A tall order

In the drive to make Hong Kong a world-class city, the first essential is harmony among all those working towards the same goal.

Both protagonists in the current spat between private architects and the Director of Architectural Services, Pau Shiu-hung, are calling for higher standards. Is it not simply a question of the two sides sitting down together and reaching a consensus about the easiest means to achieve that?

As Mr Pau points out, ways round restrictive regulations can usually be found by using a little creativity. Quite often, those are the challenges that produce the best results. But it is equally true that rules can be out of tune with the times. When building laws have been on the statute book for 40 years they should be reviewed to see how relevant they are to modern conditions. Building materials, technology, architectural design and living standards have altered out of all proportion since then, and regulations ought to keep in step with development. The 1960s is hardly noted as a high point in architectural achievement in any case.

It is all very well to cite, as Mr Pau does, the Bank of China and the HSBC building as examples of excellence. The difficulty in this glass-towered metropolis is finding anything else which comes near those structures for innovation or sheer flair. The most telling comment on Hong Kong's cityscape is the joke that the Cheung Kong building next to the Bank of China is in the box it came in. Tall and square seems to be the blueprint for skyscrapers, with neon lighting at night to disguise the monotony of so much of the skyline.

But only the chosen few will ever be commissioned to build on the grand scale for major companies who want prestigious headquarters. The rest tend to be workaday structures rented out as office space, so there is no prior pride of ownership. And given the property slump, there is perhaps little incentive for architects to come up with anything new, much less develop a style of domestic architecture which is unique to Hong Kong.

But there are encouraging signs of progress. Notably the green approach to new housing design and the work going on at Chinese University to produce a blueprint for the schools of the future. The contest to find the best plan for West Kowloon harbour front should produce some innovative ideas. With so much redevelopment around, there is an unrivalled opportunity for creativity - buildings designed to be aesthetically pleasing, in harmony with the environment, embodying something of local culture and tradition, and good to look at and live in.

Most of all, the SAR needs an open debate on architectural standards, so that the seven million crowding into this topographically challenging corner of China have the best living conditions possible.