Architect Jason Hilgefort Thinks It’s Time For Hong Kong To Reach Beyond Its Boundaries For Its Cultural Growth

Installation of “Landscapes of Data” for the 2019 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB). Image courtesy of Land+Civilization Compositions.
Installation of “Landscapes of Data” for the 2019 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB). Image courtesy of Land+Civilization Compositions.
Illustration of Belt Road Initiative for “Transitional School” intallation for the 2018 Istanbul Biennale. Graphic by Monique Wong. Image courtesy of Land+Civilization Compositions.
Urban Pebbles, at Wan Chai Waterfront, Hong Kong, 2021. Image courtesy of Land+Civilization Compositions.
Hongqiao Park in Shenzhen, in collaboration LOLA Landscape Architects and Taller Architects, 2020. Image courtesy of Land+ Civilization Compositions.
Hongqiao Park in Shenzhen, in collaboration LOLA Landscape Architects and Taller Architects, 2020. Image courtesy of Land+ Civilization Compositions.
Rendering of New Shenzhen Bay Park, Deep Bay, in collaboration with LOLA Landscape Architects and Taller Architects, 2020. Image courtesy of Land+Civilization Compositions.
Community engagement work along Tung O Trail, in collaboration with Hong Kong Design Centre and MakerBay, 2020. Image courtesy of Land+Civilization Compositions.
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Zhang Jian-Jun Human Traces

“Many see Hong Kong as ‘full’, but for me it is time to extend and embrace.” Hong Kong and its neighbouring Shenzhen are often put in the centre of comparisons of megacities. Having worked and lived in both metropolises, architect and urban theorist Jason Hilgefort shares with us how Hong Kong’s thriving yet malleable cultural scene, coupled with the Greater Bay Area’s increasingly interconnected infrastructural, economic and legal initiatives, can result in great strides in the region’s creative growth.

 

TEXT: Jacob Dreyer
IMAGES: Land+Civilization Compositions

Jason Hilgefort, architect, urban theorist, and curator, came to Shenzhen in 2015; fascinated by the region’s dynamism, he stayed, moving to Hong Kong a year later. Ever optimistic, he sees opportunities for Hong Kong’s cultural sector—museums, universities, and a generation of newly engaged youth—to build a city that can be “the Manhattan of the Greater Bay Area”. Over the course of a long interview, he shared with us his view of how art institutions articulate and activate artists and creative communities in Hong Kong, and the surprising reasons for his optimism about the city’s future.

You came to Hong Kong originally because of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB), right? How do the arts institutions of the city—from Tai Kwun and the Hong Kong Museum of Art to the West Kowloon Cultural District—help to nourish the creative scene?

Yes, I did come originally for the Hong Kong / Shenzhen Biennale, I was a sub-curator and ran the educational platform for the Shenzhen side of things. This base of starting in Shenzhen and then shifting to Hong Kong later allowed me to “walk on both sides of the line”. I find the explosion of new museums and facilities that are about to open up in Hong Kong and Shenzhen to be quite exhilarating to be here for. Tai Kwun has already raised the bar in regards to not just the quality of exhibitions, but also in terms of the types of cultural professionals that are in the region. With West Kowloon Cultural District in motion, and Shenzhen commissioning 10 new museums to open in the next five years, the region as a whole is maturing to into a place that can more aptly showcase and reflect what is going on locally.

 

Installation of “Landscapes of Data” for the 2019 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB). Image courtesy of Land+Civilization Compositions.
Installation of “Landscapes of Data” for the 2019 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB). Image courtesy of Land+Civilization Compositions.

 

At a time when some in Hong Kong are moving to London or elsewhere, what about Hong Kong excites you?

I lived in North America and Europe prior to settling here five years ago. Those places are littered with cultural institutions that are lovely and doing great work, but are often inflexible, with a limited potential audience. The thrilling reality here is that there are in fact long legacies, but a more fluid, malleable cultural scene. Plus, really, as far as I am concerned Hong Kong is the perfect place to be in our current times—it has one foot in China, one foot out; it is at the centre of a five-hour flight radius that includes half the world’s population and rapidly evolving cultures.

 

Illustration of Belt Road Initiative for “Transitional School” intallation for the 2018 Istanbul Biennale. Graphic by Monique Wong. Image courtesy of Land+Civilization Compositions.

 

Tell us about some places and projects in Hong Kong that excite you these days.

