Hong Kong Modern: Architecture of the 1950s – 1970s
Walter Koditek with Cecilia L. Chu, Eunice Seng, Ying Zhou, and Charles Lai
DOM Publishers
Hardcover, 25 x 25 cm, 448 pages, 850 pictures, € 78

FOR STUDENTS AND aficionados of architecture, Hong Kong offers a dizzying array of building types, with starkly different styles juxtaposed side-by-side or even within single buildings. While such diversity of architectural typologies is not surprising given Hong Kong’s unique history of competing influences, it is nonetheless unique among world cities in the sheer magnitude at which it has attempted to scale its building projects to an ever-growing population. With the largest of the city’s ubiquitous residential towers housing in excess of 10,000 people, and combined multitower estates holding hundreds of thousands in all, there are few other cities in the world that can match it in terms of sheer verticality and density.

All images © DOM Publishers. Used with permission.

Alongside the megatowers, the city is also home to a huge number of other examples of postwar modernism. These include not only housing towers but also office buildings and factories, government buildings, theaters, schools, churches, and port infrastructure, and span multiple decades and numerous modernist subgenres. The imposing volume Hong Kong Modern (DOM Publishers) is a comprehensive overview of the city’s surviving modernist structures. While the majority of its sizeable bulk is made up of hundreds of photographs that present Hong Kong’s building facades in a standardized head-on square format that plays up abstraction, pattern, and color, it also provides broad historical context and a wealth of site-specific information in the form of essays, building details, and histories of the individual architects who made their marks on the city, as well as a thorough bibliography that cements it as a serious addition to architectural scholarship in the region.

That it serves first and foremost as a coffee-table book, with photographs that on the whole have a hypnotic and at times almost whimsical quality, does nothing to diminish the overall importance of its subject. While the standardization of the photographic point-of-view means that the buildings are seen from the outside, and thus an arguably non-resident perspective, a closer look reveals the human element as anomalies in the modernist grid: clotheslines with drying laundry, brightly colored curtains and window covers, air conditioners placed inconsistently from unit to unit in whatever spot works best. Older modernist buildings, such as those from the 1950s-1960s, often feature yet more variance, such as painted lettering or even three-dimensional signage over individual units, remnants of Hong Kong’s untold number of hybrid residential/industrial “cottage industry” spaces that sprung up during the postwar boom. Fittingly, the Chinese lettering on the book’s cover use the typeface “Lee Hon Kong Kai,” based on the lettering of Lee Hon, a Mongkok street-calligrapher whose stylized characters define the signage of Hong Kong.

The massive housing blocks that define the current skyline of Hong Kong were a response to the city’s explosive growth after WWII, when a population that had been reduced to just 600,000 by the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945 exploded to 2 million by 1950; the city’s population continued to grow by approximately 1 million people per decade through the half-century that followed. The immediate postwar years were marked by massive, sprawling slums with little infrastructure such as running water and electricity, a situation mitigated by the first residential towers built in the 1950s. Entire neighborhoods were moved wholesale into single buildings, a process that saw the city’s horizontal sprawl translated into orderly verticals, while still maintaining something of its anarchic structure and unconventional micro-economies.

The concept of hybridity is central to much of the book’s text, with one of the longest chapters focused on the “composite” commercial/residential buildings that were so essential to the character of Hong Kong in the 20th century. As the text makes clear, such mixed-use buildings were part of Chinese and Hong Kong culture long before the postwar years made them necessary:

Before the war, mixed domestic and commercial uses within a single building had been already common practice in the ubiquitous ‘Tong Lau’ typology—Chinese shophouses, which were the predominant form of urban property development in Hong Kong during the first half of the 20th century.

Composite buildings were the Tong Lau typology writ large, with businesses both official and unofficial interspersed among residential units that often held far more people than were registered on the official census. These buildings were responsible for industrial outputs that, though tiny in scale, combined into a massive wave of textiles, plastics, and other products that were exported worldwide, bearing the phrase “Made in Hong Kong” that defined many of the 20th century’s more ephemeral goods.

From a more straightforward engineering perspective, Hong Kong’s narrow streets, steep hillsides, and winding coastline meant that space would always be at a premium, and that the more unique and experimental architectural tendencies had to be sacrificed in favor of maximizing vertical space. The “tower on podium” typology, in which a commercial base was topped with a tower of purely residential units, became commonplace. To counter the city’s subtropical heat and monsoon rains, units were created with recessed balconies meant to prevent direct sunbeams; often, however, balconies were enclosed to increase living space, a practice that only accelerated with the advent of air conditioning in the later part of the century.

Beyond purely residential and commercial spaces, the book includes chapters on government buildings, schools, theaters, and religious institutions, with the latter providing some of the city’s most fascinating examples of modernist oddities, including St. Joseph’s Church (with massive arched “ears” that could be right out of Eastern Orthodox churches in the former Soviet Union) and the toothpaste-green awnings and concrete “screens” of the Masjid Ammar Islamic Centre. Hong Kong’s classic theaters are sadly thin on the ground in the modern era, though a few examples remain, battered but still standing, rare one- or two-story entertainment palaces surrounded by towering commercial blocks.

As with many books chronicling modernist architecture in the 21st century, Hong Kong Modern inevitably includes a lamentable number of buildings that are either slated for demolition or already gone, victims to Hong Kong’s relentless property speculation. With space at an ever-higher premium and each additional floor added to a building’s height offering investors increased returns on their money, the cycle of demolition and rebuilding seems inescapable.

Still, preservation comes in many forms: organizations such as Docomomo Hong Kong (“International Committee for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement”), who are credited as co-publishers of the book, have made recent inroads into garnering recognition for the city’s modernist structures, with several notable successes in gaining protected status for iconic buildings. Additionally, as the authors point out, the somewhat patchwork grid of building ownership common in Hong Kong serves as a sort of “happy accident” for preservationists, as selling off multi-owner sites is exponentially harder than with those owned by a single party. Ultimately, however, the best argument for preserving a city’s modernist past is to show the fascinatingly diverse forms such structures can take; in serving this purpose, Hong Kong Modern rises splendidly to the challenge, even in a city as unique and kaleidoscopic as Hong Kong.