Tale of two cities: architects and artists team up to highlight grim side of Hong Kong life

Exhibits at the Venice Biennale aim to raise awareness of social issues confronting low-income earners such as a shortage of public housing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 May, 2016, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 May, 2016, 1:05pm

At one of Europe’s most prestigious cultural institutions in Venice,a Hong Kong team of emerging architects and artists will unveil a side of their city not normally shown to the world.

Thirteen rising stars of architecture, plus four artists, are exhibiting at the Venice Biennale and if guests at the opening bash on May 27are expecting glitz and glamour from Asia’s world city, they’re in for a surprise.

Hong Kong’s exhibition, titled Stratagems in Architecture, highlights several social issues, including a community’s fight against the forced removal from their traditional homes, and the crowded abodes of low-income earners on the waiting list for public housing.

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If this all sounds a bit grim for what is typically rather a gay occasion, curator Stanley Siu Kwok-kin points out that they are entirely in keeping with the vision of chief curator Alejandro Aravena. The Chilean architect, this year’s Pritzker Prize winner, wants to focus attention on architecture that helps improve people’s quality of life, titling the central display of the biennale’s 15th International Architecture Exhibition “Reporting from the Front”.

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Siu, co-founder of architectural firm Daydreamers Design, was appointed Hong Kong’s curator on the basis of his proposal to link exhibitors using the 36 Strategems, an ancient set of Chinese military directives. Participants were asked to choose a strategem and build their exhibit around that.

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Their collective display is “a concoction blending architecture with ancient Chinese war wisdom to surmount difficulties and achieve groundbreaking creations”, Siu says. “Motivating us all is the Hong Kong spirit of unparalleled perseverance, which is known to be capable of turning adversities into opportunities.”

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He concedes that in its sixth edition, Hong Kong’s participation in the Venice Biennale is “totally different form previous years”.

“Previously, [participants] have done a very good show, of course, but the work they exhibited was very large scale, showing the development of Hong Kong, rather than the living conditions of the minority,” he says.

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“The new generation of architects and artists is more concerned about community,” Siu says.

“We do social enterprise; we establish NGOs instead of companies; we serve the minority. Instead of [designing] luxurious apartments, some of us prefer to help poor and underprivileged people to redesign their homes, and utilise their space.

“We focus on sustainability. As youngsters, we want to break the rules of traditional norms, and once that happens, there’s a paradigm shift, a change in consciousness. This is our battlefield, our frontier – where the old and new overlap.”

Siu’s own biennale exhibit is titled First Confession. He’s crafted it from layers of metal bunks to mimic the façade of a small and dense residential tower. Within the uncovered “chapel” he’s created, Siu invites visiting architects “to confess their sins towards the sky”.

His Daydreamers Design co-founder, Aden Chan Pui-hong, is presenting an installation made from 150 small fish tanks recovered from his family’s ancestral home in the New Territories. Chan’s relatives used to farm fish in the 1950s but later switched to raising pigeons because of Hongkongers’ developing taste for the roasted delicacy. Now, with the land around their Sheung Shui village long given over to housing estates, Chan knows that his family property is destined for demolition.

At a time in Hong Kong where “everything has a price tag”, the UK-trained architect wants to show how things used to be. Chan worries that in a city so focused on the future, we tend to forget the past.

“My frontier is a mental battle against this distorted moral practice of ‘money talks’ taking over our society,” says Chan of his installation, Memory Tanks.

Kenneth Tse Kam-wing, of architecture firm Meta4 Design Forum, will tell the story of how a community effort saved the cluster of tenement buildings or tong lau in Wan Chai, now dubbed the Blue House after the brilliant paintwork on its external walls.

Tse, whose practice is focused on arts, cultural and historical revitalisation projects, first met the Blue House residents in 2007 when the government wanted to acquire the land, and force them into public housing.

Together with social workers and other professionals, he joined forces to fight the proposal, starting with a letter of objection on planning grounds. “Eventually, we succeeded, and after a year, the Development Bureau, headed at that time by current Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, included the Blue House in the Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme,” Tse says. “The people, some who had been living there for three generations, now had the chance to stay.”

