Forum on Health, Well-being and the Post-Pandemic City
4th July 2020,
Eunice Seng 成美芬 (ES)
Faculty of Architecture, HKU
Joanlin Au 歐中樑 (JA)
Director, JA Design Architects Limited
Corrin Chan 陳翠兒 (CC)
Vice President, HKIA;
Director, AOS Architecture
Winnie Ho 何永賢 (WH)
Architectural Services Department
Sylvia Lam 林余家慧 (SL)
Director, Architectural Services Department
Ivy Lee 李少穎(IL)
Managing Director, Leigh & Orange Hong Kong
Joan Leung 梁慶儀(JL)
Director, Lotus Architects Ltd.
Sarah Mui 梅詩華(SM)
Design Director and Founder, One Bite Design Studio
Connie Yeung 楊光艷(CY)
Deputy Director, Housing Department, HKHA
Angela Pang 彭一欣(AP)
Group photo. Left to right (back) Connie Yeung, Sarah Mui, Winnie Ho, Ellen, Ivy Lee, Angela Pang; (front) Sylvia Lam, Joanlin Au, Corrin Chan, Joan Leung, Eunice Seng.
A forum that brought together women architects from the government, private sector and academia to reflect, respond and speculate upon the impact of the pandemic and how architects practise, participate in community building and care for the city and the social life of its spaces.
Like every profession, architecture is trying to find its way in the quarantined world. Architects—as professionals, citizens and public experts and intellectuals—are inextricably and ethically bound up with the issues of spaces in the society. Space is political, economic and social.
In light of contemporary events, architects are increasingly confronting the difficult questions of practice, public space, migrant labour and inequality. Some may suggest that the increasing number of women architects and women-led practices have led to more responses to community and societal issues, based on the stereotypical notion that women are more ‘emotionally-wired.’ Regardless of whether or not one agrees with these statements, there is an ever urgent need to pool intellectual, technical and social resources in the architectural profession.
To what extent do the conditions of protests and pandemics affect the questions of how we design and practise, why and for what purpose do we build, what to build, how to build it, who to build it, who to occupy it, how we inhabit it and whether or not the inhabitation is equitable and sustainable? How and in what meaningful ways can we contemplate the post-pandemic city? We shall discuss these questions through examining architecture from five overlapping perspectives:
How are architects practising in the pandemic? In what ways can architects practise after the pandemic? How can the process of design respond to the evolving understanding of the relationships between health, well-being and space? How has design been affected by Covid-19 and what potential impact does it have on professional practice, building regulations and policies?
Public space is the barometer of the health of a society. As public spaces get locked down and become sites of surveillance and control, a systemic reimagination of public space is needed. What are the potential strategies in which architects can participate in the reimagination and reform of public spaces? How can architects participate in maintaining the healthy functioning of this barometer without recreating over-regulated and sanitised public spaces?
What are the shortcomings of the current types of POPS (air-conditioned malls, hotels, rooftop gardens and plazas, MTR, rail and airport-transit spaces and overhead walkways, etc.) in the city? How can architects help create new awareness of common spaces? How can architects creatively encourage private owners to open up well-defined property lines to allow for public use? In what ways can architects be more proactive in rethinking the types of user-oriented spaces and facilitate greater user participation?
How can we broaden the definition of what entails public space beyond the legal framework that currently governs public space? How can architects encourage both providers (governments, institutions and developers) and consumers/users to accept a wider variety of public spaces?
How have spaces designed for children, specifically playgrounds in parks, evolved over time? What lessons can we draw from the closure of these spaces during the pandemic? With the implementation of social distancing, how can the social and environmental needs of the elderly, and those who are physically and/or mentally less able be incorporated into the open spaces of the city? How can existing and new provisions of common spaces be protect the citizens? How can architects work with governments and developers to provide open recreational spaces that are safe yet inclusive, and allow for greater imagination?
Covid-19 sees the superimposition of domestic spaces over work and learning spaces. How has the rediscovery of family relationships and the impact on domestic/living space challenge the conventions of housing design, which are still based mainly on the principles of the modern apartment plan? What can architects learn from the multiplication of uses in domestic spaces during quarantine? Compared to SARS, what new questions concerning housing have been raised? What are the potential design changes architects could make to respond to the anxiety of being outside due to the real and perceived health risks caused by the pandemic?
The relationship between the health of the city and the well-being of its people goes beyond the medical idea of health. As medical experts are developing the cure to the pandemic, architects and planners, on the other hand, care for the city through their expertise in environmental design and planning. The impact of Covid-19 on the city and its spaces reveals that the most significant shift for architecture and urbanism is from the idea of cure to the idea of care, with focus on the process of caring for the environments in which we inhabit. How have architects been caring for and sustaining the well-being of the environment? Looking ahead, what are specific areas and intervention strategies we should consider and focus on? How do we discern tried and tested strategies from experimental interventions, and to what extent can one inform or challenge the other?
The idea for this forum began when I was invited to participate in the event, ‘Conversations on Women, Architecture and the City,’ that Eunice organised in collaboration with M+ Museum. I see this forum as a continuation of those conversations.
This event is timely. We are still in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak and it has brought us all to a stop. It is time to pause and rethink, reset our directions and understand what is essential for architects now. It is important to listen and learn from our individual and collective experiences.
I am always amazed by the passion of architects. When I was working on the book Passion of Architecture
(熱戀建築), I witnessed that fire in the architects’ eyes when they talked about architecture during the fifteen interviews we conducted. I am sure that it will be the same for us today as well.
