Retail Reset : Hong Kong Estate

Commercial Centres as Community Infrastructure Tomorrow

屋邨商場作為未來的社區基礎建設

Jeffrey Cheng 鄭惠冲 / Don Hong 康清華

全港將近半數的香港人都居住在公共屋邨。自1967 年華富邨的落成 — 香港首個屋邨商場,它們一直被定位為屋邨的社區中心。雖然屋邨商場展示了前瞻性和具社區獨有特質的公共設施,但不斷轉變的人口結構、大規模的私有化和老齡化建築結構正威脅它們的社區影響力。這研究希望能發掘屋邨商場的不同建築面貌和特質,藉此尋找保存它們社區功能的可能性。


Estate Centres are a uniquely Hong Kong building type included in public housing estates since the mid 1960’s. The buildings typically offer a dense mix of programs from wet market, retail and restaurants to public services, recreation space and parking – all tuned to local topography and landscape. In short, estate centres are designed as the heart of their respective communities.

While the housing component to Hong Kong estates is well documented, there has been no systematic study of estate centres. It is also a critical time to examine estate centres. First generation centres are due for retrofit with some partially sealed or scheduled for demolition. Other centres face encroaching commercial pressure, often at the cost of public space, particularly since half of all estate centres were privatized in 2004. In collaboration with architectural photographer Kris Provoost, our project examines the challenges of providing public amenity and the richly experimental architectural response over time. We also ask how the 248 estate centres of Hong Kong can continue to serve as the centres of their communities tomorrow.

Retail and Public Space
Wa Fu Estate (1967) set a precedent in estate design 1in several aspects. Unlike previous housing schemes located in urban areas, remote Wah Fu Estate required comprehensive on-site amenity. ¹ The first library branch outside of Hong Kong City Hall is located next to a post office; a kindergarten, schools and eldery services are also incorporated to offer not just day-to-day necessity but support over generations.

The second precedent with equally long term repercussions is the alignment of primary public spaces with retail functions. While prevalent practice today, the planning is nevertheless a shift away from market squares and hawker-lined streets as primary community spaces. Both the wet market and retail levels are connected to the sloping streets at Wah Fu, but it is the later level that is articulated as the principal datum, a piano nobile open to light, air and views of the sea. The wet market, meanwhile, is concealed beneath the retail terrace, setting the stage for retail encroachment on public amenity in future estates.

Design Evolution
Following Wah Fu, estate centres appear to evolve into four typologies: courtyard, network and predominantly arcade and atrium. The arcade, first conceived at Galerie des Bois with its glazed roof in 1829, has been linked as much with retail as with places of leisure and the flaneur. ² Pok Hong Retail Centre (1983) echo an idealized arcade, complete with double vaulted roofs between parallel lines of shops and restaurants. Innovatively, the arcade responds to the immediate slopped topography and arranges the two banks of shops on split levels. The arcade is naturally ventilated and offers generous views toward the planted landscape and larger estate at either end, not views of anchor tenants that typify private malls. Other notable examples of the arcade typology are Sun Chui and Sui Wo Court, Shatin.

The atrium typology may be traced to les grand magasins of Paris and early American department stores, such as Daniel H Burnham’s store for Marshall Field in Chicago (1892-1902). ³ Burnham’s scheme presents the atrium as public space and extension of the city itself. The fiction is enhanced by natural daylight, public events and a station on the Loop funded by Marshall to bring crowds directly to his department store. Likewise, the atrium at Heng On Estate (1987-1988) achieves a sense of public amenity while providing for retail. Shifting floor plates offer unexpected views from the estate centre to the exterior landscape. Like the Guggenheim, the corridors encompassing the atrium spiral up connecting performance space at grade with an eldery centre and expansive rooftop space above in a single grand gesture.

The atrium type emerged as the dominant estate centre typology by the 1980’s, and accounts for half of all estate centres today. Part of its success may be the typology’s easy adoption to air conditioning. While few can dispute the thermal comfort gained, what is lost in the interiorized estate centre is the connectivity to the exterior landscape, rooftop, and links back towards the community. Early air conditioned atrium types such as Mei Lam (1981) maintain a publicly accessible roofscape, but the experience is hermetic and the mall exchanges views of the Shing Mun River and Tai Mo Mountain for an interior fountain that has since been paved over for an expanded supermarket. The interiorized estate centres since the 1980’s tend to restrict behaviour (no snoozing on benches), limit accessibility to hours of operation and subject spaces to security surveillance. Most damaging may be less perceivable forms of control retail may exert on public space such as the grip of constant change and spectacle in a shopping-only environment.

Ways Forward
Sixty years on, Wah Fu faces structural deterioration and is scheduled for wholesale demolition in 2027. Similarly, half of estate centres have not been renovated since their opening day and require reinvestments, perhaps an opportunity to secure their public function for the future.

Some recent estate centres have enjoyed success in reclaiming public space. At Sui Hei, the parking structure rooftop is recast as a vibrant communal recreation space by One Bite Design Studio. The architects hope that the highly graphic treatment will draw awareness to the refurbished public space. The wet market is relocated to roof level. This leaves the ground level vacant as covered and unprogrammed open-air space. Both gestures offset an otherwise over reliance on retail tenants for revenue. Kai Yip has enjoyed a similar improvement to the public realm. We hope that the architectural innovation and intelligence in the 248 estate centres of Hong Kong may offer a blueprint for robust public amenity in the future.

Jeffery Cheng is founder of Building Narratives.
Don Hong is a master graduate from CUHK School of Architecture.
鄭惠冲是建築設計公司Building Narrative 的創辦人 。
康清華是中文大學建築系碩士畢業生。

 

¹ Chung, T. and Man, H., 2016. Occupy Housing: Wah Fu Estate, HKIA Journal Issue. 72, P.36-37

² Geist, Johann Friedrich, 1983. Arcades: the History of a Building Type. Cambridge: MIT Press.

³ Pimlott, M., 2007. Without and within. Rotterdam: Episode.

⁴ Leung, C.,2020. Renewal of public housing in selected places, IN03/19-20

Pok Hong Estate shopping centre’s atrium.

Wa Fu Estate shopping centre’s Section.

Typologies of the estate centre in Hong Kong.

Wa Fu Estate shopping centre’s podium.