M+ / Design Trust Fellow Oliver Elser traces highlights of his research into Brutalist architecture in Hong Kong
Brutalism is an architectural style that emerged in 1950s United Kingdom, characterised by exposed raw concrete and bold geometry. In the 1960s and 1970s, Brutalism spread globally—including to Hong Kong.
Many brutalist buildings are now in danger of disappearing through demolition or remodelling. As a response, curator and architecture critic Oliver Elser developed the SOS Brutalism project, a database and campaign aimed at raising awareness of ‘our beloved concrete monsters’. As a recipient of the M+ / Design Trust Fellowship 2019, Elser investigated the degree to which Brutalism and its transformations have manifested in Hong Kong. Below, we ask him to share some highlights from his research.
What led to the urgency, and value, of re-examining brutalist architecture?
The architecture of the global ‘boom years’ after 1945 is heavily under threat in many regions of the world—especially brutalist buildings, often dismissed as ‘brutal monsters’ already in the time of their construction. However, brutalist buildings became the focus of scholarly (and social media) attention around 2010. This new appreciation was driven by an increasing interest in the political history of Brutalism. In many regions of the world, the development of Brutalism parallels greater social progress, democratisation, and more equal opportunities through an expansion of the educational system.
However, a truly global approach has been lacking, as European–North American–Japanese perspectives have prevailed.
To widen this perspective, the Deutsches Architekturmuseum started a collaboration with the Wüstenrot Foundation to look at discourses in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. We launched ‘SOS Brutalism – Save the Concrete Monsters’, a project consisting of a book, exhibition, social media campaign, and comprehensive online database, to offer a broad, empirical base of data on the number of brutalist buildings endangered worldwide. Currently, the platform contains 2,038 buildings; 209 buildings are on the ‘red list’, meaning they are in acute danger of being demolished or vastly redesigned.
How has SOS Brutalism sought to expand the criteria of what characterises brutalist architecture?
The term Brutalism was coined by architects Alison and Peter Smithson in 1953, and was further popularised by architectural historian and critic Reyner Banham. The Smithsons were not primarily interested in form or a particular material—such as exposed concrete—but in a new, direct way of approaching the design of a building, stating: ‘...[we] were concerned with the seeing of materials for what they were: the woodness of wood; the sandiness of sand.’
Reyner Banham also did not speak of exposed concrete at first. Instead, he drew parallels to Art Brut, a term invented to describe art made outside of the academic tradition. In his essay ‘The New Brutalism’, Banham defined three criteria as ethical principles of Brutalism: memorability as an image, clear exhibition of structure, and a valuation of materials ‘as found’.
So is the widespread definition of Brutalist architecture as ‘exposed concrete architecture’ a misinterpretation, or a rough simplification?
In his Unité d’Habitation (1947–1952), the Swiss–French pioneer of modern architecture Le Corbusier did not, for the first time, paint over the concrete or have it refined. He described this new treatment of concrete as béton brut. Béton means concrete; brut means dry, raw, rough, and unrefined, echoing a type of champagne called brut.
Since the mid-1960s, ‘brutal monsters’—huge, top-heavy complexes similar to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation but far from the dry, ‘brut’ buildings of the Smithsons—were built across all political systems. They were the starting point for SOS Brutalism.
To include these ‘monsters’ in the classical definition of Brutalism, it was necessary to expand it with a fourth criterion, in addition to Banham’s previous three. We called this criterion ‘rhetorical’, referring to the building’s expression of exaggeration and extravagance.
How did your observation of brutalist buildings during your research in Hong Kong reinforce, or change, your initial perception of them, and of the definition of Brutalism?
In the SOS Brutalism catalog, scholar Han Man writes about a number of important buildings in Hong Kong, which caught my attention before I started the M+ / Design Trust Research Fellowship. However, during my fellowship, I could re-evaluate these buildings through on-site visits. More importantly, I discovered more buildings that resonated with Brutalism but were atypical examples of it. They made me consider how other factors infiltrated the brutalist approach, such as Hong Kong-based architects’ consciousness of traditional Chinese architecture, or the influence of postmodern architecture that reinterpreted and referenced historical precedents.
Jackson Wong’s Residence
Many describe Jackson Wong’s residence as the starting point of Brutalism in Hong Kong. Wong and his partner Ng Chung Man were among the first graduates from the Department of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong. After leaving the school in 1955, they co-founded their practice, known today as Wong & Ouyang.
