Letter from Hong Kong
Until recent times Hong Kong’s visual arts culture had not produced artists and institutions of the stature merited by “Asia’s World City” (as Hong Kong has branded itself). However the success of the annual Hong Kong Art Fair and a burgeoning fringe of independent small galleries herald the beginning of Hong Kong’s maturing from commercial city to fully-rounded metropolis.
Hong Kong can and should have a much greater part to play in the development of Greater China than financial exchange and trade logistics. Hong Kong is at the gateway to a metropolitan region of nearly 50 million inhabitants in 10 linked cities in the Pearl River Delta, a tract of land less than 200 km across – similar to the size of the Netherlands.
The West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) is a huge opportunity for Hong Kong to become more multi-dimensional. The masterplan by Foster & Partners has illuminated a vision for this long-delayed development. It occupies a prominent piece of reclaimed harbourfront territory close to the geographical heart of the city. But will it also capture the imagination of the citizens at least of Hong Kong and its neighbouring region? Or could it redefine the place of Hong Kong in the cultural map of the whole of East Asia?
One of the most important components of the WKCD masterplan is a new visual arts museum, the M+. In early April Lars Nittve, the Swedish director of the M+ hosted a public forum to present the state of development of his programme and to answer questions from a large and enthusiastic audience.
Sited on the edge of the new urban park in one of the most prominent locations within the masterplan, there would perhaps be a natural temptation for politicians and publicists to promote a showboating work of sculptural architecture as another Hong Kong landmark, a counterpoint to the adjacent 484m-high International Commerce Centre tower (which is the tallest building in Hong Kong and the world’s fourth-tallest building by height). This gesture could make amends for the disappointing civic architecture of the last two decades on both sides of Hong Kong’s Victoria harbour including the bleakly ceramic Kowloon-side Cultural Centre and the overblown crustacean of Wanchai-side Convention and Exhibition Centre.
Source: Creative commons
However, Lars Nittve pre-emptively points out that “the building is not the museum”. The architectural project is merely one of its enabling components of his programme. Nittve and his team are at a crucial stage of defining what M+ can mean for Hong Kong and as a new interpretation of what a museum can be. M+ has no permanent collection as yet, but has guaranteed start-up funding from the deep pockets of Hong Kong’s government. The M+ has a key part to play in the new Cultural District and in the wider ecology of Hong Kong life, including generating and sustaining an anchor destination within the new Cultural District — both indoor and outdoor, real and virtual.
The raw statistics of the building programme for M+ indicate a gross floor area of 58,000sq m, of which 17,000 is to be exhibition space and 15,000 is to be conservation and storage space. M+ will also comprise “third space” for public access to archives and other educational resources; and also outdoor plaza space plus five art pavilions (satellites in the park) to promote its public art programme. Architecture as sculpture will not be sufficient to win popular acclaim. How the building meets public space is going to be the most important measure of civic success. The existing cultural venues in Hong Kong do not set a high standard of competition in this respect at least.
A brief for a design competition is being scripted for publication at the end of summer 2012. One of the major opportunities and challenges will be to concentrate the energies and collective wisdom of a competition jury on finding the most inspirational collaborator in the overall production that will be the M+. They need to select an architect, not a design. The architect will have to be orchestrator, not soloist. This is no place for a prima donna who cannot play a part in an ensemble work that will evolve over an extended period of time — much as Hong Kong itself mutates and adapts.
It is stating the obvious that Hong Kong is firmly of the East but it is far more than just a free port for the global flows of finance and commerce. Historically Hong Kong has been a portal for the diaspora of the Chinese people eastwards to USA and Canada; southwards to South-East Asia and Sydney; westwards to Russia, France and Britain; the future flow of people and talents will be in all directions.
Arguably the most important opportunity for M+ among all the other assets of Hong Kong is to collect and redistribute the artistic energies flowing between East and West, North and South — as a free port for exchange of ideas and artistic endeavour. M+ has the opportunity to promote new ways of seeing, feeling and understanding visual arts, with modes of collection, display and interpretation that multiply the benefits of both eastern and western viewpoints and backgrounds.
The greatest hope must be that the selection of the “players” in this artistic production — of which the delivery of the base building is only the first movement — will be in itself a creative, even magical process, a collective endeavour of kindred spirits. The corollary fear is that it becomes a bureaucratic process overshadowed by the controversy and defensiveness that has characterised the “procurement” of a new Chief Executive for Hong Kong’s Government. Accountable procedures to support policy decisions have their place in programme governance but there is no purely objective way to select artistic collaborators.