Little Room for Embellishment in Densely Packed Hong Kong


Even Hong Kong’s luxury apartment complexes are relentlessly uniform, though often more colorful than public housing. – Credit: Michael Wolf/Courtesy of Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York

HONG KONG (The New York Times) — Hong Kong is a famously efficient city. Residents pride themselves on the flawless operation of the subway system and the airport. For 21 years in a row, the Heritage Foundation has ranked Hong Kong as the world’s freest economy.

But free markets come at a cost. Easy access to capital, years of record-low interest rates and an acute shortage of supply have made Hong Kong the most expensive place in the world to buy a home. Apartment prices set an all-time high on Aug. 2, according to the brokerage Centaline, up 18 percent in a year. They have risen 158 percent since their post-crisis lows at the end of 2008.

That also makes them the priciest properties that anyone on earth can find. They are “severely unaffordable,” according to the tracking group Demographia, and in 2015 posted the most-extreme figures in the 11-year history of its global housing-affordability survey of 378 metropolitan markets. The average home price is 17 times the median income — 60 percent ahead of Vancouver, British Columbia, the second-most expensive place to save for a home.

The rarefied prices have an inverse effect on architecture and design.

First-time visitors to Hong Kong are often shocked by the remarkable uniformity of this densely packed city, full of billion-dollar residential skyscraper towers that are largely interchangeable. Barring a few exceptions, the world’s most-expensive real estate consists of commoditized rectangular boxes of concrete, even at the very high end, that sell for as much as $12,000 per square foot, or $83 per square inch. So the most “luxurious” property in the world in terms of price is the most lacking in imagination.

“The design is always reduced to the maximum profit you can make out of a lot — there’s very little room for embellishment,” said Michael Wolf, a photographer. “That’s why Hong Kong’s skyline is visually so horrible, I would say, unimaginative. It’s all about your bottom line here.”

Mr. Wolf specializes in images that frame Hong Kong’s fearful symmetry. In his series “Architecture of Density,” he removes the sky and ground to fill the image with vertical strings of thousands of windows that ripple together across residential tower after tower, a sheer wall of eye-holed concrete that blends together like the canvas of an abstract painting.

Though the city’s public housing, which accommodates almost half of Hong Kong’s population, is the worst offender in terms of relentless uniformity, many “luxury” apartment complexes are not much better. They are frequently more colorful but no less repetitive.

Mr. Wolf, who splits his time between Hong Kong and Paris, concedes that the situation has improved marginally since he moved to the city in 1994. The tower-block projects of the 21st century often feature flourishes such as large holes through their midriff that both aid air flow and feng shui, the much-prized “wind-water” concept of Chinese aesthetic design.

There are notable exceptions to the straight-up-and-down residential tower. Frank Gehry designed the twin towers of Opus, a midrise development by Swire Properties, to appear like twisting stalks of thick bamboo. When the apartments opened, gazing toward Victoria Harbor from the site of the colonial mansion that once housed the head of the Taikoo dockyard, Mr. Gehry said he also intended the curves to maximize the views. He wanted each balcony, with its thick wooden rails, to feel like the deck of a large ship.


There are notable exceptions to the straight-up-and-down residential tower. The architect Frank Gehry designed the twin towers of Opus, a midrise development, to appear like twisting stalks of thick bamboo – Credit: Swire Properties

Opus is Mr. Gehry’s first residential project in Asia, and now is home to the most expensive apartment in the world’s most expensive city. At 95,971 Hong Kong dollars per square foot, or $12,380, a 5,188-square-foot duplex with a garden set a record for an Asian apartment in June when it sold to a Danish businessman for 498 million dollars.

Opus and the Henderson Land project 39 Conduit Road have traded places as Hong Kong’s costliest apartment development per square foot. No sooner has one set a new high-water mark than the other surpasses it. One of Hong Kong’s few stand-alone homes reportedly sold for 1.5 billion dollars this summer, or an even-greater 150,000 dollars per square foot.

In April, 39 Conduit Road set the previous apartment record when a Singaporean buyer identified as Wang Shuang spent 434 million dollars for a 4,664-square-foot apartment, which is 93,000 dollars per square foot.

Many locals blame mainland Chinese buyers for driving up prices in Hong Kong. At their peak in late 2011, they managed to buy a record 42 percent of new apartments in the city — via whatever means, since it is technically legal to take only $50,000 out of China per year. They now account for around 11 percent of new purchases.

In all, 39 Conduit Road has 41 stories. But the schematics skip any number ending in 4, which sounds like “death” in Cantonese, and dub the top three levels the 66th, 68th and 88th floors, auspicious numbers promising wealth and long life.

It is nowhere near as creative in its exterior design. It is a standard tower, albeit with a sharp-edged facade that flares at a 135-degree angle to maximize harbor-facing views.

Its occasional clusters of tightly packed horizontal ridges, which mask uglier essentials like air-conditioning units, bring to mind the grille of a classic 1950s car.

The most remarkable aspect of 39 Conduit Road is its engineering. The building gets deeper as it gets higher, with three “steps” on the way up that add a total of nine feet of added width and depth to the highest floors, compared with the base. The added land mass places considerable extra weight on the structure, but the developer calculated that the additional cost was worthwhile.

“Not only do we have to deal with a bigger structure, but the challenge is bigger as you go higher,” said Phiyona Au-yeung, the director of residential design at the building’s architects. “But in Hong Kong, the view is equal to dollars.”

Ms. Au-yeung’s firm, Dennis Lau & Ng Chun Man Architects & Engineers, or DLN, is one of Hong Kong’s best-known homegrown architectural firms. DLN has also designed the sleek curves of HighCliff, an exceptionally tall, exceptionally thin residential skyscraper. Together with its similarly proportioned neighbor, the Summit, they make up the two “chopsticks” that tower over Happy Valley.

With its sleekly curving facade and tightly rounded corners, HighCliff is, like Opus, one of Hong Kong’s most instantly recognizable residential buildings. It placed second behind only the Gherkin in London (proper name: 30 St. Mary Axe) in the Emporis Skyscraper Award when it was completed in 2003.

Ms. Au-yeung concedes that even the most luxurious apartments in Hong Kong tend to be rectangular boxes, but she says that is what Hong Kong buyers desire. Furniture fits better, and there is none of the “dead space” that comes with odd-shaped curves and corners.

Ms. Au-yeung, who spent several years working in Seattle, believes there is another root cause behind the general lack of originality in Hong Kong: the government that approves all projects. In the West, proposed structures are typically judged by a design-review board made up of a panel of professionals.

“They look at it as a holistic project,” she said. “Our system does not have that. It is very by the book, very black and white.”

The demand for more-original architecture and properties, though, ultimately comes from the end user. There is a communitywide lack of appreciation of architecture as an art form, according to Wong Wah Sang, a professor of architecture at the University of Hong Kong. He believes the high price of Hong Kong property trumps looks and all.

“In Hong Kong, these places are investments,” Professor Wong said. “You are happy not because the building offers you good design. You are happy because you buy something, and the next day it increases 1 percent.”

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