Deciphering Hong Kong’s

100 Towers in Venice

解讀香港100座塔樓 —— 威尼斯國際雙年展

Essay: John Sandell

摘要: 是次雙年展的高樓方案中,「花園」、「居所歷史」和「公共空間」是三個在 建築設計策略上極具影響力的主題。這些主題亦體現在設計團隊運用的建 築語言上,並進一步擴充了概念和意義的可能性。如此一來,建築在僅能以 外型解讀空間建構之外添加了更多操作,令意義和創新亦存在於自然、人和 建造等多種體驗上。

Abstract: John Sandell John Sandell is an Associate Professor with the Florida Atlantic University School of Architecture. He received his Bachelor of Science in Architecture from California Polytechnic, a Master of Architecture from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and a Laurea in architecture from the Polytechnic of Milan. He is a licensed architect in Italy.

Gardens, domestic histories, and public space: these three tendencies dominate the forest of columns that comprises the Hong Kong Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale. Each of these themes identifies commonly known issues concerning human existence while also ramifying into contemporary questions of land-use and development in Hong Kong. Nonetheless, this brief commentary does not seek to analyze the above histories in relationship to their context – Hong Kong – nor how land-use and lifestyle in Hong Kong have impacted the participants’ choices to highlight one or more of the above issues in their projects, e.g., the recurrence of parks and open space, domesticity and population density, the deconstruction of borders, the high-rise as citadel, the critique of and response to social space in the high-rise model, and so on. Instead, it seeks to clarify how each of the three above-mentioned themes impacts architectural strategy and its language, and includes some of the anomalies that appear among cases outside of these tendencies and the emergence of the most salient features dispersed within the exhibition of work. The Hong Kong high-rise situation is doubly rooted within a bracketed approach to understanding the one hundred plus models: first, through the incorporation of a pre-given vertical structural armature – of a prompt of sorts in the form of either an “X,” an “L,” (in plan view), or a “box frame” each defined by the same base dimension and the height of the column; second, in the particular theme ideated by each of the participants. This combination of armature and theme juxtaposes contradictory realities. Yet, adherence of one to the other highlights dominant, primary or prescriptive properties by bringing together variegated domains of visual expression and foregrounding semantic similarities (and differences). Further, it orients the dialogue and provides a means for the imagination to flesh out secondary properties that otherwise remain latent, thereby expanding the scope of meaning.

The taxonomy of kinds and their conceptual formations require some generalizations for interpretation. Simultaneously, this positioning among specific themes demarcates the subject matter and registers shifts in positions among a kind. Hence, the three tendencies mentioned above, together with a number of column anomalies dispersed throughout the exhibit create a space for mapping the conceptual range of each and prevents one from the claim of being all- encompassing. The high-rise model, therefore, defines the individual parameters of each participant and provides a window within the larger discourse vested in a critique of Hong Kong and discussion concerning the city’s future.

Gardens

Often reactionary, the theme of garden as represented in the models exemplifies the need for more public green space in the city. At one extreme, garden supplants architecture, minimizing the legibility of the architectural construct per se and its references. Here, the desire for “garden living” displaces architecture’s role of fabricating shelter; architecture is reduced to the role of armature, a trellis for the proliferation of vegetation and layering of vertical parks. (Fig. 2) At the other extreme, symbols of naturalistic representations such as the placement of plastic trees in the model demarcate individual dwelling units and privatize the garden function. (Fig. 3) The vertical garden in relation to habitat is reduced to modular units defined by the singular tree figure or stuffed bins demarcating each apartment unit. In this instance, the notion of garden takes on a symbolic function and segregates the space of the individual from that of the collective. Projects in between these extremes represent a range of attempts to integrate both private and public areas through the meticulous greening of terraces, floating paths, parks and promenades that can modulate and sometimes liberate spatial pattern and order so as to emphasize the natural and one’s desire for garden living in the city. (Fig. 4) Nonetheless, most fail to bring architecture into dialogue with the garden theme. The architectural model with respect to the inclusion of nature becomes disputed rather than coerced into argumentation with its disparate counterpart. The dialogue between fabricated green and built form is not brought to fruition, leaving instead the architectural component as masked or as illusory altogether. In many cases, a project’s attention shifts toward the critique of post-capitalist society and Hong Kong’s planning policies that underpinned current land-use and building interventions. (Fig. 5) The “garden-park” tendency and its connotation of health and well-being in an urban environment are deployed in these column forms as reactionary, a critical comment for reform in the city. Yet the most striking projects and their fulfillment of garden + built form meld together the two domains with an understanding of Hong Kong’s past history and culture of gardens in the urban fabric and examine this position by drawing upon the high-rise typology as a transformative means of investigation between architectural language and the space of the garden itself.

