Model of M+ Winning Design for the West Kowloon Cultural District by Herzog & de Meuron. Photo: Felix Wong

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


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 To a large extent, the fault lies in our outdated building regulations.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.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: A free hand