When Scottish-Ghanaian architect Lesley Lokko took the helm of the 18th Venice Biennale of Architecture, the penny dropped. "An architecture exhibition is both a moment and a process," she wrote in her introductory note to the biennale.
The same can be said about the built environment. It can be captured, recorded and studied at any given moment, but its evolution is constant: understanding it requires understanding the processes that shape it.
"Laboratory of the Future" is Lokko's theme for this edition of the biennale, which ends on November 26, and the hundreds of exhibitors taking part are looking into each cog of the vast machine that is propelling society into uncertain times ahead.
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"We wanted our exhibitors to focus on the design process and not only the outcome," says architect Yutaka Yano.
He is one of three curators of Hong Kong's contribution to the architecture biennale, Transformative Hong Kong, which brings together 10 installations from architects, scholars, engineers and photographers - along with subway train operator the MTR Corporation - that provide some insight into how Hong Kong is changing, and what kind of city we can expect in the years to come.
Yano and co-curators Hendrik Tieben, head of the Chinese University of Hong Kong's (CUHK) School of Architecture, and Sarah Lee, Yano's partner in architecture firm Sky Yutaka, argue that Hong Kong is at a pivotal point that will define it for years to come.
Just as the population boom after World War II set the stage for the high-rise city we know today, the enormous scale of the East Lantau Metropolis and Northern Metropolis - two ambitious government projects that aim to develop, respectively, islands reclaimed from the sea and a sparsely populated area of Hong Kong into housing and employment hubs - provides an opportunity to rethink how the city is built.
At the same time, there are countless hurdles to overcome, including the impact of climate change, the challenge of an ageing population, and growing demands for more humane, accessible and sustainable urban spaces.
"There's a huge spectrum of scales in the exhibition, and that was a really important aspect of it for us," says Tieben.
Housed in an old villa across from the main entrance to one of the biennale's two main venues, the Hong Kong exhibition greets visitors with three bamboo canopies designed by Hiroyuki Shinohara and Peter Chan Tung-hoi in collaboration with 19 students from several Hong Kong colleges and universities, as well as a bamboo scaffolding master who travelled to Venice to help assemble the installation.
Shinohara, an assistant professor of architecture at CUHK, says the project was inspired by bamboo weaving, once a common craft in Hong Kong. Bamboo is a renewable resource that grows quickly, making it a particularly sustainable material.
He and Chan, a research assistant at CUHK, say the canopies could serve as prototypes for outdoor event spaces or temporary buildings, while also keeping a quintessential Hong Kong craft alive for new generations to learn.
In a room with terrazzo floors and ancient ceiling beams, several other exhibits are displayed on mobile wood stations designed by Sky Yutaka that are inspired by shipping crates.
One display outlines the MTR's plans for a 10.7km (6.6-mile) railway that will run through the far northern New Territories to serve the new town development, under way for the Northern Metropolis, near the border with Shenzhen in mainland China.
Nearby, architect Rocco Yim presents models of his studio's East Kowloon Cultural Centre, recently completed on the site of the former Ngau Tau Kok Resettlement Estate in Hong Kong's Kwun Tong neighbourhood.
In its exhibit, architecture firm Lead8 explores the future of Victoria Harbour, presenting secondary school students' ideas for revitalising Hong Kong's struggling Star Ferry, and the firm's HarbourLoop concept, first unveiled in 2015, which calls for a 23km active corridor making the entire harbourfront accessible.
Several exhibits explore the implications of new technologies on scales large and small.
Global engineering firm Arup has a display explaining how Modular Integrated Construction - which plugs together components that have been pre-made off-site - can be used to reduce construction waste and lower building costs when creating new housing and other types of structures.
Nearby, Tobias Klein and Victor Leung Pok-yin outline their research into new 3D printing techniques that can be used to decorate porcelain with high-resolution graphics, a nod to the porcelain painting industry that once thrived on the island of Peng Chau in Hong Kong.
Two other exhibits explore materials suitable for small-scale urban interventions. Studio Ryte's Triplex stool is a sustainable answer to the ubiquitous plastic stools found at countless Hong Kong restaurants and dai pai dong open-air food stalls.
Made of biodegradable flax fibre, the stools are strong, lightweight and stackable.
Similarly, HIR Studio's exhibit outlines its development of public seating for Sha Tin Town Hall in Hong Kong's New Territories. Concerned with the huge amount of plastic waste in Hong Kong, studio founders Howard Chung and Irene Cheng collected discarded plastic objects from Sha Tin and recycled them into pellets used to create 12 curvaceous benches.
More than just a statement about plastic waste, the benches - commissioned by Hong Kong's Leisure and Cultural Services Department - are meant to create a gathering space in an area lacking public seating.
That topic is addressed in an exhibit by architect Jeffrey Cheng and photographer Kris Provoost, who travelled throughout Hong Kong to document how public space is designed and used in the public housing estates that are home to more than half the city's population.
"Hong Kong public housing has been successful at creating spaces where people can gather and form communities," Cheng says. He credits this with 50 years of evolution, something the exhibit documents through illustrations, maps and photos.
He notes that the earliest estates, such as Wah Fu Estate, in Hong Kong's Southern district, dealt with hilly topography by creating superstructures connected by footbridges, essentially creating an artificial ground level perched atop the natural one.
By the 1980s, new estates had become "more sensitive to the landscape", with a more fine-grained approach to public spaces.
While Cheng focused on analysing the design of each estate, Provoost captured how these spaces are now occupied.
This reveals what Cheng calls the "generosity" of many estates, which place community needs ahead of profit by offering more space to linger than private estates or older neighbourhoods.
That raises the question of public participation in design and architecture, something that has become increasingly relevant in the past decade.
Several projects showcased were based on a participatory design process, such as Lead8's workshop with schoolchildren, the co-creative design of the bamboo canopies and HIR Studio's approach to working, which is based on user studies and public input.
"There is definitely more participatory design in the works we see now [than in the past]," says Yano.
Tieben ascribes that to the "diversity of actors that make the city", adding: "A lot of people, whatever their politics, try to contribute to the city and make it work."
Capturing the spirit of the moment and Lesley Lokko's curatorial approach, the focus of the 18th biennale is on decolonisation and decarbonisation. In many cases, attention centres on issues around architecture, rather than architecture itself.
A case in point is architect and photographer Justin Hui's Unsettled Ground, an installation that pairs photographs of Chinese investment in Africa with the redevelopment and changes under way in Hong Kong's northern New Territories.
In 2014, Hui visited Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia to assess the impact of massive Chinese investment in those countries.
He visited skyscrapers built by African and Chinese workers who communicated entirely though hand signals, as well as special economic zones run by China on 99-year leases - a model borrowed from the British, who acquired the New Territories in 1898 on similar terms.
Photos of the New Territories depict an area on the cusp of complete transformation, as the Northern Metropolis scheme replaces farmland and rural villages with a new town that will bolster Hong Kong's connection to Shenzhen.
One of Hui's images documents a pile of stone lions retrieved from a demolished village, new towers rising in the background. Many depict everyday objects that Hui found in abandoned villages.
There is even a mural by acclaimed contemporary artist Wilson Shieh that Hui stumbled across in a now-razed village. "The objects allow you to imagine the life that used to be there but has now been erased," says Hui.
The New Territories has traditionally been seen as the outskirts of Hong Kong, but Hui notes it is the part of the city that has been settled the longest.
"It's actually the oldest part of the city. You encounter a lot of artefacts and mythologies that are not part of the colonial narrative." With Hong Kong ever more integrated with the mainland, he asks, "should we re-fix our gaze back to the north?"
At the same time, Hui wants viewers to question why the northern New Territories is being developed. "I'm not opposed to development, but if it's just repeating what's already been done in Hong Kong, we're squandering a massive opportunity to rethink what Hong Kong should be in the next 50 years."
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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