Hong Kong is a very different proposition to almost anywhere in the world, but it’s essential to have a foothold in this exciting and fast-paced region
Hong Kong is a magnet for architectural practices worldwide. There is hardly a global firm that does not have an office here. With a population of just 7.3 million, it has nearly 1,000 RIBA members – the greatest number outside the UK – while the Hong Kong Institute of Architects has a further 4,000. A centre for architectural education, Hong Kong has two schools of architecture in the top 20 of the QS world university rankings. Sustained demand has also led the RIBA to develop a Part III course here.
Despite the territory’s prominence, the specific characteristics of its professional and commercial landscape are often misunderstood, with some office staff admitting that their colleagues back in head office in Europe have little grasp of the local context. But if you or your office are considering practising in Hong Kong, there are other considerations. With the fast changing economic and political environment in East Asia, will Hong Kong remain such an important stepping stone for mainland China? What does it take to make a practice work in this local context? What challenges do practices face working in China from Hong Kong? What are the unique professional and cultural conditions that set the territory apart from both China and the UK? These are important questions, yet Hong Kong remains an enticing draw.
Architects first experienced its powerful allure in the 1980s when its economy was booming. With the economic transformation of southern China triggered by Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Open Door’ policy of 1978, Hong Kong emerged as one of the richest places in Asia, second only to Japan in terms of GDP per capita. Like a phoenix rising from the devastation of Japan’s occupation during the Second World War and the turmoil in the region caused by the 1960s Cultural Revolution, Hong Kong announced its new-found confidence in a series of world-class iconic buildings: most notably Foster Associates’ Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (1986) and Terry Farrell and Partners’ The Peak (1995).
The Nine Plus Two Plan – Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area
Almost four decades later, Hong Kong’s relationship to greater China is pivotal. The two economies are co-dependent: they are each other’s main trading partners. Political influence, however, remains the subject of internal negotiation and tension. As a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong’s citizens value the high level of autonomy that its separate legal, administrative and judicial systems provide. This is being demonstrated now with the protests that reportedly brought two million people out on to the streets, in opposition to a bill that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China, and clashes marking the anniversary of Chinese rule of the territory.
Earlier this year the Chinese government announced its Greater Bay Area Plan: an initiative that earmarks nine mainland cities in Guangdong – most notably Shenzhen – and the two special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, as the core engines for China’s economic growth. Commonly referred to as the ‘Nine Plus Two Plan’, it is an enterprise that is embodied by the opening of the Hong Kong-Zhuahai-Macau Bridge, the longest sea bridge ever built, which links the two areas to the mainland.
The intention is to create an innovation and financial powerhouse in southern China to rival Silicon Valley and the Tokyo Bay Area, as China repositions itself to usurp the US’s dominant position in tech and become an ‘artificial intelligence super power’. Each region or city has a determined role: Hong Kong is to strengthen its status as a trade, financial and professional services hub, while Shenzhen, the home of telecoms giant Huawei and Tencent’s multi-purpose, social media and payment platform WeChat, bolsters itself as a tech hub. The development of Zhuhai as a financial, tech and tourism city has already been vastly been accelerated by the new bridge.
Architectural expertise is fundamental to the implementation of the Greater Bay Area Plan, as the blueprint requires not only urban development and housing provision, but the consolidation of infrastructure development, environmental protection, the application of new sustainable energy sources and liveability. Government funding in Hong Kong already recognises society’s needs for more architects by subsidising students’ studies; fees at the University of Hong Kong are around £4,000 per annum; compared to £9,250 in the UK for home and EU students.
To retain its primary position within this new economic ecosystem, Hong Kong needs to shore up its place as a centre for design, competing at an international level. The Hong Kong Design Centre’s recent White Paper on shaping Hong Kong’s future with a new competence of design highlights how significant design is to economic growth and productivity – and most importantly to the city’s progress and citizens’ wellbeing. Dr Edmund Lee, executive director of the centre, leads several innovation and design knowledge programmes that nurture design and design-thinking skills, fostering cross-sector collaboration and engagement with local and international creative and design communities. The centre’s core activities include: an enlightened pilot programme for embedding design-thinking skills among business, education, healthcare and policy-making professionals; the established Design for Asia Awards; design and fashion incubation programmes; and the Business of Design Week (BODW). For Lee, the need for design is self-evident: ‘Hong Kong is a service economy and does not have natural resources, so requires the human-centred perspective that design brings.’ Being grouped with the nine cities and Macau offers an ‘opportunity for Greater Bay Area economies both to compete and collaborate’. Hong Kong can do this by ‘simultaneously staying on the international horizon and connecting with mainland China’. A significant focus for international exchange is Business of Design Week, which draws speakers and delegates from around the world for knowledge sharing and networking. This December, the UK will be the partner country at BODW. The RIBA is collaborating with the Department for International Trade (DIT) on the architecture programme. A significant aspect of the event is the opportunities it affords UK architects: a group of some 40 RIBA members is to form one of the biggest ever UK DIT design delegations.
