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31 Mar 2022 / by Janice Li

Cities within Cities: How Hong Kong Architects Respond to High-Density Living

Horizontally oriented photograph showing two back-to-back badminton courts in orange, brown, and blue. In the foreground, a young girl wearing a face mask passes in profile.  To the right of the frame is a basketball hoop and part of a basketball court. Just behind the courts is a low wall, in front of which are chairs and behind which are palm trees. A break in the wall leads to a block of buildings in the background. The building units are regimented rectangles in different shades of the rainbow.

As its name aptly suggests, Choi Hung Estate—or ‘Rainbow Estate’ in Cantonese—features a rich palette of colours, making it a photoshoot hotspot. Photo: Shirley Surya

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.

Square-shaped photograph showing a building with multi-coloured blocks to the right of the frame; another building with similar decoration is in the background and facing the viewer. A beige-coloured bridge emerges from the first building and extends to the right of the frame. In front of and behind the bridge are a row of palm trees.

Located in Ngau Chi Wan, Kowloon, Choi Hung Estate is known for its natural light, ventilation, and integrated facilities. Photo: Shirley 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.’

Horizontally oriented photograph showing an aerial view of a cityscape. In the foreground is an eight-lane highway. Immediately behind it is a housing estate in two clusters. Each cluster features four tall buildings arranged in a square formation. Between them are four smaller buildings in another square formation. Each of the buildings is covered in regimented blocks of varying shades of the rainbow. Trees and greenery are interspersed between the buildings. In the distance are two other housing estates with taller buildings clustered in rows. In the far distance is a body of water, on the other side of which are more buildings and green mountains.

Built in 1960, Choi Hung Estate fulfils a full range of social functions with schools, shops, post office, community garden and recreational facilities, thereby promoting a community spirit. Photo: Wpcpey via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-3.0)

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.

Architectural model showing a housing estate with three buildings of varying heights in a row. There is a square-shaped ventilation opening on the building on the right. Solar panels are installed on each of the building's rooftops. The buildings on the left are somewhat shorter. The public space in the foreground features rows of trees and miniature models of people.

The green architectural concept of the New Territories development Verbena Heights won out in the Tseung Kwan O Comprehensive Housing Estate Design Competition of 1992. Its emphasis on sustainability was distinctive among public housing developments. © Anthony Ng Architects; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Anthony Ng Heung-Hung, 2018

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.’

Photograph showing an aerial view of two dense clusters of buildings separated by a highway. The buildings are cruciform in shape. Trees surround the clusters. In the foreground on both sides of the highway are sports grounds.

Redeveloped from a Mobil petroleum storage site in western Kowloon, Mei Foo Sun Chuen consists of ninety-nine residential blocks of twenty storeys. Photo: Wpcpey via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-3.0)

Sepia-toned photograph showing a pavilion with orange roof in the centre of a courtyard. The courtyard surrounded by sixteen-storey residential buildings, which occupy the remainder of the frame.

Mei Foo Sun Chuen’s podium level. © Wong Tung & Partners Ltd.; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Wong Tung & Partners Limited, 2013

Photograph showing an aerial view of building clusters. In the right bottom of the frame is a cluster of diamond-shaped buildings; a road winds between them. In the left bottom of the frame is a cluster of low rectangular-shaped buildings, behind which is a large area of greenery. In the upper right corner of the frame is the sea.

Built almost a decade after Mei Foo Sun Chuen, Taikoo Shing is a private residential development in Quarry Bay, Hong Kong Island. © Wong Tung & Partners Ltd.; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Wong Tung & Partners Limited, 2013

Sepia-toned photograph showing a high-level view of a residential estate's podium level, which is surrounded by five tall buildings. A fountain, trees and shrubs, and seating areas are dispersed around the podium.

Tai Koo Shing’s podium level. © Wong Tung & Partners Ltd.; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Wong Tung & Partners Limited, 2013

Photograph showing an aerial view of two dense clusters of buildings separated by a highway. The buildings are cruciform in shape. Trees surround the clusters. In the foreground on both sides of the highway are sports grounds.

