Past pleasures

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 November, 2011, 12:00am


A tourist arrives at the Chek Lap Kok airport after a tiring long-haul flight. He boards the Airport Express and gets off at Central. He gets in a taxi at the underground station, and as it turns up the narrow tunnel that leads to the very heart of the city, the tourist gets his first glimpse at a Hong Kong building: a classical structure that evokes a different time and era, one both in tune and at odds with the city's aesthetic.

This is 50 Connaught Road Central, a building that seemingly popped-up overnight last June. It's a fascinating piece of architecture, alluding to numerous things at once: some see it as a throwback to our colonial days, when low-rise, stone-based structures lined the now-shrinking Victoria Harbour. Others have called it the city's first truly New York building, a beautiful, art-deco inspired piece of architecture.

But to its creator, the architect Robert A.M. Stern, it will always be a Hong Kong building. '50 Connaught Road Central is very rooted in the tradition of western architecture as it has evolved in Asia, and more specifically Hong Kong,' says Stern. 'It's rooted in buildings like the old Bank of China, before the invasion of the super-scale, glass-clad buildings that now dominate the city's skyline.'

Stern's name might not be familiar to the masses; it might not roll off a hipster's tongue as easily as Zaha Hadid or Thomas Heatherwick. But for true disciples of architecture, Stern is a master.

His students at the many universities he has taught at - Columbia, Yale - have gone on to create some of the world's most defining structures. The books he has penned (there are almost 20 on his website) are considered bibles in the architectural community. And most importantly, his work, which ranges from dozens of classically inspired buildings all over New York to a two-million square-foot development in Xiamen, China, has been revered for decades.

50 Connaught Road Central is his first completed project in Hong Kong. On paper, a 28-storey structure paper might not seem impressive when compared to the city's record 108 floors, but two things make the building stand out, the first being its use of location.

Positioned away from dwarfing skyscrapers such as Two IFC, and surrounded by more modest buildings with unobstructed views of the harbour on one side and the Peak on the other, its location is such that the building has already enticed the celebrated White Cube gallery in London to open its first Asian branch on the ground and second floor.

The second, and more impressive aspect, is its architectural design: a stone-based building that veers away from the city's obsession with glass-and-steel structures, calling to mind classicism not seen since the British colonial rule.

'The principles of classicism are what tie my work together,' says Stern. 'I have nothing against glass-clad buildings, but it's a one-note approach. It should be one way of architecture, not the only way. That was my criticism of architecture when I was a student in the '60s, and remains my criticism to this day.'

It's his long-standing dedication to an ideal - that mankind is the measure of all things, not the machine - which has kept Stern at the forefront of traditional architecture for almost 50 years.

Raised in post-World War II New York, Stern's upbringing in the city during that tumultuous and thrilling period was vital in shaping his ethic. By the time he'd set up his own practice in 1977, the city was at an architectural peak and its most ambitious citizens desperate for his services: 20- and 30-somethings who were starting a more informal family structure and wanted their archaic apartments to reflect that.

As first an interior designer reconfiguring and upgrading pre-war buildings to meet their needs, and then an architect of medium- and high-rise residential developments in some of New York City's most affluent areas, Stern became known for his conviction that western classicism dating back to Greek and Roman times was fundamental to good architecture. For decades, the architectural community respected his method, with his traditional discipline playing a major part in the construction of New York City's timeless skyline.

But, of course, such a reverence for the past eventually brings detractors: a few years ago, The New York Times criticised Stern's buildings as being out of synch with what they saw as a quickly shifting world. They labelled him as being 'anchored in the past'.

'I'm not anchored in the past; I'm rooted in the past. All art is rooted - when Picasso came to end of cubism, he painted fantastic classically based paintings; his classical period,' he says. 'There's this idea which some architects support, that you should be running ahead of the crowd. That's not what architecture is about, it's not a race. Architecture is about the continuity of ideas and traditions.'

But while Stern is quick to criticise these so-called 'wannabe avant-garde architects', he's even quicker to praise the forward-thinking designers he respects. Norman Foster has recently been at the forefront of Hong Kong architectural news, and he believes they share a similar ideal, which is to say, conservative architects working in the tradition of modernism. Hadid and Heatherwick are similarly inspiring, each seen as highly individualistic in a world notorious for shameless imitations and exploitations.

It's not that he despises or can't commit to a radical or 'modern' approach. Far from it; many of his more recent projects use innovative methods to 'solve each individual problem based on its own situation', he says. What Stern can't comprehend is the idea of looking forward without first respecting the past.

'The house of architecture has many rooms for many different expressions. Everyone wants to be avant-garde, but if every architect is out for personal or individual expression, you just have chaos,' he says. 'There are places where individual expression is certainly appropriate, but there are many places where the best architects should make buildings that fit in, but also have strong character of their own.'

Which brings us back to the values of 50 Connaught Central, and on a greater scale, the loss of traditional architecture in Hong Kong. Having first visited the city in 1990, Stern has seen how ruthless the city's government can be in its lack of architectural preservation.

'I hope that period is behind us,' he says. 'These buildings give texture to the city; they represent the city's history. If a building has no particular quality, then of course it should be torn down. But if a building was designed with care and can be brought back to life with new purposes, that's one of the most sustainable things we can do in the world.'

'We can sustain ideas - we don't throw out a book from 100 year's ago. It may not get read for a while, but it gets rediscovered. I'm all for preservation, and I would like to add my share to the fabric of this city.'

It's a central idea that he'd not only like to share with Hong Kong, but all of Asia - apart from our fair city, Stern has projects on the go in Singapore, Taiwan and mainland China. He can't talk about them, of course, but he does see the continent holding a very important future for his firm.

'The most fun I have is not just when I'm confronted with a new building type, but a new geography and culture, and the work we're known for in the United States is now what we're beginning to be known for in Asia,' he says.

All the better for us, because if The New York Times and its avant-garde architects don't want Stern, we're more than happy to take him: 'The future has a tricky way of doing what it wants to do, and the buildings in Asia are seemingly being swallowed up in this global super-scale where everyone thinks bigger is better,' says Stern.

'But there are fascinating possibilities for rediscovering traditional principles and taking them forward in this new century.'

Stern looks

Heart of Lake (below), Xiamen, China: On Huxindao Island, this two-million square-foot residential development is set to open in 2012. It's a mini-city unto its own, with various high- and mid-rise buildings, townhouses and villas, set around a landscaped central park.

Comcast Centre (bottom right), Philadelphia, US : One of Stern's crowning achievements, this skyscraper is the tallest in Philadelphia and one of the architect's few buildings to incorporate glass, with the entire 58 stories clad in the material.

Feature Animation Building (bottom), California, US: The headquarters of Disney's animation studio, this retro building resembles what '50s filmmakers predicted the future would look like. It houses more than 700 employees and is equipped with every major department, from development through to post-production.