The Vertical City, Part VI: A Hundred Hong Kong Towers at the Venice Biennale

Conceptual sketch by Seung H SangConceptual sketch by Jun Igarashi

Venice might seem an odd place to explore the future of skyscrapers, but that’s exactly what is happening within a few steps of its famous lagoon. Stroll alongside the Rio del’Arsenale, turn onto the flagstone-paved Campiello de Tana, and walk a couple of minutes to the main entrance to the 900-year-old Venetian Arsenal. Across the street, you’ll find a collection of skyscrapers crowded into the courtyard of a typical Venetian house.

It’s hard to miss: there are exactly 111 model towers packed into the space. Vertical Fabric: Density in Landscape is Hong Kong’s contribution to the 16th Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s largest and most influential exhibition of architecture and urbanism. For two days last week, thousands of architects, journalists, dignitaries and enthusiasts descended on Venice for the biennale’s preview, which brings together exhibitions from 65 countries alongside dozens of collateral organisations – not to mention a main exhibition and overarching theme, which this year was curated by Irish architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara.

That main exhibition sets the tone for the rest of the biennale. This year’s theme is Freespace, which Farrell and McNamara describe as “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda.” That led University of Hong Kong architecture professor Wang Weijen, who curated Vertical Fabric, to think about what the concept meant for Hong Kong.

Venice biennale

An opening event at the Hong Kong pavilion

“What kind of free space can we have in towers?” he asks, sitting on a stool in the shade, away from the sweltering Adriatic sun. “This exhibition is about representing Hong Kong, but also exploring the typology of the tower. More than anyone else in the world, Hong Kong architects should be committed to exploring and innovating new ways of designing towers. Because we have no other choice – we live in such high density.”

In many cities, towers are a choice, but in Hong Kong, they’re a necessity. More than 50 years of skyscraping development has left the city with the largest number of high-rises in the world. But that emerged as much by accident as through any sort of plan. Hong Kong has long had a strange combination of a laissez-faire economy and a highly regulated building sector, which means that building codes and bottom lines have shaped the design of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers more than any architect.

“Cities are about the power to shape an artificial space, and towers are a condensation of that power,” says architect Philip Fung. And in Hong Kong, it’s developers who hold all the power. Architect Chan Lai-kiu, who curated Hong Kong’s UABB architecture biennale, and who is also an exhibitor in Venice, compares Hong Kong’s towers to bottles. “You fill it up with water and you never want to waste a drop,” she says – the water being a metaphor for profit, of course.

All of that has created a litany of problems that anyone who lives in Hong Kong will be familiar with: canyon-like streets that trap polluted air, tiny flats, a lack of public gathering spaces. Wang wants the Venice exhibition to raise questions about how we can change all of that while still working within the high-rise form. How can high-rise living be made less socially isolating, more environmentally sustainable and more engaging?

It’s a pertinent question for Hong Kong, but also for the many cities that are following a similar upwards trajectory by cultivating their own forests of high-rises. While Hong Kong continues building tiny flats in skinny “pencil towers,” other cities have been taking unorthodox approaches to high-rise construction, with towers such as Oasis in Singapore, which contains a series of open decks and aerial public spaces, and the Bosco Verticale in Milan, whose flats are nestled in a dense vertical forest.

“The problem is how to give people a better life in skyscrapers,” says Italian architect Giusi Ciotoli. Her 2017 book, Dal grattacielo al tessuto verticale (“From Skyscrapers to Vertical Fabric”), was an inspiration for the Hong Kong exhibition. “Vertical fabric is a new way of thinking about the role of the skyscraper in the city,” she says.

Historically, towers have served as silos, self-contained and devoted to a single use, be it offices, apartments or a hotel. Ciotoli says we should see towers more like neighbourhoods: mixed-use, diverse and permeable, with plenty of connections to the surrounding city. “You have to create a microcosm of the city inside the tower,” she says. And with more than 7,800 high-rises — and the vast majority of its population living in skyscrapers — she thinks Hong Kong is the perfect laboratory for exploring new kinds of high-rise living. “Hong Kong is a special case – it is maybe the best place in the world to study skyscrapers and their dynamics.”

