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The 1970s was when Hong Kong really took off — the economy, real estate, the building industry. New construction was going up everywhere and developers were flocking to the city. It was also during that decade when Rocco Yim (b. 1952), now a prominent Hong Kong architect, was coming of age. After graduating from the University of Hong Kong and apprenticing at the office of Spence Robinson, he started his own practice in 1979 when he was commissioned to design the Franki Centre, a shopping mall that looked unlike any other at the time of its opening in 1981. From there on, he collaborated on a series of youth hostels in Hong Kong’s suburbs. These early award-winning projects solidified his reputation as an innovative architect.

In 1983, at the age of 30, Rocco Yim was named as one of the three finalists in theBastille Opera competition in Paris, which attracted more than 750 international entries along with worldwide attention from both professional and mainstream media. It helped to secure many subsequent projects and, over the years, Rocco Design Architects (which now numbers more than 150 professionals) completed some 100 high-profile public buildings in Hong Kong and across mainland China, most in nearby Shenzhen and Guangzhou. His projects are driven by Hong Kong’s unique density and topography. His buildings are made up of volumes interconnected by complex sequences of stacked, shifted, and linked street and courtyard-like spaces distinguished by blurred boundaries between functions and private and public realms. Among the most noteworthy: the Hong Kong Government Headquarters (2011), Guangdong Museum in Guangzhou (2010), iSquare mixed-use complex in Hong Kong (2009), International Finance Centre and Hong Kong Station (2005), Hong Kong Palace Museum in West Kowloon (2022), and New Campus of Chu Hai College (2016).

The last in this list is a city in miniature that we visited together before our interview. It comprises a gymnasium, library, dormitory, cafeteria, large auditorium, lecture halls, exhibition and presentation spaces, and five departments, including the School of Architecture, all inserted into a single structure of interlocking buildings, each distinctly expressed geometrically and materially. The most adventurous space here is the library, a single-level horizontal loop composed of two angled bridges over an elevated park. Judging by the number of occupied seats, the library surely is the most popular place within this vertical campus; its spatial organization represents Yim’s perpetual urbanistic thinking of how to bring the outside in and inside out. In our conversation, Yim expands upon his key projects large and small, whether there is space for architectural innovation in contemporary Hong Kong, and the one building among those recently built in the city that he feels most excited about.

A portrait of Rocco Yim
The Hong Kong architect Rocco Yim

Vladimir Belogolovsky: What first triggered your interest in architecture? Are there any architects in your family? 

Rocco Yim

None of my relatives were at all involved with architecture. In fact, their generation, or even my generation at that time, was not even aware what architects were for. They only knew about engineers. And traditionally there were no architects in China, only master builders or crafters. However, my parents loved art, particularly music and modern art. So, I was introduced to art early on by studying painting and calligraphy, and I even played violin in primary school. But intuitively I was in search of something else because, in a way, art is created out of nothing and for no particular reason. You create it on a blank piece of paper.

I, on the other hand, am more of a problem-solving type. I liked putting together storybooks, for example, not just accumulating loose sheets with drawings. I was always about responding to something that requires artistic input. Later I discovered that architecture is exactly about that — you address an issue by coming up with a solution that’s elevated to the level of an art form, not just any solution. That’s what attracted me initially. I was also inspired by images from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and later by Osaka Expo in 1970. That was the year I began university.

You studied architecture at the University of Hong Kong, the only institution in the city with a department of architecture at the time.

That’s right. There were just about 30 of us in my year; a small class but also the demand for architects was low.

A view of the facade of Rocco Yim's Guangdong Museum
Rocco Yim’s Guangdong Museum is a monumental building that nonetheless seems to float above its footprint to create a shaded entranceway. Photo by Almond Chu

Then it was not hard to get in, right?

It wasn’t at all. 80 per cent of my classmates had no idea what architecture was about. In a way, it was the easiest department to get into. No high marks were required. Instead, the focus was on discovering personalities that were expected from future architects. It was still at the time when the profession was dominated by foreign architects, mostly British, especially by the big commercial firms, such as Palmer and Turner, which relocated from Shanghai before the People’s Republic of China was established. There were very few local firms then.