The theme today is ‘Health, Well-being, and Post-pandemic City.’ We will be discussing topics beyond the forms of architecture and will touch on the social life of the spaces in and around buildings – the ‘non-being of architecture’. Carefully curated by Eunice, the five topics we will be discussing cover the very fundamental aspects of architecture and its relationship with the city. CC
As an architect and historian, my research has been increasingly directed to the discipline’s role on inclusion. In my recent book Resistant City for example, I wish to highlight the diversity of roles and methods in which architecture has the potential to be more inclusive in its projections of the past and future.
When the Bauhaus marked its centenary last year, there was a surge in projects focusing on women designers in Bauhaus, as institutions and researchers identify the female counterparts in many projects previously thought to be conceived by men. The contribution of these ‘forgotten’ or ‘invisible’ women, such as Ani Albers, Benita Koche-Otte and Gertrud Arndt to name a few, were no less significant to the consolidation of Bauhaus.
My intellectual foray into the project of gender equity in architecture began a few years ago in response to the university’s call for research on one of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (Goal 5). To kickstart the project, I found a partner in M+ Museum who has also collected the works of some women artists and designers. Together, we convened a public forum ‘Conversations on Women, Architecture and the City,’ at the Asian Society Hong Kong Centre in November 2019. The majority of the panelists were HKU alumni and HKIA members, whose individual knowledge and experiences led to collective insights on what it means to participate in the city as a woman architect as well as broader discussions on changing practices in the city.
Much has happened in the city since then. Extending from earlier conversations, this forum focuses on the renewed relevance and urgency for passionate and proactive women practitioners in the industry to identify pathways and platforms for discussion, speculation and participation in our community.
Our conversations shall focus on addressing the most immediate issues that our city is confronting today, specifically the impact of the pandemic on practice and on the urban environment. The question of how architects can maintain the economic, social and environmental sustainability of the city is crucial. ES
How is practice being reshaped? In a New York Times interview on the challenges of practising architecture during a pandemic with architect Elizabeth Diller in May this year, she articulated what needs to be done, how to do it, and the need to rethink projects for clients who are newly sensitive to the needs of social distancing. At the heart of all the adaptations is the acute awareness that the creative process will be changed.
Let us situate this challenge back to Hong Kong. With the pandemic likely going to last through the year and even beyond, how is practice and the process of design responding to the rapidly evolving understanding of the relationships between health, well-being and space? How has professional practice been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic? What potential impact can this have on building regulations and policies? ES
I lead a company made up of mainly design architects. Since January, the office started to work on alternate days. The home office system implemented did not work too well with the highly customised projects that require many face-to-face discussions on requirements and improvements. So at the end of February, I stopped the alternate home office schedule and had everybody back in the office. Staff started at 10:00 am and left at 4:00 pm to avoid office hour commuting traffic. This arrangement carried on until May and things resumed back to normal thereafter.
Although the office was not running as efficiently as before, this gave me a reprieve to think about the Covid-19 response measures that Corrin initiated. I also had more time to think about design methods and projects with philosophical approaches. JA
I too manage a small office. As a senior, I feel I can afford to be more relaxed and not as anxious about the commercial viability of my office anymore.
In the initial stages of the pandemic, work clearly slowed down because clients were also reorganising themselves. With a less busy schedule, I let my young assistant get off work earlier with one condition: he had to exercise. Concerned with his health, I asked him to exercise daily and provide me with photos as evidence.
I started to move work and equipment home in preparation for when the situation got worse. We met in the office once a week for discussions. As Joanlin said, some aspects, especially when it comes to design, do require face-to-face interaction. I invited my assistants over once a week for training sessions as I believe that is an important part of mentorship. I felt perfectly safe as appropriate social distancing was kept. When the office is busy, we do not have time nor the willingness to do this. But now, with limited outdoor activities, the younger colleagues are very willing to come over and have invaluable conversations with me. JL
As the managing director of a 300-person office, Leigh & Orange, the pandemic lockdown has been a shock and a challenging experience for me. On the third day of Chinese New Year, the government announced the shutting down of government offices. But private practices were allowed to carry on. I called up others in the office leadership team to decide on the best way forward. However, amid the panic, I had to make quick decisions as the managing director of the board.
In the first week, the staff had a hard time adjusting and voiced their grievances on social media platforms. Some expressed that the decision to continue work as normal in the office was inhumane. In response, I wrote an email addressing their concerns with a full report on staff who have been traveling and a list of measures the company was taking to ensure their health and safety. With this information, we allowed the staff to decide on their own working arrangements. Once the decisions and options were clarified, the staff calmed down and settled into their new routines. Many individuals who took sick leave in the first week returned to the office in the following week.
The second challenge was finance. We were facing a huge commercial burden. If work continued to freeze, the office may only be able to sustain for a few months. A collective decision was made after candid discussions among the directors for all senior managers to work on rotating shifts and fight this battle together. With that shared understanding, they took up the responsibility to communicate with their team members. The importance of collective decision-making was the second thing that I have learned in this pandemic.
In the second week, I contacted the contractors to inform them of the possibilities of actions that the office may be called upon to take in response to this situation. This proved prescient as soon after we were commissioned by the government to build quarantine centres. Colleagues also started coming back on weekends to work. As it turns out, the call to participate in helping to relieve the burdens of the city became an opportunity to inspire our staff.
The company compensates and provides resources to support our staff throughout this time. In return, we expect them to come up with innovative ways to deal with the situation. And they do! They are finding better ways to handle their work and have begun to think collectively as a company. Thus, despite the difficulties the city is facing, this is a positive impact that is heartening. IL
I see Covid-19 as a challenge that can make us stronger in many aspects – as an office, as an institute, and even as a society. For me, true freedom is the right to ask, ‘what can I, an architect, do to benefit the larger collective?’ The same principle applies to an office. As part of a team, individual decisions impact the collective, the ‘we.’
It is difficult to keep the practice running during the pandemic. Processes such as approvals in the government departments have slowed down. But there is no point in pointing fingers as we are all in the same situation. We need to work together. Fortunately, work in Hong Kong did not stop, and we are able to continue. CC
Indeed, the closure of the Building Department has profoundly affected the progress of the projects. Those of us affected will need to manage this new passive role of an architect as there is little we can do about/in/during the approval process. I do not have a solution to the reality of additional costs and time incurred. However, we can see this period as a collective effort to get through this pandemic.
Meanwhile, within the profession, reliance on digital technology has intensified. It is time to rethink the way that we practise, produce and make studies.
I attended the final reviews of Hong Kong University architecture studios as an external examiner. The students’ work has evolved throughout the pandemic. They work with alternative methods such as stop motions and interpretative videos, not the conventional animation, to develop their design and presentation. I wonder whether the design process in our professional practice can also adapt to existing and new technology. AP
From the standpoint of a small practice, I think we share many similar experiences in the pandemic. A day after the Chinese New Year holiday, we held a face-to-face meeting with all our staff. Everyone had the chance to vote and voice out his or her concerns. Together we decided on a two-day office work schedule that we would review week by week. This is how we tried to work as a team.
Despite this agreed arrangement, team morale was continuously being challenged. We have always taken advantage of being a small team and use many types of online platforms. During the pandemic, we further encouraged our colleagues to utilise new software and online platforms. To our surprise, everyone was so adaptive to the new systems. This gave me some new ideas on how the practice can go on. In the past few months, we have continued to explore more and newer online platforms.
We conduct community workshops as part of our practice and have been exploring various online platforms to figure out how to facilitate collaborations and conduct workshops when physical contact is limited. The challenges are evolving and I believe architects should be flexible and adapt to changes in both social and environmental situations. SM
Indeed. For government authorities, which rely heavily on the smooth operations of their various agencies and departments, the challenges must be daunting, not least in terms of communication and workflow. ES
I wish to refer to a recent article written by my elder brother titled ‘The Inconvenient Disruptor or God-Sent Agent for Change’ that reflects on the pandemic and how our lives have changed.
I must say that Covid-19 is definitely an inconvenient disruptor, as we have all shared. At the Housing Authority, we were caught up in very hectic situations in the first few weeks. We have been doing all kinds of atypical tasks. Not many people would be aware of the things we had to do. Most saw and felt the inconveniences brought by the closure of government departments. But in fact, we were working under very stressful conditions. From searching for face masks for the whole department to converting public housing estate into quarantine centres, we were racing against time!
One of the estates was unfortunately damaged on the second day of Chinese New Year. While others were enjoying themselves in the family dinner, I was watching the news and making necessary arrangements to quickly identify and convert another estate into a quarantine centre. That gave us 4800 units, which proved to be very helpful to the Hong Kong community.
Yet, Covid-19 is also a ‘God-Sent Agent for Change.’ Like it or not, we must face it and adapt. I am grateful and proud of being a part of the mechanism of the city and able to contribute to the community. CY
At the Architectural Service Department, we build all the public facilities, including schools, government offices and libraries. We have over 2,000 colleagues from five major congressional districts and around 200 architects in our department.
On the first day of Chinese New Year, Hong Kong announced its highest emergency-level in response to Covid-19. Early in the morning on the following day, while I was preparing New Year breakfast, I received a call from my boss. Because of the damage of Fai Ming Estate (輝明邨) in Sheung Shui, we were tasked to set up quarantine facilities as soon as possible. In response to this, a large group of our colleagues needed to work more intensively and the home office arrangement was not possible. CY
I received a phone call from Sylvia that same day with the same message and jumped immediately onto the projects. As professional civil servants, every senior-level officer of ArchSD came back to the office every day without any hesitation. Under Sylvia’s leadership, we met daily in our ‘war room’ to discuss the tasks that needed to be done. WH
Apart from quarantine camps, other services needed to be provided for the public. For example, converting the Correctional Institute Workshops into factories to increase the production of face masks. These face masks are going to be distributed to NGOs and elderly homes. Furthermore, if suspected or established cases of Covid-19 were found in the venues maintained by us, it would be our responsibility to investigate the drainage and ventilation systems. We are also responsible for providing healthy buildings to health-related departments and disciplinary service departments. Colleagues worked intensively on these tasks especially in the months of February and March. SL
The department was also running out of facemasks. At one point, we were counting the number of masks that we were left with. With that in mind, we formed a ‘Mask Shopping Team’ (口罩採購小組) to shop for us. I was impressed by the community spirit and resourcefulness of my colleagues!
