Urban planning

‘Book tree’ under Hong Kong flyover is no ordinary library, drawing reading material and children keen to have fun

Chinese University professor behind installation examines how design can make an impact in community by using ‘residual spaces’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 August, 2018, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 August, 2018, 11:44pm

Four-year-old Leia Cheng sits among stacks of books in a library, reading from one aloud to her mom.

Except this is no ordinary library.

Built under a bustling flyover in Mei Foo, the second-hand book library is actually part of an installation that doubles as a playground for children to frolic and welcomes passers-by to sit and unwind.

From afar, the two-metre-high wooden structure resembles a tree with an overhanging canopy, nestled among uneven boxes that create a platform to sit on.

No signs are posted telling people to keep quiet. Kids can run freely as they fancy. The only rule? Visitors must take off their shoes.

Dubbed the “book tree”, the installation is a trial by Peter Ferretto, an associate professor at Chinese University’s school of architecture. It forms part of his research on how design can make an impact in the community by using what he calls Hong Kong’s “residual spaces” or “lost spaces”.

Such areas range from small nooks tucked below staircases to cathedral-like chambers underneath flyovers, Ferretto said. He described them as frequently overlooked by-products of built-up infrastructure.

“People don’t see these spaces. They pass by them every day,” he explained. “But this is where creativity and design can really help you see things. By putting something very humble like this book tree, all of a sudden people realise they can have a different experience, that they can use the space in a different way.”

To many Mei Foo residents, the space under the flyover had previously not been much more than a spacious passageway between a residential estate and the mall, or a covered area to get to the adjacent wet market.

By putting something very humble like this book tree, all of a sudden people realise they can have a different experience
Peter Ferretto, Chinese University

But in the one week since the installation debuted, it has transformed the space into a resting area and book exchange for neighbourhood residents.

Second-hand books donated by a non-profit organisation are stacked onto shelves at varying height levels, and residents can take away any books or donate their own for public use.

In the one hour the Post spent at the book tree, dozens of children stopped by, clambering over the uneven seats. Some sat quietly to read.

Parents parked empty prams next to the installation, watching over their children. Elderly residents and domestic helpers also gathered and sat.

At a cost of HK$50,000 (US$6,300), Ferretto believed the tree showed how good design need not be confined to art galleries or shopping malls.

“What I think is amazing is that it doesn’t take a lot,” he said. “All you need is creativity. It can be cheap and still have a very big impact.”

Mei Foo resident Flora Chan, 60, said she much preferred bringing her grandson to the book tree rather than to the nearby public library.

“Every time I take him to the library, I have to pick out books for him and before I know it he’s begging me to leave,” Chan noted. “Here, you can tell he’s a lot more engaged. He takes out the books he’s interested in and he doesn’t even want to leave.”

Housewife Karis Chow, the mother of Leia Cheng, agreed.

“Kids have a lot of questions to ask while reading books, and I always felt like I was disturbing other children who were doing their homework,” Chow said of her experience in libraries.

“I can let her run around and not have to worry about noise because it’s a public space.”

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Visitors to the site told the Post they hoped more of these initiatives could help transform public space in Hong Kong.

A 2016 study by think tank Civic Exchange found that the average open space available for each Hongkonger was about two square metres – the size of a coffin or a toilet cubicle.

Book tree project manager Jack Choi Sze-ho, a PhD student in architecture at Chinese University, said the installation’s reception surpassed his expectations.

“We did worry about it becoming a negative experience. People could have taken away all the books to sell them, or the place could have been monopolised by homeless people,” he noted. “But none of this happened.”

In fact, in the span of a week during which Choi monitored the site, the 150 books that were originally donated to the tree had all been replaced by books from the community. And the total number of books more than doubled.

Ferretto noted that obtaining permission for temporary use of government land was “not too difficult”, adding it only required a meeting with the district council, which had helped him get in touch with a Lands Department official. Some structural safety reports needed to be submitted, and approval followed within two months.

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The book tree will keep operating at the site until mid-September.

But both Ferretto and Choi said it was also important that the installation not stay permanently in Mei Foo but move to different locations across the city.

Such mobility, they added, could help them better understand how different people engaged with architecture in such spaces.

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With the help of a district councillor, the team hoped to relocate the book tree to under an overpass in Sham Shui Po, where many homeless people seek shelter.

In addition, depending on community needs, the installation would not necessarily need to remain a book tree. The team said books could be replaced with toys, or the site could be reinvented as a drawing and exhibition space.

“That’s the interesting thing about a prototype,” Ferretto said. “You can take it somewhere else and maybe it might be more or less successful. But from that we learn how everyday people colonise the space, and go from there.”