Architect Rocco Yim is on a mission to change the way the public interacts with cultural institutions. He speaks to Perspective about the new Hong Kong Palace Museum and the initial controversy associated with the project
“I think of architecture as the art of problem-solving. There are always problems that need addressing, not just in Hong Kong, and not just in habitation," says Rocco Yim after considering what it is that drew him to architecture nearly four decades ago. Yim is a fixture on Hong Kong's architectural scene and, as co-founder and executive director at Rocco Design Architects, has been leaving his mark on the city since 1982, with landmarks such as the East Kowloon Cultural Centre, HKSAR Government Headquarters, ifc mall, Hong Kong Station and the neighbouring Four Seasons Hotel, and iSQUARE. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Yim's next project is the Hong Kong Palace Museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), a vision that needs to be realised under a cloud of increasing bureaucratic rigidity.
It's a hazy afternoon and Yim is sitting in the boardroom of his North Point office, more softly spoken than usual due to a lingering winter cold. He's slight, thoughtful and his distinctive quasi-pageboy haircut is greying ever so slightly. His position as one of Hong Kong's most prominent architects has afforded him the luxury of speaking his mind and, as he contemplates the challenges and pleasures of designing his fourth museum (after the Yunnan Provincial Museum in Kunming, Guangzhou's Guangdong Museum and the Art Museum in Shapu, Shenzhen), he's not shy about expressing his opinions about the SAR's architectural weaknesses, starting with a perception perpetuated by the media of glamorous, job building statement towers.
"Architecture has to do something apart from looking good, and how it does it is key to its success: whether a building helps bring people together, or helps to generate an environment where people talk to each other, or creates an environment where you have incentive to communicate," he says.
"It also has to produce spaces for interaction with its surroundings, and help you appreciate those surroundings. Sometimes architecture has the power to enhance what is beyond it, and not just what is within. I think those are the things that make good architecture.
“It's a feeling that appeals to the heart as well as the eye. The problem today, after 40 years, is that the incentive or the driving force for good architecture to happen is still lacking. The driving force is more pretty faces and impressive facades. That might be what the media is crazy about – visual impact, visual gratification – but that is not all."
Aside from a misguided message of what architecture is all about, there's the perceived land crunch, resulting in developers unwilling to take creative risks; a public sector that's unable to innovate because architects are recruited based on fees rather than merit; and a rigid bureaucracy that's less flexible than it was 30 years ago. All three factors are stifling Hong Kong's architectural growth. "Land was scarce and conditions were restrictive, but there was enough flexibility for us to manoeuvre and create solutions that worked," says Yim. "But over the last five years that room has diminished. The code hasn't changed but the discretionary power has vanished. Illegal structures have become such an issue the Buildings Department has eliminated any possibility of a little wiggle. And that has had a massive impact." Here he points to Hotel Icon's atrium spaces and soaring ceilings. "We couldn't do that today."
Architecture has to do something apart from looking good, and how it does it is key to its success: whether a building helps bring people together, or helps to generate an environment where people talk to each other
All this is slightly ironic when one considers Yim was appointed to design the Hong Kong Palace Museum despite that fee structure, and the fact the studio was given a remarkable amount of creative freedom. "That was a direct appointment based on the merit of our past work.
And it meant we could afford to put in more people and resources, and explore more solutions," he recalls, admitting the controversy was initially distracting: "We just ploughed ahead and managed." Museums, like any speciality building, have specific needs and demands, particularly with regards to materials, light conditions, and security. But more crucial to museum design is tone.
"There should be a spatial quality from the outside to inside that stirs your mind, that stirs your curiosity, that entices you to explore. Museums need to draw you in," Yim reasons. "The major difference [with other buildings] is how you create, through the architecture, a cultural ambience that prepares your mindset for appreciation of the artefacts. That's the challenge."
Controversy or otherwise, it is Yim's job to deliver the Hong Kong Palace Museum (scheduled to open in 2022) to the WKCD as an element of the overall 40ha concept that will also include performing-arts venues, green spaces and an art park. As the WKCD describes it, the museum's relatively small footprint will feature 7,600sqm (82,000sqf ) of gallery space, a 400-seat lecture theatre and museum cafe and shop. The design is "based around a contemporary interpretation of classic Chinese visual and spatial aesthetics," and the concept of "linked courtyards translated into a vertical series of atriums that draw the visitor upwards". As Yim sees it, the museum, one of the few major cultural projects built since the early 1990s, also needed to be able to distil the essence of Hong Kong at first glance.
There should be a spatial quality from the outside to inside that stirs your mind, that stirs your curiosity, that entices you to explore
"This has to be a Hong Kong building – and a contemporary Hong Kong building. We don't re-create the past," he explains. The project commenced with a team tasked with brainstorming ideas that Yim would ultimately approve or discard, finally zeroing in on a vertical design that was reflective of both Hong Kong and the contents of the facility. "The architecture sends the message, so when you approach [a museum] you know what to expect. You don't go into a science museum when the architecture tells you it's a modern art museum. There should be certain associations… this architecture has to have certain imagery that would call to mind in the average person an association with traditionalChinese visual culture."
This is an excerpt from “Statement of intent", a feature article from the May issue of Perspective magazine.
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