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SHA's speech at New Trends of Architecture exhibition


Following is the speech (English only) delivered by the Secretary for Home Affairs, Dr Patrick Ho, at the opening ceremony of the New Trends of Architecture in Europe and Asia-Pacific 2004-05 Exhibition held at the Hong Kong Central Library today (January 5):

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I should like to begin tonight by questioning the nature of architecture and what it means to us -- and to me in particular. I have always thought of architecture, quite simply, as art applied to the science of living. I believe that it defines our social environment and provides the very core of our civic pride.

When I look at any city, what do I see first as its most distinctive feature if not its architecture? How can I think of New York without seeing its Empire State Building, London without its Houses of Parliament, Paris without its Eiffel Tower, Sydney without its Opera House, Shanghai without its Bund or Beijing without its Imperial Palace?

Throughout history, architecture, as mother of all arts, has given us the apparatus of our existence, the framework within which we have developed our distinctive cultures that have included our religious beliefs and spiritual traditions. We built our architectural monuments to last, and many were used to glorify our gods. Their ruins enshrine our collective memories.

These great milestones of architecture have marked our successive civilisations from the Dunhuang Cave of China to the Pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, from the Acropolis of Athens to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. And the very age of those antiquities testifies to the fact that architecture is man's most enduring achievement, living on long after the epochs that gave birth to its creations.

Architects, as spatial artists who turn spaces into forms, bear a huge responsibility to our individual societies -- a responsibility not to be taken lightly, for its consequences may well outlive their authors.

The architect has to think in many dimensions. At one level he works within the restraints of a given space, taking into account the logistical requirements of the purpose for which that space is intended. Here he must tackle the purely measurable expanse in terms of height, floor area, plot ratio and widths.

Beyond that is a fourth dimension, or what I might term the virtual space that will impart the character of the whole. Virtual space is a spiritual space, a cultural space. This type of space creates an environment of expression, reflection, enlightenment, glorification, appreciation and celebration of life. Here the architect ventures across physical boundaries into the metaphysical realm of the extra-sensory that will shape the very soul of his construct.

In this he is not alone. Every great architect throughout history has pondered the question "If these stones can speak, what will they say? What do I wish them to say?" That timeless question remains with us no matter how far we pursue our new trends in architecture.

Is there such a thing as international architecture? Certainly there are international architects, whose works are spread all over the world. Perhaps this great extra-territorial globe we all inhabit is becoming so homogenised that what might suit Berlin or Buenos Aires would not look out of place in Singapore or Tokyo.

But I would hope that architects continue to take account of the cultures of those cities that commission their works, so that what is there already has a bearing on what they seek to impose, which in turn will re-invigorate the ethos of its citizens and influence their future civic development.

Great architectural statements are seen as all the greater if they serve as fitting extensions to the environments in which they are placed.

Architects do not work in vacuums, totally divorced from the other sciences. They must be part social scientists, considering how the dimensions and availability of living space will impact upon the living culture, customs and interpersonal relationships of the resident community. They must also be part psychologists, taking account of how their designs will affect the character, temperament and mood of its users.

It was instinctive in traditional Chinese architects to take feng shui into account, so that their works blended harmoniously with their natural surroundings. Traditional Chinese buildings required symmetry and balance of forms and the architectural design reflected interpersonal and family relationships. They did not intrude into the natural environment but embraced nature as a major component of, and contributor to, their architectural whole.

Alas nature is in retreat from most of our cities today, so that we can no longer afford to use its natural products in our material designs. Our incorporation of wood, for example, once so prized by traditional Chinese architects for its symbolism of nature and as a building material that once had life or continues to have life, must now be extremely discreet and selective, if only because -- proportionally -- there is so little of it left.

Nowadays the building materials most frequently used emphasise extravagance of detail over harmonious integrity. They employ marble, sheets of glasses, metal, crystal and large Roman fountains. The more ostentatious are named after palaces, manors, courts and so on. Little attention has been paid to blending in with the environment and the natural elements.

No wonder much of our modern architecture has often been criticised for having little to do with culture and the arts. Such buildings appear to serve other purposes. Among these are inorganic structures, built in the last half century, that are monuments to a movement based on erasing the past. Now they stand at the centre of a preservation puzzle: what to keep and what to pull down to satisfy the whims of popular taste? Although these were buildings designed to endure, most will not outlast the tides of change.

What, then, should be our guiding principle as we explore the exciting possibilities of new trends in architecture? Modern living requires quality space. In this new age we must not lose sight of the fact that architecture is an art form that blends real space and virtual space. The job of an architect is to fill the real space with life, imagination and spiritual freshness, and extract from its virtual space a modern outlook.

For all these reasons I believe that our new trends in architecture must borrow at least one leaf from the pages of the past, in that they continue to harmonise, stimulate, enhance, interpret, and lend new meanings to what is already there.

On this note, let me thank you for this opportunity to address you this evening.

Ends/Wednesday, January 5, 2005


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