The late photographer Michael Wolf began documenting Hong Kong’s corner buildings in 2005. By the time he finished his project in 2010, five of the structures he photographed had already disappeared – and the trend has only continued since then.
Wolf’s book, Hong Kong Corner Houses, is now an enduring reminder of a type of building that once defined Hong Kong’s urban landscape. “I’m sure that in 20 years, when most of the buildings are gone, many younger people who have never seen them will be tremendously happy to at least have the book,” he said in 2011. “Maybe they will have a higher awareness of what something like this means. Maybe it could change some people’s minds because the game isn’t over yet.”
Indeed, it isn’t. Although many corner buildings are gone, many more remain as unheralded reminders of a city that was once more intimate and human-scaled. “They represent a certain slice of Hong Kong vernacular architecture,” said Wolf. “These are all buildings that are not done by named architects. They’re bread-and-butter works by locals.”
Corner buildings are essentially tong lau—tenements that evolved from Chinese shophouses—that happen to be located at the junction of two roads. Some are composite buildings, the supersized tong lau that contain a mix of shops, offices and commercial spaces. What makes them remarkable is the way they embrace their corner with a curving façade. In Tai Kok Tsui, Peony House follows the curve of Foo Kwai Street as it bends away from Pok Man Street, giving the building the feel of a steamship sailing out of the harbour. Not far away, in Sham Shui Po, a 13-storey building greets the junction of Tai Po Road with an insouciant look over the shoulder.
These buildings often contain some endearing details that are emblematic of the era in which they were built, such as curved terrazzo staircases and mosaic tile floors. They are often considered examples of Streamline Moderne architecture—an early modern movement that emphasised curvy, aerodynamic forms—but the reality is that they were simply utilitarian structures designed to be built quickly and cheaply.
Little is known of their architects. Conservationists Lee Ho-yin and Lynne DiStefano have noted a few notable designers, including Antonio Hermenegildo Basto—who designed nine corner buildings and was involved in the design of St. Teresa’s Church on Prince Edward Road—and Lee Young-on, who was one of Hong Kong’s first Chinese architects. But most corner buildings were designed by what Lee and DiStefano describe as “the ‘Joe Architects’ of their day” – workaday architects who delivered functional buildings without any fuss.
The form of these corner buildings was guided entirely by Hong Kong’s building codes. “The curved building corner is not by design, but derived from the curved cantilevered balconies at the building’s corner,” says Lee, who is the director of the University of Hong Kong’s Architectural Conservation Programme. Hong Kong’s government had long encouraged the construction of balconies to improve the ventilation of Hong Kong’s flats. When a building was built at a street corner, the balconies simply followed the curve of the pedestrian footpath underneath.
The way the government encouraged the construction of these balconies was to exempt their floor area from the land premium that developers had to pay. This inadvertently became a subsidy to developers, because after gaining the balcony space for free, they included its square footage in the total area of the flats they sold. One of the first things many homeowners did after buying a flat was to enclose the balcony in order to create an extra room they could rent out to tenants. This did not escape the government’s attention, and so in 1966 it closed this loophole and ended the balcony concession.
Hong Kong’s buildings became notably less curvaceous after that, especially when building codes were once again changed in the 1970s to encourage the skinny towers that now dominate the city. But the corner buildings continued to shape Hong Kong’s landscape, capturing the imagination of Wolf and many others. “I liked the rounded fronts, the windows and the proportions,” he said in 2011. “Each one has a very special character and is unique. If you look at them, they have a similarity because they are all built on corners but, then again, some of the windows are different, the signage is different. It’s really a much more intimate form of architecture.”
Their appeal may well be universal. Neuroscience experiments have shown that humans have an innate attraction to curves, which trigger a part of the brain that produces emotions and empathy. One study published in 2013 found that this preference for curves extends to architecture, with study participants showing a clear preference for curvilinear spaces.
But Hong Kong’s building codes take precedence over emotion. There is no longer any practical reason why an architect would curve their building around a corner, other than for aesthetic purposes. That does happen on occasion. When a classic corner building on Austin Road was replaced by the high-rise Page 148 hotel, its architects at P&T designed a curved structure that references its predecessor. But for the most part, Hong Kong’s most recent buildings are starkly angular.
Efforts to preserve Hong Kong’s remaining corner buildings are hamstrung by a heritage grading system that offers no protection to privately-held structures; their fate depends entirely on the whims of whoever owns them. A few corner buildings have been renovated and converted into luxury apartments, such as the Tung Fat Building in Kennedy Town; most others are destined for redevelopment.
“The 1960s corner buildings tend to be of a bigger scale, occupying a bigger site, which is more attractive for big developers who deal with big redevelopments for more profit,” says Lee. He says the government could preserve them by imposing height restrictions that would make it more lucrative to renovate a low-rise building than to tear it down and replace it with a skyscraper, but there seems to be no political will to do anything of the sort.
So it’s best to appreciate Hong Kong’s corner buildings while they last. You could even follow the lead of Michael Wolf: next time you see one, take a photo of it. It may be a lasting record of a unique time in Hong Kong’s urban history.
Help preserve the memories of Hong Kong’s corner buildings