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Photograph of a long, grey rectangular building. The concrete walls are tilted inward, and each of the two visible storeys are lined with yellow-framed windows. In the foreground is a tiled walk way, steps, a raid railing and a yellow lamp post. Two schoolgirls in blue sleeveless dress uniforms stand by the lamp post chatting; one has her arm draped over the red railing. Two other girls sit further back on the ground by the building; a boy is approaching the foreground.

In Search of Hong Kong Brutalism

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Brutalism is an architectural style that emerged in 1950s United Kingdom, characterised by exposed raw concrete and bold geometry. In the 1960s and 1970s, Brutalism spread globally—including to Hong Kong.

Many Brutalist buildings are now in danger of disappearing through demolition or remodelling. As a response, curator and architecture critic Oliver Elser developed the SOS Brutalism project, a database and campaign aimed at raising awareness of ‘our beloved concrete monsters’. As a recipient of the M+ / Design Trust Fellowship 2019, Elser investigated the degree to which Brutalism and its transformations have manifested in Hong Kong. Below, we ask him to share some highlights from his research.

What led to the urgency, and value, of re-examining Brutalist architecture?

Series of three photos documenting the demolition of the AfE Tower at the Goethe University Frankfurt. The first photo shows the beginning of an explosion at the base and mid-section of the building. The final photo shows the building collapsing into a cloud of dust and debris.

The AfE Tower at the Goethe University Frankfurt, built by S. Werner and Heinrich Nitschke from 1970 to 1972, during its demolition in 2014. Image: Oliver Elser

The architecture of the global ‘boom years’ after 1945 is heavily under threat in many regions of the world—especially Brutalist buildings, often dismissed as ‘brutal monsters’ already in the time of their construction. However, Brutalist buildings became the focus of scholarly (and social media) attention around 2010. This new appreciation was driven by an increasing interest in the political history of Brutalism. In many regions of the world, the development of Brutalism parallels greater social progress, democratisation, and more equal opportunities through an expansion of the educational system.

However, a truly global approach has been lacking, as European–North American–Japanese perspectives have prevailed.

Photograph of the Birmingham Public Library during its dismantling. The middle section has been completely removed, showing a different building, tower, and crane in the background. Its two concrete ends remain standing, and a cross-section of the floors are visible. In the foreground are fences and construction signs directing pedestrians around the site.

The Birmingham Public Library (1969–1973), designed by John Madin, at its demolition in 2016. Courtesy of SOS Brutalism. Image: Jason Hood

To widen this perspective, the Deutsches Architekturmuseum started a collaboration with the Wüstenrot Foundation to look at discourses in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. We launched ‘SOS Brutalism – Save the Concrete Monsters’, a project consisting of a book, exhibition, social media campaign, and comprehensive online database, to offer a broad, empirical base of data on the number of Brutalist buildings endangered worldwide. Currently, the platform contains 2,038 buildings; 209 buildings are on the ‘red list’, meaning they are in acute danger of being demolished or vastly redesigned.

How has SOS Brutalism sought to expand the criteria of what characterises Brutalist architecture?

The term Brutalism was coined by architects Alison and Peter Smithson in 1953, and was further popularised by architectural historian and critic Reyner Banham. The Smithsons were not primarily interested in form or a particular material—such as exposed concrete—but in a new, direct way of approaching the design of a building, stating: ‘...[we] were concerned with the seeing of materials for what they were: the woodness of wood; the sandiness of sand.’

Reyner Banham also did not speak of exposed concrete at first. Instead, he drew parallels to Art Brut, a term invented to describe art made outside of the academic tradition. In his essay ‘The New Brutalism’, Banham defined three criteria as ethical principles of Brutalism: memorability as an image, clear exhibition of structure, and a valuation of materials ‘as found’.

So is the widespread definition of Brutalist architecture as ‘exposed concrete architecture’ a misinterpretation, or a rough simplification?