We have been very fortunate to be able to operate both in the context of Shenzhen and Hong Kong. This has allowed us to pursue a few different aspects of our field. Perhaps most noteworthy is our work on Tung O Trail on northern Lantau Island [along with MakerBay and Hong Kong Design Centre (HKDC)]. This project is not “just design”, but is the framework for the community improvements to come. These will be done by locals, NGOs, and assorted other partners. We see this as not a one off project, but a prototype. There are many challenges facing the peripheral spaces of Hong Kong. These places have been mostly overlooked for decades if not centuries; but the virus and the desire of urban Hong Kong folks to get out of the city, has emphasised the value and vulnerability of these places.

In another vein, the transformation of Hong Kong waterfronts in the past few years has been incredible. And there were a few gaps for younger designers to find their way to contribute to the Hong Kong public space. We recently installed our “urban pebbles” piece at the freshly opened Wan Chai waterfront. We wanted to as a base provide a flexible space to sit with friends, but also wanted to remind folks that the waterfront could and should be more of a transition from sea to land to city to hills. Our playful reference to pebbles attempts to highlight the irony of the hard line between nature and city in most Hong Kong waterfront conditions.

 

Urban Pebbles, at Wan Chai Waterfront, Hong Kong, 2021. Image courtesy of Land+Civilization Compositions.

 

How has Shenzhen informed your work?

For sure our most eye-catching project of the last year [with LOLA Landscape Architects and Taller Architects] is the recently opened Hongqiao Park in Guangming, Shenzhen, which is a 10-minute walk from the high-speed rail station along the line from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. Certainly our Instagram friendly red path that links from the urban edge to the hillsides has drawn attention (We saw there were 350,000 visitors to the park during the Lunar New Year. But for us we are able to express and share with users a visual up-close experience of layers of ecological systems through this soft sloping and weaving pathway. Further, for the programming of the park, it is not just about sports and nature. We have designed and programmed the park to be about innovation. The play spaces leave room for interpretation and evolution over time. And we have included a research and development (R&D) centre and nursery within the park. Allowing visitors to understand how the natural systems of the park function and how they will change in the coming decades. Shenzhen has more opportunities for design firms to pitch bigger ideas, but not just looking to merely build.

 

Hongqiao Park in Shenzhen, in collaboration LOLA Landscape Architects and Taller Architects, 2020. Image courtesy of Land+ Civilization Compositions.
Hongqiao Park in Shenzhen, in collaboration LOLA Landscape Architects and Taller Architects, 2020. Image courtesy of Land+ Civilization Compositions.

 

Many Hongkongers feel alienated from the mainland—politically, culturally, and economically. What do you tell your students, or the younger designers on your team, about the Greater Bay Area?

Shenzhen and Hong Kong’s similarities are not discussed enough. Hong Kong was the city barreling ahead in the last century and now it is Shenzhen flying forward wildly. In both cases there is a need to adapt the cities after the rush. It is in light of this shared reality that we are now working on setting up a Greater Bay Area Placemaking Week.

What I see in my students, staff, and friends [is that] those that are wanting to stay do not “just want a job at a good office” anymore. I see a sharp rise in the number of young folks starting new initiatives, joining NGOs, and being active in their community. Despite all the justified frustrations with some of the realities going down in the city, it seems to have inspired political engagement and idealism that wasn’t so common in previous generations.

Where do you see the future of your practice, and of architecture/urbanism/academia in Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area more generally, in the coming decades?

One of the many pleasures of the Greater Bay Area is that within a relatively small area there is a wide array of very special cultural and environmental contexts. We see this as a great challenge to take on, to both link what binds it, yet celebrate the individual character. As an example of this point, in Shenzhen we are also working on the waterfront, but on a totally different scale. We [again with LOLA Landscape Architects and Taller Architects] are designing the 10-kilometre-long waterfront on the north side of Deep Bay. In this context we have been encouraged to push our ideas of how to culturally programme a space in light of Shenzhen’s fast emerging urban forms, and how to give citizens a deeper connection to the natural systems of the Bay and the greater Delta network. As the region integrates through infrastructure, economic and legal initiatives, interesting design opportunities along the edges of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and many of the spaces in the Greater Bay Area are emerging as they begin to form interfaces with each other.

 

Rendering of New Shenzhen Bay Park, Deep Bay, in collaboration with LOLA Landscape Architects and Taller Architects, 2020. Image courtesy of Land+Civilization Compositions.

 

Many see Hong Kong as “full”, but for me it is time to extend and embrace. By this I mean both its linkages to the Greater Bay Area only give greater opportunity and cultural context to what this city’s foundations and futures are. And within the bounds of Hong Kong, when I see the potentials of the peripheral of the city to play a greater role in its future cultural growth, and the increased interest in the younger society to reframe these edges; I see a lush cultural landscape to inhabit and grow within.

 

Community engagement work along Tung O Trail, in collaboration with Hong Kong Design Centre and MakerBay, 2020. Image courtesy of Land+Civilization Compositions.

 

 

 

 
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