Rediscover Hong Kong’s spectacular skyline

What do a ‘Mousetrap’, ‘Koala Tree’ and ‘Oil Rig’ have in common? They are the affectionate nicknames of some of Hong Kong’s familiar architectural landmarks: Jardine House, Lippo Centre and HSBC Main Building, respectively. These local pet names (and more) have been used since rapid development in the 1970s and 1980s transformed the city’s skyline into one of the world’s most distinctive sights. Hong Kong is known for having the world’s most skyscrapers — a far cry from its modest origins and depiction in the first painting of its shoreline, Waterfall at Aberdeen by English artist William Havell in about 1816. Today its skyline features an exhilarating mix of old and new buildings beside dynamic unspoilt mountain peaks and countryside.

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Our city’s skyline – through architect Billy Tam’s eyes

Getting Hong Kong architect Billy Tam to talk passionately about our city’s skyline is almost too easy. Sitting in his loft-style office in Quarry Bay, he instantly dives into the subject.

“One moment you’re sitting in an office within a skyscraper, yet an uphill walk into nature is just five minutes away,” he says. “This is something that’s very special about Hong Kong.”

Tam, 45, who is director of Thomas Chow Architects, knows the city better than most people. His award-winning designs for numerous projects at places such as Diocesan Boys’ School, in Mong Kok, and The Mills, a textile factory-turned-creative hub in Tsuen Wan, are scattered across Hong Kong. He was also part of the team that saw the city make its debut at the 2006 Venice Biennale of Architecture.

Tam is particularly fond of our many-layered, multifaceted city skyline: towering waterfront office skyscrapers, flanked by the mountains in the background, with smaller, old and revitalised multi-purpose buildings in between.

These ’revamped’ tenement houses, or tong lau, built for residential and business use from the late 19th century until the 1960s, are as “unique to Hong Kong’s streetscape”, as they are important, he says. “Some have stayed, evolved, and are supporting the more developed residential or financial regions. Although old, they still support our whole society.”

The city’s Central and Western neighbourhoods, with their many ’forgotten’ tong lau and other hidden gems, are among the best places to experience this kind of layered skyline, Tam says.

“The matrix of trams, mini alleys and staircases behind the skyscrapers enable you to choose a different path each time you walk there — and they are always welcoming,” he says. “That’s the most appealing part for me.

“And as you walk, you can see the traces of historical development — and can take in the story of Hong Kong if you pay close attention to your surroundings. Our skyline is spectacular in this sense.”

Tam, who won Hong Kong Institute of Architects’ 2005 Young Architect Award, says his passion and motivation as an architect have evolved alongside his appreciation of Hong Kong’s dynamic skyline.

“At the beginning of my career, I was driven to design good, perhaps award-winning, architectural spaces,” he says. “But now when I pick up my pen, I focus more on how people are going to make good use of the space and, hopefully, also some good memories.

“My intention is for people to appreciate and use the building happily. This may sound simple, but I think it’s the most important thing as an architect,” says Tam.

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Written by the South China Morning Post (Morning Studio)
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