Dense DomestiCities: Composite Building Histories in Hong Kong, 1950s-1970s

Department: Architecture
Research Centre: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities Initiative
Active Dates: 2018-ongoing
Principal Investigator: Eunice SENG
Funding Body: Research Grants Council

Abstract

In mid-twentieth century Hong Kong, intensive urban development and expansion set the stage for the mobilization of women into the labor force and the merging of public and private spheres. The composite building, defined by a hybrid of domestic and non-domestic functions, embodies the historical tensions between city and home, public and private, producer and consumer, colonial and Chinese, real and ideal, masculine and feminine realms. For this reason, such a commonplace housing type in Hong Kong becomes a pertinent subject through which to establish a constructive framework in understanding the urban and the domestic, in concept and practice, from a multidisciplinary perspective.

Dense DomestiCities will be the first scholarly monograph to focus on the contestations between material and spatial practices of domesticity and colonial governmentality, engendered by the geopolitical and socioeconomic exigencies in Hong Kong’s industrializing 1950s to 1970s. It examines how the capitalizing process and the city’s urban policies and discourses on density shaped the forms, spaces and practices of architecture and domesticity.

Preexisting scholarship on the history of working-class housing in postwar Hong Kong tends to describe the efforts of the authorities to solve “housing problems” stemming from crises (of fires, refugees and squatters). Hong Kong’s built environment is depicted as an inevitable product of free market enterprise predicated on efficiency and economy. My research, instead, proposes to uncover the gap in the city’s housing history by illuminating that the relationship between the urban landscape, domestic experience and architecture is produced by a process of contestation and negotiation among multiple actors and actions: government (development policies), developer (speculative practices), architect (housing blueprints), resident (everyday inhabitation), women and the family (familial routines).

The research project is organized around case studies on composite buildings, few of which have garnered any scholarly attention. Each episode investigates how wider urban anxieties and geopolitics produced by the Cultural Revolution and the Cold War were played out through confrontations between the real and perceived inhabitation of the composite building. Collectively they offer new insight into how housing architecture has evolved in tandem with urban discourses amid the making of Hong Kong as the quintessential Asian capitalist city.

By mapping the emergence and development of the composite building and examining its history within the larger contexts of economic, social and cultural tendencies, this research project argues that the inextricable relationship between architecture, people, institutions, the economy and the urban environment produces the contested spaces of domesticity in Hong Kong that continues into the present. In re-examining these key components through the little-understood composite housing type, this research attempts to fill in the lack of scholarship on the production of domesticity and urban space, while contributing to the field of architecture, urban studies, feminist studies and Hong Kong history.

Objectives

  • To construct a critical cultural study of the composite building in Hong Kong to deepen our understanding of the built environment and the relation of the environment to the society, using a range of materials in popular media and previously unexplored archival documentation.
  • To examine how the historical forces – economic, political, social, cultural and ideological – that produce the composite building in Hong Kong, have shaped the city’s modernization and participation in global economy and culture.
  • To reassess the development of the composite building in Hong Kong as a significant historical juncture where new knowledge and technologies in building, housing and urban planning were circulated and consolidated to understand its pivotal role in the development of the city.
  • To illuminate a range of previously unexamined buildings in Hong Kong’s architectural history by deepening our understanding of the complexities and diversity at work in the city’s built environment and domestic spaces.
  • To contribute to the field of Hong Kong architectural history and expand upon the housing history particularly in the fields of social history, social anthropology, material and cultural studies, feminist studies, building, development planning, and global architectural history.

Output

  • Seng, Eunice. “Composites: The City in a Building” and “Narratives: Composite Building Studies.” In The Resistant City: Essays on Modernity, Architecture and Hong Kong, 95-116. London; Hong Kong; Singapore: World Scientific Press, 2020. ISBN: 9789811204616​

Background Research

  • Seng, Eunice. “Composites: The City in a Building” and “Narratives: Composite Building Studies.” In The Resistant City: Essays on Modernity, Architecture and Hong Kong, 95-116. London; Hong Kong; Singapore: World Scientific Press, 2020. ISBN: 9789811204616
  • Seng, Eunice. “The City in a Building: a brief social history of urban Hong Kong,” studies in History and Theory of Architecture (sITA) vol. 5 (2017) : 81-98. ISSN: 23446544
  • Seng, Eunice. “Breaking News: narratives of a Composite Building between tradition and development, or, an Architecture of Impatience, 1964-2014,” Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments (IASTE) 2014, Kuala Lumpur, 14-17 Dec. 2014.
  • Seng, Eunice. “The City in a Building, Hong Kong c.1956-1966,” Expansion & Conflict: Proceedings of the 13th Docomomo International Conference Seoul, edited by Ana Tostoes, Jong Soung Kim and Tae-woo Kim, 264-69. Seoul, Sep. 19-29, 2014.
  • Seng, Eunice and Nasrine Seraji, “Architecture and Public Ground: Dazibao d’architecture HK and Composite HK” Exhibition, G7 Wing Lee Street, Hong Kong, May 25 –June 8, 2014.
  • “City Buildings/Building Cities,” Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) 102nd Annual Meeting: Globalizing Architecture, Miami Beach, Florida, Apr. 10-12, 2014.
  • Seng, Eunice. “Cities in Buildings,” Hong Kong Platforms Symposium, HKU, Hong Kong, Mar. 1, 2014.
  • Seng, Eunice. “City Buildings, Building Cities,” in “14 City Cases Past, Present and Future,” SZ + HK Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture, (Shenzhen), 6 Dec. 2013 – 28 Feb. 2014.
  • Seng, Eunice. “Dwelling Carcass: Composite Building Hong Kong, c.1950s-1970s,” in “2020 Housing China,” SZ + HK Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture, Hong Kong, 8 Dec. 2013- 23 Feb.2014.
  • Seng, Eunice. “Dwelling Carcass: Composite Building Hong Kong, c.1950s-1970s,” in “2020 Housing China– Collective Visions” Exhibition, HKU, Hong Kong, 10-20 May 2013.
  • “Cities Within Housing: dwelling, carcasses, and beyond,” Lecture, Taiwan Chung Yuan University, 1 Nov. 2012.

Anticipated Impact

  • The project will provide a critical cultural mapping of the composite building in Hong Kong that will deepen our understanding of the dense built environment and the relation of that environment to the society.
  • The second long-term impact is to challenge the overarching and unreflective economic reasoning that drives the city’s built environment and to expand upon the passive uncritical description of its housing history as the inevitable consequence of high population density and land scarcity. This project rethinks the periodizing of mainstream history of housing and the built environment by examining the capitalizing processes, transnational histories, events, objects and spaces that produce domesticity and urbanity.
  • The third long-term impact of this study is the identification of the postwar development of modern architecture in Hong Kong as a significant historical juncture in which new building knowledge and technologies were circulated and translated.
  • The fourth long-term impact is to create a visual inventory that augments current endeavors to illustrate Hong Kong’s speculative housing environment, and to generate critical reflections on the present architecture and urbanism. As these composite buildings face imminent demolition and redevelopment, the visual documentation of the architecture and spaces contributes to the emergent scholarship on heritage and conservation, and recent efforts by non-profit organizations like DoCoMoMo Hong Kong to raise public awareness of the aesthetic and historical significance of the Modern Movement in architecture.
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UNIVERSITY OF HONG KONG
FACULTY OF ARCHITECTURE