A strategic approach to mainland China
Foreign practices often regard Hong Kong as a safe launch pad for mainland China. With the handover of sovereignty in 1997, Hong Kong’s legal and fiscal system was protected by its new constitution – Basic Law. This has led to the ‘One County, Two System’ approach which guarantees the rights of property and ownership in the territory and has helped maintain its appeal as a location for foreign companies. However, a Hong Kong-based practice is no different from any other overseas practice when working in China. Not only does Hong Kong have a different currency, the Hong Kong dollar, but Hong Kong-born Chinese speak Cantonese and English rather than Mandarin, which is standard in mainland China. Hong Kong-based practices are required to collaborate with Local Design Institutes (LDIs) in China, who undertake work at the detailed design stage, limiting services to the conceptual. Getting money out of clients and then the country also remains an issue.
How a practice chooses to work in mainland China therefore requires a clear strategy. Matthew Potter, director of WilkinsonEyre in Hong Kong, says his focus for the moment is on the Greater Bay Area: ‘As we start to grow the practice in Hong Kong, we are keen to be working on local projects. There are fantastic opportunities in the region and we are pleased to be working on projects in Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen and Zhuhai. We are always open to significant projects elsewhere in China, but for the moment there’s plenty going on right on our doorstep.’ He is expanding the 15-strong team in Hong Kong incrementally – it has just relocated to new offices in Wan Chai, the central commercial district. Projects under way include some high profile schemes for institutions in the Greater Bay Area: the rejuvenation of the Main Building for Hong Kong University, the Innovation Building at HKUST, the Skybridge at Hong Kong International Airport, the Shenzhen Bay Avenue East Extension and the Sentosa 2030 masterplan in Singapore.
Dedicated resourcing is required to effectively access the market in China. This means having mainland Chinese staff on the ground, with not only the requisite language skills, but also vital connections with government and planners – and work in southern China increasingly also means involvement in the tech industry. Keith Griffiths, chair and founder of Aedas, came out to Hong Kong in 1983 to work with Foster on the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, and set up his 1200-strong global company to meet construction demand in China. With satellite offices in the UK and US, its headquarters is based in Hong Kong with 700 staff. The growth is in China though, where there are four offices with 300 staff: Chengdu, Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai. Sixty per cent of work in the Hong Kong office comes from China and more than half the staff in Hong Kong are mainland Chinese – but it is no longer adding staff to the Hong Kong office. Growth is concentrated elsewhere. The year-old Shenzhen office has grown from 20 to 80 staff. Griffiths explains that ‘the Greater Bay Area is now entering a new phase of urban renewal. Where there was nothing in 1985, it is all built out. Shenzhen is three times the size of Hong Kong. Old areas of Shenzhen are 15-20 years old.’
Like Aedas, Farrells also focuses its efforts on China. It has 90 staff in its Hong Kong office and a further team of 10 in Shanghai. Farrells established the practice in Hong Kong at the height of the recession in the early 90s when it won three key commissions for Kowloon Station, The Peak and The British Consulate. Its office here has expertise in masterplanning, large-scale mixed use and integrated transit-oriented development (TOD). Terry Farrell’s Embankment Place in London, which developed the air rights above Charing Cross station, was the first major example of a TOD when it completed in 1990. It is a model that has become widespread in Hong Kong and China as an essential component of high-density urban design. Retaining the Farrells’ brand, but largely working autonomously with respect to design development and project delivery, Farrells in Hong Kong has developed this architect-planner approach for a Chinese context. As director Gavin Erasmus states, they ‘know how to do towers’ and ‘understand the efficiency with which developers approach them’. As the international design architect on a project, it will be typically paired with an LDI to deliver the plot master plan and building/facade design. Its KK100 tower in Shenzhen is the fifth highest in the world with a slender hotel on top.
The speed of development in China is phenomenal. Farrells won One Excellence, the first major development for a new business district in Shenzhen, in competition in 2013; the competition started in October that year and foundations were being laid by that December. The planning framework is constantly evolving and can vary depending on the city and the district. This requires complex phasing to allow construction and design phases to run simultaneously. A building can effectively be at a number of work stages at once. For instance, the basement could be at RIBA stage 5; podium stage 3; and the tower itself at stage 1. There is a will from government to build new districts fast with forward-looking briefs that place an emphasis on new technology and sustainability. At an urban level, the impact of future technology, transport and logistic trends on the city are all being considered, whether it is drones, AVs or the impact of retail on e-commerce. Shenzhen’s buses and most of its taxis are electric; the tree-lined avenues create surprisingly green and pleasant streetscapes. It’s a speed and complexity relished by associates Matthew Donkersley and Angeliki Koliomichou, who previously worked in London practices. As Donkersley says: ‘It provides the opportunity and challenge of working at a bigger scale and faster pace’. He ‘enjoys working in larger multi‐disciplinary teams with different cultural and professional backgrounds’.