Domestic

histories The histories of Hong Kong’s inhabitants, and in particular fictions of their everyday, profane activities constitute a second “infill” tendency of the column armature. Here, human discourses in the form of oral, written or graphic figural illustrations are coupled to modes of sheltering; a volumetric play of elements of domesticity building memories of Hong Kong life. The thematic focus thus shifts to domestic habitation and the spatial wrestling of such in reference to Hong Kong’s high-density atmosphere. Models incorporate simulated actions, stripping back enclosures to unmask apparent modes of work-live-play that redirect architecture’s purpose as a procedural construct meant to expose and document domesticity’s quotidian profaneness perpetually. Within a spectrum ranging from literal to implied histories, many of the models prod the viewer to build associations between the politics of domestic space and architecture’s tendency to hide domestic realities. (Fig. 6) Specifically, the latter deposits traces of indifference toward the relationship between spatial order and social norms: homogeneous facades veil rather than expose domestic infrastructure. Both the sense of human empathy within a living community and the struggle for daily survival within the catacombs of housing filled with appliances, plumbing and other forms of domestic infrastructure thereby could go unnoticed. Nonetheless, within the above-discussed approach spatial and temporal components are strongest due to their direct relation to living, historical images, spatial disposition, organization, and finitude. These modes of work-live-play depict moments of time in human livelihood. Some project cases utilize the varied actions of human living – both past and present – to present a critically harsh outlook on habitation in the city; here,the structures of the architecture act as no more than a cage, box, or test tube for choreographing either implied or literal embattlements of the struggle for space in the city. Alternatively, other project cases utilize the high- rise model as a vehicle for experimenting the flexibility of the modular habitat through programmatic games. By incorporating images of domestic memories with visions of future modes of domestic living, such projects attempt to bridge past and future histories. (Fig. 7)

Both strategies represent a move away from the architectural with the purpose of building becoming a means for framing domestic actions or creating illusions of social change within the confinement of an architectural construct. Perhaps here lies the potential for arriving at a notion of “Freespace,” the theme of the Venice Biennale. In the case of these projects, architecture’s role in defining “dwelling place” in the high-rise becomes displaced by the actions of habitation itself. The confinement of the living unit, often modular and multiplied across the fabric of the city, renders the architecture innocuous, indifferent, and of reduced utility when measured against the domestic actions of inhabitation. One’s perception of architecture’s function is dynamic and fleeting. In substitution, the domestic element and applied activities of the cultural milieu can appear to govern, acting as the means for projecting the architectural construct. The purpose of architecture is radically shifted: its language must be reconstructed from the domain of domesticity and aimed at transforming the urban environment with focus on social purpose. In other words, domestic stories and their relationship with Hong Kong’s cultural specificity drive the appearances of the containers of those stories. Content over ephemeral container, the cultural presence of domesticity forms a distinct appearance in the city and renders the architecture not so much absent or superfluous as transparent. Architecture is recognized and valued, innately felt and interactive, yet with corresponding qualities that shift its reality entirely outside the domain of the language with which the architecture has been constructed. While the above describes the perception of one possible trajectory, the models fail to reach this extreme, hypothetical form of presence or free-space; rather, they tend to render the architecture displaced or as part of armature but not fully transparent in relation to the actions of habitation and the histories of such that linger on.

