With its overwhelming population, Hong Kong has long grappled with the challenge of land shortages. In response, many architects have come up with ingenious architectural solutions, particularly in the area of housing infrastructure. Be it public or private housing, these designs often combine recreational spaces, shops, and private residences into one.
While local housing designs have evolved throughout the years, one thing has remained constant: stunning flexibility. In this article, Shirley Surya (Curator, Design and Architecture) introduces some of the city’s housing projects represented in the museum’s collections. In the process, she shines a light on the changes and continuities in Hong Kong’s residential planning, and how these are intertwined with social changes in housing policy, economics, and infrastructural development.
Choi Hung Estate: Realising a ‘City within a City’
Planning for Choi Hung Estate began in 1959, making it one of the earliest embodiments of the ‘city within a city’ concept. Designed by Palmer and Turner—the firm behind many a Hong Kong landmark—this comprehensive, highly accessible housing complex represented a novel approach to residential planning at the time.
As it was built on flat land, the architects designed the estate as an ensemble with differing patterns. ‘All those blocks in the estate do not line up neatly; rather they are facing different directions, with varying heights,’ says Surya. ‘Viewing from above, you will see all the key facilities are in the centre. On the periphery are eight twenty-storey blocks, whereas in the middle we have seven-storey blocks and their adjacent low-rise structures. Hence, there’s no blockage of views.’
Verbena Heights, completed in 1990, also features an undulating plan, this time with sustainable features added in. Numerous gardens facilitate ventilation and natural lighting while maintaining the privacy of residents. At the same time, the plants and walkways at ground level shelter people from rain and street noise.
Surya mentions another example of attempting to integrate apartments and retail in residential planning in Europe: the Märkisches Viertel public housing in Berlin. The community, however, did not achieve the vitality enjoyed by its Hong Kong counterpart. ‘They didn’t have the idea that shops must be right beneath the blocks, as do the market, schools, and church,’ she says. ‘They tried to, but it’s not as vibrant, even after so many years. So, I thought Choi Hung Estate was unique, because its design lasts until today.’ She thinks it has to do with the lifestyle of Hong Kong: speed matters. If we put all daily essentials in one place, life is much easier.
Mei Foo Sun Chuen and Tai Koo Shing: The Evolving ‘Urban Lab’
In the 1970s and 1980s, Mei Foo Sun Chuen and Tai Koo Shing—two private housing estates designed by Wong Tung and Partners—were planned along similar lines. Mei Foo Sun Chuen can be said to be an ‘urban lab’ for the city’s early housing. ‘Nowadays in Mei Foo, it’s thriving,’ says Surya. ‘It’s a very well-connected place. You don’t even need to go to the ground level; you can just hang out on the podium and skip over to the next block. If you do get down, there are bus stops, markets, and shops. It’s very self-contained and self-sufficient.’
Tai Koo Shing has similar elements: a shopping mall is ensconced in the middle, and the podium serves as both a link between blocks and a recreational space. Residents do not need to go far to wind down; they can simply go downstairs.
Though sharing similar planning concepts, the two estates have different outlooks: Mei Foo Sun Chuen has a tight and regimented plan, whereas Tai Koo Shing has more open landscaped areas. Mei Foo is famed for its cruciform blocks, which ensure good ventilation and views, but to Surya, Tai Koo Shing’s diamond layout creates more room between the blocks and feels more expansive. ‘In Mei Foo, you’d still feel that you’re in a concrete jungle, but in Tai Koo, the spacious landscaped areas would feel a bit more humanised or suburban.’
Hollywood Terrace: Turning Limits into Merits
Even today, Tai Koo Shing is still hugely popular in sales and rental markets. The estate has much to recommend it, such as its convenient location and comprehensive facilities. But another major factor is that such spaciousness can hardly be found in later developments. Take Hollywood Terrace, built in 1990, an early project in the revitalisation scheme for Central and Sheung Wan. ‘The plot is quite tricky: if you want to build something so massive between two major thoroughfares—Queen’s Road Central and Hollywood Road—the staircase connecting the two streets will be intercepted.’
She notes that Central and Sheung Wan is a community with its own sophisticated network and character. Erecting a new building there runs the risk of violating the neighbourhood’s profile and looking out of place. Architect Rocco Yim thus conceived an open podium and walkway with stairs, lifts, and other facilities that would preserve the sloping topography and facilitate pedestrian traffic between Queen’s Road Central and Hollywood Road. ‘The residential towers start high up above a rather porous podium and are hardly noticeable to passers-by. It enables pedestrian access,’ Surya points out. ‘The private and public routes are separate but visible to each other. The gardens and terraces on both sides add a touch of greenery. The multiple layers of stitching together private and public zones are testament to the architect’s emphasis on spatial connectivity.’
Domestic Transformer: Solutions for Compact Living
With its hilly and rugged relief, Hong Kong has but little land for habitation and development. One consequence of this is infill developments—single-block residential buildings with just one or two apartments on each floor. Originating in Hong Kong, this urban phenomenon is now commonplace in big cities like New York, demonstrating how more and more city-dwellers are living in tiny flats. To this, architect Gary Chang conceived the Domestic Transformer as an unconventional solution, with the hope of making life more convenient in a high-density environment. The work was inspired by hawkers in Hong Kong: in daytime, they unfold their stalls for business; at night, they fold them up again. Using his thirty-two-square-metre home as a blueprint, he designed moveable walls and multifunctional furniture, blurring the boundaries between walls, furniture, and space.
Surya thinks the versatile design mirrors contemporary urban life. ‘We can appreciate architectural designs from different angles—not just whether it’s beautiful or not, but also its overall planning and spatial strategy. The coordination of buildings or even indoor furniture is like an adaptive orchestration. You can only experience it at the moment of use.’
The Chinese version of this article was originally published on 22 April 2021 in the Hong Kong Economic Times. It is presented here in edited and translated form. Originally authored by Janice Li, with additional edits by Amy Leung (Editor, Web Content).