Pushing Lim-its: In Conversation with William Lim
As a 24-storey art hub he envisioned rises in Central, architect and avid art collector William Lim tells us of his fascination with all things design
Architect William Lim has worn a lot of hats. As well as heading his firm CL3, he’s probably the world’s leading collector of Hong Kong contemporary art and is a successful artist in his own right. He has twice represented his city at the Venice Biennale’s International Architecture Exhibition, in 2006 and 2010, with large installations. He himself was the subject of a retrospective exhibition last year at Artistree, William Lim/Fundamental.
His art collection was immortalised in 2014 with the publishing of The No Colors, a beautiful book of photos of selected works with commentary by art-world luminaries. And he’s been an enthusiastic patron of a range of organisations that promote the appreciation of art, including the Asia Art Archive, Para Site, the Tate and the Asia Society.
Now all these strands have been brought together in one project—an art hub William is creating for Henderson Land Development. The 24-storey building in Central is specially designed to attract galleries, alongside restaurants and shops. For William, who has often talked about the synergies and similarities between art and architecture, the project is a chance to live the dream.
For William, who has often talked about the synergies and similarities between
art and architecture, [H Queen's] is a chance to live the dream
“For me, it ties my whole career together,” he says of H Queen’s, which is taking shape at 80 Queen’s Road Central. “For the longest time I’ve been straddling a few different lives—artist, architect, collector, art educator—but not together, and I’ve been trying to reconcile them. At the beginning I was trying to lead two separate lives. I talked to [curator and art critic] Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and he advised me to combine them rather than separate them. I thought it’d be great if somehow my artistic side could come out in my profession.”
Henderson tapped William’s firm to design the building about three years ago. At that point, William had a portfolio of impressive projects under his belt, including the interiors of Tsim Sha Tsui’s Hotel Icon, the Japanese restaurant Nadaman at the Island Shangri-La, the East hotel in Quarry Bay, Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, and the refurbishment of the Gateway Hotel in Harbour City.
“When Henderson approached us, I thought: ‘How do I make it stand out in Central?’ It could have been just another office building. I spend every weekend at art galleries and I know there’s great demand for gallery space, so I proposed the concept to Henderson. This was just at the beginning of art becoming big in Hong Kong—Art Basel was taking over Art HK, M+ was getting going—and one thing led to another.”
William started collecting art seriously around 2007, at first pretty much indiscriminately. “Everything is interesting to me. It all talks about the way people live. Everything has been designed by someone, and that to me is a very interesting process.” A few years ago, however, he decided that if he kept collecting without a focus, his collection “wasn’t going to amount to anything.” To avoid becoming a jack of all trades, so to speak, he decided to concentrate on works produced in his own city. “At the time, Hong Kong art was being neglected compared to the booming Mainland China market. A lot of it was conceptual and not very commercial.”
But the landscape has changed dramatically over the past couple of years, with trailblazers like Lee Kit and Adrian Wong presaging a new generation of local artists who attract international attention. The tide really turned when M+ announced its collection strategy—which places Hong Kong art at the core of a collection that expands to Mainland China, Asia and the rest of the world—and when Art Basel took over from Art HK in 2012, bringing in international collectors and giving Hong Kong artists more exposure, he says.
Ironically, William believes local artists’ former obscurity has helped fuel their current fame. “International curators always felt that a lot of work by Hong Kong artists was challenging and interesting. It’s never been a commercial market, so a lot of work is very pure and academic.
Since Hong Kong started making its mark on the global art map over the past decade, the work of its artists has piqued the interest of international galleries. Galleries started off here showing international artists, then realised there was a body of local artists producing good work. Art Basel put a stamp of approval on their work. They were just undiscovered—then they got discovered.”
Ironically, William believes [Hong Kong] artists' former
obscurity has helped fuel their current fame
It’s hard to overstate William’s love for contemporary art. Favourite artists represented in his collection include Lam Tung-pang and Chi Hoi, whose Moon Rise I hangs in his bedroom. For someone with such a vast and revered collection, it’s amusing to hear William admit he’s never been able to come up with a rationale for what arouses his interest in particular pieces. “I’m never very analytical about why I like things. I try to get a thread not just of why I like a certain work, but also of why people who take art seriously like it. With good art you can see the spirit of the artist in there. I’m still trying to analyse that. The process of talking to an artist is really exciting.”
In the art world, as with architecture, there’s a growing understanding in Hong Kong not just of the importance of aesthetics, but also—rather characteristically for our fair city—of how it can add value. “Hongkongers realise that good design can bring value to a project,” William says. “Art needs to have a soul and architecture is the same—it has to have a spirit and reflect that somebody worked hard on it.
“There’s a point of awakening—people are starting to think about what architecture is. It’s not about an iconic, superfluous exterior. Design needs to be holistic, taking account of the building’s environment and purpose, how people relate to it, how well it works for them. Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright would never let another person design the interior of their buildings. People need to reassess architecture in a more human way—something that responds to people, use and culture, and reflects the way people live.”
This article was originally published in Hong Kong Tatler's March 2016 issue