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Reconnecting Cultures

Rocco Yim

In this age of instant visual gratification, most architects crave to do things, or be seen to be doing things, differently. Over the last decade, we have had our own chances of doing things that are “different”. In 2000, we designed a bamboo pavilion in Berlin for the Berlin-Hong Kong Cultural Festival, using a precisely engineered configuration but employing native material common only in South Asia and skilled labor for the assembly available only from Hong Kong. In 2004, we designed a villa in China with emphasis not on the richness of materials or finishes, but the richness of the spatial composition, tailored for the life-style of the affluent contemporary Chinese family. In the same year, we won an international competition for the Guangdong Museum, inspired not by traditional Chinese architecture but by the mystique, intricacy and symbolic significance of the traditional treasure box; a container of valuable objects and itself an object of art. In 2012, we completed the new Government Headquarters for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), where we incorporated a public park right through its center; a much welcomed public space open to the citizenry 24 hours a day, a unique feature in an institution that by tradition is highly safety and security conscious. Finally, the Chu Hai College will open in late 2016, providing staff and students with an energizing learning environment where all the vital elements of a university, including teaching, research, sports, administration, lodging and amenities, come together and are integrated within a single building on a compact, slanting site. But we would be the first to point out that “to be different” is not in itself a design philosophy. Doing things differently is not necessarily being creative. At least not in architecture. Because architecture in our opinion transcends mere art. Contrary to prevailing fashion, architecture is not just about shapes and skins. It is the embodiment of culture, which stems from the past but actually deals with the present, being about contemporary living and current attitudes, tempered by the past in its use of space and material and its perception of beauty and balance of values. All of these are essential ingredients in the making of architecture, if architecture is to be authentic and relevant. As an art, architecture is unique in that it is tied to a place. In this regard Asia is a place with disparate cultural and physical landscapes, where modern and tradition cultures co-exist in its more cosmopolitan cities such as Hong Kong, and values from diverging times and places converge and collide. It’s the resolution of such values that ultimately informs the architecture. Its formal and spatial expression will inevitably reflect the underlying trends of cultures, in particular physical and cultural phenomena such as identity, spatiality, community, density, connectivity and materiality. Identity Perhaps more in China than in Hong Kong, the issue of identity has long been a subject of contention. The need to highlight architectural identities that are different from other places, particularly from those in the west, has plagued the consciousness of the entire design community. In determining what constitutes Chinese identity in architecture, diverse answers could be given. But we feel that ultimately the real identity of a building can only be born of the successful resolution of contents and use. In our design for the Guangdong and Yunnan Museums, for instance, architectural identity is inspired by the relevant heritage objects and by a landscape unique to the region. In Guangzhou, home to wealthy merchants of South China, the notion of a treasure box, an intricate object in which the rich store their valuables, becomes for us the metaphor for the architectural imagery. In Kunming, the legendary natural beauty of Yunnan Province, in particular the stunning Stone Forest located a short distance away from the site, provides us with visual and spatial clues for the composition of the Museum architecture. Likewise in the design for the Boao Canal Village in Hainan, a modern riverside resort, we are inspired by the relationship between water and dwellings in traditional Chinese riverside habitation. However, all this heritage, be it object, landscape or lifestyle, serves only as a useful starting point. They do not constrain the ultimate resolution of form, space and use in the architecture, from which true identity results. While past memories provide the spark and the “genesis” of an idea, the outcome is inevitably the result of a vigorous process of architectural evolution, informed by such memories and tailored to contemporary use and needs. Spatiality Our perception of space is shaped by our history, reflecting how people lived, used and appreciated spaces. In our view, space is traditionally often a tool rather than just a phenomenon. Spatial arrangement has been used to define social order, for instance in the vernacular courtyard house, where the spatial hierarchy of courtyards reflected the structure of a large family. Spatial disposition has been used to shape emotions, enhancing the sense of anticipation and respect, as in the axial sequencing of public spaces in temples and palaces. Social structures and the nature of public institutions in contemporary times are of course different, and contemporary building technology provides new opportunities for very different building typologies and spatial configurations, but for us, traditional spatial strategies remain in many instances still an inspiration. The Jiu Jian Tang villas in Shanghai, for instance, demonstrate how the traditional concept of spatiality and the use of space as a tool to organize social hierarchy in vernacular architecture can be adapted to a modern house to cater for the family composition and lifestyle of the contemporary Chinese middle-class. The project for the city library in Guangzhou adapts the linear and one-dimensional spatial sequencing of traditional public buildings into a three-dimensional format to enhance the emotional