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