A French Design Duo Daydream About How to Improve Hong Kong’s Urban Space

A new exhibition at the HKDI Gallery explores ways to make cities green through 14 practical and utopian case studies that integrate plants, animals, water and fire into urban landscapes – with a creative, thoughtful twist.

In Urban Daydreaming, an eclectic range of models made of plaster and cardboard, bark, patches of moss and miniature cutouts of people are presented alongside an audible backdrop of chirping birds and circus music.

“Some of the case studies are pragmatic and others are poetic,” say the creators, renowned French industrial design duo Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec. The latter met with Zolima CityMag at the exhibition to discuss the inspiration that a creative approach to considering nature offers cities like Hong Kong. “We are not urban landscape specialists,” he says. “We simply started designing in a very free way. These are not intended to be prescriptive, or suitable for every or any context, because the designs have not been created with a particular context in mind.”Ronan Erwan Bouroullec

The exhibition marks the first time the innovative, Paris-based brothers, who specialise in what they call “poetic practicality,” have expanded their oeuvre from furniture and interiors to urban planning issues. They are best known for projects ranging from a flat-pack customisable self-assembly sofa for Danish brand Hay, porcelain tiles for ceramics brand Mutina, which combine to create interesting patterns and shapes, and a series of lampshade-like light chains made from links that can “endlessly joined together,” at Galerie Kreo.  Although wildly different in form and style, each project reflects their fresh, thoughtful approach to design.

The designers have worked together in their Paris studio for the past two decades.  Some of their most outstanding pieces are in the permanent collections of leading international museums including the Victoria and Albert and Design Museums in London, the Musée national d’art moderne in the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The Bouroullecs recognise that the value of urban greening is well documented: trees and plants not only provide shade, improve air quality and help to moderate the heat island effect in built-up areas, they also soften the landscape in which we live and work, making the city a more desirable place.  They say the authorities behind progressive cities understand that green infrastructure is more than simply a nice thing to have, and that adding green spaces throughout a city, whether a tiny corner on a busy traffic intersection or a neighbourhood park, should be approached with an open, creative mind.

The progressive exhibition is especially relevant to Hong Kong, revealing a new way of thinking about nature beyond traditional views of country parks and wild areas.  Despite there being no shortage of countryside — 40 per cent of Hong Kong, including 262 outlying islands, is officially designated as country parks and nature reserves — there remains a glaring imbalance in urban districts where sitting-out areas are often planted unimaginatively and have practical but uncomfortable seating. The situation is particularly unsatisfactory in public housing estates and the city’s older industrial neighbourhoods despite attempts at gentrification.

Ronan Erwan BouroullecThe Bouroullec exhibition suggests creating experiential encounters between nature and the community as a possible solution to the problems arising when planners perceive nature as separate to the city. In practice, this means a shift in thinking, and not just adding trees or foliage, but also considering the opportunity to foster personal encounters which can connect people and ecologies.

The benefit of this is immediately visible even in relatively compact landscapes.  At the new mixed-use Victoria Dockside in Hong Kong for example, landscape architect James Corner, who was behind New York’s High Line, has reinvigorated the harbourfront with a design encouraging public interaction between people and space through distinctive seating, shade, and thoughtfully designed green space.  

The project includes a new look for what was once an uninspiring public space called Salisbury Garden, but is now an enticing lawn where people can sit and relax. It is part of the New World Centre redevelopment plan to renovate a mall directly underneath the land.  The reinvigorated garden has a digital screen and will double as an open-air performance, art and design space.

“The experience will be richly varied, fun and engaging,” says Corner. “Of course the scale of the harbour, the remarkable views of Hong Kong, the exposure to the weather, the density of people moving around, and the nature of the context are all dominant experiences that the design tries to amplify through providing places to access, stroll, sit, watch and participate. The experience is truly social, global, spectacular and at the same time humanizing, fun and special.”

The Bouroullecs’ Platforms case study offers another easy-to-implement example of how small measures can make a big difference, where they added a large, concave disc to act as a pedestal or large collective bench for sitting and reclining around a tree. “It is a simple gesture to add a ring, but it completely transforms the way people interact with the tree and each other,” Ronan Bouroullec explains in his typically soft-spoken way.

Another key issue that densely developed, established urban areas face is that citywide greening does not always come together as a functioning system. Different elements such as tree-lined streets, parks, cemeteries and waterways operate in isolation and are sometimes administered by different government departments, so there is little coordination in their management.  In Hong Kong four government agencies are responsible for greening and sustainability: the Development Bureau, the Lands Department, the Buildings Department and the Environmental Protection Department.

While it is easier for new cities to weave green infrastructure into public services from transportation to education, retroactive urban greening faces many practical challenges. In Hong Kong, very few incentives encourage private developers to introduce innovative ideas, although there are examples where projects making good business sense have transformed a neighbourhood.

Swire Properties’ HK$15billion business and commercial hub redevelopment at Taikoo Place includes a 69,000-square-foot open space with two landscape gardens that have cascading water features and alfresco dining areas. Designed by the London-based landscape architectural practice Gustafson Porter, who was also responsible for the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, the two gardens will be as large as Statue Square in Central.

Ronan Erwan BouroullecAnother of the Bouroullecs’ case studies, Stream, offers an alternative where large-scale redevelopment is not possible by adding a deep, narrow groove that carves a path through the city, introducing a corridor of water and plants along a road or pavement. “The stream emits a sound which is another aspect of nature that is often forgotten in the city,” says Bouroullec.

Some of the Bouroullecs’ case studies have already been implemented.  Last year Clouds, a modular sunshade and seating system made from steel and coloured glass, was installed in the Miami Design District to provide shade, shelter and seating.  The structure’s canopy is 100 metres long and five metres high, and comprises clusters of overlapping circular steel cylinders lined with green and blue coloured glass.  When the sun shines, it creates stained-glass-window-like clouds on the pavement, says Ronan, and underneath a series of circular concrete basins are planted with vegetation.

This form – a larger version of their cellular ceramic Nuage vases that create the outline of a cartoon cloud when viewed from above, which the designers created for Vitra in 2015 — also provides what they call an essential visual link between the geometric and the organic, between constructed and natural forms. Bouroullec says this is especially well suited for cities such as Hong Kong where public areas need shade from strong sunlight.

The exhibition demonstrates that even small interventions, like adding a perforated pergola to a sunny spot, make a significant difference. “The big issue for me is that city planning is dedicated to functional aspects like the street and, while that is extremely important, if public spaces are well designed they can add an interesting aspect full of romanticism.  It adds life to the city,” says Bouroullec.

While there is no plan yet to install one of the Bouroullecs’ designs in Hong Kong, the Deputy Chairman of the Vocational Training Council, Eric Yim, believes the exhibition nevertheless plays an important role in promoting a cultural exchange of designs in Hong Kong.

“They have forayed into new territory with this project, by creating different scenarios that take into consideration the many urban functions that we may have easily taken for granted,” he says. “They inspire us by suggesting enchanting new connections between people, buildings and the many different elements in the city, which could happen in a place like Hong Kong.”

Ronan Erwan BouroullecThere are some signs of change in Hong Kong, with a recent government plan to introduce a greater diversity of trees and shrubs in the urban areas using a new guide intended to help planners understand which plants match different locations, taking into account their tolerance for roadside pollution and how they appear in context.

It is reportedly the first time the government will use a systematic policy on greening instead of approaching it on a project-by-project basis. According to the Greening, Landscape & Tree Management Section of the Development Board, the number of trees and shrubs planted each year has been decreasing since 2010, making measures such as this especially important.

They would also, however, do well to take a lesson from the Bouroullec exhibition in what can happen when one dreams about a living landscape that is outside the usual way of planting. Bouroullec sees their projects with plenty of vegetation as a good starting point for Hong Kong “to reflect on its public spaces.”

Ronan Erwan Bouroullec

“Some of the case studies are pragmatic and others are poetic” says Ronan Bouroullec

“The city of Hong Kong is surrounded by extremely lush green areas whereas the city itself is very urbanised and completely devoid of it,” he says. “It is a very radical contrast between the two so I think that our green-based projects could be a good way to introduce a balance.”

He offers a diffident and modest shrug. “Nothing in our exhibition is revolutionary,” he says. “It is more about finding simple, sensual solutions. Nature is a universal need, so it is important that we think carefully about our relationship with it.”


Urban Daydreaming runs at the HKDI gallery until March 31, 2019. Click here for more information.

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