My girlfriend sometimes says she could never live in a city without hills. I can see what she means. A city with varied topography is never quite the same from one day to the next; hills open up views that change with the passing light and weather. Not to mention their effect on a city’s built form, creating wrinkles that can never be smoothed out, undoing even the best-laid plans. Some of the most interesting parts of Hong Kong are also its hilliest; the streets uphill from Central and Sheung Wan are a haphazard assembly of mismatched buildings, century-old retaining walls and unexpected constructions that try their best to make do in less than ideal conditions.
Archive for the Architecture category
Hong Kong isn’t an easy city to navigate. That’s because so much of it exists out of sight: above your head, under your feet, around the corner in a dingy shopping mall. It’s what architect Jonathan Solomon calls a three-dimensional city. “There are all these attempts to map Hong Kong, but most of them are useless,” he says. Maps show streets, others depict shopping malls, but none chart the way Hong Kong’s intricate networks of private and public spaces are linked together by roads, tunnels, footbridges, escalators and lifts. “There’s no record of all the exciting stuff that happens in these spaces.”
Solomon rectifies that situation in Cities Without Ground, an unorthodox guidebook to Hong Kong he published last year with fellow architects Clara Wong and Adam Frampton. Inside its 128 pages is a brief history of Hong Kong’s “condition of groundlessness,” starting with the dramatic, hilly topography that enabled the growth of a vertical city, followed by the popularity of footbridges as a means to connect buildings on different levels and finally the development of vast above- and below-ground pedestrian networks. Most of the book consists not of text but of vivid illustrations dissecting the warren of subways and skybridges, shopping malls and public plazas that make up many parts of Hong Kong.
“There’s an alternative spatial logic in Hong Kong and in order to expose that, we had to reveal something invisible,” says Solomon. “These maps are not meant to be used as wayfinding devices, but I personally find them quite useful as a way of understanding how Hong Kong works.” The maps are as much a document of Hong Kong’s psychogeography as they are of its physical space. Labels include not only the names of buildings and shops, but also human landmarks like “lunching legislators” and the “permanent democracy protest” outside the government headquarters, and “family graduation photoshoots” and a “birdwatching meeting point” in Hong Kong Park.
Cities Without Ground also includes heat maps that chart the range in temperature between different types of buildings: the higher the rents, the frostier the air conditioning. The quality of climate control becomes a quick way to gage the prestige of a given shopping mall. “The network occurs on both the high and the low ends of the economy,” says Solomon. “People talk about Central as one big high-end mall, but if you look at Tsuen Wan, the form is very similar, but it’s all very quotidian middle-class stuff, like hair salons and 7-Eleven and fast food.”
The Devonian Gardens in 2007. Photo by norrix
The Devonian Gardens were a wonderland. Located on the top floor of the TD Centre mall in downtown Calgary, the gardens were a fully-enclosed greenhouse of tropical plants and — best of all for a kid — a million nooks and crannies to explore. It seemed like every path led to something fascinating: a hidden alcove surrounded by palms, a wood-framed playground teeming with children, a pond filled with turtles and goldfish, ringed by little coin-operated dispensers that spat out fish food instead of candy. There was an outdoor terrace, too, and in the winter it was exhilarating to emerge from the warm, soupy air of the gardens into the stingingly dry cold.
Built in the late 1970s and donated to the City of Calgary by the Devonian Group of Charitable Foundations, the gardens were operated as an indoor public park, open without restriction for most of the day. It was a popular spot for office workers to eat their lunch, munching on sandwiches as nannies and mothers pushed their babies down the brick paths. Men gathered in the afternoon to play chess near the gardens’ front entrance. There were more than 135 species of plants, many of them tropical, and in a dry prairie city that is brown for most of the year, the gardens felt almost surreal in their lushness, a feeling enhanced by the contrast between the jungly vegetation and the banal artificiality of the design: brown bricks, brown metal railings, faux stone waterfalls that looked like they came from the set of a cheap dinosaur movie.
