An architect's legacy: Ronald J Phillips

by Jane Steer on Jan 25, 2019 in Architecture
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Ronald J Phillips, the Pinnacle Award honouree for this year's A&D Trophy Awards, speaks exclusively to Perspective about his connection to Hong Kong and the marks he left on the city half a century ago

The winner of the Pinnacle Award for lifetime achievement at the A&D Trophy Awards 2018 was British modernist architect Ron Phillips. Now 91 and living in the United Kingdom, his works in Hong Kong in the 1950s and '60s helped to shape a rapidly changing city. Arriving in 1956, just as Hong Kong entered a period of major development, Phillips designed some of the city's most familiar 20th-century landmarks, including City Hall, the Star Ferry Concourse, the Murray Building and the extension of Kai Tak Airport, and is lauded for his pioneering contributions to sustainable architecture. Shortly after his arrival, he and another 26 architects founded the Hong Kong Society of Architects, now the Hong Kong Institute of Architects.188A5967"It was the most stimulating and fulfilled period of my professional career. This was coupled with a wonderful family life. I had many colleagues who became close friends and I am still in touch with. Hong Kong has a very special place in my heart," Phillips says of his 13 years as a Hong Kong government architect.

"I was not exactly a greenhorn as I had already designed and built a primary school, a library and housing estates, but this was hardly grounding for what was to immediately follow: the design of the Star Ferry Concourse and new City Hall in partnership with my good friend, Alan Fitch.188A5968"The development of Hong Kong was about to begin in earnest and what a fantastic and exciting time it was for the architectural fraternity."

Phillips and Fitch's design for City Hall involved creating a sense of space for a public facility that was in very short supply in the city centre, even in the 1950s, and providing freedom of movement, both inside the buildings and outside in the harbour-front piazza, while keeping the hustle and bustle at bay.

"We developed a design philosophy exploiting the choice site overlooking the harbour. It had to ensure all facilities, except the auditoria, would have a view, and this largely dictated the architectural appearance… This building was for everyone and we could see it being the generator of a new city centre combining Statue Square and its surrounding buildings leading pedestrians to the Star Ferry piers," Phillips says.

While City Hall celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012, not all of his structures still stand, such is the pace of Hong Kong development. However, they continue to have an impact on public discourse. The outcry when the Central Star Ferry complex was demolished in 2006-2007 –  complete with petitions, sit-ins and demonstrations – helped to change attitudes towards heritage conservation in the city.RONPHILLIPS-10"I'm sad that concern for saving Hong Kong's architectural past did not start somewhat sooner; however, better late than never and I applaud the work being done by those so concerned and active," Phillips says. "When revisiting Hong Kong to celebrate City Hall's 50th anniversary, I was confronted with the environmental changes brought about by the relocation of Star Ferry. I was so disappointed to see the down-at-heel state of the Star Ferry car park [which Phillips also designed] and the area generally. I was very sad to see the one-time hub of the city had lost its vibrancy with the loss of the volume of pedestrians heading for the pier. It is difficult for me to see how redevelopment can recover the sense of community."

I'm sad that concern for saving Hong Kong's architectural past did not start somewhat sooner; however, better late than never

Changing attitudes to heritage conservation brought about by the fate of one of his designs may have helped save another: the Murray Building, which reopened last year as a five-star hotel, The Murray, Hong Kong. Foster + Partners, the architectural practice tasked with the renovation, consulted Phillips on the redesign.

"My first reaction was one of great relief that the building was not to be demolished. I was even more delighted when I heard Foster + Partners were to undertake the building's conversion to a hotel, while at the same time maintaining its full architectural integrity," Phillips says.

"Being invited to assist on the design was reassuring and the final outcome was a great success." Phillips' design for the Murray Building has been praised for its pioneering approach to energy efficiency, thanks to angled vertical louvres that minimise solar gain. It was a design made possible by virtue of being a government building, namely the headquarters of the Public Works Department.Mr Ron Phillips attending Niccolo Lectures_1"There was a penalty for this concept in that the net floor space was marginally reduced, [which] the commercial world would never accept. This was energy conservation way ahead of its time. It is particularly satisfying for me that the building was given the Hong Kong Energy Efficient Building Award 27 years later," he says.

"There is no question that in responding to the need for energy conservation, together with the interim difficulty of access, Murray Building developed its own architecture. For me as a modernist who follows the Bauhaus philosophy, it all fell into place, much to my delight."

I still like to be linked to the Murray Building and its sustainability as related to energy conservation

The design was partly informed by the Police Training School in Aberdeen, which Phillips and Fitch had worked on previously. There, with no budget for air-conditioning, they had devised a cross-ventilation system of horizontal concrete louvres and carefully positioned the buildings to capture any available air movement. Phillips adapted both ideas – louvres and positioning the building to control the environmental impact – for the Murray Building.

"I still like to be linked to the Murray Building and its sustainability as related to energy conservation. I did several other buildings in Hong Kong, not least City Hall, [from which] I formed an experience that was a great contribution to the design of Murray Building," Phillips says. "My thought process even now would remain the same and I cannot see how my approach would be any different."





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