Public space

The high-rise understood as a nesting place for public spaces present a range of projects from the incorporation of individual (public) areas among multi-levels to the absorption of such spaces within the body of the model as a whole. In the former case, the “city in the sky” made up of streets and plazas dominates the theme and are identifiable by specific shape, scale, and repetition. Here, spaces are implied by either a conscious blend or mechanized fabrication of path, volumetric pattern and places of congregation at varying scales. Within the construct, these places remain unfixed, dynamic and moving. One example exploits the necessity for exploring the notion of communal heterogeneity within a tower, implying the space of the individual and the many, with distinct vessels, repetitive in the use of specific geometrical shapes and scale, yet varying through vertical and rotational movements within the armature. These investigations, to differing degrees, utilize tactics such as connections of paths, volumetric changes, and the thresholds between such changes. (Figs. 8 & 9) They create patterns that are repetitive in nature, limiting the implied architectural language through the calculated positioning of varying forms within a scalar hierarchy. Nonetheless, these finite and coded volumes are diverse in usage. Whether “interlocked,” “conjoined,” “cast in place” or “plugged-in,” many models demonstrate an adherence to the armature and aim to stitch together vertical community through a patchwork of vessels that drive social exchange and congregation. Other projects place an emphasis on the connections, (often made up of internal and external streets or circulatory pathways and promenades), changes in scale or surface, and thresholds defined by those differences and determined by the juxtaposition of masses or volumes that tend to blur some boundaries between public and private. Others tend to treat the public space of the tower as a series of public platforms often segregated from one another. Be it the distinction of thresholds that define changes in public space or the actions of conjoining together precisely fitted geometrical volumes into implied social constructs for interaction and exchange, the more singular works gain in intrigue by incorporating a liminal space: the stages of a process recognizable in a model and defined by vertical, horizontal and random transitions within a vertical volume of the high-rise typology. In this context, anomalies emerge and represent an architecture that shifts the focus away from geometrical form and towards an image of the movements among fictive characters analogous to those chance encounters of people on the streets of Hong Kong.

The anomaly

These latter projects go beyond the simple identification of an issue and its incorporation into a closed, formally laden design response. Instead, they associate domains of experience through architectural characterization and bridge the concrete and the conceptual into a figural structure. Within this structure emerges the dialectic between existing domains of experience – social, natural, built – and creative invention during the discursive event of visual production. By “projecting upon” the surrounding literal, concrete frame a system of conceptual implications, architecture shifts one’s understanding of a spatial construct to an expanded field, tapping into an architectural language that operates on many levels of human sensation, logic, and cognition. The duality of reference is marked by the inventiveness of the conceptual strategy and denoted by the singularity of the form. In these instances, the grasping of thought in visual production reasserts the importance of the transference of concepts outside their original domains and their interaction with architectural language in the building of these constructs. Such procedural transfers triggered by these conceptual operations draw out hidden properties and bring clarity to the project. These kinds of projects can incorporate one or more of the tendencies sketched above. Yet they tend to highlight other attributes and are singular in form – what I would describe as anomalies, among the forest of columns in the pavilion. In one project case, time and sedimentary erosion of an earthen mass shaped by natural forces such as wind and rain create the allusion of a climate-forming monolithic citadel. (Fig. 10) In a second project case, the segregation of utilitarian function through a vertical circulation core and a seemingly random pattern of vessels embedded into vertical mass juxtapose implied movement and mechanical actions to chance human, social encounters and congregation.

In a third case, the model reduces the issue to one of investigating spatial disposition through structural poetics. The projection of structural efficiency as source, its precedence in high-rise construction, and the focus on column and plate target growth and emergence as interactive concepts. Rather than narrowly defining the use of structural efficiency to a formula with the goal of maximizing space, the project presents a counterpoint to this view of efficiency and the Cartesian grid. The coupling of column and plate shifts attention to the whole rather than the detail, using the floor plates as a means of ordering the threading of columns and revealing an alternative logic of provocative structural efficiency and spatial mapping across the landscape of the vertical tower itself. (Fig. 11) The project valorizes the past (closed, absolute, uncontaminated) by distinguishing an epic through a new contemporary reality of structuring space. In case four, the project anomaly taps into Hong Kong’s history of living units, manifesting the use of a modular language in modern Hong Kong apartments and reinforcing the private space of the individual. This is achieved by combining the language of the bay window and adjoining to every module a collective function at the threshold between private room and the space of circulation within a two-room apartment unit. An architectural element widely present in the city, the bay window functions as the module in varying proportions and sizes. (Fig. 12) Yet, rather than an element attached to the enclosure system, the module makes up the entirety of the high-rise spatial system itself. Given its clear external definition, it simultaneously unmasks a system of living and the private space of the individual, yet inhibits the inhabitants to bring Hong Kong street life to the public-private threshold within the dwelling unit.

Cases three and four above, structure in the first case and living program plus enclosure in the second, provide more rigid frames of operation, limiting the field of inquiry in order to favor conceptual clarity. All four cases above provoke a tracing back of a line of logic that leads to subsequent decisions while simultaneously allowing for unforeseeable outcomes.

On occasion, a project will provoke such outcomes by tracing back while leaping forward exponentially. In these cases, the compatibility of the spatial onto epistemic relations is analogous to searching for common ground in a foreign geography. Such a geography prods one to produce an interpretative framework that tailors itself to the object it intends to elucidate and allows the framework to evolve and readjust to newfound relationships. It can begin with the embrace of feelings in order to recognize basic existential qualities such as human fragility and the potential conflicts with human rational. It can also work by associating itself with other systems or domains, such as those of nature or technology, and searching for the permeability of boundaries and their overlays. One model in the exhibition best exemplifies such a form. (Fig. 13) The initial armature, an “X” in plan-view, becomes visually lost (but is simultaneously there) defined by a void and changing dimension as it grows within a cavern of monads, the make-up of the body of the model. Together void and surrounding monads reference an allusive architecture, perhaps a library of bits continually transferring forward in time human history and its documentation. Alive, liberated, and liberating, human knowledge – including that which has been lost or substituted – causes the building of an architectural language in reverse, i.e., an unraveling of meanings and emphatic of what is lost or forgotten in human history. The process grows to the point where architecture itself remains a byproduct outside of human endeavor or control, i.e., a function of an enigmatic and fleeting entropy. It seeds the simultaneous existence of multiple contrasting viewpoints or actions. In this case the building of knowledge and its simultaneous disassembly and destruction transpose its own past history into the present yet ultimately belongs to neither. Strangely, though, the model’s physical manifestation, placed in the courtyard of the Hong Kong Pavilion, retains some rhetorical tension with the common familiar world.

What have been identified as three tendencies and some anomalies among the one hundred columns must be read not with regard to a single column but through the complex dialogic among columns. This implies the imagining of properties within the space of these constructs and predicates on the intended or implied topic and its images, so that meanings surface beyond a specific trope. Associations are multi-dimensional and can generate new properties and meaning. Hence, the meaning that one gleans might best be understood as ever expanding in richness and depth as opposed to being static or fixed. This expansion of meaning relies in part on seeing the works according to their contradictions – a dialectical approach that dismantles dominant associations and allows for subordinate ones to come into one’s purview. Dominant associations remain present, albeit altered in thought, so that a duality of reference is marked by the contrast between the concrete, tangible appearances among these visual artifacts and the act of imagining such interactions. The allusion to a network of interactions among matter causes the context to be real and unique. They reference past and present attributes of Hong Kong livelihood and bring a sense of understanding to many issues facing contemporary Hong Kong, its histories in the social realm, and their reflections in the built environment. 13 The Library of the World, by Karl Chu / METAXY Essay

 

Fig.1: Tower models overview

Fig.2: A Tree City, by Node Office

Fig.3: Vertical Park, by Maggie Wu

Fig. 4 Tower Park, by Scenic Architecture Office

Fig. 5 Lam Ka Cheung Brownfield Tower, by Thomas Chung & Jason Lau