Building Agency: Archifest 2017

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Building Agency (2017) is the central theme of the 11th annual architectural festival organized by the Singapore Institute of Architects in collaboration with major educational and statutory institutions in Singapore. It emphasizes building up agency and citizen participation through architecture; and foregrounds the agency of buildings as important materials and spaces of urban life. The key research and curatorial question is: Can the opinions and actions of citizens be part of the production and alteration of the built environment in a highly controlled and professionalized field?

Insisting on the empowerment of people as active agents in the making of our built environment, Building Agency marked the first time in Singapore’s highly specialized professional environment where a new paradigm of the architect’s role to create room for citizen participation was forwarded in the city-state’s single major architectural festival, potentially engendering new engagement policies. The Institute’s Design Trust Committee appointed Eunice Seng and Koon Wee as Directors’ in recognition of their roles in research innovation, education, public empowerment and the profession. This festival was awarded an Industry Association Development Assistance (IADA) grant from the Design Singapore Council.

The festival presented over fifty public engagement events to capture every stakeholder of the built environment. Over 50,000 visitors were directly impacted by workshops, forums, exhibitions, debates, seminars, lectures, study trips for the general public and allied professionals, involving local museums, parks, schools, NGOs, societies, interest groups, municipal agencies and leading intelligentsia. Building Agency built upon the directors’ research since their 2015 study of the social-urban fabric in the Rail Corridor government proposal, and culminated in a number of research publications. The research had been presented in international lectures and workshops at International Studios Symposium, Seoul, University of Santo Tomas, Manila, the National University of Singapore, Meiji University, Tokyo, and University of Michigan.

Gender, professionalization and the built environment


From the first cohort of Bachelor of Architecture graduates at HKU in 1955 to the present, there has been a substantial increase in the proportion of women in the student population – from 5% to about 50%. In the last three decades, there have also been a visible increase of women in higher-level positions in public agencies, corporate architectural practices and directing independent practices. Despite this and the high proportion of female architectural students in the universities in Hong Kong and Singapore – the two most advanced postcolonial cities in Asia – there has been no historical account of the practices or contribution of women architects during the period of post-war modernization, industrialization and professionalization in these cities.

Gender studies, transcultural and transnational studies on post-industrialized labor and professional networks is gathering momentum in recent years, evidenced by the increasing number of conferences and multi-disciplinary workshops on gender; and identified by the United Nations as one of its key sustainable development goals. Yet the knowledge and understanding of the role of women in architecture is still surprisingly lacking in architectural education, and historical and contemporary discourses in the discipline. Academic and professional publications on architecture and the built environment continue to overlook the contribution of women architects.

In North America and Europe, increasing efforts have been made by scholars and professionals to provide parity in the discipline, in terms of rights and equality in representation. In the last few years, “Women in Architecture” is a key theme in conferences in cities outside of the usual advanced urban centers, including Colombia, Istanbul, Nagpur, St. Louis and Turin. Between 2015 and 2017, With Dr Chee Lilian, we convened a panel on Domesticity in Asia: Translations between Housing, Domesticity and Asia” at the Society of Architectural Historians annual conference (published in 2017 in the peer-reviewed Journal of Architecture). I participated in an international workshop on “Situating Domesticities” in NUS which Dr Chee co-convened, and organized a multi-disciplinary panel on “Women and Architecture: Conversations on the Discipline” for the Singapore Institute of Architects, which she chaired. In 2018, I was invited to be a contributing author to The Bloomsbury Global Encyclopaedia of Women in Architecture, 1960-2015 (forthcoming 2021). Through these cross-disciplinary, multi-locational activities, we have begun to build initial networks and highlight the urgency of creating a knowledge base revolving around the role of women in architecture, within the Asian context.


  • Gender equality
    The project aims to address the knowledge gap of women in architecture and their contribution to the built environment, to acknowledge their contribution and representation in political, economic decision-making processes and urban development. It shall analyze the historical context of women architects and the built environment to understand the present conditions of professional expertise, creative production and labor relations.
  • Transcultural knowledge exchange
    The workshop-based symposium aims to initiate cross-disciplinary analyses and lateral conversations to inaugurate new area of knowledge and research project to build up collaborative institutional and individual expertise on the subject, including constructing a preliminary knowledge database and bibliography for research and teaching. The project emphasizes the significance of situating knowledge of a specific geography/location in relation to another (Singapore) with different yet shared regional, colonial and postcolonial histories to understand transcultural issues of gender, professionalism, creative production of the built environment.
  • Strategic partnership
    The research project aims to initiate disciplinary and cross-disciplinary dialogue and research momentum on gender equality. They will contribute to emerging work by HKU researchers at the Women’s Studies Research Centre; and expand the Faculty’s research collaboration, exchanges and teaching initiatives with our strategic partners in architecture, urbanism, the humanities, sustainable high density cities and architectural conservation; and through strategic partnerships between research universities.