In his Unité d’Habitation (1947–1952), the Swiss–French pioneer of modern architecture Le Corbusier did not, for the first time, paint over the concrete or have it refined. He described this new treatment of concrete as béton brut. Béton means concrete; brut means dry, raw, rough, and unrefined, echoing a type of champagne called brut.

Since the mid-1960s, ‘brutal monsters’—huge, top-heavy complexes similar to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation but far from the dry, ‘brut’ buildings of the Smithsons—were built across all political systems. They were the starting point for SOS Brutalism.

To include these ‘monsters’ in the classical definition of Brutalism, it was necessary to expand it with a fourth criterion, in addition to Banham’s previous three. We called this criterion ‘rhetorical’, referring to the building’s expression of exaggeration and extravagance.

How did your observation of Brutalist buildings during your research in Hong Kong reinforce, or change, your initial perception of them, and of the definition of Brutalism?

In the SOS Brutalism catalog, scholar Han Man writes about a number of important buildings in Hong Kong, which caught my attention before I started the M+ / Design Trust Research Fellowship. However, during my fellowship, I could re-evaluate these buildings through on-site visits. More importantly, I discovered more buildings that resonated with Brutalism but were atypical examples of it. They made me consider how other factors infiltrated the Brutalist approach, such as Hong Kong-based architects’ consciousness of traditional Chinese architecture, or the influence of postmodern architecture that reinterpreted and referenced historical precedents.

Jackson Wong’s Residence

Photograph of Jackson Wong’s private residence. The exterior of the building is square-shaped concrete. It has three storeys and several windows with the curtains drawn. In the foreground is fence and a sign that says ‘CHUNG AM KOK ROAD’ in Chinese and English. In the background is a view of the sea and mountains.

Wong & Ouyang (HK) Ltd. Exterior photograph, Residence of Mr Jackson Wong (1966), Chung Hom Kok Road, Hong Kong. [circa 1966]. Gelatin silver print. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Wong & Ouyang (HK) Ltd., 2017. © Wong & Ouyang (HK) Ltd.

Many describe Jackson Wong’s residence as the starting point of Brutalism in Hong Kong. Wong and his partner Ng Chung Man were among the first graduates from the Department of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong. After leaving the school in 1955, they co-founded their practice, known today as Wong & Ouyang.

Two drawings of the exterior of Jackson Wong’s private residence.  The top drawing is labelled ‘SECTION “C – C” (WEST ELEVATION)’; the bottom drawing is labelled ‘SECTION “D – D” (EAST ELEVATION)’. Both drawings show a basement level, ground floor level, first floor level, and a roof. Various features of the building are labelled. The exteriors around the first floor window are labelled ‘MOSAIC TILE’.

Wong & Ouyang (HK) Ltd. Sections 'C-C' (west elevation) and 'D-D' (east elevation), Residence of Mr Jackson Wong (1966), Chung Hom Kok Road, Hong Kong. 30 January 1964, amended 6 January 1966. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Wong & Ouyang (HK) Ltd., 2017. © Wong & Ouyang (HK) Ltd.

Wong’s residence was a concrete box with a wide overhang. A closer look at the plans in the M+ Collections reveals an astonishing detail of how, even at a relatively late stage, it was still assumed that the concrete parapet bands were to be covered with ‘mosaic tiles’. The rejection of the tiles seems to have been a last-minute decision. Even after receiving approval, the surface was not covered.

Detail of a drawing of the west elevation of Jackson Wong’s private residence, showing the roof, first floor, and part of the ground floor. The exteriors around the first floor window are labelled ‘MOSAIC TILE’. The ground floor exterior is labelled ‘FAIR FACE’.

Wong & Ouyang (HK) Ltd., Close-up of section 'C-C' (west elevation), Residence of Mr Jackson Wong (1966), Chung Hom Kok Road, Hong Kong. 30 January 1964, amended 6 January 1966. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Wong & Ouyang (HK) Ltd., 2017. © Wong & Ouyang (HK) Ltd.

