Hong Kong's creative use of space under flyovers draws eyes of world

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 February, 2015, 6:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 February, 2015, 6:01am

The official opening of the Wan Chai Sports Federation headquarters got off to an auspicious start last month with a display of Chinese drumming by a youth group, before speeches by government and sports officials.

The opening celebrations were worthy of a grand building. The facility, however, is a humble structure under a flyover on Moreton Terrace in Causeway Bay.

From outside, the building looks small. But inside, there's 7,000 sq ft of space. It's bright and airy, with a high-ceilinged basement equipped for table tennis and badminton, a mirrored room for exercise, and offices, lockers and shower facilities.

"Architectural success is not about size," says architectural designer Barrie Ho, who headed the project. "It's about how people bond together in a community.

"There are many small groups like the Wan Chai Sports Federation that need office space, but they don't need class-A space in Central. These groups enrich the community, and just need a space to do their work."

The founder of Barrie Ho Architecture Interiors says such buildings are a Hong Kong phenomenon, born from the shortage of space in the city. They are a good exercise in how to use leftover space.

"Architects don't usually think of spaces under flyovers, and neither do people in general. They have the impression that these buildings are not hygienic; it's where homeless people congregate, and so it's not a place where they want to go," he says.

In 2½ years, Ho transformed the previously abandoned building into a striking black and orange structure.

He designed a split-level interior and installed lighting to make the space brighter. He added a balcony so that people could observe games and events happening on the lower floor.

The building is also an achievement for the federation's chairwoman, Peggy Lam Pei Yu-dja, a former government official who continues to work actively in the community well into her 80s.

This is not Ho's first foray into so-called flyover buildings. In 2011, he tackled another project for Lam, under the Canal Road flyover in Causeway Bay - the Hong Kong Federation of Women T.S. Kwok Service Centre, of which Lam is also chairwoman.

The previous building was half the size of the new structure, and used by the Highways Department for storage. When the space was given to the women's federation, the NGO needed 10,000 sq ft of space for events, classrooms, recreation and office space for women to take classes, find information and socialise.

The project was stalled for almost two years when the Town Planning Board refused to approve Ho's proposal for a 70-metre-long building, claiming it would disturb air circulation in the area.

"I didn't know how to respond to their comment. But Peggy [Lam] wanted to fight back, and it took two years for us to explain to the Town Planning Board that we had done many studies. Finally, they believed us and allowed us to build it," he says.

"It was painful because construction was stopped and the donor, T.S. Kwok Foundation [Sun Hung Kai Properties], wasn't sure if the project was going to go through," Ho says.

The foundation donated HK$10 million towards the HK$13 million construction costs. Late Chinachem billionaire Nina Wang Kung Yu-sum was also a donor.

The previous structure looked like a black box, and many passers-by mistook it for a public toilet, Ho says.

"Not everyone is clear about the function of the Hong Kong Federation of Women, so I decided to make it transparent, with lots of windows and natural light, so that people can see what's going on inside," he says.

It houses a resource centre, computer room, function area, and classrooms for learning skills such as baby care and domestic chores.

Lam raves about the hall, where all the tables and chairs fit into cabinets to leave a large space for events and activities such as tai chi, yoga and kung fu. Former Hong Kong chief executive candidate Henry Tang Ying-yen's mother even used to teach dancing there.

Air quality was also an issue with this building, but rather than exterior airflow, the focus was pollution from passing traffic. Ho installed an advanced screening air-conditioning system to monitor carbon dioxide readings inside the building, and pump in fresh oxygen.

Sound pollution was another challenge. Ho's team solved the problem with widespread use of soft fabrics and timber in the interior.

Ho also had to deal with Acubus - the little-known authority that controls the appearance of flyovers. "They were insistent that no part of the building touch any part of the flyover," he says.

"Originally, I thought of having artists make street art at the flyover, to make it like an open museum ... but they said no. So I decided to put lights on the roof - I'm not touching the flyover and it draws attention to the space," he says.

"The lights are on until 2am. The Wan Chai district council, and people in the area, welcome this because they think it's a safe place. There are no rats, no homeless people, and no crime," he says.

Success is not about size, it’s about how people bond together in the community
Barrie Ho

Ho says his flyover projects have generated a lot of interest from architectural firms in Europe, due to the creative use of space.

While he concedes not all spaces under flyovers can be used, as some carry pipes for sewage, storm drains and data, he strongly encourages the Lands Department to do a comprehensive survey of existing flyover buildings or identify flyovers where new ones could be built.

"Don't waste space," he says. "There are a lot of NGOs that benefit society that are not lacking money, but are lacking premises."