Digging into the Hong Kong Architecture Archives of Wong Tung & Partners
In our 'From the Archives' series, we shine a spotlight on the M+ Collection Archives. Below, with the help of Kevin Forkan (Archivist) and Shirley Surya (Associate Curator, Design and Architecture), we introduce four significant projects from the museum's archives of Wong Tung & Partners, formerly Wong & Threadgill Architects and Engineers: Mei Foo Sun Chuen, Sheraton Hotel, Taikoo Shing, and Hong Kong Park.
Who is this archive from, and what’s in it?
Shirley Surya: This archive is from the architectural firm Wong Tung, one of the large architectural firms established in Hong Kong in 1963 by Shanghai-born Americans Bill Wong and Albert Tung. Like all of the Hong Kong architecture firms that we first chose to represent in the M+ Collections, they played a formative role in shaping Hong Kong’s architectural and urban landscape.
Kevin Forkan: The Wong Tung & Partners Archive contains material documenting four selected projects: private housing developments Mei Foo Sun Chuen and Taikoo Shing, the Sheraton Hotel at Tsim Sha Tsui, and Hong Kong Park. Although it’s not one of our biggest archival collections, containing only a few dozen items, it does have an interesting mix of formats—from large architectural reproductions and published material to digital photographs and VHS tapes.
Mei Foo Sun Chuen (1965–1978)
Surya: Mei Foo Sun Chuen was the primary reason we approached Wong Tung: a housing development through which the firm made its mark internationally in the late 1960s. Comprised of ninety-nine blocks of twenty-storey apartments for over 80,000 residents and built on a disused Mobil petroleum storage site, it was a pioneering private housing development for Hong Kong in terms of its scale, scope, and planning concepts.
It was then the world’s largest residential estate and Hong Kong’s first self-contained residential community in which accommodation and complete services—shops, open space and recreational facilities—were stitched together via an elevated podium. It was also an early example of how Hong Kong had emerged as an ‘urban lab’ where high-density and high-rise visions from overseas—akin to the Modernist schemes of architect Le Corbusier and others—were played out, due to ambitious financing and the need to respond to practical exigencies of housing in a big way.
The master plan below shows the monolithic nature of the dense blocks—almost like musical notes. But when you visit the estate, it doesn’t feel like an overwhelming concrete jungle, especially with the open spaces of the linked podiums between blocks.
Mei Foo became a model for both private and public housing. For example, it was conceived in 1965, three years before the famous Wah Fu Estate public housing complex, a high-density planned community. It also introduced innovative features such as the ‘scissor staircase’, which combines two interlocking staircases within a single stairwell enclosure. Andrew Lee King-fun—the Hong Kong architect known to have pioneered the use of the ‘scissor stairs’ to fulfill regulatory requirements while maximising spatial efficiency—has revealed that it was in the design of Mei Foo that the ‘scissor staircase’ was first used in Hong Kong.
Mei Foo was thus an influential model for planning high-density housing as a ‘city within a city’, as reflected in an article in the magazine Asian Architect & Builder from February 1974 (which is also part of the project archive) that notes how ‘Mei Foo Sun Chuen has had considerable impact on the private housing scene in Hong Kong’.
While the scale and density of Mei Foo Sun Chuen is best experienced by visiting Mei Foo or seeing an aerial photograph of the estate, we wondered whether the public would appreciate or discern its design through a floor plan, which we exhibited for the first time at the exhibition Building M+: The Museum and Architecture Collection in 2014.
I remember going to the gallery and seeing two young boys, maybe high school age, standing in front of it and studying the cruciform floor plans that show the bedrooms, kitchens, stairwells, and each housing block’s relationship with the linked podiums. I was quite moved that they would be interested in the details of such a technical drawing, and wondered if they were Mei Foo residents studying the design of their own dwellings.
Sheraton Hotel (1969–1974)
Surya: Another pioneering project for the firm, as well as for Hong Kong, was the Sheraton Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui. It was the firm’s first hotel project, but also the city’s first mixed-use hotel with an atrium mall. It led to Wong Tung’s later mixed-use mall designs.
Built on a piece of prime land on Nathan Road and sold at a time when Hong Kong’s economy was at its worst due to the 1967 riots, the hotel was developed with ‘planning concessions’ as part of the government’s bid to boost tourism infrastructure. This meant that anything built below ground level would be exempted from plot ratio. Edward Ho, the architect in charge of the project, therefore introduced a large lower ground level used for multiple floors of shopping.
Taikoo Shing (1977–1988)
Surya: Taikoo Shing is a private residential development in Quarry Bay. It was built almost a decade after Mei Foo Sun Chuen, and you can definitely see the similarities, but also some notable differences. One similarity is in the form of the cruciform blocks—which Wong Tung believed was the most efficient plan for ventilation and views—and its linked podiums. Tai Koo Shing’s sixty-one blocks are linked by a rhizomic podium to facilitate pedestrian movement.
