How to Build Better Public Housing

Ma Yansong and his architecture studio, MAD Architects, have designed dozens of eye-catching buildings around the world. There’s the Harbin Opera House, which swirls like shifting sands. There’s the geologically-inspired, bronze-hued Ordos Museum in the desert of Inner Mongolia. And there’s the twin towers of Absolute World, a condo complex in the suburbs of Toronto, whose curvaceous form earned them the nickname of Marilyn Monroe.

One of MAD’s latest projects is attention-grabbing in a different way: it’s public housing. Baiziwan Social Housing, completed in 2021 near Beijing’s Central Business District, is a 43-hectare development with gardens, shops, and 12 buildings home to 4,000 households. Ma and his team designed the estate following an eight-year investigation into public housing around the world, and it’s an effort to change the game in a country where housing — both public and private — tends to follow the same cookie-cutter designs.

Ma is certainly not the first world-renowned architect to turn his attention to social housing. In 1952, Swiss architect Le Corbusier changed the nature of high-rise housing forever with the Unité d’habitation, a concrete tower built on stilts that mixed residences with shops and community facilities, an approach that would be replicated around the world in an attempt to improve urban housing conditions. (La Cité Radieuse in Marseille is a renowned example; it was also based on Le Corbusier’s Modulor system of measurement based on human proportions, designed to make spaces as comfortably proportioned as possible.) Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill used social housing as a platform for post-modern exuberance, with grandiose estates like Les Espaces d’Abraxas near Paris that made the case that affordable housing could have the same verve as an imperial palace.

For all their innovations, though, many of these statement pieces suffered from some of the same problems as the urban slums they were meant to replace. (Others, like La Cité Radieuse in Marseille, or Parkhill in Sheffield, have become sought after and gentrified because of their remarkable architecture.) Though still spectacular, Les Espaces d’Abraxas is now notorious as a hub for drug trafficking. Perhaps the most notorious example is the Pruitt-Igoe estate in St. Louis, Missouri, which was designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki, who was later responsible for the World Trade Center. Despite its high profile, Pruitt-Igoe suffered from a lack of maintenance and public safety that led most of its residents to eventually abandon it. The estate was demolished less than 20 years after its completion in 1955.

In many places, cases like this gave public housing a bad name. And yet the need for it is more urgent than ever. Countries around the world are in the grip of a housing crisis that is being felt in places as diverse as rural Texas and central Amsterdam. Tent cities have sprung up across Canada and the United States as housing costs soar. In Hong Kong, more than 200,000 people live in tiny cubicle homes — including families squeezed into as little as 50 square feet — and the number of people sleeping on the street has nearly tripled in the last 10 years, with a 22 percent increase since the start of the pandemic.

Those numbers underline the need for more public housing, which now has a 5.3-year waiting list in Hong Kong. But the experience of other cities around the world underlines just how important it is to provide quality public housing, not just rudimentary shelter. That’s what motivated Ma in his design for Baiziwan. “I visited several Beijing social housing [estates],” he said in a live talk broadcast by the architecture website Dezeen last year. “They’re gated so you feel like you’re in a prison. No matter how beautiful the building is, people living there will feel isolated.” He has taken the opposite approach: Baiziwan invites the city inside the estate, so it feels like a neighbourhood, not a compound.

It’s a lesson Hong Kong has learned over many years. A lot has changed since the very first resettlement estates were built to house families whose squatter villages were destroyed by the 1953 Shek Kip Mei fire. Those early estates were meant to be emergency shelters, but beginning in the 1960s, permanent housing was built in estates that were meant to function as complete communities. Space constraints meant they were often built on the edge of the city, like Choi Hung Estate, which was designed by venerable local architecture firm Palmer and Turner and completed in 1964.

“These public housing estates are gigantic. They have 40 or 50,000 people, and if you want to move that many people into the middle of nowhere, you have to have everything,” says landscape architect Natalia Echeverri, who lectures at the University of Hong Kong. A typical new estate built in the 1960s and 70s contained shops, markets, schools, clinics and a bus terminus linking residents to the rest of the city.

“It’s a kind of autonomous urbanism – they’re cities unto themselves,” says Jason Carlow, a former assistant professor of architecture at the University of Hong Kong who now teaches at the American University of Sharjah. “That’s part of the Hong Kong formula for success in developing density that is linked to transportation hubs. It’s what a lot of cities haven’t done as well. Places like New York may have created similarly dense tower-based housing projects, but they’re not as conveniently linked to public transportation.”

