Welcome break from glassiness

Hong Kong has never quite seemed able to match its trading, industrial and financial energy – that ability to reinvent and rebuild itself – in the way it addresses culture. Now, however, this little island with a population almost the size of London’s (but poorly served by museums and theatres) has tried to address this absence with two ambitious arts schemes: the vast West Kowloon Cultural District and the radical adaptation of the colonial Central Police Station into an art gallery by Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss architects of Tate Modern. Both of these controversial, expensive and difficult schemes have occupied the headlines and gossip columns.

Meanwhile another colonial-era building has been quietly adapted and transformed into an exquisite museum, the Hong Kong outpost of New York’s Asia Society, founded in the 1950s by John D Rockefeller III. The new HK$400m (£32m) gallery, designed by New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, occupies a former British army munitions store in the green hills between the British consulate, swanky Pacific Place and the island’s buzzing Wan Chai district. The distribution of the existing buildings across the site makes for a complex and delightful plan that takes the visitor from a newly built entry pavilion along a walkway to the solid, cool atmosphere of the stone-built galleries.

The first experience is of a crisp, clean modernity. A waterfall gushes against walls of velvety-dark Burmese stone, evoking the ethereal simplicity of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion. The lobby is dark and minimal (a bit too much like a designer hotel) and leads to a walkway that takes visitors to the gallery, its jagged path designed to avoid a couple of trees housing rare fruit bats. From here you get glimpses of the city’s fast-changing skyline and the docks, all framed by forest. Another level of walkway above is sculpted from concrete into intriguing angles and retro shapes. If you look back from the walkway, you see a restaurant hanging beneath the lobby, currently being fitted out, and a large function room gives on to the surrounding landscape with walls of finely detailed glass. Suddenly the new building behind you looks like an avant garde Los Angeles hillside villa.

Finally you arrive at the main gallery, which is housed in a 19th-century explosives “laboratory”, where the chemicals for munitions were mixed. The particular conditions for the manufacture of explosives turn out to be serendipitously coincident with those of showing art: thick walls that produce a constant, cool temperature and small, high windows designed not to let in direct sunlight. The mass of the structure creates a quiet, almost chapel-like space with an elegantly vaulted stone ceiling. It is a relief from the frenetic newness and glassiness of everything else in the city.

The opening exhibition, Transforming Minds: Buddhism in Art, brings together a few of the Rockefeller Collection’s most seductive artefacts, delicately carved Buddhas from across Asia mixed up with contemporary interpretations. Among the best are Thai monk/artist Montien Boonma’s “Lotus Sound”, a curving wall of stacked terracotta bells, and Zhang Huan’s strange and wonderful Buddha busts, built of the ashes of burnt incense sticks from temples, a material that he believes to be imbued with the sanctity of thousands of prayers. Michael Joo’s application of a halo of surveillance cameras to the head of a third-century Gandharan Buddha creates an unsettling high-tech termination to the experience, a darkened room layered with flickering video screens and twinkling mirrors in which reflections and images of the serene Buddha’s head mingle with the faces of visitors.

The architects have meticulously maintained contemporary details: rails used to trolley munitions have been restored and now act as a floor signage system to guide visitors around the site; chunky hinge pivots on the stone framed doors are still there, as are the old fire bells, the boundary markers inscribed with Royal Navy anchors, the narrow lighting of the corridors (so that naked flames could be transported without endangering the explosives) and the banyan trees with their sprawling roots. Another, newer munitions store houses a small cinema, while other, more conventionally colonial buildings (with restored verandahs and spinning ceiling fans) accommodate back offices and meeting rooms so that the complex has an almost campus-like feel.

This new cultural centre is carefully crafted, eschewing anything too showy. The tropical forest that surrounds the gallery makes it a moment of escape despite its central location. The expense (and it is expensive) has gone into making the eccentric ensemble of buildings (leased from the People’s Liberation Army, which itself inherited them from the Royal Navy) into a real place rather than a superficial gesture. In a cultural landscape still devoid of real quality and depth, it is seductively lovely.

‘Transforming Minds: Buddhism in Art’, Asia Society Hong Kong Center, www.asiasociety.org.hk

Until May 20

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