Modern Architecture in Wah Fu

What is modern architecture

Wah Fu Estate is designed with the typical features of modern architecture. Modern architecture emerged in the early 20th Century [1], opting for a more rational and less decorative way of design. In the period, innovative ways of constructions and use of materials were explored. Reinforced concrete, steel, glass, are common materials used in modern architecture, resulting in the signature architectural features such as “forms follow function”, and “less is more”.

Key figures in modern architecture include Le Coubusier, Mies van de Rohe, Walter Gropius, and others. Le Coubusier’s many built and visionary projects were influential in the architectural field in conveying how modern architecture’s design of space and ideals of community can pioneer our way into future living. Walter Gropius was an architect and an educator himself, his influence in the architectural education impacted tremendously how modern architecture spreaded across the world.

Modern architecture’s rational and efficient way of construction and using materials also made it easy to be adopted internationally. Because of the two world wars in the first half of the 20th Century, massive reconstructions with low costs and efficient construction methods were needed in the post-wars periods. Modern architecture made the urgently needed post-war reconstructions possible.

Why modern architecture in Wah Fu

Wah Fu Estate was built during the period that modern architecture was flourishing globally. Dr. Donald Liao – Chief Architect of the project – was first educated in Hong Kong, with professors deeply influenced by modern architecture. Liao later went on further study in the U.K. At that time, the U.K. council housing development adopted many of the inspirations and construction methods from modern architecture. Such exposure inspired Liao on his own work when he later designed Wah Fu Estate in Hong Kong.

The 1960s was also considered the post-war period in Hong Kong, where construction materials were limited and skilled workers were short of. Modern architecture’s efficient use of materials, cost, and labour, made it achievable to build a public housing project like Wah Fu Estate at the time.

After the Second World War, the British colonial government in Hong Kong also had a change in attitude in expressing their power in architectural languages. While government buildings constructed before this period had a stronger colonial architectural style, public / civic building projects thereafter seemed to emphasise less on this. Modern architecture’s style that focuses on material use and efficiency became a neutral way for the British colonial government at the time to conduct their building projects. Wah Fu Estate being one of the earliest public housing projects in Hong Kong, then naturally adapted this new approach.

Modern architecture signatures in Wah Fu

The residential blocks in Wah Fu Estate were designed with the modern architectural approach. Many of their features reference other modern architecture at the time. 


Old Slab

The “old slab” typology found in all blocks in Wah Fu (I) Estate, carries strong modern architectural style. As the name suggests, an old slab looks like a rectangular block standing upright. While the application of rectangular shapes in design for more rational use of structure and materials is common in modern architecture, the old slab typology shows how its design was influenced by such an approach. 

On each slab (floor), a structural grid is laid out to determine efficient application of structural members such as beams and columns, and equally-sized residential units (except end units) are lined-up according to the grid and structures. Such rational approach also allows for variations. Some blocks are single-loaded, that is, having an open corridor with units on one side, and some blocks are double-loaded as in having a central corridor with units on both sides. Nevertheless, the basic floor plan remains more or less the same.

The slab design also allows easy connection between blocks, for structural and circulation reasons. For example, two blocks can connect to form the “L” shape. Usually in these connected buildings, the elevators are placed at the junctions between blocks, sharing the use of common facilities. Stairs were built at both ends of the buildings for people’s circulation between different floors. (U-shapes)

Variations in the building plan of old slab blocks:


Link Without any connection 90o 130o

Wah Hong House

Wah Kin House

Wah Mei House

Wah Ming House

Wah Shun House

Wah Chun House

Wah Kei House

Wah Kwong House

Wah Yue House

Wah Lok House

Wah On House

Old slab typology was not first introduced at Wah Fu Estate, in fact, it can be found in some earlier public housing estates like Sai Wan Estate or Choi Hung Estate. Other versions of old slab buildings were also found in earlier public housing projects before the 1950s, which was influenced by the British terraced house.

The design of old slab does not differ much from Mark V resettlement blocks, except all units have separate toilets and kitchens on their own, as the government intended to improve the public housing’s hygiene and living qualities for its residents.

Twin Tower


All blocks in Wah Fu (II) Estate were built with the “twin tower” typology. Each tower is a square block (in plan view) with an internal lightwell in the middle. The residential units are on four sides, made accessible by a single-loaded corridor open to the lightwell.