To encourage our project managers, I conducted a webinar titled ‘Leadership in a Crisis.’ Rather than falling into fear and depression, as leaders, we should focus on the valuable lessons that we have learned. In times of crisis, a robust well-maintained system is critical. At the end of the talk, I presented this photo of a lady looking back with a warm smile while holding an umbrella on a rainy day to emphasise the importance of caring. Other than just fixating on and driving the team to hit the goals and targets, helping and caring for the ones next to you is important amidst the crisis. WH
Given that they do not have the same top-down mandate and public provisions is not a fundamental scope of work, how are private practices contributing to the Covid-19 situation? ES
Architectural professionals in private practice can contribute to the current situation through volunteering their design talents.
In the past three years, I have been working on Formula E to set up event spaces with tents within a two-week time span. The contractor has a stock of tents in various sizes and functions. Large tents, with sizes comparable to the Asia Expo, are suitable for medical checks; smaller tents are about the size of a room. With these experiences and resources in hand, I had this idea of turning them into quarantine camps. I asked around for help and one designer responded. We worked overnight, in parallel with office work and came up with a scheme and cost estimates.
Apart from the tent stock in Hong Kong, we approached manufacturers in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Vancouver and sourced 3000 units of tents and 2000 units of individual shower containers connected to each of those tents. Adequate distance was planned to allow for a small outdoor space outside each tent. Access to them is also separated into clean and dirty routes to ensure minimum contact between occupants.
With that, I wrote to the government in February and again in March to propose the scheme but was rejected. Undaunted, we are still working on the choice of sites for this project. JA
This may not be the end of the story. The pandemic is going to go on for a while. JL
Definitely not! If there is any urgent need, our tent stock and design scheme are still there. JA
Design for resilience. Design for more. That is what we need! CC
For practice, this seems to be a blessing in disguise because we managed to think out of the box and pull resources together from the community and the industry. JA
Joanlin is part of the group called ‘Community Living Room,’ made up of professionals, community builders and citizens. The group is an attempt to go beyond the conventional framework of architectural practice. It was not originally planned for the pandemic, but we planned with this specific question in mind: with these new connections, what more can we do for local communities? Through Joanlin’s project, we see the strength of the community. When anyone needs help, you can tap into this source of support immediately. CC
We have here many versatile and highly adaptive practitioners with a strong sense of empathy. Individual and collective tenacity cannot be underestimated. So is mentorship.
I have been fortunate to have benefited from the mentorship of some inspiring individuals in my life. In the last six months, this need among students and younger professionals is ever more pertinent. I believe it is important to have male and female mentors to listen and talk to and share experiences, successes and failures with.
I am part of a small collaborative practice with two partners. Two years ago, we decided to break out of our familiar space and initiate a community event called ‘Architect’s Open Day’ in Singapore, as part of the Yale alumni community day. We gathered a team of architects to offer pro bono professional service to any non-commercialised individual or group in one day.
Among the ‘clients’ who came in for design, building and planning advice, one NGO kept in contact with us for the past two years. It is an association that provides social support and training for foreign domestic workers. They were looking for architects to visualise and plan for a community transit centre. Initially, all they had was an idea but no site. They have since obtained a rental site and since then, we have been involved in the realisation of the project.
When Covid-19 hit the foreign workers’ community, the centre was undergoing site preparation. Within days, the foreign construction workers had to stop work and were moved into quarantine facilities. All the domestic workers were to remain in their employers’ homes. The project is at present incomplete. Meanwhile, together with the NGO, we are rethinking key aspects of this project to anticipate its operation during the pandemic and ‘peacetime.’
I wish to share this project as a segue into our discussion on community. For all of us here, the foreign worker community was probably not an issue of urgency or particular concern. Then it suddenly occurred to us after hearing around the table that due to the health crisis, many seemingly non-architectural problems or issues are calling upon architects’ generosity and skillsets, be it in rapid problem-solving, design, organisation and communication. How can architects use skills – professional, social and more – to participate in communities in ways that matter? ES
When you mention community, I immediately think of Sarah’s practice. She has been working on many community-focused projects and developed creative ideas in response to the pandemic. CC
Could you describe the communities that you have been working with? ES
Our team consists of not only architects but also journalists, community managers, graphic designers, and landscape architects. With people from different fields coming together, we are able to think and see from each other’s standpoint.
We have always defined ourselves as community leaders, but the pandemic has challenged our role. The team has been struggling with deadlines and lost sight of the precise goals we used to have. We felt powerless compared to the medical professionals in frontline work.
But we recognise that architects are good at connecting the dots. Our eagerness to help is a sufficient starting point. Our challenges have just changed from GFAs, plot ratios to dealing with the invisible – the virus, the pandemic and its impact on people.
Our team resumed office work in March. Colleagues gathered to brainstorm ways to contribute to our immediate communities. We thought about how to best utilise our strengths. We started to identify and map out ideas to address issues such as unemployment, children’s limited social interactions, family issues, subdivided units and elderly’s physical and mental health.
We consulted social workers to see whether our plans were needed. The answer was a definitive no. The social workers were already working on these issues with their existing clients.
However, the unemployment rate is rising quickly, and the unemployed are potentially in need of support. We decided to start a community collaboration initiative to serve hot meals. The meals are half-subsidised by donors. Those in need pay half for a full meal in local restaurants.
The initiative rolled out in mid-May, starting in Tsuen Wan, and moved to Kwun Tong in mid-July. We are now serving a hundred meals daily to people from industries heavily impacted by the pandemic, for example, flight attendants, personal trainers in gyms and playgroup teachers. Many are also willing to give their meals to others who are more in need. It is very touching to see people helping each other to get through this.
The pandemic has pushed us to search for new ways of community building beyond the architectural field to create win-win situations. SM
How many volunteers are needed to provide a hundred meals per day? How many pairs of hands do you have? JA
Crowdfunding has allowed us to hire two part-time workers for each spot. Now we are recruiting another two for the new location. We have received applications from flight attendants and even expatriates who are all very willing to be a part of this initiative. There is still much to reflect and improve on, but I am glad we have gotten started. SM
You have shared how an individual architect or studio can participate in the city. How might this apply to the institute, which potentially has a greater resource network? ES
Community building is an emerging idea in our profession and one that will be especially relevant in the coming years. This direction is apparent in the Pritzker Prize winner selection this year. The two award-winning Irish women architects believe that the goal of architecture is to add value to society.
Like Sarah, architects in HKIA were also searching for their place in society during the early outbreak period. At first, some of us tried to collect and donate masks to the community. Through the district board members in ‘Community Living Room,’ we were able to donate to the NGOs in need of masks.
Later, HKIA set up a task force called the COVID team and more than 60 architects volunteered. The team was separated into two. One team reached out to elderly homes and schools to conduct free surveys on their toilets and ventilation systems before they reopen. Reports were prepared, highlighting the points and measures to do before reopening.
Another team reached out to Caritas to donate resources and provide sanitising service specifically to subdivided units (劏房). With such limited space, it is hard to quarantine at home. Luckily, the social workers had a well-established network in the community, so our volunteers were able to tap into this issue immediately. HKIA members organised a trip to identify the subdivided units with tips provided by the social workers, and deliver the resources collected to these units.
Going through buildings and buildings to identify the subdivided units was an opportunity for us to learn more about the community. I have also learned that subdivided units are different from ‘plank rooms’ (板間房). The significant difference is the legality – ‘plank rooms’ are not legal. As an institution, we are not allowed to support illegal activities. However, this type of housing exists in our society and they are the ones exposed to the greatest health and safety risks. I believe that architects should know more about our community and how people live in the city we are in. ES
I am particularly struck by Corrin’s visits to the ‘plank rooms.’ For these to even exist in such an affluent society as Hong Kong is completely unforgivable. Apart from going out to help them, how can we solve that problem?
Professor Nasrine took me around HKU grounds yesterday and she pointed out a project, which I thought was refreshing. One student proposed to turn parts of the campus into housing. Since they were all locked down at home and they have gotten used to e-learning, many of the studios and lecture rooms are no longer occupied. Maybe we no longer need that quantity of space. The logistics of the proposal is obviously complicated, but we do need that kind of thinking to deal with difficult problems. JL
As architects, however, we are not equipped to address these issues that are beyond the realm of architecture as so many of them require reconsideration and change in policies. AP
We can be facilitators. Architects are well placed to do this because we are used to liaising with a broad range of stakeholders, from users to government control and members of the team who execute the project, as well as consultants. JL
Speaking of users, what can architects learn from the multiple uses of spaces during quarantine? Since SARS, what new questions and issues have come up that call for updated responses? ES
As architects or planners, we have to rethink the urbanisation process that we have been enjoying in the past few decades. One important question is: with most cities locked down, are we going to reverse this direction in the future and turn towards de-urbanisation? (Significant) environmental changes have occurred during the pandemic. Air and water quality have improved. As architects and planners, we have to start to rethink the future of urbanisation in our cities.
Locally, we also have to rethink the roles of public spaces and public parks such as Hong Kong Park. These are the urban breathing spaces that we have almost forgotten about.
Covid-19 also gave me the chance to rethink the design of public housing units. We went through a similar moment of rethinking during the SARS period regarding the drainage design. A few years ago, we decided to do away with the windowless toilet (黑廁). This complies with our belief that all bathrooms and kitchens should be provided with natural ventilation. Looking back, this was a right decision. Now is a good time for us to revisit our existing design and improve and innovate where needed. CY
Indeed, to address the health of the city, we should look at the health of its public spaces and the ways in which they are used. What are the possible strategies in which architects can participate in reimagining and reforming our public spaces? And surely, we must also extend this reimagination to the different types of privately-owned-public spaces in the city. ES
In the past twelve months, not just Covid-19, but protests have also challenged the limited spatial resources of Hong Kong. People started to take ownership and safeguard spaces. Open spaces and public spaces are even more protected and enclosed. Under social distancing measures, people need more space to spread out. But in this crowded city, we are constrained.
I have just heard many beautiful stories: public housing converted into quarantine centres, temporary quarantine camps on flat land and even mask-making venues converted from laboratories. Likewise, architects need to rethink our public spaces in a more versatile and multi-purposeful way. We must be flexible when designing spaces and give the users autonomy over them. For example, when designing parks, design spaces that allow individual settings to be created. Let the users create the spaces! Liberate open spaces, liberate the streets!
I have heard that restaurants in some European cities were allowed by their governments to occupy empty streets to carry on business while observing social distancing during Covid-19. One of the biggest problems of open spaces in Hong Kong lies in the ownership of lands. When our open spaces are mainly privately-owned, these common spaces are inscribed with very explicit restrictions or uses. Many public facilities are only used on either weekdays or weekends. If these spaces are not designated as multi-purpose, we have lost the chance to make full use of these spaces.
