Hong Kong Protests & The Role of the City

View over Victoria Harbor towards Central- the center of the pro-democracy protests

Hong Kong is an unlikely setting for massive political protests. The city, known for its open global trading culture, is a paragon of economic freedom. Yet many would argue that the economic freedom enjoyed by Hong Kong’s citizens has not kept pace with the level of political freedom.

Case in point: at the time of this writing, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have taken over the city; spilling over from the city’s central business district of Central into the neighborhoods of Causeway Bay and to Mong Kok across the harbor in Kowloon. Prompting this unprecedented massive protest was the Chinese Central Government’s decision last month to allow only committee-approved candidates to run for Chief Executive (Hong Kong’s highest political office) in what was supposed to be the city’s first public vote in 2017.

Beijing’s decision to vet Chief Executive candidates before they are permitted to run for office sent a signal to Hong Kong citizens that perhaps the Central Government is not fully comfortable embracing the idea of ‘One Country, Two Systems‘. That being said, while on the surface this appears to be primarily a political protest, underlying much of the frustration of protestors are economic issues resulting from a flood of Mainland wealth entering Hong Kong.

To understand why this may be the case, it is important to look at Hong Kong as a ‘city’ first rather than a former British Colony and current Special Administrative Region of China.

As anyone who has visited the city knows, Hong Kong is one of the most compelling urban places in the world. Spanning across Victoria Harbor, from Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon Peninsula and beyond to the New Territories, the city’s natural geographical setting is stunning. Add to that the forest of svelte skyscrapers against a backdrop of steep mountains and you get a visual dynamism that is unmatched by any other city.

Urbanistically, Hong Kong functions like a well-oiled machine. The always on-time metro system spans to the far reaches of the city and mixed-use developments everywhere promote lively street-level activity. The city’s airport is one of the most well-connected and efficient in the world. The tourism/hospitality industry is gold standard and booming.

Given all the assets possessed by the city, what then is Hong Kong’s problem?

Short answer: the cost of living is out of control.

In a sense, Hong Kong is a victim of its own success. Thanks to its open banking system, global capital flows into the city relentlessly. Investment in Hong Kong property, primarily from wealthy buyers from Mainland China, drives up the price of real estate to astronomical levels out of reach for most locals.

Exacerbating the housing affordability crisis in Hong Kong is the lack of land to build new real estate to meet the high demand. Demographer Wendell Cox’s research has even found Hong Kong to be the world’s most unaffordable housing market.

The protests in Hong Kong are directed at the Chinese Central Government, but they might as well be directed at China’s capital flows into the city. To put it into perspective, this is a semi-autonomous highly developed city of 7 million, adjacent to a developing country of 1.3 billion. Hong Kong is the closest safe harbor for wealthy Mainlanders to put their money. On top of that, millions of Chinese tourists come to Hong Kong each year to go on shopping sprees, buying luxury goods, sales-tax free, that would be more expensive to purchase in the Mainland.

Given the severity of the situation, it is no wonder that native Hong Kong citizens are taking to the streets in protest. Yet as Hong Kong is already a relatively free city, unfortunately I do not think that more ‘democracy’ will help the solve the problems that Hong Kong protestors are most concerned about (cost of living, loss of cultural identity, etc…).

On the contrary, the solution for the city’s woes would be for the rest of China to become more like Hong Kong. That is- more global, economically open and possessing a banking system that investors can trust. Mainland China is not there yet, but proposed initiatives such as merging the Pearl River Delta into an interconnected ‘mega-region’ and the Shangahi Free-Trade Zone are steps in the right direction.

Ultimately the point is to take the pressure off Hong Kong. This could be achieved by making other cities in China, such as Shenzhen or Shanghai, more open economically, so that capital flows more freely through the Mainland.

The Chinese government up until now has hesitated in doing this. Perhaps the protests in Hong Kong will be a wake-up call to speed up reform. My feeling is that this will happen eventually and hopefully sooner than later.

