Tao Ho: Hong Kong’s Underrated Design Legend

One of the first things you notice when you step into the Hong Kong Arts Centre is the atrium. It rises four floors, flanked by a staircase that spirals around the cavity, whose concrete ceilings are moulded into a triangular grid. It feels a bit like standing inside a giant beehive. 

In normal times—though not during these pandemic days—it’s about as busy as one. 16 floors of theatres, studios, classrooms and offices, along with a bookshop and a restaurant. It manages to do all of this in a tiny parcel of land that is just 100 feet wide on each side. And it does it in style. Visitors to the Arts Centre might be surprised to learn it opened in 1977; it seems more recent, if only because it still feels so fresh. 

 

And yet not enough people are familiar with its architect, Tao Ho. Although he is well known and highly respected in Hong Kong’s architecture and design circles, his is not exactly a household name among ordinary Hongkongers. This despite the fact that, beyond his architectural work on buildings like the Arts Centre and the panda pavilion at Ocean Park, Ho was responsible for designing the bauhinia emblem on Hong Kong’s flag and seal. His work was far ahead of its time in terms of environmental sustainability, too, despite Hong Kong’s slow awakening to the importance of that issue. 

Ho died of pneumonia just over a year ago, in March 2019, after a long period of ill health. But he leaves behind a fascinating legacy whose impact will be explored for many years to come. “This was probably one of the first architects [in Hong Kong] who was aware of the global and regional flow of ideas,” says Shirley Surya, a design and architecture curator at M+, Hong Kong’s museum of visual culture. “His work stretches beyond buildings down to designing stamps, interiors, ink painting and in the end, the bauhinia [flag]. He was part of something larger. Few Hong Kong architects had the ability to connect with a discourse elsewhere. He was a public intellectual very much concerned with designing something for the people and not just the elite.”

Ho was born to a relatively affluent family in Shanghai in 1936; his father was involved with the Kuomintang and was an enthusiast of Chinese history. The family moved to Hong Kong the year after Ho’s birth. After studying at Pui Ching Middle School, he travelled to Massachusetts to embark on an undergraduate degree in art history, with minors in music and theology, at Williams College. That led him to the renowned graduate programme in architecture at Harvard University, where he studied under Walter Gropius, one of the founders of the Bauhaus School. 

The Bauhaus operated in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin from 1919 to 1933, when it was shut down under pressure from the Nazis. It helped articulate a new Modernist vision of architecture that prized functionality and universality. Gropius was its first director and he penned the manifesto that helped establish the school as one of the most influential in the history of architecture. “Together let us desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future, which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith,” he wrote. It was a sentiment both high-minded and democratic.

Gropius and Ho seemed to have gotten along quite well, because soon after he began studying, Ho was hired to work in Gropius’ firm, the Architects’ Collaborative, as Gropius’ personal assistant. He did that every summer until he graduated in 1964. Another big influence was Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, a British town planner who taught at Harvard and who advocated for a decentralised, observation-based approach to planning and design.

 

Ho returned to Hong Kong and began teaching at the newly established Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he implemented a curriculum that drew from Bauhaus ideas. He was also a founder of an international group called the Asian Planning and Architectural Collaboration (APAC), which brought together a group of like-minded architects from around the region, including Charles Correa in India, Fumihiko Maki in Japan and Sumet Jumsai in Thailand. They were reacting against the increasing sterility of Modernism, which had congealed since the early days of Bauhaus into something rigid and prescriptive. Ho and many of these other architects were influenced by a Japanese movement called Metabolism, which applied notions of organic biological growth to architecture. 

Even more than architecture, Ho and the other APAC architects were interested in cities. “It’s being able to plan a city that is not just top down but based on the locale,” says Surya. Ho’s master’s thesis at Harvard was a master plan for the Hong Kong waterfront, a topic he touched on again in 1989 when he worked with University of Hong Kong students on another waterfront plan. “He proposed the idea of a floating city,” she explains. “It was made of different stacks [of modular and flexible units] that can increase or decrease depending on what you need in the future. The idea was not to waste more resources by reclaiming more land. As much as Tao Ho was an architect, he was also a city person – he really thought about how to intervene in a way that’s not just top down but dynamic, that allows things to be planned according to growth, change and even a sense of disorder.”

The Arts Centre was Ho’s first chance to put that philosophy to the test. He was involved from the very beginning, having lobbied the government to set up a non-profit arts organisation “of the people, for the people and by the people.” In 1971, the government granted a small piece of newly-reclaimed land in Wan Chai for the centre, and then-governor Murray MacLehose helped facilitate loans for its construction. 

