Hygiene • Control
Thomas Chung 鍾宏亮 / Weijen Wang 王維仁
Centred on the themes of hygiene and control, this issue engages architects and the public to reflect critically on two of the most important issues affecting Hong Kong this year and their implications for architectural design, professional practice and everyday life.
Hygiene, defined as ‘conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease, especially through cleanliness’, is an obvious theme given the impact arising from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Less apparent but no less significant is the connection to the continental European hygienist movement of the 19th and 20th centuries and its drive to apply scientific discoveries and implement technological innovations via urban experiments to improve sanitation and transform living quality. This quest for a healthful urban environment naturally led to the design of buildings and public spaces aimed at establishing a healthier city, including facilities devoted to public health such as hospitals and health-care related architecture and urban projects.
Whenever public hygiene involves an urban dimension, the issue of control with respect to different modes of spatial or social separation, segregation or effective measures to maintain ‘clean, safe and normal’ environment by the authorities almost always arises. The extent to which architecture and urban spaces have been co-opted to manage ‘undesired’ sites, subjects and happenings can be interrogated. While architects are accustomed to designing healthy and liveable spaces, current control measures restricting Hong Kongers’ social activities and movement seem to indicate an increasing emphasis on ensuring health and normality through the regulation of the city’s spaces. The nuances of emerging ‘new normals’ will certainly impact the practices of everyday life in the city, particularly in terms of architectural and urban spaces.
As cities around the globe struggled with Covid-19 through 2020, many people have recalled humanity’s last truly global health crisis: the so-called Spanish flu of 1918. Then, a third of the world’s population was infected and 50 million people died. While the total mortality of the current pandemic is not yet comparable, widespread infection in cities has occurred perhaps because of hyper-globalisation and its accompanying by unprecedented connectivity and mobility which helped the spread of the novel coronavirus. With half the world effectively confined, all kinds of economic, social and cultural activities have been paralysed and return to any semblance of normality will be anything but immediate.
Hong Kong, despite being one of the most connected and dense cities in the world, has enjoyed a relatively low number of confirmed cases, with community outbreaks kept under control. The city’s urban history, however, has been substantially defined by epidemics: from bubonic plague in the late 19th century, through the 1968 Hong Kong flu and 1997 avian flu, to the more recent SARS outbreak in 2003. But as a result, Hong Kong’s epidemic preparedness has been built up over the years, extending from policy and institutional infrastructure to personal care practices. Wearing a mask, frequent hand-washing and keeping social distance are survival basics that Hong Kongers tend to comply with without huge fuss. Yet when Covid-19 first struck Hong Kong at the beginning of the year, fear still led to a frantic search for PPE (personal protective equipment), clearing shelves of daily essentials in supermarkets and continual shortages of hygiene products such as toilet paper and tissue.
By now Hong Kong, like other cities, continues to cope with social distancing, border restrictions, work and school disruptions, closures or strict opening hours in food, entertainment and other service-related sectors. These all-encompassing measures to combat Covid-19 will undoubtedly persist in some form until effective vaccines become available to the public, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.
Such large scale behavioural change caused by disease alters our understanding and priorities as to how we live, work and travel in our cities. Changes arising from Covid-19 won’t be the first time a pandemic has become the catalyst for reimagining architectural and urban spaces and their design and planning. In the 1850s, Ildefons Cerdà famously invented his theory of ‘urbanisation’ with his plan for the expansion of Barcelona that include schemes for dealing with epidemics and planning for hygiene. Rampant insalubrity led to Baron Haussmann’s renovation of Paris in the 19th century. In early colonial Hong Kong, bubonic plague triggered the clearance of squalid quarters; the demolition of insanitary properties in Taipingshan and the creation of Blake Garden. Cholera and smallpox outbreaks led to revolutions of indoor plumbing and city-wide sewage systems. In Hong Kong, architecture has been mobilised again in the fight against Covid-19 with work on hospitals, quarantine centres, testing sites and converted temporary lodgings. If our experience leads to a rethinking and lasting impact on the design and planning buildings and public spaces, then hopefully we will emerge with safer, healthier and more equitable living conditions for all.