Interview With Ole Bouman, Curator of the 2013 Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture

Value Factory 161The “Value Factory”: Site of the 2013 Bi-City Biennale of Urbansim/Architecture

The 2013 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture is now underway in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Open until the end of February 2014, the event is the world’s only biennale exhibition based exclusively on the themes of urbanism and urbanization. Now in it’s 5th edition, the Bi-City Biennale takes place across one of the world’s most dynamic economic regions, exploring not only the dichotomy between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, but the larger issues facing urbanization in China (something this blog is always very excited about discussing).

The Creative Director for this year’s Bi-City Biennale is Dutch Curator Ole Bouman. Mr. Bouman answered a few questions about the Biennale for the CUD Blog discussing some of the relevant issues surrounding this year’s event:

Adam Mayer (AM): Hong Kong, Shenzhen and the greater Pearl River Delta is arguably the world’s most dynamic urban region at the moment. What does it meant to curate a Biennale in a place that is very much “of the now” in terms of economic might versus a city like Venice which, while it lingers in our collective cultural imagination, is long past its primacy as a mercantile power center?

Ole Bouman (OB): To work in Shekou, at the heart of the Pearl River Delta conundrum, gives a chance to position this biennale as a real urban laboratory, with real implications for Shenzhen, but perhaps also with effects on the practice of urbanism in China. We have been given a chance to work on the scale of the city, with real investors, real owners, real users. This is only possible when the city is still a battlefield, not a museum. In Venice, history is the background of an event. In Shenzhen, you can make urban history.

AM: The main site for the Biennale is the “Value Factory” – a repurposed space in what used to be the Guangdong Float Glass Factory in the Shekou area of Shenzhen, which operated from 1987 to 2009. Considering that little more than 30 years ago Shenzhen was nothing more than an ambitious economic experiment on paper, how does the city come to terms with such a rapid progression from industrial development to post-industrial metropolis?

OB: In many different ways, of course. And to some extent it doesn’t come to terms at all, because the terms are changing themselves so rapidly. Under the current dynamic conditions, city development happens by stealth almost by definition. Nevertheless, I have been working with people with a growing awareness of the historical opportunities; they increasingly work with a helicopter view which enables them to set up urban relations that matter. That’s also why I am very happy we could realize a panorama deck on top of the factory which reveals all the frictions and storylines at a glance.

AM: Shenzhen is often derided within China as a cultural desert especially when compared with the more traditional cultural centers of the country such as Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu. How does Shenzhen combat this reputation?

OB: I know this reputation. It can be related to the first stage of an arrival city. And in that sense, time will tell how it matures. But Shenzhen even now is certainly no cultural desert, unless you think that culture is a matter of consuming cultural products. For me essential to Shenzhen is its pioneering mentality. It is about the culture of creating new things, rather than the celebration of creations of the past. What is the meaning of monuments, when you are actually able to make them? What is the meaning of art, when you are able to create it? What is the meaning of theater, when you actually a protagonist yourself everyday?

Ole Bouman, directeur NAI, Rotterdam, 9.3.2012Ole Bouman, Curator and Creative Director of the Biennale

AM: The Biennale takes place across the Mainland China/Hong Kong border. As a Bi-City event, how does the Biennale reflect the sometimes contentious yet symbiotic relationship between the two very different cities of Hong Kong and Shenzhen?

OB: This year I find this relationship different from previous years. Shenzhen got back to using the Biennale as an urban catalyst. It is enormously ambitious but not as a goal in itself. In Hong Kong the biennale also “performs” in a certain way, but more as filter of urban dynamics than as an agent, as far as I can see. On the other hand, in Hong Kong already this filter is enough for serious protests against it.

AM: In Shenzhen’s aspiration to become a global metropolis, several prominent Western architects such as Steven Holl, Rem Koolhaas and BIG have had an opportunity to leave their mark on the city. Moving into the future, do you see Shenzhen continuing to invite architects from the West to design its marquee buildings or will we see more homegrown, Shenzhen-based architects contributing to the urban fabric of the city?

OB: I don’t believe the architects you refer to “leave their mark on the city”. Maybe they do “on the skyline” of a specific neighborhood. But Shenzhen is already way too developed to be reduced to architecture. The urban dynamics are excruciating. The city is exactly doing what a city should be doing in the first place: to work as an emancipation machine, to help people make a living. I am convinced that architects can play a very important role in facilitating this process and I also think that local architects are very able to do so as well.

