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  • Oct 2, 2014
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CommentInsight & Opinion

Breathe creativity into Hong Kong housing design

Carine Lai says our rigid building rules rob architects and engineers of the creativity needed to design a liveable and striking cityscape

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 3:09am

Two weeks ago, the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority announced the winning design for the M+ museum for visual culture. The minimalistic design, which consists of one rectangular slab balanced on top of another in the shape of an upside-down T, drew criticism for its lack of creativity.

While I have no inside knowledge of the design team's intentions, I suspect it may in fact be some kind of architectural in-joke. It is hard not to see it as a satire on a typical "wall effect" housing development. Stripped of their bay windows, pink tiling and decorative flourishes, every modern Hong Kong podium-tower ever built is essentially a tall thin slab balanced on top of a flat slab.

Museum committee chairman Victor Lo was spot on when he described it as a "very Hong Kong" design. It is fitting, if ironic, that a museum dedicated to Hong Kong's visual culture should so perfectly embody the blandness of its everyday architecture.

So why is Hong Kong's architecture so uninspired? While it is easy to blame profit-seeking developers bent on maximising saleable floor area, the same developers manage to build more creative projects overseas. To a large extent, the fault lies in our outdated building regulations. The parts of the Building (Planning) Regulations which govern density and form have gone largely unchanged since 1967, and are based on a rigid formula intended to encourage the construction of tall, narrow towers as a rudimentary method of promoting better lighting and ventilation in dense urban areas.

Just two criteria are used to control the height and bulk of buildings: plot ratio and site coverage. First, building sites are granted certain plot ratios based on their land use and location. Then, up to a height of 15 metres, a building is usually permitted to cover the entire site, regardless of the area. This is why large developments usually have huge, bulky podiums containing car parks, club houses and shops.

Above 15 metres, the permitted site coverage becomes progressively smaller. The taller the building, the narrower it must become.

This means buildings in Hong Kong are not so much designed as extruded. Given a site of any size, and assuming that gross floor area must be maximised, you invariably end up with a series of thin, narrow towers on a wide, flat base. Taking into account additional regulations on the placement of windows and balconies, and developers' considerations such as maximising scenic views, the shape and configuration of these towers becomes extremely formulaic. Architects end up with little creative freedom, so their main role becomes the manipulation of building elements within the regulations to maximise saleable floor area.

Building regulations are long overdue for review. Instead of prescriptive rules for architects, we should move towards a set of performance-based standards for ventilation, natural lighting, greenery and pedestrian friendliness, and then let architects and engineers figure out how best to meet them. This would help create a more diverse, enriching urban landscape in Hong Kong.

Hopefully, the next time we build a monument to Hong Kong's visual environment, we will end up with something that inspires us.

Carine Lai is project manager at Civic Exchange


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Thirdly, the movers and shakers in the private sector – mainly the property developers have mightily grinded architecture and architects into oblivion. Their calculating minds have set our housing design of minimum design for maximum quantity and profit. The demolished North Point Estate that earned international fame for its architectural merits in intelligence, scale and total livability was never attempted since. Even though a housing development in Tseung Kwan O, breaking the convention (double cross towers on podium typically) was extraordinately planned,designed and detailed (a rebirth of the North Point Estate) by a Japanese architect who also was teaching at HKU at the time was later suited by the developer for his underuse in allowable maximum area. Here, since 1950s, during and before that time many buildings including resettlement blocks, schools, markets, and our City Hall complex all were charged with ideas and responsive to climate condition and even with civic aspiration. I am afraid, since 1970s on, the property developers mostly devoid of proper education but with mastery in profit counting have become the master-builder of Hong Kong. In the process, two generations of architects have had been underused and wasted. Doubtful an endowment in the Architectural School at Hong Kong University by Cheung Kong is helpful to our architects and our built environment in Hong Kong.
windows are environmentally unfriendly, as their natural lighting advantage is hugely over-shadowed by heat gain, especially with zero ligislations on insulation values and energy efficiency to building facades/envelopes. Lets hope our Sec. of Envir. who ought to know about such issues will tell other Gov Depts to change, for climate cahnge.
Secondly: The two white slabs design for the M+ Museum if it is an architectural in-joke, the public won’t know for sure – the Swiss architects know better but will never tell if so. But, the public’s response hardly can be discarded. In my critique of the design, the design was responsive to the local culture foremost but also at the same time rebuts the lackluster architectural design of most building design in Hong Kong. Those slabs signified the wall effect of closely packed housing towers standing on a typical 5-storey podium. Cladding the outside in translucent glass, the architects seem to rebut the senseless-like hole punching for windows in a typical residential building. They just like take up a pail of white paint and whitewashed away the bee-hive holes that people in Hong Kong people are so accustomed to. The rebuttal while provides a refreshing look of buildings for the locals, it is not totally home safe. The size of those simple slabs are visually uninteresting as architecture and to Chinese, culturally may be insensitive that resembling two white tombstones – at least during daytime when no commercial bill-board-like artwork plastering on. If it gets built, the architectural in-joke to the public is permanent until the slabs get dismantled. I have a funny feeling, if we all are seeing an emperor parading without his clothes on? Whatever the REAL reason(s) for the choice, Hong Kong deserves something much better.
First thing first. I am pleasantly surprised by some one to take an interest in Hong Kong’s architecture so comprehensively and critically. Indeed, the building code in Hong Kong has been the retrogressive force in advancing design with the time. Few codes must be revised to free up design restrictions in residential design. 1. Natural ventilation for kitchen and bathroom. 2. Natural lighting for fire escape. All can be using mechanical means to achieve without health ad safety consequence. In addition, 1. Allow area used for plumbing and ventilation exempted from floor area calculation (up to 5% of total floor area in New York City building code). 2. Exempt area calculation for communal laundry room and drying area. 3. Accept no beam construction method. Someone once criticized Hong Kong is still running a Britain’s building code of WWII vintage.
Plumbing enclosed in a chase build by walls will protect the plumbing better and avoiding spreading of soiled water into air. We must remember how the SARS was spread from a leaking wastepipe which was mounted exposed on an exterior wall.


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