Drawing Disappearance

繪畫消失的建築

Patrick Cheng-Chun Hwang 黄聖鈞

有見及不少香港的歷史建築逐漸消失,本文通過一系列作為記憶、記錄和想像場所的繪畫項目討論建築中的適應性和再利用。 繪畫是投射出不可見的東西。 通過繪製遺產,我們不僅展示了它的外觀,而且描繪了它的歷史痕跡。 它有助於見證該歷史遺產的痕跡,以及從繪畫中塑造出空間上的身份認同。

Loss of Spatial Identity
Inspired by the disappearing built heritage of Hong Kong, this paper discusses the transformation of adaptive reuse in architecture through a series of drawing projects that serve as sites of memory, documentation and imagination. To draw is to project and to make visible that which is invisible. By drawing the heritages, we are not only showing its visual appearances but drawing out its historic traces. It serves to witness the heritages’ potentialities and connections to forge a spatial identity.

In 1997 Akbar Abbas remarked that: “Property speculation means that every building in Hong Kong, however new or monumental, faces imminent ruin, on the premise of here today, gone tomorrow- a logistics that, by contracting time, dispenses even with the pathos of decay.”¹  The contrast of an ever-mutating urban landscape made the political slogan of that time: “Fifty years without change” ever more paradoxical. Whilst maintaining the political status quo for half-a-century is no longer on the headlines, the goal of a stable and economically prosperous society remains a top priority twenty-four years later. From the uninterrupted expansion of the Central Waterfront to the supercharge and energized East Kowloon, or the grand cultural monuments springing up in West Kowloon, the city’s skyline is literally transforming before our eyes at the blink of every decade.

The abundance of “newness” in building production inadvertently also created a loss of spatial identity formed by those building artifacts previously living among us. It may have also prompted the urgency to treasure the “old”. From the ordinary (arcade styled Nam Cheong Pawn Shop) to the extraordinary (modernist Garden Bakery headquarter building) from both the public and the private sectors. The notion of loss not only captured the public’s imagination, but imbued a recall for collective memory. Ironically, even if collective memory was not attainable such as the case of Bishop Hill Underground Cistern, where most of the public have not seen or realized the structure’s existence. They were ecstatic that their advocacy had stopped the wrecking ball from taking it down.

The decades of bulldozing and disregard for old buildings has given birth to the desire to protect and transform them. From the completely revitalised high-profile, well-resourced and financed Central Police Station and Prison, to the modernist styled Police Married Quarters or the Victoria Road Detention Centre. There are also those on the drawing board, such as the State Theatre conversion project in North Point and the revitalization of the Bishop Hill Underground Cistern. These contested sites have become the artifacts of the city which encapsulates its spatial identity as described by Abbas.

With loss looming in the background, the urgency to salvage, reinterpret and co-live with the heritage has triggered a question for this project which offers alternative ways of seeing and activating the heritage buildings: Can architectural drawing act as a site of memory, documentation and imagination by serving as a multi-temporal device to look into the past and future of Hong Kong in both space and time?

A Loss in the sight is a loss in the mind?
What does heritage transformation have to do with drawing? A lot in fact. Cultural critic John Berger identifies drawing as an act of discovery, it is “an autobiographical record of one’s discovery of an event – seen, remembered, or imagined.² ” Through drawing, we are not limiting ourselves to only showing the heritage at risk, but for seeing their past and future. This turn of understanding, expresses a turn in direction, rather than having a formed image or idea that we then project upon, our making becomes an exploratory search. This principle extends far beyond drawing, as our streets, schools and the city can become sites of exploration, places of receptive action and listening to the world.³ Architectural writer Daniel Berry has noted the verb “to draw” means both to produce a trace, as in a stroke of ink on paper, and to extract or take something from a source, like a water well. It can also mean to pull out (drawing a sword), to move through (a boat drawing near a dock), to close (drawing a curtain shut), and to derive or deduce (drawing a conclusion). Therefore, he argues, in the act of drawing there is a constant tension. Presence and absence all orbiting around the subject under examination in an unsteady balance  . 

Collaborative Drawing as a Site of memory, documentation and Imagination

The first drawing project is called “Sectioning Exquisite Corpse”. The project is co-created by ten MArch students from CUHK. It is a collective exploration of ten adaptive-reuse projects across their sectional potentials. The selected case studies are exemplary reuse projects of modern heritage in different parts of the world. Prior to drawing, students researched original sketches of the design, the building’s history, context, methodologies of adaptive-reuse and produced interpretive sectional drawings, which demonstrate the archaeological layers of the building. It is an act of constructing a visual narration of the building’s history. Multiple authors are responsible for the assembly of parts of different case studies, which accentuates the ‘collage’ nature of architectural conservation process. The drawing is a part of analysis and imaginative extrapolation that triggers a new frontier. In contrast to exquisite corpse —a Surrealist game in which the participants’ own contribution is concealed from the next player— students in this case shall become familiar with their adjacent case studies and make suitable transmutations. For example, Herzog & de Meuron’s Caixa Forum mutated into META4’s Hong Kong Blue House Cluster, while Ibos & Vitart Architects’ Musee des Beaux-Arts transformed into Bernard Tschumi’s Le Fresnoy Contemporary Art. The Musee’s glass façade is evolved and superimposed to the steel roof canopy of Le Fresnoy Art Centre, forming a cinematic montage. The end of a section therefore becomes a threshold articulating the moment of passage between two different buildings and directly informing the birth of a new space.

Reuse, Misuse and Abuse
Abbas has pointed out that the preservation of old buildings gives us history in site, but it also means keeping history in sight. This is both a curse and blessing. He noted that the practice of preservation often materialises on the level of patina by turning local history, through the use of built artifacts, as merely decorative images for visual consumption. A critique of preservation is thus also a critique of visual ideology. The argument is not directed so much against preservation per se, as against to the use of preservation as history to bring about the disappearance of history.