Many thanks to Mr. Bouman for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for us. For more information about the 2013 Bi-City Biennale of Urbansim/Architecture please visit the following link: http://en.szhkbiennale.org/

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Illuminating Hong Kong’s Bank of China Tower

BankOfChina_LightingHong Kong’s Bank of China building with its original nighttime lighting scheme (left) compared to its current one (right)

The following post was written by John Yuan, a Chinese-American architect who worked on the design of the Bank of China building in Hong Kong during his tenure as an employee of I.M. Pei’s architectural practice:

Since first returning to visit Hong Kong around the time of the handover to China in 1997, I noticed that Bank of China Tower appeared strikingly different at night during subsequent visits over the next decade. I never imagined that the exterior lighting scheme for the tower would ever be altered from the original design done by Fisher Marantz, the lighting consultant to I.M. Pei’s office on the project.

Even from the beginning of the design process, illuminating the tower at night posed great challenges. The tower stands over 300 meters tall and has an exterior covered mostly in reflective glass- characteristics which both posed difficulties for the nighttime lighting design.

By carefully aiming spotlights from the ground up at the tower, Marantz managed to evenly illuminate the soaring tower from top to bottom. The vast area of the dark window panes, sprinkled with lights from the interior spaces and bounded by the illuminated aluminum panels at the corners, created a compelling image. The tower seemed almost transparent outlined by the illuminated borders– a proud structural skeleton standing in the Hong Kong skyline.

I first grasped the death of the original exterior lighting design during a visit in 2006. Arriving in the evening and riding in a cab on my way to a Mid-Levels hotel, I passed by the tower but I couldn’t see it, except for its pencil-thin but brightly lit outline. Strips of LED had been inserted into the originally unlit feature line dark grey aluminum panels. The LED, set at such high intensity, rendered the interior office lighting feeble by comparison.

In my very last visit, the tower illumination further deteriorated from what Bank of China, a Class A office tower, deserves. The LED remain but are now programmed to light up in sequence as if the building is being sketched out in the night sky. The tower might as well be an animated pillar in an amusement park.

Despite the changing illumination schemes, the nighttime view of Bank of China never conveyed what the tower does during the day. Pei referred to the structural cross bracing as ‘diamonds’ (after the client reacted negatively to the ‘X’ shape of the bracing), but the real diamond quality actually comes from the refraction of natural light on the tower’s geometrically accentuated massing during the day.

Lighting the tower at night, even with the original illumination scheme, did not do justice to the unique form of the building. The outlined LED lighting exacerbated the problem further by making the well proportioned edge panels disappear. Unfortunately, the result is a tower lacking presence with the building volume flattened into the night.

MTR Island Line Extension Set to Change Hong Kong’s Western District

Blue Dot = Current Western Extent of MTR Hong Kong Island Line (Sheung Wan)       Red Dot = Terminus of Island Line Western Extension To Open in 2014 (Kennedy Town)

Infrastructure development continues in Hong Kong as the city’s Metro Transit Railway (MTR) extends its underground Island Line into the city’s Western District. Beginning construction in 2009, the western extension of the Island Line (dubbed the ‘West Island Line’) is set to open in 2014. The Island Line currently ends at Sheung Wan, one stop west of Central (Hong Kong’s central business district), but the extension will add three new stops, including Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong University, and terminating at Kennedy Town.

MTR Station Under Construction On Pok Fu Lam Rd. Across from Hong Kong University

The West Island Line is unique because of uphill/downhill conditions at the Sai Ying Pun and Hong Kong University Stations. At both stations, MTR plans show station exits at various elevations, with high-speed vertical lifts transporting passengers from deep within the subway tunnel up to the Mid-Levels area (see this link for clear sectional diagrams of how this works). The Sai Ying Pun Staiton will have exits at three different elevations: Queen’s Road West, First St./Second St., and Bonham Road.

