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Hong Kong Rising

Architects are increasingly finding opportunities for inventive work in one of the world's most densely populated regions.

By C.J. Hughes
August 30, 2012
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Image courtesy SCAD
The exterior of the Hong Kong outpost of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). The former justice building was adapted for SCAD by Leo A. Daly.

For decades, Hong Kong seemed mostly to be a portal for Western designers wanting to boost their Asian presence, especially in burgeoning China. After all, the city, on China’s southeastern coast, was easy to reach, centrally located, and English-speaking.

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Today, though, 15 years after China absorbed the longtime British colony, Hong Kong, which has seven million people across 426 square miles, is attracting U.S. architects in its own right, including Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Frank Gehry, and Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), among others. They are drawn in part by a more supportive environment for new construction and cutting-edge design.

And that shift in attitudes, they say, was solidified by the March election of Leung Chun-ying, a former real estate surveyor with a pro-development stance, to the city’s chief executive position.

Leung “has such a good understanding of property and its effect on various aspects of society, from housing to the environment to business,” says Paul Katz, a KPF managing principal who frequently works in the firm’s four-year-old Hong Kong office. “Of all the elected officials in the world, he is the most knowledgeable of the value of design.

KPF’s most-recent additions to the skyline are the International Commerce Centre (ICC), a 1,588-foot skyscraper that opened in 2011, and Hysan Place, a 700,000-square-foot office-building-and-mall located across Victoria Harbor from the ICC on Hong Kong Island, which opened this month. It is Asia’s first LEED Platinum mixed-use project.

Recognizing the city’s fresh turn in the architectural spotlight, New York’s Asia Society in April presented “Hong Kong: New Force in Art and Design,” a well-attended review of the city’s newest design accomplishments.

Among the featured projects was the new campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), from Leo A. Daly, which opened in 2010 in a former justice building. A rare adapative reuse project in a place with few historic buildings, the 70,000-square-foot project retained many original details, like the jail cell that’s now a conference room, which kept “graffiti from a number of nations, in a number of languages,” joked Bob Dickensheets, a SCAD external relations director, at the event.

In a similar vein, Hong Kong’s aging middle-class apartment towers are ripe for rehabs, though the living spaces in them tend to be miniscule by Western standards, and thus often require ingenious approaches, says architect Gary Chang, of Hong Kong-based Edge Design Institute.

Indeed, Chang redesigned his 340-square-foot childhood apartment to add sliding walls, and a bed that extends over a bath tub, to help allow for 24 different room configurations, as he showed in slides. “The city spends too much time on grand projects,” Chang said in a follow-up interview. “A city is a summation of things big and small.”

But large-scale projects do offer opportunities for Western designers, says architect James Law, founder of Cybertecture International and another Hong Kong designer taking the stage to tout his city’s achievements.

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