What was your university experience like?

What I liked the most was the freedom in my schedule. My life at secondary school was very regimented — school, homework, tutorials, etc. But at the Department of Architecture, you had several sleepless nights and then you were free for two weeks when you could choose to do whatever you wanted or just dream about the next project. That’s what I liked a lot. Unfortunately, I never encountered that kind of freedom ever again after my graduation. Because practice is not like that, you go from project to project. So, I miss my student days. [Laughs.]

Guangdong Museum Atrium View
The majestic atrium inside the Guangdong Museum. Photo by Marcel Lam

Was there any important mentoring figure for you?

The university at that time was quite conservative and disciplined. Most professors were British-trained. “Form follows function” was the golden rule then. But when I was in my second year, a young lecturer came from Australia. He was just seven years my senior. He was quite liberal. Suddenly, everything was possible. He encouraged us to explore and dream. This was not yet the Postmodern age, but it started to get looser from the rigid thinking of International Style ideology. It was very liberating. His name was Barry Will; he was my mentor for sure. Years later, in the 1990s, he served as the department’s dean. He passed away a few years ago. Another mentoring figure was, of course, Professor Eric Lye. He also became the head of the department after I left. His influence was keenly felt by many graduates.

Jiu Jian Tang, Shanghai, Exterior Facade by Rocco Yim
An exterior of one of Rocco Yim’s Jiu Jian Tang villas in Shanghai. Photo courtesy Rocco Design

You started working at Spence Robinson — a British firm founded in the early 1900s in Shanghai and relocated to Hong Kong after the Pacific War — upon your graduation in 1976. What was your apprenticeship like there?

I was lucky because there were so few graduates then. And almost as soon as I was hired, I was assigned to a project that I was almost handling all on my own. I was working directly under one of the partners. That project was in a setting I knew well, a student hostel at the University of Hong Kong.

Jiu Jian Tang, Shanghai Inner Courtyard, by Rocco Yim
The interior courtyard of the Jiu Jian Tang villa. Photo courtesy Rocco Design

Then, in 1979, the Franki Centre in Kowloon Tong presented an opportunity to open your own practice. How did that project come about?

In 1979, my schoolmate’s uncle became tired of the standard projects in the city; he asked my schoolmate to introduce him to a young talented architect. That’s how I was brought in. I did just three sketches and he liked them. He was hooked. [Laughs.] It is incredible but he decided to give me the project. I wasn’t even a registered architect at that point. So, he asked me to work for him as a design architect and to collaborate with an established firm to execute my designs.

It was a lucky break for me, but there were many such opportunities for other graduates at the time. By then I was quite determined to leave Spence Robinson, but they asked me to stay and I continued working for them part-time, in parallel to designing my project and building my own practice. It was just me and two other draftsmen whom I had hired. The Franki Centre was completed in 1981. By then I was fully independent but still working primarily on that one project. I also worked on three other small projects — a series of youth hostels in rural areas. They came from Spence Robinson as they were too small for the firm. I was lucky because I was given quite a bit of design freedom that would have been unusual in the urban area. Then the Franki Centre received an award and two of the hostels were also awarded by the Hong Kong Institute of Architects. That’s how I built a reputation as a design firm.

HKSAR Gov HQ by Rocco Yim
The Central Government Complex, designed by Rocco Yim, is the headquarters of the Government of Hong Kong.

And in 1983, you took part in the Bastille Opera competition in Paris. The Uruguayan-Canadian architect Carlos Ott won, of course, but you were one of the three finalists out of more than 750 entries. How was that experience?

We did a number of competitions just for fun and did not expect anything. After we submitted our designs for the Paris Opera, everything went quiet for nine months. Nothing. And we all forgot about it. Suddenly, one day, there was a long-distance call from Paris. And they asked me if I could go to Paris immediately. It turned out that we were one of three finalists and they wanted us to develop our scheme so that President Mitterrand could make his choice. And we had to do it right there, in Paris, for which we were given two weeks of time. By then I was busy with my Hong Kong projects with about 10 people. So, I had to put all that on hold and I flew to Paris with three people from my office. And there was Carlos Ott with a much bigger team from Toronto. But we had to work with what we had. Of course, that’s not an excuse. [Laughs.] In the end, we didn’t get the job. But, of course, we enjoyed Paris.

