Twist and ShoutHong Kong becomes home to starchitect Frank Gehry’s first building in Asia, a helical structure that gives each floor unique views and layouts

Frank Gehry is a name that has been revered in architectural circles for decades. When I was studying art history in the 1990s, slides of his deconstructed houses with corrugated metal cladding made a strong visual impression — he was already hailed as being a genius for pushing the boundaries of what is deemed beautiful in architecture. In 2004, he came to Hong Kong to speak at Business of Design Week, and I had the fortune of meeting him on a one on one basis. Despite having won every professional award imaginable including the 1989 Pritzker for architecture, he came across as a humble, genuine guy who loves what he does for a living. At the time, he was already talking to Swire Properties about a potential collaboration. Now, nearly eight years later, he and Swire are set to unveil that project: a highly exclusive, 12-unit property at 53 Stubbs Road. Named Opus, it will be available for lease in early 2012 and is remarkable not only for being Gehry’s first building in Asia but also for being a cool new landmark for The Peak.

Gordon Ongley, chief operating officer for Swire Properties, admitted that when he first met Gehry in his Los Angeles studio to entice him to enter the design competition for Stubbs Road, the response was lukewarm: “We don’t do competitions,” Gehry stated. But after seeing the site and hearing Ongley out, he made an exception.

“53 Stubbs Road holds a special place in our hearts due to its history and its rarity,” Ongley stated at the opening press conference for Outside the Box | Frank Gehry, a Swire exhibition showcasing key buildings by Gehry as well as the design evolution of Stubbs Road. “We wanted a design that was right for the site and for the city, and we could think of nobody better suited than Frank to create a building which broke through the rigid conventions of traditional architecture.

Naming a building can often be the most challenging part of the process, but not in this case. The word ‘Opus’ is often used to describe an artistic masterpiece and this reflects exactly what Frank has achieved.” Opus should dovetail nicely with Gehry’s other notable structures around the world, which include the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Prague’s Dancing House, the AGO extension in Toronto and the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany.

Swire originally acquired the site on upper Stubbs Road in the 1940s and built a single house on the plot for the company’s most senior executive. More than 70 years later, the site remains one of the most prestigious in Hong Kong, with 360-degree panoramic views of Victoria Harbour and The Peak virtually unencumbered by neighbouring properties. In a city where size rules, Gehry’s Opus is sympathetic to the natural environment, blending in rather than trying to dominate it. With only a single 12-storey tower, both the developer and Gehry understood that true luxury is a rare commodity. Though not as wacky and futuristic as Walt Disney Concert Hall, Opus showcases dynamic form and explores a different approach to the conventional residential block both in relationship to site and in unique floor plans.

To underscore the concept of exclusivity, Swire has decided to rent rather than sell the units. “We want to hold onto it for long term investment,” explains Martin Cubbon, Swire Properties’ chief executive officer. “At this point, we have not yet set rental levels though per square foot they may possibly be the highest in Hong Kong. We expect to break records. The design was an important element — something edgier for Hong Kong.”

Two garden duplexes on the ground floor each measuring just around 6,000 square feet contain private swimming pools. Above, 10 apartments each ranging from 6,000 to 6,900 square feet have access to rooftop swimming pools. Gehry’s love of sailing inspired the boat decks: large balconies with horizontal railings that give people the feeling of standing on a yacht looking out to sea. These work hand in hand with a full height wrap around glass facade along the north side to give every unit different vantages of the city, as the building appears to twist as it rises. Glass-enclosed structural steel columns float along the building’s exterior, gently swaying upwards like bamboo in a helical structure. Meanwhile, solid walls on the south side keep the building cool, while large, tree-filled stone-clad blocks root the tower to the hillside.

“The building kind of designed itself, because of the beautiful site,” says Gehry. “We approached the building to enhance those views, to make the whole better than the sum of the parts. Instead of having just one window in front of you, the windows are like a surround that opens the vista. And yet in doing that, we make separations of various parts of the dwelling and create more intimate spaces.”

“Our target market for this property includes senior executives in finance, diplomats and entertainers,” says Cubbon. For those interested in checking out the process behind Opus’ development, Outside the Box | Frank Gehry at ArtisTree in Island East is open until Oct 27 and admission is free to the public.