The extension will also be huge boon for students who commute to HKU. The university’s campus, situated on a steep hill and not easily accessible as a pedestrian, will be served by an exit directly across from the entrance at Pok Fu Lam Road.

The Island Line Western Extension Will Benefit Students Who Commute to HKU

The Belcher’s, a High-Rise Residential Development in the Western District

Because Hong Kong’s Western District is not well served by public transport, rents and property prices have traditionally been lower than other parts of the island with better access to the MTR. Aside from the Belcher’s, a high-rise residential development completed in 2001 that sits atop a shopping mall, the Western District still retains a marked ‘mom and pop’ low-key atmosphere.

It is hard to predict how this will change in 2014 when the West Island Line opens. Property developers  real estate investors have already taken note, but with most of the area already built up with an aging housing stock, there is not much new open space for development.

Whatever future changes come to the neighborhood though, the MTR extension is a positive development for Hong Kong as it continues to serve as  a model of public transportation efficiency for cities around the world.

Kennedy Town. MTR Construction in the Background

9/11, China and the Enduring Symbolic Power of the Skyscraper

1 World Trade Center Rising in Lower Manhattan

Now that it has been about a month since the 10 year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., I have had some time to reflect on the enduring significance of the skyscraper. With One World Trade Center finally starting to form a new image in the Manhattan skyline, we see that in spite of protestations to building such a tower on sacred ground, construction crews move ahead to realize what will perhaps be the city’s most ambitious project in years. Some question why it has taken so long to get to this point while others still see the entire rebuilding effort as an affront to the memory of tragedy.

It really seems not long ago at all- I was barely into my third week of architecture school at the University of Southern California when terrorist attacks brought down the Twin Towers. Despite living in America’s second largest city at the time, it was difficult to fathom the horror that was taking place across the country in New York. Like everyone else around the world, my classmates and I watched the television in shock as we tried to process what was happening.

In the days and weeks that followed, I expected there to be some discussion in my classes about the symbolic power of architecture- more specifically an in-depth analysis as to why the World Trade Center was the target of such an attack. Surprisingly, my instructors were reluctant to talk about this topic and instead centered most of the discussions around debating the technical details about how the buildings failed.

Looking back, it is clear why Al-Qaeda chose the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, America’s respective symbols of commercial and military strength, as targets for attack. Yet why did my architecture professors fail to acknowledge this at the time?

For the younger instructors, I suspect the modernist paradigm had already ceased to be relevant since architectural historian Charles Jencks declared the death of modern architecture when Pruitt-Igoe, a failed public housing project in St. Louis designed by Minoru Yamasaki (who also designed the ill-fated World Trade Center), was imploded in 1972. For this generation of architects who were educated in the 1980’s and 90’s, it was the tongue-in-cheek classicism of post-modernism and the cynical musings of deconstructivists like Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi who influenced their outlook. To them, I presume, the World Trade Center was already a dinosaur from another era long before the attacks that brought the towers down.

For the older generation of tenured professors, to question why the World Trade Center was the target of terrorist attacks was to question the entire legitimacy of the modernist project in the U.S.A. These are individuals whose careers fortuitously coincided with the golden age of American prosperity during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. In retrospect, perhaps it was out of a sense of respect to the modernist paradigm in which they believed and spent their careers teaching aspiring architects that they not publicly question the ‘why’ of 9/11.

It was not until my first full-time job after graduating in the summer of 2006 that I fully grasped the symbolic power of architecture, specifically the skyscraper building type. I worked for an architect by the name of Richard Keating, who spent most of his career in the 1970’s and 80’s as a partner at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), the gold standard in American corporate high-rise design. While at SOM, Keating designed several of the commercial office towers that define the skylines of cities like Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

While many architects and commentators declared the end of the tall building type after 9/11, Keating was not among them. On the contrary, he understood the enduring appeal of skyscrapers not only to property developers and government officials, but also to the common man as an aspirational device.

Coincidentally, the first project I worked on in Keating’s office was a lobby renovation for Minoru Yamasaki’s other twin towers- the triangulated Century Plaza Towers in the Century City section of Los Angeles- originally built in 1975. Rather than let the modernist icon be relegated to the dust bin of history, we were tasked with updating the project’s public spaces with a 21st Century twist.

