The idea of a building in the countryside as a perfectly embodied living shelter in Western tradition stems from Andrea Palladio’s intention to equate country living with the classical temple - the ideal of a perfect geometrical structure resting on the mount.1 Nature, in this respect, is seen as an open ground or a backdrop for the built structure to rest on. These types of architectures were usually more or less symmetrical, or at least in their elevational treatments. Examples like the Villa Rotonda in Vicenza (1592) by Andrea Palladio and the Villa Savoye in Poissy (1931) by Le Corbusier 2 are all in this tradition. They are regarded as objects on ground, viewing nature from their piano nobiles as a form of spectacles and metaphorically, as geometrical orders dominating over nature. This tradition further extended into Corbusier’s Plan Voisin in 1922 and his other variations on his vision of contemporary garden city. This idea of “nature” as a ground and whether the structure either touches lightly or heavily on it, overlooks the wholeness or sacredness of the land in which we are all inseparable.
The East traditionally views the countryside in a very different light. The Chinese see nature not as chaos that is required to be dominated, but as part of the living environment. This Song Dynasty Chinese painting by Liu Songnian (劉松年) 《四景山水圖》illustrates perfectly how the buildings can be situated within landscape, taking whole advantage of the topography and achieving harmony with nature. Historians studied Liu’s paintings for the reason that they meticulously expressed the buildings around Westlake in Hangzhou at the time of the Southern Song Dynasty. In traditional Chinese architecture, we see in operation most of the “modern inventions” of the 5 Points of Architecture promulgated by Le Corbusier in 1926, based on his Domino Frame, which was regarded as essential ingredients for Modern Architecture as against the traditional European load bearing structure with small vertical windows. With the exception of the roof garden and the ribbon window, which is another way to express the non-structurality of the external wall, all the “modernity” can basically be demonstrated here in this building complex illustrated in the Song painting.
During the late 17th and 18th century, Jesuits were working in the Chinese capital as court painters and designers for western style buildings in Yuanming Yuan (圓明園). Among whom, Father Jean Attiret (王致誠), a Jesuit at the imperial court of China, described in his letters one of the structures which adorned the garden of Yuanming Yuan. These records inspired another Jesuit in Paris named Marc-Antoine Laugier, as seen in his seminal work, the Essai sur l’Architecture (1753)3, a theoretical pre-runner of Le Corbusier’s Domino Frame. In 1755, the frontispiece drawing of the Essai by Charles Eisen was published and it showed tree trunks as columns, beams and triangular roof with a totally open structural frame. In comparison to a Chinese painting, executed by Attiret’s colleague, Giuseppe Castiglione (郎世寧) and other court painters, on depicting a scene in Yuanming Yuan in 1738 with the emperor and his family 《弘曆雪景行樂圖》, it appeared the openness of the building structure in Chinese culture had an influence on Laugier in understanding the essential elements of architecture.
The idea of inside and outside as one as well as integrating nature as part of living, have been in the Chinese architectural system for well over a thousand years and the System was exported to other East Asian countries, most notably Korea and Japan. In 1954, Walter Gropius visited Katsura Imperial Villa (17th Century) in Kyoto, Japan, an architecture that was developed out of the Song Dynasty architectural system and shared many of the essential design elements. Such elements included free plan, free facades with the use of timber columns, and integrating beautifully with the surrounding landscape. Gropius wrote a postcard to Le Corbusier in English: “Dear Corbu, all that we have been fighting for has its parallel in old Japanese culture… The Japanese house is the best and most modern that I know and really prefabricated.” 4 While Gropius did not acknowledge its Chinese architectural origin, his compliments did express the modernity of the open frame system.
If one can see a future from the past, the architecture of the 21st century should not be self-centred sculptural objects, whether it is iconic or not. It should be a set of spatial experiences organised around human activities and conceptualised through a series of relationships with our surroundings, like a dialogue with the streets, neighbourhoods or natural settings. Architecture is after all, a place for cultivation and a journey to self-discovery.
The First Realisation: Shatin Community Green Station
The first project to realise the idea of reinterpreting a garden as a place for cultivation was the Shatin Community Green Station (CGS) in 2015. This small project was the start-up of a new design branding for a new typology for education and collection centre for subsequent CGSs in other 17 districts. By using old containers and used bamboos, the pre-fabricated design structures - although temporary - embody a sense of permanent cultural value. The idea of a garden courtyard was to realise a sense of community and a touch of oasis within the heart of the industrial area. It created multiple layers of space from public to private, as an interpretation of pavilions and veranda in Chinese garden.
Hoi Ha Visitor Centre: Design Concept and Response to Nature
The Hoi Ha Visitor Centre is in many ways considered as version 2.0 of Shatin CGS. Located within a beautiful woodland in Sai Kung West Country Park near the Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park, a scenic sea area with diverse marine lives, the Centre comprises a multi-purpose room, a caretakers’ office, reception area, lavatories for visitors and supporting facilities. It serves to introduce the Marine Park to visitors before they proceed to the waterfront.