And unlike private housing built to maximise density and profits for landlords and developers — the so-called Monster Building comes to mind — the estates contain an abundance of public space. “Hong Kong public housing has been successful at creating space where people can gather and form community,” says designer Jeffrey Cheng. He recently teamed up with photographer Kris Provoost to document the public spaces inside Hong Kong’s public housing estates, which they are currently showing in Hong Kong’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale of Architecture.

One of the reasons for that is the constant refinement of public housing design. And that’s possible because Hong Kong has built — and is still building — an enormous amount of public housing. More than half the population, about 3.6 million people, lives in some kind of public housing, including affordable rental housing for low-income people and heavily subsidised flats for purchase by middle-class families. There are currently 1.3 million public housing units in the city, with plans to build another 316,000 over the next decade, many in new development areas like the Northern Metropolis near the border with Shenzhen.

It will be an opportunity to explore some of the latest innovations in public housing. Over the years, the Hong Kong Housing Authority — which oversees most of the city’s public housing — has tweaked its approach to planning and building new estates. Whereas estates built before 2000 were planned using what the Housing Authority calls a “standard block design,” the shortage of easily developable land led it to develop site-specific designs for estates on more complicated terrain. At the same time, the standardisation has gradually shifted to the units themselves. Whereas they were once manually built by construction workers on site, they’re now modular, meaning they are prefabricated elsewhere, shipped to the construction site and plugged into each other.

“Currently, Hong Kong public housing projects are nearly 80 to 90 percent [made] by off-site fabrication,” says Goman Ho, a fellow with design and engineering firm Arup, which contributed a display on modular integrated construction to the Hong Kong exhibition in Venice. He says it takes just one month to manufacture a modular flat, complete with bathroom and other built-in amenities, and it can be done in parallel to the construction of a building’s foundation. Such an approach is quicker, cheaper, safer, less wasteful and less polluting than traditional construction. And it’s particularly beneficial for extremely large scale projects like new housing estates, especially public ones in which any money saved means more funding for future housing.

But that efficiency comes with drawbacks. One of these is size: units generally need to be no more than 3.5 metres wide in order to be shipped by truck to the construction site. Another is a lack of flexibility. “Once the modules are completed, the design cannot be changed easily,” says Ho. According to Carlow, small spaces and restrictive layouts are the biggest drawbacks of residential construction in Hong Kong, both public and private. “Hong Kong is a bit rigid,” he says. “I wonder about models of housing that would allow families more flexibility to change and grow and adapt to different lifestyles like where you’re working at home.”

There is still a lot the Housing Authority has done to make life in public housing estates better, however. It launched a greening campaign a little over a decade ago, investing in green roofs, green walls and community gardens for estate residents. “In terms of experimentation, the Housing Authority has been pretty active,” says Carlow. “Prefab has been one thing to reduce costs, but they’re also thinking about larger problems such as the urban heat island effect, the ventilation of the city at an urban scale, community engagement. There have been a lot of relatively progressive policies that the Housing Authority has put into place compared with other places.”

It has even added a bit of whimsy to its estates, like a sitting-out area in Ngau Tau Kok Estate that resembles an old-fashioned bing sutt (a vintage Hong Kong-style café), or a ceiling mural in Kai Tak’s Ching Long Estate that depicts the street-level view of a plane landing at the old airport.

Ma Yansong has never directly credited Hong Kong’s housing estates for inspiration in his work on Baiziwan, but it’s hard not to see the influence. Like most Hong Kong estates, it’s well-connected to the city around it, and it features a mixture of flats, shops, community facilities and abundant greenery. There may also be something for Hong Kong to learn from Ma’s approach. He insisted on adding cultural venues, even though it wasn’t required by the government, and he varied the height and scale of each building to create a more eclectic atmosphere that isn’t too overpowering; the buildings in most Hong Kong estates tend to be uniformly tall.

It all adds up to an enticing new model for public housing, in China and beyond. “A little change will be seen as a huge challenge to the status quo,” said Ma.


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Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Jeffrey Cheng as an architect. In fact, although he studied architecture and has worked for major international architecture firms, he is not registered as an architect. We regret the error.

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