The Hong Kong practice context
The role of the architect in Hong Kong is quite unique, using the Authorised Person (AP) system. Once registered, architects, structural engineers and quantity surveyors can all apply to become an AP. The Building Department requires APs to co-ordinate and monitor all building works. The project AP is most often appointed by the client to be the project team leader. Architects are in a significant majority in this role, taking around 1500 of the 2200 AP positions.
Plot ratio is the main instrument of planning for the government, which uses it to control population density. The plot ratio of a building is obtained by dividing the gross floor area of the building by the area of the site on which the building will be erected. Ratios in redevelopment zones, for instance Kowloon, can be 10-20 per cent lower than on Hong Kong Island North, where ratios are to 8 to 10. With one of the highest densities in the world, comparable with New York and Tokyo, there is also a considerable focus on fire safety and statutory requirements.
Density and the lack of affordable housing has become a matter of urgency for the continuing prosperity of the region. For Aedas’ Griffiths, the new bridge connecting Hong Kong and Macau to the mainland is ‘a clear sign that Hong Kong is in danger of becoming like Monaco or Switzerland, bypassed by what is going on in Shenzhen, the biggest tech city on the planet, developing AI and robotics with the biggest software manufacturers’. Hong Kong can only retain its way of life ‘if the government is wise about housing provision. There is too big a gap between rich and poor. The shortage of affordable housing in Hong Kong already makes it difficult to get architects to work in Hong Kong from mainland China’. Having built hardly any housing between 1997 and 2016, it is a matter of necessity that: ‘government unlock rail lines and land. There is an urgent need for infrastructure and land supply’.
A new model for international practice
One of Hong Kong’s strengths is the way it presents a new model of truly international practice drawing on architects from across the world, who have studied and worked in many different countries. Farrells has 27 nationalities in a staff of 100. Architects not only come from diverse backgrounds, they also work in contexts where differing roles are required – whether in Hong Kong, China, Singapore or Indonesia. For Farrells’ Donkersley this was a subject of robust discussion in his Part 3 class in Hong Kong, as the RIBA curriculum is devised to cater for a more fixed notion of an architect, typical of practice in the UK.
Bean Buro epitomises a new generation of practice, which is redefining what it means to be international. Partners Lorène Faure and Kenny Kinugasa-Tsui set up their studio in 2013 in Hong Kong. Born in Paris, Faure attended the Ecole Spėciale d’Architecture, where she was taught by Sir Peter Cook, before moving to London to work for Cook’s practice, CRAB (Cook Robotham Architectural Bureau). In London, she met Kinugasa-Tsui, who is Hong-Kong born of Chinese and Japanese heritage. Having studied at the Bartlett, Kinugasa-Tsui worked at Richard Rogers Partnership and then Urban Salon Architects in London, also lecturing at the Bartlett. Bean Buro’s team of 14 staff is also highly international, they are most often European, or Hong Kong born, returning from studies abroad to settle with their families. Now in the process of becoming a chartered practice, chartered members Faure and Kinugasa-Tsui oversee the log books of their staff.
Bean Buro focuses on the large-scale opportunities provided by interiors in Hong Kong, specifically workplace, residential and hospitality design. There are lots of crossovers in these sectors with clients who commission homes containing hotel-like features and office spaces; and workplaces that seek the comforts of home and the luxury of hospitality within the office environment. The shortage of available land means the scope for new builds in Hong Kong is limited. Interiors, however, can be of a generous floor area with plenty of potential for architectural interventions. This is epitomised by Bean Buro’s sculptural canopies for The Work Project, a 30,000ft2 co-working space in central Hong Kong with serviced offices set over four floors. By drawing on the form of the boating canopies of the fishing community which once occupied Causeway Bay where the offices are situated, it has made a feature out of the lettable meeting rooms.
In a manner that is characteristic of the Hong Kong environment and the pragmatic nature of practice here, workplace design meets the needs of its unique urban setting. Fast paced and innovative, its moves quickly and at scale. Often on short leases, offices can be refitted as often as every four years. It typifies the ethos of practice in the territory that is highly regulated but business-like, responding quickly to the demands of one of the most highly populated regions in the world. International in composition, it operates always with a close eye on rapid developments in mainland China.