However, while Mei Foo has a very tight and regimented plan, with every single space across the levels in use, Taikoo Shing has more open landscaped areas to alleviate the ‘concrete jungle’ effect. Taikoo’s retail components also come in the form of a mall in the middle of the complex, as well as the street-facing ground and first two floors. As an integrated residential and commercial development, Taikoo Shing is also much more mixed-use: shops and malls became nodes connecting residential, office, recreational, and areas with roadways and public transport via sky-bridges and sheltered walkways.
The above plan shows the connectivity between the mall and the apartment blocks, the integration of open spaces, and the emphasis on easing pedestrian flow between the mall, shops, social amenities, and the MTR.
The nature of Taikoo Shing’s project archive reveals the importance of urbanistic elements in the design and planning of Hong Kong’s built environment, in which issues of efficiency and linkage in spatial planning to integrate human traffic, public transport, open spaces, and amenities have to be thoroughly considered.
Hong Kong Park (1988–1991)
Surya: The most recent project by Wong Tung that we chose to acquire is the project archive for Hong Kong Park, primarily because it represents Hong Kong’s urban park typology in the middle of a dense commercial area. The project also represents the important redevelopment of former military barracks that began in 1977 between Central and Admiralty, which went beyond conventional park design. In addition to existing plans for botanical gardens and converting the use of barrack buildings (such as the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre), the architects recommended the design of an aviary, fountains, and a Tai Chi Garden, making a much more architectural intervention so as to create spaces for various activities.
How was the archive gathered?
Forkan: The Wong Tung & Partners Archive is one of our earliest archival acquisitions, well before my time! At that point, our Design and Architecture team was working hard to build up our Hong Kong architecture collection by approaching architectural firms in the city, asking them what they considered to be their most important projects that contributed to Hong Kong’s architectural and urban make-up, and gathering whatever material was available for each. Many of the archives acquired in this process would eventually feed into our first architecture exhibition, Building M+: The Museum and Architecture Collection, in early 2014.
Surya: We approached Wong Tung for archival materials due to our knowledge of three projects—Mei Foo, Tai Koo Shing, and Hong Kong Park. Sheraton Hotel was a discovery for us, based on the account of Edward Ho, former partner and Group Chairman of Wong Tung. Initially, the staff at Wong Tung didn’t know exactly what we were looking for, but when we told them that we were looking for ‘old materials’, their librarian pulled out photographs, slides, drawings, and even things like booklets, magazines, and a VHS tape.
The materials and our knowledge of each project are not evenly distributed. Usually, we do further research on a project and understand the nature of its materials when we get the opportunity to use the archives for exhibitions or certain projects, such as how we used materials from Mei Foo Sun Chuen and Taikoo Shing for the Building M+ exhibition.
Forkan: And of course, many items from our archival collections may never be shown in M+ exhibitions. But they will all be available to the public at the M+ Study Centre, so that other people can use them for their own research and contribute to knowledge about these projects.
How is the archive stored?
Forkan: Architectural collections are relatively simple to catalogue compared to some other types of archival collections, as material is usually grouped by architectural project. Within each project, we follow the archival principle of original order, in that we try to place the items in the sequence in which they were created so that the story of how the project was designed and constructed is told through the archive.
The materials in this archive are interesting, because there are five different types. There are the diazotype drawings—the floor plans. Diazotype reproductions are not actually drawn; they are copies made using a type of chemically treated paper, which means that they give off noxious fumes. They have to be kept separately from the pencil and transparent paper drawings, and are stored in our oversized flat file drawers. The Mei Foo Sun Chuen and Taikoo Shing plans are actually some of the biggest drawings we have in the archives.
Then you have the paper material, which includes the proposal memorandum for the Sheraton Hotel, but also the brochures and magazines. These are a mixture of printing ink and photocopy on paper, and each has its own preservation requirements.
There are also a lot of colour photographic materials, which are a mixture of chromogenic colour prints, and digital prints of older photos that had previously been scanned. Colour photographs are inherently unstable and liable to fading, and for long-term preservation are best stored in cold storage, ideally below freezing. We are currently preparing our colour photographic collections, which includes photographs, slides, and negatives, for the cold storage facilities that will be available in the M+ Study Centre. Additionally, the archive includes a promotional VHS cassette made to promote the Taikoo Shing development, which is best stored in what we term ‘cool storage’ around 5-15°C.
Along with all of this, Wong Tung also gave us CDs containing scanned copies of the original project photographs. Although these are scanned photographs, since we acquired them as digital files, we ingest them into our digital preservation system.
As told to Ellen Oredsson. The above interview has been edited for clarity. All images: M+, Hong Kong (unless otherwise indicated). This article was originally published on M+ Stories.