September 19th, 2012

Regrowth or Replacement?

HK Farm. Photo by Glenn Eugen Ellingsen

Sweating in the bright Mediterranean sun, Glenn Eugen Ellingsen surveyed a little bit of Hong Kong in Venice. “It’s meant to be very organic,” he said, pointing to an array of wood planters, metal racks, video screens and exposed electrical wires.

Ellingsen is one of the founders of HK Farm, an urban agriculture project on the roof of a factory building in Kwun Tong, and he had spent the week sourcing herbs and soil in order to recreate his farm in Venice. He turned his gaze over to a half-dozen wood planters brimming with rosemary, basil and sage. “They’re similar to what we have on the roof in Hong Kong, just a bit narrower,” he said.

It was the opening day of the Hong Kong pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s most prestigious showcase of architecture and urban design, which runs until Novermber 25. In true Hong Kong style, workers were scrambling to finish the exhibition on time, arranging architectural models and painting display cases green — the same colour as Hong Kong’s street market stalls.

The choice of colour was no accident. This year’s biennale is dedicated to “Common Ground,” a theme meant to shift focus away from big-name architects to more grassroots initiatives. Hong Kong’s exhibition, “Inter Cities/Intra Cities: Ghostwriting the Future,” focuses on the future of Kowloon East, a vast swath of city that is home to 600,000 people, Hong Kong’s last remaining factories, a burgeoning office hub and the city’s biggest creative cluster, with hundreds of musicians, designers and artists.

It also includes the former Kai Tak Airport, which is now being redeveloped with housing, offices and a huge cruise ship terminal and exhibition centre designed by Sir Norman Foster. The airport’s redevelopment will be used as a catalyst to transform Kowloon East into the so-called “CBD2” — a new office district that will provide an alternative to the high-priced business hubs of Hong Kong Island.

“What we have is probably the biggest ever urban regeneration project in Hong Kong,” says architect Christopher Law, co-director of the Oval Partnership, which curated the Venice exhibition. “Never before has we attempted something of this massive scale.”

With such massive change comes friction, however. For all the glowing speeches about regeneration, plenty of discord was evident in Venice. On the evening of the opening, as architects and government officials enjoyed prosecco under the setting sun, Kwun Tong musician Ah Kok Wong staged an impromptu protest, holding up a hand-drawn sign that read “Save Art.”

“There are over 1,000 studios in this area,” Wong shouted as the crowd grew quiet. “This plan means they will have to go.”

Former Kai Tak Airport and Kowloon East

Inside the HK exhibition. Photo courtesy HKIA

Panel discussion at the HK exhibition. Photo courtesy HKIA

Ah Kok Wong’s protest at the opening of the HK exhibition

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Alessandro Carboni performs a history of the Kai Tak River using materials from Kowloon East

Three decades ago, the industrial neighbourhoods of Kowloon Bay, Ngau Tau Kok and Kwun Tong were famous for producing toys, plastic flowers and countless other goods; Kwun Tong alone accounted for 20 percent of Hong Kong’s industrial output. When industry fled inland to the Pearl River Delta in the 1990s and 2000s, though, many factories lay vacant — until their low rents and ample square footage attracted a diverse range of small businesses, artists, designers and musicians.

Hong Kong’s exhibition in Venice explores that diversity, with installations ranging in scope from Foster’s Kai Tak cruise ship terminal to Hidden Agenda and HK Farm. “What we are doing is showing the diversity of the city and the extremities of the city,” says Law. “Cities around the world are becoming more extreme and Hong Kong is no exception.”

By putting Hidden Agenda on the same footing as multi-billion-dollar projects like the cruise ship terminal, Law is making a statement: both are equally important to the future of Kowloon East. “All great cities depend on what urban scholars call informalities,” he says. “A very important aspect of cities are illegal activities [like Hidden Agenda].”

That point was hammered home by a panel discussion at the Hong Kong pavilion that included some of the world’s most prominent architects and critics. “The great opportunity you have is to work with an area while it is still alive,” said British architect Sir Peter Cook. “You don’t need to design every single inch. Let life grow close to the factories. Let’s make Hong Kong naughtier, raunchier, less and less predictable.”

Other panelists agreed. “The role of institutions and governments is to create the space for diversity but not to design it,” said Pippo Ciorra, architecture curator of the Maxxi Museum in Rome. “Life is created by the people, not by the architecture.”

Given the government’s track record of redevelopment, though, many doubt that such a prescription could be filled. “You don’t have diversity when the government is involved,” said architect Rocco Yim, who designed the government’s new headquarters at Tamar.

“In Kwun Tong, the recent development has been top-down,” says Tris Kee, head of the University of Hong Kong’s Community Project Workshop, whose video interviews of 12 Kwun Tong residents are on display at the biennale.

