The Hong Kong Biennale: The Uses of Density
The view from the author's hotel room. Image credit: Aaron Betsky.
Hong Kong always amazes me. I'm sitting in my hotel room looking out from Kowloon to the Island, where the serried ranks of skyscrapers front the harbor, now nearly devoid of freight shipping, allowing the Peak and its string of smaller houses to rise up like the compressed backdrop of a landscape painting. Trained as an architect, I'm always reminded of Zaha Hadid’s drawings for Peak project, which amalgamated the
human-made and natural landscape into an undulation of planes rising and
opening towards an ecstatic celebration of density.
Within that landscape, the fourth Hong Kong Biennale just
opened. Curated by the local architect
Anderson Lee and the Taipei-based architect, writer, and editor Gene King, it
places Hong Kong in the middle of a regional network of cities that includes
Shenzen, all of the Pearl River Delta, and Taipei. That is in itself remarkable, as the event
rises beyond political distinctions to ask what is common about the urban and
architectural issues confronting many Chinese cities.
The Hong Kong Biennale. Image credit: Aaron Betsky.
Though its name, Tri-ciprocal Cities: The Time, The Place, The Cities, is as pretentious as that of any such event (including the Biennale
I directed in Venice in 2008), the modest assembly of projects the curators
have put together is worth a visit to Kowloon park, an over-programmed collection
of terraces and community facilities off of Nathan Road. More than anything else, the Biennale shows
how the jigsaw puzzle of Chinese cities can become occasion for elaborate
In that vein, for instance, Atelier 11 China documented the
countless restaurants, stores, and other conveniences that have occupied the
Sanlitun and 789 Factory areas of Beijing. The axonometric drawings and the model fragments on display show you the
astonishing variety of activities possible in small, gridded spaces. This is a not a romanticization of a fabric
that is being lost; Sanlitun is the site for many luxury boutiques and
expensive restaurants, and 798 Factory is Beijing’s equivalent of the Chelsea
arts district, filled with galleries and ancillary shops. Instead, the exhibit shows how a global set
of economic and social conditions that produced these kinds of uses is
developing in a specific context. Neither positive nor negative, the exhibition--like the whole biennale--lets us look
at the full breadth of activity developing in cities we often do not
The Biennale’s central conceit is showcased in
the central community space, where the curators asked a number of architects to
show their work in bunk beds. These are
supposed to represent the core of vertical stacking that is so common here, and
to give the displays a great deal of intimacy. There is little privacy. I am sorry to say the
beds just become inconvenient ways to do what architects always do when they
don’t think enough, which is to display photographs, drawings and other
paraphernalia of their buildings.
I am on my way to Shenzen today, where the second (actually
first) part of this biennale, this one curated by Terry Riley, will be closing
this weekend. I will wind my way through
the world-class transportation system, confront the vestiges of the border, and
plunge into the Instacity world of this manufacturing hub. Through these two connected biennales, I am
diving into the realities of a built form that are helping to redefine what we
think of as urbanity and as architecture. The Hong Kong biennale observes, documents, and offers perspective. More than that is not yet possible.