Misfits’ Guide to HONG KONG

The previous post began with an exhibition about the Japanese house, architecture and life after 1945. This one begins with an exhibition about the Hong Kong apartment, buildings and living after 1945.

Housing Authority Exhibition Centre
4F, Block 3, Housing Authority Headquarters, 80 Fat Kwong St, Ho Man Tin, Kowloon

The exhibition deals with the story of public housing in Hong Kong. In 1945 its population was 600,000. Over the next five years, 1.5 million people would either return to it or flee to it. 

The exhibition describes the incremental improvements to facilities and increases in floor area per person and the differences they made. It explains how the method of construction changed to keep up with demand and how management and maintenance regimes adapted to extract maximum performance from precious housing stock.

There’s information on changes in housing policy, home ownership schemes, design for the elderly, sustainable practices and site-specific design. Airflow around buildings is now an important part of sustainable practices and site-specific design is becoming more important now it’s no longer possible to create large sites through reclamation.

Over fifty years, tower design has evolved (in the true sense of the word) to embody an enormous amount of intelligence I’ll write about some other time.

The story of Hong Kong is inseparable from the story of public housing and the exhibition was a clear and simple illustration of how people’s lives were changed for the better. A group of junior-school childen was entering as I was leaving. Half of them will live in public housing but for every one of them it’s a part of their history and culture and it cheered me no end to see it being recognized and taught as such.

State Theatre
1952
227-291 Kings Road, Hong Kong

This 1,400 seat theatre with exposed concrete roof truses was the cultural hub of Hong Kong’s classical music scene for many years. Currently derelict, its future is looking very iffy. A developer is circling.

Chungking Mansions, 1962
Lamb Halzeland & Co.
36-44 Nathan Road, TST Kowloon

Chungking Mansions is famous for being a high-density mixed-use housing and retail development although that was never the intention. There are thirteen floors of highly subdivided apartments above two levels of small retail spaces. This is what it looks like without any divisions into retail units, retail spaces, sublets and bedspaces.

Many people who work in the building also live in the building that continues to be an important entry point for immigrants or, in ourspeak, a business incubator. Its vibrance is legendary. It is policed as an extension of the city streets that it is.

There’s something good there. The ground floor has laundries, grocers, fast food, restaurants, and everything else a person might need on a daily basis. Mobile phone and consumer electronics stores let immigrants monetize forgotten skills such as how to fix things and make them last. People might wait for elevators between a Western Union and a grocer. Chungking Mansions works and for reasons that have little to with architecture, shopfitting, interiors and public open space. Retailers who live in the building have a natural and organic attachment to it. This doesn’t happen with the later and more strategically contrived juxtapositions of typologies.

Choi Hung Estate
P&T Architects, 1965
Choi Hung Estate, Wan Tai, Kowloon

The Choi Hung (rainbow, in Cantonese) Estate is from the same era and everybody knows it as one of Hong Kong’s first housing estates. It’s rainbow colours have been maintained and the roof of the car park is host to photographers and other life.

The estate houses about 43,000 people. This is probably why the ground level can sustain a large variety of shops that not only include butchers and various grocery stores, but hairdressers, shoe stores, a store selling only plastic stools, and another only acoustic guitars. This is not a mall. It is housing combined with stores with a full range of daily essentials. Stores are small and their owners seem to spend much time chatting with customers. Despite this development receiving a Hong Kong Association of Architects’ Silver Award in 1965, we fail to recognise anything here that resembles architecture as we now know it. This is our loss because residents and retailers combine to make something special. Perhaps all that’s needed is for architecture to not work against it.

Montane Mansion
Hong Kong Housing Authority 1972
1028 King’s Rd, Quarry Bay

Montane Mansion is big and densely-packed E-shaped building fronting King’s Road. Around the back it’s a photographer magnet responsible for this building’s huge presence on Instagram. The classic shot is the rectangle of sky, preferably in early evening when apartment lights are coming on. At eye level however are laundries, hairdressers, stores selling oranges, and shopkeepers observing the strange behaviour of visitors.

Montane Mansion ends the street well despite its long side not following the curve of the street in order to be beautiful.

The Hong Kong Tram
Hong Kong Island

Hong Kong Island has the world’s only double-decker tram fleet of 163 trams that carry around 230,000 passengers per day. Their design has had various updates since they were first introduced in 1904 but all still have the same boxy teak carriages and oddly short wheelbase. The most recent change is the addition of a smile [see image above]. A single journey costs HK$2.30 (US$0.30) irrespective of journey length.

Exits A1 and C1, HKU Station
MTR (Mass Transit Railway), Hong Kong
Exits A1, A2 and C1, HKU Station, Hong Kong

With two stops and eighteen floors from subway concourse to university concourse, these subway exits are a useful means of public transport and vertical extensions of the subway itself. They’re free. Elevator displays show destinations rather than levels. Exit A2 is the express.

Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate (勵德邨)
Hong Kong Housing Authority 1975
2 – 38 Lai Tak Tsuen Road, Tai Hang, Wan Chai District, Hong Kong

It’s not unusual for a Hong Kong apartment tower to have a light well at its middle but having a circular one is. This estate has two pairs of circular buildings, connected like binoculars, with elevators in the middle and open stairs at opposite ends.

Access balconies open directly onto the light well and the open stairs enable roof access. It seems apartment ventilation would be enhanced by such an arrangement but the Venturi Effect [the principle by which a spray gun operates] would only operate in moderate-high winds if the stairwalls were enclosed. The typology was never developed.

Tai Koo Estate
Swire Properties (Developer) 1982 (Phase 1)
18 Taikoo Shing Road, Taikoo Shing

Phase 2 is the block labelled CITY PLAZA in the image below. Imagine a mall covering a city block with three levels above ground and one below, and with parking below that. This forms a podium for nine 100m apartment towers known as HORIZON GARDENS.

The upper three levels are standard mall fare and the basement contains daily essentials. Apartment building entry lobbies are accessed from the sidewalks on the long sides of the mall.

Residents could just cross the street to access the Phase 1 mall and through that Taikoo MTR Station and Kornhill Plaza mall beyond, or they could enter the Phase 2 mall and access it via the wide bridge crossing Taikoo Shing Road.

Peripheral streets are fairly busy with pedestrians because of these access arrangements and amenities such as the waterside Quarry Bay Park are not far away.

Two office buildings linked to the mall by elevated walkways comprise Phases 3 and 4 that replace four apartment towers. This not-so-stealthy gentrification is obvious when older apartment blocks exist in close proximity to the retail and amenity spaces typical of commerical areas.

Pacific Place
Swire Properties (Developer), Wong & Ouyang (Architects), Heatherwick Studio (refurbishment)
88 Queensway, Admiralty, Hong Kong

This mall has no obvious gimmicks so I was surprised to learn that most of what I liked is the result of a 2007 refurbishment by Heatherwick Studio. The format for mall and store signage is unified throughout but those rules are broken for the more exclusive stores on the uppermost and lowers floors, as well as for the cineplex anchor.

There is timber on soffits and clear (curved!) glass balustrades with curved timber handrails, and a palette of neutrals. Escalator grab rails are brown.

There aren’t any concessions monetizing walkways as they obstruct them. There is only one double-sided display advertising in-mall promotions. The one event space is not constantly in use. All this is refreshing. Food and beverage outlets on the lowest level do not become a Food Court. A Starbucks is tucked away in a corner beneath escalators. Background music was slightly up-tempo around lunchtime but is generally low-key and low-volume. Think Julee Cruise’s Floating Into The Night.

The layout is easily understood and non-coercive. Contrary to the tenets of mall design, elevators and escalators are positioned where people might need them and without devious diversions. How to get where you want to is obvious, even if it’s outside. There’s an absence of free attractors such as aquariums or musical fountains animating walkways for the sake of paying people watchers. 

There’s also no attempt to artificially create zones through different flooring or soffit finishes. The one flooring is used throughout with subtle changes in direction of laying and the size of stone. The two-coloured flagstones are laid so the mix changes from “stone” to blue, emphasizing the shopfronts in the same way that waves emphasize a beach.

Glass panels in the rooftop drop-off zone allow a surprising amount of light into the mall. Natural light is all that’s needed to show natural materials to advantage but delicate chandeliers display clouds of pink and blue light that add base and top notes to the colour balance. They’re a thing to behold.

Artificial light also complements natural light elsewhere. Where skyligthts aren’t possible, light fittings in ceiling coffers continue the pattern.

At podium level are entrances to two office towers, three hotels and a hotel apartment tower. All except this last have direct access to the mall and metro station, as well as other buildings connected either above or below ground as is the Hong Kong way.

Queensway Plaza
Queensway, Hong Kong

Even though the experience is almost entirely internal, Pacific Place still has a sense of being a building with site boundaries and a shape and identity. Queensway Plaza doesn’t. You could pass through it without even knowing it. It’s still very much a mall with space either side of thoroughfares monetized as retail. Its thoroughfares link Pacific Place and at least three other office towers horizontally but also the bus station at ground level and the Admiralty MTR station below. It’s at the centre of everything in the map below but has next to zero external physical presence.

The internal experience is like those duty-free corridors that now line most major airports. You’re not expected to linger but to buy and move on. I wouldn’t be surprised if footfall makes it the most cost-effective retail space in Hong Kong.

The exterior turned out to be unimportant. Corbusian spouts pointlessly pour water as paint peels off the architectural stairwell. A light well remains defiantly magical.

Nam Long Shan Road Cooked Food Market
Nam Long Shan Road, Aberdeen, Hong Kong

This building is also unprepossessing from the street. Two wings of three floors are separated by a sliver of courtyard. It’s where people come to eat, and the building lets them do that with a bit of ceremony and in all the comfort they need.