So should we consider Wong’s residence as a masterpiece by coincidence? There are several possible reasons why the tiles were excluded. Perhaps the building authorities were to be deceived about the actual plans of an exposed concrete surface. Or perhaps the architect was unsure of the quality of the concrete executed, so he kept a fallback option in case the contractor could not deliver the desired result. Soon after, a whole series of buildings in Hong Kong were created where this ‘fallback’ option no longer existed. Nonetheless, Jackson Wong’s precautionary measure does not make the building any less important.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong Campus

Monochrome photograph of a university campus from an aerial view. In the foreground are trees and parking lot filled with busses. In the middle-ground is a cluster of square and rectangular concrete buildings on a flat lawn surrounded by roads. In the background is a hill, on which are two T-shaped water towers and several buildings. In the distance, a body of water is visible.

Aerial view of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (1963–1975), designed by Szeto Wai, in 1984. Photo courtesy of Information Services Office, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

In the case of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), I was surprised to learn about the political perspective of its genesis and central design ideas. Founded in 1963 as an association of three colleges, CUHK’s orientation was largely determined by its founding members—consisting of anti-Communist Confucian scholars and Protestant Christians—as well as the support of US and British universities and entities. Private supporters included the family of publisher Henry Luce, a strong anti-Communist.

Monochrome photograph of a group of young people in sports clothes stretching in front of rectangular building. The left section of this large building is square-shaped and mostly concrete, with two circular ventilation structures and three rows of small windows above a a row of ground-floor windows. The remainder of the building's three floors are terraced and lined with windows.

Students exercising outside of CUHK's United College in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Information Services Office, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Photograph of the exterior of United College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The building is long and rectangular with four levels. The bottom storey is painted white with the words ‘Cheung Chuk Shan Amenities Building’ visible. In the foreground are plants, a grassy area, and multiple ‘H’ shaped concrete benches.

Exterior view of United College’s Cheung Chuk Shan Amenities Building in 2019. Image: Oliver Elser

The campus development in Sha Tin started with Chung Chi College, with the participation of architects Robert Fan and Chau & Lee. In 1963, Szeto Wai joined as an engineer and architect. Under his guidance, the hill adjacent to Chung Chi College was terraced. At the Science Centre, where the entire spectrum of concrete processing is demonstrated, Szeto called the cantilevered auditorium a ‘mushroom’. He even offered an explanation for his sublime gesture: to create an ‘unobstructed space for the students’.

Photograph of a mushroom-shaped building, with a small base topped by a large, tapered structure. The building is concrete and grey, with two spiral staircases leading up to two covered walkways attached to adjacent buildings. On the upper centre of the facade is a large purple and gold emblem of a mythical bird on a shield. Three bulletin boards stand outside, and a person walks past a tree and a lamppost towards the building.

Exterior view of CUHK’s University Science Centre in 2010. Photo courtesy of Information Services Office, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

The new university as a whole could be seen as an ‘unobstructed space’, giving Chinese-speaking students access to higher education outside mainland China. Against the background of the university’s anti-Communist founding history, ‘unobstructed space’ could be read as ‘freedom and democracy’ in both architectural and political terms. The entire master plan can also be interpreted as a political metaphor, especially in comparison to campus designs in other countries.

While in the US or Germany, the individuality of the creative architectural personalities is undermined by massive use of prefabricated elements, for CUHK, Szeto created a clever ensemble of buildings that avoids monotony, with each building having different architectural expressions.

Chung Chi Hall Student Centre

Photograph of the exterior of Chung Chi Student Hall, showing the short side of the building. The building has a triangular, A-Frame construction with concrete beams. The beams are unpainted, showing the imprint of formwork boards.

