HKIA Gold Medal Recipient Speech – Mr. James Kinoshita

On behalf of The Hong Kong Institute of Architects (HKIA), we would like to congratulate again to Mr. James Kinoshita as the recipient of the HKIA Gold Medal Award 2020.

We thank Mr. James Hajime Kinoshita for his insightful and inspiring speech at the Award Ceremony which is now shared with more of our members.

I am deeply honored to be awarded the HKIA Gold Medal – especially it being the first Gold Medal for Hong Kong.

I feel humbled by this honor as I have been very lucky in my life – I never had to struggle – things just seem to fall into place – the timing of my arrival in HK and the opportunities that was presented at that time. And the people that I met and shared with me in my life that influenced my life and my work.

I am indebted to many people for this award – especially to the people I worked together with such as the late Ian Campbell who first gave me the opportunity in Palmer and Turner, Heinz Rust who shared with me concept of the integration of structure and architecture and the draftsmen of the old school who knew the regulation and the rules better than I to take my ideas into reality. The person I owe the most for this honour is my wife Lana who was not only my chief critic but also supported me and encouraged me through all these years.

I will first revert to the title of my talk, “Why I chose to become an architect”
I will ask you that question “why did YOU become an architect?” Is it because you were inspired when you saw photograph of “Falling Waters “by FL Wright? Or some other famous buildings?  In my case it was not a romantic story of being inspired by FLW. I never knew that there existed such a person called an architect.

I was born in Vancouver, Canada. When WW II started, we were sent to internment camps in the interior of BC as we were of Japanese descent even though we were Canadians.  After the war we moved to a small town called Slocan. The whole High school had only 1 teacher teaching 10 – 12 students.  So, for my final year I decided to go to a proper school so I went to King Edward High School in Vancouver. But I had nowhere to live so I worked as a houseboy.  I had to do chores around the house after school for my room and board.  It just so happened that the household I worked in was an architect so I was able to learn about the life and work of an architect and I liked what I saw. The counsellor at King Edward High school assessed my abilities also advised me that architecture would be the right course for me to take. That is why I chose to architecture. It sorts of fell into place – it was not a stroke of luck or an inspiration.

I came to Hong Kong in 1960 to ask Lana for her hand in marriage. I never intended to stay here – my plan was that after we got married, we go to Europe to spend our honeymoon and return to Boston where a job was waiting for me. However, she said we haven’t seen each other for 3 years so she needs time to think about it. So, I decided to stay and started to look for a job. In the meantime, as she had a thriving interior design firm, I became her draftsman.  Then, a friend of Lana told me that a firm called Palmer & Turner just got a job to design a large hotel for a Texan.  As I have been designing hotels for Sheraton Corporation before I came to Hong Kong, I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to try this firm.

So, I went to the office of Palmer &Turner which was in the old HSBC building and asked to see Mr Palmer. I was told in school that I should see the top person of the firm. But the small lady with spectacles sitting behind the huge counter replied that he is no longer with the firm for a long time.  So, I asked to see Mr Turner and she giggled to say he is also no longer with the firm. Exasperated, I then asked who is the head of the firm now and she said Mr Smart but he is on leave but I can see Mr Campbell who is the junior partner.

Ian Campbell was very happy to hire me as nobody in the office had the experience of designing a hotel.  So, I was given the task of designing a 1,000-room hotel with two floors of shopping arcade below. Speed was of essence so a contract was signed for $ 25 M based on a set of A3 plans and outline specification with no details with Paul Y Construction Co. Now even an interior decoration work will cost that much.

In order for me to become an authorized person, I attended an interview where a panel of gov’t architects and engineers headed by Michael Wright questioned me about building construction. It very simple – they asked me about the waterproofing system for the new hotel and about septic tanks – which I knew nothing about. But I passed. What a difference from becoming an authorized architect today.  Michael Wright was the head of PWD, a founding member and President of HKIA and lived to a ripe old age of 105 just 2 years ago.

What a tremendous difference there is between the HK in 1960 and today. When I arrived, it was all low rise – the highest building was the old HSBC building which is now replaced by Norman Foster’s new building. There were many colonial style buildings with covered arcaded sidewalks such as Queen’s Building – now the Mandarin Hotel, the old Prince’s Building, the old Post Office building where the Worldwide Building now stands. These were classic colonial style buildings and if any building that should have been preserved, it should have been these buildings.  The waterfront was along Connaught Road and the Star Ferry was in front of the present Mandarin Hotel with rickshaws parked in the front.

In 1960, there were not too many architects. HK Society of Architects as HKIA was called at that time had only 68 members. There were the old colonial firms such as Palmer & Turner, Leigh & Orange and Spence Robinson. Then there were the Chinese firms such as Chau & Lee and Szeto Wai and those that came from Shanghai such as Eric Cumine, G D Su or his firm Hsin Yieh and Robert Fan. And then some of the recent graduates from HKU and abroad that just started their firms such as Jackson Wong with Ng Chun Man and later with Leslie Ouyang, Bill Wong of Wong & Tung and Andrew Lee. 

Today, we have around 200 firms and 4,700 HKIA members, mostly graduates from the 2 local universities. There are also many firms from USA, UK and Australia practicing in Hong Kong and China. There is a great deal of competition not only for the firms but also for recent graduates.  

However, work is made much easier by using computers rather than manually toiling over a drafting board. All the news of HKIA is now sent through the internet. As for me, I still don’t know how to use a computer to do drawings. To me, somehow there is great pleasure in doing the drawings by hand.

Today, many of the projects are much larger and cost of construction has risen astronomically. Compare HK Hilton at 25 Million in 1960 to a hotel complex such as Rosewood today that cost 25 Billion. Today, clients are much more aware of the benefit of good design and willing to pay for it, which is good for architecture. 

Also, today we are much more aware of the environment and social aspect of architecture. 
Concern for long term sustainability, low carbon emission, use of eco-friendly materials, “green” buildings and energy saving systems direct the design of buildings.

In 1967, there was a serious disturbance in HK – a spillover from the cultural revolution in China. 51 people got killed and properties damaged. Many thought it was the end of HK that China was going to step into HK. Luckily, we still had projects which were under construction so we were able to carry on but we were concerned about the future. So, when our client asked us to design a building in Sydney, Australia, we jumped at it and opened an office in Sydney. Later we were given the opportunity to expand in Singapore, Jakarta, Hawaii and after 1980, in China.

At this moment you are facing new challenges. With the covid-19 virus raging, and the unsettling political conflict in Hong Kong, things are very difficult. Work has slowed down and the future is uncertain. However, I believe that HK has a tremendous capacity to survive and bounce back just as it did in 1967 and 1980s. I am truly amazed with the people of HK – of how they can adapt and recover from bad times that I am confident that HK will become successful again.

Architecture is not just a job, it is a way of life. You have the power to improve the way people live, both physically and environmentally.  If you were looking for an easy life, forget it – an architect’s life can be very stressful - it’s a tough world and you have to work for it. But most of all enjoy the work you are doing and think how you are helping others to a better way of life, a better world to live in and be happy that you are part of it. It can be a simple alteration for a flat to make an elderly woman to move around easier or just designing a piece of furniture.

Travel and learn from the architecture of the past as well as the contemporary.  I enjoyed joining the many trips that Professor P P Ho led on many art and architectural trips into China and Japan.

If I had to live another life, I would choose architecture again – I enjoyed it and do not regret any moment of it. I wish all of you the best and to enjoy every moment in your life as an architect.