Hong Kong’s Modern Heritage, Part IX: PolyU

Alvin Yip was fascinated by the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong when he was young. “When I was a kid, I called it ‘the castle,’” he recalls. “It [has] these interconnected buildings that look like a wall, and when they turn the corner it creates rotundas.” 

A few decades later, Yip found himself working inside that castle when he taught at the university’s School of Design. Familiarity did not diminish his admiration for the complex. Designed at P&T by a team led by James Kinoshita, the campus opened in 1976, three years after the Hong Kong Polytechnic was established. The institution was granted university status in 1994 and is now often known as PolyU.

 

Its campus still looks much as it did in the 1970s. Located next to the entrance of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel in Hung Hom, it is an imposing agglomeration of interconnected redbrick structures raised one floor above ground level. It is a massive, imposing structure. Whether you approach it by footbridge from Hung Hom Station or Tsim Sha Tsui, or you are passing by on your way into the tunnel, it really isn’t a stretch to say there is something regal about it. 

“When they got the land from the government, they thought, what are we going to build?” says Yip. “They needed a strong identity. James Kinoshita answered this through architecture.”

Kinoshita moved to Hong Kong to join his wife, Lana Yuen, whom he had met while studying at the University of Manitoba. He soon landed a job at P&T and began working on the Hongkong Hilton, an enormous hotel that opened in 1962 on the site where the Cheung Kong Centre now stands. Over the next decade, Kinoshita had a hand in many of Hong Kong’s modern landmarks: the AIA Building in Wan Chai, the now-demolished Kennedy Road Substation and, most famously, Jardine House, which was Asia’s tallest building when it was completed in 1973.

Zaha Hadid’s Innovation Tower overlooks the PolyU campus

The original PolyU campus sits on a relatively constrained site of 9.4 hectares, less than half the size of Victoria Park and only a fraction of the sprawling Chinese University of Hong Kong campus in Sha Tin. To save space, Kinoshita’s team lifted the campus above ground. 

“It was a 1970s idea,” says Yip. “The ground was given to logistics, parking, back of house operations, not so much for humans but for trucks and cars. It works well for labs that need heavy vehicle access. The second level is where you have footbridge connections, a lot of free space, it’s oriented towards pedestrians. People walk freely because you don’t have to segregate different speeds of traffic. That makes it very flexible.”

Just as the main level of the campus was raised above ground, many of the school’s buildings were raised one floor above the podium, creating a variety of sheltered open-air spaces. “It embodies certain Hong Kong values that you should also be covered from the rain and sun,” says Yip. “A lot of people talk about the HSBC Building being so smart because [Norman] Foster created a public space underneath it, but PolyU did that earlier – and it did that in a systematic way.”

 Courtyards of various sizes are tucked in between the buildings. “It’s really beautiful, the way it was conceptualised, because it allows different scales and different sizes of activities,” says Yip. “If you’re a group of 20 students you can find a spot to do whatever you want to do, or you can have more organised activities like assemblies. We did outdoor cinema, a Mid-Autumn dinner with staff and students, many tables having a big poon choi meal.”

Most of Kinoshita’s other buildings from the 1960s and 70s had an airy kind of look: whitewashed concrete in the AIA Tower and the Kennedy Road Substation, sleek aluminium for Jardine House. But PolyU is clad in brick tiles that were intended to give it a sense of institutional gravitas. That established a visual language that the university maintained even as it expanded over the years. When the Li Ka Shing Tower was completed in the heart of the campus in 2001, it reinterpreted the surrounding aesthetic in a postmodern way, with bands of red brick running between curtains of glass. 

Yip says this is an example of how adaptable Kinoshita’s design is. “It’s a very powerful architectural solution to the question of identity, to the question of vertical arrangement and the organisation of learning space, activity space and logistics space.” It also accommodates growth – “a scalable solution,” as Yip calls it. “The rotunda wall system allows you to add more buildings. You can walk down one wall and with the two rotunda you can create new space.”

But something seems to have changed in the university’s strategy. In 2011, a glassy Transformers-like tower home to a hotel, hospitality institute and faculty residences opened across the street from the original campus. Then, three years later, Zaha Hadid’s sinuous, attention-grabbing Innovation Tower opened right in the midst of Kinoshita’s red brick fortress, punctuating its surroundings like an exclamation mark. 

A few months before the Innovation Tower officially opened, James Kinoshita sat in his Sai Kung villa and shook his head when he was asked about Hadid’s design. “It was the wrong choice of architect,” he said. “She’s forcing it to have a different character. It should try to keep within the vocabulary of the existing [campus].”

But the contrast is sharp enough that it actually serves to highlight the subtleties of the original 1976 design. “Keep it classic,” said Kinoshita at his home, describing his philosophy towards architecture. And there’s nothing more classic than a castle. 

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