The Skyliners

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The Skyliners

Words by Mr James Lo | Photography by Mr Jason Capobianco | Styling by Mr Bohan Qiu

27 May 2015

Meet Hong Kong’s new architectural guard, all working to shape the city for tomorrow.

Hong Kong’s humble beginnings as a backwater fishing village have long been forgotten. Today, the city has more skyscrapers than any other metropolis in the world, and more than 7,500 high-rise buildings have sprouted up across this outpost on the bottom edge of China. But that doesn’t mean it is an easy place to be an architect who beautifies its skyline. Housing more than seven million people in a city where 70% of the territory is too mountainous to build on can result in rows of generic and brutalist residential towers.

The terrain is not the only challenge for today’s architects. What useable land there is has usually already been built on, forcing constant tension between heritage preservation and demolition; property developers here are notoriously conservative and prefer to repeat an old design than bet on something new (although, in practice, it all ultimately seems to hinge on what the feng shui master decrees); and, finally, its sub-tropical location brings typhoons, landslides and suffocating humidity which have led to punishingly stringent building regulations. In this environment, it’s up to the city’s many talented architects to find some middle ground and create a new Hong Kong, where form is as important as function. Here, we meet five of the city’s prominent designers to discuss just what it takes to reshape the skyline.

Mr André Fu

Founder AFSO

A native of Hong Kong, Mr Fu was educated at the University of Cambridge. On graduation in 2000, Mr Fu set up his own design studio, AFSO, in Hong Kong. His clients include Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Park Hyatt Hotels, Louis Vuitton and Lane Crawford. His design for The Upper House Hotel in Hong Kong won the 2013 LE Miami award for Best Design and Condé Nast Traveller featured The Fullerton Hotel on its 2012 Gold List.


What do you enjoy about working in Asia?

“I have always been intrigued with the notion of creating unique experiences in Asia – there’s a great momentum and a tremendous diversity of cultural offering.”

How would you describe Hong Kong’s design style?

“Hong Kong is very transient in its composition – typical of many modern cities. Yet its dramatic sense of intense urbanity provides a distinct setting where the old and the new, the east and west converge and collide. It is this eclectic nature that, perhaps, best defines a Hong Kong design DNA.”

How would you describe your design philosophy?

“The essence of my design philosophy is grounded in my Western training, from classical architecture to the post-modern period. I appreciate the fundamentals of architecture and the many theories that ground them, which is a key foundation that allows me to push boundaries and foster new interpretations in my work. I’d say my designs are very process-driven and should embrace a quintessential sense of place.”

How has Hong Kong changed since your childhood?

“There’s a continual expansion of the city into rural areas and existing hubs are being revitalised with new skyscrapers. However, it is intriguing to see a growing consciousness to preserve the few heritage buildings that are left and regenerate them into something that is valid today.”

Where are your favourite places to relax in Hong Kong?

“The Lawn at The Upper House Hotel, which I designed in 2009. It was one of my signature projects that has become an all-time favourite venue among the fashion and art crowds. Many also see the purist and tactile quality of the hotel as an honest testament to a new Asian aesthetics.”

What’s your favourite building in Hong Kong?

“The Kadoorie Estate in Kowloon. It spans eight hectares and constitutes a tranquil oasis close to the business hubs of West Kowloon and Central. It was originally a barren rock site that became Kadoorie Hill in 1931 and it then developed progressively over the next four decades. This collection of pre-war to post-modern houses is a real gem and is possibly the most significant representation of the way the city’s architecture has evolved.”

Ms Vivien Liu

A graduate of Harvard University, where she won the prestigious Clifford Wong Prize in Housing Design, Ms Liu started her career in Hong Kong at Rem Koolhaas’ OMA architectural practice. Last year, she moved to Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, where she is working on a number of projects around Asia. Her eye-catching photography on Instagram (check her out on @vdubl) has won her more than 107,000 followers, who check in daily to see her unique view of Hong Kong architecture.

You’ve got an amazing Instagram feed. Tell me more about how you got into photography.

“It’s funny because it really started off as a bit of a hobby, and it still is, of course. When I was working at OMA, I wanted to get further inspired and was thinking of a way to explore the city better. Photography was a way to do something that worked with my architectural vision. It was a way to tie architecture in with exploring the city, and to tie Hong Kong to the rest of the world in a way that’s immersive.”

Has it helped in your career as an architect?

“I think so. It’s broadened my circle and I’m able to meet more people. If it wasn’t for that, I would just be an architect. With some luck, I was able to get into this space.”

How has it affected the way you design?

“Architects are trained to see a space before it’s realised, so I think photography helps me with that. But I’d also say it’s the other way round. My training helps me with the way I photograph. I look at space with a more symmetrical eye, and you see a lot of symmetry in my photos.”

Some of your photos are of a smartphone taking a picture of the same space, creating a type of optical illusion. Where did that idea come from?

“That all came from my school project, where I wanted a viewer to see through a user’s smartphone – seeing the building from there. It all leads to the idea of immersing the viewer into the space. It’s also relevant to social-media-savvy clients, who now say, “We want this space to be photographed, we want this to be on Instagram,” because that’s how a space proliferates these days, not through someone’s memories, but through these visual records.”

What’s your favourite place in Hong Kong?

“Believe it or not, I like being on the Star Ferry. There’s a tranquility there. You’re removed from the city and every moment it’s a different scene. And I can never get tired of seeing the skyline from that perspective.”