The Century Plaza Towers are a pair of classic high-rise towers of their era: pure rational forms in plan, extruded up 44-stories towards the sky

Building tall is somewhat formulaic as the considerations of natural forces such as gravity, wind, severe weather and potential seismic activity are always taken into great account when designing high-rise buildings anywhere in the world. Being as such, skyscrapers are just as much feats of engineering as they are architecture. In fact, some of the most recognizable skyscrapers make use of structure as the central focus of their architectural expression. One only needs to think of the cross-bracing structures of the Hancock Tower in Chicago or Bank of China building in Hong Kong to be reminded of this.

Bank of China building in Hong Kong by I.M Pei

Today the trend in high-rise design is not structural, but formal expression. Rather than being exposed for all to see, structure is now most often hidden behind shimmering glass curtain-walls while the towers twist and  torque upwards. Thanks to computer programs that allow architects to explore unconventional forms, skyscrapers need not be strictly Cartesian in nature.

“Absolute Towers” by Beijing-based MAD Architects in Mississauga, Canada

The ongoing economic crises in Europe and the U.S. put a dent into the skyscraper building program in the Western world. This is not the case in developing nations, especially China, where towers are rising in myriad cities across the country. When it comes to building the high-profile ‘supertall’ towers (buildings over 300 meter tall), Chinese clients still prefer to outsource the design to the experts with a track record in high-rise design, namely American firms like SOM, KPF, and Smith+Gill.

Yet these marquee projects do not account for nearly the thousands of other tall buildings over 100 meters being built in China, both in central business districts and outlying suburban areas. Most of these towers are nondescript and serve the straightforward purpose of housing an increasingly urbanized population. Perhaps bland on an individual level, collectively the high-rises that define rising skylines in Chinese cities represent the aspirations of an upwardly mobile population.

The Chongqing skyline, quickly becoming one of the most recognizable in the world

Cynics would argue that high-rise buildings in reality represent nothing more than real estate developer greed, benefiting few while exploiting the working class for cheap construction labor. While criticisms have their merit, the overwhelming consensus in China is in favor of a modernization program that includes the construction of tall buildings.

Not long ago I was walking down the new ‘financial street’ in Chengdu near my home where several new high-rise buildings between 150 and 200 meters tall are currently under construction. I noticed a beat-up car with license plates from a small Sichuan Provincial town stopped at a red light. Inside the car was a family of two parents and a child, looking up in awe at the glistening new skyline.

I knew at that moment that it didn’t matter if they never set foot inside those new buildings…what the towers represent was enough to inspire a sense of awestruck wonder in this family. And while American economists continue to bash China’s urbanization process, calling this the ‘biggest real estate bubble ever’, they tend to forget that it was in America that the skyscraper was invented and perfected. There is a certain universality of a desire to reach for the heavens, and China’s urban areas are the best reminders of that today.

Land Reclamation and the Future of Hong Kong

Land reclamation is a controversial approach to urban planning wherever water-bound cities are land-strapped for new development. In the U.S., a place like San Francisco is a prime example of a city where much of the adjacent waterfront was ‘reclaimed’ from the bay and land-filled to make room for new buildings.

In Asia, Hong Kong practices land reclamation to accommodate large structures such as its convention center and Chep Lap Kok Airport. A piece from Metropolis magazine takes a closer look at reclamation and urban renewal in Hong Kong and how it is impacting its most prized asset: Victoria Harbor.

Metropolis: From Reclamation to Renewal

Foster + Partners Wins Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District Master Plan Competition

Although famous as an international trading and banking center, Hong Kong, save for a strong culinary tradition, lacks in the culture department. The city is just simply not know as an arts destination. That reputation could be changing soon as southwest tip of Kowloon is redeveloped into a large cultural district.

The West Kowloon Cultural District seeks to fill the void of a lacking arts scene in the Special Administrative Region. While undertakings by city governments around the world looking to create large-scale arts or culture districts sometimes come off as desperate attempts to prevent decline and irrelevance, Hong Kong has not such problem of reverting to a backwater anytime soon.

