Exhibition view of “Building M+: The Museum and Architecture Collection” at ArtisTree, Hong Kong, 2014. Courtesy the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong. 

Building M+: The Museum and Architecture Collection

Hong Kong

Initial impressions of “Building M+: The Museum and Architecture Collection” were mixed. The first section featured six models of shortlisted designs for Hong Kong’s much-anticipated museum of visual culture, including an eye-catching star-shaped proposal by Shigeru Ban, but was sadly undermined by a lack of text, and in particular of any explanation regarding the decision-making process. A newer model of the winning entry by Herzog & de Meuron, accompanied by a few diagrams, did allow a greater appreciation of the building’s slender tower element. It will be interesting to see whether this achieves the promised physical and metaphorical transparency, an attribute often proposed by architects but rarely delivered. Nearby were a brief “Making of M+” video and a profusion of photographs of planning meetings. Both suffered from a presumption that images of chiseled architects and less chiseled curators prodding at floorplans provide all the reassurance the public needs that everything is in good hands.

Despite this, the bulk of the exhibition was highly impressive. A selection of plans, drawings and models from M+’s ten-month-old architecture collection may sound a rather dry prospect, but on both visits, audiences were substantial and appreciative. The chance to revisit such seminal Hong Kong structures as Chung Wah Nan’s Peak Tower (1967–72), demolished in 1993, obviously had significant appeal, and efforts to engage children were vigorous and successful.

FITCH & CHUNG (Chung Wah Nan Architects Ltd), Photo of Presentation Model, Peak Tower (The Upper Terminal of the Peak Tramway), Hong Kong, China, 1967–72, 11 × 8 cm. Courtesy the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong. 

The focus of the architecture collection centers, for the present, on post-war Hong Kong and, to a lesser extent, mainland China, with occasional ventures into Southeast Asia and beyond. From this last category, the exhibition included material that any archive would be proud to possess, in particular drawings of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel (1916–23) by Frank Lloyd Wright and of Jakarta’s Wisma Dharmala Sakti (1983–85) by Paul Rudolph, along with a few strong Bernard Tschumi drawings, an Aldo Rossi of his Teatro del Mondo for the 1979 Venice Biennale, and a rather ropey Mies van der Rohe courthouse sketch. However, it was the local material that provided the exhibition’s real substance.

The range of Hong Kong building types encompassed was broad, ensuring that the ambitions of individual architects and clients, and wider stylistic and professional changes, were effectively communicated, as well as the prevailing goals of public authorities for the city’s development over the last five decades. Although upmarket residential projects were covered by Remo Riva’s 1970s housing on Sassoon Road and, to a lesser extent, Rocco Yim’s late 1990s Hollywood Terrace on Queens Road, there was a welcome concentration on mass housing, including 1966 floor plans by Wong Tung & Partners for the huge Mei Foo estate, and later plans by the same practice for 61 residential blocks at Taikoo Shing (1972–88).

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT, Drawing for Stonework (Underside of Eaves), Imperial Hotel, c. 1920, ink and graphite on vellum, 73 × 57.8 cm. Courtesy the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong. 

PAUL RUDOLPH, Exterior Perspective of Wisma Dharmala Sakti (Intiland Tower), c. 1982, ink on vellum, 97.8 × 71.1 cm. Courtesy the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong. 

The gradual development of cultural institutions in the pre-West Kowloon era was well represented, with a publication portfolio of Tai Ho’s Hong Kong Arts Centre (1968–77) sitting alongside an original model for the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (1981–85) by Simon Kwan. A highly colored 1981 painting by Remo Riva of the major financial hub, Exchange Square, was among the projects pointing to expansion in the banking sector, but particularly valuable was the smattering of infrastructural projects, including a 1985 model of the pioneering stacked ATL Logistics Centre at Kwai Chung by Dennis Lau & Ng Chung Man and another of James H. Kinoshita’s elegant 1967 substation, Electric House, on Kennedy Road.

This list could go on—a radial 1968 hospital plan by Wong Ng Ouyang & Associates coincided with the government’s increased investment in public health, while 1980s correspondence between Tai Ho and the Building & Lands Department about his “Container Office” exemplified the enduring clash between urban innovation and building codes. Also impressive—and an early example of Hong Kong architects operating overseas—was an original model of Rocco Yim’s prize-winning 1983 entry for the Paris Bastille Opera competition, sadly overlooked in favor of Carlos Ott’s design. The absence of Hong Kong’s most iconic structures—IM Pei’s Bank of China and Richard Rogers’ HSBC Building—suggests that even M+’s combination of cash and cachet cannot crack open all architects’ archives, but the generosity of local practices is to be applauded.

