Hong Kong, China

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By Marc Kristal
Hong Kong’s architectural development can be traced through time by viewing it panoramically from the city’s stratospheric escalators. We survey the layers with local architect Rocco Yim.

Studying the map over breakfast, it looks easy. You board the legendary Star Ferry at the Tsim Sha Tsui terminal in Kowloon, motor across Victoria Harbor toward the skyscrapers lining Hong Kong Island’s financial district, then disembark and stroll a few blocks into the heart of Central, the city’s birthplace. In reality, by the time you’ve figured out that Central’s freeway-esque thoroughfares can only be crossed by pedestrian walkways, gotten lost in one of the luxury-brand-filled malls into which the walkways deposit you, stumbled into Statue Square and made your way through the hundreds in the plaza beneath Norman Foster’s HSBC building, and ridden the 2,600-foot-long escalator up to historic Hollywood Road, you’ll be lucky if you haven’t missed lunch.

If you’ve a taste for urban life in extremis, you’ll be in heaven. Hong Kong is composed of three parts acquired by the British beginning in 1841: the eponymous, mountainous island; Kowloon peninsula; and the New Territories, which include the region north of Kowloon plus roughly 230 islands (leased for 99 years in 1898, an arrangement that precipitated the 1997 handover). Each has its own allure. Hong Kong Island offers an intriguing architectural mélange, ranging from 19th- and early 20th-century works such as St. John’s Cathedral and the former Supreme Court to Foster’s remarkable 1985 machine-for-business and I. M. Pei’s sharp-angled Bank of China Tower. Amidst the cheek-by-jowl vernacular buildings and the steep, skinny streets of Central’s Lan Kwai Fong and Soho districts, you find the hippest nightlife, and at Stanley and Repulse Bay, delightful beaches. In Kowloon, the density borders on the surreal: Monstrous, grimy apartment structures—–hung with laundry, crisscrossed by bamboo scaffolding, and seemingly about to collapse—–line the main artery, Nathan Road, over which a montage of visually cacophonous signage unfurls like a neon thunderhead. In the New Territories (apart from suburban development), there are historic Chinese villages, abundant country parks, and peace.

Overwhelming? Absolutely. But the public-works projects that pepper the city’s history have delivered a surprisingly manageable metropolis. Whether you’re ascending to Victoria Peak, the island’s high point, on a 19th-century trolley line or riding the comprehensive MTR subway to sightsee in Sheung Wan or attend the Sha Tin racecourse, Hong Kong’s pleasures are easily grasped.

To put things in perspective, we spoke with Hong Kong native Rocco Yim, whose Rocco Design Architects Ltd. is one of the city’s most prolific architecture firms, responsible for the graceful Citibank Plaza, Number One Peking Road skyscrapers, and dozens of other local and international projects. We talked about Hong Kong’s development, urban terrors and pleasures, and future challenges.

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Nestled amidst the high-rises and road-ways of Hong Kong Island’s Causeway Bay

district, the Happy Valley Racecourse is one of two tracks that see billions of dollars

wagered each season. Hong Kong’s first official horse race was held on this site in 1846.

Is Hong Kong friendly to contemporary architecture? 

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Of the many street markets, the Ladies’ Market on Kowloon’s Tung Choi Street is perhaps the liveliest.

If there is some truth to the saying that architecture is a reflection of a city, then the pragmatic, practical nature of Hong Kong influences most of the architecture. We are very efficient at putting up buildings, very good at making the maximum use of whatever space is available. We are ingenious in the way we adapt buildings to difficult sites. But at the end of the day, the first priority is functionality. The general public does not have great aspirations for creativity.

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Crossing Victoria Harbor on the Star Ferry is irresistibly romantic.

Are architecture and urban design driven by money or by government?  

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The New Territories’ Botanic Gardens offer a soothing break from Hong Kong’s occasionally stifling urbanity.

By money. Of course, the government establishes planning and zoning guidelines, but it is traditionally driven by financial considerations.

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I. M. Pei’s 1990 Bank of China tower is an immediately recognizable element of the Hong Kong skyline.

By money. Of course, the government establishes planning and zoning guidelines, but it is traditionally driven by financial considerations.

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The 2,600-foot-long escalator from the lower Central district to Hong Kong Island’s mid-levels spares the legs but hasn’t eased traffic.

Sometimes, when commercial interests and urban considerations coincide. The best example is how the city’s infrastructure merges with buildings. Mass-transit stations integrate with shopping centers. Pedestrian movement systems merge with architecture. There is no rigid demarcation between what is private and public and no strong psychological demarcation between one piece of architecture and the next. As a result, we have some very dynamic public spaces.

