By Paul Kay
The recipient of the coveted ‘Interior Architect of the Year’ honour at the Chivas 18 Architecture Awards in 2015, Frank Leung is no stranger to creating compelling settings. But in designing the new ArtisTree – Swire Properties’ multi-purpose event space in Taikoo Place – the founder and principal of via. was faced with a unique set of circumstances.
Previously located in Cornwall House, arts and culture hub ArtisTree has found a new home in nearby Cambridge House as part of Swire’s HK$15 billion redevelopment of Taikoo Place, a move that also presented the opportunity to completely reimagine the venue. With a greater emphasis placed on hosting performance arts, the new space demanded a high degree of interior versatility, while the more prominent location necessitated an impactful exterior presence – two challenges that intrigued Leung from the outset.
Taking the idea of a “high-performance black box [theatre]” as the starting point, Leung and his team began to explore the concept within the context of Taikoo Place. “There’s no real definition of a black box because the idea of it is that it’s experimental,” says Leung. “So, we turned it around and said to ourselves, ‘what if it’s more of an open box, where the content resonates with the community and it welcomes people to join?’ So that’s where we started, with this idea that this is a community-generated art project.”
Following this line of thought, Leung set to work crafting a dramatic entrance that would not only build anticipation ahead of performances but also one which subtly reflects the purpose of the space. “We were most intrigued by the idea of performance,” says Leung. “Performance in the sense of the shapes that sound would make when it travels, in the sense of movement and dynamism, which guides and translates into a lot of elements that we put into the design of the space.”
One such element is the signature entrance gate. Made from undulating strips of lightweight aluminium wrapped in a wafer-thin layer of timber, it resembles the ripples caused by a droplet falling into still water, while also recalling, in a more abstract sense, the wave of applause that fills an auditorium at the end of a show. Complementing the gate are two columns clad in a slate material thin enough to transmit light through and an ArtisTree logo that becomes illuminated only when a performance is about to take place.
Once inside, another visually arresting detail awaits in the foyer: a feature wall comprised of close to 1,000 aluminium boxes. “The boxes themselves relate to the open box idea, and also hark back to retro-modernist architecture,” says Leung. “What’s unique about them is that we configured the boxes in such a way that each box is slightly rotated from the next, so over the length of almost 15 metres and a height of about six metres, it has this profile that’s kind of like fabric. So you get the sense of motion even when it’s still.”
Linked to an intelligent lighting system, this façade of boxes can be used to set the atmosphere or communicate information to the audience. “When there is a performance about to start in five minutes, it may pulsate,” explains Leung. “But it could also be tailored to specific performances that are happening inside – Chinese dance could be lit completely red for example – so it has a very visual element, dealing with this idea that the performance inside needs to communicate with the community.”
The performance space, meanwhile, has been left relatively raw to maximise its versatility. Employing retractable seating, movable stages and professional audio and lighting systems, it can be arranged in various configurations depending on the needs of the production. “The hardware’s all there,” says Leung. “The audience responded well to the opening season shows. To me that’s the true test.”