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Hong Kong is an urban experiment with lessons for China - and for us

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A boulevard through the HKSAR HQ allows the public into substantial spaces - a truly democratic piece of urbanism, writes Paul Finch

Roland Paoletti, who died last week, was an internationalist architect whose formative influences (Spence, Nervi) helped prepare him for his design work on Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway system, which in turn was the prelude to his triumphant leadership of London’s Jubilee Line Extension (JLE) programme.

This produced a series of marvellous stations, arguably the greatest combined work of civil architecture in London in the 20th century, by a variety of architects in different styles. Roland held it all together, not least because the two other key figures in the JLE team, Wilfred Newton and Russell Black, gave Roland design authority via a clever contractual ruse. As Roland told it, the station architects were all appointed to undertake fit-outs, reporting to Black. Once the contracts were in place, Black assigned all his authority in respect of architecture to Roland, who could then call his chosen designers (he picked them personally) to say: ‘Let’s design some stations!’

He compared this to the sleight-of-hand shown by Admiral Collingwood at the blockade of Cadiz, using false signals to defeat the enemy. The success meant Collingwood was lauded, rather than court-martialed. The real lesson of the JLE, however, was that when you build stations, development will anticipate or follow, if you allow it to.

Hong Kong has been on my radar for another reason: Rocco Yim, one of those rare architects who gives a lecture which shows plenty of his work, but is not a simple ‘show-and-tell’. His talk at Central St Martin’s last week was prompted by the publication (by Artifice) of the excellent monograph Reconnecting Cultures, with good introductory essays by Yim himself, Fumihiko Maki, Kenneth Frampton and Peter Cook.

Introducing, Jeremy Till reminded us that, before most of the students present were born, Yim had made his mark in Europe, by reaching the final three in the Bastille Opera competition in Paris. Famously, the judges chose a design which they mistakenly believed had been submitted by Richard Meier. In fact it was by the Argentinian Carlos Ott, in the Meier style. Red faces all round. The choice was a pity, because the young Hong Kong architect - only 31 at the time of the competition in 1983 - had conceived a brilliant response to both programme and site. He proposed a public street running through the opera house, on axis with the Bastille monument, from which the public would be able to see the backstage workings of the opera house behind glazed corridors and rooms.

Fast forward 30 years, and that powerful idea of a public route allowing engagement with a monumental building recurs in his completed headquarters for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. A boulevard running through it allows the public to reach substantial public spaces for concerts or protest meetings, or simply to connect to a waterside broadwalk. This is a truly democratic piece of urbanism.

A talk event the day after the lecture, at the WORK gallery in King’s Cross, discussed the question of Chinese (as opposed to Hong Kong) city planning. What, Yim was asked, was going wrong? Old-fashioned US city planning, the triumph of traffic engineers and the grandstanding attitudes of local politicians have produced in China vast, lifeless plazas, five-lane highways and huge setbacks before you reach the entrance to many public buildings.

This, he said, provided an awful warning about the abandonment of ideas about density and connectivity still being undertaken in the architectural laboratory that is Hong Kong today.

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