Ex­truded City

Design Anthology - - Architecto­nics / Modernism, Singapore - Text & Im­ages / Natasza Mi­nasiewicz

To see into the heart of present-day Hong Kong’s aes­thet­ics, a flight ticket and a win­dow seat might be es­sen­tials. Only as the plane banks above the city are cu­ri­ous pas­sen­gers given a top-down glimpse of one of the world’s most spec­tac­u­lar ur­ban fab­rics: con­crete mega-struc­tures set against a penin­sula, lush is­lands and the wa­ters of the South China Sea. This con­trast be­comes even more strik­ing when the aerial im­pres­sion of spa­cious­ness is met with the ex­treme den­sity of the city’s in­te­rior. This ex­tra­or­di­nary yet ev­ery­day re­al­ity for Hongkonger­s has its ori­gins in some­thing as pro­saic and util­i­tar­ian as pub­lic hous­ing.

In 1960s Amer­ica, Walt Dis­ney was en­gag­ing in his own mod­ernist ex­per­i­ment with The Ex­per­i­men­tal Pro­to­type Com­mu­nity of To­mor­row in Florida; across the At­lantic, how­ever, mod­ernist thought lead­ers had al­ready found real-world test­ing grounds for their utopian ideas. For them, it was mass hous­ing that would al­low for vi­sion­ary so­lu­tion test­ing and large-scale con­struc­tion. From Wal­ter Gropius’s hous­ing es­tate in Des­sau to Le Cor­bus­ier’s Unité d’Habi­ta­tion con­cept as re­alised in Mar­seille, these pi­o­neers ad­vo­cated so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity, form fol­low­ing func­tion, ra­tio­nal­ity, tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tions, min­i­mal em­bel­lish­ment and ma­chine aes­thet­ics. Dis­ney’s planned fu­tur­is­tic city be­came just an­other theme park, but those other early mod­ernist achieve­ments and oth­ers were re­vised and adopted all over the world, not least in the for­mer colonies, for bet­ter or worse de­vel­op­ing into ‘in­ter­na­tion­al­ism’ or what Rem Kool­haas has termed ‘generic modernism’.

In Hong Kong, it was not un­til the 1970s — when the econ­omy was boom­ing and so­ci­ety sta­bil­is­ing fol­low­ing a pe­riod of so­cial un­rest, an in­flux of refugees es­cap­ing the Chi­nese main­land’s Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, and in­ter­na­tional con­flicts — that the gov­ern­ment had the fi­nan­cial means to be­gin build­ing the colony into a cit­i­zen-friendly city, start­ing with an enor­mous in­vest­ment in com­mu­nity build­ing. Pub­lic hous­ing in Hong Kong was orig­i­nally in­tended as tem­po­rary re­set­tle­ment shel­ters, but soon evolved into some­thing much greater, as ev­i­denced by the first group of work­ing-class hous­ing es­tates. It was here, on the small is­land and Kowloon penin­sula, that mod­ernist ar­chi­tec­tural ideas and meth­ods found rel­e­vance like nowhere else.

Hong Kong’s new chap­ter be­gan in the early 1950s, when the first re­set­tle­ment blocks were erected af­ter the Shek Kip Mei squat­ter fire, fol­lowed by the renowned but now de­mol­ished North Point Es­tate — the Hong Kong Hous­ing Au­thor­ity’s first pur­pose-built pub­lic hous­ing es­tate. Some es­tates grew to the size of small Eu­ro­pean cities, pro­vid­ing homes for tens of thou­sands of peo­ple each and at­tract­ing in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion.

In many ways, how­ever, it was Wah Fu Es­tate that rev­o­lu­tionised Hong Kong’s pub­lic hous­ing land­scape. The first of its kind to be con­ceived as a self-suf­fi­cient com­mu­nity, Wah Fu was the brain­child of Tai­wan-born Hong Kong ar­chi­tect Don­ald Liao Poon Huai. Liao’s vi­sion en­com­passed the pro­ject’s com­pre­hen­sive de­sign, from its lo­ca­tion within the coastal land­scape, its com­mu­nal pro­grammes and its ameni­ties to do­mes­tic in­no­va­tions like pri­vate kitchens and bath­rooms. Sig­nif­i­cantly, it was Liao’s in­sis­tence on of­fer­ing in­de­pen­dent flats for ev­ery fam­ily that dis­tin­guished Wah Fu from pre­vi­ous es­tates that of­fered shared fa­cil­i­ties. Its ar­chi­tec­ture also be­came the model for many sub­se­quent hous­ing de­signs, both pub­lic and pri­vate, giv­ing form to Hong Kong’s ur­ban cityscape into the 21st cen­tury.