  • Eunice Seng and Shirley Surya. “Conversations on Women, Architecture and the City.” M+ and the University of Hong Kong. Nov. 23, 2019. Miller Theatre, Asia Society Hong Kong Center, Hong Kong. This symposium is part of M+ Matters, which is a series of public talks exploring key issues with critical players in the fields of visual art, design, architecture and the moving image.

Anticipated Impact

  • Internationalization through expertise building and networking
    By initiating the conversations on gender, professionalization and the built environment with our strategic partners, HKU can begin to acquire expert status to actively participate in international platforms on gender equality that directly aligns with UN SDG goals gender equality, quality education and sustainable cities and communities.
  • Interdisciplinarity and Innovation in education
    The subject matter cuts vertically and laterally across disciplines, professions, institutions and time. It will establish new dialogues between the university and the profession, and challenge conventions in architectural education – curricular pedagogies and methods of analysis.
  • Enhance methods on gender equality and women’s empowerment

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


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.


  • 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.


  • 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.

Architecture of Artifacts: Transnational Histories of Design

Project title:
Architecture of Artifacts: Transnational Histories of Design

Principal Investigator:
Koon Wee and Eunice Seng

Project funding:
Seed Grant, pending GRF


This research documents six important artifacts transformed and borne out of specific architectural discourses of the twentieth century. It includes the big roof, the linear core, the curtain wall, the green patch, the historic carcass and the pilotis deck. It will uncover alternative design histories of each of the artifacts through an analysis of its form, function and signification, with a focus on transnational and transcultural specificities. More than mere building components of architecture, these artifacts have undergone significant transformation, bearing witness to major upheavals in the social fabric and technological capabilities. These upheavals were augmented by trajectories of travel and communication between multiple territories. More importantly, it was during the latter half of the century, specifically the postcolonial period, when the world gained greater tolerance of cultural and regional distinctiveness in the practice of architecture. These differences and identities are only just beginning to reveal and assert themselves in new strands of histories.

By describing these building components as “artifacts,” this research underscores humanity’s aspiration in crafting architecture to respond to urgent questions of utility and the prevailing environment. To draw even closer to the study of such aspirations, methods in archaeology and anthropology will be used. As such, the city can often be described as an assemblage of divergent artifacts and built forms. The engagements with architecture described in this research range from the circulations of materials, construction methods, building codes, urban policies, and even utopian visions of architecture. These circulations can often be mapped through strategic agents of change, such as transfers of educational pedagogies, exhibitions, mass media, memberships of professional groups, and many others. This research will make visible the connections between the formal, functional and symbolic meanings of the artifacts through the redrawing of historical exemplars and atlases of hybrid forms.

Published outputs and awards:

Seng, E., “Transnational Utopia: Diaspora as Creative Praxis,” in Singapore Dreaming: Managing Utopia, edited by H.K. Wee & J. Chia, 146-165. Singapore: Select Books & Asian Urban Lab, 2016.

Wee, H.K., “Shanghai as Method: Artifacts and the City,” in Crossing China: Land of the Rising Art Scene, edited by G. Goodrow, 130-145. Cologne: DAAB, 2014.



Architecture & Urban Design I (ARCH 4001) – Dwelling: Carcass

Dwelling (Fr. Habitation), at once an act (activity), a process and an artifice (building), embodies simultaneity. The principal preoccupation of the studio was the rethinking of the high-density model of housing through cumulative research-driven analytical projects. The underlying premise was that high-density high-rise typology is NOT an inevitable criterion for dwelling in cities. As the case for the high-density high-rise continues to be reinforced by those with the highest ownership of land rights, students were challenged to propose alternative collaborative models to resist the tendency towards over-specialization that stifles any critical thinking beyond one’s own field. Emphasis was made on the building up of an archive of critical artifacts whereby students document, edit, and collate information graphically within a disciplined framework. Approaching the process of thinking and making as a critical component of design research on the city, students explored the interpretive, exploratory and generative potential of documents, drawings and images. The analytical archive heightened their sensibility towards a critical design process by placing them in direct confrontation with its recursive and reflective nature. Through alternative proposals based on critical artifacts, students learnt to formulate ideas collectively and independently as well as to utilize the techniques and methods that were most relevant to their explorations. Each stage of work was a stand-alone project as well as part of a design research process. The sequential design outcomes were carried forward across these stages of work, leading towards a comprehensive body of design research demonstrated through the final design project –an alternative collective dwelling proposal for Man Wah Sun Chuen (1964-70), an eight-block composite building development in Jordan, Hong Kong.

Architecture & Urban Design I (ARCH 4001) – Dwelling: Carcass

This studio begins with a question: what if… What if the large-scale composite building – a variant of the utopian megastructures envisioned by the architects of the 20th century that were grounded in Hong Kong by developers in the latter half of the twentieth century – is allowed to realize its fullest architectural potential of a city in a building? What if dwelling and the city is consummated in the most integrated ways possible? Subsumed by the city’s rapid densification and market-driven development, the massive composite building remains standing today as testimony to the kind of pragmatic utopianism that drives and defines Hong Kong’s built environment. Rather than accepting their “logical” commercialization or “natural” development towards increased privatization and segregation, this studio takes on the composite building as test sites for speculations on contemporary inhabitation. Hong Kong is the laboratory for dwelling experiments; the composite building carcass its test site. The site is simultaneously actual and fictional, imagined and constructed. This is the premise for the studio proposition.


