Modern Times Keypad Jan-issue: Architalk

Click here to Keypad to see the original (P.74)   | 中文版

 

Translation by Ee Yen Ng (Keypad).

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You probably have this architect friend who is eccentric, has a strong preference for black-coloured fashion, and who occasionally dons the tunic suit. While you fail to grasp what the big deal is, this friend never fails to be in awe of Hong Kong City Hall every time they pass by Central. As you stare at the seemingly plain, boxy structure, you wonder if your friend’s obsession with buildings is sometimes too excessive.

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01 大会堂

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Modernism

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Obsession or not, your friend’s euphoria at the sight of City Hall is not unjustified – this building is indeed a significant landmark in Hong Kong’s architectural history. Before, important buildings in Hong Kong during the colonial period, such as the former Legislature Building and the former General Post Office, were typically designed in classical styles such as Edwardian, Renaissance Revival, or Classical. Only in the mid-20th Century did Hong Kong catch the wave of Modernism, with City Hall among the first ‘international style’ buildings erected in Hong Kong. 

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Synonymous with Modernism, the international style, as its name suggests, is characterized by its almost-universal acceptance across borders. More significantly, the international style prioritizes, above all, the functionality of a building and the obsolescence of building ornaments. Formerly known as the Bauhaus style, the international style traces its origins to Germany, before it evolved and flourished in the United States, and then the rest of the world. Hong Kong City Hall symbolizes the beginning of a revolutionary era in the world of architecture.

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To understand the global movement towards modernist architecture, we highlight three pioneers whose work and ideas remain influential till this day.

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Mies

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German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), a former principal of the renowned art school Bauhaus, is often credited as the pioneer of minimalist architecture. Mies revolutionized architecture with his strong advocate for ‘pure’ design principles. According to Mies, the key to aesthetic appeal was in creating designs exuding simplicity and elegance. In other words, the real work of the architect lies in creating clear and elegant details.

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At first, many questioned on the possibility of architectural designs that could embody simplicity and modernity, yet emanate elegance at the same time.Defying doubters, Mies wowed the world at an exhibition in Barcelona in 1929 with his design of the Barcelona Pavilion. His design brought out the best of the fundamental aesthetic principles he advocated by employing the use of simple planes to create modern elegance. Encapsulating the perfect merge of these three qualities in a single design, the Barcelona Pavilion set the precedence for the Modernist movement.

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Mies further applied the minimalist concept to exterior designs of residential buildings. Completed in the U.S. in 1951, his iconic design of the Farnsworth House is famous for being, almost literally, a transparent glass box.However, though glass buildings are widely regarded as a classic today, the owner found it impractical for living back then. Among their many concerns were the lack of privacy and security, as well as the poor insulation of the glass building, which made the summers and winters even more unbearable. On top of that, staying in the building at night was a traumatic experience as the indoor lightings attracted numerous insects to the building. Coupled with serious cost overruns, the Farnsworth House was dubbed a fiasco, with Mies eventually having to settle the owner’s non-payment in court. 

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Nevertheless, the initial setbacks of Mies’ glass buildings did not deter his determination to make curtain wall skyscrapers a hit. In 1957, the Seagram Building in New York was unveiled. As was with the Farnsworth House, the Seagram Building was once again shaped a simple box, completed with curtain walls from top to bottom. Importantly, the building emanated elegance through simple details of buildings, representing one of Mies’ most delicate works, and the pinnacle of the minimalist style. Following the building’s success, the curtain wall concept gained traction and prevalence worldwide, and is today considered a classic in its own right.

 

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04 西格兰大厦

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Undoubtedly an accomplished architect, Mies was also a master of slogans. During his lifetime he had several famed slogans, including “less is more” and “God is in the details” to describe the objectives of minimalist architecture. Not forgetting his classic quote “architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together” – it is indeed the details in between that is a work of art.

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Corbu

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Another prominent figure who pioneered modern architecture is French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (1887–1965), better known as Le Corbusier, or simply ‘Corbu’ among professional architects. Corbu is famously known to be an avid fan of nude photography, as evident by photographs of the old man which remain in circulation today (readers are advised to refrain from searching them online).

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Despite his outstanding contributions to the modernist movement, Corbu is unfortunately an unfamiliar name to many outsiders. In contrast to Mies’ preference for steeland-glass designs, Corbu heavily utilized reinforced concrete in his designs, strongly believing it to be the dominant material in the modern era. Where Mies redefined the modern skyscraper, Corbu’s primary contributions are in residential designs. As illustrated by his famous slogan, “a house is a machine for living in,” his designs are best characterized as having high degrees of simplicity and functionality.

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Corbu devoted his life to solving the housing problem during his time – many residential projects, though grand and spectacular, were not very residential-friendly. Among the earliest solutions Corbu put forth is embodied in Unité d’habitation located in southern Marseille. The design concept was novel and large, with the entire building estate forming a self-sustaining community furnished with facilities such as shops and swimming pool. In both functional and aesthetic terms, the design concept has had a far-reaching impact on future generations, including those in Hong Kong. Little wonder why Unité d’habitation shares much resemblance to Choi Hung Estate!

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06 彩虹邨

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But Corbu’s impact was not limited to residential buildings as he went on to propose new conceptualizations of modern-day urban planning. Among his boldest suggestions was to flatten the city of Paris in order to construct taller residential buildings, to create green spaces between and roads fully surrounding residential blocks. Thankfully the Parisians were not receptive to his proposals, or otherwise it would have lost its luster as a French metropolis. Nonetheless, we have the blueprints of Corbu’s urban design concepts reflected in Hong Kong’s new towns, including modern day Sha Tin.

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As Modernism unraveled and swept across the globe, Corbu’s ideas have proved influential in newer designs of public, commercial and residential buildings. With urban planning taking on a new shape, urban landscapes in many parts of the world have changed dramatically over the years. A third pioneer has yet to be named, since the impact of his work on Hong Kong’s architectural landscape is relatively less felt. Nonetheless, his life can be said to be a legend, and one which deserves a lengthier coverage than this article’s space can afford. To be continued in the next issue!

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