The idea of responding to the beautiful countryside of Sai Kung is to create a rural settlement in the manner of an old traditional village with individual buildings that are organically related to the surrounding landscape. The focus of the architectural composition centres on the existing lawn which forms a plateau for outdoor gatherings and as a place of mediation between buildings and nature. The multi-purpose room, designed as a glass pavilion facing the heart of the village, relates directly to the lawn as a form of continuity between the inside and outside spaces. Together with the caretaker’s office and other service areas, this small-town like atmosphere with different varieties of veranda and small courtyard spaces, closely knitted together to form a comprehensive character of a locus that reinterprets the idea of old traditional village in a new manner.
The intention of the Centre is to create a retreat for visitors in the countryside, enabling close contact with nature. Inspirations come from traditional villages with organic settings; and their houses with climatic responsive features including deep overhangs, sun screens, verandahs, as well as operable doors on facades, which are translated as glass walls and sliding doors in the multipurpose room enabling fusion of indoor and outdoor spaces. The architecture of the Visitor Centre and its surrounding area is designed for contemplation. The organisation of the plan and the elevational elements are picturesque. Its composition provides a foreground and forms a unity with the natural landscape behind where the inside and the outside are merged into one.
Areas of Innovation
Research was conducted on nature-responsive design from the perspectives of traditional village and advanced building technologies. Insights were drawn from the organic disposition and passive climatic responsive features in rural settlement. The layout of the Centre was carefully planned to preserve most of the existing trees so that visitors could rest under their shades.
Large operable windows and large sliding glass doors were installed between the multi-purpose room and the peripheral sheltered spaces. They enable natural ventilation when weather permits, and allow users’ close contact with the natural environment while enjoying the facilities in the Centre. North-facing glazing and timber screens reduce direct sunlight and solar heat gain, while allowing diffused natural daylight to penetrate into the indoor spaces of the multi-purpose room.
Building technologies in sustainable building systems were utilised to reduce environmental impact during construction of the project. As the site is far from urban areas, constructability was carefully considered during design. Some facilities, including caretaker offices and toilets, were designed as steel transportable-sized units; the structural frame and roof of the multi-purpose room, the metal canopy and metal mesh facade were also made of steel. These steel elements were prefabricated in factories and transported to site for installation. This enabled complicated procedures to be conducted in factories where quality workmanship could be ensured.
Materials were carefully chosen to correspond with the rural setting and to reduce impact to the environment. Sawn cut timber formwork was used for fair-faced concrete walls, which saved further plastering and created natural timber texture. Timber used in the project are from sustainably managed forests. Part of the pavements and toe walls are constructed of granite boulders unearthed during site excavation to minimise disposal to public landfill and help to reduce carbon footprint.
The project also adopts a number of sustainable measures during operation to reduce impact to nature, while demonstrating to visitors on the related building technologies. Solar photovoltaic panels and solar bollard lights are installed to contribute to the Centre’s electricity needs. An electrical metre is installed to show visitors the amount of electricity generated to promote the use of green energy. A rainwater collection system was adopted to recycle the rain water. The rain water from the roof is collected, filtered, sterilised and stored for flushing and irrigation use. Moreover, the Centre is not connected to the city’s main sewage system due to the remoteness of the site. A small-scale bio-treatment plant was therefore provided, with all wastewater generated in the centre being treated locally via biological methods. Drinking fountains and water refill stations were installed as an eco-friendly alternative to harmful waste associated with disposable plastic bottles. Additionally, bicycle parking racks are available for cycling visitors.
Social Responsible Design for a Better World
The Centre aims at enhancing public understanding of Hong Kong’s marine environment and raising awareness in marine conservation, promoting a better understanding of the objectives and functions of marine parks in Hong Kong, and in particular introducing biodiversity in Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park.
The Centre serves as an introduction to visitors before they proceed to the waterfront of the Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park. The Centre’s multi-purpose room and surrounding sheltered outdoor spaces are flexibly used for small group learning and displays, which introduce Hong Kong's protected marine areas, precious marine ecological resources and the history of Hoi Ha.
Public consultations with stakeholders including local villagers and conservation groups were held at an early stage of the project to address the concerns raised and to incorporate suggestions in the project design, such as reducing building height and site coverage to minimise visual impact to the natural environment. After its completion, the Centre has continued to function as a base for conducting regular meetings with local villagers and conservation groups, as well as monitoring the resources in the marine park.
Our relations with nature in Chinese culture were characterised by consonance and communion. In the West, the idea of oscillating between the two dualistic extremes of human supremacy or of human inadequacy is to deny that nature has to be understood on her own terms. The architecture of the Hoi Ha Visitor Centre brings out the spatiality of its natural surroundings. This sense of aliveness is to be conscious of emptiness that permeates all around us both inside and outside. Instead of just focusing on the objects and forms, the emphasis of the design is on the empty space and the various gaps between the forms. This awareness is to show that space, which is not in time (that includes all objects irrespectively of their sizes) is prior to existence. To allow one to notice the silence of the mind is the essence of nature in Chinese culture.
Mr. Thomas Wan is currently a Chief Architect of Architectural Services Department overseeing in-house design projects, and has won over 70 local and international architectural awards for his projects.