17 October 2019
Géraldine Borio (L) and Caroline Wüthrich have been studying the relationships between people and their urban spaces. Photo: HKEJ
Géraldine Borio (L) and Caroline Wüthrich have been studying the relationships between people and their urban spaces. Photo: HKEJ

Swiss architects unveil another facet of HK urban landscape

Although Hong Kong is often regarded as a concrete jungle, one can still discover several hidden charms and enjoy many simple pleasures if one makes the effort.

Just ask Géraldine Borio and Caroline Wüthrich.

The Swiss architects have learnt more about our city by strolling through the back lanes and alleys, uncovering some facets that even the locals were almost oblivious to. In their opinion, the vitality of these urban spaces vividly illustrates the spirit of Hong Kong.

Borio and Wüthrich have based themselves in Hong Kong, running their architectural and urban research office, Parallel Lab, as well as teaching at local universities, since 2010. 

Living in Tai Hang, the southeast of Causeway Bay, Borio and Wüthrich have fallen in love with the urban landscape of the back lanes and alleys. Borio finds it incredible to find tiny ‘public spaces’ in the midst of this densely populated city.

“They are accidental spaces that are not planned for public use but are appropriated by the people.”

Captivated by these alternative public spaces, Borio and Wüthrich began researching into the world of back lanes and alleys. “We would like to investigate the urban phenomenon of Hong Kong,” Wüthrich says.

Back lanes and alleys are often avoided by the locals due to fears that some unsavory characters might be lurking in those places. But Boris and Wüthrich say they have never encountered a single unpleasant incident.

They believe that they are able to experience more than the locals since the visitors do not have preconceived notions about the places.

Though Boris and Wüthrich do not understand Cantonese, they do not feel estranged from the inhabitants in the lanes. It goes beyond language to get along with one another down there.

From what they have observed, people go about their own daily routine and chores, without bothering others. “It demonstrates the freedom of urban life,” Wüthrich says.

It is natural that some inhabitants would initially be cautious when they see unfamiliar faces. But when Boris and Wüthrich have explained their reasons for the visits, most of the locals would willingly share their thoughts with the architects.

Boris and Wüthrich also often take their students to assist in the interviews.

Following all their filed trips and observations, Boris and Wüthrich have put forward the STAG project, turning everyone into active participants in public spaces using a portable facility.

Each stag is in fact ‘a stool and a bag’ made by craftsmen in the back alleys using recycled materials. “The best thing to do to blend into a place is to take a seat there,” Wüthrich says.

Moreover, hosting the STAG events also facilitates interactions between the participants and the inhabitants in the alleys.

A book entitled ‘Hong Kong In Between’ has been published, containing Borio and Wüthrich’s research findings on Hong Kong’s back lanes and alleys and offering a record of the unique urban fabric of the city.

The interstitial spaces in between buildings are uniquely quiet and cozy compared to the hectic streets along the main roads, the book points out. They are precious public spaces purely developed by consensus and genuinely appropriated by its people.

Borio and Wüthrich are deeply impressed by this pragmatism of Hong Kong people, especially how they overcome the constrained environment with their power to change.

“Hong Kong people seem unaware of their rare talent,” Borio says. “It is quite similar to what we do as architects.”

Borio and Wüthrich say they will continue to stay in Hong Kong.

While they admit that they still need time to adapt to the noise and the pace of the city, surprisingly, the tiny living space has not bothered them as much.

“Constrained environment can stimulate creativity,” Wüthrich explains. In addition, Borio appreciates the fact that Hong Kong has achieved an excellent balance of the urban and green area.

The architects are currently working on another research project related to Hong Kong, this time related to the Umbrella Movement. They have created some annotated maps with records of the three major protest zones and are now gathering the stories.

“We are interested in the relationships between the intrinsic organization, the spaces and the people in the movement.”

They both agree that Hong Kong people are more concerned about their city after the campaign. “People are not afraid of voicing out opinion or being seen on the streets for democracy.”

Unlike the top-down management and traditional urban planning, the planning of the protest zones has all been self-initiated by the participants.

Wüthrich concludes that the protest zones and back lanes have both offered proof of Hong Kong people’s ability to overcome their constrained environment.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 15.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

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Borio and Wüthrich talk to students in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Photo: HKEJ

Borio and Wüthrich are founders of Parallel Lab, an Asian urban research firm based in Hong Kong. The duo has held film screenings in in back lanes as part of their interactions with locals. Photo: HKEJ

A book entitled ‘Hong Kong In Between’ contains the research findings the Swiss architects had gathered through their travels through Hong Kong’s back lanes and alleys. Photo: HKEJ

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal