Mapping out Hong Kong's skyline
Rocco Yim has already put Hong Kong architecture on the map and if things continue to go his way in 2011, he may have another opportunity to subtly redraw the city’s famous skyline. As the remaining local contender for the high-profile development of the West Kowloon Cultural District, he is likely to be very much in the public eye, a situation he has come to accept, though not one he actively courts.
Trained originally at the University of Hong Kong, Yim started his own practice in 1979 after two years with another firm. He has since won countless accolades and international awards for projects that emphasise social context and benefits for the community.
What first attracted you to the field of architecture?
As a young boy, I was always interested in arts – painting, graphic design and 3D modelling – but I discovered during my late teens that I didn’t have the talent to do that for a living. To be an artist, you need the ability to create something from nothing, a dream or vision that can come from anywhere and is not restricted by any particular consideration. Architecture, though, is about solving practical problems, making things that are useful to society, but doing it with some artistic sensitivity, which seemed to suit me better.
You never really know if you have a talent for architecture before you get into the field and start having to balance the demands and priorities, but I thought it might be the right career choice.
How did your initial training shape your outlook?
When I was in school, it was the final days of the “international architecture” movement, which had become dogmatic, boring and stifling. We had not yet entered the post-modern period with its more liberated thinking and approach, so my early training was both good and not so good. There was an emphasis on solid problem-solving techniques and rational thinking, which still serves me well and gives a strong basis from which to adapt. But the teachers did not stimulate more intellectual, philosophical deliberations on theory and artistic direction, which I felt was important. Education, though, does not stop with school.
Are there aspects of the job you don’t especially enjoy?
I don’t like the scientific, mathematical part. Of course, I know the principles of engineering, but I don’t think any architect will give you all the calculations for a project. For that, we can always call on expert advice.
When starting a new project, what are the key considerations?
Whether it is a museum, concert hall, office building or house, my task is to solve a practical problem and, at the same time, contribute something to the city or location. It should add to the spiritual well-being of the users through either its spatial quality or external form, stimulating certain senses and different ways of thinking. The architect must also consider proportion, colour, texture, lighting, convenience, techniques and technology. Sometimes, one of these is more important, depending on the site or the client’s preferences, but all have a place, and good design is a matter of coming up with the right combination.
Have you tried to develop a signature style?
I don’t it is necessary to have a personal signature irrespective of the location or the building. I don’t believe in deliberately imposing, but at the end of the day, designing is a process of making choices, so some kind of consistent aesthetic quality will probably come through when you work on different buildings.
Fortunately, our office is big enough to have people to handle finance, management and administration. This lets me concentrate on what I do best, while keeping an eye on the business sense of what we are doing, if not the day-to-day dollars and cents. I can’t really understand accounting and I am fairly open about how best to run a business, especially when it is a question of cost effectiveness. Overall, it is essential that I take a lead, but I’m always ready to brainstorm with colleagues, listen to views and come to a consensus.
Do you handle the design side differently?
With designing, I have to set a very clear direction as to our goals and intent, and encourage as many people as possible to contribute to these objectives. Architecture is all about teamwork, especially these days when projects are so complex, but I have to make final decisions on the strategy and the choice of ideas.
Is there a need for increased specialisation?
There are various aspects to any project – interior, exterior, façade – but design is one holistic thing and people must be good at everything. Of course, some are better at conceptualisation, the grand ideas; some are stronger with the technical interpretations; and some are very good at dealing with contractors or liaising with government. Even so, we ask people to do different things on different projects. This also helps to maintain the spirit and well-being of the team.
What is your policy for teaching trainees?
In this business, it is difficult to have a clear-cut methodology, but the best way is to lead by example. For younger team members, understanding the process of thinking and deduction is the hardest part, so we involve them in regular planning and brainstorming sessions. Learning to prepare a layout or a report is easy enough, but the essence of architecture is to provide better than conventional solutions along with an explanation of why those ideas are being proposed.