aspiration inherent in a contemporary public institution. Community Spatial composition can also be instrumental in bringing people together. As a Chinese tradition, a sense of community has long been cherished and reflected in such physical artifacts as the walled-village and the vernacular courtyard dwelling. While sentiments related to family and clans are obviously no longer relevant in today’s society, there is still today a yearning for togetherness and the association of like-minded individuals who cherish common values and thoughts. In this regard it is our belief that architecture can have a meaningful contribution. The sense of community will result from appropriate place-making through the careful manipulation of scale and ambience, and the correct mix of use and users. What it brings about will no longer be just a sense of belonging and security, but enhanced opportunities for social exchange and communication. Chu-Hai college, a compact new university just completed in Hong Kong, will celebrate the culture of community, traditionally exemplified in such introverted physical structures like the tulau rural dwellings and walled-villages, but here extroverted and inclusive for like-minded students and academics of the college rather than exclusive and protected for former family and clans. The college architecture also addresses the challenge of Hong Kong’s extremely dense urban fabric, creating a 3-dimensional hybrid of integrated academic functions within a confined site while at the same time delivering a strong sense of place and togetherness. Density Density has always been perceived, tolerated and appreciated differently in our part of Asia. As a condition, it is admittedly a two-edged sword. Once synonymous with over-crowdedness and congestion, the condition of density has since been tempered by concerns for environmental and spatial improvement, and so has been exploited, becoming an increasingly positive urban attribute, bringing about vibrancy rather than stagnation, and efficiency rather than gridlock. The embracing of density - originally through necessity and increasingly now through appreciation - has actually given rise to opportunities and forces that architecture must learn to harness if it is to create new building typologies. One such example is the multi-use hybrid, exemplified by the Poly-U Hotel ICON, a teaching hotel complex where three seemingly autonomous functions - a residence for senior Poly-U staff, a school of Hotel Management and a 260-room commercial hotel - are amalgamated into an integral whole within a compact urban site. Another example is vertical stacking, exemplified by iSquare, where retail activities in the busy consumer district of Tsimshatsui are stacked up twenty-seven floors, with different zones of life-style, entertainment and food/beverage organized around mini-atria set one on top of the other akin to a vertical urban fabric. Ultimately, we harness density to serve the larger common good and especially optimize the use of our increasingly scarce resources: buildable land. Connectivity While density is a key factor in the success of an urban context like Hong Kong’s, we believe it would not have become a positive attribute without the corresponding phenomenon of integrated urban connectivity. “Productive” connectivity depends on a multitude of conditions, among them a compact urban grain and a robustness and integrity of the public domain, such as the multi-dimensional and multi-directional network of connectors in Hong Kong Central, which are seamlessly merged with the urban fabric and contribute to the fluidity and ease of movement. Connectivity is not just physical linkage but must also be visual and spiritual. More importantly, it requires a genuine fusion of architecture with the public realm, and the creative intervention of the former in the latter that will serve to enhance the dynamics of movement, encounter and interaction. It’s against this background that we conceived the park, the “green carpet”, created through the center of the HKSAR Government Headquarters. The park brings about a sense of place, creates a vibrant public realm right in the middle of Hong Kong’s seat of Government. But more significantly it serves to provide a fluid connection between the inner city and the future harbor waterfront, a grand urban gesture that enhances the city’s visual, spiritual and physical connectivity. Materiality Our handicraft tradition is one of the most radiantly demonstrated aspects of Chinese culture. The ability to appreciate refined intricacy and subtle expressivity in details, be they in physical or metaphorical form, has long been regarded as a benchmark for cultural accomplishment and maturity. Yet the essence of this tradition has largely remained a mastery of materials. Painstaking craftsmanship is essentially an exemplification of our understanding of the properties of materials and their appropriate selection. Natural or synthetic, materials must be fit for the purpose, defined in terms of their ability to enhance space and form, and their power to evoke emotions and sensual responses. The bamboo pavilions in Berlin in 2000, and a more recent one in Hong Kong in 2015, demonstrate how a traditional building material and construction methodology can still be relevant to today’s needs for certain building types, in particular temporary buildings where speed and ease of material transport, assembly and dismantling are key considerations. For us, these pavilions reflect not romantic nostalgia, but a traditional rational attitude towards materiality: in particular, that the materials adopted must be appropriate to their purpose, in terms of both constructability and spirituality. So while the above-mentioned projects may all seem different, that difference is driven by specific cultural agendas. It is our conviction that architecture transcends shapes and skins. Only by reconnecting with the relevant cultures of the times - past and present - and being both an expression of form and an interpretation of the quintessence of these cultures, can it be truly sustainable and authentic.

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