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Architecture and Design

Rem Koolhaas’ OMA reveals first Hong Kong architecture project – Sogo ‘twin towers’ at former Kai Tak airport site

OMA, famed in Asia for designing CCTV headquarters in Beijing, gives details of its design for Kai Tak development – and reveals Hong Kong’s innovation-shy Buildings Department knocked back its ambitious plan for ceramic facades

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 May, 2018, 6:19pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 May, 2018, 6:42pm

The Dutch firm headed by “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas this week revealed details of its first Hong Kong project: the Sogo “twin towers” at the site of the former Kai Tak airport for which Lifestyle International paid HK$7.4 billion (US$943 million) in 2016.

Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) is best known in Asia for large public commissions, such as the CCTV headquarters in Beijing – nicknamed “Big Pants” for its unusual shape – and the Shenzhen Stock Exchange building with its floating base.

 

Working in Hong Kong’s scrunched-up urban landscape has its own challenges, says Chris van Duijn, the OMA partner in charge of the firm’s Asian operations.

The two towers will occupy an awkward site that will be surrounded on all sides by other developments. They will have a total gross floor area of more than 100,000 square metres and will feature a Sogo department store as well as other retail, entertainment and food and beverage outlets.

 

Van Duijn says: “We have to think about how to make the 60- to 80-metre-wide opaque facades interesting. We wanted to use ceramic, but it is very difficult to get the Hong Kong Buildings Department to approve new materials, so we are using granite and glass instead,” he says. 

The angular towers will have cut corners at the bottom like the Tencent headquarters in Beijing that OMA is also building, and they will have publicly accessible balconies and sky gardens when completed in 2022. 

“The overall feeling will be transparent and open,” he promises.

Of course, an architect’s best intentions aren’t always realised once a building’s owners move in. That has happened at the CCTV building, where OMA’s designated public spaces are no longer open to the public.

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In Shanghai, Van Duijn’s team is working on a master plan for the redevelopment of an industrial cluster called the Columbia Circle. OMA is focusing on access and the preservation of historic colonial monuments and industrial buildings. But Van Duijn has to accept that, since it is not involved in the project’s construction, there is no guarantee its plan will be followed to the letter by developer China Vanke, the client.

The Shanghai project is an example of the sort of short-term, nimble contracts OMA has increasingly taken on in Asia. 

“The master plan took us just 12 weeks to do compared with the 12 years we spent on Fondazione Prada [a former gin distillery in Milan renovated to serve as the charity’s headquarters]. Instead of spending a lot of time finessing one proposal, we sometimes give clients a number of draft options to choose from. It is how it works in China and it was high time we woke up to it,” Van Duijn says.

Architect Rem Koolhaas explains his work at Fondazione Prada

OMA is still going for statement projects, such as the Tencent headquarters and Chengdu’s Unicorn City – a future district in the western Chinese city designed to generate “unicorns” (start-ups worth more than US$1 billion). This week, OMA’s futuristic proposal was named one of the winners of a design competition for Unicorn City. But the number of new mega projects in China is falling, Van Duijn says.

For this reason, international firms need to take on more “quick and dirty” projects that may only involve a paper plan rather than an entire building. There has seen a sharp spike in the number of such projects for OMA’s Asia team, which now has around 35 people in its Hong Kong office compared to around 80 a few years ago.

Van Duijn says: “OMA’s approach to Asia has changed over the years. Our first Asia projects were in Japan and South Korea during the late 1980s. They were all done from our head office in Rotterdam. 

“In the late 1990s, we focused on the US, but after the 9/11 attacks all our work got cancelled and we had to refocus. That’s when we decided to go east and bid for the CCTV project in Beijing. 

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“We got other projects and opened an office in the city. But after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the market collapsed for international architects because the Chinese began to do it themselves. So we moved to Hong Kong. And in the last two years, we have restructured our office and our focus.” 

He has worked since 2007 on the Prada project at the sprawling, 19,000 square metre, early 20th century industrial complex for the cultural institution set up by fashion designer Miuccia Prada and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, in 1993. Last month, the final element was put in place: a 60-metre-high tower called the Torre. 

“One reason I came to Asia is that projects in Europe often take 12-17 years to build. That’s a lot of time. And most of the time is not spent on architecture and quality, but on risk registers and process-related work. 

“With the Shanghai project, it is very chaotic and dynamic. I like the positive energy and not looking at checking boxes all the time,” Van Duijn says.