Jutting out into Victoria Harbour with the Kowloon skyline as its fantastical backdrop, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre deserves its reputation as one of Asia’s most illustrious event spaces. Yet despite its undoubted qualities, few would describe its cavernous interiors as the ideal spot to conduct an intimate interview: especially when these vast chambers are packed to capacity with visitors to this year’s Asia edition of Art Basel.
It is therefore testament to William Lim’s effervescent qualities that our hour-long conflab about his two decades at the pinnacle of Asia’s architectural scene and his work on Gaysorn Village – the ambitious reimagining of one of central Bangkok’s most beloved luxury retail malls – flashes by in a Hong Kong minute.
His engaging, open manner speaks not just of his enduring drive for constantly pushing architectural boundaries, but also a hunger for creative endeavours, something that Art Basel – with its plethora of exhibiting galleries from all corners of the globe – is only too happy to feed.
“It’s hugely inspiring for me to see this kind of event here in Hong Kong,” he enthuses as we commence our chat. “As an avid collector myself, it gives me a lot of pleasure to see so much high quality work here – both from overseas and from Asian countries as well.”
An appreciation of art is central to the philosophy of Lim and his award-winning practice CL3, famous for ground-breaking projects around Asia that include Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, as well as Hotel Icon and Hotel East in Hong Kong.
This year, the long-term champion of the contemporary art scene in Hong Kong will realise a long-held dream with the unveiling of H Queens, a 24-storey purpose-built vertical gallery building in the heart of the territory’s bustling CBD.
“It’s fantastically exciting,” he says. “We are bringing in top tier galleries such as David Zwirner, Pearl Lam and White Stone, and people are already anticipating that it will change the art landscape of the city. To do a custom design gallery building is very pleasing for me as an art lover.”
While that project is a labour of love for Hong Kong resident Lim, there’s also no disguising his enthusiasm for his work on Gaysorn Village. Although undertaken in close collaboration with acclaimed Thai architecture firm A49, there’s ample evidence of Lim’s holistic, art-led approach in the finished project, which is set to be fully unveiled in the final quarter of 2017.
In many ways, Lim was the natural choice of architect to elevate the development, which will see the existing Gaysorn mall linked with a new retail space and a spectacular new office building, Gaysorn Tower. He has spent extensive periods of time in Thailand’s capital: a city he says he loves and appreciates. “It has many layers and is always fascinating,” he remarks. “Bangkok is definitely one of my favourite places to visit and to do a project in a place where you really like the culture is a lot of fun.”
He also speaks glowingly about the Thai sense of aesthetics, ranking the country alongside China and Japan in terms of traditional design sensibilities. Gaysorn’s decision, therefore, to deploy Lim to its brand-new baby seems like an inevitable and effortless meeting of minds.
“The Thai style is very important to the way I think,” he says. “When you enter into a wooden structure or a space surrounded by wood it calms you down and creates a very nice ambience. We are using a lot of teak wood as opposed to a lot of shopping malls, which are created with white, neutral designs. The identity we want to create is artisanal – that it’s an environment that promotes craftsmanship. The creativity of the Thai people will come through in the overall design.”
Indeed, Lim is effusive in his praise for his Thai partners in the Gaysorn project. He salutes the vision of Gaysorn chairman Charn Srivikorn and the adaptability and local smarts of A49.
“Their expertise was invaluable,” he says of the Thai firm. “We came up with the concept and they helped us source the right materials. We wanted to make it environmentally friendly so they helped us find suitable recyclable materials. It was a very successful co-operation.”
Although visual highlights can be found throughout the new development, the focal point of the project is likely to be the link connecting the old and new Gaysorn buildings. The bridge features a 20-metre tall cocoon-like structure made of teak wood, visible from the street, which – according to Lim – encapsulates the philosophy of the space as an incubator for creativity. Others may also choose to see it as a symbol of the regeneration of the Gaysorn brand and the emergence of brand new life in the Ratchaprasong district of the city.
“A cocoon is a symbol of regeneration, of birth. That’s why it is such an iconic part of the development,” says Lim. “Both Gaysorn and I wanted to put a strong emphasis on porosity. How you move around and interact with the space is very important. Also, we were very determined to extend the influence of the project to the surrounding area, while integrating it by promoting Thai artisanship using materials. I didn’t want to use gimmicks: for example, by putting a temple in there. Our primary aim was to create the mood of being in Thailand.”
Although not as prominent as the cocoon – at least not to casual passers-by – an urban retreat located on the 19th and 20th floors of Gaysorn Tower is another aspect of the development that Lim speaks of with obvious fondness.
The retreat, an oasis for visitors and office tenants alike, will be named the Gaysorn Urban Resort and will provide an outdoor sky garden – a 3,000-square-metre space where patrons can unwind after a busy day. It will also feature the Gaysorn Crystal Box, a meeting and seminar space offering a 270-degree panoramic view of the city below.
“There are many office buildings in Bangkok and there are also a few significant green spaces,” says Lim. “But these two things have rarely been fused successfully before. It’s a meeting point between the tenants and the outside guests and it is also very open to the city and its magnificent skyline, which is very inspiring.”
If Lim is delighted by the successful integration of Gaysorn Village with its surrounding cityscape, he is less thrilled by what he perceives as an overall shift towards architectural homogeneity in conurbations around the world.
“Cities are beginning to look alike,” he says. “It used to be that we built according to different climate requirements using natural, indigenous materials. These days there is much more of uniformity. People need to respect where they are building and the local environment.”
Indeed, he cites this failure on the part of other architects as a major factor in the continued success of CL3. While other practices have fallen out of favour or struggled to stay abreast of changing trends, Lim’s firm, which he founded back in 1992, manages to stay relevant by taking a localised approach – typified by the emphasis on Thai aesthetics and material at Gaysorn Village.
“If Gaysorn Village was in New York it wouldn’t look the way it does,” he explains. “We don’t ever frame ourselves in a particular style. Projects are done site-specific, like artwork. We analyse the requirements and the environment, then we design the project. It’s really not rocket science to say that as long as a project is custom-designed, it will always be relevant.”
Certainly, there’s a notable lack of free space in Lim’s busy diary over the coming few months. He plans to be back in Thailand soon for the grand opening of Gaysorn Village, while his passion for H Queens in Hong Kong is palpable. Other major international projects, meanwhile, include a collaboration with multi-disciplinary design practice Lim + Lu on a furniture range for Cornell University’s renowned College of Architecture, Art and Planning: his former alma mater in New York.
“It’s an example of alumni repaying the institution that nurtured them and played an instrumental role in their future success,” he says. “Cornell holds a special place in my heart as myself and my sons are alumni of the school. To design this furniture range for the university is an honour for us.”
Giving back creatively to places he cares deeply about such as Cornell, Hong Kong and Bangkok – it’s all part of the William Lim package.