Architects Address Hong Kong’s Urban Density with Innovative Tower Models
Tucked behind an aged brick wall that surrounds Venice’s historic Arsenale emerges “100 Towers, 100 Architects,” Hong Kong’s provocative vision for 100 highly distinct towers presented by 100 different architects. The conceptual installation is a response to the Venice Architecture Biennale’s overall theme of “freespace.” Here, the architects employ vertical structure models to address unique societal and environmental conditions within Hong Kong’s urban landscape. While national pavilions dominate the Giardini for the Venice Biennale, some other countries are taking advantage of exhibition activity at the Arsenale, while still others are opting to create installations just outside the main hubs, filling the ancient city’s nooks and crannies with new architectural ideas. These slightly off-the-beaten-path exhibits, including the Hong Kong Pavilion, which is located at Campo della Tana across the Arsenale’s main entrance, surprised visitors with a sense of the unpredictable, unplanned adventure despite loaded agendas during the bustling opening week activity.
Focusing on urban form, the pavilion considers the fact that Hong Kong contains the greatest amount of tall buildings in the world (that’s despite the fact that the city is not the richest, densest or most livable city). More generally, some architects reflected on the abundance of skyscrapers as a potentially telling symptom of the state of economics in cities. Meanwhile others, instead, looked at them as opportunities to counteract pollution with vertical gardens, foster horizontal connections between structures, and encourage new social interactions by rearranging communal spaces and how they’re used. Going from the outside courtyard through a “village” of white tower models, into a historic brick-clad marine building with exposed wood beams, visitors navigate through inventive, and certainly at times, quirky-looking tall structures.
The exhibit also reminds visitors that not only do the aesthetics and purposes of towers change with progress, but so too do the literal definitions of “skyscrapers.” The term was originally defined as an inhabitable building having 10 to 20 stories, which has now evolved into 40 stories and over 150m tall. Taller than that and the building moves into the “super tall” (over 300m) and “mega tall” (over 600m) classifications. At a staggering 828m with over 160 stories, Duabi’s Burj Khalifa, designed by SOM, holds the record for the tallest building and tallest freestanding structure in the world. Closer to home, in New York construction is underway at what will be one of the world’s tallest residential towers, 111 W. 57th St. The “super tall” apartment tower will soar to 435m high, and with a width-height ratio of 1:24, it’ll also be the world’s slenderest building. SHoP Architects designed the façade’s extruding curves to be clad in elegant NBK terracotta with bronze. Whether highlighted in exhibition format or celebrated through today’s towering works in progress, the impressive impact of such feats of height has historically pointed to towers as symbols of power, societal progress, technological and economic growth, and the sense of sustainability that comes with stacking within a smaller footprint.
The Hong Kong Institute of Architects Biennale Foundation and Hong Kong Arts Development Council organized the pavilion’s ambitious presentation, under the guidance of chief curator Weijen Wang with co-curators Thomas Chung and Thomas Tsang, and managing curator Grace Cheng. Weaving through towers from the courtyard into the exhibit’s interior, visitors can get a sense of scale and observe how the expressive models resemble modern towers truly only in their tall, narrow forms – beyond that, architects took free reign. Each of the 1:100-scaled models features a 360mm by 360mm square plan extrusion that reaches 2.1 meters high, but beyond that common denominator, the 100 architects took ample liberty in addressing the prompt, and rethinking the potential of both interiors and façades. The curators provided three tower infrastructure “types” for the architects to work with which included “core, frame and wall.” Architects adopted one of these infrastructures (with options of three varying base-heights), but were otherwise unrestricted in designing their “freespace.”
Many feature cut-outs or “vertical caves,” some have supporting horizontal connectors like skywalks, escalators and highways, others focus on sustainability, adding abundant greenery to create vertical landscapes, and some are brightly pigmented. One is made of arranged pencils, some are made of bamboo or wood slabs, one is made of digitally-printed barcodes, “Digital Terracotta” is made of just that, and others are constructed with plexiglass. Some like “The Free Tower,” “Complicity” and “Conditional Tower” are quite open to the streets, some like “Brownfield Tower” spiral, while others like “Vertical Urban Village” and “Air-Growth-Water-Rise” are comprised of stacked box units. Meanwhile the “Tower of Blah” is comprised of… printed facts and graphics about the city’s relationship with towers. In this last case, the architect reflected on the historic and contemporary phallic imagery tied to towers, raising the question, “Is this why today’s skyscrapers dominate the landscape as symbols of power, intelligence, virility, ingenuity, authority…? What about women then?” This installation element examines rates of inequality in Hong Kong, focusing of the disparity of the very rich there, as well as in New York and Dubai.
While the towers showcase a huge variation in overall conceptual vision, design and material application, the exhibition offers an interactive way to peruse a “village” of structural designs by scores of architects rethinking vertical architecture, each uniquely reflecting on solutions to the global condition of urban density. The pavilion offers prime examples of innovation by architects working within the context of physical constraints. Here, in full, are 100 towers by 100 architects at the Hong Kong Pavilion, on view for the public during Venice Biennale, which runs through November 25, 2018.