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Architecture and Design

What happens if you inject Hong Kong’s density into Zurich’s history?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 January, 2016, 11:59am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 January, 2016, 11:58am

There’s a piece of Hong Kong in Shenzhen – or to be more precise, 44 pieces of it. Hong Kong Typology, an exhibit by Swiss architects Emanuel Christ and Christoph Gantenbein at the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB), features scale models of Hong Kong’s most typical buildings. Tong lau, pencil towers, cruciform apartment blocks – it’s like a collection of puzzle pieces that you can put together to build the city.

“It’s really the toolbox of Hong Kong,” says Christ. “When you see the models there, it captures an essential part of the city.”

Each of the models was made in Hong Kong and shipped to Shenzhen. They are meant to represent the anonymous bulk of the city’s buildings, the unglamorous backdrop to the city’s more recognisable attractions. Visitors may spot some familiar structures, like the rounded, wedding-cake balconies of the 1950s-era Mido Café in Yau Ma Tei. Most of the models inspire a vague sense of déjà vu: they’re familiar but hard to place.

Though the models were made specifically for UABB, Christ and Gantenbein have been working on the project for years. It started when they wanted to shake up the studio experience for the architecture students they teach at ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). “In the old European tradition, you would travel to Italy and Greece and look at the classics – even the modernists did that,” says Christ. “There must be an alternative to that classical grand tour.”

Christ thought back to his first trip to Hong Kong in 2000. “It is just so striking, the beauty, the magnetic power of the city,” he says. “It is this encounter of the tropical landscape, this dramatic topography and this sheer pragmatic high-performance architecture. In a way it’s the apotheosis of modernist urbanism and architecture but somehow it has turned and transformed into something different.”

Christ and Gantenbein wondered what would happen if they asked their students to inject Hong Kong-style density into the historic centre of Zurich. “In a way Hong Kong is a European export of a city idea – the British with their pragmatic understanding of modernism, taken to a new world where there are no limits,” he says.

“What happens if we re-import this modernism back to Europe? It was not just a stupid provocation – it was meant to see how things can transform. It challenged the Zurich urban model fundamentally because we came back with very different ideas of what it is to be a city.”

It also led to another unexpected outcome. In order to introduce their students to Hong Kong’s buildings, they systematically documented the common types of residential structures found throughout the city, each of them shaped by the twin forces of building codes and the need to maximise profit per square foot.

Christ says Hong Kong made him curious to document the unheralded buildings of other cities, the largely modern structures that make up the bulk of the urban fabric. Over the years, he and Gantenbein have travelled to Rome, New York, Buenos Aires, Paris, New Delhi, São Paulo and Athens, publishing their findings in two books, Typology and Typology II. They found some surprising similarities: Paris and Athens both tend towards homogeneous streetscapes of low-rise apartment blocks, while high-rise São Paulo reminded Christ of Hong Kong.

“They are just collections of buildings,” he says. By that he means they are driven primarily by economic interests moderated by building codes that shape individual structures, rather than an overarching master plan that tries to establish some kind of baseline urban form. “Every single plot is dealt with as if it was freestanding and alone,” he says.

That might sound like chaos, but ironically, the replication of the same building types over and over again has achieved a homogeneity not unlike that of a master-planned city. Christ’s research found eight basic building types in Hong Kong, which they dubbed Pencil Tower, Gallery Building, Vertical Factory, Shophouse, Podium and Tower, Double Tube, Slab Composition and Star Shape Tower. Their repetition is what gives Hong Kong its underlying sense of order.

UABB curator Doreen Liu selected Hong Kong Typology for the biennale because it serves as a counterpoint to the freewheeling urbanism found elsewhere in the Pearl River Delta. “Hong Kong is a much better organised, developed and defined city,” she says.

Christ hopes his work engenders a new respect for Hong Kong’s quotidian architecture. “I hope it increases the awareness of modern heritage,” he says. “Worldwide, commercial architecture is becoming more and more generic. I fear a cultural loss. Some of these Hong Kong buildings are too good to disappear.”

The Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture runs at the Dacheng Flour Factory in Shenzhen until February 28, 2016. For information, visit en.szhkbiennale.org