HKSAR landscaped Civic Park(c)Rocco Design
The government headquarters’ landscaped Civic Park. Photo courtesy Rocco Design

What happened next? Did the project lead to any opportunities?

It was, of course, a huge disappointment for us. But it opened other doors for me, here in Hong Kong. At that time, I was joined by two other partners. One of them had connections with government officials, which led to some government projects. That enabled us to grow from a small studio to a bigger firm working on larger projects. And we were approached by local developers to try to work with us on commercial projects. That’s how we started growing. In short, the Paris Opera competition allowed us to announce our design abilities.

The next important project was the Citibank Plaza in Central, Hong Kong. It was very unusual then for a local firm to do such a large development in such a prime location for a prestigious international company. More so, that project allowed us to realize some of our beliefs in urbanism. The idea was to add a building that would make the city around it function better by improving connectivity and enhancing the permeability of urban spaces at the pedestrian level. The complex fits into the hillside of its formerly unoccupied site and acts as a pedestrian node funneling previously disjointed pedestrian traffic to nearby destinations.

That project was tendered out by the government right after the Tiananmen Incident in 1989, when business sentiment here was at its lowest. But our client, a local developer, was like us: up and coming. The company was bullish and saw a good opportunity to develop a primary piece of land precisely at that time. The land was acquired in 1989 and the building was finished in 1992; it was a very fast-track project. The complex, which is made up of two similar towers, 40 and 50 storeys, the tallest 200 metres in height, sits right next to the I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Building.

Citibank Plaza Exterior View from the South by Rocco Yim
An exterior view of the Citibank Plaza by Rocco Yim

The next project I want to talk about is tiny in comparison to many of your other works – but it is quite important. I am referring to your Distorted Court House at the Commune by the Great Wall. You described the rural retreat outside of Beijing as “an alternative notion of fusion between the outdoors and indoors.”

The Commune by the Great Wall was conceived at a time when China had just started to embrace modern architecture. It was in the year 2000 and the site chosen for it was in a wild, mountainous terrain. In addition to designing one of the villas, we were asked to prepare a master plan and define where each of the structures would be built — 11 villas and a clubhouse, the first phase of the Commune, completed in 2002.

As far as our villa, we wanted to do something quite modern but also to capture the essence of traditional dwelling typology, which is introverted for such reasons as creating a sense of protection, coziness, and togetherness. However, this was already the beginning of the 21st century. The idea was to reconnect with the outside in the most open and transparent ways. So, we placed all private spaces around the interior central courtyard on the ground level. And then the transparent glass volume holding communal functions was floating above, to be open to views of the Great Wall and connected to the surrounding landscape. So, it was a combination of traditional typology and modern lifestyle. The idea of distortion had a double meaning: It was about distorting a typology of a traditional Chinese villa and its geometry. In order to fit the villa’s rectangular footprint into that particular terrain it had to be distorted into a parallelogram. 

iSQUARE(c) Gammon Construction Ltd
iSQUARE is a 53,000-square-metre retail/dining/entertainment complex in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy Gammon Construction Ltd

Would you agree that the Commune project shifted the dynamics of architecture in China? There was no real precedent of modern architecture in the country before that moment. All previous examples were quite hybrid in nature. It was only around the year 2000 that either local or foreign architects had the will to produce buildings that were uncompromisingly modern.

It was for sure one of the earliest manifestations. Perhaps the earliest example of the intention to create a modern building was the 1998-99 international design competition for the new National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. Paul Andreu won it with his so-called Giant Egg, completed in 2007. You may have different views about this building’s architecture but what’s important is that for the first time, there was an official stamp of approval on modern architecture for national symbols. Previously, they always talked about national character linked to historic precedents. The National Theater project was the first instance when all literal national symbolism went out of the window.

