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Hong Kong’s Pedder Building really started something. The island’s stratospheric land values and intense density have forced the art galleries that might, in a different city, have shopfronts on prestigious streets or be found on the gentrifying industrial edges of downtown in abandoned workshops, into towers. The perfect illustration of this phenomenon is the new H Queen’s Building. Twenty-four storeys of galleries, their back offices and a selection of restaurants stacked on top of each other in the very heart of historic Hong Kong, H Queen’s has been designed by local architect and art collector William Lim and his practice CL3. It is, I’d suggest, a uniquely Hong Kong phenomenon.
The tower rises between Stanley Street, Queen’s Road Central and the worn stone steps of Pottinger Street, lined with kitsch stalls and the dense tangle of gently dripping air-conditioning units and fading signs advertising everything from fashion and framing to foot massages. Where it hits the street, the architecture is smooth and corporate, floor-to-ceiling glass and maximum retail space squeezed into its footprint as well as a lofty lobby for the building adorned with a huge digital screen. The lower levels have been jiggled around with setbacks and staggered floor plates to create a big restaurant terrace (not many of those around here) framed by green, living walls.
As it rises, the tower smooths out into a sleek glass extrusion. This is counterintuitive — what use are glass walls for showing art? In fact, the floors are treated as relatively generic commercial slabs. They have higher than average ceiling heights to accommodate big art but the intent is that galleries will rearrange their spaces to suit each show. For some galleries, the striking backdrop of the Central skyline might prove the perfect foil, for others the expectation is that they will set up drywall partitions to reconfigure the spaces. The glass walls are fritted (dotted with tiny ceramic discs) to provide shade but the walls also slide open so that galleries become, in effect, terraces.
Hong Kong never seems to take full advantage of its weather, isolating everything in an air-conditioned limbo, but here events and exhibitions can be opened out to the city and the evening breeze. The opening of the glazing in turn radically shifts the appearance of the otherwise smooth glass tower. The floor-to-ceiling glass also opens the building to the city, the art is made visible from the ground and even more from the tall buildings surrounding it; this is a commercial structure which embraces the public realm more readily than its public counterparts, particularly at night-time.
Those massive sliding windows also facilitate what is arguably the building’s most intriguing feature. The bulkiest artworks are not brought up via an industrial-scaled goods elevator as they usually would be (a lift shaft like that would take up almost the whole volume of the building), rather they can be craned up the outside of the building and in through those openings. The delivery of art itself becomes a kind of urban theatre.
This was a speculative venture but it has clearly identified a lucrative market. David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Pace, Pearl Lam and Galerie Ora-Ora have already taken space alongside Seoul Auction, Tang Contemporary Art and the Whitestone Gallery. Looking out of its huge windows you can peer down into the courtyards of the old police station, now the Tai Kwun arts centre, a couple of blocks away. The fascinating thing about this building is that it is, in effect, a relatively generic commercial tower but its purposing as an arts facility makes it something entirely new: a building tailored to Hong Kong’s very specific topography. Arguably more than any other city, Hong Kong exists as a public space in three dimensions — the Mid-Level escalators are around the corner, the streets themselves here are stairs. H Queen’s makes that third axis more visible, a vertical terrarium for art.