Urban Void Hong Kong
10 December 2007

Laurence Liauw(LL): So let me start. This is an interview of Zhang Ke of Standardarchitecture for the Urban Void project exhibiting in 2007 Shenzhen Hong Kong Biennale.

Zhang Ke(ZK): An impression of Hong Kong is (that) all of the lands are extremely precious, and extremely densely occupied. And it is really surprising to see (that) there are such big pieces of land at West Kowloon and the Airport site is still vacant. Actually I’m not very sure why it’s left open, not occupied. Laurence, do you know exactly why?

LL: The site is a landfill. I think the government is still looking for a good scheme to transform it into a cultural district, I think it has resulted in the void being created. We are still waiting for some solutions, and a new proposal from the government.
廖维武:对于这样一个变革中的文化区域来说,我想这只是从其形成至今留下的一个结果。 我们一直在等待着某种解决方式,以及政府部门对今后发展的建议。

ZK: So similar to the airport site, it’s left open not because people don’t want to do something here. It’s on the contrary people really want to do something here, and because it is so important that the government and society want make sure that things could happen in a right way. So my first impression of this land is it’s so important not only for the West Kowloon, but also for the whole urban central area of Hong Kong. I can image that most of the typical Hong Kong images are taken from this direction towards Victoria bay. In fact this is the vista point of conventional Hong Kong. It is so important that it doesn’t allow us to do something wrong there. It’s funny to see that almost all of the former schemes are similar in terms of the over all strategy. For me as an outsider, it is very hard to understand it because I can image this piece of land is very costly to acquire by infill the water into a piece of land. And functionally I seriously doubt if it is feasible to simply put a few cultural centre there. I’m sure that the government is also worrying about how this cultural facility could be financially sustainable.

ZK: I have been thinking since we started this urban void project. What does Hong Kong really need for the cultural district? What do the Hong Kong people expect a cultural centre to be if it is on the site? If it is not a cultural centre, what are the other possibilities? That is why on the first sketch we made about one month ago, I asked a series of question that if it could be the social housing, shopping, vista points? Or maybe huge parks that repeats the forty hectares of area again and again into the sky? Could it be a huge park or a movie base and a lot of other possibilities? The idea came to me if it is possible to create a series of cultural facilities such as performance centre, art galleries and museums, at the same time to provide opportunities for children or elderly to be able to go, and to have the best vista point and best possible way of looking at the Victoria bay and “The City” where they were born in and they can be proud of that. So is it possible to combine the possibilities of various types of landscape or vista points, and in the meantime to have very compact program to host the cultural facilities.

ZK: The other question is for such a big piece of land of 40 hectors, it never seems to me make sense to use all the land to build three to five cultural facilities, no matter how big they are. And financially I believe that it has to be balanced itself. So very practically the question is is there a solution that can provide the most for the people to experience the landscape at the same time to build enough building area and space for commercial development. So the biggest question is if this is possible at all? But from all the other existing schemes I don’t see it. I saw mostly fancy forms of a same type of park that simply has cultural facilities inside arranged in different way. Especially the canopies I think they are mostly forms that I don’t see the necessity of functions.

ZK: A group of mountains, like a serious of Guilin mountains, built on this piece of land, and (the cultural venues) are like precious stones imbedded in the mountain. And the mountain itself has the forms much like the terraced farmland which named “Ti Tian” in Chinese.

ZK: Viewing from the bay area, it’s no longer those typical urban vertical high-rise office buildings and hotels in front. A few Guilin mountains in the front and the office buildings in the back, inside the mountains there are hotel rooms for visitors to stay there with prime view of the bay. And the major mountain is about 550m high. Also in the performance centre there are still views towards the Victoria Bay. And the outside is actually farmland, terraced field that grows rice. The children and elder can have one piece of that land to grow rice. Also schools can use it for agriculture practice base. On the right hand side of this site, about two third of the space will be left for the office buildings and other housing and towers. So actually the mountain is occupied about one third of the total land. But the terraced field will be continued on the forty hectares. So in general I think the FAR instead of being about 2, it was 2.8 before, so now our scheme will provide much more built area than the competition requirement of 2.8. I guess it would be at least 6 to 8 FAR, so that the government and developers can have more financial base to make this development into reality.

ZK: On the other hand, I think it is very important to create a cultural icon. This thing is not just the fancy development, but also signifies the Hong Kong’s attitude towards culture. It is going to be the tallest cultural tower in the world which we called “Hong Kong Cultural Mountain”. And for the mountain itself, we are discussing about the possibility of making the inside as a huge Atrium space inside. And inside you can have the natural ventilation because of the height. It is able to create the natural wind inside the atrium. So there are many possibilities in the construction and realization of the project. Structurally it’s no big deal, because it is a mountain, it is not one of the thin and high buildings. So I am showing one of the sketches in front of me to the video camera, so that you can see it.

LL: And then how do you think this would contribute to the city differently compared to traditional development?

ZK: In terms of cityscape it is very hard to say that if it is architecture or only a landscape. It is both architecture and landscape at the same time. Basically we are creating man-made landform that is very tall so that various people could have the opportunities to practice the mountain climbing and agriculture learning classes and you can also go there to experience the art works and performances if enter from underground through the subway or parking area. But the outside surfaces are all naturally looking, except of a few of jewelry points on the mountain, they are the cultural facilities. And the openings also provide the possibility to see the Victoria Bay. In directions that were exclusive for high office towers, in the past you have to be someone who is able to have the view and enjoy it, because you have money or social position that allows you to be there. But here in this area it is open to everyone. You can simply climb outside of the mountain and enjoy the view. Also most importantly is that financially it’s feasible. I think by providing more space, by putting the cultural centre inserted or actually imbedded in the mountain, we save at least two third of the land for other possible of the land development. Because financially I believe there need to be someone who has the motivation and interest to build the cultural facilities in this scale. It couldn’t be simply from donations of any institutions. It needs to be balanced in terms of financial budgeting. ……….and even inside of the mountain, there would be commercial developments, too. The cultural facilities are taking at most one tenth of the space of the mountain. Nine tenth of the space inside the mountain could be hotels, shopping centers. So it could be the Hong Kong cultural mountain terrace land and maybe the tallest department store in the world.

ZK: And this program also will fit in Hong Kong more and more as the shopping city in china in the future. I think making shopping centre always fits Hong Kong, given the huge Chinese consuming population, imagine all of us go there just once for shopping. All of you can go the West Kowloon shopping tower to do that and to enjoy the view of Hong Kong, which used to be exclusive and now you can look at it from the mountain, if you like to climb it.

ZK: And also the rice field has forty hectares of surface of the terraced farmland. It also produces environmental impact. And also it can produce some organic rice for the Hong Kong people. That is a very direct result. So from the distance it looks all green and it is not like something with the hard surface as concrete or steel concrete. It is a piece of agricultural landscape imbedded in the centre of the city. I think it could be both the poetic and in terms of program it also fit for the city infrastructure.

LL: So thank you Zhang Ke for sharing your concept of the project. I have still some questions. First, I would say I’m very interested about your idea about the use of landform and you introduce the agriculture back into the city and defined a kind of agri-urbanism. It’s very interesting that In the Shenzhen Biennale in one of the panel discussions there was a statement saying that possible human kind has exploited all kinds of urbanism, to-date maybe the last remaining form of unexploited urbanism is agriculture. Because as the world becomes more and more urbanized and especially in china there is less and less land and less and less green space, we can not go back. So maybe there is a type for humanity to de-urbanize as a strategic response. So I think your respond is exactly the kind of the attitude to a place like Hong Kong where we have completely pressure of urbanizing every square inch of valuable land that’s released by the government. So that is my first respond and I don’t know how you see the trend in terms of dealing with the cities, because the West Kowloon maybe the very special case. Could that attitude in other ways to improving our cities in China?

ZK: I think that is definitely one of the possible direction, but I am not suggesting that as the direction that could be applied everywhere. But it is possible. If we have more continuous land in the downtown Beijing, it is possible to do it even in Beijing. In building urban infrastructure and urban fabrics, one of the facts is that we have never thought of is that urban development and agriculture can be combined. We always thought of them as being contradictory. Actually they can be combined, one is using the outer surface, and the other is using the inner space. Maybe it can also provide the opportunity for energy saving or other environmental, even can help with dealing the global warming, but it’s still an interesting direction to experiment.

LL: So you know in shenzhen we talked a lot about the ecology of the cities. Actually using the ecology as a tool or a now tool for the urban development. Really not just look at the ecology as a metaphor but use it literally as a building material. And as a strategy, to in a way reclaim some of the land has been displacing nature. I think this displacement and disappearance of nature in city is concerning many architects especially people in our group.

ZK: Yes, and also the interesting thing is the word agriculture, or we can use the agri-culture or we can even try to find another name maybe west Kowloon Agri-Cultural Centre or something like this. It is one of the most critical cultural landscapes in china. But this terraced field is very typical in certain part of china. So I think it is also very Chinese.
张轲:是的。同样一个有趣的话题是关于农业这个词。我们可以使用Agri-culture这个名称或者我们可以找到另外一个名字例如West Kowloon Agri-Cultural Centre或者与此类似的。也许这是一种处于临界状态的中国文化景观,但是梯田则是中国某些地区的传统农业方式,所以我认为这概念可以认为是中国的。

LL: My personal view in a place like Hong Kong compared with Beijing is really different, because Hong Kong’s natural setting is already very mountainous. It’s a pity that Hong Kong has been cutting down many of our mountains to quarry building materials over the past 50 to 100 years. Re-introducing mountains back to our cityscape maybe a very healthy solution. I don’t see any conflict in what you are proposing. Maybe in the city of Beijing, it is quite flat…

ZK: So for Beijing it will be much lower hills and I think for the Guilin mountain and Hong Kong mountain, they would be very similar, they are both vertical and it works well with the verticality of Hong Kong urban form.

LL: Zhang Ke, my second point is you highlight the new piece of the landform this architectural intervention, as kind of cultural landmark and cultural mountain that is sustainable for the cultural facilities and also for the financially driven facilities inside the mountain. I think it is very interesting how you use the inside and outside relationship of the mountain, where you have the translucent or transparent jewels looking out, and at the same time you put certain commercial facilities inside the mountain that do not require light. So I think it’s very interesting how you really treat the mountain as a kind of condition to moderate what is nature, what is building, what should be viewed and what should be contained? I think that is a very kind of sensible response from my point of view.

ZK: Yes, you are very correct. That is also we want to make sure that people don’t misunderstand it as a fake mountain but something as man-made landscape and with programs inside. But it has simplicity and poetic qualities for the urban dwellers to look at from the opposite side of the bay.


LL: So landmark by definition is still tall but a landmark is no longer a building, and the landmark is really becomes a kind of part of our natural environment, and at the same time allowing the commercial…..
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