How would you describe the key intentions behind your architecture?

I think architecture should be a reflection of culture, whether it is about heritage or contemporary urban conditions such as density, connectivity, or inclusiveness and how different cultures can be assimilated in our modern world. Architecture transcends shapes and skins, although that’s what is celebrated by the media these days.

Could you describe your design methodology and how you typically start a project?

First, I look at the context. What will the building do to its immediate surrounding? On the other hand, how will my building be perceived by those who will use it, not just in terms of its image, but, more importantly, what kind of space it will provide? And because most of our projects are urban, I always say that the city comes before architecture. In Hong Kong, you never design on a blank piece of paper. To paraphrase Louis Kahn, you should always ask: What does the city want the architecture to be? You have to listen. And you also have to ask, What will people feel like when they pass through your building daily? These are the driving forces for my design solutions. The form, materials, colours, and texture — those are just personal choices. They are every architect’s personal tools that may be used to reflect particular artistic sensibilities. And there are no rights and wrongs in how architects use them.

But how you relate your project to the city and people is much more important. These issues are the priorities. And since we work in very different places — Hong Kong, a city that is mature and developed and will always shape architecture, whereas in China most new cities will not inform your new interventions — I always ask: Does architecture shape the city or does the city shape architecture? And even in situations where there are no next-door structures, it is up to the architect to envision not only the new building but also how the spaces around it will engage with the future city.

Hong Kong Palace Museum 2Rocco Design
The welcoming entrance of the Hong Kong Palace Museum, which is also shown at the top of this article. Photo courtesy Rocco Design

When you describe your work, you use such words as productive connectivity, linking the city, distorting boundaries, blurring of the senses, urban connectivity, walkability, maximizing the use of space, the intensity of use, verticality, compact footprint, stacked up functions, a culture of spatiality, and dynamic sustainability. How else would you describe your architecture?

It is not really for me to describe it. [Laughs.] Well, it is never about being self-centered. It is always about being responsive. And responses always depend on the nature of the project and its context. And there is always some kind of context; if there are no other buildings, there is typography, nature, views, and so on. And then there is a cultural context. There are things like history, traditions, mythology, and so on.

Do you think Hong Kong has a fertile ground for architectural innovation?

Not really. Hong Kong is a fertile ground for creating new typologies inspired by the city or by responding to the city’s needs that may be very unusual in other cities due to our density, geography, traditions, and culture. From that point of view, there is this need for producing unique and complex building typologies. However, when it comes to architectural vocabulary and forms of expression, we are typically restricted by two detrimental factors. First, most of our clients are relatively conservative. Architectural design is often constrained by play-safe marketing strategies. The other detriment is our building codes. They are very prescriptive and do not allow for flexibility. So, architectural innovation and experimentation are something one forever struggles to achieve. Do not get me wrong: I would not encourage shapes that are meaningless. But if new forms could create new spaces to serve or suggest a new purpose that would benefit the city, then I am all for it.

Chu Hai College Campus View from Castle Peak Road by Rocco Yim
A view of the Chu Hai College Campus, designed by Rocco Yim. Photo courtesy Rocco Design

Is there one particular building built in Hong Kong in recent years that you feel most excited about?

Of course. I could name some other buildings but let me name one of our own projects — Chu Hai College. It is very Hong Kong. You won’t find something quite like this anywhere else. It reflects the city’s unique urban culture by optimizing the use of a small plot of land, stacking and mixing seemingly incompatible functions into an integrated whole, in this case, a whole university. And I like how students use the space, how they interact, and enjoy the very intricate interlocking of so many different functions. It is a city within a city. That was the intention and, apparently, that’s the way it works.

Chu Hai Library Bridges(c)Rocco Design
The Chu Hai library bridges. Photo courtesy Rocco Design
“Does Architecture Shape the City or Does the City Shape Architecture?” A Conversation with Rocco Yim

One of Hong Kong’s most prominent architects, Rocco Yim continues to make bold design statements.

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