Walter Koditek: Exploring Hong Kong’s Modern Heritage

There’s something to be said for the power of wandering. It was a source of creative inspiration for Virginia Woolf, who called it “street haunting.” For Sampson Wong, it’s an opportunity to think about all the ways in which Hong Kong can become a better place. And for Walter Koditek, it revealed an abundance of heritage that has long been overlooked

The German-born urban planner is the author of Hong Kong Modern Architecture of the 1950s-1970s, a 448-page book that combines Koditek’s images of postwar buildings with analysis by architectural historians and conservationists. Published last year, his book has already prompted three exhibitions, the latest of which is running at Blue Lotus Gallery until February 12. 

None of that was Koditek’s intention when he started roaming the streets. “To be honest, not much was going through my head,” he says. Though he previously worked as an urban planning consultant in Cambodia and Vietnam, his move to Hong Kong in 2014 was to accompany his wife, who teaches at the German Swiss International School. “I really started discovering Hong Kong, spending a lot of time walking around the city. A lot of time – like, ticking off the MTR stations I hadn’t seen, getting out and just randomly walking around. After a while, my eye got more trained to see the subtleties and varieties and differences between the different architecture.”

He snapped photos along the way, gradually developing a distinctive head-on perspective, cropped into tight squares, that focuses the eye on the quirks and variations of modern buildings around Hong Kong. “Just before Covid, I already had more than 500 buildings collected, spread around Hong Kong,” he says. “I thought I had to do something more systematic with that collection. I started reading, doing private research, but there’s not much publicised in terms of books or photo books about this architecture here.”

That led him to the local branch of Docomomo, an international organisation that advocates for research into and conservation of modern heritage, and two scholars at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Architecture, Cecilia Chu and Eunice Seng. “I found so much interesting information about the background and context of these buildings,” says Koditek. “I thought, why not do something like a hybrid between an architecture guide and a coffee table book, with essays from these experts.”

The result is a broad and comprehensive survey of the architecture that dominates and defines Hong Kong’s urban landscape. As the city boomed in the years after World War II, the city that existed before — a city of ornate stone façades, pitched tile roofs and deep verandahs to provide shelter from harsh summer weather — was almost entirely replaced with a new metropolis of streamlined concrete structures. As the city grew ever more crowded, the buildings reached ever higher for the sky.

“Hong Kong architects had little room for manoeuvre with their designs – they had limited budgets and time, so they came up with very specific architecture for their brief,” he says. “Of course we have mixed buildings all over Asia, buildings with mixed functions. But in Hong Kong, it takes another level. Churches, schools, tong lau, all of them have these layered functions. This vertical hybridity and mix is very special.”

Now the constant churn of Hong Kong development is taking its toll on that modern fabric, just as it did to the prewar city before it. “Just in the five years I’ve taken my photos, I’ve seen so many important buildings demolished,” says Koditek, including James Kinoshita’s AIA Tower in Wan Chai and the Garden Bakery in Sham Shui Po. Although a few modern landmarks have been declared monuments, including City Hall, or preserved by private interests, such as the State Theatre, many others are vulnerable – to say nothing of the vast landscape of tong lau tenements is gradually being replaced by new high-rises. 

“With this book I’m not saying all these modernist buildings and typologies should be preserved,” says Koditek. “But I wanted to highlight that there is a very unique and pragmatic modernist architecture in Hong Kong. It needs to be documented because it’s changing so fast.”

He hopes his work can be part of the conversation that is unfolding over the value of Hong Kong’s modern heritage. “One of the most positive things of these exhibitions, especially the one now in Blue Lotus Gallery, is that every second visitor who comes in has a story about one of the buildings. That’s amazing. ‘My father worked in that building, my father-in-law was actually the architect of the [General Post Office].’ Really interesting stories. There are a lot of memories and connections to these buildings.”

With that in mind, we selected five photos from Koditek’s book and asked him to share their significance. Here’s what he had to say.

Ming Wah Dai Ha – “The estate is a nice example of the ingenuity of the private architects, in this case Szeto Wai, that were assigned by the Hong Kong Housing Society. I especially like the layout of the blocks perpendicular to the steep slope, and their particular access system with the flats connected to the central corridor by ‘bridges.’ The image shows the deep balconies of the larger flats oriented towards the south, and the tenants’ multiple uses and added plant decorations on the projecting ledges.”

Hing Wah House – “I shot this corner tong lau in Cheung Sha Wan in 2018. It still has the informal layer of a ‘rooftop village’ and you can see that in the shot. The building will soon follow the fate of most of the postwar tong lau in the neighbourhood.

State Theatre – “I included the ‘last one standing’ for its cultural and historical significance, and because of the now ongoing preservation by New World Development. The image is from 2017 and shows the corner façade with the weathered relief before renovation. 

Tang Lung Chau Market – “I do like the perforated screen walls and breeze blocks that were used by architects to adapt their buildings to the tropical climate of Hong Kong, often as an integral part of the overall design. Here it is an especially large one covering two floors on the northeast elevation of the still highly functional wet market, and the picture also shows the layering of functions, with the horizontal window band of the dormitories above.”

The Murray – “One of my favourite buildings, for various reasons! I like the clever passive design of the facades with their angled windows, and the abstract quality of the pattern in the upper floors. I think the building is also important as it shows the economic viability of adaptive reuse of modernist architecture, even in Hong Kong, and the possible sensitive approach of redesigning.

“[This photo] shows the iconic arches that used to hold the car park for the higher-up civil servants working in the building. The son of KM Tseng, the architect of the [General Post Office], who became Chief Architect of the Architectural Services Department for several year,  told me that he often had his lunch after school in the conference room on the 13th floor. When he invited his father to have dinner in the newly converted hotel, they found that they were actually sitting near where the father used to park his car.”

Hong Kong Modern Architecture of the 1950s-1970s is on show at Blue Lotus Gallery until February 12, 2023. Click here for more information.


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