Five years ago, on a February trip to Calgary, I made a point to walk through the Devonian Gardens when I spent an afternoon photographing the Plus-15 network of interconnected second-floor spaces that spans most of the downtown area. I had no idea it would be the last time I saw the gardens in their original state. Shortly after my visit, TD Centre and two adjacent malls closed for a years-long renovation that included a makeover for the gardens. When they reopened last summer, it became clear that it was much more than a makeover: it was a complete gutting of everything that had made the gardens special.
Talking over dim sum at a busy Wan Chai restaurant, it doesn’t take much prompting for Christopher Law to reel off the failures of Hong Kong’s public spaces. “No matter how small the space is, they try to fence it off,” he says, taking of sip of pu-erh tea. “All the public seating is extremely awkward. And because of maintenance, they use these pink toilet tiles everywhere.”
It’s a subject Law, the director of international architectural practice Oval Partnership, knows well. He points out there are more than 80 small parks and plazas scattered throughout Wan Chai District, but many are so poorly designed they may as well not exist — one “sitting out area” on Queen’s Road East consists of two benches and a patch of concrete surrounded by a tall fence. Recently, though, Law and his firm got a chance to reshape a constellation of public open spaces around Star Street, a quietly fashionable corner of Wan Chai.
“They’re places where you can read a book, eat your rice box or sandwich, have a nap,” says Law. “Most of the public spaces in Hong Kong aren’t designed for that diversity of uses — all those activities are limited or actively discouraged. We wanted to encourage them.”
Hong Kong isn’t the only city in Asia where designers are casting a critical eye over the quality of public space. All over the region, cities ambushed by decades of rapid growth are taking a step back and reconsidering their perfunctory parks, streets and plazas — though in some cases, architects must butt heads against arcane policies, design standards and intransigent officials in order to make a difference.
One of the best-known and most dramatic of these overhauls took place in Seoul, where an ancient waterway known as Cheonggyecheon, long entombed in concrete and covered by an elevated expressway, was reborn in 2005 as a 8.4-kilometre-long stream lined by a promenade and native vegetation. That was one of the inspirations for last year’s transformation of a fenced-off waterway in Singapore’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park into a focal point for the surrounding community.
The crux of the project was the conversion of the Kallang River from concrete drainage channel into a natural stream. “Before, there was no relation to the water — it was the backside of the neighbourhood,” says Tobias Baur, a landscape architect with Atelier Dreiseitl, which oversaw the project. “The problem was that it was a concrete channel completely barred to the residents. It was dangerous for people because the water was very fast and it was a dead zone for vegetation. It was a non-usable space.”
When property prices reach such outlandish heights as in Hong Kong, it creates some peculiar distortions in the local market. Whenever I walk around Kowloon Tong, a wealthy, low-rise neighbourhood not far from my apartment, I’m surprised by the number of derelict and seemingly abandoned houses.
Kowloon Tong was first developed as a garden suburb in the 1920s, with identical tile-roofed houses that strike me as vaguely Southeast Asian in appearance. By the 1950s, many of those houses were being demolished for larger, more modern villas and small apartment buildings, which in turn were redeveloped into luxury townhouses or even larger apartment buildings in the 1980s and later.
Despite the successive waves of redevelopment, there are always reminders of what was left behind. One such reminder can be found on Derby Road, an unassuming little street behind the Maryknoll Convent School. That’s where I came across a large abandoned house, early modern in appearance, with a staggered form that makes it look like it was sliced off the top of an Art Deco skyscraper. The house has two wings, one slightly larger than the other, and a walled, overgrown garden with two gates, one facing Derby Road and another facing Chester Road. On the Derby Road wall are old advertisements for Sprite and Kent cigarettes, with the faded name of a see doh — variety shop — written on the gate. It seems that, at some point in time, there was a small shop or hawker stall on the property.
Joel Sanders’ Broadway Penthouse
Five years ago, New York-based architect Joel Sanders was renovating a downtown Manhattan penthouse when he ran into a problem. “There was a rooftop garden, and what we needed to figure out was how to connect it to the loft,” he says. “We decided to reverse Modernist convention. Instead of taking hard materials outside, we brought the outside in.”
