Mapping out Hong Kong's skyline

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 January, 2011, 12:00am

Rocco Yim Sen-kee has already put Hong Kong architecture on the map and, if things continue to go his way this year, he may have another opportunity to subtly redraw the city's famous skyline. As the remaining local contender for the high-profile development of the West Kowloon Cultural District, Yim is likely to be very much in the public eye, a situation he has come to accept, though not one he actively courts. Trained originally at the University of Hong Kong, Yim started his own practice in 1979 after two years with another firm. He has since won countless accolades and international awards for projects that emphasise social context and benefits for the community. He talks to John Cremer.

What first attracted you to the field of architecture?

As a young boy, I was always interested in arts - painting, graphic design and 3D modelling - but I discovered during my late teens that I didn't have the talent to do that for a living. To be an artist, you need the ability to create something from nothing, a dream or vision that can come from anywhere and is not restricted by any particular consideration. Architecture, though, is about solving practical problems, making things that are useful to society, but doing it with some artistic sensitivity, which seemed to suit me better. You never really know if you have a talent for architecture before you get into the field and start having to balance the demands and priorities, but I thought it might be the right career choice.

How did your training shape your outlook?

When I was in school, it was the final days of the 'international architecture' movement, which had become dogmatic and stifling. We had not yet entered the post-modern period with its more liberated approach, so my early training was both good and not so good. There was an emphasis on solid problem-solving techniques and rational thinking, which still serves me well and gives a strong basis from which to adapt. But the teachers did not stimulate more intellectual, philosophical deliberations on theory and artistic direction, which I felt was important. Education, though, does not stop with school.

Are there aspects of the job you don't especially enjoy?

I don't like the scientific, mathematical part. Of course, I know the principles of engineering, but I don't think any architect will give you all the calculations for a project. For that, we can always call on expert advice.

When starting a new project, what are the key considerations?

Whether it is a museum, concert hall, office building or house, my task is to solve a practical problem and, at the same time, contribute something to the city or location. It should add to the spiritual well-being of the users through either its spatial quality or external form, stimulating certain senses and different ways of thinking. The architect must also consider proportion, colour, texture, lighting, convenience, techniques and technology. Sometimes, one of these is more important, depending on the site or the client's preferences, but all have a place, and good design is a matter of coming up with the right combination.

What is your policy for teaching trainees?

In this business, it is difficult to have a clear-cut methodology, but the best way is to lead by example. For younger team members, understanding the process of thinking and deduction is the hardest part, so we involve them in regular planning and brainstorming sessions. I encourage them to respect the user's perspective and the environment. Learning to prepare a layout or a report is easy enough, but the essence of architecture is to provide better-than-conventional solutions along with an explanation of why those ideas are being proposed.

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