Future Heritage: Brutalism


Bob Pang 彭展華


A Wrong Interpretation
Before searching for brutalist architecture in Hong Kong, we must learn about the origin of brutalism. In the 1950s, Swedish architect Hans Asplund commented on the first brutalist building, Villa Göth with the expression “nybrutalism”. This term spread to the UK, where British architect duo Alison and Peter Smithson and architectural historian Reyner Banham contributed to define “New Brutalism” through their works and brought this style to the emerging architectural scene of the mid-1950s. Later, brutalism was taken by Eastern European countries as a mean to represent certain political ideologies and power expression. Brutalism has been misunderstood by the public for long. Some would think brutalist buildings are not in harmony with urban space, while others also criticise their concrete outlook as dull, inhumane and shabby. The term also gave a wrong impression as the self-inflated mindset of the architectural elite.

Looking back, brutalism in Britain advocated the concept of “As Found”. Simply speaking, it values an honest expression of materiality and design. The Smithsons 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”. It simply points out the core value of this architectural theory: let architecture represent the objective reality.

The Time Witnesses
1950-80 is an epoch in between the end of WWII and world economic boom. pursuit of reality and honesty is fit in with social value of that time. For Hong Kong, it was also a time that in sync with pulse of the world. Amongst the architects of the 15 works of brutalist architecture exhibited at “Brutal! – Unknown Brutalism Architecture in Hong Kong” at OpenGround, Sham Shui Po, in September 2021,, some of them such as Tao Ho, Poon Yin-Keung, Ronald Poon Cho-Yiu, Peter Poon Yen-Shou and Chau Kai-Heem studied abroad in the UK or US in the 50s, while others were foreign architects residing in Hong Kong like Alan Fitch, Eric Cumine and Jon Alfred Prescott, who have different degrees of association with architects of UK and US who related to brutalism. These architects are also reputable figures of Hong Kong architecture at that time. Szeto Wai, Alan Fitch, Jon Alfred Prescott, Ronald Poon Cho-Yiu, Dennis Lau Wing-Kwong, Tao Ho, had all served as president of Hong Kong Institute of Architects. Their brutalist works have shown their sense towards world architecture trends, adding touches of internationalism to the city’s urban landscape. Moreover, their works also reflected Hong Kong society’s cultural landscape: spirit of genuineness and pursuing essential living quality.

Architecture that Stayed
Our society is moving forward as always. Along with the completion of conservation of the hundred-year Tai Kwun, PMQ and Central Market, a new wave of conservation for a new group of architecture has quietly begun. State Theatre (1952) will be preserved, while Hong Kong General Post Office (1972) will be knocked down for new development; their different fates hint at the vulnerability of architecture built in the 1950-70s. Hong Kong Brutalism Architecture — synonymous with being “unsightly”, “out of place” ,”cold and tasteless”, could have a more ill fate. The exhibition hopes to open up discussion between professionals, conservation specialists and general public, to find out answers for these “Unknown” architecture: to go? or to stay?

Bob Pang is the founder of AaaM Architects.
彭展華是AaaM Architects建築設計工作室的創辦人。

Supported by Design Trust. Research Team: Alison Chan, Bob Pang, Candy Tsang,
Charlotte Law, Kenji Wong, Kevin Siu, Vivian Ting, Kevin Mak, Mig Lau, Joe Ma

St Stephen’s College, by 1Km Studio, Kelvin Mak.

Former Shaw Brothers, Studio this photo is provided by an undisclosed source.

Hand-traced drawings, Alison Chan. top: Chung Chi Hall student centre,
CUHK; bottom: University Science Centre, CUHK.