"In the ancient culture identity is a touch of spatiality. Our use of space is psychological, you line up sequences of courtyards and buildings in order of importance so it prepares your mood, they get a sense of anticipation. We could reuse this spatially in today’s different types of buildings to achieve different purposes, but it originates from the past — that makes it Chinese." -- Rocco S. K. Yim, Hong Kong, 2013
On the 38th floor of the AIA Tower, Rocco Yim’s office faces the bay, from which you see the quintessential view of the city: the Hong Kong skyline. Rocco Yim is the founder of Rocco Design Architects Limited (founded in 1982) and responsible for the design of iconic buildings like the International Finance Centre in Hong Kong. In this conversation he talks about the importance of the density created and supported by the urban flow in China, and his unique point of view on iconic architecture in relation to ancient culture.
A VACUUM OF CONTEXT
PAR: Which issues do you encounter in your work, especially in mainland China?
RY: The one main difficulty is the lack of context, in many instances, because in China you know modern cities, everybody is trying to create a new town where there is nothing. There are no existing buildings, there are no existing natural features, there’s no context, there’s not even people already living in that district. Everything is starting from scratch and that I find a very difficult starting point for meaningful architecture to take place, because then you can’t really relate to anything.
PAR: So how do you create meaningful architecture without context?
RY: So the best we can do is try to understand what it would be like in the future, and how the architecture that we are creating could help to shape that future. So in a way we are working in a vacuum, but in a way we are trying to foresee something that might happen many years down the line, and hopefully your architecture and your work could help to make that happen.
PAR: So you try to analyze the present to predict possible scenarios?
RY: You make a scenario come true. In a way it’s a reverse of what one usually does in a mature city like Hong Kong where everything is informed by what is already there. But in China in those areas you might have to start something, and hopefully you create a scenario where others might later chime in and fit in.
PAR: What do you consider your masterpiece, the most representative building of your philosophy in architecture?
RY: There are two buildings that I treasure a bit more. One is the museum of Guangdong, because of the big content on the inside and because it is very much geared to the history and heritage of Southern China. We had an opportunity to explore a vocabulary that expresses that uniqueness and to create a work of architecture that is intriguing on the outside. It also has a reason for the outside to be like that — in order to produce an interior with its own unique spatial qualities. So that is a fairly strong statement.
The other project that we recently completed, the government headquarters at Tamar for Hong Kong, I think is a very distinct urban composition. It is the most important group of buildings for the administration of Hong Kong and could be erected in a place, which at the same time could accommodate a public open space, which helps to link up different vital parts of the city. It’s a project where we succeeded in bringing public usage right to the middle of a government complex. So I think the urban value of that architecture is something that I value, is something that is working well in the city. When that becomes a public thoroughfare with lots of people going through, the government headquarter will then really become a linkage between the waterfront and the inner city. But the problem with the building, of course, is the lack of a unique content, the building is basically just offices, which does not allow us to do too much to the end result. So in terms of architectural language it doesn’t stand out as much…
PAR: What’s the relationship between culture, Chinese culture and ancient architecture? Is there a way that you can translate the concepts of old, ancient architecture to relate to the conditions of today?
RY: What is the culture of identity? Or what is identity, what is Chinese identity or regional identity?
PAR: This is the point.
RY: I mention Guangzhou Museum, that is one example of capturing something from the past and translating it into the present to create an entity which is unique to itself. It’s the notion of a treasure box. One of our museum projects in Xiangdong is the carpentry lock from the ancient master Lu Ban; it is the idea that different entities interlock into a total whole. In that particular instance we transform five spatial entities representing five different programs: a museum, a library, a cultural center, a youth center and an exhibition hall in the form of a Lu Ban lock where spatially they interpenetrate each other but they’re independently accessed and managed. The spatial composition of the museum complex is an example of using something that comes from the past. So what I am saying is that there are always elements from the past that could be the beginning of your architectural idea. You transform it into a spatial and formal composition which makes sense functionally; a resolution for use and function to become a truly workable and relevant work of architecture for people to use. From that you derive your identity. So it’s this inspiration from the past that you try to export and turn into something meaningful, spatially and functionally, that would give you this identity.
PAR: What distinguishes and characterizes the spaces in which people live, work, have fun and move? In ancient China and today?
RY: Space, how we perceive space, back in the old days in China was very special. Space was used to organize family structures. A family is divided into seniority, first wife, second wife, cousins, you know — your social order is organized by spatial composition, a dwelling. And our use of space is psychological — you line up sequences of courtyards and buildings in order of importance so it prepares your mood; they have a sense of anticipation like when you go through the entrance walk of a palace, through the different spatial courtyards before you really go to meet a superior. So it’s used as a means to condition the mental reaction. The third way of using space is creating the barrier between exterior and interior like in many Chinese gardens, where it is put in many layers and the layering goes partly into the building. You have an illusion of always being outside when you are inside, and of being on the inside when you are outside. So this blurring of boundaries between inside and outside is also a clever use of space. So all these we can exploit and use in modern day examples.