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While some chose to move to public housing, seven families opted not to. To preserve their social connections, they were moved from one side of the building to another during the property’s restoration into community facilities, eventually to return to their original place. Work is expected to be finished by early 2017.

Tse’s exhibit for the biennale, titled Full Script of the Viva Blue House, will tell the residents’ story through a short video, documents (such as the original objection letter) and small artefacts from the building. He believes it fits in well with Aravena’s notion of “civic enlightenment”, which calls for change in the architecture scene by enabling people to empower themselves.

So Kwok-kin, from Green Map Hong Kong, also champions the preservation of traditional housing in his exhibit, One Versus Ten Thousands: a Homegrown Trilogy. It documents the architect’s return to his childhood home in Guangzhou, now a “village within a city”, where he cleared out mud and dust and weeds, then held a parade calling on local residents similarly to respect their own homes. This led to a revitalisation of neglected social gathering places in the village, an altar and the ancestral hall.

One exhibitor, Maggie Ma Kit-yi , won’t be attending Venice: the self-imposed austerity budget of her not-for-profit practice doesn’t allow it. The Chinese University of Hong Kong graduate began her career in the commercial sector, but soon became disillusioned with the idea of designing for show. She established DOMAT with partner Mark Kingsley in 2013.

“We found that in the commercial sector, architecture had become very visual, rather than functional for the end-user,” Ma says. “It’s like people have five senses, but we [architects] only concentrate on one – the eyes.” On the other hand, architecture for the underprivileged “can change lives”.

But what the pair learned in commercial practice set them up for the community work to which they aspired.

“It gave us a good understanding about building construction and project control – a professional input that tends to be lacking in community projects,” Ma says.

The partners’ work includes the Society for Community Organisation home modification project, sponsored by the South China Morning Post, which provides a set of furniture and home redesign for low-income earners living in tiny, subdivided flats while they await public housing. “We are working with our 39th family now,” says Ma.

We found that in the commercial sector, architecture had become very visual, rather than functional for the end-user
Maggie Ma

They’re also helping a Sai Kung fishermen’s community find ways to keep their village life sustainable, and are involved in various projects in mainland China.

Instead of showcasing the poor conditions of the people they assist, Ma and Kingsley’s exhibition in Venice will expose their own practice “as life on the frontier of social architecture”.

A Rumination of Life, Money, and Personal Space will feature a replicated corner of their office in a run-down San Po Kong industrial building – fitted out on a very tight budget – including receipts for the spend.

“Our collaborators are mainly charities so we need to allocate resources appropriately,” Ma says.

In an accompanying video, the partners will discuss how their practice functions and the projects they are involved in.

“As the exhibition’s theme is ‘frontier’, we wanted to reverse our strategy and show our own office as one more way of doing what we believe in,” Ma explains.

Sustainability is at the heart of several exhibitors, including Tony Ip Chung-man of Ronald Lu & Partners, whose sculpture framing a view of The Peak’s greenery highlights architects’ struggle to incorporate open space in a city where land prices are astronomical. “How can we stand on the frontier to bargain yet not to compromise liveability and sustainability against efficiency and profitability in design for all buildings, not only green architecture?” he asks.

On the other hand, Jason Tang Yiu-lun of the Hong Kong Design Institute, reckons Hong Kong’s high density makes it a useful urban laboratory for future compact cities.

Tang’s exhibit takes Sham Shui Po, one of the poorest and most densely populated districts, as an example of “a hybrid community [where] people have conceived countless ways to deal with constraints and parameters.”

Siu, the curator, says that through Stratagems in Architecture the young architects and artists attempt to address the needs of the public and challenges faced by professionals working in the current social climate. These include balancing the community’s desire for conservation and environmental protection, “as well as their craving for space and decent urban planning”.

Their exhibits also rally to biennale curator Aravena’s call for architects to stop being passive witnesses to the challenges facing society, but be people who actually “walk the talk”. The battle for a better built environment is neither a tantrum nor a romantic crusade, Aravena says in his curatorial statement. The telling of success stories “will make a difference in winning those battles and expanding those frontiers.”

Stratagems in Architecture, staged at Campo della Tana in Castello, Venice, runs from May 28 to November 27