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Creativity in Hong Kong Architecture

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Building with flair

20 March 2006

South China Morning Post

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Designing a building in Hong Kong is not a very challenging job. There is not much room for creativity, and this is why I have focused my work on the mainland and overseas in recent years.

There is very limited diversity in our buildings. Look around the city: you'll find the architecture is much the same. The public-housing estates are all mass-produced, and private blocks are similar. When buying a property, consumers make choices about location and size rather than the types and designs of buildings.

This is mainly because land is very scarce in Hong Kong. When a developer buys a site, its chief concern is to maximise the use of space and build as much - and as luxuriously - as possible. That's why we have seen so many new, 40- and 50-storey high-rises in recent years.

Hong Kong's architecture has improved very little in recent decades, compared to other cities. If you compare new residential buildings to those of 20 years ago, the key differences are that the new blocks have a big "clubhouse" facility and some expensive granite in the lift lobbies. The main difference, in other words, is that they look more luxurious.

Few buildings in the city have thicker walls for warmth or double-glazed windows to cut noise and save energy. But such features are already pretty standard in many other developed countries. In such nations, or even on the mainland, people can choose to live in a house, flat or loft apartment converted from a godown - without paying a lot more money. Here, only multimillionaires enjoy such choices.

Hong Kong city planning is old-fashioned. Sites are classified according to their use, such as residential, commercial or governmental. You will not find a site that combines apartments, offices and shopping malls. But such mixtures are the latest and most popular approach to city planning in many cities elsewhere.

My biggest interest as an architect is working on such mix-and-match plans. I am now working on a project in Singapore, designing a marketplace for medical services. The idea is to group Chinese herbalists, doctors and other therapists in the same open area, mixed with restaurants and shops - making a visit to the doctor a more relaxed experience. I am also designing a "forum" space in Lijiang city , Yunnan province , combining different elements in an open area.

I do not believe that a piece of land should be put to a single use. For the same reason, I don't think our harbourfront areas should all be turned into public parks or promenades, as many people are campaigning for. We need diversity and variety. The harbour will not be very attractive if there are just parks or promenades there. I do not see why offices or residential blocks shouldn't be built by the harbour, as long as they look nice.

I think what we need most, in architectural terms, is diversity. If developers and urban-renewal authorities keep pulling old blocks down and replacing them with big high-rises, the city will not look good.

Hong Kong has passed its peak in terms of rapid economic growth, and is already in a relative decline. I seriously doubt whether we need so many high-rises. Such a decline is not necessarily a bad thing. Look at London: it has declined in importance for over a century, but it is still very nice.

We need to maintain Hong Kong as a good place to live, and diversity in architecture is a key to doing so.

Christopher Law Kin-chung is the director of Hong Kong-based architectural firm The Oval Partnership

Interview by Quinton Chan

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