
The excavations at M+ revealed the nature of what Herzog calls a "second order, a 'found space' that functions as both challenge to the artist and curator alike, a space of unprecedented potential". As a result, Herzog explains his team's design "went in an interesting direction. Normally in architecture you make such efforts to avoid other buildings or pre-existing structures but we saw it almost like an archaeological moment that gave the whole project a virginal quality".
And that quality will help the art grow. "For art to enter into the life of a city like Hong Kong, it has to come from below, from its own foundations," he says. "M+ does exactly that, by literally emerging from the city's underground."
It's a telling remark from a man who, together with Pierre de Meuron, walked onto the site of a dysfunctional power station in 1995 and repurposed elements of its pre-existing archaeology as London's Tate Modern, the world's most-visited art museum every year for the last decade. That was the trophy moment for HdM. Where Frank Gehry had the Guggenheim Bilbao, HdM had Tate. But unlike Gehry, they had repurposed a pre-existing structure. Tate "helped us understand what building and architecture could do, where you're not just fulfilling a brief but using the project to help create something else, a new part of a city".
And that provenance is written and built large and proud all over M+. "The Tate stands out; we learned a lot from it and I think this building [M+] would not have been possible without having done Tate." Herzog explains that the idea of advancing a cause and a culture in the process felt particularly prescient in Hong Kong, where he sees a lack of art history from the Western art canon being a distinct and leading-edge advantage.
This is especially true with regards to women and the arts. "I'm very happy there are many women showing art and in the curators' team here at M+." He explains that both MoMA in New York and the Tate Modern have recently been promoting the work of female artists and curators. "I think that's something that we may say is obvious and natural – but it wasn't until just a few years ago. I think M+ will do this from day one; in this way M+ are frontrunners and they have a special way to go, because they don't have the great historically built collections that you have in museums such as MoMA, or Tate Modern. M+ is about finding new ways. It establishes a different balance."
So how forward-looking does Herzog consider the M+ project in his portfolio? "I don't have clarity in this kind of thinking. All our buildings are different. Architecture is somehow old-fashioned, it has to work for the people and for a particular place; the question is only whether architecture is still working a few decades from now; how do we change as humans and how are we still responding to such buildings."
And especially to that screen. Rising up from M+, in an inverted T, is a vertical building that contains an LED screen, visible from all vantage points. Not an unfamiliar sight in Hong Kong but Herzog wanted to play with that idea, move it forward. "The screen is both familiar and subversive," he says. "So many screens exist in this city; we wanted this one to have a subversive quality, like an artistic message from the sky, yet it still blends with the commercial lights on other buildings, the commercial side of the city." To all intents and purposes it's a noncommercial artistic feature, like a canvas, for which work can be commissioned from artists. "It's both a physical and a mental space," adds Herzog. "We can't compete by building a tower in Hong Kong, but we can compete by offering separate needs. So, we offer the screen to artists, a museum as canvas for 21st-century Hong Kong."
The Tate stands out; we learned a lot from it and I think this building [M+] would not have been possible without having done Tate
Again, discretion was the better part of visual valour for HdM. "There are so many screens and bright lights in Hong Kong, which makes people totally invisible somehow, but doing it this way, at this scale, is much more interesting than if it stands out too dramatically." He explains that the project would be too "stand out" in London, New York or Berlin but that "here it's a vertical piece that is part of Hong Kong but also beyond that. It's a museum of the 21st century, but locally inspired throughout. Architecture must always work in its specific place. It cannot be transferred so easily".
As a parting gesture from Herzog, we venture up to the roof terrace on the third level of the building… and the strangest thing happens. The majestic view of Hong Kong's harbour unfolds in the most intimate way. From monumental and masculine, as the M+ structure can seem from outside, the space on the terrace is sublime. "When you are there, it's very low-rise, like a private home. Then as you step out onto the terrace it's like a big house, or villa, and the ocean's right there in front of you, so close. I think people will love that." Gehry wrote a letter to Herzog, so impressed was he by the firm's Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics, saying it was the most important and unusual building since the Colosseum. It would be a step too far to make such a claim for this project, but the city's soon-to-open new visual culture museum may just be the creative communal lounge and canvas of choice the tall, small city of Hong Kong has been crying out for. Full marks to Herzog & de Meuron for M+ and then some.