Leo Lee: Garden in the City

Professor Leo Lee Ou-fan (李歐梵) gave the final talk of his Humanities Now: Perspectives Across Cultures series this Friday. Garden in the City focused on architecture and the development of the West Kowloon Cultural District.

In choosing the last topic to be architecture, Professor Lee was hoping for a “combustion” of ideas. At the Venice Biennale a few years ago, an architect told him that it was “hard to find a humanist in an architecture biennale”; the remark became the starting point of this lecture series.

Humanities Now: Perspectives across Cultures Lecture 6 in a Series by Professor Leo Ou-fan Lee from JMSC HKU on Vimeo.

After the lecture, four special guests, the curators of the 2009 Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale of UrbanismArchitecture, joined Professor Lee on stage for a discussion about architecture and the future the West Kowloon Cultural District.

Architects and architecture

In an echo of previous talks in this series, Lee started off by reminding us of the definitions of happiness and pleasure.

“Pleasure can be had as a punctual occurrence, for instance, if I buy new clothes to wear, but happiness is something that is the result of a whole set of experiences. The environment we live in — the city — ought to be part of this pursuit of happiness.”

As a self-avowed novice in architecture, Lee named Tadao Ando (安藤忠雄) as his favourite architect. Ando is known for his generous use of cement and concrete and propensity to employ it to draw very simple long lines. He uses these elements to create urban gardens and spaces of enclosure.

“Tadao Ando emphasizes walls and separation,” said Lee. “Does this have relevance to Hong Kong? Yes and no. It is somewhat austere and Hong Kong people may not like it, but Hong Kong is a noisy city, and we may need Ando-Style enclaves.”

Suzhou is another important city to the professor. He praised Chinese-American architect, I.M. Pei’s Suzhou Museum, completed in 2006. The project looks and feels like a traditional Chinese courtyard and garden, yet its materials – gray granite roof, steel structure – are definitely modern.

Leo Lee then discussed the works of Frenchman Patrick Blanc. A botanist, Blanc is the inventor of vertical gardens. “Green walls” provide space for urban agriculture or gardening, while also keeping down temperatures in cities affected by the urban heat island effect.

West Kowloon Cultural District

During the panel discussion, Biennale Chief Curator in Shenzhen, Ou Ning (欧宁), recalled a discussion with a Taiwanese art critic about how the Chinese garden’s ideal is to make earth and heaven in a small space – basically put the big into the small – to make the ideal meet reality.

Marisa Yiu, Biennale Chief Curator in Hong Kong, said that Hong Kong should be inspired by the High Line movement in New York City. The High Line was a former elevated freight railroad in the Manhattan Lower West Side. It was slated for destruction by the Giuliani administration in 1999, but a citizens group convinced the city to save it. The area was transformed into a park and, Ms. Yiu said, one of the most remarkable open public spaces in the city.

Eric Schuldenfrei, curator of the Biennale in Hong Kong, recalled the story of a visit to the grounds of West Kowloon. He said that while we are waiting for development to occur there, nature herself has already reclaimed the land.

“A hardy plant life that can survive deserts and typhoons has already taken over and you can see all sorts of bird species.”

Professor Lee closed by calling on Hong Kong people’s acute sense of improvisation and serendipity to make the West Kowloon Cultural Project work for the city.

— Cedric Sam