The Real is the Ideal

The Square and the Big Tree in Lo Uk Tsuen Village

On 24 January 2013, I was standing under a big tree on a little square in Lo Uk Tsuen (羅屋村). Its trunk was protected by a small circular stone wall and in front of it, yet still under its crown, incense was burning in a small matching stone censer. A few kids were playing, a lady was doing her laundry, and several persons passed by. It looked like the heart of one of the villages or ‘tsuens’ of Hung Shui Kiu. It also acted as its entrance as it was positioned at its edge. The houses around were extended with all kinds of annexes and extra levels. On the streets, residents appropriated space with pot plants and a variety of other things. The density was clearly quite high and the urban space felt like a living room. An old-school figure ground analyses wouldn’t give us much open space. When I walked beyond the tree, street-like corridors led me to the next tsuen. Here in Tung Tau (東頭村), built structures and urban spaces more or less looked the same, but a small monumental temple place had adopted the communal role. People sitting under a line of trees aside looked at me with questioning eyes. They scanned who I was and why on earth my students and I were making pictures of this space. Walking out again, I faced huge piles of containers, rusty remaining relics of Modern society. At its backcloth the residential high-rise of Tin Shui Wai.


Decades have been past in which high-rise buildings, slabs and long horizontal volumes were the designer’s universal toolbox for many problems. Standardisation and normalisation went hand in hand with forms intending to follow functions which society was never aware of. Dwelling became a ‘residential function’ and a neighbourhood a ‘residential area’. Work was somewhere else. Small scale urban space was departed to serve the increase of mobility between all those areas and in the newly labelled ‘infra-structure’ the human scale seemed lost. In the past, my university was one of the hot spots of the international scene of the High Modernists. In a fast temp, my country had been transfigurated in a nation-wide utopia of functional mapping, in which professionals and politicians were pointing out areas for massive urban development with ditto architecture. There was not a single square metre without a land use plan. It has brought us a million benefits: Fine houses, clean and healthy workplaces, places to spend leisure time and the best transport imaginable at those days. But – as a figure of speech – in time we discovered that the city isn’t a machine nor are people gears. The Modern ideal wasn’t so simple in reality. People do not move on assembly lines in large open spaces. In the past decades, we have made many alterations in designing the contemporary city. The use of the city is considered as highly complex involving innumerable actors. The rediscovered importance of urban space is to allow interaction, blurring and multiplicity. We are loosing the reins while trying to ride the city and allow the unexpected in our urban design. These are the most recent lessons learned in Delft.


Hong Kong is still coping with a large influx of people. By matter of course, new urban areas are needed. With the proximity of the Yuen Long and Kong Sham highways, Hung Shui Kiu is designated to be the next development area. Add to this a stop of a proposed high speed railway between Kowloon, Shenzhen and Guangzhou and possible other express rail links within the territories: With plans or without, the area will urbanise. The question is ‘how?’. Nowadays, the city of tomorrow passed by and the real is the ideal. What we see in the tsuens is close to what ultimately we may see in Tin Shui Wai too. Despite its functional if not mechanical design, people recreate the human scale simply because they interact, gather and use urban space in many ways. Alteration, appropriation and home-grown redesign can be the essence of the next ‘new’ town. Blue print design does not exist as long as people are present. There are always urban patterns to continue on. We have to follow ancient trails beyond the tree and the temple. They will become paths to serve socio-spatial change continuously in the city as long as professional design ideologies do not block the road.


Harteveld, Maurice (2014, March) The Square and the Big Tree in Lo Uk Tsuen Village, In: Reflections, Volume 2, Issue 1, March 2014, Re-Do New Town, Questions from Hung Shui Kiu, Hong Kong: School of Architecture, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, pp. 98-101

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