The crisis is a renewed wake-up call on the limited resources of the city. If all public buildings, public and common spaces, are not designed to be versatile and open to different uses, then we will be doomed one day. We should break our boundaries in both managing resources and designing spaces. IL
This calls for multi-level collaboration and an understanding between public and private open space providers and designers. How can architects participate in maintaining the healthy functioning of public spaces as barometers of a sustainable city, without recreating overregulated and over-sanitised public spaces? ES
I have never visited subdivided units (mentioned by Corrin), but such community engagement brings back memories of my time in Kowloon East. Community engagement helps architects become more grounded. When I was first tasked to work on the new ‘Energizing Kowloon East’ policy, we faced strong resistance from community stakeholders, despite our good intentions. Leaflets with statements like, ‘Destroying Kowloon East (毀滅九龍東)’ were placed on the chairs at our community engagement events.
We had to build trust and allow the community time to take in our new proposal, believe in our vision and understand what we are actually doing. Patience was key and we could not simply lay down hard targets. We started with small engagement workshops almost every Saturday morning, making casual contacts with community stakeholders. These activities encouraged the residents to come to our office, to know us and talk to us.
We also conducted an interesting social experiment on the management of open spaces. We transformed a drainage pipes and construction materials storage area under the flyover into a public open space. We convinced our administration team to take up the responsibility of managing this space, including the addition of a public toilet as requested by the District Council. We gathered many interesting hands-on experiences managing the open space. For example, I remember the team comforting the cleaning ladies who were frightened by aggressive graffiti and messy toilets. We also had to convey our minimum interference management philosophy repeatedly to the security guards. We wanted the space to be very free and open for 24 hours throughout the year, unless someone caused damage, harm or disturb others. Minimising the presence of security guards, and allowing for the freedom to act while respecting other users were fundamental aspects of our management philosophy.
The success of such experimental public spaces would very much depend on the types of management that are appropriate to the specific contexts and communities in that particular area. WH
Public space management is an important aspect of the design of more inclusive spaces; how can architects participate in creating a new awareness of these spaces? Given the current social and environmental concerns, how can architects creatively help private owners open up well-defined property lines to allow for inclusive public spaces without compromising safety and health? ES
To that, I would like to raise an example, not of an architect’s action, but of a concerned citizen in public space. I went on a walk along the waterfront promenade in Repulse Bay and ran into a friend who is a determined activist. Along my walk, I noticed that the landscaping has really improved since the last major typhoon.
Due to the pandemic, the public promenade has become even more popular. People feel safe inhaling the ocean air. Although the facility was well used by the community, my friend felt that the promenade was not well maintained and has not been upgraded. Then, she found out that the different sections of dirt, soil and plantings along this path were under the jurisdiction of different governmental departments. It was hard to persuade any one of them to take up the responsibility of the entire promenade. Instead of giving up, she invited the relevant personnel to lunch and took them for a walk along the promenade. Soon after, beautiful new planting appeared on a large section of the promenade. Sometimes persistence makes things happen despite great difficulties. JL
There is already a lot of potential in our existing local district urban spaces. Especially since we cannot go far during the pandemic, we should really look into these. Though they are small pocket spaces, they serve local needs for breathing space. In that sense, they are very important. And yes, I do agree that park designs can be improved.
Why do not we try out the concept of adopting open spaces? If park designs can come from design talents and community stakeholders, we will be able to create better spaces. Give the parks back to local communities and create a partnership scheme where the community can bid for and manage the parks themselves. There should be some built-in requirements on design submissions to get the best design. Instead of inviting only one firm, invite at least five firms to participate. Each firm has its own strength. If we collect the strengths in this system together, then we will be able to exhibit the best talents to create vibrant, inclusive public spaces.
We have once tried to design a park with the local community in Wan Chai. But the park was mostly closed off due to maintenance responsibility which the community was not in charge of.
I believe architects have the skills and the capacity to help create a mentally and physically healthier city, starting with our local public spaces. I also believe that community building should be a profession in itself and listed as architects’ core consultants. Then we may see increasingly more community-conscious projects! CC
To this end, I wish to return to Ivy’s point earlier that architects often forget that we are not only professionals but also stakeholders in the city we live in. I believe we are first a stakeholder of the built environment, then an architect. Community consciousness and architectural practice are part of the complex network of roles that we take on in society. Clear priority of these roles is important.
Secondly, architects are well-equipped. The education of an architect demands the ability to organise and compartmentalise complex factors. Practice is predicated on collaboration and management of people and resources.
Thirdly, architects have to constantly adapt to dynamic situations and respond to changing briefs. In a crisis, other parts of the architect’s training come into play. Community participation is often not a priority in an architectural career. The successes of architects are mainly based on their monographic works. It is about time to include other criteria when evaluating an architect’s contribution and the value of his or her work.
Architects are very well-placed in that we are already dealing with communities of different kinds. Being aware of the communities in which we can act upon/ engage with… is the first step. I sense this keen awareness from everyone here. ES
I am inspired by a recent article written by Giovana Borasi and Mirko Zardini of CCA Montreal for the Docomomo Journal issue on Health and Care. They urge architects, planners and all stakeholders in the urban environment to consider the health of cities with a long-term mindset. They propose to translate our reactionary responses to the pandemic and civil events into long-term strategies and plans.
How do we care for the well-being of the city? How have architects participated in the process of caring and sustaining the well-being of the environment? Looking ahead, what are the areas that our strategies should focus on? ES
People used to be much less dependent on air-conditioning. During Covid-19, we can see that these artificial ventilation systems fail to create healthier indoor environments. It is time to have second thoughts on climate control, especially in large gathering venues.
