The experience of Hong Kong is a difficult to put into words, but if I must do so, it's like mixing coffee with tea. While this may be unfathomable to many people, it precisely describes both what we drink and our approach to living; integrating the best in a single opportunity. Alvin Yip embodies this spirit.
He is at once the curator, the vice commissioner of Hong Kong at Venice Biennale Exhibition, the Chairman of Friends of Architecture and Hong Kong Architecture Centre, a member of the Steering Committee of Hong Kong Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale, the Board Director of Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design and also a faculty at the School of Design, The Hong Kong Polytechnic Univeristy. All in one.
At a make shift coffee joint tucked secretively in one of the many cock lofts in the old Central District, Alvin told his stories. We, the barista, another guest and her pet dog, Potato, were fortunate to hear his views and opinions on architecture.
Highlights of the interview can be read here:
If someone walked into your office on any given day, what would they see? Does that say something about yourself?
There's this blackboard you'd see... Before going to the AA, I did my undergraduate in Canada, so I was used to this kind of horizontality and the luxury of space. At the AA, soon I discovered that architecture is much less about whether you have desk space to generate a lot of feasible materials, it's more about the dialogue in architecture. We are still extremely pragmatic, we are producing, we are making, but that's not the center of the education. You know at the diploma school, you have a space like here [pointing to the cafe] about 3.5m by 3.5m, to be shared between two unites. So you can imagine Rem, and Zaha having 15 students, and then sharing the same room on [the other] side with Bernard Tschumi and his gang of 12 students, and come on it is almost impossible. This 3.5m^2 contained... I don't know... total intelligence, it's totally out of proportion [to] that room.
So on my blackboard there's nothing on it, I think I appreciate that space on the blackboard, because it's not a physical space. It's a space to be filled up, to be discovered. Back then, that's it, for education, we are not trying to, like HK people, fill up every corner. It was just a desk, chairs people cram in, and then we talk to show what they can show with two hands and then talk about it, and those discussions could continue forever. That's some of those memorable experience I kept in my space...
Having grown up in the last days of colonial HK, Canada, living & working in the UK, Rome, and so many places, would you say you share a common gene called the "lack of nationality / identity" with many people in HK? Do you find it precisely because of this lack of nationality trait, it is particularly difficult for HK design to become internationally acclaimed like Japanese Design / Swiss Design / American Design?
I don't care too much about HK Identity. It's what the people do [in the city] that generates collective [memories] for those who move around the world, not about a single identity. Besides brand is easier to talk in a project/object, like selling nai wong bao (custard bun). Personally I don't buy Singaporean / Korean design. There are more important things than branding... [but] when you apply that to architectural design, it is indeed problematic now [for China].
There's no such thing as "Chinese-ness”, it became extremely difficult [to notice it] after modernism. Starchitects building in China is not after local / identity and many people are afraid of being criticized postmodern...People misunderstand the essence of cultural identity.
I think material is under estimated in cultural identity. People need to ask what is traditional craft and its relationship to material, because every culture has a different way and technology in dealing with materials. I remember Rocco Yim, a famous HK architect once asked. 'Is Chinese Architecture defined by 1) architecture designed by Chinese or 2 ) architecture design in China or 3) architecture related to Chinese tradition?"
These are three completely different perspectives. I don't believe in reducing the possibilities of Chinese architecture to the first and last perspective. As long as the land is there the people are there, heritages and traditions will continue [these are not the defining elements in generating innovative contemporary design] .
We will probably have to wait for another 10 - 15 years to see China’s [signature] contemporary design.
What does the term “sustainability” signify for your areas of expertise? Can you comment on its place in architecture/construction/development currently and what you see its place being as we move forward?
Sustainability, calls my attention to social / cultural sustainability. Applying the game idea, that means not to impose spaces by designers, but for them to be co-authored by the people. Hong Kong people are used to being less egocentric, is less about making hero, that means great potential for social sustainability to be viable in the city, also mean HK architects are more ready for public engagement by doing good community projects. We appreciated our skyline, precisely because it's not about a single authorship, it's about a collectiveness to build the city.
For the complete interview click here.