HK Profile: Alexander Lush – Hong Kong architect behind West Kowloon’s Freespace

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It’s very easy in Hong Kong to realise you haven’t been doing any living,” muses Alexander Lush. Given the setting, the architect’s observation seems particularly astute. He’s speaking from the Causeway Bay boardroom of DLN, one of our city’s leading architectural practices, with sweeping views of both the Island and Kowloon’s business districts. There’s a hint of irony here, too. The firm, of which Lush is a director, has masterminded some of our most iconic commercial buildings, with a portfolio that includes The Centre, Central Plaza, Lee Gardens and the Manulife Financial Centre, among others throughout China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

In more than 20 years at DLN  – which was described to Lush as the ‘Shaolin Temple of Hong Kong architecture practices’ upon his arrival – he has seen plenty of changes to the city’s architectural landscape. “Hong Kong

is becoming more mature,” he says, “and I think our entire industry has become a better quality industry. It’s not that we were doing bad work before, but let’s say there was some catch-up that needed to be done.” This started from the ground up, apparently. One particular example, Lush points out, are hand-dug caissons, or building foundations, in which air is supplied underground manually. “The year I arrived,” recalls Lush, “the Buildings Department introduced the ban on hand-dug caissons and they were phased out over three years. At the same time they brought in a lot of new safety regulations. And this is symptomatic of the shift in the industry – we’re now much more concerned about durability, safety consciousness in [the] execution of buildings and the overall quality and performance of buildings.”
While seemingly prosaic, measures like these allude to a city, for Lush, that’s ‘transitioning from one which is completing its build out of replacement accommodation to replace all of the hillside slum accommodation’ to a period of ‘conventional development mode replacement of existing stock and incremental growth as the population grows’. Naturally, it follows that these sorts of changes will also have an impact on popular perceptions of design. “I think there’s going to be a much more profound appreciation of the functional aspects of design,” says Lush. “People in Hong Kong now really understand buildings.”

Lush’s preference for understated design can be traced to the beginning of his passion for architecture – one of his earliest memories was seeing London’s Royal College of Physicians, and the modernist masterpiece made quite the impression. Now he’s past gawking at others’ designs, and is working on some massive projects both in Hong Kong and overseas. Currently under construction, the Sky Towers in Kiev, Ukraine are set to join the ranks of Europe’s tallest buildings. Closer to home, work started in January on Hong Kong’s largest e-waste facility and Lush is optimistic about the prospects. “I think we’re set up to make a really good job of this,” he says, “because this is where density really works in our favour and it becomes very practical and realistic.” Off-site, satellite reception centres for unused electronic goods mean that disposal should become a convenient option. “If you were doing this in Australia,” he says, “people are so spread out that it would make it inconvenient for people to sort out and dispose of their cellphones and air conditioners. So this is where I think Hong Kong is going to leapfrog other places.” The Tuen Mun facility is to have a handling capacity of 30,000 tonnes of waste annually, as well as a large viewing platform that’s to be open to the public. “A strong public education mandate is part of the vision of this project,” explains Lush. “And this aligns very well with how we see architecture – a modest building, a straightforward building, can still be a very decent and attractive one.”

One of Lush’s more high profile projects is the West Kowloon Cultural District’s Freespace and black box theatre. The project is perhaps the single largest manifestation of Lush’s idea that, as a city, Hong Kong is in a state of maturing transformation, with a focus on the quality of life. “And also upon recreation,” he notes, “that doesn’t involve going to shopping malls. West Kowloon will allow Hongkongers to have broader, richer, deeper lives. Once it’s up and running, this will be a point of inspiration and stimulus for the territory as a whole to show people what can be done and how spaces can be used. And to get people enjoying life more  – which we could do with more of in Hong Kong.”

Nik Addams

To keep up with the latest developments in the West Kowloon Cultural District, head to westkowloon.hk.

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