Yet one has to wonder if this is not an attempt by the SAR to distinguish itself as a more refined cultural destination than its Mainland China first-tier city counterparts.

If anything, the West Kowloon Cultural District PR department has done a good job so far of generating international interest with a highly publicized competition for the master plan of the project. World renowned British architecture firm Foster + Partners was recently selected as the winner. Foster + Partners beat out proposals from Rocco Design Architects Limited and OMA/Rem Koolhaas.

Foster + Partners is no stranger to Hong Kong, having been behind the design of the iconic HSBC Building and the city’s masterful Chek Lap Kok Airport. The firm’s concept for the West Kowloon master plan is guided by a desire to create a ‘City Park‘ filled with greenery. Proposed buildings include an Expo Center, Opera House, Chinese Theater, Art School, Theater School, Modern Art Museum, and Concert Hall. Although the buildings for the project are yet to be designed, Foster’s master plan scheme promotes the idea of a minimally refined unifying architectural aesthetic.

The China Urban Development Blog will keep an eye on the ongoing developments for this potentially game-changing project for Hong Kong.

Bustler: Foster + Partners Selected to Design Master Plan for West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong

Lan Kwai Fong Entertainment District Opens in Chengdu

Lan Kwai Fong, the trendy bar district in Hong Kong, has been the island’s premier nightlife spot for the better part of three decades. Developed by Canadian investor Allan Zeman, the small collection of hilly streets above Hong Kong’s Central is an energetic zone of debauchery.

Not long ago, Chengdu, a city well-known for its love of leisure, recruited Zeman and his brand of cosmopolitan nightlife to collaborate on opening a Lan Kwai Fong location in the provincial capital. Given the city’s reputation, Zeman readily agreed and chose a site next to the Funan River in the city’s burgeoning Central Business District.

LKF Chengdu sits along the bank of the Funan River in downtown

LKF Chengdu officially opened at the end of last year. Unlike LKF Hong Kong, which made use of an existing neighborhood, LKF Chengdu is a completely newly built complex. Consisting of a series of pavilion buildings, linked by a snaking roof, the development features high-end restaurants, coffee houses, bars, clubs and a few retail shops catering to the consumption of luxury goods such as wine and cigars.

A snaking, polycarbonate roof covers the complex, unifying the buildings

Unlike the businesses in LKF Hong Kong which cater to the tastes of Western expatriates living and working in the city, LKF Chengdu is geared towards local  Chinese tastes and preferences. This was a conscious decision by Zeman to appeal to local consumers. As such, the bars and clubs in LKF Chengdu are not ‘pubs’ like one would find in Hong Kong, but rather more in line with existing Chengdu nightlife hot spots in decor and atmosphere.

A provocative image of young woman sipping a martini greets clubgoers

That being said, there are a few overseas chains operating in LKF Chengdu such as Starbucks and Tony Roma’s. Lei Garden, an upscale Hong Kong restaurant chain also has a location in the complex.

Strange sculptures dot the  grounds, adding a quirky air to the complex

Based on a few personal outings to the new complex, LKF Chengdu doesn’t seem to be living up to its ambitions in terms of becoming the top nightlife spot in the city. Not only does it have to compete with the neighboring club district Jiu Yan Qiao, the businesses in the complex may be too far out of reach price-wise for the majority of Chengdu’s young party-goers.

This is not to suggest that LKF Chengdu will not become one of the city’s hottest spots for nightlife in the future. In the overall scope of development of Chengdu’s Central Business District, Lan Kwai Fong’s arrival is a bit early. A high-end residential complex next door is still under construction as are several office towers, and a metro line with a stop only one block away is not slated to open for another year.

Though it seems now that LKF Chengdu isn’t meeting expectations, in a few years time Allan Zeman’s investment foresight may once again prove to be right on target.

Rem Koolhaas’s OMA Relocates Asia Headquarters to Hong Kong

Construction Progress on the OMA-designed Shenzhen Stock Exchange. Photo by Shayani Fernando.

After completing what is arguably China’s most high-profile (and sometimes controversial) new building of the past decade, Beijing’s CCTV Building, Rem Koolhaas and his architecture firm, OMA, have decided to move their Asia HQ to Hong Kong.

