The 11 Hong Kong architects' projects in running for World Building of the Year

From a small recycling depot and community centre in Sha Tin to a giant commercial centre in Yiwu, China, city architects' entries span a wide range

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 October, 2015, 5:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 October, 2015, 1:31pm

There are architecture awards and then there's the World Architecture Festival in Singapore, whose World Building of the Year award is one of the most unusual. Only architects are allowed to be judges, finalists deliver live presentations to convince judges of the merits of their project and, instead of picking winners behind closed doors, judges conduct public deliberations. Winners are chosen in 30 categories before going head to head in a best-of-the-best showdown.

"As architects, we won't only criticise the materials or the technology," says Lucy Tsui, a Hong Kong-based architect and one of the judges of this year's award. "We will emphasise the heart, the soul, what's inside the project."

More than 350 finalists have made the cut for this year's festival, which will take place from November 4 to 6 at the Marina Bay Sands. Among them are 11 projects by Hong Kong firms, ranging from a small recycling depot and community centre in Sha Tin to a giant commercial centre in the Zhejiang province trading hub of Yiwu. They are similar only in the way their architects have pushed beyond what is expected of them.

That is certainly the case with the Sha Tin Community Green Station a recycling depot and educational facility that opened last May near Shek Mun MTR station. It has little in common with the utilitarian rubbish depots found throughout the city, instead boasting a lawn and open-air gathering spaces surrounded by delicate bamboo screens.

"When I got the brief, we had a very small budget, around HK$20 million," says Thomas Wan Chuck-kwan, who led the project's design team at the government's Architectural Services Department. "It's a minor works project, but we didn't want to do a kind of rubbish collection point. We wanted to have a more positive impact on the community."

The limited budget meant Wan's team had to be creative in their use of materials. Inspired by the container yards found throughout the New Territories, they decided to build the station out of recycled shipping containers. "We have to be careful using them because people associate them with old rubbish," says Wan. "So we took them apart, cut out their faces, and used other materials that are very typical of Hong Kong - bamboo scaffolding [and] those collapsible steel gates which you can see a lot in Wan Chai and Sheung Wan."

Wan's other challenge was to incorporate areas where workshops on recycling and green living could be held. "We didn't want people to see it as two separate spaces, the recycling bit and the educational facilities," he says. "We created a kind of layering of space through two courtyards. One courtyard is grass so people can gather there, do tai chi, parties, various community stuff. The other one is hard-paved because trucks have to come in and put stuff in the storerooms."

Wan says he was surprised to be shortlisted for the award, given the project's low budget and modest scale. But he isn't surprised the green station has been a popular destination for Sha Tin residents since it opened. "What if we had a building that could reflect the past while also being contemporary?" he asks. "People yearn for that in today's Hong Kong - they want to see something natural, something that reminds them of their present and their past."

Aedas' design for the Heart of Yiwu also takes its cues from the past, although you wouldn't know it by looking at its decidedly modern design. The firm's director, Leo Liu, explains that the 1.57 million sq ft retail and entertainment complex draws from the form and materials of a city wall that once stood on the same site.

"The citizens of Yiwu remember it well," says Liu, so Aedas' architects echoed the path of the wall in the way their new complex relates to the street, with a central passageway that pays homage to the ancient Chaoyang Gate, which was once the main entrance to the city.

Other outdoor passages draw pedestrians from the street to a series of terraces that lead to the building's rooftop, which will be filled with cultural facilities when the complex opens next year. Liu says the terraces create an "indoor-outdoor dialogue" while also pulling natural light into the depths of the building. They also hint, in an oblique way, at the waterway that was the source of Yiwu's historic prosperity: the building's form loosely follows that of the Chinese character for "river".

It all depends on the presentation - you've got 10 minutes to present your approach
Lucy Tsui, World Building of the Year Award judge

Water was one of the guiding forces behind TFP Farrells' competition design for the Guangzhou Museum. The museum sits across the Pearl River from Guangzhou's new central business district, next to waterfront park dominated by an ancient stone pagoda. "We think it's quite a special site," says the firm's principal, Stefan Krummeck. "We wanted to make the museum contextual, not something that is an icon that could be placed anywhere."

Krummeck says there were a number of intangible factors that influenced the museum's design, including Guangzhou's history as a trading hub, the sinuous character of the Pearl River Delta's waterways and the interplay between Guangdong's three dominant cultures: the Hakka, the Guangfu (or Cantonese) and the Chaozhou (or Chiu Chow). That led to a structure based on what he calls "three streams," which translated into two parallel, curving structures linked by public space in the middle.

"We wanted to create a public route from the park all the way south, an opportunity for people to be introduced to the exhibits of the museum," he says. "It's a public experience, not only an experience for the people who specifically go the museum to visit it."

The museum's design contains other references to its context, too. Krummeck says the building's facade, which would be cooled by a constant trickle of river water, was inspired by the paper clay made by Hakka people.

Despite these innovations, however, a design by Spanish firm Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos won the museum's design competition. Krummeck sees a certain irony in losing the competition while being shortlisted for the World Building of the Year. "The most interesting schemes don't always get chosen," he says. Or built.

Sometimes interesting projects can face hurdles simply because they are unusual. That was the case for architectural designer Barrie Ho's transformation of a Wong Chuk Hang industrial building into a creative hub with a mix of offices, retail spaces and studios managed by the Arts Development Council and the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups. It took two years to get all the permits to rezone the building from its original industrial use. "You have to go through bureaucratic processes," says Ho.

Some of those processes were more angst-inducing than others. At one point, the Transport Department insisted the building have 180 parking spaces, even though an entrance to the new Wong Chuk Hang MTR station is located just across the street. "It would mean turning one third of the building into a car park," says Ho. It took an intervention from another government agency, the Development Opportunities Office, to negotiate the Transport Department down to just seven spaces.

Genesis opened its doors in January. It is hard to miss, thanks to a charcoal-coloured facade marked by slightly curved yellow fins. Ho says he was inspired by the flyover that runs along Wong Chuk Hang Road. "It intensifies the feeling of speed created by the vehicles in front," he says. (Ho says the yellow fins are exactly the same tone as the yellow used on the Ferrari 458 Spider.) "The whole building has an energy."

Whether that energy is enough to win over the judges in Singapore remains to be seen. There have been some surprising winners over the years, including Grant Associates' fantastical design for Singapore's Gardens by the Bay, which won in 2012, and a21studio's design for The Chapel, a colourful community centre in Ho Chi Minh City, which won last year.

"It all depends on the presentation - you've got 10 minutes to present your approach, and at that moment it has nothing to do with the scale, nothing to do with the form," says Tsui. "The technical winner is not always the winner with the most heart." And for an award as unusual as the World Building of the Year award, it's all about heart.