Like a waterfall of greenery, the roof garden makes its way into the centre of the apartment through a skylit atrium, through which a runs a minimalist wood-and-metal staircase. The green space serves a dual function as both focal point and barrier, separating the public areas of the apartment—the kitchen and living room—from the bedrooms. Glass walls in the bathroom look out to lush foliage; bathing inside “is like being in a spa,” says Sanders. “We made living with nature part of the lifestyle of the apartment by literally weaving the indoor and outdoor spaces together.”
It’s a concept that scales up. Last year, Sanders and landscape architect Diana Balmori, who both teach at the Yale School of Architecture, published Groundwork: Between Landscape and Architecture, a new book that seeks to eliminate the “false dichotomy between architecture and landscape” – the idea that the built environment is somehow distinct from the natural one.
“What we need to do now, because of the imperative to face environmental issues today, is to see buildings and landscapes as always being interrelated to one another,” says Sanders by phone from Yale. “We need design buildings that are green, sustainable and tied into the environment, but which also spatially integrates the indoors and outdoors.”
One of the first lessons of walking in Hong Kong: maps are your enemy. In a city with such dramatic topography, where private and public spaces blend together almost seamlessly, the best routes are not the most obvious.
Take for example the 20-minute walk from the cafés of Star Street to the shops of Queen’s Road Central. Follow the directions offered by Google Maps and you’ll head straight along the Queensway, a flat and easy route but not a very nice one, since you will be accompanied along the way by the noise and exhaust of roaring traffic, without any trees to shelter you from the sun. Far more interesting is a route that takes you through Pacific Place, Hong Kong Park, Citibank Plaza and Government Hill. Sounds complicated, but in practice it is an easy journey that passes through a shopping arcade designed by Thomas Heatherwick, a leafy park forged from the remnants of a British military base and one of Hong Kong’s most historically important clusters of architecture. I’m willing to bet that, on a hot summer day, this route — which combines stretches of indoor air conditioning with leafy green space — is about five degrees cooler than walking alongside the cars and buses of Queensway.
When I first met with Jonathan Solomon, one of the authors of Cities Without Ground, a book that maps Hong Kong’s intricate networks of three-dimensional private-public passageways, he made a very interesting observation: on Hong Kong Island, the ground doesn’t really exist. Solid though it may seem, the ground beneath our feet has been shaped and transplanted like so much spare modelling clay — and that’s just the natural stuff, not including the artificial ground like rooftop public parks. While cities like New York “worship the ground,” as Solomon put it, the very concept of what “ground level” is in Hong Kong is a bit shifty.
Rendering of the Xiqu Centre
Early December was a busy time for Bing Thom. First, there was his 72nd birthday, followed shortly by an announcement that the renowned Canadian architect had won the competition to design the new Xiqu Centre in Hong Kong, the first of 17 cultural venues to be built in the West Kowloon Cultural District. But Thom looks nothing but energised the day after the announcement, as he stands inside the cultural district’s offices.
“Have you seen the model?” he asks, bouncing over to a scale model to show off the 1,780-seat, US$350 million centre for Chinese opera that will begin construction this year. When it is completed at the end of 2015, the Xiqu Centre will contain a large theatre, a 280-seat teahouse, educational facilities for 200 students, retail spaces and a series of gardens. (A smaller theatre will be added later.) When Thom’s design was first unveiled, its undulating, translucent form caused quite a stir, earning comparisons to a lantern, a curtain being pulled open and even, in less polite corners of the internet, a certain part of the female anatomy.
“I’m trying to capture the soul and essence of what Cantonese opera is about while giving it a contemporary expression of ambiguity,” says Thom. “Even though it’s not physically moving, the quality of light, the seasonal changes and the changing of the gardens with different colours will give the building a moving quality.”