Dennis Lau & Ng Chun Man Architects & Engineers (HK) Ltd. Exterior photograph, Chung Chi Hall Student Centre, Chinese University of Hong Kong (circa 1970–1972). [circa 2005], digitised [2000s]. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Dennis Lau & Ng Chun Man Architects & Engineers (HK) Ltd., 2013. © Dennis Lau & Ng Chun Man Architects & Engineers

One building at the foot of the CUHK campus deserves special attention. The Chung Chi Hall Student Centre (now known as Chung Chi Tang) has an unusual A-Frame construction. In historical colour photographs, it appears that the concrete beams are made of wood. This is evoked by the imprint of the formwork boards.

The transformative power of replacing wood with concrete creates an updated expression of a traditional construction. It is similar to how Japanese architect Kenzo Tange designed the concrete structure of the Kagawa Prefectural Office to appear as though it was built out of wood, expressing tradition and modernity in equal terms.

Photograph of the exterior of Chung Chi Student Hall, showing the long side of the building. The building has a triangular, A-Frame construction with concrete beams. The building is white; the beams are grey.

Exterior view of Chung Chi Hall Student Centre, now known as Chung Chi Tang, in 2019. Image: Oliver Elser

Robert Black College

Photograph of a building entrance area with red concrete walls topped by a roof made of cerulean Chinese glazed tiles. Small potted plants are in front of the heavy wooden doors of the entrance; the words 'Sir Robert Black Hall' in Chinese are on a placard above. A man and a woman stand in front of the entrance chatting, leaning against a railing. In the background and to the left of the entrance, two levels of a multi-storey structure are visible. Each level has porticoes supported by red concrete columns and surrounded by white patterned fencing.

The University of Hong Kong's Robert Black College (1966) is an example of a concrete building designed by Szeto Wai outside of the Brutalist aesthetic. Image: © Peter Leung, CPAO, HKU

An interesting detour into architecture from the same period that is both traditional and modern is Robert Black College at the University of Hong Kong—also designed by Szeto Wai. Like the Chung Chi Hall Student Centre, the building’s design seems to mimic the wooden construction of traditional Chinese architecture. It is, however, a modern concrete and brick building. While it is not a Brutalist building in any sense, it raises important questions on how Brutalism’s new architectural attitudes were adopted in Hong Kong.

Szeto completed this college ‘for visiting scholars from overseas on oriental studies’ in 1966, during which time he had also been developing the CUHK master plan. What can be concluded from the fact that he adopted two such different design approaches at the same time?

One could easily read into how this meant that Brutalism in Hong Kong was just a style that conformed to an international fashion. But I’ve begun to consider how conditions are more complex than whether the appearance of a building fits into the Brutalist category. In Hong Kong and the surrounding region, I have the impression that architecture has never been as ideological as in the European–US context, and I see this quite explicitly as a positive thing. That’s why Robert Black College is an important example of an ‘alternative path’ when we consider Szeto Wai’s Brutalist buildings.

St. Stephen’s College

Photograph of a grey, concrete building roof. The roof is flat, and the tilted walls on the side are imprinted with vertical lines, under which is a row of windows. On top of the roof is a circular, glass tiled structure and an trapezoid-shaped upper roof area.

Exterior view of Tang Shiu Kin Hall, St. Stephenʼs College (1980), designed by Tao Ho, in 2019. Image: Oliver Elser

Tao Ho’s St. Stephen’s College was included in the SOS Brutalism catalogue for its evident Brutalist aesthetic. My visit to the site in Stanley revealed more details of the building and the possible rationale behind the design. I was surprised at how well-preserved the gymnasium is. Inside, it seems as if the front wall of the hall was formed with boards in a particularly rough way—a gesture that seems ‘rhetorical’, because nowhere else in this building has a wall been so roughly moulded.

Photograph of the interior of Tang Shiu Kin hall. The walls on each side tilt inward and are covered floor to ceiling with windows. There are also skylights in the ceiling. The far wall is exposed concrete, with a basketball hoop hanging in the centre. Two people stand in the foreground, playing badminton over a net.

