The architect has made clever use of an awkward site at a university to create the Jockey Club Innovation Tower, an undulating glass structure full of fluid, interconnected spaces. John Jervis went to have a look
Last year, the international press enjoyed the munificence of the Azerbaijani authorities, getting whisked off to Baku for a flying visit to Zaha Hadid Architects' swooping Heydar Aliyev Centre. Most promptly slammed the practice for collaborating with the selfsame client, in between comparing its stadium designs to reptiles and genitalia or singling it out for welfare and heritage abuse.
Such entertaining churnalism has led to a neglect of ZHA's recent built projects, and a particular casualty has been its Jockey Club Innovation Tower – for the rapidly expanding School of Design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University – which manages the unusual feat of being both eye-catching and worthwhile.
Situated on a constricted triangular site on the edge of the university's campus, hemmed in by Kowloon traffic, a sports ground and a courtyard of preserved trees, the Innovation Tower's fluid, asymmetrical bulk stands 78m tall, dominating a drab, low-rise neighbourhood. Its striking moulded form evolved as a direct response to a tension between this restricted 6,600sq m footprint and the requirements to house the school's 1,800 students and staff, accommodate future growth and include lettable space for industry and events. A late £20m donation from Hong Kong's monopolistic gambling authority, the Jockey Club, has already resulted in a "Design Institute for Social Innovation" occupying one floor, hence the building's ungainly name.
The resulting 15-storey tower, clad in glass and aluminium around three main cores, rises from a sleek concrete podium. Its tallest profile bears a strong resemblance to a ship's prow, while a secondary structure bulges from behind just three storeys down in a slightly ungainly fashion. A sweeping entranceway clad in white aluminium stretches out to connect the site with the main campus.
The original brief required a snazzy landmark building, yet one that reflected its surroundings – various generations of polite, modernist university buildings in terracotta spread below. The Innovation Tower's undulating glass curtain-wall facade has been imbued with the requisite futuristic glamour, while retaining a supposed nod to its neighbours' strip windows, courtesy of a dynamic cladding of twisting horizontal louvres, which maximise light while diffusing sun. A precarious external cleaning process utilising hidden catwalks, and the frequent presence of bamboo protrusions for unspecified repairs, have provided much entertainment for Hong Kong observers, but the overall impact is undeniably impressive.
Despite budgetary and space restrictions, the interiors photograph well – walls are rendered in white plaster with occasional use of reflective black glass to provide a sense of space and connectivity. A slim, 13-storey atrium, pierced by staircases, rises between the two main structures, but grandeur is largely eschewed for functionality. Spacious studios and labs benefit from generous natural light, but communal spaces, including the lecture hall and three outside terraces, are sufficient rather than extravagant.
In particular, the narrow main entrance on the second floor, which leads straight on to public exhibitions and galleries or directly up to teaching facilities, risks overcrowding. Corridors, however, have been kept wide to allow for student interventions – room for offices, already exposed thanks to glass partitioning, has thus been reduced, a decision that has caused some disgruntlement among staff transferring from more traditional facilities.
The ambition has been to create a vertical city out of the school's five main programmes – a longstanding Hong Kong response to pressure on land resources. It's too early to gauge whether the intended social circulation between disciplines located on different floors – encouraged by the wide scattering of social spaces, including a large exhibition space on the top floor – is taking place.
However, the building's interiors have certainly been adopted by students in time-honoured fashion, with its photogenic vistas swiftly devolving into a more confused reality of exhibition posters tacked on walls, extension cables taped around the lift foyers, the occasional illegal nail sticking from plaster, as well as a profusion of pop-up exhibits and display tables colonising spare corners. On these, rather old-fashioned grounds, as well as other, more abstract ones, the building is definitely a success.
Images: Doublespace; Iwan Baan