How world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid influenced Hong Kong’s famous skyline

Hong Kong Institute of Architects president Vincent Ng, who worked with the late Pritzker Prize winner, tells the Post how she was an inspiration to those in the city

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 April, 2016, 11:12am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 April, 2016, 4:36pm

“It all started here.”

This was how Zaha Hadid began the introduction to her design for the Innovation Tower on the city’s Polytechnic University campus back in 2014.

The groundbreaking Iraqi-British architect, who died of a sudden heart attack in Miami on Thursday, associated her success with Hong Kong.

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“Few believed what she drew on paper could be transformed into reality,” said Hong Kong Institute of Architects president Vincent Ng Wing-shun, Hadid’s local partner in the innovation tower project.

This is probably why her creative design for a leisure club on The Peak in Hong Kong never came to fruition, despite the fact that it had won the international design competition back in 1983.

“In fact, her first design was only realised in Vitra, Germany in 1993, 10 years after she had become famous. It was a fire station in an angular shape,” Ng said.

Ng, who entered two other international competitions with Hadid, said it was the Peak design competition that made Hadid well-known worldwide.

“A judge for the competition recalled years later that he didn’t know whether Hadid was a man or a woman. But he was impressed by her work,” Ng said.

“That’s why, according to Hadid’s staff, she always wanted to return to Hong Kong to build a signature of her own,” he added.

Her design for the leisure club, which has been called “deconstructivist”, proposed excavating the hills to form a site and using the excavated rock to build artificial cliffs. It was said to be “seemingly defiant of gravity”.

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In 2004, Hadid became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, the highest honour for architects.

And while some have criticised her conscious creation of visually intrusive structures across the globe, Ng said her innovations and non-compromising attitude were an inspiration for Hong Kong architects, adding that government bureaucracy was a reason for the city being filled with “boring architecture”.

“In many cases, land owners and architects will compromise in face of the rigid building rules. That’s why they often come up with an alternative design as a back up,” he said.

“But for Zaha Hadid, she doesn’t allow Plan B.”

Ng said the Innovation Tower, which exceeded the building height limit set by the Planning Department, would not have been completed without her persistence. The project team had to fight very hard to persuade building officials to approve its tilted structure and her signature flowing curves, in form of sun shading fins, because such designs could result in unpermitted extra floor areas.

In a related anecdote, a senior member of the Polytechnic University management asked Hadid, after she had introduced the Innovation Tower, how the building’s windows – partly covered with sun shading fins – should be cleaned. The question went unanswered.

“Her job is to invent, not to solve the problem. It somehow reflects the mentality of the city’s administration,” Ng said.

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A more recent project by Hadid, the design for the main facility of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, was scrapped last summer as a result of spiralling construction costs. In this regard, Ng, who was tasked to revitalise the Central Market, had similar encounter. His plan was shelved last year after its cost of preservation tripled from HK$500 million to HK$1.5 billion.

Hadid was involved in 950 projects in 44 countries, including the Aquatics Centre in London, built for the 2012 Olympics.

Her signature buildings in Asia include the world’s largest international airport terminal, being planned in Beijing; the Guangzhou Opera House, which resembles “pebbles in a stream smoothed by erosion”; and Seoul’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza.

Ng said Hadid death was “too sudden”, and a great loss to the world.

“Her inventions and non-compromising attitude have created more room for architects in Hong Kong to pursue their dreams,” he said.

“She was a contemporary master, looking for breakthrough and advancement in every way,” Ng added.