November 2001


Phase VI Administration Building

Reaching new heights

A greenfield site where an architect can design a building of any shape, colour and orientation. Wouldn't that be nice? In reality, most projects require an architect to take at least one or two constraints into account, and the profession is so trained to deal with them that, for many architects, they have become nothing more than routine. Some, however, prefer to treat such constraints differently: they see them as inspiration, drawing upon them for ideas that would help them arrive at something that is unique yet in harmony with its surroundings.

Phase VI of the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong presented just this kind of challenge to its architect, Wong Tung & Partners. As the name of the project implies, it is part of a scheme which has been developed in phases over time. The original campus, which was built in the early 70s, was developed in the red brick university style of old English and American universities, with lawns enclosed by quadrangles forming the basic plan.
        Situated in the middle of the amorphous campus, Phase VI interfaces with practically all existing phases of the university. And there were predetermined conditions to work around from design through to construction. There is the lawn lying adjacent to the 5,670 sq m site which is lined by mature trees the client was keen to keep. There was the challenge of producing a design that would blend in well with the strong identity of the low-rise, red brick campus and, for the construction phase of the project, that of maintaining circulation without endangering the safety of staff and students.
        Thanks to the relocation of the airport to Chek Lap Kok and the subsequent lifting of height restrictions previously imposed on Hung Hom, the architect had the opportunity to design a taller building that would rise above the rest of the campus and become a landmark. The client also wanted a distinctive building as it would become the university's
headquarters, centralising administrative and general teaching functions under one roof.
        According to Wong Tung chief architect Tracey Stoute, the design team initially considered the idea of a curtain wall building but eventually decided to adopt the architectural language of the existing campus and re-interpret it to arrive at a modern look.
        They took the geometry -- the squares of the teaching and laboratory facilities and the cylinders of the circulation cores -- and combined the existing material -- red ceramic tiles -- with glass to come up with an 18-storey structure consisting of four elements: a drum topping two interlocking rectangular blocks and a semi-circular podium.
        The four elements are arranged according to their functions and express a hierarchy. Below the podium are the general teaching classrooms while the lower floors of the interlocking blocks contain computer laboratories for students. Administrative offices are accommodated on the upper floors. Located inside the upper drum are the council chambers as well as the offices of the president and vice-president. The drum also reflects the semi-circular senate room, which contains tiered seating for 100 people. There are also a series of "gardens in the sky" on the 5th, 14th and 18th floors with opportunities for outdoor dining.
        The higher of the two blocks is raised on two exposed columns in rendered reinforced concrete that allow the offices to enjoy a panoramic view of the Kowloon peninsula and beyond. Underneath the block is the glazed, semi-circular podium which provides computer and exhibition facilities for students. The clear glass reveals the vertical circulation of students within the building, made dramatic by a steel and glass staircase that snakes its way up from the lower podium to the third and fourth floor computer labs.
        Exposed columns are used again, to raise the drum above the interlocking forms. Mr Stoute said the exposed columns were a device for separating the different elements.
        "We didn't
want the drum to sit squat on top of the towers; rather, we wanted it to hover above them, to reinforce the impression that it is an important part of the building, like a feature perching on its pedestals," he explained.
        As a building which rises above its low-rise neighbourhood, it enjoys the rare advantage of all-round views. As a consequence, there is no primary facade and all the elevations were treated with equal attention. The external treatment consists of alternating bands of red ceramic tiles and silver reflective curtain wall. However, the kiln which was used to make the tiles that clad the rest of the campus was long gone, which led to the problem of matching new tiles to the existing ones. It was not easy to find a tile with a matching colour. In the end, the architect determined that an earthy tile from Inax of Japan came closest.
        Each alternate band of material is delineated by projecting fins designed to add contrast to otherwise flat planes, by creating depth and variation to the elevations and thus enhancing their sculptural effect. The fins also reinforce the horizontal articulation of the design, which is intended to echo the horizontal spread of the campus.
        The building's
all-round visibility, while pleasant for the occupants, presented the architect with another challenge. There is no obscure side to which plant rooms and electrical and mechanical equipment can be shifted, so all the services were buried within the central core. A dummy skin on the roof masks the plant rooms located there.
        As a building with multiple users, flexibility was an important design criterion. The architect used a central core and perimeter columns for the structure and adopted a 9 m by 9 m grid for the internal layout. Special partitions that can be easily dismantled without causing damage to the floor or ceiling were procured for this project. Part of an integrated wall and ceiling system, this partition system was used for the first time in Hong Kong quite recently, on the Cathay Pacific headquarters. The system, from Clestra of France, consists of ceiling panels made up of acoustic tiles and partitions prefabricated with power and other services built in. Telephone lines and other facilities can be hooked up for instant "plug and play" when the partitions are jacked into position.
        With ordinary partition systems, the sound baffles installed above the ceiling have to be taken down and re-installed every time a partition is moved. The Clestra system does away with this hassle as the ceiling panels themselves act as noise baffles, ensuring the system conforms with the client's
noise insulation requirements. Although the layout is standardised, the system's flexibility allows it to serve the specific needs of the departments occupying different floors of the building.
        Visible from the busy transport network surrounding the campus, the 25,200 sq m building now stands as a landmark and focal point not just for the university, but the entire Hung Hom/Tsim Sha Tsui area.

Polytechnic University of Hong Kong

PolyU Estates Department
project manager

Wong Tung & Partners

Hong Kong Construction

Mott Connell
structural engineer

Mott Connell
M&E engineer

Arup Facade Engineering
facade engineer

Davis Langdon & Seah
quantity surveyor

-- Building Journal