Ascan Mergenthaler Interview

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The Swiss architect behind M+

Business of Design Week, one of the most momentous events in Asia’s design calendar, has just drawn to a close at Wan Chai’s Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Running between December 2 and 7, the 11th installment of this mammoth annual design event, organised by the Hong Kong Design Centre, saw a lineup of internationally renowned industry experts and executives take to the floor for a prolific week which included exhibitions, the BoDW Forum and the epic Detour Festival.

One of the guests at this year’s event was Ascan Mergenthaler, a senior partner at Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron. The company’s high-profile projects have included the Tate Modern in London and the ‘Bird’s Nest’ National Stadium in Beijing. In the coming years, the Swiss architect and his team are planning to put their magical touches on to Hong Kong’s landscape, with projects including revitalising the Central Police Station in 2015 and the mammoth M+ museum in West Kowloon in 2017. We sit down with Mergenthaler as BoDW closes to chat about these two game-changing projects, as well as his views on our city’s architectural scene.

 

So, how do you feel about BoDW in Hong Kong? 

I think it’s an important event because BoDW has been around for quite a while. It’s very well-known internationally, so the organisers are able to get interesting speakers. I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for Hong Kong to have this exchange of ideas. I also like the concept of the partner country [this year, it was Belgium]. It’s always good if you give this event a bit of framework, a little bit of structure. That kind of makes discovery possible, you know.

What’s your philosophy towards architecture? How do you conceive the role of architecture in people’s lives?

Well, it’s fundamental, of course. We very much believe in the experience people have in a building; we don’t want to intimidate them. I think it’s important that you create possibilities that people can relate to a building on many levels, like by smelling it, by seeing it, by walking through it, by touching it and by sitting in it – that you provide these possibilities, but not an abstract, diagrammatic architecture. Space is never just space. There are so many things that come together to create the real experience. Architecture is absolutely essential to our lives [but] people don’t need to be conscious about it. I think this is happening a lot subconsciously.

Can you share with us a little bit on the Central Police Station Conservation and Revitalisation Project?

We started actually quite a few years ago on this one, and we also went through different designs – from pretty adventurous, radical design proposals to now quite modest proposals. But they’re still pretty radical in what they do to the site, because they are opening it up, activating the site. Now, by injecting cultural light, especially in the upper courtyards through these two buildings, we found two holes in the fabric of this historical building and we fill up these two holes like missing teeth. We implement new structures – one dedicated to visual art and another to performing art. I think it will be a big change for the people in Hong Kong because they are so used to living with this blind spot in such a central location.

 

Everyone is looking forward to the M+ building. What are the challenges and visions in this project?

Every project is challenging – and this one is especially challenging because it’s very fast, very big and very important. We’re making really great progress in a small amount of time. Everybody wants this building to happen and there is a lot of commitment and positive energy around it. I think this will change Hong Kong quite dramatically because it is really injecting cultural life into the city on such a scale which is pretty unknown in the world. The good new thing is that, first of all, it’s very visible. It’s not tucked away, not somewhere around the corner – it’s right there. Everybody’s gonna see it! I think it will really have a transformative effect on the entire city and West Kowloon for sure. There’re not many museums like this in the world.

According to your experiences working on these projects in Hong Kong, how would you comment on the architectural scene here, and what advice would you give to the city?

I think, you know, Hong Kong is a challenging environment when it comes to large-scale projects. I think they are doing a good job on the small-scale [projects]. And I think it would be great, for the larger-scale, if they could be a little bit more adventurous. This is not towards the architects but more towards the developers because they are, in the end, the ones who decide what’s happening here. I think it would be interesting if they would be a little more open-minded. Just be curious, you know. Stephanie Lo

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