The South China Morning Post has the details:

Architectural Firm OMA Moves Asian HQ From Beijing to Hong Kong

Olga Wong and Vivienne Chow, January 04, 2011

The Dutch architectural firm OMA has moved its Asian headquarters from Beijing to Hong Kong, saying the harbour city has more of the talented professionals it needs to handle coming Asian projects.

The renowned firm denied the move had anything to do with controversy over the CCTV “trouser legs” building in Beijing, or the furor over a passage in a book written by OMA that likened the design of the tower and the 30-storey building beside it to female and male genitalia.

Many people did not like the idea that OMA founder Rem Koolhaas may have pulled off a pornographic joke at the country’s expense.

David Gianotten, who started the Hong Kong office and is now a partner of the company, said the company had not suffered a loss of business in Beijing due to the controversy.

“We will still keep the Beijing office,” he said. “We just want a stronger presence in Asia and Hong Kong provides a convenient platform.

“We do receive positive comments on the CCTV design.”

The company’s architectural team in Hong Kong has grown to 45, up from 12 at the office’s opening in 2009, when the firm entered the final round of the design competition for the West Kowloon arts hub.

Now the company is planning to expand to 60 staff in Hong Kong, making it the second-largest branch after its headquarters in Rotterdam. To get there, the company will recruit more local professionals, including fresh graduates.

“It’s a change of strategy. We don’t aim for the China market only, but the whole of Asia,” Gianotten said.

“Hong Kong by far is the most convenient platform for hiring both mainland and international talent. It provides a good mix.”

While mainland architects were imaginative and those from Taiwan were pragmatic, Gianotten said, Hong Kong professionals were more rounded, adept not only in design, but also in engineering and technical skills.

The company plans to keep the ratio of Chinese staff at 60 per cent and to groom young graduates.

“We don’t want to be seen as a company from overseas,” Gianotten said. “It’s important to establish an office that crosses cultures and really knows and understands the local context.”

The company would soon start projects in Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam and would also set up an office in Middle East.

Arts and design industry insiders said OMA’s retreat from the mainland was not surprising, as many international firms had been experiencing trouble operating businesses there.

“There’s a huge cultural difference,” one industry veteran said. “The mode of business operation in China is very different from where these companies came from. And they have to look up to the mainland government officials, which is certainly not what they are used to.”

In August 2009, mainland media reported that a book written five years earlier by OMA had included an off-colour description of the CCTV building. Koolhaas may have just been having some fun. At other times, he has spoken seriously about the tower’s intent to “generate a space and to define a space” for the state broadcaster.

It’s unlikely that an architect like Koolhaas, who thrives among contradiction and chaos, would decide to relocate to Hong Kong due to controversy over the implied iconography of the CCTV Building. Rather, the decision is probably based more on the city’s geographic centrality to the rest of Asia, where OMA rightly sees a growth market for its future projects.

Architect Ole Scheeren Opens New Office in China

CCTV Building in Beijing. Photo by Fred @ SG

German architect Ole Scheeren, a former partner of the Dutch firm OMA and lead designer of the CCTV Building in Beijing, recently announced the establishment of his own architectural practice, Büro Ole Scheeren. This news is significant not only because of the exciting work bound to come out of the new office, but because Scheeren has selected two Chinese cities (Hong Kong and Beijing) as the base for his operations. According to the press release:

In choosing China as the firm’s headquarters, Büro Ole Scheeren demonstrates its commitment to Asia and the region’s acute significance in the worlds of architecture and design.

The rise of China has directly benefited marquee-name architects from the West, providing them with opportunity to design radical forms unable to be physically realized in their home countries due to various socioeconomic factors. And while many of these firms have opened branch offices in China, no Western architect has yet opted to set roots in the region. The announcement of Büro Ole Scheeren changes this- and once again affirms the growing significance of China as a laboratory for progressive ideas in architecture and urban design for the 21st Century.

Archinect: Ole Scheeren announces his new practice

Building Design: Former OMA partner Scheeren sets up own practice