The “twin tower” typology resembles the style of modern architecture because of the design’s rational and efficient approach in optimizing its structure and the residential flats it can provide.

The four-sided tower distributes the structures differently than the “old slab” typology, making it possible to construct more floors. When two four-sided towers connect at one of the corners to form the rectangular “8” shape, the structural stability of the two towers are further strengthened.[3]

There are two other aspects of efficiency the “twin tower” typology achieved. In terms of the use of materials, it is said that the “twin tower” typology required less rebars.[4] In maximising the amount of residential units it could provide, the “twin tower” typology’s building dimensions were set to be the furthest distance required for fire escape between the two diagonal corners.[5]

There are other merits imbedded in the design of the “twin tower” typology. Similarly to the “old slab” typology, the design allows for some variations. The corners of the towers are able to accommodate larger residential units (each of them is designed for 9 persons and they are the largest unit in the whole estate), catering for the different needs of the population at the time. On a typical floor, the units’ doors open to the lightwell and when the doors of the units at opposite sides open, ventilation is improved as a result. The open corridor also creates a sense of community and helps monitor against thefts. Also, the elevator lobby is situated at the junction connecting two blocks. The elevators can thus be shared between the residents from both blocks conveniently. 

In an interview, Liao also mentioned the lightwell in the middle of the tower was like the courtyard in the Chinese traditional “courtyard houses” (四合院).[6] Commonly understood that such courtyard was for the family to gather, Liao might have intended that the lightwell space on the ground floor of the “twin tower” blocks can serve as communal space for the residents living in the building. 

Such a design scheme to enclose a communal space is also seen in a modern architecture masterpiece – La Tourette by Le Courbusier. La Tourette’s plan might give some references to the “twin tower” typology’s design, in how the residential units form the edges to surround the communal space. Such spatial configuration gives the monks and religious workers in La Tourette a sense of community.

In the case of Wah Fu Estate, the community is larger, hence Liao needed to adapt a taller tower approach to accommodate for the population. Nevertheless, the idea of creating a sense of community remains. 

In Liao’s “twin tower” typology design, the ground level of the blocks are typically left empty to create good ventilation from the lower level to the top through the lightwell. The good ventilation on the ground level is also good for leisure activities. However, most pedestrians use it as a passageway now. 

Liao also mentioned how the “twin tower” typology worked very well with Wah Fu’s topography. The two towers touch the ground at different levels, reducing soil excavation from the existing site. They were also built with different heights (24 floors for lower blocks while 26 floors for upper blocks) to maximize the views. In the original plan of Wah Fu Estate, the “twin tower” design was also used to deal with the slope of Kellett Bay. For the buildings next to the slope at Wah Fu Road (Wah Cheong House, Wah Sang House and Wah Tai House) the ground floor of the upper block joins to the fourth floor of the lower block (the lower floors of the lower blocks are typically reserved for community organizers rather than residents). In this way, the residents can access from the lower block to the upper block through the elevators (at the junction between two blocks) and staircases more conveniently. The rectangular design can also minimize the site area without sacrificing the availability of units.

The “twin tower” typology design was first introduced at Wah Fu Estate. Its typical plan was later adopted (with variations) in about 20 public housing estates in the 1970s and 1980s (some have already been demolished). However, many of the newer estates were not built on slopes (e.g., Wo Che Estate). This advantage of applying the “twin tower” typology became rather irrelevant to these estates.

For architecture lovers, the “twin tower” typology’s lightwell, given the blocks’ height, creates a spectacular view from ground level. This view from the bottom of the “twin tower” blocks has been one of the most photographed and documented images of Hong Kong’s modern architecture.

Section showing the various building typologies in Wah Fu Estate

[1] Curtis, W.J.R. (1982). Modern Architecture since 1900. Oxford: Phaidon.

[2] RTHK (2014). Looking Back at Our Snug Homes [那年的安樂窩(公屋)]. [Video]. Available at:

[3] South China Morning Post (1976) “H for happy living in a new style housing block,” South China Morning Post, 19 July, p.1.

[4] RTHK (2014). Looking Back at Our Snug Homes [那年的安樂窩(公屋)]. [Video]. Available at:

[5] Wah Fu – Hong Kong’s first self-contained low-cost estate. (1970). Far East builder, 1970(3), pp.14-19.

[6] RTHK (2014). Looking Back at Our Snug Homes [那年的安樂窩(公屋)]. [Video]. Available at: