A Future for Hong Kong’s Heritage at the Venice Biennale of Architecture

The 18th Venice Biennale of Architecture opened last month, declaring itself a “laboratory of the future.” Under the curatorship of Lesley Lokko, a Scottish-Ghanaian architect who is the first African woman to lead the world’s most prestigious architecture exhibition, the biennale is taking a bold, broad-minded approach to our built environment, one that is decidedly less Eurocentric and more critical than many other editions of the biennale.

Hong Kong’s contribution shares that breadth of scope. Housed on the ground floor of a weathered stone villa across the street from the Arsenale, a 12th century Venetian naval base that is one of the biennale’s two main venues, Transformative Hong Kong brings together 11 installations and exhibits that investigate a different aspect of the city that Hong Kong is and the city it could become. 

“We are in a moment of transformation, but we don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Yutaka Yano, an architect and one of three curators who put together the Hong Kong exhibition, alongside Hendrik Tieben, the director of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) School of Architecture, and Sarah Lee, associate professor of architecture at CUHK and Yano’s partner in the Sky Yutaka architecture studio.

Some of the exhibits on display look resolutely to a future of growth and development, like engineering firm Arup’s exploration of prefabricated building technology, or the MTR’s display on its planned Northern Rail Link, which will provide rapid transit to the northern New Territories, an in the midst of massive redevelopment. Other exhibits offer a more contemplative view of a rapidly changing Hong Kong, such as photographer and architect Justin Hui’s photo essay that juxtaposes the upheaval in the northern New Territories with scenes from Chinese-funded development in southeastern Africa. But three in particular offer an intriguing proposition: that Hong Kong’s history and heritage offer a key to its future. 

That’s evident as soon as you walk into the exhibition and are greeted by three bamboo canopies standing in a courtyard. They’re the work of CUHK professor Hiroyuki Shinohara and research assistant Peter Chan Tung-hoi, who worked with 19 studies from several postsecondary institutions across Hong Kong to design and build them. 

“Hong Kong is always looking forward in terms of urbanisation, not so much looking back,” says Shinohara on a sunny afternoon in the courtyard. Laundry is drying on clotheslines high overhead; a few curious onlookers have already made their way into the villa to check out the exhibition. Shinohara spent years researching bamboo in mainland China, and when he moved to Hong Kong, he was fascinated by the traditional weaving techniques used to make bamboo homeware and kitchen implements – and shocked to learn that they are on the verge of going extinct in Hong Kong.

Bamboo is not only a traditional material, it’s a particularly sustainable one thanks to its quick growth. “The challenge we have is to find new uses for traditional weaving techniques,” says Shinohara. “One of the difficulties of the craft is it takes a long time to master.” Many sifus (masters) started learning their trade as teenagers, and it took years of gruelling work to reach a high level of craftsmanship. “Sifus often can’t verbalise their knowledge, so another challenge is how to translate that implicit knowledge for others to learn,” says Shinohara. 

That was one of the reasons he and Chan decided to involve so many different students in their project. Together, they learned how to weave bamboo and came up with an innovative way to create canopies that can be easily transported and assembled on site, which is exactly what was done in Venice. The team made individual components that fit inside a two-metre-long wooden crate, which was then shipped from Hong Kong to Venice, where they spent a week putting them together. Although the focus was on bamboo weaving, Shinohara says they also got some help from a bamboo scaffolder, who showed them how to use fibre-reinforced plastic ties to hold different pieces of the canopies together. 

Shinohara says the canopies are meant to demonstrate how bamboo weaving can be used to create temporary structures for events. But it’s unclear whether weaving can be incorporated into anything permanent; Hong Kong’s building code requires bamboo structures such as theatres to be disassembled after only a few weeks for fire safety reasons. “We still need more experimentation,” he says. It’s an ongoing effort – one that could potentially revive a traditional craft that is considered one of Hong Kong’s sunset industries at risk of fading away.

Next to the courtyard, in a musty room with terrazzo floors and old wooden ceiling beams that smell as ancient as they look, another exhibit is looking at a new future for a traditional craft. Hong Kong once had a thriving ceramics painting industry, and researchers Tobias Klein and Victor Leung Pok-yin are looking into that history to solve a very modern problem: how to create 3D printed objects and materials with complex patterns, motifs and coloration. “The majority of 3D printing systems are still limited to homogeneous material printing, requiring surface texture to be added during post-production,” write the duo in an email, as they were unable to visit Venice for the opening days of the biennale.

“Our research work takes inspiration from the local tradition of ceramic painting and we visited the last ceramic painter studio in Kwun Tong many times,” they explain. They also worked closely with Florian Knothe, director of the University of Hong Kong’s University Museum and Art Gallery. “They have a magnificent study collection in ceramics and allowed us [to do] 3D scanning of their artefacts in order to study the geometric complexities as well to work on replicating the patterns as a form of digital craft.”

The researchers created an index of chemical reagents that could be used for digital decoration and developed hardware and software that could apply them to a variety of surfaces. “A stationary laser source is modulated by precisely controlled mirrors and lenses to trace along paths on a distant surface,” explain Klein and Leung. “The surface is pre-coated with reactive smart materials that can be activated by the specific laser wavelength to cause temporary or permanent change in colour. The high power laser beam can reach long projection distances to apply complex patterns, ornaments and visual effects without the need of skilled labour or traditional scaffolding.”

The idea isn’t to paint ceramics, it’s to apply decoration to any sort of complex surface that 3D printing is currently incapable of handling. Klein and Leung say their novel printing technique could be used for architectural design, interior design, advertising and other media. It’s high technology rooted in ancient craft and Hong Kong heritage. 

A vision of the Star Ferry pier as a social and ecological hub.

Right next to the 3D printing installation is another display by Hong Kong architecture firm Lead8 that explores the evolution of Victoria Harbour. The exhibit outlines Lead8’s HarbourLoop proposal and reveals new research into the future of the Star Ferry. For 135 years, the ferry service’s white and green vessels have taken people from one side of the harbour to the other. But ridership has dwindled in the face of competition from the MTR and cross-harbour buses, not to mention land reclamation that has pushed the water’s edge ever further away from the busiest parts of districts like Central and Wan Chai.

“The students appreciated the picturesque and leisurely nature of the Star Ferry as a way to move across the city, compared to say taking the MTR or tunnels,” says Lead8 co-founder and executive director David Buffonge. “However, they also associated the Star Ferry with an older generation, feeling that it needed a reimagining to better engage with their generation.”

That led the students to think about how the Star Ferry could be made as vital and relevant as it once was. What they concluded was that it’s the ferry piers that need to change. Rather than simply points of transit, they have re-envisioned them as social and community hubs, with rooftop green space and other natural features. 

“The students showed a real drive and eagerness for civic engagement,” says Buffonge. They seemed to grasp something that underlined many of the ideas presented at the biennale, in both the Hong Kong exhibition and beyond: you can’t build a future without recognising the past. “Great cities preserve their urban artefacts – it is what makes a place distinct,” says Buffonge. “And [they] do so in a way that resonates with an ever evolving and changing community.”

Transformative Hong Kong runs at the Venice Biennale until November 26, 2023. Click here for more information.

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