FEATURE: Harbouring great design ideas

by Chitralekha Basu

HONG KONG (China Daily/ANN) - Landscape design is beginning to come of age in HK, opening up vistas of a whole new range of experiences for the city’s people to try out.

Despite the widespread skepticism about government-led development projects taking forever and a day to complete, Hong Kong’s waterfronts are poised for a sea change, literally. Some of the world’s leading names in landscape architecture are keen to give the city’s harborfronts — also the locations of Hong Kong’s most generic landscapes — a top spin. At least one of these makeover ideas has already materialized, one or two others will soon make it to the implementation stage and there are yet others that haven’t progressed much beyond the architect’s drawing board. However, a new energy is palpable in the way people are responding to the transformation of Hong Kong’s most defining coastlines, even when they are no more than an artist’s rendition. 

In September, the United Kingdom-headquartered design studio Benoy released their vision for a redeveloped Central Harbourfront Site 3 — a project which has been in the works since at least 2011 when the Planning Department released the development guidelines. The idea was to trigger dialogue and debate on the future of the 157,000-square-meter prime land lining the crest of Hong Kong’s central business district. Benoy’s gorgeous designs — gleaming with an abundance of terraced and vertical gardens — sparked both hope and frustration. People complained about the sluggish pace at which public projects move in this city. Some others were apprehensive that Site 3, originally intended as a gift of clean air and breathtaking views for the city’s public, would probably lose its humanitarian focus once tenders were invited and the plot sold out to the mighty commercial interests. 

Benoy’s designs for Central Harbourfront Site 3 — created without any assurance of getting the commission — achieved what they were meant to do: engage the public and create a space for free exchange of views on government policies, sustainability, heritage conservation, public welfare and a whole host of themes that help illuminate the way people live in this city.  

Platform of social interface

Intelligent landscape design can do much to create such interfaces between people and ideas, people and their social realities, people and fine art, people and people. This was especially evident earlier this month when Salisbury Garden was opened to the public in a spiffy new repackaged avatar. Located next to the Hong Kong Museum of Art along the waters of Tsim Sha Tsui, the garden is spread out across 1,782 square meters and now sports a range of eye-catching, value-added features. These include an expansive and gently sloping elliptical lawn, a trellised arch over a wooden platform with steps leading to the sea and walls with plants growing out of their concrete crocks, creating a vertical curtain of green. 

The few thousand people who walked into the premises on the opening day responded spontaneously to the new multimedia experience laid out for them to enjoy. Soon enough they had figured out the functions of the upright metallic discs and rings installed on the ground, happily watching themselves appear upside down or fractured into several pieces as a hidden camera captured their images and projected these on the circular LED screens. Down by the waters, some of them got to put on VR glasses to enjoy a 360-degree view of the harborfront scenery, which soon morphed into images of other promenades of the city, from Wan Chai to Central.

Evidently, the visitors were not only eager to partake in the new range of experiences that the revamped garden now had to offer but felt a sense of entitlement toward the lawn, the waters and the animated atmosphere around these. 

James Corner, who designed the new-look Salisbury Garden, is probably best known for turning a defunct light railway line in New York into an elevated park. Corner said the lessons of the High Line experience were useful for the Salisbury Garden project. “With the High Line, we were able to dramatize what it means to promenade or to stroll, how you can work with seating in a way that promotes interactivity. And we brought a lot of those lessons here,” said Corner, pointing out how at Salisbury Garden the experience is presented in stages to a visitor walking down toward the waters. “These open spaces are useful because they offer a lot of flexibility. The lawn is a soft space and the big stage with the trellis in front is a very theatrical space with lots of seating that is oriented to the views of the harbor.” 

He was happy with the installation on the freshly sculpted lawn. The huge metallic discs and rings erected on the patch of oval grass resonated well with the soft, curvilinear features in Corner’s landscape design. “Curvatures help dramatize how views unfold and how sequences of landscapes unfold,” said Corner, pleased that Circular Reflections, the multimedia and performance art-based composite show designed by Hung Keung and Alex Cheung, played up the theatrical potential built into the landscape, utilizing its slopes, steps and palm trees to the hilt.    