Wong’s residence was a concrete box with a wide overhang. A closer look at the plans in the M+ Collections reveals an astonishing detail of how, even at a relatively late stage, it was still assumed that the concrete parapet bands were to be covered with ‘mosaic tiles’. The rejection of the tiles seems to have been a last-minute decision. Even after receiving approval, the surface was not covered.
So should we consider Wong’s residence as a masterpiece by coincidence? There are several possible reasons why the tiles were excluded. Perhaps the building authorities were to be deceived about the actual plans of an exposed concrete surface. Or perhaps the architect was unsure of the quality of the concrete executed, so he kept a fallback option in case the contractor could not deliver the desired result. Soon after, a whole series of buildings in Hong Kong were created where this ‘fallback’ option no longer existed. Nonetheless, Jackson Wong’s precautionary measure does not make the building any less important.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong Campus
In the case of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), I was surprised to learn about the political perspective of its genesis and central design ideas. Founded in 1963 as an association of three colleges, CUHK’s orientation was largely determined by its founding members—consisting of anti-Communist Confucian scholars and Protestant Christians—as well as the support of US and British universities and entities. Private supporters included the family of publisher Henry Luce, a strong anti-Communist.
The campus development in Sha Tin started with Chung Chi College, with the participation of architects Robert Fan and Chau & Lee. In 1963, Szeto Wai joined as an engineer and architect. Under his guidance, the hill adjacent to Chung Chi College was terraced. At the Science Centre, where the entire spectrum of concrete processing is demonstrated, Szeto called the cantilevered auditorium a ‘mushroom’. He even offered an explanation for his sublime gesture: to create an ‘unobstructed space for the students’.
The new university as a whole could be seen as an ‘unobstructed space’, giving Chinese-speaking students access to higher education outside mainland China. Against the background of the university’s anti-Communist founding history, ‘unobstructed space’ could be read as ‘freedom and democracy’ in both architectural and political terms. The entire master plan can also be interpreted as a political metaphor, especially in comparison to campus designs in other countries.
While in the US or Germany, the individuality of the creative architectural personalities is undermined by massive use of prefabricated elements, for CUHK, Szeto created a clever ensemble of buildings that avoids monotony, with each building having different architectural expressions.
Chung Chi Hall Student Centre
One building at the foot of the CUHK campus deserves special attention. The Chung Chi Hall Student Centre (now known as Chung Chi Tang) has an unusual A-Frame construction. In historical colour photographs, it appears that the concrete beams are made of wood. This is evoked by the imprint of the formwork boards.
The transformative power of replacing wood with concrete creates an updated expression of a traditional construction. It is similar to how Japanese architect Kenzo Tange designed the concrete structure of the Kagawa Prefectural Office to appear as though it was built out of wood, expressing tradition and modernity in equal terms.
Robert Black College
An interesting detour into architecture from the same period that is both traditional and modern is Robert Black College at the University of Hong Kong—also designed by Szeto Wai. Like the Chung Chi Hall Student Centre, the building’s design seems to mimic the wooden construction of traditional Chinese architecture. It is, however, a modern concrete and brick building. While it is not a brutalist building in any sense, it raises important questions on how Brutalism’s new architectural attitudes were adopted in Hong Kong.
Szeto completed this college ‘for visiting scholars from overseas on oriental studies’ in 1966, during which time he had also been developing the CUHK master plan. What can be concluded from the fact that he adopted two such different design approaches at the same time?
One could easily read into how this meant that Brutalism in Hong Kong was just a style that conformed to an international fashion. But I’ve begun to consider how conditions are more complex than whether the appearance of a building fits into the brutalist category. In Hong Kong and the surrounding region, I have the impression that architecture has never been as ideological as in the European–US context, and I see this quite explicitly as a positive thing. That’s why Robert Black College is an important example of an ‘alternative path’ when we consider Szeto Wai’s brutalist buildings.
St. Stephen’s College
Tao Ho’s St. Stephen’s College was included in the SOS Brutalism catalogue for its evident brutalist aesthetic. My visit to the site in Stanley revealed more details of the building and the possible rationale behind the design. I was surprised at how well-preserved the gymnasium is. Inside, it seems as if the front wall of the hall was formed with boards in a particularly rough way—a gesture that seems ‘rhetorical’, because nowhere else in this building has a wall been so roughly moulded.
The reason for the gymnasium’s tilted outer walls is their climatic effect. In Hong Kong, the sun stands high in the sky during daytime. The sun’s rays therefore do not penetrate directly through the slats into the interior, but are reflected so that the sports area can be used for extended periods without getting blinded by the sun.