Redeveloped from a Mobil petroleum storage site in western Kowloon, Mei Foo Sun Chuen consists of ninety-nine residential blocks of twenty storeys. Photo: Wpcpey via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-3.0)

Sepia-toned photograph showing a pavilion with orange roof in the centre of a courtyard. The courtyard surrounded by sixteen-storey residential buildings, which occupy the remainder of the frame.

Mei Foo Sun Chuen’s podium level. © Wong Tung & Partners Ltd.; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Wong Tung & Partners Limited, 2013

Photograph showing an aerial view of building clusters. In the right bottom of the frame is a cluster of diamond-shaped buildings; a road winds between them. In the left bottom of the frame is a cluster of low rectangular-shaped buildings, behind which is a large area of greenery. In the upper right corner of the frame is the sea.

Built almost a decade after Mei Foo Sun Chuen, Taikoo Shing is a private residential development in Quarry Bay, Hong Kong Island. © Wong Tung & Partners Ltd.; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Wong Tung & Partners Limited, 2013

Sepia-toned photograph showing a high-level view of a residential estate's podium level, which is surrounded by five tall buildings. A fountain, trees and shrubs, and seating areas are dispersed around the podium.

Tai Koo Shing’s podium level. © Wong Tung & Partners Ltd.; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Wong Tung & Partners Limited, 2013

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.’

Side-by-side images showing a full view and close-up of a cardboard architectural model of two high-rise cruciform towers rising from a podium. Situated on a slope, the towers' pale yellow, beige, and grey colour scheme is punctuated by an orange vertical strip on the left building and a blue vertical strip on the right. Featureless, grey buildings are positioned nearby.

Hollywood Terrace is woven into fabric of Sheung Wan, Hong Kong Island. The public podium underneath the twin towers connects Queen’s Road Central and Hollywood Road. © Rocco Design Architects Ltd.; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Rocco Design Architects Associates Ltd., 2013

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.

'Domestic Transformer' by Gary Chang
'Domestic Transformer' by Gary Chang
2:54

Gary Chang’s Domestic Transformer has at least twenty-four spatial permutations, including kitchen, laundry room, office, spa and bedroom

Video Transcript

TINA PANG: One of the very special projects in this exhibition is a collaboration we made with the architect Gary Chang. It's a one-to-one reproduction of his home. It's such an ingenious design solution to living in small spaces today that is applicable not just to Hong Kong, but to everywhere else in the world now.

So, what we loved also about this project was that it's such a Hong Kong story. Gary lived in this space for his whole life, originally with his two sisters and his parents, so five people living in this thirty-two-square-metre space, with just—I think—three bedrooms, and one of them was, in fact, even rented out to someone at some point. So, this was where Gary slept; he slept on the sofa. Over the years after his family moved out, as a design student, he started to really experiment with the space himself. So, it's gone through many different design ideas. And Gary's idea, I think, is something that all of us can adopt, which is we should really shape our spaces to how we use them. And his principle is that, really, we live in the city, and so our homes can be very compact. And they can adapt to what we're doing at any given moment.

So over here, you'll see his bed, and so the bed comes down and, in that mode, it's a bedroom with a TV over here. And he has of a full-size shower. One of the principles of Gary's design is that everything is luxurious. So even though it's a small space, you can still fit a lot in it. So, this is probably a larger shower than any of us in Hong Kong would normally have. It also doubles as a private space for when he has guests, and they want to have a private phone call. Behind these walls, is a full-size bathtub, so he hasn't scrimped on any of the things that he really wants to enjoy in life. And then behind here—I'll just pull this out a little bit for you to see—is a walk-in wardrobe with a mirror—a full-size mirror—so you can get ready at the beginning of the day for your day, and then push back to conceal what's behind. We felt that this was such an important thing to show public audiences, to really inspire them for how you can live better in your own small space.

And then to complete the experience of visiting Gary's home, we shot the view from outside his window towards the Eastern Island Corridor, so that you really get the authentic experience.

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.’

Many of these designs are now on display at Hong Kong: Here and Beyond. Watch a tour of the exhibition before your visit.

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).

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