Par: Can you illustrate this concept in your designs? Which project is the archetype of these ideas?
RY: In our project for Guangzhou library we use a sequential spatial progression where you have a three-dimensional format. You don’t just go through just one space, for example, you go through one atrium to another to another vertically; I then prepare you for the spatial excitement and anticipation to go up to the rarest book collection at the highest level.
In another project, a villa in Shanghai, we use this culture configuration, but to define a different social order for today’s family; so there is a master, there’s the children, there are the grandparents, there’s a guest, each with their own courtyard for privacy, autonomy. So everybody lives within one wall, without disturbing each other, but as a family. So, these are the things that we could reuse spatially in today’s different types of buildings to achieve different purposes, but it originates from the past. And maybe that makes it Chinese.
The third culture is about community. Architecture in the past has always been used to provide a sense of community, like in our rural villages, like our Tulou. The round building was for protection, for introverted living and for creating a sense of a clan or a village and everybody of the same surname could live under a protected enclosure. The use of buildings and use of space of the appropriate scale and ambience to create a sense of community is something which is, again, very often required in today’s different building types.
PAR: A human scale forms/stimulates meetings/encounters. Is there a place for this concept in Contemporary architecture?
RY: In schools for instance and the university campus, we use this technique to provide spatial diversity, spatial intimacy through the ambience to create a place suitable for people of shared interests and shared cultural believes to come together and provide social exchanges and encounters. Our design for the cultural district for west Kowloon, for instance, is based on the creation of communal spaces flanked by suitable cultural institutions. This creates places where like-minded members of the public could come together and either share an experience or exchange ideas or spark spontaneous discussions. So I think these are lessons from the past that we could learn and apply to contemporary building types and contemporary functions, contemporary needs and contemporary mentalities.
CONNECTIVITY & DENSITY
PAR: Where do you take inspiration from when you start to develop a design concept?
RY: In cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, one big culture is that of density. I mean historically we are living in the densest environment that humans have ever experienced. Especially in Hong Kong when you look around you, this sort of density is basically unprecedented. If it is handled well, if the density is tempered with environmental sensitivity and you really take care of features like ventilation and privacy, noise and all that, and still maintain optimum density, it would actually give the city a sort of dynamic interaction, convenience, and accessibility.
PAR: The contemporary city is a different story.
RY: In fact many of the new districts in China, Hangzhou/Guangzhou, even Pudong, have lost that well-knit fabric and the optimum density that actually makes a city pump, that makes it tick a lot.
PAR: How should cities deal with density?
RY: Density requires architects to think of new solutions to building types. For instance in one project in Kowloon, we stack up a retail center of twenty stories, a vertical development of retail activities. In a project in the Polytechnic University within a very small site, we group three very different functions - a hotel, a staff quarter and a school of Hotel management - all in to one complex basically, and that is necessitated by having to have a dense enough development, to optimize use of land, to improve interaction between students and hotel operations. So this hybrid urban model, I mean the multi-use all grouped into one or the stacking of functions vertically even in a casino or a shopping center, unlikely examples of a vertically stacked typologies, actually gives us new solutions to architecture that you don’t find in Europe or America.
PAR: In the west there are also dense cities. How are they different?
RY: From the first sight you may not find that much difference because we’re using contemporary materials - glass, steel, aluminum - but the content and the organization, if you look closely at it, it will be totally different. And coupled with this density is this culture of connectivity — density will not work unless there is an integrated connectivity within the city: i.e. buildings do not stand alone and there is no distinct demarcation of rigid boundaries between the public realm and the private realm.
PAR: The fluidity of the space in Hong Kong is one of the main factors which characterizes this city. How does the architecture deal with this fusion of private and public spaces?
RY: In fact, now, even in New York there is often a very rigid demarcation between the public and the private because of security; you can’t go into a building and walk and look around freely without being challenged, but in Hong Kong in the center you can freely walk the streets, foyers and walkways, go in and out of buildings and in between buildings without setting a foot across roads. That sort of connectivity makes the city work even in a dense space.So architecture becomes a tool through which we connect the city both visually and spatially. So it will work better, the city becomes a walkable city. A city which is conveniently accessed also means that you would be encouraged, hopefully, to drive less in cars, which in turn means it is a green feature. So all these cultures would come together, and if we resolve them in a way which is relevant to the present day use and needs, we would have found our own architecture.