“His design was very much in line with the spirit of Hong Kong, because in Hong Kong all the spaces are tight, everything is high density,” says David Lung, former dean of the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Architecture. “In that sense it fits right into the compactness of [the] city. It’s beautifully designed. It isn’t just a block of building. Tao was using architecture as a mechanism to express a kind of philosophy about being organic. He not only managed to put in all these functions into a tight space, he was able to carry out his own aspirations in pouring out all these philosophies and making it a gem in his lifetime career.”

Lung had just finished studying architecture in Oregon when the Arts Centre was being completed. He returned to Hong Kong in 1978 and Ho gave him his first job in the city. He remembers taking the position because he was impressed by Ho himself. “Throughout the interview we got talking about Chinese painting and music,” he says. “Tao talked to me about Debussy and the paintings of Wong Ping-hung and all that. We got into very intimate conversations about all these other things rather than simply architecture.”

The Arts Centre helped establish Ho’s renown, and he earned kudos for designing an expansion of St. Stephen’s College in Stanley and the Hong Kong pavilion for the 1986 World Expo in Vancouver. But his influence extended beyond architecture. In the 1980s, Ho hosted a music show on RTHK, Tao Ho on Music, and he became increasingly well known as a cultural critic in the 1990s. He was fearlessly outspoken, and when he served as the president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects in 1997 and 1998, he ruffled feathers by openly criticising the design of the new Central Library in Causeway Bay, which he—and many others—felt was a postmodern pastiche unbecoming of such an important civic structure.

Well before environmental sustainability was a concern in Hong Kong, Ho described it as one of his main concerns. “We desperately need to re-establish a friendly dialogue with Nature and realign Man with the cosmic evolution of our world and the universe,” he once wrote. In the mid-1980s, he moved his offices to a vacant lot in Kowloon Tong, where he built a studio from 24 recycled shipping containers. It was arranged around a central garden—like a traditional Chinese courtyard house—and it collected rainwater for reuse. 

It was the design of a rebel,” says Surya. She first came across the project when she was doing research for the Building M+: The Museum and Architecture Collection, an exhibition in 2014, and found a trove of letters between Ho and the government, which wanted to tear the studio down because it did not conform to building regulations. “We were surprised,” she says. “He really thought it through and he argued to keep this thing [on the grounds of reuse and sustainability]. He was able to transform it as if it was a whole new building. You didn’t feel any remnant of it being container units.” 

“He didn’t have much use for rules” if they impeded new design possibilities, adds Surya. Hong Kong’s building regulations are notoriously restrictive, and when he worked on a project, Ho often applied for dozens of exemptions. That was unusual in a city where most architects dutifully serve corporate clients who are happy with cookie-cutter buildings as long as they aren’t too expensive. In Hong Kong, time is money, and if the owner wants to get a building finished within a certain timeframe so the bank loan interest doesn’t get carried over – Tao was not the kind of person [to accommodate that],” says Lung.

That didn’t mean he was a difficult person. Ho was known for his charisma, and Lung remembers him as a particularly good-natured boss who helped office assistants train as architects and who was always willing to support his staff in the face of uncooperative clients. “Tao was very down to earth,” says Lung. “I never saw him scream at people. He got angry but he never pointed fingers, he never blamed others.” 

Lung left Ho’s firm to teach at the University of Hong Kong in the early 1980s, but by then they were already friends. “I got to know Tao’s family,” he says. “He took me in like a family member – like a brother. He was very generous and hospitable. He always entertained guests like [Buckminster] Fuller, Fumihiko Maki, Jumsai from Thailand. I got to meet a lot of world-famous architects at a very early stage of my career in Hong Kong.”

Ho suffered a stroke in 2002 and withdrew from public life. But his legacy remains in every fluttering flag – and in the Arts Centre, which continues to inspire visitors. “It’s very hard to find buildings in Hong Kong that are not just about a corporate structure,” says Surya. “You think, how was he able to build this? We used that little clue, the Hong Kong Arts Centre, to find out more about other things [in Ho’s life]. That’s when we were utterly convinced that he was exceptional.”

All photos from the presentation portfolio for the Hong Kong Arts Centre are shared as a courtesy of M+, Hong Kong with the following full credit: Taoho Design (established Hong Kong, 1968) – Tao Ho (Hong Kong, born China. 1936-2019) – Presentation portfolio for Hong Kong Arts Centre (1968-1977), Hong Kong [1981] – Photographic prints mounted on cardboard- Dimensions variable – M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Irene Ho, 2013

Note: This article was updated after publication with several clarifications to Shirley Surya’s quotes, which are noted in brackets.

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