Adrian Cheng may just be the busiest man in Hong Kong. Besides running the New World conglomerate, jeweller Chow Tai Fook and K11 Art Foundation, among other projects, he’s just launched a new non-profit initiative called Culture for Tomorrow (CFT), which spotlights design and architecture and encourages cross-culture conversation through public programmes such as Hot is Cool, a duet of installations that will sit in Tsim Sha Tsui and will be unveiled tomorrow. CFT’s specific goal, according to Cheng, is to nurture new names in the oft-ignored field of design: ““Culture for Tomorrow will enable a new generation of designers and architects to realise their forward-looking and people-oriented ideas, and bring them into the community in bold new ways,” he says. And given the success that artists associated with and anointed by his K11 programmes have had globally, the design community certainly has its eye on this one.
The participatory installations in Hot is Cool are a sauna and Chinese pavilion respectively, public spaces that are common to Chinese and Finnish culture respectively. The outdoor sauna space has been created by Finnish architect Ville Hara, while the pavilion was undertaken by local talent Stanley Siu. The intention of each building is to explore the dynamics of human behaviour in public arenas, making each space essentially not just a functional hangout, but a living artwork. We sat down with the two design maestros to get their thoughts on the works, and on designing for public spaces in each of their respective countries.
What are some of your fundamentals when it comes to designing public spaces?
Ville Hara: Most important is to put yourself to the place of the user of the public space. Too often we see monumental scale and formalistic ideas that might look good in the renderings but do not serve people in the city. Public space is created through the bordering buildings or structures. It’s important that the surrounding buildings open up to the surroundings and have public functions on the ground floor. It might be that actual space can be pretty plain if there are enough activators around. I like public spaces that are not too designed but allow also temporary happenings. Often all you need is just some low walls or benches to sit on.
As I come from Finland, public space can be also an indoor space for me. We have fantastic network of public libraries in Finland. The modern libraries don’t serve as a storage for books, but enable interaction between people and offer all kinds of services, from 3D printing to recording your own music. And all this for free!
Stanley Siu: My idea comes from the architectural typologies of early publics estates in Hong Kong. Spatiality of the estates demonstrates freedom in terms of its usages. Users/people who lived in the estates enjoyed using the public spaces freely . Such flexibility and spontaneity of participation in public spaces is enticing to me, whereas to a certain point, providing a free space for the public becomes one of the fundamentals when I am designing.
What are some of your favorite public spaces in the world?
Stanley Siu: Public spaces in Rome do not have a solid function or programme restriction, and thus offer a large flexibility to the community – the public can use them however and whenever they want. A spacious piazza often adjoins critical and influential architecture, i.e. cathedrals, churches or government architecture, so the public can gather when vital events happen. From the example of Rome, it is clear that the relationship between public spaces and architecture is not fragmented like in Hong Kong – and it should not be.
Ville Hara: I like for example the square in front of Centre Pompidou in Paris. There is absolutely nothing on the square: no vegetation, no benches. Just a vast inclined plane leading to the museum. Still, the square is active night and day. The robust asphalt area encourages people to sit on the floor and watch the artists drawing caricatures for tourists.
What is the importance of design in creating a public space?
Ville Hara: I am always a bit uneasy with the word “design”. For me it refers to formalistic gestures that make everyday objects look strange but unique so that you can charge more money for them. But design is not all about that. Design is really important. A good example of high class design is the Fiskars scissors. The scissors are designed as long lasting and well-functioning. There is nothing superficial in the aesthetics and this is why the classic product is timeless and looks fresh still today.
In the same way, good design is crucial in creating public space. In architecture we are creating environments that last for decades, or even centuries. However, we shouldn’t be too serious about public space. All public spaces need not be classical. There should be a variety of places to hang out for different user groups, for example young and old. It is interesting to think how we could engage people and let them participate in creating their own spaces. The most interesting public spaces currently in Helsinki are created by voluntary people planting urban gardens, painting street walls (formerly known as graffiti) or opening a self-made public sauna without any building permission. The city is for the people. Let them decide how to use public space.
Tell us about the concept behind your Hot is Cool design and what you’re trying to achieve.
Stanley Siu: My piece leong4 ting2 is inspired by traditional Chinese pavilions for people to enjoy the cool under the shade. Conventional Chinese pavilions are aimed to be a gathering point and activity space, a significant form of architecture and symbol of places providing shade for people to take rest during their journey.
leong4 ting2 is a reimagination of traditional Chinese pavilions by building three contemporary wooden pavilions on a nine-square grid forming a T-shape. The design aims to serve multiple functions and activities – the structure can be dismantled and reassembled at various locations. Moreover, the seating is designed to be movable and stackable, thus enhancing the flexibility for different activities such as seminars, performances, conferences and workshops.
Ville Hara: Sauna Kolo is very simple to contrast the free-form interior space. It was challenging to make a design on a site that you have not visited personally, and for a culture that you don’t know. Our design always starts from the site and surrounding conditions, but maybe it’s good to make this kind of project that is more free every now and then.
Our wish is that people will take the sauna building as their own so that it would be in active use. We had some challenges arranging running water to the sauna, and bathing without a possibility to wash yourself is a bit tricky. But I have packed my Speedos with me and will show as an example how to enjoy Finnish saunas! I hope there will be personnel to instruct on sauna bathing when I am not there so that people in Hong Kong can learn how a sauna functions.
Due to small living spaces, Hong Kong people are generally out and about more than in many other countries. Given that context, how are public spaces in Hong Kong different or unique compared to those in other countries?
Stanley Siu: Hongkongers often go into various shopping malls, which have deeply impacted public’s living style. As time passes, shopping malls havebecome the [main form of] public space in Hong Kong. However, none of its characteristisc can be categorised as belonging to a public space. Shopping malls force people to keep consuming, with few seats for people to rest. Public spaces in Italy or any other European countries have plenty of spacious piazzas here and there. Though there are shops around the piazzas, it does not give the public an urge to consume like those malls do in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is a city of ever-changing architecture. What are your thoughts on the buildings of Hong Kong? How is the architecture scene changing?
Stanley Siu: Most of buildings in Hong Kong are conspicuous and iconic. In my opinion, the trend of just designing iconic architecture or architects that aim to create a wow factor are no longer viable in Hong Kong, and even worldwide. I believe that architecture should be more human-oriented, providing the fundamental needs via an inclusive design. Architecture should be sustainable – for instance, how architecture can minimise energy to create a more sustainable and long-lasting living environment? There are also one of the current directions in this field.