Design Trust, Design Criticism: Why Hong Kong’s Buildings Are Clad in Bathroom Tiles

This is the second installment in a series of critical essays produced in collaboration with Design Trust and architecture critic and curator Mimi Zeiger. Today, we present an article by independent photographer and writer Viola Gaskell (who is coincidentally a Zolima CityMag contributor).

Viola Gaskell

The urban vernacular of Hong Kong is a mismatched one. The city may be known for its plentitude of shiny glass towers that permeate the frequent bouts of fog—or sometimes pollution—but about halfway down giants like the ICC and IFC, a more modest aesthetic dominates the landscape. Steel frames give way to reinforced concrete; glass curtain walls are outnumbered by glass tile façades clad in pastel shades of pink and crème de menthe.

It is these tiles that are perhaps the most peculiar things about Hong Kong’s built landscape. Often dubbed “bathroom tiles,” they checker many of the older buildings that still manage to stand amidst the modernising cityscape. They date back to the 1970s and 80s, when tiles were among the most common materials used to finish exterior walls. In a 1984 survey, Hong Kong property development group Shui On examined the exterior finishings of nearly 500 buildings, finding that glass mosaic tiles were a dominant finish in 80 per cent of samples. The most common type was a “tesserae made by molten glass with pigments pressed in moulds to produce units of small size,” according to the survey, and they typically measure 19 millimetres square and five millimetres thick. 

According to Fredo Cheung, vice president of the Hong Kong Institute of Conservationists, tiles made their debut in Hong Kong as a luxurious interior material in the decades before World War II, imported from Italy by companies like Cathay Ceramics. In the late 1960s, Chinese factories were increasingly able to produce large amounts of affordable tiles, just in time for the construction boom that exploded across Hong Kong in the 1970s. As ambitious public housing goals were initiated in order to house the nearly two million people living in substandard conditions—hillside shanties, subdivided flats and rooftop shacks—buildings grew taller and wider at an alarming speed. 

The tiles were chosen mainly because they were easy and affordable to use – and water-resistant in a city that rains 138 days a year. They often came from factories in China and Japan that provided a backstock of colours that customers had passed over again and again. Mosaic tile is affordable to begin with, but its major selling point is the low cost of maintaining it once it has been applied to a building. In Hong Kong’s hot and humid climate, painted concrete ages quickly, as you can see in the algae-laden seams of older walk-ups and in the large number of residential buildings with cracked and faded exteriors. These buildings need to be repainted every three to five years to stay fresh and to ensure their structural safety. Shui On’s research says the cost of such maintenance often amounts to nearly 25 percent of initial building costs over time. 

As construction technology moves forward, so do the aesthetics of the city, unhindered by sentimentality. Ceramic tiles have been on the rise as an external building material since the 1990s, as a result of new and improved adhesives that allow for Hong Kong’s high rise buildings to safely bear their weight. And new types of paint have emerged with waterproofing and anti-fungal properties that help them survive in Hong Kong’s subtropical climate. Painted concrete façades are once again the norm in Hong Kong’s newest public housing estates. 

Cheung attributes much of Hong Kong design to pragmatism rather than aesthetic intentionality. “The emphasis is always on practicality,” he says. “It is always about economics, about spending the smallest amount of money while making the most impact. Strangely, because of this, [Hong Kong] has its own character.”

Hong Kong ceramicists Julie Progin and Jesse McLin, who often incorporate found elements of Hong Kong design in their work, see the mosaic tiles as part of a larger visage of temporality in the city. “I think that temporary, that speed, that pursuit for tomorrow and always looking ahead and never behind plays out in the architecture by default, by finance” says McLin. “And it influences day to day life and concepts of self and self worth and your sense of belonging and everything else that comes with that.”

Though international perspectives on built heritage are shifting towards the acknowledgement of post-war modern architecture as something to be preserved, this notion has just arrived in Hong Kong with the upcoming demolition of the General Post Office, built in 1976, and the Excelsior Hotel, built in 1971. “Eventually there will be a shift towards advocating for these buildings” says Cheung. “Whereas now there is mostly this general apathy and indifference because there are so many of them still. But things change. The only thing that is constant in Hong Kong is change.”

If landmarks like the General Post Office and the Excelsior cannot survive Hong Kong’s endless cycle of demolition and redevelopment, what future can be expected for the less obvious examples of built heritage – and the details that define them? Conservationists like Cheung and artists like Progin and McLin say there is a place for Hong Kong’s lovably garish tiles. When it comes to buildings in Hong Kong, says Cheung, “if you talk about whether they have cultural significance, you will find that most of it will lie not in its aesthetic value, but rather in its social value, in what it means to the people.”

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