Mr Otto Ng

Design director LAAB

At 29 years old, Mr Ng is the youngster of the group, but he has already won Perspective Global 2013’s 40 under 40 Design Talents. A Hong Kong native, he founded LAAB on graduation from MIT in 2013, a multidisciplinary studio that combines art and architecture, with a focus on technological solutions.

Did you always want to be an architect?

“I’ve always been interested in design and technology, but I had to make a difficult decision between computer sciences or architecture when I graduated high school. I chose architecture, but I still use a lot of technology in my design practise.”

Can you give me an example?

“Technology, such as 3D-printing, enables us to design and fabricate things in our workshop for a start. In addition, Hong Kong apartments are often very small, but technology can make these small spaces more useable. Using technology, the entire configuration of every room in a home can change at any time depending on the needs of the people living there. For instance, we are just finishing a residential project for a 300sqft apartment for a couple and three cats. The floor is robotic, the kitchen cabinet is robotic, the TV can hide itself, the bathtub can turn into a guest bed. Sometimes, we’ll invent new materials by taking something inexpensive and off-the-shelf and use machines or chemical processes to change its properties.”

What’s your favourite building in the city?

“The Central-Mid-Levels Escalator that connects the business district (Central) to the main residential district on Hong Kong Island (Mid-Levels) is my favourite piece of urban architecture in Hong Kong. It cuts through office towers, monuments, markets, shophouses, bars and restaurants all the way to Mid-Levels. It transformed urban dynamics and put focus on previously unnoticed shopfronts that were above ground level, as they are now visible from the escalator. I feel this is a unique solution, and was invented here in Hong Kong.”

Where’s your favourite place to hang out?

“I just went to Kai Tak yesterday, where the old Hong Kong airport runway used to be, and spent the day with my friends there having a picnic in the park. It’s a very unusual space because it’s so open for this city – you can see both the Hong Kong and Kowloon skylines from it – and because you’re basically in the middle of the sea.”

Mr William Lim

Managing director CL3 Architects Limited

A graduate of Cornell University, Mr Lim practiced architecture in Boston for five years before returning to Hong Kong in 1987. After working directly for a property developer, he assumed the position of managing director of CL3 Architects in 1993, a position he has now held for 22 years. In addition to his career as an architect, Mr Lim is also an accomplished artist and was chosen to represent Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale’s International Architectural Exhibition in both 2006 and 2010.

What was it like representing Hong Kong at the 2006 and 2010 Venice Biennale?

“It was a huge honour, first of all, and I wanted to show something really special about Hong Kong. People always look at us as a city that’s very contemporary, efficient and almost futuristic. But they don’t often realise there is also some culture as well.”

Are art and design becoming more encouraged in Hong Kong?

“Art has become very apparent, especially in the past two or three years since Art Basel started coming here in 2013. People are coming through Hong Kong and Hong Kong artists are going abroad a lot more frequently. The development of M+ will give a lot of exposure to the art scene. In terms of architecture and design, it’s less obvious, but there’s definitely a demand for more creativity. Maybe it’s because real estate is a more difficult game now so developers are looking for unique products that are more attractive to their customers.”

But are the clients becoming less conservative?

“Well, they’re more open-minded these days. They’ll want a unique building, but Hong Kong Building Regulations always get in the way. Here, we have to make things work with very tight parameters. The government still looks at design as a very utilitarian thing. Design should be able to change life for the better, it can improve life and the way people view our city.”

Do you have a favourite building on the skyline in Hong Kong?

“The building I really like is the old City Hall – it’s a very good piece of architecture. But the rest of them are commercial and developer-driven, so I don’t really see any of the other buildings on the skyline as good architecture. But the interesting thing is that, together, all those buildings are amazing. The buildings don’t relate to one another, but as a whole it’s a very interesting scene.”

Mr Richard Hay

Founder/ director Hay Architecture

Originally from the United Kingdom, Mr Hay first arrived in Hong Kong in 1992. Over the next 12 years, he worked on award-winning projects such as Hong Kong International Airport, Verbena Heights and Tung Chung New Town. A further eight years were spent in Dubai with multidisciplinary practice ATKINS before he returned to Hong Kong in 2012 as associate director of architecture for Ronald Lu and Partners. In 2014, Mr Hay set up his own practice, Hay Architecture.

Which is your favourite building in Hong Kong?

“The most futuristic-looking one is Bank of China. It’s dramatic and beautiful, the way this diagonal Rubik cube geometry has been extruded and rotated upwards is quite amazing. But from a social perspective, my favourite is the HSBC Building. At ground level, the space is just taken away and you have this beautiful cascading floor, and you can look up into its great cathedral-like cavern. It’s an amazing architectural idea, to suspend a building from a minimum of superstructure and allow people to pass through underneath.”

What first struck you when you came to Hong Kong?

“When I first came here from London in 1992, Hong Kong felt like the modernist dream at work. The population density and the terrain here are catalysts for creativity. Take social housing, for instance. You have all these different residential developments, each self-sufficient with facilities such as schools and shops. So you have, in essence, a small city. It’s what architects like Le Corbusier tried – and failed – at. Perhaps how they look isn’t perfect, but it’s the first phase, as it were, of the modernist experiment. It shows that people can adapt to this collective hive way of living.”

How do you like to relax in Hong Kong?

“I’ll be up on the coast in Sai Kung, sitting at a small club, watching my kids jump off the pier into the water. Otherwise, I’ll be on the roof of my little house at 2am, gazing up at the stars, which you can still see in Sai Kung.”