Rem Koolhaas on Hong Kong’s Role in the Pearl River Delta

Rem Koolhaas speaking in Hong Kong on Jan. 27, 2010. (Asia Society Hong Kong Center)

HONG KONG, January 27, 2010 -  World-renowned architect Rem Koolhaas argued that while the Pearl River Delta has an identity crisis, at the same time it faces an opportunity for a new kind of identity. Koolhaas, who is also a professor, has been studying the Pearl River Delta, or PRD, since the early 1990s in conjunction with the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

He spoke at Asia Society Hong Kong Center about the study his team is doing on Hong Kong's cultural development and gave an overview of cultural development in the cities of the Pearl River Delta over the recent decades.

Koolhass was joined by cultural critic Jiang Jun and Nick Leung, Managing Partner of McKinsey & Co., Greater China.

Over the years, the team witnessed the unprecedented speed of modernization of the PRD cities. Back in 1994, when the number of architects in China was significantly less than in Europe or America, the amount of construction seen in the PRD was already about 20 times higher than in average European cities. "That made me realize that not only in terms of modernization, but actually in culture... the center of gravity was shifting to the east, and to China," commented Koolhaas.

Shenzhen took one 20th the time it took New York City to become a metropolis. That inspired Koolhaas's book Great Leap Forward, from which he attempted to extract a blueprint for future urban development. His idea is that urban regions would not become a consistent entity, but different elements would co-exist. These elements, dictated by constant strategic readjustments vis-à-vis the other elements, generate competition, a result which he coined as a "city of exacerbated difference." As a result, each part of the entity will try to distinguish itself as much as possible. This trend becomes apparent in the way cities are constructed. For example, the way a triangular network formed around Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou, and between Zhuhai and Macau. This "will shrink the psychological effect of space and distance enormously in the very near future" for the PRD, Koolhaas told his listeners.   

The PRD, which has grown from just five in the 1990s, to a large number, has a population, GDP and construction level growing at a rate far greater than Hong Kong's. To remain competitive, Hong Kong must leverage its strategic advantage—namely freedom of speech and its cultural assets. "That alone, I think, would and can guarantee a very strong role for the West Kowloon Cultural District, not only for the city of Hong Kong, but for the Pearl River Delta, at large, and eventually for China," concluded Koolhaas.   

Reported by Winsome Tam, Asia Society Hong Kong Center