Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The parks and the public

We organizers and designers of the Hong Kong & Shenzhen Biennale are eagerly awaiting the opening ceremony on February 16. Of course we’ll enjoy the pomp and circumstance, the speeches and the special events, but what we’re looking forward to most will really happen the next day: the public will enter the park. Randomly, wandering around, maybe on their way to someplace else. Not headed for any particular pavilion, most probably. At that moment we will finally be able to see the answer to the question that has inspired us throughout the past few months: How can we best engage the members of the public in this exhibition? Will those outside the design professions understand the exhibits? More importantly, will they be interested in them and feel their relevance?

Kowloon Park is a large and multifunctional public space that welcomes an incredibly diverse population every day. In this, it is totally different from previous Biennale venues, which were open only for the exhibition. On any given morning you can see groups of elderly people practicing Tai Chi here; at midday professionals and tourists come into the park to find a lunchtime seat; afternoons may find young mothers bringing their children for a breath of fresh air. And as the lights begin to go on in the evenings, the park remains a quiet retreat from the excitement and activity of neighboring Nathan Road.

So whom will this Biennale be for? It is the sincere hope of the curators, staff and exhibitors that this will truly be a public exhibition, open to all and enjoyed by all. Design is important; it impacts our cities, our homes, our very lives. We should all have a stake in it.

One country, two systems

Several events in the past month have drawn attention to growing tensions between Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong people. In early January, the luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana drew crowds of angry protesters after forbidding locals – but not Mainlanders - from taking photos of its display windows. The company later apologized but feelings continue to run high, as evidenced by last week’s subway spat, in which locals chided a Mainland visitor for eating on the MTR.

Some of the issues being discussed as a result of these incidents are at the very core of the practice of architecture and urban design. Who is responsible for maintaining public space and infrastructure, citizens or enforcers? Should Hong Kong be proud or ashamed of its colonial past and, by extension, its little remaining historic architecture? Which is more efficient when it comes to large-scale projects, Hong Kong or the mainland? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each place when it comes to creativity and regulation, intellectual property rights for designers, construction management and quality control?

This Biennale brings together the work of designers from the mainland and Hong Kong, as well as other parts of Asia and the world, precisely to attempt to answer some of these questions. It is our hope that seeing these exhibits will spark debate and discussion among members of the public, in the spirit of civil society rather than anger and blame. Hong Kong and China may be running on two systems, but they are after all one country, and each must make the most of each other’s successes if prosperity and growth are to continue.

Equality in the public realm

Kowloon Park has long been a gathering place for the many domestic helpers employed in Hong Kong households. Veiled women from Indonesia come to visit the nearby mosque, while groups of Filipino friends and church groups meet informally in the park itself. On Sundays the park can resemble nothing so much as a vast festival, ringing with the sounds of different languages and dialects, guitars and boom boxes.

And yet, as relaxed as these helpers may look as they enjoy their free time together, they are at the center of a political controversy that has split Hong Kong. At issue is the right to permanent residency and its concomitant benefits and responsibilities. Some argue that these workers are in Hong Kong only to make money, and yet clearly this could be said of most if not all workers in the city, not just the domestic helpers. British bankers, French lawyers, American entrepreneurs: they may love Hong Kong, but they also love her low tax rates and open economy. And yet they have an easier path to permanent resident status than the helpers who make it possible for them to go out and work every day without worrying about childcare, pet care, or domestic arrangements.

For now the issue remains up in the air as it continues to be discussed in Legco and in the streets. But the weather has gotten chilly, and this New Year holiday found many helpers huddled on tarps in the city’s streets and squares, making the most of the day off despite the discomfort of sitting out in the cold.

If permanent resident status is too much to ask for these workers, could we not at least provide some sheltered public spaces dedicated to informal congregation? In malls one is expected to be shopping; little seating is provided and eating and playing music will not be tolerated. In libraries one is expected to be silent. In pedestrian overpasses one is expected to be moving along at a brisk pace. And yet all of these places host their share of domestic helpers at weekends. Surely we can do better than this. At the beginning, any indoor floor space would do the trick while future arrangements are made.

This is a need that has gone unmet for too long.  For Hong Kong to truly live up to its name as Asia’s World City, it must provide services and amenities for all its inhabitants, no matter where in the world they come from.

Architecture and urbanism in the Asian context

Few designers would disagree: Asia is hot right now. OK, maybe not literally – Hong Kongers celebrated a dark and gloomy Lunar New Year amid cold-weather warnings, fog and rain – but the number and scale of projects going on in Asia have far outpaced what’s happening in other world regions.

In the US and in Europe, many designers have found themselves out of work since the 2008 financial crisis. By contrast, Hong Kong firms are advertising multiple open positions at once. Admittedly, Western designers may find it difficult to make the leap to working in Asia:  language and cultural differences, as well as visa requirements, create hurdles that are daunting to some. However, more and more are choosing to make the leap, a transition that is eased by the fact that all the major Asian cities house local branches of the big international firms.

As a community, we designers should step back and savor this moment. Unlike the other arts, which remain stubbornly Eurocentric (and, some would argue, stuck in the past), architecture and urban design are modern, global, fast-paced. The future of architecture and urban design is being forged here in Asia, and we are lucky enough to be a part of it.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Bamboo pavilions going up in Kowloon Park

Hong Kong exhibits will open in mid-February, and the bamboo pavilions that will make up part of the exhibition space are already being constructed.

SZ exhibitions closing soon!

If you haven't had a chance to visit the Shenzhen venues of the Hong Kong + Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Architecture + Urbanism, do it soon! Shenzhen exhibitions will close February 18.

Welcome to the Biennale Blog! 歡迎來到雙年展博客!

2011-12 Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism \ Architecture
"Tri-ciprocal Cities: The Time, The Place, The People"

15 February - 23 April 2012
Hong Kong Kowloon Park, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong

Curatorial Team:
Gene K. King, Chief Curator
Anderson Lee, Chief Curator
Julia Lau, Curator for Venue & Programme
Tris Kee, Curator for Community & Media

David Tseng, Curator for Taipei Exhibits
Aaron Lee, Curator for Asian Urban Portraits

Hong Kong Institute of Architects (HKIA)
Hong Kong Institute of Planners (HKIP)
Hong Kong Designers Association (HKDA)

2011-12香港 ‧ 深圳城市\
「三相城市:時間 ‧ 空間 ‧ 人間」

香港九龍尖沙咀 香港九龍公園

金光裕 總策展人
李亮聰 總策展人
劉文君 場地及節目策展人
祈宜臻 社區及傳媒策展人

曾成德 臺北作品策展人
李彥良 亞洲都繪展策展人