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Architecture

Look to natural habitat and not monetary value, prize-winning Hong Kong architects say

Formerly with Herzog and de Meuron, the pair recognise that space in the city is at a premium while pushing for embrace of natural topology

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 January, 2018, 10:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 January, 2018, 10:02am

Hong Kong deserves a better habitat that is assessed by basic human needs and not monetary value, a prize-winning pair of architects has advised.

Locally born and formerly based in Switzerland, Ida Sze Ki-shan and Billy Chan Wai-ching have won competitions large and small for their work, from the Hong Kong Pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo to a public toilet in Guangzhou.

The two cast an eye on their hometown that searches beyond dollar signs.

“Our city has a natural topology featuring slopes and ocean that are close to each other, but our urban setting has ignored all that,” said Sze, a Chinese University graduate and former staff member at the Architectural Services Department for six years.

“Instead we see all the fancy decor, like layers of gift wrap that artificially define the relationship between the city and its inhabitants.”

That was Sze’s “frustrated” state of mind when she left Hong Kong in 2010 and joined Chan, her university classmate and partner, at renowned architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron in Basel.

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“In Basel, I saw a city layout that was simple and clean, some of it is as playful as toys,” she recalled. “And the famous Bear Park in Bern built on a natural slope next to a river is cleverly designed, linking nature with animals for people to view.”

The coexistence of nature and people inspired Sze and Chan to design a dream city of their own overlooking the slopes of Hong Kong Island from a beach in Kowloon.

“Space in Hong Kong is so precious that over 90 per cent of people see the dollar value of their flat and neglect the surroundings, which we believe have a major impact on us,” said Chan.

Maximising the potential for space, the couple said, was an architect’s job, and resolving problems therefore signified good architecture.

“We love to solve problems and during the process to identify design potential so that the end product would be functional, user-friendly, and aesthetical,” Sze said.

These highbrow principles have been applied to some unlikely but award-winning projects, such as the Wo Hop Shek Kiu Tau Road Columbarium in Fanling as well as public toilets at Taikoo Hui, a shopping centre in Guangzhou in neighbouring Guangdong province.

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“It seems washrooms have become popular among young people as they post a lot of selfies on the internet,” Chan said. “Even the city tourist bureau put it on the sightseeing list.”

Their grotto design picked up seven accolades, including a Good Design Award in Japan in 2016.

Whether in the limelight or not, we take each task as a project and we love to fix problems
Ida Sze, architect

Their mastery of lavatory facilities is evident at the now odourless toilets of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre after a year of quietly renovating the building’s entire foyer without a day of closure.

But no project yielded a more dramatic turnaround than the illegal structure at former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen’s Kowloon Tong residence. It ended up bringing Sze and Chan back to Hong Kong in 2012.

“We were interested in the project not just for problem-solving but also for enhancement, which at the end became a facelift in every sense of the word,” she said.

Their two years of efforts after a scandal derailed Tang’s candidacy for chief executive gave rise to an award spree. Last October, for example, the couple earned a coveted President’s Prize from the Hong Kong Institute of Architects.

The couple declined to comment on the scandal surrounding alleged illegal structures at the residence of newly named justice minister Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, only noting that something good could come out of a bad situation.

“Whether in the limelight or not, we take each task as a project and we love to fix problems,” Sze said.