The Xiqu Centre is a sort of homecoming for Thom. Born in Hong Kong in 1940, he left with his family for Vancouver when he was ten years old. After studies in architecture at the University of British Columbia and University of California, Berkeley, he worked briefly for Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki before joining Arthur Erickson’s office in 1972, overseeing a number of major projects including the Roy Thomson concert hall in Toronto and the ambitious Robson Square civic centre project in Vancouver.
Seats of imperial power are often regarded with a certain reverence — they provoke admiration, astonishment, even fear. That’s certainly the case in New Delhi, where British colonialists built a series of massive, belittling monuments to their rule, or in Washington, DC, where the Mall is increasingly seen by its National Park Service administrators not as a civic gathering place but as a kind of “semi-sacred site of national, secular religion.”
Ancient Rome wasn’t like that. One of the points underlined in Mary Beard’s review of Clare Holleran’s new book Shopping in Ancient Rome is “the ubiquity of buying and selling in Roman towns and cities beyond designated shops or markets, or in areas where you might not quite expect it.” That includes the Forum, which was “buzzing with trade as much as with law and politics,” but also “some of the very grandest buildings in Rome,” which “were built specially to accommodate retail alongside their ceremonial function.”
The Temple of Castor included a series of bars and shops built right into its podium, which evidence suggests included, at some point, a shoemaker’s shop and a barber-cum-dentist’s shop (“as we can tell from the large number of extracted teeth found in its drain”). “The religious and ceremonial life of the temple obviously went on against a backdrop of ravens squawking, cobblers hammering and the screams of those having their teeth pulled,” writes Beard.
There’s a similar (though much tamer) scene on the edge of the Wufenpu clothing market in the east end of Taipei, where a row of hawker stalls is integrated into a Chinese temple. A number of stalls serve food and they use the interior courtyard of the temple as a dining area. As I munched on minced-pork noodles beneath red lanterns and a list of temple donors pasted on the wall, a couple of old men set off a string of firecrackers behind me. None of the other diners paid much heed. A man walked his dog through the courtyard.
A couple of months ago, I wrote about the fig tree that has taken root atop a dilapidated building on Temple Street in Hong Kong. 800 kilometres to the northeast, across the Taiwan Strait, there is something even more spectacular: an enormous tree that grows straight through an otherwise ordinary shophouse.
You can find the tree on Roosevelt Road, a wide boulevard that runs through the heart of Taipei, from the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to some of the city’s largest universities. From afar, it looks as though the tree stands in a courtyard, but walk closer and you’ll find its trunk rooted in an adjacent sidewalk. It rises up through the building’s first floor, curves through the interior and explodes past the roof into a riot of foliage. What came first, the building or the tree? Either way, accommodating the tree would have required serious effort and expense on the part of the building’s owner.
It goes without saying that cities impose themselves rather heavily on nature. Manhattan was verdant and hilly when the Dutch arrived; now it is flat and stripped bare of nearly all primeval forest — even Central Park is a simulacrum, its landscape meticulously planned by Frederick Law Olmstead. Even recent efforts at urban greening — vertical gardens, rooftop farms — stop short of being truly transformative.
Despite the fact that I’ve never owned a car, and I drive only a couple of times a year, I’ve always had a fascination with car design. When I was a kid, I knew all the marques. I would sit in the back seat of my parents’ van, naming the cars that went by, a copy of the Consumer Reports car guide on my lap. Even today, when I’m stuck on traffic on the bus here in Hong Kong, I’ll gaze out and catalogue my fellow travellers: the bulbous Nissan Marchs, hulking Toyota Alphards, the endless varieties of 3-Series BMWs and C-Class Mercedes that are so common in Hong Kong.
Of course, my interest isn’t limited to private automobiles. When I visited other North American cities with my family, I noted with interest how New Flyer buses were common in the west, Novabuses in the east. I learned to appreciate the classic New Look buses that served as workhorses on so many Calgary Transit routes, retro-stylish even as they struggled up the long hill to my house, ancient engines moaning in protest.
