Translated by Lilian Tong (Keypad)
Wherever you go, each city is recognised to have its distinct architectural design – from the fire stairs of New York City’s, San Francisco’s bay windows, Miami’s Art deco style, to London’s futuristic architecture – so what then is Hong Kong’s signature architectural trademark?
Maybe we’ve all been living in Hong Kong for too long and have gotten too accustomed to the way of living that we become less observant to our surroundings – especially when it comes to the distinctiveness of the varied architectural structures of the many Hong Kong housing estates, where each have its own unique look. The sheer numbers of these buildings that tower over us at every corner of Hong Kong are in fact the very iconic representations of our vibrant city. The main principles behind developing our unique housing estates were first conceptualized by the government and property developers over these past few decades. While the government oversaw the conceptualization by setting regulations and guidelines, property developers supposedly provided the concept and design that will best maximize whatever resources that was available amidst the strict regulations.
The solution proposed by these property developers was to oversell and blow things out of proportion – with an exhaustion of buildable area, which in fact is a common occurrence everywhere with the situation being particularly serious in Hong Kong, a sub inch of buildable area is also not to be missed; the definition of “inflated” is: Some parts of the building, such as bay windows, green terraces, etc., can be exempted under the building regulations are not counted as buildable area, but still included in the saleable area.
The government gave the developers a boon, developers sell the goods on users. With the “inflated” phenomena of developing, this ended up in making the design completely dominated by the building’s ordinance, where room for creativity becomes very limited and hence the uniformity of the overall style. Extremely high density and overly developed façade design – are the common characters of Hong Kongism; its basic design components include light well, bay windows, green terrace and working platform. To analyze this unique architectural language, we should look at the driving force behind the design – Hong Kong Buildings Ordinance.
Before 1997, Hong Kong residential building regulations required all kitchens and bathrooms to have windows to allow ventilation. During the seventies and eighties, many of the residential water heaters then had no flue pipes; hence there were higher probabilities of carbon monoxide poisoning if operate in a closed room. Therefore, it was a must to have windows in every bathroom and kitchen back then. With this regulation, building requires more exterior wall area to place all these windows. Designers therefore introduce the reentrant spaces – the indentations on the building plan between adjacent flats, also known as light well. With these vertical indentations running along the building façade, the architecture becomes very futuristic, almost like a circuit board, the foreign media simply described as a Star Trek alien base – Borg cube.
Incidentally, due to fire safety concerns, the kitchens of today’s residential settings must be enclosed. You might think that your kitchen was always of an open concept unless you live in the newer types of buildings. This conflicting issue may be a crucial topic that will be raised for the next election of Chief Executive.
Bay window is one of the most significant features of Hong Kongism. Since the 1980s, the rules of buildable area exemption for bay windows began; Hong Kong entered three decades of the “bay window era”. At the beginning of the bay window is half a meter deep, then the government in order to encourage the use of prefabricated building facades components, exterior wall thickness of 0.3 m is exempted, and the depth of the bay window is therefore increased to 0.8 meters.
Each room and living room are allowed to have a bay window, a floor with eight units has twenty bay windows, so a building with thirty floors has six to seven hundred bay windows, the facade since then looks like a mace or a cob of corn.
In order to make the building look less like a cob of corn, designers rack their brains, e.g., connected the outer frame of the bay window from left to right, or connected from up to down, to allow the air conditioners to be installed on the top, and then cover it up with louver.
Bay window can enhance natural lighting and ventilation, and thus have the effect of saving energy. On the contrary, having bay windows are in fact not environmentally friendly – such large surface area of glass exposes the exterior wall, causing absorption of large amount of heat, thus increasing the use of air condition. Singapore in 2008 and therefore cancel the bay window area.
2010 Hong Kong government sharply reduced the depth of bay windows to one hundred millimeters, ended the era of the large bay windows, but in return is another of capsules – Green terraces and working platforms, left to the next talk.
Hong Kong is recognized to be place where boundaries are often pushed and limits are tested. Nonetheless, from the designs to its conceptualization, the functionality of these developments somehow leans towards benefiting property developers rather than home owners. In this huge economical landscape to promote Hong Kong’s building regulations tend to become less of a priority, while the design of residential buildings become more important, if the theory of modern architecture is “form follows function”, then the Hong Kongism’s doctrine seems to be “form follow building ordinance”.