Transit by Design

Sheung Shui Station

Lai King Station, next to Hong Kong’s sprawling container port, has special significance for Wilfred Yeung. “This was my first assignment when I joined the MTR,” he says as we ride down the escalator from the busy platform upstairs. In the mid-1990s, as a young architect, Yeung was given the task of expanding the station to accommodate a new metro line. Rather than expand the station into an unwieldy maze of corridors, tracks were rerouted so that passengers could transfer between lines simply by walking across the platform.

It’s this kind of efficiency that passengers have come to expect from the MTR, the world’s ninth-busiest metro system, with 1.41 billion passenger rides last year. Not only efficiency, but seemingly endless expansion. Over the next five years, the MTR will open seven new metro stations and a high-speed rail line; several more lines and an overhaul of existing stations are in the works. But attitudes in Hong Kong are changing, and growth for growth’s sake is not longer held in high esteem. Nor is a purely functional metro system, no matter how fast and reliable it might be. The MTR’s new challenge is to move millions of people a day through a system that is at once convenient, comfortable and aesthetically interesting.

Aesthetics weren’t the top priority when the MTR was first planned in the 1970s, but under the guidance of British architect Roland Paoletti — who later oversaw the design of London’s renowned Jubilee Line extension in the late 1990s — it managed to create a visually distinctive system with limited resources. Paoletti made extensive use of commonly-available, brightly-coloured mosaic tiles to create a distinct identity for each station. “It’s still so significant that it’s hard to depart from when we plan new stations,” says Yeung, who is now the MTR’s chief architect. “People associate the MTR with bright colours.”

Rush Hour @ MTR

Admiralty Station. Photo by Kevin Lau

Wan Chai Station. Photo by Arnd Dewald

The MTR’s early stations were far more utilitarian than other metro systems of the era — nothing as grandiose as the eerie Brutalist caverns of Washington, DC or as whimsical as Montreal, where each metro station was designed by a different architect. Still, says architect Eric Schuldenfrei, “there is something to be said for that kind of simplicity.” Schuldenfrei teaches a course on “sites of erasure” at the University of Hong Kong — places in Hong Kong that are zones of transition and change. The MTR is one of his students’ favourite subjects. “The beauty of the MTR is that even though some stations are over 30 years old, they still seem incredibly modern,” he says.

Much of that has to do with the MTR’s emphasis on maintaining high design standards throughout the system, from lighting to furniture and signage. That might sound like an obvious strategy for any mass transit system, but it isn’t the case in much of Asia, especially in mainland China, where signage is often confusing and inconsistent, with arbitrary use of fonts, type size and colours. “We have a dedicated graphics department that looks over all of our signage, which is rare in this part of the world,” says Yeung. Each station also contains subtle design cues to guide passengers to the right places. Ticket machines, customer service booths and information panels, for instance, are all designated by the same dark shade known by the MTR as “corporate blue.”

For all its success, many argue that the MTR’s efficiency comes at the expense of character. In one of Schuldenfrei’s classes, he asked a student why he had chosen the MTR as a site of erasure. The student responded, tongue firmly in cheek, “It’s a site of erasure — of the soul.” Even Yeung admits that the MTR’s architecture grew overly clinical in the 1990s and 2000s, when new station designs emphasized smooth, clean, metallic surfaces. “People found it was too cold, too mechanical,” he says.

He has developed a solution: find a way to introduce more daylight into stations and use warmer, naturalistic materials. This is reflected in the plans for the new stations along the Island Line extension, which call for entrance kiosks made with stone and imitation timber, in contrast to the glass-and-steel entrances favoured in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The same approach can be seen in the MTR’s latest and largest initiative. The terminus for the new Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou Express Rail Link, which is slated to open in 2016, will be embedded in a park-like setting next to Victoria Harbour and the future West Kowloon Cultural District. Designed by Aedas in conjunction with Yeung and the MTR’s team of in-house architects, it is located partly below ground, from which it rises in layers that resemble the gills of a fish. It poses a sharp contrast to the monolithic, fortress-like structures around it, including a shopping mall and another MTR station.

“A lot of the problems we see in Hong Kong is that newer buildings have big podiums that have walls along the street,” says Yeung. “I didn’t want that here. The first thing I said to the architects is, ‘Don’t build a three-storey wall with nothing around it.’”

Yeung says this shift in the MTR’s architectural ethos is a response to growing concern about quality of life in Hong Kong, a city that for decades has valued economic development above all else. “The question now is how to add value into your life,” he says. “We can’t be seen only as high-tech — we need to be seen as caring for the community, and the architecture needs to reflect that.”

The MTR’s Express Rail Terminus, now under construction

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This story was first published in the October/November 2011 edition of Surface Asia.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday November 03 2011at 10:11 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, History, Interior Space, Transportation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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