To keep things consistent, Wang and his co-curators, Thomas Tsang, Thomas Chung and Grace Cheng, gave each of the participating architects the same 360-square-millimetre, two-metre-high template with which to work. But the results are diverse. Some installations are more conceptual, including a tower by Japanese architect Jun Igarashi that stacks pitched-roof single-family houses — the kind a child might draw — on top of one another. An installation by Korean architect Seung H Sang is literally a “tower for the birds,” with room for avian city-dwellers to nest, eat and interact.

Venice biennale

Towers being prepared in the Hong Kong pavilion

Other towers are decidedly pragmatic. A tower designed by Wang Weijen suggests a series of “stepping up patios” through which residents must pass to access their private high-rise flats – something meant to replicate the experience of passing through a neighbourhood square on your way home. A second tower by Wang investigates the possibility of channeling fresh air through a tower in order to create pleasant outdoors spaces and naturally-ventilated flats. Several towers, including one designed by Marisa Yiu and Eric Schuldenfrei’s firm ESKYIU, feature skybridges at multiple levels, creating many different layers of access to break up the vertical fortress effect found in most high-rises.

Some of the towers in the exhibition have already been built. AGC Architects is showcasing a high-rise church nearing completion in Fortress Hill. In recent years, many religious congregations have decided to redevelop their houses of worship in order to create more room for community facilities – and in some cases, flats and offices whose rent helps fund the congregation.

AGC’s Tony Lam says these types of developments are often faced with a question: “Should the worship area be on the bottom top or on the top?” In the Fortress Hill project, AGC ended up putting the main sanctuary on the ground level, with a nursery school, kindergarten, music centre, adult care facility and youth centre on top. The complex is crowned by a top-floor chapel flooded with natural light. “It’s like touching the sky,” says Lam.

Venice biennale

KPF’s Victoria Dockside tower

Another real-world project is Victoria Dockside, a massive new mixed-use complex on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront. Designed by global architecture firm KPF, which has designed dozens of supertall skyscrapers around the world, the complex is anchored by a 66-storey tower that contains a mix of hotel rooms, apartments, offices and cultural facilities.

In its biennale installation, KPF playfully represents the development’s complicated programme by running marbles through a clear plastic tube that weaves through the complex. “Depending on where you are in the building, you will be experiencing different yet unique moment,” says Florence Chan, who leads KPF’s Hong Kong office. “The speed of the beads suggested the pace of the space they travel across.”

It’s an approach that calls to mind KPF’s work on Hysan Place in Causeway Bay, which includes a 17-storey shopping mall that sits beneath another 40 floors of office space. Rather than keep the different components of the building separate, Chan and her team stacked them like boxes, creating sky lobbies and rooftop gardens that break up the internal space. The technique is shared by many of the biennale’s installations. “There’s a different hierarchy of public spaces we can explore,” says Wang. “You can create streets inside of a tower.”

For that to happen, however, Wang says Hong Kong needs to give its architects more breathing room. “We need a lot more flexibility in government regulations,” he says. The chief value of urban development in Hong Kong is money, not social good or quality of life. “Hong Kong architects have much less say than others, like surveyors,” who quantify the value of land and therefore have more influence in shaping land regulations and building codes.

Wang hopes Vertical Fabric will open Hong Kong’s decision-makers to some new possibilities. “Some of these [concepts] can be built in five years, some in 10, 20, 30 or 50 years,” says Wang. “An architectural biennale is about offering a proposition that projects into the future.” In this case, there are 111 projects to consider.


Vertical Fabric runs at the 16th Venice Biennale of Architecture until November 25, 2018, and it will be exhibited in Hong Kong in April 2019. Click here for more information.

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