Rocco Yim 嚴迅奇 (BA(ArchStud) 1974; BArch 1976; Hon DSocSc 2013), principal of Rocco Design Architects Associates, spoke to Alumni News on site at his latest masterpiece, the Hong Kong Palace Museum. The project was created in partnership with the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing.
 Interview with Rocco Yim
Take a 360° video journey inside the Hong Kong Palace Museum guided by Rocco

The similarities are more metaphysical than physical

Alumni News: After five years of development, how do you feel now that the museum is open to the public?

Rocco Yim: As architects, we envisage what the space is going to be like, and how people are going to use it and feel about it. Whether people will actually use it the way in which I envisage – the spatial perception that I really want them to appreciate – is really for them to judge.

AN: What were the main challenges?

RY: For architects designing in Hong Kong, the major challenge is always the city in which the building is going to be built and designed for. But it’s also the inspiration. The city is always the inspiration. It’s a challenge because Hong Kong, amongst most cities, has the most constraints, but has also the most opportunities to devise solutions to overcome those constraints.

Rocco Yim’s innovative designs received worldwide recognition early on. When he was just over 30 years old, he became one of the first-place winners in the international competition to build L’Opéra de la Bastille in Paris.

He has supported his alma mater in multiple ways, including as a devoted organiser of alumni events. He has acted as an Adjunct Professor at the HKU Department of Architecture and HKU SPACE. He was conferred an Honorary Doctor of Social Sciences by HKU in 2013.

His physical footprint on the HKU campus can be seen at Graduate House, a residence he designed in the 1990s.

Dr Yim has encouraged the higher study of architecture in other ways, as an Honorary Professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of Architecture, and as a member of the IAF Council of International Advisors for The University of Southern California.

Rocco Yim

Biography and Awards

Rocco Yim, principal of Rocco Design Architects Associates, was born and raised in Hong Kong, a city that has acted as his muse.

He founded his own practice in 1979, only three years after graduating.

Soon after, he partnered with two fellow HKU architecture alumni – Bernard Hui 許文博  (BA(ArchStud) 1970; BArch 1976) and Patrick Lee 李伯榮 (BArch 1967) – to become a trio that would transform Hong Kong’s cityscape.

AN: What advice do you have for young architects?

RY: The city comes before architecture, so you’re never designing on a blank piece of paper. And whatever you design, you would create an impact on your neighbours, on the surroundings, and on the functioning of the city as a whole. That’s something I found out quite early on. And therefore, my advice to up-and-coming architects is that they should never be self-centred. They should strive, of course, to create great works of art, but the great work of art would only have meaning if it enhances everything around it.

AN: How does the HKPM fit into the city?

RY: The Palace Museum has to be a piece of the jigsaw, which is the West Kowloon Cultural District. It has to enhance the master layout plan.

It has to bring added value, of course, because of what it represents. It is contributing to the  visual identity, but more importantly, contributing to the fluidity of movement and the dynamics of movement throughout the district.

AN: Why the HKPM faces East?

RY: The West Kowloon master plan – in my original design and also in the latest Foster [& Partners] design – has a strong East-West axis. We had to create an entrance to face the end of the axis. So that’s why our entrance faces East. Now, there are people who have commented on this decision, and said “traditionally, all Chinese architecture have entrances towards the South,” which was true.

But in China, traditionally, they created important public buildings on a blank piece of land. They created the Imperial Palace first, and then a city grew up after. But in Hong Kong, as I said, we have to respect the city.

Apart from that, having the main entrance face East in Hong Kong makes sense because it’s not in the North, not in mainland China. In mainland China, if you face South, you will always have the sun, which makes sense. But in Hong Kong, if your entrance faces South, for half the year you will have no sun, because the sun is to the North. So we have a different geographical location.

Axial planning has always been an element in traditional Chinese architecture and urban planning. One of the purposes of employing axial planning or introducing an axis to the plans and to the layouts is to give a sense of orientation. So people know instinctively how to move around and proceed, especially in a large complex.


AN: How did you balance traditional and modern elements?

RY: I always maintained that we have to learn from tradition, we have to be inspired by tradition, but we should not be enslaved by tradition. We should be always ready to adapt, and take what is relevant from tradition to suit the practical and contemporary needs of our present times.

AN: What features are shared from the Palace Museum in Beijing?

RY: There are three major features. One is really the poise. The Imperial Palace in Beijing, as in many other public buildings from ancient China, has a certain majesty that you feel. We can’t pinpoint as to how and why. Hopefully, we are creating a building that exudes that same poise.

Spatial Configuration of the Forbidden City
Rocco Yim
dougong (斗拱)

RY: The second common element is the sophistication in the craft. In the Imperial Palace, in every brick, every dougong (斗拱), every tile, every door, there is this attention to detail to how things are joined together, how they meet, how materials interface. Now in a contemporary sense, using contemporary materials and temporary construction techniques, hopefully we will create the same here. Outside and inside, you feel that sophistication in detail.

The third thing I mentioned is the spatial organisation, the linear axis in Beijing and the vertical axis here. 

AN: The Forbidden City is a sprawling complex, whereas Hong Kong is highly dense.

RY: At the Imperial Palace in Beijing, you have a series of courtyards along an axis. It is meant to create spatial surprises. You are prompted to go and discover these places one by one. In Beijing, the axis is horizontal, because they have the distance and they have land. We can’t do that here; it would take up the whole district. So in the context of Hong Kong, where everything goes high and goes up, we had to change the axis from horizontal to vertical.

The three atriums are organised along this axis – from the base to the middle to the top – stacked on top of one another.

They have the same purpose: so you don’t see all the space in the museum all at once. You sense that there are spatial entities waiting for you to discover – but going upwards, not going forward.

The similarities are more metaphysical than physical.

AN: What inspired you to use so many panoramic windows and skylights?

RY: These are the main elements – the axis and the atriums, that I started out with the concept design that I purposely recreate. But, as the design process went on, and as I visited the Imperial Palace a few more times, there are other features that I find that we should try to capture.

When you go to the Imperial Palace in Beijing at different times of the year, or during different times of the day, or in different seasons, there is a different ambience. It may be the angle of the sun. It may be the weather, or it may be the snow, or the drizzle. The material, the colour, and the texture of the building somehow reflect the changing weather. How you choose the colours, the textures or materials tend to give different emphasis. So, in choosing the exterior, the tiles and the colour, we created a profile and a texture that would give you a slightly different feeling at different times in the day and different seasons, whether it’s sunshine like today, cloudy or even drizzly. 

Rocco Yim's sketch
Rocco Yim

Rocco Design Architects
Major Works and Designs

Hong Kong
Citibank Plaza
East Kowloon Cultural Centre
Graduate House HKU
Hong Kong Palace Museum
Hong Kong SAR Government
     Headquarters at Tamar
International Finance Centre (IFC)
West Kowloon Cultural District
      Conceptual Plan

Mainland China
Baoan Cultural Complex
Chinese University of Hong Kong
     Shenzhen master plan
Commune by The Great Wall
Global Metropolitan Plaza
Guangzhou City Library

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