Cover The Repulse Bay, arguably one of Hong Kong's most famous buildings with a "hole." Photo: Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels

No, it’s not because of feng shui. In this new series, we ask Hong Kong architects, designers and real estate pros to answer your burning questions about the city’s property landscape

Hong Kong has an unusual number of high-rises designed with “holes” in their midst—gaps that are seemingly left in the middle of an otherwise dense building.

The urban legend that these designs exist for feng shui reasons has persisted for years. The Repulse Bay, located on the Southside of Hong Kong island, is possibly the most famous example. 

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The luxury residential complex was built in 1986 by Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, which also operates The Peninsula Hotels. The group had demolished the iconic, colonial-style Repulse Bay Hotel—built back in 1920—in order to make way for a residential high-rise.

When the new property was completed, revealing the now famous “hole” design, it set tongues wagging.

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“Legend has it that The Repulse Bay’s exceptional location is enjoyed by a family of dragons that lives in the surrounding hills,” says Martyn Sawyer, Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels’ Group Director, Properties. It was believed that the building was designed in such a way in order not to block “the mother dragon and her children” from her path into the ocean, he adds—obstructing their daily ritual of bathing in seawater would bring bad luck to the site.

Sadly, this wasn’t what inspired the distinctive design—even though the architects behind The Repulse Bay did, in fact, take the principles of feng shui into consideration, explains Sawyer.

Dubbed Sky Gardens, the gaps take inspiration from development’s beautiful natural surroundings. “The building was designed to reflect a lifestyle that is free, modern, casual and relaxed, where residents may enjoy plenty of greenery, sunlight, fresh air and a gentle sea breeze,” says Sawyer. The curvilinear wall, meanwhile, corresponds to the contours of Repulse Bay.

But what about the other buildings around the city designed with “holes”? 

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Asia’s Walled City

To dive into why Hong Kong has so many high-rises with holes, we have to first look into the phenomenon of “wall-effect buildings”, also known as “walled buildings”.

In the 1980s, “clusters of skyscrapers [that] stand close together, resembling a ‘wall’”—as described in an academic paper on wall-effect buildings published by scientific journal platform MDPI—began to emerge in Hong Kong.

The motivation behind this design? Developers looking to build and sell as many units as possible on the gross floor area they have to work with. 

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“One of the earliest wall-effect buildings and perhaps the most infamous is probably Provident Centre along the waterfront of North Point,” says Hoyin Lee, Director of the Architectural Conservation Programmes at the University of Hong Kong.

Completed in the 1980s, Provident Centre (pictured below) is located by the waterfront in the North Point neighbourhood on Hong Kong island—and considered “the landmark development that started the concern for massive wall-effect buildings.” 

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Wall-effect buildings are believed to bring about negative impacts like the reduction of air ventilation—not to mention blocking off its neighbouring buildings from natural sunlight and views. 

There is no legal definition of what makes a wall-effect building, nor an official tally of how many developments fall under this description. Though despite a lack of official data, many of them share common features.

Hong Kong-based environmental protection NGO Green Sense has listed half a dozen commonly found features in this type of development: these include a lack of space between buildings within a single development (citing 15 metres as an example), as well as these developments typically taking up space in harbourfronts and downtown areas.

In addition, the NGO has also compiled a list of 10 wall-effect buildings that have created the worst impact on their local neighbourhoods, from environmental concerns to a “lack of harmony” with the architecture of the area. 

In 2005, the government released the Feasibility Study for Establishment of Air Ventilation Assessment System, known as the AVA Study. This was followed by a “technical circular” published in 2006, with guidance for private developers to create ways to allow for ventilation in their proposed projects. 

“Proper orientation and layout of the buildings with adequate gaps between buildings are needed,” reads the AVA Study. “Stagger the arrangement of the blocks such that the blocks behind are able to receive the wind penetrating through the gaps between the blocks in the front row.” 

The study and the circular are not legally enforceable, Lee explains. Property developers are simply “encouraged” to follow the guidelines in their proposed projects. But in most cases, developers will comply “if the AVA has minimal impact on attaining the maximum developable gross floor area”. 

And creating gaps in the property’s midst is an easy way to do it: “Making a ‘hole’ is a way of achieving the AVA requirement for a large building block, which would otherwise create a huge wall-screen that drastically reduces air ventilation,” Lee explains. 

There’s one thing to note about the cut-outs, however. “Many of the “holey” buildings in Hong Kong designed for AVA reasons do not actually have holes in them,” notes Lee, citing The Arch in West Kowloon (pictured above) as an example. “The ‘hole’ is actually an illusion created by reducing the bulk of a single building block into two slimmer towers, and bridging the top to make up for the otherwise lost gross floor area.”

So there we have it: rather than creating holes for purposes of feng shui, the curious design is, in many cases, thanks to a complicated Hong Kong real estate web.

 

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