Too New, Too Ugly, and Too Unimportant?
Conserving Modern Architecture in Hong Kong
Carmen C. M. Tsui 徐頌雯
A New York Times article on 25 December 2020 reported that groups across Asia were rallying to save modern buildings that officials considered “too new, too ugly or too unimportant to protect from demolition.”¹ It cited Hong Kong’s General Post Office (GPO), completed in 1976, as an example of a modern landmark in danger of eradication.
The land where the GPO stands will be sold for commercial development as part of the government’s new Central Harbourfront plan. Although conservation activists have made repeated calls to save the GPO over the past few years, the Lands Department upholds the decision that the GPO needed to be demolished and removed. In addition, the Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB) has decided not to conduct any heritage grading assessment on this building due to its short history.² The government’s indifference to the GPO reflects common prejudices in making conservation decisions that favour the old over the new, the ornate over the plain and monumental architecture over everyday buildings. Are modern buildings too new, too ugly, and too unimportant to be preserved?
Heritage can be recent
The AAB’s refusal to assess the heritage value of the GPO follows its policy, adopted in September 2013, that grading assessments on buildings completed in 1970 or later would not be carried out. Do the post1970 buildings not possess any heritage value? Using 1970 as a limit for heritage assessment is an arbitrary decision and has long been criticised by local conservationists. The policy reflects that the AAB considers the building’s age as the primary criterion for conservation decisions, ignoring the recommendation from the ‘Review of Built Heritage Conservation Policy’ conducted in 2004, which clearly stated that ‘conservation should be based on heritage value not simply the age of a building.’³ It also deviates from the global trend that places an increasingly strong emphasis on protecting modern heritages.
In the past three decades, major international heritage organisations have initiated efforts in protecting modern heritage. For instance, the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) established the International Scientific Committee on Twentieth Century Heritage (ISC20C) in 2005 to conserve and celebrate mid – to late twentieth-century places that are at risk due to lack of recognition and protection. In 2011, ISC20C published the ‘Madrid Document’ (revised and renamed the ‘Madrid–New Delhi Document’ in 2017) to offer an international standard for the conservation of 20th century cultural heritage. Similarly, the Getty Conservation Institute, supported by the Getty Foundation, has developed its ‘Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative’ since 2012 to advance the practice of conserving modern architecture. Between 2014 and 2020, the Getty Foundation offered ‘Keeping it Modern’ architectural conservation grants to support the conservation of 77 modern buildings, among them the Sydney Opera House, Bauhaus school building Salk Institute and Yoyogi National Stadium. Another organisation, Docomomo International, is dedicated to documenting and conserving the buildings, sites and neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement of Architecture. It has expanded tremendously since its establishment in 1988 and now has 71 chapters across the world.
Over the years, these major international heritage organisations have expressed their concerns about modern buildings at risk of demolition in Hong Kong. For instance, ISC20C issued an international ‘Heritage Alert’ regarding the proposed demolition of the West Wing of the Central Government Offices Complex in June 2012. It asked that the Hong Kong government reconsider its decision to tear down the West Wing for commercial development and so possibly played a role in the government eventually deciding to keep the building. Also in the past decade, Docomomo International has issued ‘Heritage in Danger’ alerts for three modern buildings in Hong Kong: Union Church (demolished in 2017) [Fig.3], State Theatre (now being conserved by a new owner) and the GPO [Figs. 1,2](which looks certain to be torn down soon).
Global efforts to safeguard modern architecture make the case that being new should not diminish a building’s conservation value. For example, the Bauhaus school building designed by Walter Gropius had only 40 years of history when it was listed in 1964. Likewise, the Luce Memorial Chapel, completed in 1963, was only 56 years old when it was listed as Taiwan’s official monument in 2019. The city of Brasilia, designed in 1956, was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987. UNESCO now has dozens of modern buildings on its list of World Heritage Sites, including seven buildings designed by Antonio Gaudi, 17 buildings by Le Corbusier, and eight buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Embodying the modern era Modern architecture is often stigmatised as ugly, stolid buildings that favour function over beauty. However, aesthetics and architectural tastes change with time. Buildings we consider tasteful today may be disliked by others tomorrow. In the past, building patrons and architects identified ornaments with beauty. This preference gradually changed when the social, political and technological developments of the 20th century launched new architectural ideas and aesthetics. With new building materials, notably concrete, modern buildings broke away from the classical architectural and artistic traditions that stressed order, symmetry, proportion and ornamentation; instead, they emphasized simplicity of form and the elimination of ornaments. In his Ornament and Crime, Adolf Loos famously proclaimed that ‘the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of everyday use.’⁴ Loos’ statement reflected the idea that a reduction in the use of ornaments was a sign of progress. Whether one agrees with him or not, his comment reflects the architectural preference of the modern era to excoriate details and extravagance. Utility, efficiency and simplicity became the key values of modern architecture.
Hong Kong has followed this trend. Modernism arrived in Hong Kong during the 1920s and 1930s. Architects experimented with new design ideas such as functionalism and rationalism. The Public Works Department (PWD), the official agency responsible for designing governmental buildings, began using concrete as the primary material for many public buildings, decorating them with fewer and fewer ornamentations. Two of the earliest examples are Wan Chai Police Station [Fig.5] and Sai Ying Pun Market, both completed in 1932 and both employing a stripped-down design free of the decorative details and pitched roofs commonly seen in other governmental buildings at that time.