In Tao Ho’s perspective drawings of the school, the classroom buildings were to be equipped with deep plant balconies, protecting them from direct sunlight. It is an almost pastoral image, in which concrete is blended into the landscape. In the extreme density of Hong Kong, it is an enormous luxury to enter into such a close relationship with nature. Unfortunately, when I visited, the planters in front of the classrooms were empty, though their function as shade-providers remains.
Tsuen Wan Chinese Permanent Cemetery
The columbarium building at Tsuen Wan Chinese Permanent Cemetery could be considered my first encounter with postmodernity in Hong Kong. Designed by the same architects of Chung Chi Hall Student Centre at CUHK—Dennis Lau and Ng Chung Man—the cemetery building looks like a battleship. If it had been executed in grey exposed concrete, not white tiles, the building would be identified as brutalist without any doubt.
When the columbarium received the Hong Kong Institute of Architects Award in 1988, the jury praised the design with the words: ‘keeping with the best Chinese architectural tradition’. However, it does not have the identifiable traditional features of a building like Robert Black College at HKU. I find it ‘traditional’ in a transformative sense.
It is such indirect references to historical architecture that made me associate this building with postmodernism. Brutalism has often been interpreted as the last arm of modernism. But this is only half the story. Some brutalist monsters already speak to the postmodern longing for architecture to reference history and incorporate cultural symbols. This unification of history and ‘brute boldness’ seems to me a unique contribution from architecture in Hong Kong, demonstrating the diverse manifestations of Brutalism across time and place.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club Sha Tin Clubhouse
I’ve included the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Sha Tin Clubhouse in this selection because its appearance seems to meet, and at the same time disprove, my expectations of a brutalist building. As an exclusive clubhouse for its members positioned on the edge of Sha Tin’s racetrack, the building is correspondingly gray and inconspicuous. Although it looks as if it was constructed with large concrete panels, the surface is actually made of grey plaster.
Initially designed by Prescott Stutely Design Group and later Wilkinson & Cilley, the building’s structure is akin to a larger concrete sculpture. The muscular formation of the building’s technical parts was characterised by the ‘rhetoric monsterism’ of Brutalism. One of the architects, David Cilley, revealed that the building’s pyramidal form resulted from the need to have as many seats as possible on the terraces, though he could not remember the reason for its use of the granosite texture and repellant entrance design. Inside, however, is less hermetic and forbidding, with spacious foyers even above the entrance.
SOS Brutalism, which began as a public campaign for architectural conservation, has also led to developing transnational histories of architecture through the lens of Brutalism. How has your study in Hong Kong raised questions on the limitations of how histories of architecture have been shaped?
As you can see, I have tried to make sense of enormously different buildings in Hong Kong. They serve as important reminders that architecture does not run in a straight line or consist of styles and periods with discrete breaks. Brutalism has manifested through the work of architects who applied the use of exposed concrete in different ways, as exemplified by Szeto Wai’s designs of CUHK in the 1960s. In the 1980s, it transitioned into postmodernism through a more indirect quotation of ‘traditional elements’, as exemplified by the Tsuen Wan Permanent Cemetery building. The brutalist aesthetic that was more often associated with egalitarian buildings like universities and schools was also taken up by elitist buildings—even the super-exclusive Hong Kong Jockey Club Shatin Clubhouse is concealed in a ‘monster’ building.
It is always productive to place local phenomena in a global context. In the best case, this will broaden the canon, leading to a focus on buildings that would otherwise be left on the byways of architectural history. Yet, the widening perspective conceals the danger of vagueness or even arbitrariness in how ‘Brutalism’ is defined. Brutalist buildings arose all over the world, in all political systems, under specific contextual circumstances. One might even ask whether the term ‘Brutalism’ should be dismissed, because the architecture it denotes is so diverse.
I think that, for all its diversity, it is nevertheless useful in describing an attitude that is ‘brut’ in the best sense of the word: direct, raw, unrefined. And I see a future for this attitude, even while brutalist buildings are in danger of disappearing. It’s not something purely historical.
This article was originally published on M+ Stories.
Oliver Elser is a curator at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM), where his work focuses on postmodernity, architecture models in the twentieth century, and Brutalism. In 2016, he served as a curator for the German Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. He co-founded the Center for Critical Studies in Architecture, a new research cluster of the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, the Technische Universität Darmstadt, and the DAM. As an architecture critic, he writes extensively for newspapers and magazines. He holds a degree in architecture from the Technische Universität Berlin.