Dreaming of the Sustainable City

Hong Kong Shenzhen Biennale container garden

When the curators of the 2009 Hong Kong-Shenzhen Biennale began assembling exhibits for the urbanism and architecture showcase, they decided to focus on the theme of sustainability. It turns out that most of the artists, architects and designers who answered their call for submissions had the same idea.

“It’s almost a zeitgeist,” says Eric Schuldenfrei, one of the biennale’s four curators. “When you ask people for new work, the dialogue with nature is very strong. It might be subtle, but if you look for it, there is that element in almost every project in the biennale. It’s curated to an extent, but it’s also what everyone was already working on.”

Sustainability might be a buzzword, but the philosophy behind it goes far beyond a bit of greenery here and there. A scan of the biennale’s lengthy roster of exhibitions, installations, lectures and events shows a preoccupation with the question of how to reduce Hong Kong’s impact on the environment and bring city-dwellers back into contact with nature.

“We’re looking at sustainability not just from a point of view of greening, but also through this concept of social sustainability,” says Schuldenfrei. “It’s about how you pass on information and knowledge from one generation to the next, or how the younger generation can inspire thoughts in the older generation, so it comes up from below, instead of always being imposed from the top down.”

Some of the brightest ideas come from the biennale’s youngest participants. The Green Tapestry features the winning entry from an international competition held to design a noise barrier for the Gascoigne Road Flyover, which is slated to be rebuilt in the coming years.

Eschewing every noise-barrier convention imaginable, a team of four fresh graduates from the University of Hong Kong’s architecture school decided to enclose the roadway in a tube made of glass plates that would be covered in vegetation. One of the team members, Choi Kit-wang, said they were inspired by the banyan trees that grow on the old stone walls found in the hillier parts of Hong Kong.

“We want to encourage the government to hold more competitions like the one for the flyover,” says Schuldenfrei. “The only reason that one was held was because a district councillor insisted on it — he was tired of the Highways Department always building the same ugly noise barriers, especially the glass ones, which birds fly into and die. “The biennale is meant to push through this kind of change.”

Another project called Eco Farm — Green Pixel, brought together architect Humphrey Wong and Pad Chu Pui-kwan, who has been running an organic farm on Lamma Island for the past 15 years. Last month, the two invited teenagers, kindergarten students and other volunteers to plant rapeseed, wheatgrass, romaine lettuce and herbs in containers made from recycled paper. The containers have been arranged on the biennale’s site in West Kowloon like pixels in a computer animation.

Over the next three months, as the plants grow and change colour from green to white and yellow, volunteers will harvest them and make salads. When the biennale is over, they’ll be able to take the containers home.

“This is our connection to nature,” says Chu. “You don’t have to put [plants] in a garden or a farm, it can be on your balcony, on your roof, along the walls or in some other part of your building.”

Chu and Wong hope that Eco Farm — Green Pixel will demonstrate just how simple it can be for individuals to green the city.

“People think green architecture needs a lot of investment and a lot of new technology or serious research before it can be done, but it’s not just about vertical farming or green roofs. It’s actually very easy do to something like what we’ve done,” says Wong.

While it’s impossible to judge exactly what people will take away from the biennale, Schuldenfrei says it has already sparked collaboration among its participants. One design firm that specializes in vertical gardening — walls covered in vegetation — has already shared its expertise with the young architecture graduates who designed the Green Tapestry. The biennale’s impact, he says, might not truly be felt for many years.

“If you give a kid a green pixel and they have nowhere to plant it, because their apartment doesn’t accommodate that, you start to think about whether there’s space in the city that we can provide for them to plant in, like in schools or in a public park. Often, some of these ideas might take 30 years [to come to fruition]. It’s the things that someone did 20 or 30 years ago that we feel the impact of now.

This article was originally published on CNNGo. It is the first part in a series of articles on the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Biennale.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday December 13 2009at 06:12 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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