Mimi Zeiger visits the M+ Museum in Hong Kong that is finally open to the public. The impressive building, designed by Herzog & De Meuron and highlighting the region’s political tensions, is a statement of the city’s cultural dominance.

It took nearly a decade to build, but after being delayed by the pandemic, M+ was finally opened in Hong Kong last week. The 700,000-square foot art museum’s billboard-like façade was designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. It lit up the West Kowloon Cultural District’s budding skyline with a wall made of 5,664 LED tubes. The institution’s logo created watery stripes in Victoria Harbor.

The M+ Museum steps down to a large public welcoming platform, overlooking Victoria Harbor and accessible from all sides. . Image © EDMAN CHOY, HERZOG DE MEURON

The reflection is a perfect metaphor for the conflicting emotions swirling around the institution’s opening celebrations. One celebrates M+ as “Asia’s first global museum for visual culture,” while the other criticizes the museum leadership for allowing Beijing to influence them in their compliance with China’s new National Security Law. After a year of protests for democracy, the law was implemented in July 2020. It imposes strict restrictions on dissident actions. Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist, publicly accused the museum for not displaying his artwork just days before its opening. A series of photos depicts the artist giving the middle finger at various power centers, including Tiananmen square.

The massive LCD screen cladding of the new M+ Museum is an impressive addition to the Hong Kong Skyline. . Image © KEVIN MAK COURTESY HERZOG & DE MEURON

The architecture is caught in the middle. It is a nearly billion-dollar project that was designed to be the center of Hong Kong’s cultural scene and a key hub for redevelopment along West Kowloon’s reclaimed coastline. The 2013 competition saw the winners being Herzog & De Meuron and TFP Farrells, Hong Kong-based architects. The three-story concrete podium sits in a park-like setting. It is topped by a 14-story office tower. Both are clad with dark green glazed ceramic tiles. The study in Swiss bluntness gives way to a series outdoor spaces, both public and semi-public. These spaces start at ground level and then rise up into a roof garden with terraced seating that overlooks the famously vertical Hong Kong Island urbanism.

The Main Hall of the M+, supported by hefty structural concrete columns, opens to adjacent spaces via both narrow and cavernous apertures.. Image © KEVIN MAK COURTESY HERZOG & DE MEURON

This horizontal topography is quite alien to a city built into a slope and navigable by stairs and elevators. The building has four entrances. M+’s galleries, which number thirty-one of thirty-three, are located on one floor. This makes it easy to make suburban comparisons. Ikko Yookoyama, curator of Design and Architecture, says that a wide flat walk is usually only possible in shopping malls, convention centers, and airports. M+ allows visitors to enjoy a long, uninterrupted stroll through galleries after galleries without being interrupted by commercial offers.

This type of stretching could only be done on new land. The site of the museum, like many other sites in West Kowloon Cultural District, is an artificial landscape made by filling Kowloon’s port with earth. M+ was conceptualized by Foster + Partners in the late 2000s. It was planted in the late 1990s around the British takeover of the city. 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.

The M+ is made up of two volumes forming an upside-down T shape. Its tower is clad with a giant LCD screen for art display, while its gallery-filled podium is topped by a planted roof.. Image © KEVIN MAK COURTESY HERZOG & DE MEURON

Wim Walschap, architect of the blank slate site, said that “we had to work with what was not existing.” However, underground MTR Airport Express tunnels and Tung Chung Line tunnels run under the museum. These shafts were not to be avoided, so Herzog & de Meuron incorporated these into their design. They dug down to create what they called a “found place”. Walschap makes comparisons between this dramatic subterranean gallery, and the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Gallery. 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. Walschap says, “We built the tunnel to anchor it to the site. Then we started to stretch it up and connect to the sky.”

The second floor’s galleries project from the central atrium. A spiral staircase leads up to the rooftop sculpture garden. . Image © KEVIN MAK COURTESY HERZOG & DE MEURON

The West Kowloon Cultural District is located at the southwest corner of Hong Kong’s most dense district. It serves as the cultural gateway between Hong Kong and mainland China. It was the cultural hub of a city-state that was being viewed by the West, as well as by itself, before the pandemic and protests.