Composite Hong Kong: urban habitation in section

In a dense and topographically rugged city, the master plan is rendered obsolete as soon as it touches the ground. At that scale, it encounters too many obstacles, literally. In one sense, other than the capitalist imperatives of this city, it is not surprising that planning has occurred primarily in patchwork manner, one or at most a few blocks at a time. This is a city where tabula rasa is created by addition, through reclamation, rather than removal / demolition. It is also a place where slope management technology and know-how is amongst the most advanced in the world. Paradoxically, in a city where the ground is especially critical in that it is an organic, fluctuating datum that is neither natural nor artificial, the plan remains the only paradigm in the organization of the city and its inhabitants.

The relationship between the plan and the section has been predominantly orthographic. The one either seeks to explicate what the other could not, or elaborates upon what the other hints at. At the scale of the urban, Le Corbusier is typically attributed but not Adolf Loos; his space plan remained referenced mainly at the interior domestic scale. Experiments in the relationship between the two saw artist-architects like Gerrit Rietveld and Theo van Doesburg in the 1920s, the Dutch structuralists in the mid-twentieth century, and more recently the Japanese re-popularized the isometric drawing.

The attempts by Paul Rudolph, the Team 10, Kenzo Tange, and the Southeast Asian SPUR group (1965-71) et al, to integrate the architectural and urban into megastructural networks predicated on infrastructure came to a halt when it became obvious that engineers would take up the task. The networks remain (metro, tube, mtr…) but urban architecture went on its high-rise high-density path aka Delirious New York and a new found skyscraper theorem based on a turn-of-the-century sketch. Arguably, the MTR mode of development overrides any imagination by the public of the underground, ensuring that the city in section exists within itself connected via the commuter network, and less with the rest of the city.

Attempts by architects in the 1960s to design and present alternate worlds were decried as utopian. Yet many of the projects, when examined closely, asked the problematic questions of air rights, the value of urban accretion over demolition, temporal and impermanence, and posited the expansion of experience beyond the gravitational to incorporate the visual and psychological / psychogeographic. These questions invariably escape the conventions of the plan. This is not to say that we do without the plan or planning on the horizontal. Rather, the myriad conditions in Hong Kong point to the urgency of: 1. revealing the spaces that escape the plan 2. rethinking planning development in the vertical dimension.

2014. The city is a vast complex of networks. But people still inhabit and desire to dwell in the city at a domestic scale. This studio contends that by analyzing the parts of the city which contain the layers of historical time, we will be able to find those spaces and the architectures that reintroduces back into the city the layers and complexities that are gradually flattened and demolished by the relentless onslaught of development.

At final, the studio shall produce 6 propositions on urban habitation. Each must be a reconsideration of and a challenge to the singular class-based provision of housing in the city (i.e. low-cost, housing, luxury housing,…), and delve into the composite nature inherent in urban experience.


The site is the cross-section of the city following the century-old Hong Kong tramway. Within the 15km track system between Kennedy Town to the West and Shau Kei Wan to the East, 6 sites are selected based on the following criteria:

  1. Each site covers an area that stretches between 2 tram stops (~300m distance).
  2. Each site contains a ground elevation change of at least 50m.
  3. Each site contains a population of >15,000 residents.
  4. Each site contains at one or more public space or park.
  5. Each site contains key composite buildings that narrates critical moments Hong Kong’s urban development.


Stephen Chan, Hong Kong New Squatter, 2011

Hong Kong New Squatter

High land price policy and current mode of housing production take away from Hong Kong people the Right to the City. For the cost we pay for our house, we have little control over our dwelling environment. To some, non-subsidized housing is unaffordable, while those who can afford purchase developer-imposed “lifestyle”.

This situation urges us to look into the primitive mode of dwelling — squatting. In squatter villages, people pay minimal or no cost for the land. People are the user, designer and builder. Each squatter house is a unique reflection of spatial autonomy.

Hong Kong New Squatter is a group of people who no longer tolerate the situation. The design of New Squatter House is to provide a mobile framework for any user to make and change space. In the thesis, architecture becomes an act (of fighting a guerilla warfare against the authority) with the goal of re-capturing our Right to the City.



A critique on the abuse of “superficial green” and “sustainable technology” in contemporary architecture and city planning.

To go beyond imaging symbols or ornaments of “green” and seek a correlation between urban dwellers and the high-density environments that eventually lead to renewed ecologies in cities.

Identify fabrics among the preconditioned urbanism and deploy architectural interventions of various scales that, hopefully, will induce a series of “green disturbance” that grows from within the dense city.