As the practices of social distancing and working and learning from home are likely to stay, design approaches will have to consider how to adapt existing facilities or introduce new technologies. Adjustments in space planning, reduced capacity and flexible usage will be needed, as well as an increased use of partitioning to maximise safety and security and enable moments of solitude. Just as the works and writings of 20th century modernists like Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier and Richard Neutra addressed the architectural challenges in relation to health and their therapeutic possibilities by designing for sun, air and physical exercise, post-Covid designs will have to reinforce the need to provide inhabitants with access to good daylight, green spaces and better ventilation and air quality.
One undeniable benefit of Covid-19 has been the slow-down in the exploitation and pollution of the natural environment. During their lockdowns, clear water in Venice and blue skies in Beijing were once again witnessed. Sightings of Chinese White Dolphins confirmed their return to Hong Kong waters when ferries were halted. Hopefully we can accelerate the urgent need to create more environmentally friendly spaces that will benefit both the natural world and our own personal health needs.
This issue opens with our Forum on hygiene and control in which a range of participants discuss topics related to the current pandemic, including decentralisation and distancing in urban planning, hygiene in public urban spaces, the role of architecture in the design of a healthy city, pandemic technologies, changes to hospital design, constructing quarantine camps and the reshaping of the building industry.
A sequence of three articles from Christopher Cowell, Cecilia Chu and Xu Zhu and Weijen Wang examine the hygienic aspects of urban, architectural and social control in Hong Kong, following how epidemic responses shaped the city’s urban landscape and development in a chronological sequence, starting from the birth of the colony to the 1920s. Charles Lai offers an appreciation of local hospital design in the 1950s that actively used architectural design features to answer hygienic concerns. Eunice Seng and Cyrus Chan reflect on how social injustices of public space and domestic helpers were revealed in times of crises. Guillaume Othenin-Girard’s Quarantine Drawings open up architectural imagination in one of Hong Kong’s most populated private housing estates Mei Foo Sun Chuen. Taking social distancing into consideration, this scheme can be read in parallel with the quarantine camps commissioned by the Architectural Services Department to help cope with Covid-19. Is it possible to reconfigure our daily living space into quarantine sites when needed? In the Forum on health, well-being and the post-pandemic city, prominent women architects explore how the architectural profession has evolved to care for and give warmth to the community.
In a section focusing on hygienic and healthful design, Benny Chan explores how biophilic and salutogenic design principles can optimise the healing experience both in hospital design and in the design of urban space. After an article on RMJM’s Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore – ‘the Hospital in a Garden’ – Patrick Lau highlights the use of courtyard in design for breathing space in various types of buildings, among them the distinctive Hong Kong Society for the Blind Jockey Club Yan Hong Building. We look at how AGC’s Jockey Club Home for Hospice connects with its natural surroundings to enable terminally ill patients to spend their final days in dignity, how RLP’s SK Yee Healthy Life Centre transformed the rooftop of the Tuen Mun Hospital into a playful area, and how Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centre reinstates tranquility into the healing process by introducing a meditative space into healthcare architecture. Ronson Lui and Vivien Mak provide perspectives on hospital design that centres on the users’ experience. Mak also speculates on how a more widespread use of infection control standards could be deployed in other building types. Paul Mui then challenges us to inject more creativity into hospital design without losing sight of clinical performance and mechanical efficiency.
In his essay, Anderson Lee evaluates Corbusier’s unbuilt Venice hospital project to remind us of Corbusier’s architectural ideals and the project’s enduring significance. Tao Zhu then offers an annotated reading of Sickness, Madness and Crime as the Grounds of Form centred around the architectural considerations in the redevelopment of Paris’s Hôtel-Dieu, revisiting how the evolution of architectural design failed to result in a better healing machine.
The last section Platform pays tribute to the late Professor Tunney Lee, founder of the School of Architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Patrick Hwang contributes a timely book review on Eunice Seng’s Resistant City, while the two articles by Tony Ip and Arthur Tong review the effectiveness of existing guidelines or practices.
Plague patients in a temporary hospital in the glass works at Kennedy Town, 1894 (Credit: Hong Kong Museum of History)
Makeshift testing site at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium, September 2020 (Credit: Anthony Kwan /Pool Photo via AP)