“There is Nothing Here”

Then-and-now impresario Lee Chi-man uploaded this compilation the other day. It depicts Shin Wong Street as seen from Hollywood Road, in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan district, in 1969 and 2011. Lee accompanied the image with a short, poignant inscription, in Chinese, which Laine Tam took the liberty of translating:

When I was taking this picture, people passing by kept giving me weird looks. They peeked at me and then looked at where I was pointing my lens.

It’s true, this road is empty, a charmless building on the side. There are no worthy reasons to press the shutter at this spot, yet I’m here crouching. Passers-by are probably thinking, “What is this man photographing?”

What I really want to show them is the scenery from 1969, to let them know that the scene really was worth capturing then, not only for photography, but for sketching, or as a background of a movie, an art film…

But today, there is nothing here. I’m crouching on the sidewalk, framing my shot. I knew everyone thought I was a low taste long yau. I… understand.

(A long yau is a photographer who hires amateur models to pose in costumes or tight-fitting clothes; they are especially common in the old, hilly streets of Sheung Wan.)

The “charmless building” that can be seen in the new photo is Hollywood Terrace, a private housing estate completed in 1999. Designed by Hong Kong’s best-known local architect, Rocco Yim, it was originally acclaimed for the interconnected series of terraces it used to connect the upper levels of the development with the streets below. It won the Hong Kong Institute of Architects Certificate of Merit in 2001.

Unfortunately, this photo shows that an architect’s good intentions can often fall prey to a culture of conservatism. “It’s impossible to make a great design for a bad client,” a designer recently told me, and Hollywood Terrace seems a prime example of that. To me, it is emblematic of the nadir of Hong Kong residential development, a time when buildings rejected any notions of urbanity and taste — a time when the exterior cladding of choice was a horrible kind of ceramic tile that makes the city look like the inside of a washroom.

Hollywood Terrace is a bit more visually interesting than most 1990s-era buildings (though it still has those awful tiles), but it is completely disproportionate to its surroundings. What was once an intimate street lined by shops, balconies and human-scaled buildings is now a service corridor lined by a featureless wall. Shin Wong Street is dead and Hollywood Terrace killed it.

Is the architect to blame? Not necessarily. Far from being the product of a single iconoclastic figure — which Yim most certainly is not — Hollywood Terrace is a building shaped by Hong Kong’s urban planning conventions, which insist on ramming as much density as possible into tiny parcels of land. Yim was asked to make a sculpture out of horseshit. There’s only so much he could have done.

In fact, the reason why Hollywood Terrace was originally praised is because Yim did as much as he could to soften the development’s impact. Most projects of this era are built like fortresses, but Hollywood Terrace includes an internal network of public spaces that allow people to flow through it. The form of its podium is slightly more whimsical than most, with details that are vaguely reminiscent of Modernist industrial architecture, like the Bankside Power Station that is now home to the Tate Modern in London.

Still, whatever concessions to good architecture and place-making Yim was able to squeeze out of his client, Hollywood Terrace is very much a product of its era, and it was an era that produced some of the worst new development Hong Kong has ever seen.

Hollywood Terrace as seen from Queen’s Road.
Photo courtesy Rocco Design Architects.

One of the public passageways inside Hollywood Terrace.
Photo courtesy Rocco Design Architects.

Even Yim seems somewhat disappointed with how it turned out. I met with him in December to chat about his work and he mentioned that the development’s residents have restricted access to the public passageways that cut through the development. “The tenants and the management decided that the maintenance costs were not something they were willing to bear,” he told me. “There was a discrepancy in expectation between the management and the initial conception.”

I can’t help but think that the residents would not have been so quick to dispose of Hollywood Terrace’s public space if the whole building was a bit more public-minded. What if the shophouses on Shin Wong Street had been preserved? At the very least, their scale could have been replicated with Vancouver-style podium townhouses. The interior terraces in Hollywood Terrace could have been a bit more warmly designed.

Thankfully, I don’t think I’m the only one asking these questions. Public pressure over issues like heritage conservation and air flow has forced the latest generation of urban redevelopment projects to be more sensitive to issues of scale and place. The value of streetscapes like that of Shin Wong in 1969 is slowly being recognized.

Not far from Hollywood Terrace is another web of small streets that were set to be torn down for a similarly massive redevelopment project. Now the plans have been sent back to the drawing board and most of the existing fine-woven urban fabric will be preserved — keeping something from becoming nothing.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday February 01 2011at 11:02 pm , filed under Architecture, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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