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The Hong Kong Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

At this year’s International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, the Hong Kong Pavilion looks to address issues of border, megapolises and climatic architecture writes Christie Lee.

The Hong Kong Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

Top image: Lam Tin Estate (Sustainable Public Housing) in Hong Kong, presented by The Hong Kong Housing Authority

It doesn’t take the politically diligent to know of the frequent brawls taking place on the Hong Kong/Shenzhen border crossing. The Hong Kong Pavilion at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition, which opens on 7 June in Venice, aims to steer the discourse into a different direction by asking the question: what role, if any, should architects play in the transformation of the Pearl River Delta region into a megapolis?

Co-curated by Alvin Yip, Ivan Fu and Doreen Liu, the Hong Kong Pavilion, titled “Fundamentally Hong Kong? – DELTA FOUR 1984 – 2044”, comprises eight architectural models and four short films. It’s the first time that the cinematic form is being incorporated, as Yip explains, “If you think about it, there are actually quite a number of similarities between architecture and film. Take the respective roles of an architect and film director as an example. Both are at the helm of a team made up of highly idiosyncratic individuals.” Christie Lee finds out more.

14th International Architectural Biennale
Lam Tin Estate (Sustainable Public Housing) in Hong Kong, presented by The Hong Kong Housing Authority

Christie Lee: How are the eight architectural models selected?

Alvin Yip: The eight architectural models are selected based on their climatic wisdom. In academia, so much of the debate is focused on the different architectural styles in the West. When you look at the buildings in London or Paris, you can clearly describe them in relation to certain artistic or technological traditions. Hong Kong however, is a completely different story. The topography is very multi-dimensional, almost forest-like. It’s about time we come up with our own discourse and put it in the book.

Lam Tin Estate (Sustainable Public Housing) in Hong Kong, presented by The Hong Kong Housing Authority

CL: Can you elaborate on the idea of ‘climatic wisdom’?

AY: We judge a building’s climatic wisdom by how well they respond to the needs of a community. The public housing project in Lam Tin and Diamond Hill Crematorium & Columbarium are exemplars in this regard. The latter is also culturally-oriented, which makes it rare as it’s not something you see in the West.

14th International Architectural Biennale
Diamond Hill Crematorium & Columbarium in Hong Kong, presented by the Hong Kong Architectural Services Department

CL: When we talk about the Pearl River Delta, borders and the conflicts arising from the crossing of these borders come to mind. How will the Hong Kong Pavilion address this?

AY: One thing we notice with the borders within the Pearl River Delta is that they are very blurry. The idea of the border in Europe or North America is very explicit – they’re either really strict or really loose. Yet, the Hong Kong/Shenzhen border crossing can hardly be described as such. Hong Kong and Shenzhen are very different culturally but at the same time, the physical border is very porous.

14th International Architectural Biennale
Luohu Land Port & Railway Station in Shenzhen, presented by the China Academy of Urban Planning & Design (CAUPD)

CL: Is the blurring of borders a hindrance to or driver for city-making?

AY: Having this sort of mobility is definitely a driver for unique city-making in Hong Kong. As a result of our demand for convenience and flexibility, Hong Kong architects have created a network that is extremely multi-dimensional.

14th International Architectural Biennale
M+ Museum for visual culture in Hong Kong, presented by Herzog & de Meuron, TFP Farrells, Ove Arup & Partners HK

CL: What role can architects play in resolving such conflicts at the border?

AY: To be honest, I don’t have an answer to that yet. I do have a small observation about Hong Kong architects though. Whereas a lot of architects in the West treat themselves as celebrities, Hong Kong architects have never treated themselves as heroes. In a way, Hong Kong architects are much more equipped to become facilitators of civic society – in other words, they strive to improve lives rather than build something to express themselves. Monumental architecture isn’t appreciated as much in Hong Kong as it is in the West. If you look at the Hong Kong government building, it’s quite understated. It’s not trying to show power. The city’s density also gives a particular kind of aesthetic. If you look at the Bank of China or the HSBC headquarters, they aren’t seen so much as individual sculptures with a lot of white spaces around them. Rather they are absorbed by the city.

14th International Architectural Biennale
M+ Museum for visual culture in Hong Kong, presented by Herzog & de Meuron, TFP Farrells, Ove Arup & Partners HK

CL: How do you address the fear that Hong Kong would lose its own identity should a mega-city come to pass?

AY: I think the fear is amplified. I mean, I think the Hong Kong economy has always been reliant on the intense exchange of power, people and money. Take people’s fear that Cantonese would one day become extinct as an example. I think the debate should revolve less around Cantonese being a geographical marker, but more on it as something that’s valuable and thus should be preserved. As for kids peeing on the MTR or the clamour for milk powder, I think these are relatively minor problems. Politicians just need to act quicker [to act].

The 14th International Architecture Exhibition runs from 7 June – 23 November in Venice.

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