The Indoor Sports Centre at Tang Shiu Kin Hall, St. Stephenʼs College in 2019. Image: Oliver Elser

The reason for the gymnasium’s tilted outer walls is their climatic effect. In Hong Kong, the sun stands high in the sky during daytime. The sun’s rays therefore do not penetrate directly through the slats into the interior, but are reflected so that the sports area can be used for extended periods without getting blinded by the sun.

Three drawings of Tang Shiu Kin Hall. The first is labelled ‘Site plan’, showing the aerial outline of a a cluster of buildings surrounded by roads and trees. The second is a detail of the building exterior showing three stories, each featuring a balcony with plants overflowing from the edges. School children walk by outside among the trees. The third drawing is labelled ‘Elevation’ with a scale of 0–10m. It shows a long, rectangular building with three stories.

Tao Ho. Perspective Drawing, Special Room Block and Tang Shiu Kin Hall, St. Stephenʼs College (1980). Published in Process: Architecture No. 20 (1980). Courtesy of TaoHo Foundation. © Taoho Design Architects

In Tao Ho’s perspective drawings of the school, the classroom buildings were to be equipped with deep plant balconies, protecting them from direct sunlight. It is an almost pastoral image, in which concrete is blended into the landscape. In the extreme density of Hong Kong, it is an enormous luxury to enter into such a close relationship with nature. Unfortunately, when I visited, the planters in front of the classrooms were empty, though their function as shade-providers remains.

Tsuen Wan Chinese Permanent Cemetery

Two photographs of the Tsuen Wan Chinese Permanent Cemetery. The right photograph is an elevated view from within rows of tombstones on a hill. In the background is a large, white building with eight storeys visible. Each consecutive storey is shorter in length. The archway of the door, central latticed window, and detail under the roof is red. The second photograph is closer detail of each of the levels’ edges, which are white and tapered upwards. Several tombstones and a white-tiled barrier are in the foreground.

The columbarium at Tsuen Wan Chinese Permanent Cemetery (1987), designed by Dennis Lau & Ng Chun Man, in 2019. Image: Oliver Elser

The columbarium building at Tsuen Wan Chinese Permanent Cemetery could be considered my first encounter with postmodernity in Hong Kong. Designed by the same architects of Chung Chi Hall Student Centre at CUHK—Dennis Lau and Ng Chung Man—the cemetery building looks like a battleship. If it had been executed in grey exposed concrete, not white tiles, the building would be identified as Brutalist without any doubt.

When the columbarium received the Hong Kong Institute of Architects Award in 1988, the jury praised the design with the words: ‘keeping with the best Chinese architectural tradition’. However, it does not have the identifiable traditional features of a building like Robert Black College at HKU. I find it ‘traditional’ in a transformative sense.

It is such indirect references to historical architecture that made me associate this building with postmodernism. Brutalism has often been interpreted as the last arm of modernism. But this is only half the story. Some Brutalist monsters already speak to the postmodern longing for architecture to reference history and incorporate cultural symbols. This unification of history and ‘brute boldness’ seems to me a unique contribution from architecture in Hong Kong, demonstrating the diverse manifestations of Brutalism across time and place.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club Sha Tin Clubhouse

Photograph of the back exterior of a building. On the upper edge, the photograph is labelled ‘THE ROYAL HONG KONG JOCKEY CLUB Members clubhouse Sha Tin’. The building is a grey, plaster-paneled, square-shaped structure. Each of the levels has a covered walkway supported by red beams, with green foliage overflowing from the edges. The walls are lined with dark windows. The upper levels get progressively smaller and are covered in red mesh fencing. In the foreground is the clipped green grass of a horse racetrack.

