A Sustainable Home for Asia Society in Hong Kong

Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien recount their first impressions upon seeing the site of Asia Society's Hong Kong Center during a panel discussion, February 10, 2012. (Bill Swersey/Asia Society)

HONG KONG, February 10, 2012 - Hongkongers are becoming increasingly aware of the pressing need to protect and preserve Hong Kong’s unique historical and architectural heritage. The Asia Society’s new Hong Kong home at the Jockey Club Former Explosives Magazine now stands above Admiralty as a powerful example of how elegantly the old can coexist with the new.

A panel discussion on the first day of public programing at the new center, recounted the history and some of the stories behind the site’s creation. Introducing the panel, Asia Society Vice-Chairman Jack Wadsworth explained that new buildings are often the subject of folklore and rumor, and said the story of the site’s creation is worth sharing with the public.

Wadsworth told the audience "We looked all over Hong Kong to the site, for almost two years. Once we found it, I presented three reasons to (then Hong Kong Chief Executive) C.H. Tung why he should give us the site. First, Hong Kong needs cutting-edge academic institutions to be a truly world class city. Second, global programming is best suited to private institutions that are willing to take risks, and we want to put a stone in the water that will create ripples throughout the region. Finally, Asia needs to appreciate the creative power of private philanthropy."

Following Wadsworth, David Neuman, a consultant to the Site Architect Selection Competition, spoke about the selection process. He told the audience, "Our assignment was to assist in the selection of the architect, but it was really more than that. We wanted to refine the understanding of what the site was going to be.” The selection committee was dedicated to the notion of sustainability, "Not just environmentally, but also of the Asia Society and its intentions, and of Hong Kong and its 'buzz.'"

The committee decided on an invited competition, focusing on architects with relevant experience. The result was the selection of New Yorkers Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who were chosen primarily on the strength and directness of their proposal, which did not shy away from the historic buildings or from creating strong contemporary architecture. And because, Neuman said, "Billie and Tod believe that architecture is an act of positive optimism."

Responding to Neuman, Tsien countered, "Tod and I are very different. I wasn’t so optimistic. At first, it looked like something from Raiders of the Lost Ark. I though, what can we possible do?"

Williams recalled his first impression, "I was thrilled by it! I fell in love with every aspect of the site and all of the critters. I couldn’t wait to rip away the surface and see what was underneath."

Tsien discussed some of their initial intuitions about the site. "How do you make a strong statement in a totally vertical city? Well it can’t be by being vertical."

Williams added, "We thought, let’s slip through the site and enjoy the diminutive condition of being low to the ground. We believe that buildings should be connected to the earth, because we as humans come from the earth and return to earth, and that we really need to understand the mark we make on the earth. The ground is the first place of communication. We are competing with a world that’s growing vertically and saying, ‘See me, see me, see me!’ But we are richest on the inside."

The pair relied on large overhangs to emphasize that horizontality. Tsien explained, "With the overhang we say, 'We are welcoming you in and we are supporting you.'"

She also discussed how the dramatic elbow in the building’s connecting bridge was inspired by similar elbows in the gardens of Souzhou. "Elbows make it more difficult for the spirits to get in," she explained. "In our case, it also avoided the fruit bats, and gives a dynamic view. If Tod and I were to be married again, I’d want it to be right at that point."

Reported by Maddie Gressel

Video: Watch the complete program (1 hr., 5 min.)