Corner’s theme of finding difference and diversity in successive stages resonates with city architect Rocco Yim’s designs for the Hong Kong edition of Beijing’s Palace Museum, planned as a part of the West Kowloon Cultural District. At the just-concluded Business of Design Week (BODW), Yim talked about incorporating a sense of anticipation rewarded by discovery in his design. For example, the atrium on each floor of the upcoming Hong Kong Palace Museum is oriented in a different direction, offering views of landscaped greenery, followed by the Victoria Harbour and finally Lantau Island as one goes up. The idea of masking and revealing by turns is, of course, borrowed from the layout of the Forbidden City in Beijing — the epitome of the spirit of horizontal progression and discovery in traditional Chinese architecture. What better way to pay a tribute to classical Chinese art heritage of which the original Palace Museum in Beijing is the biggest repository?

Uninterrupted sightlines

What Yim and Corner have in common is a preference for creating uninterrupted vistas, often starting from the most densely built and intensely peopled areas in the city, continuing all the way to the waterfront.  

Yim’s design of the Hong Kong government headquarters complex makes for a fine example of the above. It’s a wide, continuous passage, offset by lush greenery, connecting the dense, multifarious assortment of shopping mall, bus and underground railway station at the heart of town in Admiralty with the waterfront in one sweep, passing right through the administrative block, in between two wings of the government offices. A sky-bridge connects the two buildings way above, creating the image of an open door. It was as if the government headquarters was turning its heart out for the public to see, said Yim at BODW recently. 

Similarly, Corner wanted to liberate Salisbury Garden from the cluster of trees blocking the view to the harbor. “When we began the project, it was a very overly enclosed, interior garden. We wanted to open the space up and celebrate the views to Hong Kong. Now we have very wide view corridors from Salisbury Road and Nathan Road that shoot all the way out to the harbor,” Corner said. 

Benoy’s designs for a revitalized Central Harbourfront Site 3 also seem to issue out of a desire to reconnect city folk with the waters and the greenery through continuous pathways. “We are suggesting a series of comprehensive, elevated landscaped linkages which tie together the individual plots over the roads,” says Simon Bee, Benoy’s global design director. “This means that we create a seamless connection from Pedder Street, Connaught Road Central and International Finance Centre right through to the waterfront and the Star Ferry Pier.” 

Benoy would have liked the space to be a car-free zone. This does not seem likely, given that the current planning brief suggests retaining the existing road layout around the site. Since cars cannot be ruled out, Benoy has proposed incorporating “landscaped decks” into the scene. These could, potentially, support “amazing viewing terraces for future races (like the annual Formula-E race) and other events down by the waterside”. Being surrounded by an abundance of plant life will probably help neutralize the greenhouse gas emissions.

Public-private partnership

Salisbury Garden is a charming example of what public-private partnership can achieve for the landscaping and development of public spaces in Hong Kong. While the garden is owned by Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department, its revitalization was commissioned and supported by New World Development. The result is a welcome departure from the typical public parks of yesteryears. Lee Ho-yin, who heads the architectural conservation program at the University of Hong Kong, says these earlier examples often suffer from “low investment, easy maintenance and zero vision”, often compromising the original design intent. “These spaces and the architecture in them would look aesthetically dated, leave no lasting impression, and even generate public hostility,” adds Lee.

However, Lee gives a thumbs up to the designs for both Salisbury Garden and Central Harbourfront Site 3 by Benoy, saying that they would score well when put to the Kevin Lynch test. In his seminal book The Image of the City, Lynch, a US urban designer and theorist, introduced the term “imageability”, meaning, essentially, a design that lingers in the mind. Lee feels such “high visual-quality place-making that leaves a memorable impression on people” won’t be hard to achieve with Corner’s design of Salisbury Garden and Benoy’s of Central Harborfront Site 3, especially given their “green, soft and friendly” appearance and prime locations — on “two highly open and visible harborfront sites”.

The progress on redesigning Hong Kong’s harbor landscapes may be a tardy one, but it looks like the first step has just been taken.