The City in a Building: Composite Buildings in Hong Kong, 1950s-1970s

Department: Architecture
Research Centre: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities Initiative
Active Dates: June 2012 – December 2015

Principal Investigator: Eunice SENG
Funding Body: Seed Funding for Basic Research


This research examines the integral relationship between density, development control, ownership, architecture and communal space through a study of the pre-1980 composite building typology. This typology contains a heterogeneous mix of people, functions, private, communal and public spaces that produces an unprecedented social dynamism. The unregulated nature of composite buildings accurately approximates an open city, but it also sees many of them fall into disrepair. The primary aim here is to study the alternative forms of collectivity and cooperation found in these environments, the reasons for their decline, and the feasibility in maintaining their social vibrancy and improving livability. The urban qualities of the composite building’s spaces are unique. Ten percent of these buildings contain populations over 1,500. Besides flats and shops, they contain factories, temples, clinics, crèches, dormitories, hostels, clans and more. With numerous ownerships and tenancies, they pose a challenge for management and redevelopment. Between 1959 and 1979, almost 5,000 high-rise composite buildings were constructed, constituting over half of the new buildings completed annually in this period of loose planning controls. The sheer quantity of this typology means the impact of change would be tremendous.


This research project is a study of the adaptive re-use of building carcasses, and their social and urban implications. It focuses on the impact of density on the design and organization of the urban environment, with specific analytical study of the mixed use building typology (classified in Hong Kong as “composite”) and of partitions (subdivisions in the building interior).


  • “Commons Architecture: Public Domesticity in Composite Buildings,” paper to be submitted.
  • “The City in a Building”, Cities in Asia: Studio SHA-HKG-SIN, Lecture, International Summer Program in Architecture, HKU, 1 Jul. 2015.
  • Eunice Seng, “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.
  • Eunice Seng, “The City in a Building, Hong Kong c.1956-1966,” Expansion & Conflict: Proceedings of the 13th Docomomo International Conference Seoul, eds. Ana Tostoes, Jong Soung Kim and Tae-woo Kim. Seoul, 19-29 Sep., 2014, pp. 264-69.
  • Eunice Seng and Nasrine Seraji, “Architecture and Public Ground: Dazibao d’architecture HK and Composite HK” Exhibition, G7 Wing Lee Street, Hong Kong, 25 May – 8 June 2014.
  • “City Buildings/Building Cities,” Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) 102nd Annual Meeting: Globalizing Architecture, Miami Beach, Florida, 10-12 Apr. 2014.
  • Eunice Seng, “Cities in Buildings,” Hong Kong Platforms Symposium, HKU, Hong Kong, 1 Mar. 2014.
  • Eunice Seng, “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.
  • Eunice Seng, “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.
  • Eunice Seng, “The Podium, the Tower and the ‘People’: the private development of a public complex, c.1965-1970,” Proceedings of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand, 30: Open, eds. Alexandra Brown and Andrew Leach. Gold Coast, Queensland, 2-5 July, 2013, pp. 219-32.
  • Eunice Seng, “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.

Impact and Anticipated Impact

This research aims to stake a timely claim for a new understanding of its urban vibrancy and its feasibility for social sustainability by offering the possibility for further development of a clear set of design guidelines and feasible strategies for alternative configurations of unit plans and create public spaces in the private mixed-use buildings. The visual output has already begun to facilitate critical reflections on the current architectural and urban environment.