She points to the redevelopment of Yue Man Square in Kwun Tong, whose bustling alleyways, shopping streets and low-rise tenements are being replaced with a glitzy cluster of skyscrapers and shopping malls. “They’ve put down a big master plan and taken out the heart of the district,” she says. “Yes, you’re upgrading the quality of buildings, but it creates a lot of problems as well.” Many small businesses owners displaced by the redevelopment say they won’t be able to afford the rent when the project is complete.

The government promises it will take a different approach to the CBD2 project. “We cannot just build another central business district with the traditional singular use of finance and banking,” says K.K. Ling, the head of Energizing Kowloon East, the government office set up to oversee the area’s regeneration. “We need a wide range of activities and services.”

Ling points out that 46 percent of Hong Kong’s new office development is already taking place in Kwun Tong, Ngau Tau Kok and Kowloon Bay, so his job is manage the change that is already underway. Rather than a strict master plan, Ling has developed a series of guidelines that call for better pedestrian linkages, improved access to the waterfront and space for art and culture.

He also notes that 90 percent of Kwun Tong businesses have fewer than 10 employees, so finding a way to keep the area affordable for small companies will be crucial to its success. “We need to retain the incubator function, because small and medium businesses are the real energy of Hong Kong,” he says.

But with only a vague plan and few concrete details, it is impossible to say just how that will be achieved. The government’s attempts at creating incubation zones for small businesses have mostly failed, says Kee. “Just look at Cyberport, which was supposed to help tech startups, but which is too expensive for them to operate.”

Christopher Law says it will be vital to keep the government from micromanaging the area. “What is needed is not help from the government,” he says. “We need to develop new types of NGOs that are not depending on government funding” that can provide affordable spaces to small businesses, cultural venues and creative industries.

Cranes rise over the former Kai Tak Airport

Former factory blocks in Kwun Tong

Bee hives on the rooftop HK Farm in Kwun Tong

From the outside, there is little to distinguish the Easy-Pack Industrial Building from its neighbours on Wai Yip Street, the industrial spine of Kowloon East. But it may well offer a vision for how Kowloon East’s diversity can be preserved. Spread across its six floors is an informal community of creative businesses: designers, furniture makers and, on the top floor, 2 Years Ahead, a studio that runs HK Farm and a host of other projects.

The week after the biennale’s opening, HK Farm co-founder Michael Leung stood next to an okra plant on the Easy-Pack roof. Bees buzzed in and out of nearby hives, part of another project, HK Honey, that has established urban hives around Hong Kong. “We’re growing a lot of flowering plants so there is a relationship between the bees and the produce,” said Leung. Two birds landed on the roof and began chirping. “You never used to see that around here,” he said.

HK Farm often receives groups of schoolchildren who learn how complex ecosystems can exist even in the concrete jungle of an industrial zone. It’s also a lesson in another type of ecosystem. HK Farm’s soil comes from Ma Po Po, a community farm near Fanling, and it’s kept loose with rice husks from Hong Kong’s last de-husking plant. “And we fertilize the soil with local food scraps from the dai pai dong and canteens nearby,” along with sawdust from the furniture workshop downstairs, said Leung.

It began to rain, so Leung walked downstairs to join his partners, Glenn Ellingsen and Matthew Edmondson. “If this area is ‘energized’ we won’t be able to afford to do urban agriculture anymore,” said Edmondson. “We might have a sympathetic landlord but other designers and businesses aren’t as lucky. Regeneration usually means driving out the original community.”

“This term ‘re-energize’ is very strange because that’s what is already going on,” said Leung. “The factories moved out and new businesses moved in. CBD2 is completely alien to what’s happening in this area — studios, band rooms, things like that. Hopefully more landlords won’t just be driven by money. This building is a particularly good example of that.”

“Maybe this will be the Noah’s Ark for creatives,” mused Ellingsen.

A similar discussion has been taking place at Hidden Agenda, which has served as a cultural anchor for Kwun Tong since it opened in 2009. More than 80 percent of Hong Kong’s independent bands are based in the area’s industrial buildings; Hidden Agenda is the first place many of them performed before a live audience. It hosts around 15 shows every month and it doesn’t charge musicians to play. Local musician Kung Chi-shing credits the venue with improving the quality of Hong Kong’s indie music scene. “One live gig is worth more than 20 practice sessions,” he says.

But Hidden Agenda is locked in a battle with the government, which refuses to grant it a licence to operate. Earlier this year, Energizing Kowloon East offered Hidden Agenda space to operate beneath a highway flyover next to the Kwun Tong waterfront, but the venue’s managers refused.

“They don’t understand why we want to be based in a factory building, but this is where the community is.” said co-founder Kimi Lau. “If there are no studios, there will be no bands to come play here. If they want to help the cultural scene they should give us a licence, not ask us to move. You need the community to make this work.”

Anti-Flag performing at Hidden Agenda. Photo by Tommy Au


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