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Fruit-bat colony forces architects to change building design

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HONG KONG -- Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien faced an unexpected foe while revamping an old explosives storage facility into Asia Society's new Hong Kong center.

A v-shaped walkway was designed around the trees housing rare bats

HONG KONG — When architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien won the competition to transform a colonial explosives storage facility into a gallery and office space for Asia Society's Hong Kong center, little did they know the force of nature they were up against.

A group of endangered fruit bats had taken up residency in the trees where the designers wanted to build a covered bridge to connect two of the buildings. The bats, according to Williams, are large and resemble closed black umbrellas when resting upside down — and they proved a formidable foe.

Advocacy groups were adamant that the bats not be disturbed, forcing the design team to come up with a solution to build the walkway around the habitat, resulting in a sharp v-shaped path instead of a straight one that would have cut right through their home.

Designers often talk about their design challenges as if they enjoy making lemonade out of lemons, giving the hiccups a positive spin. But Jack Wadsworth, vice president of the Asia Society headquarters in New York City who oversaw the project, was more blunt about the bats’ disruptiveness. “I call it the million-dollar fruit bat,” he said, referring to the added cost of the new bridge design to accommodate the critters.

An aerial view shows the zigzag bridge that the designers originally wanted to be straight

The four buildings that make up the former explosives facility date back as far as the 1850s. A low-rise complex dwarfed by adjacent towers, the site had become overgrown with vegetation after years of disuse. Trees flourished where there were once mounds of sand to put out any accidental fires.

Williams said at a press conference Thursday that when he first saw the building, it looked like it was in the middle of a jungle, and that “it was magical and also a mess.” When asked about his thoughts on having to keep the fruit bats happy, Williams pointed out that there were also activists who demanded that most of the trees be preserved, all of which are “challenging” for designers.

But the architects downplayed the headaches that the opposition presented for their design and were quick to highlight the calm, leisurely feeling that the zigzag detail lends to the walkway and the incredible view from the jutting corner. Tsien said she imagines that a lot of wedding photos will be taken on the bridge once the new center opens in February.

Photos: Asia Society Hong Kong Center

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Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure