For someone who describes himself as “a lefty do-gooder” who has avoided “doing rich guys’ houses” all his life, Frank Gehry sure has changed his spots.

He has lent his name to Opus Hong Kong, the most expensive piece of residential real estate ever built in the city. That’s saying something in a town where residential rents trump Tokyo, New York and London, according to expatriate location advisers ECA International.

Sitting in the living room of the ninth-floor apartment at the 12-story Opus overlooking the city’s skyline and harbor, Pritzker Architecture Prize-winner Gehry displays no qualms about having designed such an extravagant edifice.

“This is somehow different,” he says. “There is a different culture here. Chinese families live in high-rise buildings. Trying to make a house in the sky is interesting. Hong Kong lends itself to it.”

Conspicuous consumption always has been a defining characteristic of Hong Kong, where people pay as much as $1 million to buy a vanity license plate for their Maybachs and Maseratis, and think nothing of betting tens of thousands of dollars on a horse at the Happy Valley Race Course, or quaffing $13,000 bottles of Chateau Lafite.

High Rise

Built for Swire Properties Ltd., the structure cost HK$27,000 ($3,477) per square foot to construct, including land premium. A standard high-rise apartment in the city can cost as little as $HK4,000 per square foot to build, according to Swire Properties Chief Executive Officer Martin Cubbon.

“Of course, it’s going to be enormously expensive by any standards,” says Cubbon. “In rental values and capital values, it’s going to command the highest numbers that Hong Kong has ever seen.”

Set apart on a steep windswept hill on 53 Stubbs Road, surrounded by lush greenery, the Opus has just 12 apartments, one per floor except for the bottom two stories, which house two duplexes complete with gardens and private pools.

Each unit averages about 6,000 square feet. Cubbon declined to provide figures until marketing begins by the end of this month. He expects most flats to be rented, though “if someone writes us a big enough check,” he says, Swire will sell too.

While fans of the 83-year-old architect will recognize the Gehry DNA, Opus is a far cry from the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum Bilbao or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Spanish Stone

The building rests on huge blocks of Spanish limestone (the same kind used at Bilbao) stacked randomly to make it look like the space was quarried out of the landscape.

Its facade is defined by exterior columns sheathed in glass that climb the building “like reeds swaying in the wind,” says Gehry. Placing the supporting columns outside enables maximum flexibility for the interior space floor and the wraparound glass windows and balconies he likens to a ship’s deck.

Opus is Gehry’s first residential project in Asia, and unlike Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture, he has yet to crack mainland China.

His Los Angeles-based firm has submitted a design for a competition to build the prestigious National Art Museum of China in Beijing, but so far the process has been frustrating.

“There’s a political interpretation,” Gehry says. “Every time you do something, they say ‘Well, in China, that means something else.’ Almost everything I’ve done that I’ve thought was good they say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ I feel very much like a blind man. It’s a difficult climate in which to make really good architecture.”

Architectural DNA

Gehry declines to give details on his proposed Chinese design, describing it as a “fairly simple box” that doesn’t look like the Bilbao museum, yet still bears his stamp. “Whatever I do, you can’t escape your signature, your DNA.”

His longevity is genetic too, and Canadian-born Gehry has no intention of slowing down. Though he hung up his ice-hockey skates a few years ago, he still works out with a personal trainer most mornings and spends six days in the office.

“I don’t know what old means,” Gehry says. “Chronologically when I think of my age, I think well, I’m old, so I use it as an excuse sometimes to complain about things. It’s great cover and sometimes it’s true, I really run out of gas. But they don’t believe me.”

(Frederik Balfour is a reporter at large for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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