Remembering Kerry Hill

Remembering Kerry Hill
By Felicia Toh

I met Kerry Hill at his Cantonment office in January to discuss Amanemu, a resort he had recently completed in Ise-shima, Japan. He spoke slowly, pausing over carefully chosen photographs and quotes, describing the spirit of Amanemu not merely in words, but embodying its quietude. I remember us talking about the outdoor onsen pools terracing down the wintry landscape. “I like the steam- rising from the surface of the waters.” He said simply, pausing to gaze at the photograph with the faintest hint of a smile.

He reached over the large wooden table and passed me prints of the articles and talks he had given over the years, dating back to 2006. “Have you come across these? It may help with the article.” It did. It gave me a glimpse of the person he was- thorough, conscientious, kind.

At the end, I asked when his next book would be published? His eponymous monograph was notoriously difficult to procure- sold out and out of print. He generously offered, “I’ll give you one.” He got up and climbed the steps to his back office, as I sat and tried not to look silly with glee.

“Could you sign it for me?” I asked, throwing a fan girl moment.
“I did.”
I flipped to the inside leaf but didn’t see it.
“It’s somewhere inside, you’ll have to find it,” he said.

I did not realize that those two hours were the last time I would see him, and the last magazine interview that Kerry Hill would give. Yet even now, after his passing, he continues to give. Leafing through his speeches and writings, I realize how remarkably consistent his words were over the decades- evidence of how deeply he must have thought about architecture, and how rooted those foundational values were.

These quotes encapsulate some of his key thoughts:

“Of course you can pin a label on us if you want to but I prefer to think of our work as simply building appropriately. Our aim is to emphasize the importance of sensual experience and an intuitive approach over theoretical speculation. I do not think you can find a reason for everything you make.”
– Kerry Hill, AS Hook address, 2006

He taught through his body of work that more than anything else, the power of architecture is experience. Also, that intuition can lead us to places of intrigue and richness that strict rationality cannot follow.

“Designers enjoy the risks of uncertainty. We love the potential of the fuzzy line that separates the possible from the impossible. Dreaming about and exploring the realms of the possible and impossible is what we do and it is almost always uncertain in its outcome. This calls for reflection on the core values of architecture: identifying why some buildings work and others don’t, asking why some spaces feel uplifting and others are miserable.”
– Kerry Hill, UNSW Sydney Built Environment Utzon Lecture, 2016

As a renowned architect, Hill was invited to guest judge on numerous critique panels over the years, including the President’s Design Award. Each time, he had one rule prior to accepting the role: that the judges would physically visit the buildings instead of deciding based on photographs. In an image-saturated era, Hill taught me that the only way to tell if a building was good was to experience it.

“Within our search for authenticity, we allow each project to clearly identify itself through place, purpose and material, in the hope that, in Asia at least, our modernist approach might be enriched by accommodating the traditions of the East.”

He believed that buildings should relate to its sense of place, in recognition of the histories and cultures of its context. “I got into trouble by saying I don’t believe in plonk architecture- a Gehry here, a Gehry there,” he shared wryly. But what he really meant was to recognize architecture’s purpose in place-making. By creating buildings that imbibe their context, the cities we live in may gradually be filled with spaces that share the essence of place. Architecture forms a city’s physical memory.

Finally, in his A.S. Hook address in 2006, Hill remarked, I think we all know that practising architecture can be euphoric and at times it can be desperate and dark. Tonight, I would rather dwell on the bright side, the pleasure of architecture.”

Through his architecture scattered throughout the world in places as far-flung as Bhutan, India, Australia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Japan, amongst others, Hill unveils the delight that makes the tedium of architectural practice worthwhile. An architect’s best parting gift would certainly be his buildings. Especially so for an architect who believed so dearly that architecture can and should be spoken about, written about and photographed- but the only way to truly know it, is to experience it.

A building speaks. And should one have questions to unearth about his architecture now that their strongest voice is missed, Hill’s words may come in handy: “It’s somewhere inside, you’ll have to find it.”

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