Hong Kong Electric Building
Connaught Road Central, Hong Kong

I know nothing about this building but I’ve called it the Hong Kong Electric Building because of the logo on it. It has the mystery of a utilities building and appears slightly sinister due to its unrevealing exterior and dominant position along Connaught Road Central [c.f. The New Inhumanism]. Much like a Shin Takamatsu building, it is decorative and symbolic in ways we can’t relate to, as if it was an artefact from the future.

Asia Society
Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects 2012
9 Justice Dr, Admiralty, Hong Kong

This building is difficult to photograph because it’s not so much a building but a program of additions to “a group of four former British military buildings originally built by the British Army in the mid-19th century for explosives and ammunition production and storage. It was then expanded and taken over by the Royal Navy in the early 20th century. The site was later abandoned in 1990s until it was granted to the Asia Society Hong Kong for adaptive reuse.”*  There are many of the juxtapositions of new and old that characterize adaptive reuse.

As it’s an art gallery, those additions involve an entrance lobby, cafeteria, store and a small amphitheatere. A new bridge elbows around a breeding ground for fruit bats and leads to the galleries.

The star attraction is Hong Kong itself. To one side of the bridge is the steep mountainside host to the bat habitat, and on the other is airspace and beyond that the city. Hong Kong is full of such juxtapositions but the boundaries were as soft and blurred as they could ever be on a bridge. I like that the bridge balustrade does its fencing thing and that plants do their growing thing in the same place.

The open upper level of the two-storey bridge leads back to a roof garden event space and the elevator down.

Union Square Development
Terry Farrel & Partners (masterplanners), ongoing
1 Austin Road West, West Kowloon

The MTR (Mass Transit Railway) is now Hong Kong’s dominant player in housing development since it can sell the air rights above newly-built subway stations in much the same way as happened with Grand Central Station. The mall+apartment tower hybrid is now a subway+mall+apartment tower hybrid and the result is privately owned public infrastructure. On the surface, everybody seems to win.

Between the station and the apartment towers is public open space as well as outdoors F&B outlets. It wasn’t horrible. There was security and card access to the residential towers via some communal open space, but the public open space is of limited use as open space even when it is open to the public between 6:00 am and 10:00 pm.

This development was rightly criticised for being an island with no connection to its surroundings. I searched in vain for an exit to a street. Union Square is up against the Hong Kong Island cross-harbour road/tunnel entry to its west but, when the time comes to do so, future foobridges will no doubt connect it to developments currently being constructed to the south, north and east.

Opus Hong Kong
Frank Gehry, 2012
53 Stubbs Road, Hong Kong

Frank Gehry’s Fred and Ginger reprise spawned Asia’s most expensive residences. The building is often photographed as a solitary blot on a pristine mountainside. I was pleased that’s not exactly the case but even relatively isolated developments such as this will attract infill development and further dilute Hong Kong’s unique juxtapositions of nature and artifice.

Clague Garden Estate (祈德尊新邨)
P&T Architects, 1989
Tsuen Wan

Three 40-storey apartment towers contain 552 apartments for rent and 926 for sale. Additional low-rise buildings mean some 6,700 people live in 1,800 apartments having areas between 21m²  and 55 m². I’ve doctored this generic plan to show how apartment access is configured

Towers with H-shaped corridors have been split, the two halves offset and every third level reconnected with bridges, elevators and garbage rooms. Every 36 apartments share a communal volume internally overlooked by all stairs as well as some kitchens and bedrooms [c.f. The Landscape Within].

Stairwells serve as fire stairs and have apartments at half landings so as to minimise unlit corridor length. Balustrades are solid where there is a building-height void but are open railings when there is a three-storey void. This next image is an enlargement of the top right image above. Deep beams supporting the bridges have openings to lessen the enclosure of the uppermost stairs, creating sight lines to the stairs beyond.

This may be feng-shui at work or it may just be a nice thing to do. On both sides every thirteen or so floors are circular moon-gates. These might have been provided to guide dragons descending the nearby mountains or they might have been provided to give a public scale to the building when seen from the street.

The building has three different scales and each is appropriate for the scale at which the building is comprehended. Occupants are aware of all three as they move from their own space to have an awareness of their own place within their community of 36 apartments, of their community’s place within the building, and of their building’s place in the city and landscape. We can’t really ask a building to do more.

• • •

Thanks: 

  • to Gabriel for letting me know about Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate and for the heads up on trends in estate development
  • to Sebastien for taking me to see Clague Garden Estate and for suggesting I visit Nam Long Shan Road Cooked Food Market and Queensway Plaza
  • to Nik for suggesting I see State Theatre and for taking me to J. Boroski Hong Kong
  • to Tom for introducing me to Macau
  • to Nasrine for suggesting I visit Pacific Place and Asia Society
  • to Trent and all the utopian urbanists from the University of Queensland
  • to everyone at the Hong Kong Housing Authority Exhibition Centre