Hong Kong Institute of Architects president and director of AGC Design Ltd, architect Vincent Ng Wing Shun is one of the city’s most active on the preservation front and has served with the Kai Tak Harbourfront Development Harbourfront Commission, the Urban Renewal Strategy Review steering committee among other boards going back to 2003. Most recently, he served on the 17-member jury for the MIPIM Asia Awards recognising the region’s outstanding innovation in design, sustainability and regenerations as just a start. Squarefoot chatted with Ng about where he hopes Hong Kong is heading architecturally and what’s needed to create a living city.
MIPIM this year had a theme that was forward-looking, to 2025. What do you see for Hong Kong?
I would like to see more integration with the environment and also more emphasis on sustainability, improving air quality, reducing the use of cars and more use of mass transit. The government is beating around the bush for more land for residential development — so they’re talking about country parks. I don’t think that’s the way to go. We know that density is going to stay high but there are other ways to ease that. Do we need this much road space? All this space around the harbourfront, around West Kowloon, all these big roundabouts is a great amount of land and all this land around the highways can’t be used. Let’s plan the city with less dependency on cars. All that space would be available. The countryside is valuable and it makes Hong Kong unique.
You juried the MIPIM awards for innovation, but any kind of innovation here seems stymied by outdated building code.
This is the difficult part; for a single architect it’s very difficult. We need to raise our voices. Building code in Hong Kong is among the most restrictive in the world. That is suffocating innovation. The industry has been talking about this for ages. I’m not pessimistic but I’m not optimistic. My motto is to just keep going. [Change] may not happen now, but eventually.
It’s like preservation. I was standing at Queen’s Pier with a banner. In 2004 I was advocating to preserve Central Market when no one cared. Same thing for Wedding Card Street in Wan Chai. If you look at conservation policy now — at Central Market, at PMQ, at the Central Police Station — it’s because of all the people who’ve been advocating before anyone cared. Some fail, but they make a difference, however remote. I believe our city needs a story to tell and you can only do that when buildings from different ages are there.
But LegCo is allegedly stocked with real estate interests. How does policy change to be more pro-innovation when there’s a conflict of interests?
There is always tension. Architects get their projects from government and developers. We’re stuck in a box — the developer’s frame of mind — and it depends on how flexible it is. Are they open-minded? Do they want to balance quality and profit? Or just get the maximum dollars regardless of quality, social responsibility and so on? Architecture is a reflection of all these forces and it will tell, as I said, the story, be it good or sad. The formula for profit generation is easy. What’s difficult within that is design for function, that’s responsive to the city and conveys the message of the city. On the bright side, the city isn’t only composed of property. We have public buildings and the fight for heritage conservation retains some of that. Better late than never, and that generates innovation.
Is that restrictive code maybe fostering creativity? Hong Kong’s quirks are unique but as the world urbanises they’re becoming more common.
Well, high-density design is a strength. High density isn’t necessarily bad. With a lot of people, if you can get good planning you don’t actually need transport, you have everything you need within walking distance, a variety of stores and goods and restaurants — because you have a population that supports it. You have to drive 15 minutes in (low density) Los Angeles to get a plug. You have to rely on cars, the city is full of roads and there’s still traffic congestion, you can’t find your plug and there’s no walking the streets to decide on what to eat. That’s ridiculous. That’s the beauty of the high density we live in and we should treasure that.
What is the status of preservation these days?
That’s complicated. As I’ve said, when we talk about development there’s a formula. Unless it boosts sales there is no developer that will use their own initiative to preserve anything. A tiny building taking up space where a tall building can go? It’s an easy choice. So they have to be compensated with extra land — like the case with the Pawn. That’s one way to do it. They tried that with the demolition of the old Chinese-style house in Mid-Levels too. The question becomes who pays the price for giving up a piece of land that could be homes?
Why is it so hard to preserve anything?
The government has a very weak set of guidelines that apply to monuments only, slightly over 100 in Hong Kong that are protected from alteration or demolition. But on private property, under the law, anything proclaimed a monument demands compensation — which can be astronomical. Because it’s not about the value of the house, it’s about what the site can generate.
How do you see the move toward landmark buildings by “starchitects”?
Zaha Hadid’s [Poly U’s Jockey Club Innovation Tower] was very innovative and interesting, but I wouldn’t say we need to do every building like that. It’s great but projects like that are difficult to do and we need diversity, and we need Hongkongers to realise there is diversity in architecture. Whenever a society is educated and they know what the possibilities are they can demand it — and force change.
Does Hong Kong need more local talent that knows the city?
This is very controversial all over the world. Japanese architects don’t want Hadid doing their stadiums for obvious reasons. It’s not difficult to understand, but as an international city we welcome diversity. The HSBC tower or the Bank of China tower give Hong Kong an identity — not because it’s a Norman Foster building. Let the public see other possibilities. I welcome that.
You said architecture tells a story. What is Hong Kong saying?
It’s telling us that we care about how a building can generate the most money. I think our pride in efficiency and efficacy are part of the story. We’re very pragmatic, very practical, maybe we don’t care about our past — maybe we don’t want to remember it. But that’s changing. We want more stories about Hong Kong.