Instead of being fully air-conditioned, large shopping complexes should open up their roofs to create semi-outdoor spaces. Greenery should also be introduced to indoor environments. Successful projects already exist in Singapore, where the climate is very similar to Hong Kong. We can learn and adopt applicable concepts.
Spatial zoning is also essential to minimise the use of air conditioning. For example, in a restaurant, the seating areas can be semi-outdoor and outdoor while the kitchen area is fully air-conditioned. The orientation of openings could be planned to utilise the second-hand air conditioning. Outdoor areas should take shade and wind-flow into consideration. By designing with environmental consideration, we can create better spaces and at the same time, decrease our dependency on air-conditioning.
As with public spaces, we should give users autonomy over offices and interior spaces. If architects design from the standpoint of the stakeholders, we should certainly convince the developers to consider the different kinds of environmental strategies as well! JA
Picking up from Corrin’s point on the potential of local public spaces, in fact, we are already building many outdoor spaces in Hong Kong. However, there is a tendency to design these spaces in a decorative manner.
I became a roof gardener recently. I felt that I need to make myself enjoy staying at home, which I used to hate doing. Now, I am finding this to be amazingly enjoyable. I can conduct meetings in my rooftop garden and people enjoy it.
I have a friend who is a passionate gardener. He lives on the ground floor of a building and has slowly occupied vacant and unused spaces around him, turning them into vegetable gardens. The neighbours do not mind this as these gardens beautify the neighbourhood.
His son, who lives in the apartment building that used to be the old Wan Chai market, did the same thing. During the lockdown period, he volunteered to look after the three sky gardens in the building. They are mandatory public open spaces required by the Building Department. But they have been designed in such a way that they do not make viable gardens. No one was maintaining them, and no one ever goes there.
This makes me rethink the accessibility of the public spaces we design. An excellent example of a great integrated public space is the National Museum in New Mexico. In every section of the museum, there is an outdoor space. You can move comfortably between the interior and exterior. Families come in and enjoy the display spaces together. Outdoor spaces can be used by kids to rest and play when they get bored. This demonstrates Joanlin’s point on environmentally- conscious spatial zoning. JL
In Hong Kong, people are scared of using open spaces and outdoor spaces. We are also limited by how these spaces are managed. IL
It is a culture that people have to learn. JL
In fact, the government has already implemented a number of these types of public space projects. But this idea of more environmentally conscious and diverse public spaces is still not a consideration in commercial practices, and that is the problem, especially in the design of shopping malls! IL
The building regulations also need to be reformed. The regulations were changed for hygiene and safety reasons in 1894 because of the plague. There was an initiative to look into our Building Regulations after SARS, but it remained unrealised. It is time to review how the regulations can support us in creating more environmentally-friendly/conscious and healthier spaces. CC
That will take a long time to change! JA
The reason why we are here is that we believe in what we, architects, can do to make a meaningful impact on our society and community. But I am not sure whether those outside the professional fraternity think the same way. Thus, we, as a collective, need to empower ourselves so that we can become a bigger influence on the larger community. Initiating conversations such as this is a method to assert ourselves in approaching the government at multiple levels – the level of policy-making, building regulations and community. But how can we make changes? How can we approach people who can work together? And together, what changes can we make? I highlight this because I believe that our discussion behind closed doors in the HKIA room is very important, but we need to also bring the conversations beyond this door, beyond this room! AP
Let us consider potential proposals and learn from each other’s experiences. What are some actions that you have taken towards community building and what are the lessons learnt? ES
I understand that we all want to contribute with our skills, and I believe architects have the ability to do so. But we have to change our mindset, especially in Covid-19. Many urban issues are way too complex and cannot be handled by any one single profession or expertise. Collaboration is essential.
For example, architects may not be in the best position to implement better plans to replace the current subdivided units as the situation concerns policy-level implications. Subdivided units are unlikely to disappear in the short term. However, there are still ways that we can work on the issue, such as creating community kitchens, as Caritas was doing. The community kitchens minimise the residents’ time indoors by providing them with safe communal spaces. We can impact a community by thinking creatively about difficult situations.
Besides the spatial condition of subdivided units, a major problem caused by Covid-19 is the vicious cycle created by the peaking unemployment rate. Families living in these subdivided units are likely to become homeless while previously middle-income groups will occupy these vacant units. Families unable to stay in their subdivided rooms will most likely end up sleeping under bridges as shelters in Hong Kong do not accept families. To help end this vicious cycle, we are learning from cases in London and linking up commercial property owners like hostels and hotels with social workers to provide these homeless families with temporary accommodation. Although this is only a temporary measure, we are at least buying some time to come up with more long-term plans.
There are many bottom-up measures that we can take instead of only waiting for top-down policy changes. This can also demonstrate to the government, other parties and funders the creative ways in which they can contribute to society. SM
How does the funding work for this initiative? AP
The social workers we are working with are discussing with Jockey Club on the possibility of funding the hotel stays for these families in transition. The social workers always say that architects and social workers are the same type of people. Both groups work to serve people but with very different aims in mind. Architects think top-down, such as providing the best spaces. Social workers consider the problem from the bottom-up. They ask the people directly about their needs. It is time for us to bring these two approaches together.
The housing problem cannot be solved overnight, but we can start by bridging commercial stakeholders and those in need. Since business is slow, everyone has to adapt to changes. We are seeing more and more commercial stakeholders willing to help and contribute to alleviate the current situation. Perhaps this is an opportune time to connect the society with the commercial. SM
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is growing strong among commercial practices. Many big corporations take on CSR projects. But to convince them to collaborate, you need to understand their funding procedures and the types of projects they are willing to contribute to. WH
The returns are these commercial practices’ incentive. AP
What if the government initiates ideas from the community and do partnership schemes? Private practices can accept projects initiated by the community with partial funding support from the government. CC
The government is trying and experimenting with many new directions, such as offering CreateSmart Initiative funds under CreateHK. They welcome NGOs to submit pertinent proposals to bid for such funds. The Development Bureau also facilitates the good use of vacant government sites by releasing a list of sites that are available for adoption if NGOs or relevant parties can propose good uses for them. WH
There are also Social Innovative Funds available in different government departments. The government invites community involvement, especially from NGOs. I think this is an area that we could pick up and expand on. SL
These can kickstart architects’ collaboration with governments and private developers to provide open spaces that are safe yet inclusive and allow for greater imagination. How, for example, can the social and environmental needs of the elderly, less physically abled and others be incorporated into parks and playgrounds typically designed mainly for children? How can public spaces be free yet safe for different people? ES
The government invests in playgrounds as urban spaces for children to play and run around. At the same time, we should consider other users when designing such urban spaces. Besides children, many other users frequent the parks, such as the elderly, students, workers who have their lunches there, and residents nearby seeking greenery or simply a space for repose. CC
We have talked a lot about public spaces. I want to emphasise the importance of management in a successful public space. Our design architects have great ideas and are all eager to create more interesting parks for the community. But when the project is complete and architects hand over the parks, the spaces are then left to the operators and managers for the next 50 years or more. We must understand that they have a tough job maintaining and operating the facilities once the parks are open. We have a very dense population in HK. Our utilisation rate is very high.
In my experience, encouragement for both sides are essential to the successful operation of a public space. The citizen has to learn and adhere to good civic conduct so that our park managers can convince their staff to allow them greater freedom. More communication and understanding are needed between the managers and the users, and we have to sympathise with the frontline staff to understand their difficulties. I am sure our park managers can share lots of stories of some people doing unacceptable things in the park. WH
What if we give a park to the community and allow them to manage it themselves? CC
That would be quite an experiment. WH
The architectural pieces completed by us have very long lifecycles. An architect’s involvement with a space is less than 10 percent of its entire life cycle. It is not fair to ask the architects to resolve all the problems through the design. During that short period, we need to consider, as Sarah said, the gaps, the needs, and the users. Sometimes we face issues beyond what we can do as architectural professionals. But we are trained to be sensitive to the user interface and can collaborate with others to come up with design solutions that incorporate the users’ needs. That is often missing in the design process and a very difficult task to complete. SL
Truly, better public spaces can be created if architects can work more closely with people maintaining and operating the facilities and consider their needs too. Architects rarely talk to the people managing the spaces. I guess this is the same in the private sector. Work is finished once the design of buildings or spaces are completed and handed over. But as a public department, we have to maintain the buildings and spaces for the next 50 years or longer. That is why we are more aware of the lifecycle of spaces and consider their maintenance needs as a whole. WH
It is sometimes very difficult to strike a balance between the needs of the maintenance teams and the users. I have sympathy for LCSD when they have to deal with strange people damaging facilities. It is deplorable; one strange case hurts all the others that think the space is enjoyable. SL
Here I am proposing an experiment by giving the space and the management responsibility to the community. CC
I agree with Corrin. I think this is a culture that needs to be cultivated. JL
Exactly! Created by the community and used by the community. Then, they will know the consequences of their actions and will watch themselves and calibrate their actions. JA
I have some personal experience with that. I am involved with a project called Walk DVRC. This initiative has been studying the feasibility of pedestrianising Des Voeux Road for almost 20 years. While this is a community-related incentive, we have approached different stakeholders, neighbourhoods and politicians. We have gained a tremendous support overall but have faced all kinds of resistances from particular groups. Understandably, a project like this needs to be self-reliant, sustainable and beneficial to stakeholders at the same time. It becomes much more complex than a community project because there are so many different stakeholders that need to be considered. AP
It is definitely not simple, but as architects who are also citizens, and we will need to operate with that in mind. It would be nice if this forum group can eventually become a consultation unit. Some people want to contribute but do not know-how to. We have enough expertise in the room and people who have succeeded in some ways and failed in other ways to build up an information base to get started. JL
I concur! The process of caring for and sustaining the environment begins with the harnessing of collective knowledge, expertise, passion and tenacity. ES
Quarantine Camp at Penny’s Bay
Temporary Quarantine Centre Proposal by a group of Architects and Town Planners.
Tent Unit with shower and toilet connected
Temporary Quarantine Centre Proposal by a group of Architects and Town Planners.
Tent cluster configurations
Temporary Quarantine Centre Proposal by a group of Architects and Town Planners.
Layout showing 3456 units on 60 hectares.
Food House Commune Kitchen (Tsuen Wan) by One Bite Studio
Neighbourhood Kitchen (Shek Tong Tsui) by One Bite Studio
HKIA community visit photo by Corrin Chan
Flyover transformation of Kowloon East Project by EKEO showing before and after
Roof Garden mentorship session by Joan Leung Lye
Walk DVRC project by PangArchitect