Cover Rocco Yim in his studio (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong)

Rocco Yim, the architect behind some of Hong Kong’s most recognisable landmarks, reveals what he has in store for two major new public attractions

Wherever you are in Hong Kong, no matter which way you look, the streets and skyline are filled with buildings designed by Rocco Yim. From creating the government headquarters in Tamar to Tai Kwun to the Four Seasons Hotel and iSquare mall, the veteran architect has been one of the city’s most influential forces in design during his 42-year career. Yim’s steady hand and talent for designing buildings that mesh seamlessly with their neighbourhoods have earned him commissions for two of Hong Kong’s largest upcoming projects, one on each side of Kowloon.

At 68, Yim himself is slight and unassuming with a gentle demeanour. His office in North Point is plain, adorned only with stacks of books and small paintings. There are few traces of the countless awards he and his company, Rocco Design Architects, have won, including the merit award at last November’s Hong Kong Institute of Architects Annual Awards for his plans for the iADC Design Museum in Shenzhen.

“The worst architect is one that is self-centred. The best is one who can imagine what advantage his or her work can bring to the community. This is my first and foremost design principle,” he says from his desk, via Zoom.

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Yim’s latest projects, the East Kowloon Cultural Centre and the Hong Kong Palace Museum, are scheduled for completion this year and in July 2022, respectively.

The HK$3.3 billion East Kowloon Cultural Centre will transform Hong Kong into “an international city of arts and culture”, said Carrie Lam, then chief secretary, at the foundation laying ceremony in 2016. At the junction of Kwun Tong Road and Ngau Tau Kok Road, the modern glass complex will feature a 1,200-seat multipurpose auditorium for music, theatre and dance, a 550-seat theatre, exhibition spaces and three studios for dance, drama and music that can accommodate up to 250 people.

Yim’s practice has been hailed for its pedestrian-friendly details in a city where private car ownership is low and congested living conditions warrant intuitive and efficient routes for those on foot. “In creating architecture it’s important that we enhance the pedestrian experience wherever possible, meaning that we try to ensure seamless flows of movement and therefore, possibly, social interaction,” he says.

East Kowloon Cultural Centre will be a hub for the area, linking Kowloon Bay MTR Station with Amoy Gardens and other residential developments. “When people travel by the MTR for work every day, they’ll pass by the cultural centre and be attracted or influenced by art to some degree. No matter whether they appreciate art or not, the cultural centre is designed in a way to welcome and connect everyone in the city with art, which is something not a lot of cultural buildings in Hong Kong or even museums overseas have achieved,” Yim says. 

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Meanwhile, the HK$3.5 billion Hong Kong Palace Museum will sit at the tip of the West Kowloon Cultural District. Named after its partner museum in Beijing, the Hong Kong outpost will have nearly 85,000 sq ft of gallery space to showcase ancient treasures borrowed from the Forbidden City, the former residence of Ming and Qing dynasty emperors, which houses 1.8 million historic works of art.

These two landmark projects will add to his list of more than 110 constructions in Hong Kong and mainland China, the inspiration for each of which has its roots in Yim’s childhood.

Born in Hong Kong in 1952, Yim lived with his family in Causeway Bay when he was a child. Each day after school, Yim would explore the neighbourhoods surrounding his home. “Each place was unique: the wet market was vibrant; the incense smoke-filled Tin Hau Temple was mysterious. I especially loved spotting little frogs at the water channel next to the slope of Queen’s College [a boys’ school in the district] after the rain. It’s wonderful to find nature in a busy city,” he recalls.

“When I walked uphill, there were wooden sheds put together by people who didn’t have a proper place to live in the period after the Second World War. It was a town on a hill by itself and blended natural and manmade landscapes together.” These observations piqued a young Yim’s interest in the diverse urban landscapes of Hong Kong, and motivated him as an adult to create imaginative ways to elevate the built environment of his home city.

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No matter whether they appreciate art or not, the cultural centre is designed in a way to welcome and connect everyone in the city with art
Rocco Yim

Despite focusing his studies on the sciences at secondary school, Yim enjoyed art, too. So it is not surprising that he found his way into a career that combines the disciplines, although architecture was an uncommon career choice at that time. In 1950, the University of Hong Kong (HKU) was the first university in Hong Kong to set up a department of architecture—long before the city’s other institutions followed suit in the Nineties. When Yim entered HKU, he picked architecture as it was “a discipline of arts that solved problems”.

After graduating in the early Seventies, Yim was hired by Spence Robinson, an architectural company that was founded in 1904 in Shanghai and moved to Hong Kong in 1947. However, he set up his own studio in 1979 after hearing a friend’s relative was seeking an architect to design something unconventional in Kowloon Tong. Yim decided this was his shot: he took on the project, which became the Franki Centre, a seven-storey, futuristic shopping mall. When it was completed in 1981, it was heralded by local design magazines and earned Yim the merit prize of the year from the Hong Kong Institute of Architects.

From then on, augmenting the environment around his buildings and creating breathing spots in urban areas have become Yim’s signatures. In 1999, when tasked with designing Hollywood Terrace on a steep slope in Sheung Wan, he made use of an elevated platform to create podium gardens and built a footbridge allowing the public to walk from Queen’s Road Central to Hollywood Road. “I wanted to enhance urban connectivity and reduce people’s reliance on transport to reduce air pollution,” he says.

One of his most visible and high-profile commissions was the Central Government Complex in Tamar, composed of a distinctive archway building with a public lawn that flows through to the harbourfront. The “doors always open” design isn’t just a symbol of diplomacy, Yim says. “It’s also an urban gesture that connects the city centre to the seaside and diffuses the boundary between public and private spaces.”

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Completed in 2019, the 103-metre-tall Wesleyan House Methodist International Church, aka the “skyscraper church”, in Happy Valley prioritises natural light to create an “open and welcoming” atmosphere throughout 22 storeys, incorporating a chapel, a worship hall, an auditorium, choir practice rooms and staff residential quarters.

Yim’s two upcoming cultural commissions are defined by the same respect for natural elements, though East Kowloon is built in Images an existing neighbourhood, unlike the Hong Kong Palace Museum, which is being built in an empty space. “East Kowloon makes use of and enhances the characteristics of its neighbourhood,” he says. “The south of East Kowloon is an old district teeming with life—it has ground-level shops and street life. The north is a transportation hub; there aren’t a lot of shops or pedestrians but factories and highways. People mainly travel at the MTR station on the second floor. With East Kowloon, I hope to bring together people on the second and ground floors. Like Tamar, it’ll be a pedestrian venue and connection point that injects new life to the old area when it opens.”

Imagining a better city is an ongoing dream for Yim, who has an instinct for weaving his buildings into both the fabric of the city and the lives of Hongkongers. “My architecture isn’t just a solution to urban problems; it has a unique purpose of making Hong Kong’s spiritual and cultural life fuller. I hope my two new cultural centres connect the city and its people to the arts.”

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