I bring this up because of Thomas Heatherwick, who delivered a very animated and entertaining talk last weekend at the Business of Design Week forum in Hong Kong. Heatherwick is a British designer whose London-based studio has produced, among other things, the “Seed Cathedral” at the 2010 Shanghai Expo and the spectacular cauldron of the 2012 Olympic Games. Heatherwick is also the designer of the New Bus for London, which he highlighted in his talk at BODW.
When the bus was unveiled last year, there was some sense that it was at best a vanity project, at worst an attempt to indulge nostalgia, since the new bus was meant as a revival of the iconic Routemaster bus, which was produced until 1968, retired from regular service in 2005 and known for its hop-on, hop-off open back end. The typically rancorous peanut gallery at Dezeen blasted Heatherwick’s design as “steampunky art nouveau” and a “glorified student project” that put “fashion over function.” One cranky commenter insisted that “the bus should be practical above all else,” as if Heatherwick had produced a three-wheeled jitney that ran on the distilled essence of gold.
The Venice Biennale of Architecture closes this week, which has given me opportunity to think back to its opening days in late August. I was there to cover the Hong Kong exhibition, but I had a bit of time to soak up the rest of the show. It was big, unruly and dramatically uneven, but it was clear enough that this year’s curator, British architect David Chipperfield, was eager to capture the zeitgeist of grassroots urbanism and do-it-yourself architecture. The theme, “Common Ground,” was meant to reflect the importance of everyday urban environments, which are “created in collaboration with every citizen,” according to Chipperfield.
But Venice is not a city that embraces change, and neither does its biennale. Big names and established players still dominated the event. This year’s show “mostly just glides over issues like public housing and health, the environment, informal settlements, economic decline and protest,” wrote New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman. “It suggests above all an uncertainty about how to unpack, evaluate, present and tame the messy, multilayered social, political, economic and architectural processes that go into making good buildings and places today.”
Austrian architect Wolf Prix went even further than Kimmelman and savaged this year’s biennale for promoting “compromise” with authorities instead of outright resistance to the status quo. “It is no longer about lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture, but rather about empty, conservative and perhaps populist shells that are charged with feigned meaning,” he wrote.
Tatzu Nishi has made a career of bringing monuments down to size. Over the past 15 years, the 52-year-old Japanese artist has enclosed statues around the world in makeshift rooms. Last year, he built a hotel room around Singapore’s Merlion, whose enormous head loomed incongruously over a luxuriously-appointed king-sized bed. This year, Christopher Columbus receives the same treatment. Normally perched 18 metres above Columbus Circle in New York, a four-metre-tall marble statue of the famed explorer now sits atop a coffee table in an upscale American living room. Visitors can contemplate the normally aloof figure in a familiar setting: Bloomingdale’s furniture set, 55-inch Samsung TV, hardwood floors.
Over the past 30 years, Vancouver has transformed itself from provincial outpost to globally-renowned metropolis — a crucial link in the Pacific Rim necklace of capital, culture and migration. The change has been physical. Since 1990, more than 150 skyscrapers have been built on the Canadian city’s downtown peninsula, creating a densely-built environment that has more in common with Singapore or Shanghai than with most North American cities.
Nearly 40 of those towers were designed by James Cheng, one of Canada’s most quietly influential architects. Born in Hong Kong, educated in the United States and based in Vancouver since 1972, Cheng pioneered a form of slender “point tower” set atop a low-rise podium that became the emblem of “Vancouverism,” an urban design movement that advocates high-density residential construction with an emphasis on public amenities, natural light, open views, urban greenery and lively, pedestrian-oriented streets.
Yet Cheng remains an architectural outsider, even as his ideas have reshaped Vancouver’s urban identity. “As city-builder and innovator in high-density housing, he is without rival in this country, fighting for public amenities and public open space in his city-transforming projects at a time when autonomous architectural sculptures get the praise,” writes Vancouver-based architecture critic Trevor Boddy. Cheng describes himself in slightly less grandiose terms: “I don’t want to be a global player. I have no dream to be a superstar. I just want to do good-quality buildings.”