Sui Wo Court in Sha Tin dis­trict, de­signed by James Ki­noshita of Palmer & Turner, was yet an­other ground­break­ing achieve­ment of the era. Fea­tur­ing nine sep­a­rate tower blocks in an in­no­va­tive pin­wheel lay­out, which later evolved into the widely adopted cru­ci­form plan, the de­sign en­cour­aged cross-ven­ti­la­tion to im­prove air­flow as well as so­cial in­ter­ac­tion in its com­mon spa­ces. An­other mod­ernist in­ven­tion, the sky­bridge, was also in­tro­duced here. Asked if the idea was some­how in­flu­enced by British ‘street in the sky’ pro­po­nents and Bru­tal­ists Alison and Peter Smith­son, Mr Ki­noshita ex­plained non­cha­lantly to the HKIA Jour­nal, ‘No, just try­ing to bridge across,’ un­der­scor­ing the prag­ma­tism of the lo­cal ap­proach.

So, deeply in­flu­enced by the mod­ernist move­ment,Hong Kong cre­ated its own pe­cu­liar ur­ban vo­cab­u­lary and aes­thetic lan­guage, which now de­fines the ap­proach to both pub­lic and pri­vate ar­chi­tec­ture in the Pearl River Delta Met­ro­pol­i­tan Re­gion. With the Hong Kong gov­ern­ment’s in­tro­duc­tion of the more en­vi­ron­men­tally fo­cused Har­mony Blocks in the 1990s, cross-plan tow­ers com­pris­ing four iden­ti­cal wings around a cen­tral core be­gan to spring up across the ter­ri­tory, shap­ing its im­age to­day and be­com­ing a lo­cus for the for­ma­tion of col­lec­tive mem­o­ries by its in­hab­i­tants.

How­ever, since the fi­nal decades of the 20th cen­tury, rad­i­cal de­sign has lost its ve­loc­ity and so­cial-cen­tred ide­ol­ogy has given way to the profit mo­tive. The city once fa­mous for ex­tra­or­di­nary ur­ban struc­tures and ex­per­i­ments has be­come a ‘city of rep­e­ti­tion’, where the im­pe­tus for mass stan­dard­i­s­a­tion has shifted from so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity to the pur­suit of profit by real es­tate de­vel­op­ers. A ma­jor fac­tor is the gov­ern­ment’s clas­si­fi­ca­tion of build­ings more than 30 years of age as ‘old’, thereby giv­ing the green light to de­mol­ish the land­mark pub­lic hous­ing of the 1950s to 1970s to make way for taller de­vel­op­ments and denser plan­ning with the prom­ise of bet­ter ameni­ties and en­vi­ron­ments. With the chronic short­age of land and the world’s high­est prop­erty prices, generic build­ing el­e­ments and stan­dard unit plans have been widely adopted among pri­vate and pub­lic in­vestors, al­low­ing speedy con­struc­tion and sig­nif­i­cant cost sav­ings; thus, even in new struc­tures there is a no­tice­able lack of sen­si­tiv­ity to pro­por­tion, in­tegrity of form and the aes­thet­ics of ar­chi­tec­tural ex­pres­sion. The ‘her­itage’ ques­tion in­evitably arises also; in fact, Univer­sity of Hong Kong ar­chi­tec­ture pro­fes­sor Dr Ce­cilia Chu coined the term ‘her­itage of dis­ap­pear­ance’ to high­light that with the re­moval of these es­tates, post-han­dover Hong Kong seems to be slowly sac­ri­fic­ing its ur­ban land­scape and the col­lec­tive mem­o­ries of its work­ing class.

So, while ev­ery­body knows Mies van der Rohe’s gleam­ing Barcelona Pav­il­ion or Le Cor­bus­ier’s purist Villa Savoye, it bears ap­pre­ci­at­ing that just as these two icons rev­o­lu­tionised high-class res­i­den­tial liv­ing, Hong Kong’s pub­lic hous­ing, with Wah Fu and Sui Wo at the front­line, drew on modernism to for­ever change the iden­tity of the city, and the way Hongkonger­s live in this sci-fi like ma­trix of mass ex­tru­sions and uni­for­mity.

Wah Fu Es­tate rev­o­lu­tionised pub­lic hous­ing in Hong Kong, as the first es­tate to be con­ceived as a self-suf­fi­cient com­mu­nity. Its ar­chi­tec­ture has also in­flu­enced the ur­ban cityscape into the 21st cen­tury

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Hong Kong

© PressReader. All rights reserved.