Asia Society Hong Kong Center opening


The new Asia Society Hong Kong Center in a former explosives site shows how heritage and creativity should co-exist, writes Maddie Gressel.

The new Asia Society Hong Kong Center stands above Admiralty, floating above the trees, among the clouds. The building was designed as a concord of old and new, and is also an expression of Hong Kong’s janus-face: in one direction, the silver skyline is punctuated by the ocean; in the other, lush green jungle climbs up the hill. Unlike the city’s many tall and narrow buildings – or the lofty Asia Society New York flagship museum, for that matter – the site is oriented on the horizontal and seems to spread outwards like a tree-house.

It was critical to the architects, married couple Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, that the building conserved and enhanced the natural beauty and history of the site. The Asia Society sees the building as a part of the landscape, and the construction consistently adhered to the principle of ‘adaptive reuse’. Accordingly, materials were selected to blend into the surrounding cliffs, a mix of granites from the Peak and similar sites in China. “The project is very much a blending of old and new,” says Asia Society’s Alice Mong. “A kind of facelift.”

The building integrates a group of four former British military buildings, three of which are classed as Grade 1 historical structures. Structures that housed military explosives are now transformed into galleries, a theatre, and a café and bookstore, which are open to the public. You can still spot the silver munitions tracks snaking along the path.

The transformation was a labour of love, originally conceived as a public-private partnership between the non-profit Asia Society and the Hong Kong government to promote cultural activity, and ‘show Hong Kong that old can exist with new’. The Society began looking for a space in the late 1990s, and Tsien and Williams were chosen as part of a competition in 2001 – but the construction didn’t begin until
2006, and was further delayed when fruit bats were found residing in some trees on the site. In a demonstration of their commitment to preservation, the Society chose to build around the trees, adding another two years to the process.

The theme of both the new building and its inaugural show is transformation. The latter, titled Transforming Minds: Buddhism in Art, features ancient images of the Buddha, on loan from the New York Rockefeller Collection, alongside modern Asian interpretations. The show begins in India and travels forward in time through Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, Korea and Japan.

One sensational piece is a side-pressed wood Buddha Amitabha from the mid-to-late 13th century, standing atop a blooming lotus flower. The cypress wood is traced with pigment and cut gold leaf, and inlayed with crystal, and the Buddha’s blushing face is the perfect rendition of absolute peace. Many of these works from the Rockefeller Collection are incredibly delicate, and won’t be travelling out of the States again after this show. The humidity control and pressurisation of the space has been painstaking; one 18th century Korean tapestry, for instance, must be illuminated by only five candles, to preserve the pigment.

The Rockefeller Collection runs along the left-hand side of the exhibit as you walk through the space, juxtaposing with the modern interpretations on the right. The first chamber features a work by Chinese artist Zhang Huan, who collects ashes of burnt offerings to the shrine near his studio and crafts them into images of the Buddha. Another room holds a masterpiece by the late Thai artist Montien Booma: Lotus Sound is made of 473 traditional terracotta bells delicately stacked to create a concave wall, and is lit from behind. The arrangement of the bells was done by Booma’s former assistant, who especially flew from Chiang Mai.

The final and penultimate installation of the show is a mixed-media piece that stands in testament to the Society’s earnest attempt to marry the old and the new. Bodhi Obfuscatus (Space Baby), by Korean-American artist Michael Joo, features a third century Gandaharan Buddha (from the Rockefeller Collection), whose head is surrounded by a dome-like apparatus of 50 cameras, each reflecting the Buddha’s image. These images are reflected in turn by 90 mirrors covering the surface of the walls, to quite spectacular effect.

Looking at the elegant and simple gallery space, you wouldn’t guess it used to house ingredients to create bullets. But the proof is in the pudding – the walls are thick, the air is dry, and the ceilings are vaulted to direct explosions upwards. In fact, it seems to be the perfect space for exhibiting priceless works of art. As an exhibition manager aptly remarks on site, the only type of explosions that will now take place at this Former Explosives Magazine is ‘the explosion of creativity’. And, we may add, no walls could possibly contain that.

The Asia Society Hong Kong Center opens at the newly restored Former Explosives Magazine (9 Justice Dr, Admiralty) on Feb 9. Its inaugural exhibition, Transforming Minds: Buddhism in Art, runs from Feb 10-May 20 at Asia Society Gallery (Former Magazine A). For details, visit


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