Context: GSD M.Arch I Thesis
Thesis Advisor: Prof. Panagiotis Michalatos
"[G]ood architecture has to be modest and yet inevitably powerful: modest because it always acknowledges its own limits, especially its ethical ones - it simply cannot solve everything; and powerful because, in spite of its limits, it has to take responsibility, it has to face the fact that its purposes are almost never 'good'."Pier Vittorio Aureli, A Spectacle of Deepest Harmony. OASE #90: What is Good Architecture?
My grandfather was an architect. He grew up through the Japanese invasion, studied at TsingHua University, received his PhD in the UK and moved to Hong Kong during the civil war. Despite his patriotism for China and distaste for the British rule, for various reasons he remained in Hong Kong, and designed building after building. Looking back at all the schools, hospitals and factories he has built, he wrote in a letter many years later, he realized that his work are so intertwined with the lives of Hong Kong people – as if his roots has grown – that Hong Kong has become his home.
He passed away at the age of 72, when I was very young. And now my own parents are reaching that age, and myself the age of my parents at that time. I know most certainly that my parents would wish me and my siblings to live with them, but for many years none of us have thought that a desirable option. It has somehow become the norm in our generation across Hong Kong, and many other cities, to find living with one’s own parents a grave inconvenience, an embarrassment and even a failure.
Opportunity for Multigenerational Cohabitation
Multi-generation home is nothing new, it’s in most cultures. In Chinese there’s a notion that 三代同堂 (three generations in the same hall) is a great fortune. But there’s also a proverb that says 相見百日好，同住三日難 (A pleasure to meet for a hundred days. A chore to live together for three.)
The courtyard house is a typology originated from the northern parts of China, found among residences of the relatively wealthy. Typically, the interior courtyard unifies the detached houses each holding a generation of the family, with the elders at the center, and usually the servants in the corners. The main entrance is mainly to the south-east corner, gated by a thick red door, as red was an expensive pigment at the time. In the courtyard, children play, servants do the laundry, and the succulent smell from the kitchen permeates. An announcement would be made for all members of the family to gather in the central hall and share the meal and stories of the day around a large, most usually circular, table.
The time has changed. The rapid development in Hong Kong in the past half century witnessed a generation brought up in drastically different materialistic and ideological environments, growingly unwilling to live with each other. Living spaces are divided and subdivided into small autonomous units disconnected from each other. The courtyard house is both economically unfeasible and ideologically undesirable in Hong Kong today.
An Era of Property Value Augmentation
Hong Kong’s land policy is highly controlled. The limited supply of land allows the government to be financially supported by land-auctions to developers and maintains one of the world’s lowest tax rates. The growing population through immigration, along with foreign and most importantly mainland investors, have in recent years significantly augmented the demands in the property market, hence property value1. Worth noting though is that the current property value has reached just around the level of mid 1997, right before the previous bubble-burst during the Asian financial crisis. As of the time of writing, on average each square meter of residential floor space in Kowloon, Hong Kong is sold for 16,000 USD.
The growing cultural, demographic and economic ties between Hong Kong and mainland China have undoubtedly brought significant financial benefits to each other, and at times cultural and ideological conflicts.
The reason underlying most of these conflicts, I argue, is an outcome of the unmet basic needs of the citizens of Hong Kong – shelter. Home price to income ratio in Hong Kong is 25.87, meaning that a 90 square meter (~970 sq. ft.) apartment of median price is worth 25.87 times the total of a median family annual income, without any expenses on food, clothes and transportation. This number is compared to 7.85 in New York City, and 14.76 in London.
As property value escalates at a rate far beyond that of interest rate, the population is fundamentally divided into property owners and the rest who do not, and have little hope to, possess any. The gap between the two groups widens, and social divide deepens. We are approaching a historical moment when this pressure needs to be released one way or the other.
In Hong Kong, wasting space is a profound crime.
1 Home prices have jumped more than 55 percent since the beginning of 2009, according to an index compiled by Centaline Property Agency Ltd., Hong Kong’s biggest closely held broker.
Yau Yat Chuen, Hong Kong
In the 1940s, the British government announced the first planned garden city in Kowloon peninsular named Kowloon Tong, east of the railtrack that connects to mainland China. The low density residential region accented by colonial style schools and churches was occupied predominantly by the British population. The Chinese industrialists in Hong Kong of the time, who have accumulated considerable wealth, initiated a development just on the other side of the train track similar in scope, characters and formalistic features. Thus the naming Yau Yat Chuen, meaning ‘Another Village’.
To the west of Yau Yat Chuen, along the base of a well known mountain in Hong Kong – the Lion Rock – stands an array of high density public housing complexes in a region known as Shek Kip Mei. The situation of these buildings was a result of the informal settlements from the refugees of the Chinese civil war. On Christmas day 1953, a fire in the region rendered 50,000 people homeless overnight. To respond to the event the government quickly constructed the first public housing on the site of the fire, and continued its development thereon. The threshold of wealth between Yau Yat Chuen and Shek Kip Mei – two regions only separated by two staircases – has architecturally manifested into all shapes and sizes of spiked fences along every possible boundary wall, and security guard posts by the staircases – a phenomenon I did not understand as I was growing up. While infrared and other security systems are slowly replacing spiked fences, the disappearance of the fences is occurring at a time when inequality is but exasperating.
# █████████ Road
The building was built in 1955, designed by a Chinese architect trained in American occupied Manila by the name of Faitfone Wong, in a modernist style fused with local windows and tile renderings. The building sits in one of the lowest density zoning region of Hong Kong, with a building footprint of 55%, a maximum floor area ratio of 1.65 and a maximum building height of 10.67m. Aside from a close study of the original design and structural drawings from 1955, found in the Hong Kong building archive, I have meticulously measured and redrawn the present state of the building, complete with all the air-conditioners additions which organically redefined the facade, regardless of the wills of the architect.
At the time of writing, nearly 60 years after it was built, the building has been transformed over many episodes of renovations and extensions, including a whole extra floor on top and expansions on the ground floor, that but a few features of the original design is still perceivable.
Two stacked stone columns marking the entrance to the property, the rounded corners of the balconies facing the approaching traffic on the street, and the structure of the original design – a distribution of rectangular reinforced concrete columns minutely shifted from alignments – are among the elements that remains.
The leaking shell, poor cooling and heating efficiency, insufficient daylight penetration, changing demands for spatial division upon the return of members abroad and new additions to the family, and lastly the privilege of being able to execute an building-wide integrated approach for environmental practice, are among the reasons for a renovation/reconstruction. In fact, by capturing the opportunity cost of the under utilized spaces fit for rental and other uses alone, the financial gain would likely cover the construction cost and design fee combined.
A meditation, not an answer: This proposal is subject to infinite dissections, objections, revisions.
Such, I am afraid, is the nature of multi-generational cohabitation.