Beyond Buildings


The Hong Kong Biennale: The Uses of Density

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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 design intervention.

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 understand.

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.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.