In Hong Kong and other cities in the region, there are projects disguised under the label of “Cultural Heritage” with an agenda that claims to strike a balance between commercial viability, community identification, and cultural presence. In reality however, the projects merely serve as marketing backdrops or branding accessories that facilitate consumerism. 1881 Heritage (2009) in Tsim Sha Tsui and Wan Chai Market (2015) are two projects that exemplified this attitude. As the former marine police headquarters, 1881 Heritage was redeveloped to a luxurious shopping mall with pastiche architectural features catered primarily to tourists. In the case of Wan Chai Market, the Development Bureau adopted the “Core Element Conservation” approach, in which half of the market was dismantled and only the façade was kept. The addition of a 45-floors residential tower shows little consideration to the significance of the market as the only surviving example of Streamline Modern architecture in Hong Kong.

Despite the disappointments, there are also exemplary cases. A historic building can respond to societal changes through programmatic conversion, a new identity can be given catering to contemporary needs. The transformation of the disused Victoria Road Detention Centre into University of Chicago Centre in Hong Kong is one notable example. The new campus design by Revery Architects has activated the historic space with a new function of an educational facility. The sinuous academic complex floats atop the historic remnants and amid the abundant foliage. The stark juxtaposition in form, material and settings not only enhances the resilience of the new building, but also creates provocative spaces for the unique interactions between people, history, and nature.

Kowloon Streets and Houses
The second drawing project was developed from the close reading and analysis of seven shop-houses in Kowloon built during the early 20th century. The drawings are made by groups of undergraduate and postgraduate students during a summer elective. Although all of these seven houses have intriguing stories, the essay will focus on the Chinese Public Dispensary as an example.

The two-storey building is decorated with an Art Deco motif built in the 1930s. The facility has evolved over time from a place that rehabilitates the body to a government run methadone clinic providing treatment to opiate abusers. This change of use captured Aldo Rossi’s thesis, which notably articulated that: “form persists and comes to preside over a built work in a world where functions continually become modified”, his reading has certainly found an exemplary alibi in the dispensary building.

Fronting Yee Kuk Street, the building is symmetrical and made with plaster-concreting painted gray. Eastern and Western stylised mouldings are used as ornaments on the pilasters. The windows to the city have over time been fenced with stylized iron grilles.

As the facility is primarily providing services to controlled substance abusers, the interior is off limits to the general public. Curious and exploratory architectural students who attempted to sneak in therefore failed. Its inaccessibility made the story behind the facade that much more mysterious. Stories like the dispensary offer only a glimpse to many more. It is through these architectures that the drawing projects are based upon. As Hong Kong continues to develop towards newness and placelessness, so does its state of disappearance. Drawing -to resist- Disappearance serves as a site of memory, documentation and imagination by acting as a multi-temporal device to look into the past and future of Hong Kong in both space and time. It uses the built heritage as the productive starting point of a drawing collective, offering both a site for research as well space for new production, as it offers not only an image of the past but also a pre-figuration of the future.

Patrick Cheng-Chun Hwang is a father, son, husband and teacher of architecture. He is also a licensed architect in the United States.
黄聖鈞為人父,兒子,丈夫及建築教育者。 他亦是美國註冊的建築師。

¹ Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Dis-appearance (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1997), 64.

² “The first essay in his first collection, Permanent Red (1960) is called “Drawing”. It begins: For the artist drawing is discovery. And that is not just a slick phrase, it is quite literally true. It is the actual act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again.” Hugh Haughton, “Seeing and Nothingness: John Berger’s Moment,” Raritan 38, no. 2 (Fall 2018): 7-8.

³ Architect and pedagogue David Gersten has lectured extensively about changing the notion of showing to seeing in drawing during his workshop events from Arts, Letters and Numbers.

⁴ In Architectural Inventions: Visionary Drawings, Daniel Berry discussed contemporary drawing practices and it influenced new conservation productions.

⁵ Abbas, ibid, 66. Note: Part of the article includes contributions from Sukey Yuk Yi HUI.

Kowloon Streets and Houses, past-present-future (1.2 metres x 2.5 metres). A transformative drawing that sees into the history and projection of Shum Shui Po. The drawing narrates the district’s reclamation history on the left side of the page, to the formation of the tenement houses (No. 269 & 271 Yu Chau Street) in the middle, and into its anticipated future on the right. Students: Ho Nam LEE, Hiu Sun LEUNG, Tin Ho Michael YEUNG, Chuyu XIONG, Truman LEUNG and Yi CHEUNG.

Kowloon Streets and Houses, past-present-future (1.2 metres x 2.5 metres). Hidden behind the window grilles are spaces that provide for the vivid folk tales from the local histories. Students: Lincoln CHAN, Hoi Lan CHEUNG, Andi Ming Chung CHEUNG, Winson Ting Fung MAN, Wing Yi SO, Alex Kelvin LI and Cindy Sien Yi CHENG.

Sectioning Exquisite Corpse (1.5 metres x 10 metres). Musee des Beaux-Arts on the left is metamorphosised into Bernard Tschumi’s Le Fresnoy Contemporary Art on the right. The intersection and overlap between the two sections created a new and imaginative space. This is a detail of a ten meters long section drawing of ten different adaptive reuse projects. Students: Hui Bing ZHOU and Ting Kwong MA.

Discussion taking place on the sectional relation ship between various adaptive reuse strategies.

Former Wan Chai Market being worn as a mask over a completely redesigned corpse, bearing no significant meaning or purpose.

Current condition of the Chinese Public Dispensary.