Exhibits from mainland China tended to be more recent, although there was representation from Atelier FCJZ, the first independent architectural practice in the People’s Republic, alongside the predictable contingent of Steven Holl projects. “Visionary” proposals were perhaps overly prominent but well chosen. OPEN Architecture’s 2011 concept of turning Beijing’s Second Ring Road into a “green lung” of parks and recreational facilities suits the contemporary zeitgeist yet also casts an eye back on the destruction of Beijing’s city walls in 1949 to allow for the road’s construction. MAD’s Beijing 2050 project (2006), with its alternative scenarios for the reinvigoration of the city, remains among the most engaging of the firm’s futuristic offerings.

ROCCO DESIGN ARCHITECTSBastille Opera International Competition Model, Paris, France, 1983, 105 × 85 × 24 cm. Courtesy the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong. 

MAD ARCHITECTSBeijing 2050: Central Business District, Beijing, China, 2006, model, 115 × 120 × 35 cm. Courtesy the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong. 

Exhibition panels, sadly, abounded in flowery language that touched on modish lodestones such as cross-disciplinarity and trans-culturalism while communicating little of substance. Captions were more substantial, although the claim that Rocco Lim’s 1999 Hollywood Terrace “creat[es] an architecture that deals with relationships rather than self” suggested that the argot of the architectural press release had been imbibed a little too deeply. In reality, quiet backstreets were bulldozed for this outsized and forbidding development, leaving arduous staircases and unsignposted public access routes in their place—one more testament to the vicissitudes of architectural practice in Hong Kong. Introductory panels displayed greater honesty about the challenges of collecting in this field, and also of defining what actually constitutes architecture, although there was little concrete information given about long-term ambitions for the collection, beyond an intention to “uncover, preserve, interpret and revisit the myriad narratives of the 20th and 21st century built environment.”

The lack of clarity on this point left various questions unanswered. There seemed to be a presumption that collecting architecture is a simple and rational extension of acquiring artworks as part of M+’s “visual culture mission,” and that the two holdings will blend seamlessly from an intellectual and artistic perspective. It was slightly hard to make this tally with the reality of the exhibition, which was in many ways surprisingly old-fashioned. For the most part, the items chosen—floorplans, professional models, correspondence—were informative, important and (occasionally) even beautiful or expressive in their own right, but their main purpose remained contextual. These are not the artwork—the building or the urban environment—they are its archive. As it stands, the scope of the architecture collection is highly impressive, but it seems hard, at present, to place it within a unified visual culture mission at M+. Certainly the promised cross-fertilization between the two collections—between visual art holdings and architectural archives—will be interesting to follow.

IAN LAMBOT, Aerial View from South West of Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong, China, 1989, bubble jet print on Moab pearl paper, 91.4 × 121.9 cm. Courtesy the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong. 

In addition, it did seem that M+ had already arrived at a de facto definition of architecture—that it is the work of architects, and preferably ones of local or international prestige. Certainly the display, designed to illustrate “some of the museum’s various approaches to conceptualizing and collecting architecture,” was dominated by these visionary individuals, thereby ordaining them as our sole point of access to understanding, preserving and representing the built environment. Collecting policies may well be “predicated on the notion of multiplicity”—as panels informed us at wearying length—but if diverse narratives concerning space are indeed being sought, it might seem sensible on occasion simply to leave the architects out of the equation.

There were signs that M+’s curators are exploring more widely. An Ian Lambot photo of the famous Kowloon Walled City in 1989 was juxtaposed with artist Suenn Ho’s “video mapping” of the community in 1991, shortly before the enclave’s demolition. Likewise, Liu Jiakun’s Rebirth Brick project (2008– ), launched in response to the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, did suggest a re-evalution of the role of the architect. However, the inclusion of a selection from M+’s art holdings, mostly from the usual Hong Kong suspects, merely confirmed that artists already mine urban environments with an almost relentless vigor. On the face of it, there seems little reason why such conceptual projects, whether by architects or artists, could not sit together within the visual arts collection, barring the rather nebulous one that the practitioners wear different hats.

Despite these quibbles, this was another strong exhibition from M+, and in many ways its most substantial to date. It is only a pity that there has been no institution in Hong Kong with the funds or vision to devote itself to such an undertaking for the last few decades. Solutions to the concerns raised above will present themselves and, if they do not, Hong Kong will still be left with a formidable collection of architectural material that can be mined in any number of ways in years to come, and for that the M+ team is to be warmly congratulated.

Building M+: The Museum and Architecture Collection was on view at ArtisTree from January 10–February 9, 2014.

John Jervis is managing editor at ArtAsiaPacific.