Uncovering the Untold Stories of Hong Kong’s Brutalist Buildings

Science Centre at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Photo by Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of 1km studio.
Installation view of “BRUTAL! – Unknown Brutalism Architecture in Hong Kong” at openground, Hong Kong, 2021. Photo by Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of 1km studio.
Artworks made by pouring concrete on wooden panels by local design studio moldflip are displayed in the exhibition. Photo by Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of 1km studio.
Brutalist architecture details of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Shatin Clubhouse, Hong Kong. Photo by Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of 1km studio.
Protruding ventilation shafts cover the exterior of the former Shaw Brothers Studio in Sai Kung, Hong Kong. Photo by Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of 1km studio.
The façade of Eastern Sea Industrial Building in Tung Chung, Hong Kong. Photo by Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of 1km studio.
The indoor gymnasium at Tang Shiu Kin Hall, St. Stephenʼs College, Hong Kong. Photo by Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of 1km studio.
The student canteen at Chung Chi College, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Photo by Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of 1km studio.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

Tucked in a cozy mezzanine space of a café in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong, a showcase of the city’s Brutalist buildings recalls a time when its architecture represented the resilience and ingenuity of its people.

TEXT: Kate Lok
IMAGES: Courtesy of 1km Studio

 

When Brutalism emerged in the UK in the 1950s, the world was looking for time and cost efficient fixes to the post-war economic boom and urban population growth. Brutalism relied on cheap, functional concrete and steel to create modular, geometric forms with a focus on bare building materials and structural elements. The architectural style became highly popular, particularly among institutional buildings. Brutalism went on to make lasting influences in architecture and building designs around the world, including Hong Kong.

In 2019, Hong Kong architect Bob Pang started a photography and research project with the intention of recording the remaining Brutalist structures in Hong Kong. As the cost of maintenance is high and their architectural value is not widely acknowledged, many of these buildings are vulnerable to the bulldozer, explains Pang. With his research, he hopes to bring to light the social and historical value of these mid-century architectural gems.

 

Installation view of “BRUTAL! – Unknown Brutalism Architecture in Hong Kong” at openground, Hong Kong, 2021. Photo by Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of 1km studio.
Artworks made by pouring concrete on wooden panels by local design studio moldflip are displayed in the exhibition. Photo by Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of 1km studio.

 

The project quickly gained traction, followed by a year-long research funded by Hong Kong-based funding platform Design Trust and undertaken by Pang and a team of architects. “BRUTAL! – Unknown Brutalism Architecture in Hong Kong”, curated by Pang at a café called openground in Sham Shui Po, is the result of this investigation. The exhibition presents the team’s ongoing typological research on the heritage and history of Hong Kong’s Brutalist architecture, elaborated through 15 selected case studies of existing Brutalist buildings through essays, technical drawings, photography, and works of art made of concrete.

Most of these buildings were built between the 1960s and 1980s by architects who were professionally trained in the UK and the US—including Tao Ho, the mastermind behind the trapezoid concrete roof of the gymnasium at St. Stephen‘s College; and Szeto Wai, who was responsible for the design and construction of several Brutalist-style buildings at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The Brutalist aesthetic that was often associated with egalitarian structures like schools and public housing was also taken up by more private, elitist counterparts in Hong Kong, such as the Sha Tin Club House of The Hong Kong Jockey Club, designed by British architect Jon Prescott, and the former Shaw Brothers Studio in Sai Kung.

 

Brutalist architecture details of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Shatin Clubhouse, Hong Kong. Photo by Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of 1km studio.
Protruding ventilation shafts cover the exterior of the former Shaw Brothers Studio in Sai Kung, Hong Kong. Photo by Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of 1km studio.

 

The research findings are accompanied by 15 wooden panel “paintings” that attempt to recreate certain sections of the buildings, all handmade by local design studio, moldflip, using concrete as the primary medium. In order to mimic the similar play of light and shadow, the rippled finishes and different textures , moldflip carefully mixed aggregates of varying coarseness with cement, and poured them in separate layers on panels of wood, achieving these concrete “paintings” that mirror the material characteristics of the buildings on view. Rather contrary to typical artwork viewing experiences, moldflip invited visitors to walk up close to these concrete panels, to observe them, even run their fingers on their surface to feel the different textures and relief made possible by the concrete.

These artworks point to Brutalism’s fundamental value of honouring materials “as found”, that is, an honest expression of materiality and design, and to let architecture represent the objective reality. Alison and Peter Smithson, pioneers of the British Brutalist movement, once claimed, “Any discussion of Brutalism will miss the point if it does not take into account Brutalism’s attempt to be objective about reality.”

 

The façade of Eastern Sea Industrial Building in Tung Chung, Hong Kong. Photo by Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of 1km studio.

 

As Pang points out, the bluntness of Brutalist architecture in Hong Kong is, in a way, a reflection of the kind of honesty and simplicity that a city deeply valued at a time when it underwent major economic and social changes. While the brute boldness of these structures have always been aesthetically controversial, it is in their straight-forward aesthetic and emphasis on functionality that their true value lies.

In recent years, we notice a resurgence of interest in the broader field of modern architecture in Hong Kong that calls for reappraisals of their legacy. Still, without context, the value of Brutalist buildings, or modern architecture in general, is not easily perceivable. For most of them are deemed “too new”, “too ugly”, or “too insignificant” to be of any profound interest to the public. Such is the case that led to the controversial demise of post-war buildings including The Excelsior Hotel in 2019 and soon, the The General Post Office as part of a major harbourfront redevelopment. Even with comparatively more successful conservation attempts, such as the PMQ, Tai Kwun, and most recently, the Central Market, Hong Kong’s view of conservation remains rather narrow-minded. Coupled with heavy bureaucracy and land policies that favour its property market oligopolies above all else, attempts to safeguard the city’s modern architectural heritage remains a steep uphill battle.

 

The indoor gymnasium at Tang Shiu Kin Hall, St. Stephenʼs College, Hong Kong. Photo by Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of 1km studio.
The student canteen at Chung Chi College, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Photo by Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of 1km studio.

 

Nevertheless, the exhibition garnered widespread interest, a response that was way beyond the curatorial team’s expectations. Perhaps, Pang observes, people were all a bit surprised to discover this side of Hong Kong. More than just mundane structures that are easily whizzed past everyday, these visionary, civic-minded buildings were emblematic of an era that shaped Hong Kong’s modern history. The influence of Brutalism arrived in Hong Kong at a time when the former British colony was at the brink of transforming into a modern metropolis. It was when public institutions and the society were expanding quickly—squatter houses were demolished to make way for public housing, introduction of mandatory education meant buildings for schools were in high demand, and the heydays of the city’s industrial age accelerated the need for functional and utilitarian space.

Whether this open dialogue on Hong Kong’s Brutalist architecture, which started as a passion project, would evolve into something more sustainable and long term remains to be seen. But living in a time where the only constant is change, the city’s architecture offers a palimpsest of the cultural landscape of our society, and of the kind of ingenuity and resilience that generations of Hongkongers take pride in.

 

BRUTAL! – Unknown Brutalism Architecture in Hong Kong
3 ­– 19 September
openground, Hong Kong

 

 

 

 

 
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