PAR: Japanese architecture puts a lot of effort into details and pure shapes; Chinese architecture is, in a way, the opposite.
RY: It is true, although I don’t think that it’s by intent; the Japanese mastery of details is something everybody envies. However, this mastery of details is something that originated from Chinese culture, because in the old days we prided ourselves in making things, the process of making was very much part of the outcome. The Japanese have perfected it more than anybody else, though when you involve the Europeans, they could come close. I think we would like to do that, but at the moment I don’t think our industry and our anticipation of demand, public demand, has ever caught up with this. So in due course, I think this is what - at least I think - what I would like to do, to resurrect this culture of materiality.
PAR: Could this lack of detail be something positive? Could it have made Chinese architecture successful?
RY: Well, we have to really be clear what the purpose of good detailing is. Good detailing is not just a visual amenity. Good detailing really means the optimum use of materials. Using the right combination of the right materials to perform its function to the maximum would ensure that the object would be durable, it will be easily maintainable and it would weather well. It will look good naturally. And I think the very essence of Chinese craftsmanship is like that. So you are looking for that sort of detailing, for a purpose. So when you say it is good if there is no detailing, it is good if there is no fussy details, no detail just for the sake of being ornamental.
PAR: Before, you talked about objects from the past, objects of traditional architecture. Many projects that are widely criticized in China and in the West use this concept of iconic objects from the past. So could you illustrate and define your strategy of using iconic objects from the past?
RY: Well any object in fact might be relevant provided that it gives an idea, sparks an idea which is relevant to the problem that architecture needs to solve. So if it is just an object that will give you this shape and that’s it, then it will be meaningless — but if that object gives you a hint to how you can compose a certain spatial program to meet the needs of that program, then it will be useful. Let’s put it this way, to be simple; if the object from the past could inspire a form which in turn gives meaningful space, which is fit for the use of that building, then it will be relevant. For instance if this object inspires this architectural form, which gives a very useful and inspiring space on the inside for the display of the objects, then it would be a relevant start to use that form. If you look at this one [Pa Gu Dragon shaped hotel], I don’t know the inside but I tend to think that all this doesn’t really create too much spatial quality on the inside. It means that the form is just a form, and to me it loses its meaning because it is not helping to solve any of the problems that this building needs to solve.
PAR: If we look at the history of architecture there was first of all decoration, then function inspired the exteriors, then there was the box, the empty box where anything can happen. Now, can we say that there is a kind of exterior that is conditioning the interior as well as the function of the building?
RY: Yes, although some buildings would require a very flexible space because the space and function is defined by it. Some buildings will require very specific spaces.
PAR: Do you think that the shape can generate new functions inside?
RY: Surely the shape could generate functions — but the two have to match.
PAR: If the function is going to change in the next ten, twenty, or one hundred years, maybe this function will be detracting from the building. Like ancient Palaces that are really suitable as museums, although they were not designed for it.
RY: That is true, but any building or most buildings when they are first designed have a specific use in mind. Architects have to really keep that specific use in mind. Now in ten years’ time if that use is no longer relevant and something else could go into it, that is something the architect really shouldn’t or couldn’t detect. What goes into it in the future would have to depend on what activities could be accommodated within the space originally designed for something else.
PAR: But how can they take into consideration functions in the near future?
RY: We can only design for the present, design well for the present. It is the responsibility of somebody else down the line, some other architect down the line to think of the best way to readapt the use of your building.
PAR: So we can just ignore the architecture of the future and just focus on the architecture of the present?
To understand the reality of architecture in China you maybe shouldn’t focus on cities, because many of the interesting projects in China these days took place in the villages, not in the cities. In the villages there is a rationale for using indigenous materials and indigenous methods of construction which will be of most interest to Westerners. In the villages for instance it makes sense to use old stones and wood and rake and all that, but if you do it or repeat the same thing in a city it is meaningless, it is just for show.
PAR: You are trying to analyze this deeper?
RY: Yes. Because one of our, some of our colleagues in China are doing something meaningful: they’re constructing bridges in rural areas for school children where they have no funding, in very poor areas where they have no government planning for infrastructure so they use handwork and very primitive methods of construction, just to build very crude primitive bridges across rivers for school children to walk across. So those things happen in one portion of China and it’s very different from what is happening in Beijing or at the Shanghai Expo, it is very different.
Architect: Rocco Yim / Rocco Design
Interviewer: Pier Alessio Rizzardi (TCA Think Tank))
Location: Hong Kong
Date: 3rd Sept 2013
Photographic credits: Pier Alessio Rizzardi, and Courtesy of Rocco Design
Text Editing: Edna Gee, Vanessa Quirk