優秀的城市都是觸覺敏銳的城市 ∣ Great Cities are Sensitive Cities
約翰百德 (John BATTEN)
at 11:07am on 16th November 2016
1. 建築師對九龍城伯特利神學院的構思圖 Architect’s rendition of Bethel Bible Seminary extension in Kowloon City - showing architect's design behind the heritage Sun Hok building
2. 中環大會堂內部 Interior of City Hall Theatre, Central
(Please scroll down for English version)
珍．雅各（Jane Jacob）影響深遠的著作《偉大城市的誕生與衰亡：美國都市街道生活的啟發》（The Death and Life of Great American Cities，1961年出版）最能解釋一個優秀的城市應具備哪些城市規劃特質。雅各的其中一項觀察到了今天仍然未變，就是安全的街道，就是那些人類活動頻繁的地方。良好的人類活動正正與觸覺敏銳的城市規劃息息相關，能讓人們善用街上的空間。雅各的概念簡單而合理，當時不少學者最初都看不起她的想法。例如在上世紀五、六十年代，美國人對汽車著迷，這個情況在現今香港仍然發生，六線行車的天橋會切過早已建成的市區範圍，活活地扼殺了有機形成、朝氣勃勃的社區，天橋底下的新建成空間亦變成「死位」。由於沒有街道活動，這些空間事實上也相當危險。建築本身無可避免地帶來了公眾不希望看見的活動。
「非自願」的說法可說最準確不過。不管是氣氛剛好的地方，還是在美學上吸引眼球的畫作，你所看所感的即時反應都是非自願的。英語中「相信直覺」會以「go with your gut feeling」（直譯正是隨著腸子裡的感覺行動）來形用，這裡便十分適用：你所感受到的美好應該會是美好的；你覺得不對勁的往往也是不對勁的。
Great Cities are Sensitive Cities
What makes a “great city”? It’s the sort of a topic one of Hong Kong’s international chambers of commerce might organise with a visiting businessman promoting “fun, vibrancy and innovation.” Or, it could be a seminar title that a Hong Kong university, government department, NGO or industry organisation builds around a group of visiting academics giving sage advice. In such talk-shops, any good ideas often disappear as quickly as they are uttered.
Jane Jacob’s seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) best explains the urban planning attributes of good cities. One of her observations, which holds true today, is that safe streets are streets that are vibrant with human activity, and good human activity is related to sensitive urban planning allowing people to use the streets. Jacob’s concepts were so plainly sensible that academics were initially dismissive of her ideas. For example, in car-obsessed 1950s and 60s USA, and still happening today in Hong Kong, the construction of a six-lane road overpass through an established urban area kills an organic, vibrant community and creates ‘dead’ newly built areas, the space below an overpass, that is actually dangerous because there is no street activity. The architecture itself inevitably attracts undesirable activities.
Urban planning activists in Hong Kong understandably concentrate on such issues: the city’s poor urban planning and unfriendly street environment. We are lucky that the magnificent Victoria Harbour and its surrounding steeped hills with layers of different building heights give an instant panorama-landscape ambience and a warm, palpable familiarity. Hong Kong’s ambience is further reinforced by such places as Mong Kok with its exciting waves of human and commercial activity. Great cities need a special organic, not contrived, ambience. Victoria Harbour and Mong Kok’s buzz give Hong Kong that special instant ambience.
It is all so obviously worth protecting! Protection starts around the corner from you – it starts with individual buildings, beautiful indoor and outdoor spaces, older urban neighbourhoods and our countryside. Our love for our city is an accumulation of every one of these places. Some maybe unknown or obscure, you have probably never entered St Anthony’s Church, near the University of Hong Kong: do pop in, its interior is minimal modernism at its best. Or, walk upstairs anytime and look inside the City Hall Theatre in Central: Hong Kong artist Ho Sin Tung described the theatre’s geometric wall decoration as “the trapezoid universe” – and it is! Spaces that have a quiet, almost reverent-like atmosphere hit a viewer’s aesthetic nerve.
Similarly, in a new biography of Mark Rothko, his son Christopher Rothko explains how his father’s abstract paintings were often felt:
“The word I most frequently hear from viewers who love Rothko’s work is, in fact, moving. The word is significant because it speaks to the physicality of our emotional response. We are on such an elemental level that we are having a bodily reaction to the work. We are at the critical place where the physical, the chemical, and the thought-driven elements of our nervous system come together to produce an emotional reaction…when the interaction between viewer and painting really occurs, a chord is struck and the reaction is, at least in part, basic, physical, and involuntary.”
‘Involuntary’ is most accurate. Whether it is a place with the right ambience, or art that is aesthetically engaging for the viewer, the immediate reaction to what you are seeing and feeling will be involuntary. That old phrase, “go with your gut feeling” is applicable here – what you experience that is good is probably good, and that which is bad is probably bad.
Alongside good urban planning outcomes, Hong Kong also lacks much sensitivity to the protection of a place’s ambience and aesthetic excellence. The latest examples include the possible demolition of the old State Theatre in North Point. This is such a landmark building, anything less than its intact preservation would be stupid. Go on government, spend some of our fiscal reserves and buy it and turn it back into a theatre – it will be well patronized and, importantly, loved!
And then in Kowloon City, the Bethel Bible Seminary made a deal with government years ago and agreed to the preservation of its headquarters. Now they want to build a large extension behind the Sun Hok heritage building. The design is incredibly insensitive to its own heritage and the low-rise history of Mansung College across the road. Such an ugly design is unacceptable. Go on Antiquities Advisory Board and Antiquities & Monuments Office: reject this design!
This essay was originally published in Ming Pao Weekly, 29 October 2016