Early photograph of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Sha Tin Club House (1982–1985), designed by Prescott Stutely Design Groups Partners/Wilkinson & Cilley. Courtesy of Wilkinson & Cilley, Hong Kong and DESIGN young, Dubai

I’ve included the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Sha Tin Clubhouse in this selection because its appearance seems to meet, and at the same time disprove, my expectations of a Brutalist building. As an exclusive clubhouse for its members positioned on the edge of Sha Tin’s racetrack, the building is correspondingly gray and inconspicuous. Although it looks as if it was constructed with large concrete panels, the surface is actually made of grey plaster.

Photograph of the front exterior of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Shatin Clubhouse. The building has a grey, plaster facade and resembles a fortress, with several blocks and towers attached to a central entranceway. There are no windows, except for a singular column of dark windows above the entrance. Attached to the right-side of the building is a multi-storey parking garage. In the foreground are trees, hedges and a driveway partially blocked by traffic cones.

Front exterior view of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Sha Tin Clubhouse in 2019. Image: Oliver Elser

Initially designed by Prescott Stutely Design Group and later Wilkinson & Cilley, the building’s structure is akin to a larger concrete sculpture. The muscular formation of the building’s technical parts was characterised by the ‘rhetoric monsterism’ of Brutalism. One of the architects, David Cilley, revealed that the building’s pyramidal form resulted from the need to have as many seats as possible on the terraces, though he could not remember the reason for its use of the granosite texture and repellant entrance design. Inside, however, is less hermetic and forbidding, with spacious foyers even above the entrance.

Photograph of an interior detail of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Shatin Clubhouse. The viewer is looking down on an interior hexagonal balcony. On the balcony is a beige sofa between two beige lamps on end tables, on top of a beige carpet with wavy cream lines. The parapet of the balcony is glass with a metal railing. Behind the balcony is a large floor-to-ceiling window, lined with red lattice-work. Outside the window is a driveway and grass.

Interior view of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Sha Tin Club House in 2019. Image: Oliver Elser

SOS Brutalism, which began as a public campaign for architectural conservation, has also led to developing transnational histories of architecture through the lens of Brutalism. How has your study in Hong Kong raised questions on the limitations of how histories of architecture have been shaped?

As you can see, I have tried to make sense of enormously different buildings in Hong Kong. They serve as important reminders that architecture does not run in a straight line or consist of styles and periods with discrete breaks. Brutalism has manifested through the work of architects who applied the use of exposed concrete in different ways, as exemplified by Szeto Wai’s designs of CUHK in the 1960s. In the 1980s, it transitioned into postmodernism through a more indirect quotation of ‘traditional elements’, as exemplified by the Tsuen Wan Permanent Cemetery building. The Brutalist aesthetic that was more often associated with egalitarian buildings like universities and schools was also taken up by elitist buildings—even the super-exclusive Hong Kong Jockey Club Shatin Clubhouse is concealed in a ‘monster’ building.

It is always productive to place local phenomena in a global context. In the best case, this will broaden the canon, leading to a focus on buildings that would otherwise be left on the byways of architectural history. Yet, the widening perspective conceals the danger of vagueness or even arbitrariness in how ‘Brutalism’ is defined. Brutalist buildings arose all over the world, in all political systems, under specific contextual circumstances. One might even ask whether the term ‘Brutalism’ should be dismissed, because the architecture it denotes is so diverse.

I think that, for all its diversity, it is nevertheless useful in describing an attitude that is ‘brut’ in the best sense of the word: direct, raw, unrefined. And I see a future for this attitude, even while Brutalist buildings are in danger of disappearing. It’s not something purely historical.

Watch Oliver Elser present his research as part of the virtual 2019 M+ / Design Trust Research Fellowship Public Talks.

Learn more about the M+ / Design Trust Research Fellowship 2021 and its recipients, Emily Verla Bovino and Anouchka van Driel.

Image at top: Special Room Block, St. Stephen’s College (1980), designed by Tao Ho. Photographer unknown. © All rights reserved

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