The first in our new series by external contributors, we hear from influential architectural blogger, commentator and editor, Alfred Ho.
I believe no one would doubt Hong Kong’s architecture for its functionality – everything is built with a clear purpose. Economic efficiency, pragmatism and managerialism govern the form of architecture in our city, even a bench in a park might be designed with seemingly considerate armrests, when the actual function is to prevent people from sleeping on it.
Designing to precise requirements is the norm here. But what could be the long-term ramifications of this highly rigid approach? What about the subsequent end users? In Europe, palazzi and other building types can accommodate different functions over time, with new façades and building services installed. In Hong Kong, such flexibility in spatial design is lacking in most situations.
The staggeringly limited space available for the many activities, and high property value, probably aggravates the problem. Borrowing the prominent architect Denise Scott Brown’s metaphor for relationship between form and function of a structure, palazzo is a ‘mitten’ while most buildings in Hong Kong are ‘gloves’. The glove is shaped to hold each finger, as if the form of a building is shaped to contain some specific users; while the mitten is graded by size, which accommodates a wider catchment of users.
The idea of sustainability has started to propagate in the society of Hong Kong, reaching the construction industry in recent years. If a building or space is flexible, it is beter able to adapt to other uses or respond to the changes in the future. It is less likely to be demolished when the function or the ownership is changed – instead it might be repositioned when the time comes. The life and function of a building is extremely short in Hong Kong. A lot of resources are consumed and a lot of construction waste produced if buildings need to be demolished and rebuilt.
Is there anything the designer, as they communicate with the clients, can do to mitigate the problem? Or is the problem socially, culturally and economically constructed so that it cannot be solved with individual effort within the foreseeable future? A common way to deal with the issue is to apply for environmental assessment schemes like BEAM Plus or LEED for the projects. The measures in these schemes could alleviate the problems of consumption of scarce resources and production of overwhelming quantity of waste.
Nevertheless, Hong Kong does have some examples of buildings and spaces being used flexibly. For example, Hong Kong Coliseum is not just used for sports events, but a place for music concerts, performances and graduation ceremonies of secondary schools and universities; some former commercial units are used for religious gatherings, and religious symbols are put on the façades or in the signage to signify the use of the spaces (see image). Cafés or fast food restaurants are often used as places for doing homework and private tutorial classes by students. We’ve also seen the alteration of industrial buildings into artist studios, commodities outlets, spaces for entertainment and events. The Lead8 studio inhabits a former warehouse space.
The adaptive use of the buildings and spaces initiated by HongKongers, the private sector and groups, could be a significant force in reaction to the stringent space production in the city. Hopefully, this force would not be eradicated for the ease of management, but will instead give momentum to innovative spatial design in the city.
By Alfred Ho
Alfred Ho is an architect who focuses on urban research. Graduating from the University of Hong Kong and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Alfred is an expert on the urban realm. He has written for Chinese media in Hong Kong, and in 2012, co-founded City Outlook, a bilingual magazine exploring urban space and the built environment. You can read more from Alfred in his blog here (Chinese).
1. Scott Brown, Denise, ‘The Redefinition of Functionalism’, in Venturi, Robert, Scott Brown, Denise, Architecture as Signs and Systems: for a Mannerist Time, England, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004, pp. 142-174.
2. Christ, Emanuel, Gantenbein, Christoph, Hong Kong Typology: An Architectural Research on Hong Kong Building Types, Zurich, GTA, 2010.