Design Trust, Design Criticism: The Strange Intimacy of High Density

Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless.

— George Perec

What is design writing and criticism in a place like Hong Kong, a multilingual city layered with aesthetic cultures and intertwined urbanism? This question was at the core of Criticism Now: Developing Architecture and Design Criticism in the Pearl River Delta, a writing workshop led by Los Angeles-based Mimi Zeiger, architecture critic and Design Trust Seed Grant recipient.

The essays produced in the two-week workshop suggest that criticism is an embodied practice, going beyond simply passing judgement. As they wrote about new architecture, ageing ceramic tiles, and dense residential blocks, participants were asked to critically observe Hong Kong’s built environment, to draw on research, fieldwork, and personal experience. By following the advice of French novelist George Perec to write about the ordinary over the flashy, the specific over the generic, they captured critically precise moments of design within the city fabric.

Criticism Now took place between 16 and 24 May and was supported by Design Trust. Over the next several weeks, Zolima CityMag will be sharing the fruits of the workshop. First is an essay by Spanish architect Diego Caro Serrano, who lives in Mei Foo.

Diego Caro Serrano

It’s 8pm on a Monday evening. A little boy is running through his living room, chased by a Southeast Asian maid. A woman on the floor below walks back and forth from her bedroom to the toilet, removing her clothes as she goes, just as she does every evening at the same time. To the right, a few floors above, an old man follows some sort of aerobic routine displayed on his ultra-high-definition television, always holding a towel on his neck. In a couple of hours, an Indian mother will light a candle on her balcony while her teenage daughter waits for everyone in the apartment to fall asleep so she can start chatting on the internet and take pictures of herself, the flash illuminating her room. 

This living collage is what I observe from my window on the 13th floor of a building in Mei Foo Sun Chuen as I sit at my desk behind my laptop. The collage has grown and evolved along with my own family. One month before our daughter was born, my wife and I witnessed—not without a certain jealousy—how the apartment beside us was illuminated by the happiness brought by a newborn. I wonder if the others notice me – a young white guy working on who-knows-what. I seem to know more about my neighbours’ lives than about my closest friends. My neighbours are intimate strangers; I do not know their names, but we share some short of voyeuristic reciprocity that has become part of our everyday lives. 

Much has been written about Hong Kong’s density. In Mei Foo there are more than 37,000 people living in 185,000 square metres – about the size of a large shopping mall. How does that translate into the common routines of its neighbours? How do the market forces of the city interact with the urban landscape acting as a social phenomenon? This is a landscape of windows, bedsheets waving in balconies, bamboo scaffolds here and there, noisy air conditioning units leaking water from the 20th floor to the street, where it melts with the dirt of the asphalt.

Mei Foo Sun Chuen was built between 1968 and 1978, and its 13,500 apartments made it the world’s largest private housing estate at the time of its completion. Between seven to eight percent of its residents are domestic helpers, visible especially on Sundays in Lai Chi Kok Park, when they turn the green space into an improvised mosque, a makeshift Indonesian restaurant that impregnates the air with exotic spices, or a setting for wedding photographs for lonely brides. 

The estate was developed in eight different spaces, each of them consisting of four different typologies of apartments. If we add to these 32 different configurations, the multiple renovations the apartments have experienced during these decades, and the diverse family distributions within the residences—sometimes scattered across multiple apartments—the view from my window presents the amusing challenge of guessing what is going on inside those homes. 

What separates me from my anonymous neighbours is a 35-metre abysm of saturated emptiness above Broadway Street. This street has a peculiar stretched S-shape grooving its way between the cruciform 20-storey towers that form the estate. These concrete constructions, covered with subdued tones of yellow and green, are an intense repetition of volumes. For some visitors, Mei Foo was “nothing but a concrete jungle,” as one article described it in a 1978 edition of Building Journal Hong Kong. But even that article acknowledges that most of its residents “liked the convenience” the high density was able to provide.

Four decades later, the “jungle” has become the norm. The blocks, mainly because of their cruciform plan, reminds some enthusiastic architecture students of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, a utopian city of towers. I wonder what he would from my window when, despite his short height, he had to lean out to find the sky while the sun tries unsuccessfully to find its way inside the apartment.

I often play with my two-year-old daughter to look at Broadway from our window and guess the colour of the next car; she always picks red because taxis are an easy win. When we decide to have some real action, we take our fancy, newly upgraded elevator and venture onto the street. Once on the ground, there seem to be only strangers overlapping in a chaos of steam mixed with cold air from the shops, the smell of fried fish, light and shadows, smoke and droplets of water from above. 10 percent of the properties in Mei Foo are commercial spaces and services, distributed within a podium that also doubles as a parking area and whose roof serves as a public space for residents and non-residents alike. The atmosphere is strange: imagine a busy street market located inside a parking garage.

Mei Foo’s podium—a platform that unifies all of the blocks—was a design innovation at the time, and it inspired many later projects. The podium’s permeable character at the street level, where small and medium shops are distributed, somehow preserves the traditional atmosphere of the shophouses and lively streets found in Hong Kong’s oldest districts. This mixture of functions and infrastructure creates a context in which the boundaries between “inside” and “outside” disappear. Shirtless construction workers sit on a ledge, having a beer break. A butcher cuts meat on a circular cutting board, cigarette dangling from his mouth. Filipina maids chat while waiting for a school bus to arrive. 

In most later housing developments of this kind, however, the podium has been translated into a large shopping mall and a private rooftop just for residents, often with an over-designed garden flanked by a big fence. These restricted areas and fences are justified in the name of safety and social status. This commodification of privacy extends to the apartments where your neighbours cannot see you walking around dishevelled in underwear. Instead of facing each other, their flats have fancy ocean, hill or any other kind of marketable view. Mei Foo Sun Chuen was the first of its kind, but while its design produced something that feels like the city, its descendants generated fragmentation. 

Not long ago, my daughter and I were walking through the strangeness of Broadway when, all of a sudden, we had a great surprise: we finally met our little neighbour, the one born only a month before her. We never knew his name – until now. For more than two years the kids had been waving at each other almost every night, but after the fantastic encounter, they started screaming their names out loud, from window to window, filling those 35 metres above Broadway Street.

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