Don't give up green 'theatre' for flats

Designer urges Hong Kong to protect its spectacular environment rather than taking the easy option of building homes in country parks

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 April, 2014, 5:37am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 April, 2014, 7:30am

Hong Kong should treasure its natural beauty and not give up its "theatrical greenery" in exchange for flats just because it is an easy option, a leading British designer says.

Thomas Heatherwick also urged Hong Kong to design its city with human-scale architecture rather than gigantic, identical buildings.

"Be very careful," Heatherwick said, weighing into the debate over whether flats should be built in country parks - an idea some ministers and government advisers say could be looked at as the city seeks to build homes.

He said the city should instead examine "whether there are sites that are [designated] for other purposes but not used, rather than jumping into the easiest, more vulnerable pieces of land."

It has [brought together] east and west. It gave me opportunities for new thinking
Thomas Heatherwick on Hong Kong

The 44-year-old, who wowed the world with his design for the London Olympic cauldron, will give the second Central Saint Martins Cross Culture Lecture at the Asia Society on Tuesday.

He will be talking about bridges - one that he is building in Beijing and the proposed £150 million (HK$2 billion) Garden Bridge over the River Thames in London - and their symbolic cultural meaning of "bridging the east and west".

Speaking before leaving for Hong Kong, Heatherwick said the city was an invisible bridge. "It has been my connector between east and west. It gave me opportunities for new thinking and opened up my very British training and exposed it to a [different] sensibility about public space."

His credits include the British pavilion - a £25 million see-through "seed cathedral" - at the Shanghai Expo in 2010, and the new "Boris" bus - a modern version of the traditional Routemaster double-decker ordered by London mayor Boris Johnson.

Heatherwick has left many traces of his creativity in Hong Kong. Swire Properties commissioned him to give the 650,000 square metre Pacific Place mall a HK$2.1 billion facelift in 2006, and in 2012 he released a spectacular plan for a 40-storey Sheung Wan hotel. There was also disappointment, when the government failed to press ahead with his 2005 plan for a redesign of Southorn Playground, Wan Chai.

The latter project, Heatherwick said, brought home the importance of green spaces and areas for relaxation in a city. Hong Kong had the kind of density he had never experienced before and its compact environment and "theatrical mountains" made the city special.

The juxtaposition of the city centre against the playground was "wonderful, bizarre, hilarious and magical", he said. But he was also impressed by Hong Kong's efficient use of land.

Tall, narrow "chopstick towers" were fine, he said because they made streets interesting to walk around.

"What gets scarier is when developers buy up multiple sites next to each other, and then there's just one big flap of glass. It's boring to walk past and boring to look at," Heatherwick said . "The streets become sterilised ... lose the human scale."