© KEVIN MAK COURTESY HERZOG & DE MEURON

The impressive list of facilities includes the Xiqu Centre, a stunningly sculptural opera house designed by Canadian firm Revery Architecture, Herzog & de Meuron’s 16-story WKCDA Tower (West Kowloon Cultural District Authority), the Lyric Theater Complex by Dutch architect UNStudio and the controversial Hong Kong Palace Museum, which is managed by local firm Rocco Design Architects. The Palace, which is scheduled to open in 2022 will be dedicated to Chinese culture and history. It will also display artifacts from China’s Forbidden City. This move has been interpreted by many as a sign of Beijing’s increasing influence on Hong Kong life.

M+ Commission: Tong Yang-Tze . Image Courtesy of LOK CHENG, M+

Herzog & de Meuron finished Tai Kwun in 2018. It is a new contemporary arts space and heritage centre within Hong Kong’s former Central Police Station Compound. This relic of colonialism, which spans the harbor from M+, includes historical prison buildings that date back to the 19th Century. The architects also added the JC Contemporary Art Museum and restored sixteen historical structures. Many other buildings once under British control have been converted into shops and restaurants.

John Batten is an art critic and contributor to the South China Morning Post. He notes that security has increased in Hong Kong over the past two years and that its cultural facilities have been no exception. He says that Tai Kwun has become a prison once again, with security cameras and guards all around. Although the general landscape has changed, many aspects of it have remained unchanged. The colonialists are changing. It was Britain; now it is China.”

The West Kowloon Peninsula was once the scene of critical art and design. However, today it might be considered too political due to the National Security Law. Kacey Wong, a political and performance artist, launched a tiny floating home from the new shoreline in 2009 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 is now part of the M+ collection.

Wong moved to Taichung, Taiwan earlier this year. Wong was an active participant in the 2019 pro democracy protests and expressed anger at the law’s curtailing artistic expression as well as fear for those being detained for not following it. Like Weiwei, he accused M+ of censorship. This charge was not effectively evaded by its leadership. M+ is managed by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. Henry Tang, chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, stressed that M+ would adhere to all laws, even the National Security Law. He also noted that “the opening M+ does not automatically mean artistic expression is exempt from the law.” It is not.”

“We knew that 2047, when Hong Kong will lose its autonomy status, would come. Marisa Yiu is an architect and executive director at Design Trust. This non-profit organization supports design research and dialogue. Yiu was also the chief curator of 2009 Hong Kong and Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture. This event was the first to be held in West Kowloon. “Everyone is responsible for their own futures and difficulties, but we all have a responsibility to make them better.”

© KEVIN MAK COURTESY HERZOG & DE MEURON
© KEVIN MAK COURTESY HERZOG & DE MEURON
© KEVIN MAK COURTESY HERZOG & DE MEURON

Aric Chen, who was director of Rotterdam’s Het Nieuwe Instituut from 2012-19, was also part of the team responsible for building the museum’s strong design collection. The holdings cover the 20th and 21st century and include neon signage, which was part of Hong Kong’s urban fabric and is now endangered. They also serve as a site model for Taoho Design’s 1988 Metroplan West Kowloon Reclamation Concept and the entire Archigram archive.

Chen says, “It was an exercise of re-centering in a time in which people were still talking to the world becoming increasingly multipolar; a condition where everyone would be both at the center (their center) and at the periphery(someone else’s periphery at the same time.” He is concerned at the moment but, like Yiu, emphasizes the real problems faced every day by Hong Kong’s writers, artists, and citizens. Practically speaking, I believe that Hong Kongers will need to learn how to navigate it the same way as those in mainland China. He says there is still room for maneuvering, but perhaps less. “Those of us who are further away should not simplify and reduce the situation in a single-dimensional manner.”

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. Although people involved in the city’s cultural scene are cautious, they remain optimistic about the new venue. It will present contemporary architecture and design. The museum’s mission is to reflect a Hong Kong perspective beyond the usual clichés. Herzog & De Meuron’s building is, therefore, less a flashy cultural arts center and more a repository of a city and region in the throes and history.