Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Aesthetics of Connection

In our Central walk, the architects we discuss - Sir Norman Foster, Paul Rudolph, Cesar Pelli, I.M. Pei - are pretty much all foreign. Perhaps it makes sense that a cosmopolitan, international city would have so many buildings designed by outsiders. But one could make the argument that the character of the city has thereby been determined from outside, rather than from within.

I largely do not buy that argument, given that the flashy buildings put up by foreign architects have been consonant with the brash, commercial character of the city. But there are design differences between foreign and local architects, and I'd like to highlight the understated, and under-rated, achievements of one local, Rocco Yim.

Rocco Yim made his name in international design competitions, with several award-winning designs for local (youth hostels) and ambitious foreign competitions (honorable mention for a new library in Alexandria). He's since gone onto work busily on commercial and residential projects all over China that try to re-invent new modalities of everyday life for the New China. But in my view the most illustrative project of his design philosophy is the Citibank building on Garden Road, below.

What can we say about this building? Obviously, it stands in the shadow of the aggressive Bank of China building. In Yim's words, the work was "a tacit acknowledgement and respect for the Bank of China Tower." It is almost like a Hong Kong in miniature - an international financial center used by thousands of people every day that don't even work in the building. And it is at the same time connected to (via a common podium) but separated from (via a driveway) the BOC Tower, China's most powerful symbol in the territory.

But let us come back to the "connectedness" of the building. If you ever worked in either Pacific Place or in the Cheung Kong Center, like me, you will appreciate this building's design. For it has built-in overhead walkways on both sides that connect it to either side of Garden Road - one leading into the heart of Central, the other to Hong Kong Park and Pacific Place. As a pedestrian, one would normally have to walk down the busy, polluted and noisy Queensway Road. However, with the Citibank building's generous design, one can glide effortlessly from Admiralty through Hong Kong Park to Central, and if you then proceed down Battery Path you can be at Ice House Street without having crossed a road, and having been surrounded by trees.

But this design is no mere work of convenience. Yim recognized that buildings are not simply monuments in Hong Kong - they must be more. They must help alleviate the crowded pedestrian traffic in Hong Kong, one of the world's busiest cities. He called his design philosophy the "Aesthetics of Connection", and drew its inspiration from the other 89 buildings connected to each other in some way in the Central district alone.

And in some way, too, the mastery of organizing systems, is the genius of the Hong Kong Cantonese. The city's transport network is the envy of the world and second to none; Certainly it has its detractors in that it is too powerful and that Hong Kong's efficiency is gained at the expense of aesthetic, heritage or environmental concerns. However, no sacrifice has been made in the Citibank buildings, whose architect has cleverly welded form with function.


Anonymous said...

Good Architecture is experienced on several levels scale (monumental,institutional,domestic). Many buildings benefit the vistor with a enhanced experience at the personal scale within the buildings and at the building edge. I do not see this concern expressed in his completed buildings.

Dave and Stefan said...

I think though, from a functional perspective that the benefits of his architecture is clear. However, I do agree that there is a lack of individualism or overt monumentalism expressed - somewhat like an often-expressed theme of Hong Kong identity - that it is more about transitition than representative of an single expression or of an architectural idea.

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