The real change, however, came in 1937 with the completion of Wan Chai Market, the first PWDdesigned building with no allegiance to the classical architectural idiom. Instead, it featured a distinctive triangular plan with rounded corners. Deep canopies and overhangs with round edges provided shade to the entrance and windows. The building’s horizontal lines gave it streamlined appearance, encapsulating a machine aesthetic of the modern era with its emphasis on aerodynamic lines and forms in the modeling of ships, airplanes and automobiles.
Our other example of an early modern public building built before World War II is Bonham Road Government Primary School. [Fig.4] This three-story concrete building, completed in 1941, was originally built to house Northcote Training College. Its E-shaped plan was derived from the school’s programmes and functions. The building has minimal ornamentation, with only simple curves and horizontal overhangs. Its most distinctive architectural feature was a rotating staircase that gave the school a streamlined look. The school was declared an official monument in July 2021, making it the first modern-style architecture in Hong Kong to be protected by laws. Everyday buildings, such as markets and schools, may not be the most eye-catching, but they nevertheless embody the architectural taste of the modern era.
Postwar heritage Hong Kong is a city dominated by modern architecture. Classical architecture fell out of favour after World War II as modern-style buildings became the predominant trend. Because modern buildings are so widespread in Hong Kong, they are often seen as unimportant or ordinary. In reality, it is they rather than traditional Chinese dwellings and Western-style colonial landmarks that define the image of today’s Hong Kong. It is time to recognise modern architecture as an essential part of Hong Kong’s architectural tradition.
Hong Kong’s total embrace of modern architecture with its emphasis on functionality and cost-effectiveness over ornamentation and artistry was a response to the city’s postwar social conditions and financial realities. In 1954, the government launched a massive resettlement program to accommodate settlers affected by fire and an official squatter clearance programme. The Resettlement Department conceded that the multistoried, H-shaped resettlement blocks designed by the PWD ‘were not high-grade housing. It was an emergency accommodation built to meet a grave emergency.’⁵ It also noted that ‘the decision to accept this type of sub-standard housing as the answer to the overall squatter problem was not lightly taken.’ But given the stringent budget and the need to urgently accommodate a vast number of people victims, the resettlement blocks were a cost-effective housing prototype easily reproducible on a large scale. Just one year after launching the programme, the Resettlement Department and the PWD had constructed 17 buildings with a height of six or seven stories that provided 8,500 flats – enough to accommodate 50,000 people.⁶ Many members of Hong Kong’s postwar generations have passed a significant portion of their life in these resettlement blocks. Although these blocks might be regarded as ‘sub-standard’ architecture, they are an integral part of our collective memory. The conservation of Mei Ho House, one of these H-shaped resettlement blocks, serves as the only remaining architectural record of this important era.
Despite their plain appearance, modern buildings are architectural memorials for Hong Kong’s postwar generations. Over the past two decades, many architects, conservation activists and members of the public have fought to save the city’s modern architecture from demolition. If not for their efforts, we would have lost Wan Chai Market, Central Market, the West Wing of the Central Government Offices Complex and the State Theatre. These conservation efforts reflect how local people esteem the city’s modern heritage.
Regrettably, Hong Kong has lost Queen’s Pier, Star Ferry Pier and, in all likelihood, will soon lose the GPO. ISC20C stresses that ‘the obligation to conserve and manage the heritage places and sites of the twentieth century is as important as our duty to conserve the significant cultural heritage of previous eras.’⁷ Modern architecture is the heritage of our generation. If we do not make an effort to protect modern buildings, how can we ensure that the architecture of our time will be passed on to our future generations?⁸
Carmen C. M. Tsui is associate professor at Lingnan University of Hong Kong.
¹ Mike Ives, “‘Box’ or Gem? A Scramble to Save Asia’s Modernist Buildings,” The New York Times, December 25, 2020.
² The Hong Kong Government, “LCQ10: Future Plan for the General Post Office Building in Central,” March 27, 2019, https://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/201903/27/P2019032600701p.htm.
³ “Review of Built Heritage Conservation Policy Consultation Document” (Government Logistics Department, February 2004), 5, https://www.info.gov.hk/archive/consult/2004/heritage.pdf.
⁴ Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays (Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne Press, 1998), 167.
⁵ Hong Kong Annual Departmental Report by the Commissioner for Resettlement for the Financial Year 1954–1955, 18.
⁶ Hong Kong Annual Departmental Report by the Commissioner for Resettlement for the Financial Year 1954–1955, 18.
⁷ ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on Twentieth Century Heritage, “Approaches to the Conservation of Twentieth-Century Cultural Heritage (Madrid–New Delhi Document) 2017” (ICOMOS, 2017), 3.
⁸ The work described in this paper was fully supported by a grant from the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China (Project No. LU 11604419).
Fig. 1: General Post Office (Credit Lord Jaraxxus, Wiki)
Fig. 2: General Post Office, the building as viewed from the sea
with three launch bays at water level for loading mail
(Source: “New GPO has interesting design features”, in Asian Building Construction, June 1976, p.37)
Fig. 3: Union Church (demolished 2017)
Fig. 4: Bonham Road Government Primary School (Credit Development Bureau)
Fig. 5: Former Wanchai Police Station (Credit author)