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Originally the Supreme Court, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council Building, completed in 1912, remains a high-water mark of Colonial-era architecture.

Where haven’t public and private interests merged well?

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Workers survey the harbor-reclamation efforts.

On large residential projects. The efficiency the developer is trying to achieve is so great that the resulting architecture ignores the basic requirements of good living units. Like that they should be facing south, or that there should be adequate cross ventilation, or that they should not be overlooking other units. Usually such environmental considerations are given up in order to have as much usable area as possible squeezed out of limited available land. At the same time, it gives the city a good compactness.

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Luk Yu Tea House, on Stanley Street in Central, has been serving incomparable dim sum since 1933.

What are the positives and negatives of Hong Kong’s density?

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British architect Norman Foster sited the banking hall on the HSBC building’s first level, rather than the customary ground floor, to create an open-air plaza at street level. Architecture aficionados can explore the structure freely. As is the case in most

of Hong Kong’s major buildings, access is largely unrestricted.

It is a user-friendly, pedestrian-friendly city, something that cities like Beijing or Los Angeles really should learn. This compactness produces a very vibrant mix. You have living zones very close to commercial zones. You have a market, sometimes literally, downstairs. You are within walking distance of shops, bars, and restaurants.   On the other hand, in order to achieve this, some very basic concerns are neglected. You have to be able to stand the noise. Privacy is a problem—–you can’t be the sort of person who likes living in Vancouver. And sometimes this density creates a "wall" effect, blocking the winds from the sea and worsening pollution.

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In operation since 1888, the Peak Tram conveys visitors to Victoria Peak, atop Hong Kong Island, in about ten minutes.

Is the government confronting these problems? 

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The view from the peak’s 1,810-foot high point is equally spectacular in every direction, assuming the day is smog-free.

They have started to down-zone most development to reduce the density of new sites. In two recent incidents, they almost halved the amount of development that was permitted before.

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As the city’s many food stalls attest, Hong Kong is a gourmand’s paradise.

How did the land-reclamation projects, which have been going on for 150 years and have reshaped Hong Kong’s topography, get started?

We are short of land. And yet the government throughout history has relied on profits from land sales to finance the city. It is one reason why we have such low income taxes. And the only way we could get new land to sell is through reclamations, time and again.

Twenty years ago, it took 15 minutes to cross the harbor by ferry. Now, because of the increased amount of landfill, it takes about eight. Has it gone too far?

It’s a very politically sensitive issue. Two or three years ago, when people saw the last reclamation, they were alarmed that the harbor was becoming more like a river. Now there is a law that prohibits further damage.  Also, people have been complaining for many years that Hong Kong’s shoreline is a mess—–not a single restaurant or promenade. And one reason is that the government is always engaging in further reclamations, so there’s no point in designing anything. Now that the last one has begun, they are finally going forward with consultations on how to best design the waterfront.

Has historic preservation become a priority? 

It has. It used to be that there wasn’t a strong will to do so because if you knocked down an old building and sold the land, you could get more income. Over the last two years, however, the government has been actively trying to preserve historic structures like Central Police Station, but there is always difficulty getting a consensus. There are organizations that say you cannot touch a single brick. On the other hand, there are people—–including myself, and most architects—–who say you have to be creative by adding or transforming elements to make it work, as with the Tate Modern.

What are the big challenges for the future?

What we need is a couple of good-quality public buildings that we can be proud of. The government does not go for design competitions. They’re afraid of budgeting, of controversies.   The second challenge is to find an intelligent balance between sustainability concerns and issues of density and compactness. Government is responding to environmental groups and downscaling development sites. But there is a danger that the pendulum is swinging too much the other way too fast. That by drastically reducing the density of our city, we might lose our original strength, that we are walkable and connectable.

Has the city changed much since the handover?

It changed quite a bit over the last two years. The public is more concerned with the environment, preservation, and reclamation. That is very different from the British era. It’s an outgrowth of a new form of government. We have more independent legislators, so people’s voices are increasingly heard.

If a visitor only has a few days, what are Hong Kong’s must-dos?

You must take the Peak Tram and take a look from above. And the ride is interesting—–there’s one stretch where it’s so steep, it’s almost vertical.   Then I would suggest you take the escalators up to the mid-levels [of Central]. There you can see the different strata of development. From the latest, to old Central, to the messy residential neighborhoods on the upper mid-levels, to the more high-class, quieter residential levels.

Any museums?

Unfortunately, our museums are all bad [laughs].