Urban Stories from a Hong Kong Architect
Originally published on PassionPassport.com on November 29, 2017
“Rationales within imperfection” — that’s how Kevin Mak describes his photography style.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, the 33-year-old architect and photographer seemed like the exact right person to chat with about the architecture of the city. His photos reveal an intriguing side to his diverse hometown, just as his answers illuminate the complexities behind the city’s urban spaces.
How did you get into photography?
I first started shooting with my mother’s film camera when I was very young. But social media platforms like Flickr and Instagram are what inspired me to start an in-depth exploration of what it means to deliver messages through photographs.
When did you become interested in architecture?
I was always attracted to buildings and urban environments when I started taking photos in high school, but it wasn’t until my first year of university that I was truly fascinated by the study of it. I’m mostly interested in how many diverse concepts architecture relates to. There is no fixed way to study, design, or describe any type of architecture. It’s a process that connects to all kind of disciplines and knowledges.
What do you do every day as an architect?
I work on projects in many different stages at the firm I work for (OMA): urban context research, conceptual design, architectural model making, detail drawing, construction site walks, site coordination, and so on. More importantly, I like the way my firm focuses on actual design work and less on the administration within an international team.
What is the architecture of Hong Kong like? What makes it unique?
The architecture of Hong Kong is very honest. The buildings are practical and time-cost efficient, built basically as an investment in the city itself. Such economical-driven simplicity is very interesting, as many of the buildings are slightly different, but not radically different, which results in a dense mass of buildings in which none stand out on their own. That’s exactly what makes this urban environment unique — it causes you to either view the city as a crowd of buildings or single-in on a street or an area, instead of “individual buildings.”
How does your knowledge of architecture impact the way you view and interact with Hong Kong?
My knowledge of architecture helps me to see beyond just the appearance of the city. While many people see Hong Kong as an image of dense buildings with small living spaces and shops that keep changing all the time, I try to understand these physical constraints through the reasoning behind the design of this active city. I appreciate the sensible changes, flexibility, and diversity Hong Kong offers. I don’t feel sad when things are replaced because it’s normal, but I do try very hard to treasure those spots with unique urban values.
What kinds of things do you notice about the city that others might not?
For one, the general public and government authorities all consider signs as something with only commercial value. However, the densely packed signboards are now one of the strongest visual identities of Hong Kong internationally. This is truly ironic, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s noticed.
Your Instagram bio says, “Urban stories from a Hong Kong architect.” How do you define urban stories? What kinds of stories do you try to tell on social media?
As an architect, I always observe how spaces are designed or formed naturally for the accommodation of human activities. I define urban stories as anything that takes an in-depth look at unique urban spaces.
For example, I used to shoot a lot at night as a way to relax when I frequented Taipei for work. Gradually, I became interested in how people interacted at the scooter parking spaces (Taiwan has one of the highest densities of motor scooters). I noticed people waiting for friends, lovers chatting, people buying drinks from the convenient stores or bubble tea shops, and others simply hanging out. It was one of the most casual and flexible spaces I found within the dense city.
So, I document and shoot portraits based on topics like this and use them to promote urban spatial quality. Most people living in dense cities feel stressed, but I hope that, through sharing these visual images on social media, I am showing just how many ways we can enjoy what these imperfect and informal urban spaces have to offer.