Hong Kong turns bad taste into an art form

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am

Excuse the bluntness of this remark, but why do buildings in Hong Kong have to be quite so ugly? Our property prices are among the highest in the world, yet look at what all this money buys - vast skyscrapers clad in lavatory-style tiles. And what is it that passes for classy? In a word: marble, great slabs of it stuck all over the place, with very little regard to any kind of aesthetic sense. And in Hong Kong we find that being really classy is signified by slabs of marble combined with gold coverings on more or less anything, from door handles to grills obscuring the light.

This could be described as vulgar. But that would only serve to devalue the word. Simple vulgarity has long been overtaken by riotous, shameless vulgarity of a kind that would be amusing were it not for the deep scar it inflicts across the face of Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale are the vast, aggressively ugly, public housing estates - presumably conceived as punishment cells and slightly modified for residential use. No use of dull pastel colours is considered too modest here, and it appears that someone on high has said that concrete should be deployed as often as possible in its raw state, preferably in place of any space where vegetation might have been allowed to rear its ugly head. For the technically minded, some of the missing vegetation goes under the name of grass.

So we have vulgar ugly at the top of the scale and aggressive ugly down at the bottom. But can this determination to be ugly be excelled? Yes it can: visit practically any public building and prepare to be treated to a display of such overwhelming ugliness that it brings new meaning to the concept of bad taste.

Even when the government digs deep into its coffers and claims to be building something imaginative, it comes out with concoctions like the Central Library building in Causeway Bay. This has the dubious charm of a style that may best be described as Greek classical meets the product of excessive zeal in creating a gaudy hotel lobby. At a more humble level are the dreary and depressing buildings housing post offices, government departments and, of course, public schools - because it is vital to inculcate bad taste in children at an early age.

Why do they do it? The answer cannot simply lie in a lack of funds, because some of the ugliest buildings are also the most expensive. I suppose there is no mystery about why all expense is spared on buildings for the poor but even that explanation is not convincing, because dull paint costs no more than lively paint, ugly designs are not necessarily cheaper than imaginative ones and utility does not have to be achieved through hideousness.

Maybe the problem is taste. What some people perceive to be ugly may be regarded as tasteful by others. If so, we really are in trouble. It may be possible to find someone to argue the case for the aesthetic merits of the Central Library or, even more absurdly, the sprawling public housing estates. But, if they do, they should seek professional counselling immediately.

Certainly, taste is a subjective matter and there can be lively debate over, for example, whether the Norman-Foster-designed HSBC headquarters is of architectural merit. No one will deny that it is an interesting design unlike, say, the nearby Cheung Kong Center, which was almost certainly conceived by some demented soul with a hangover who had spent his life studying the construction of egg boxes.

We are constantly bombarded with protestations about Hong Kong being a world class city. Yet, a determined coalition of bureaucrats and property developers appears to be intent on proving that international standards can best be achieved by investing in aggressive ugliness.

Hong Kong is not short of funds and never lacks ambition in all kinds of areas; surely the time has come for us to be ambitious about improving the appearance of the city.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur