The redevelopment of Wah Fu Estate is already in the planning, its execution is just a matter of time. Looking back to the glorious days of Wah Fu Estate, what do we learn from this masterpiece, architecturally, socially, and environmentally? Are there elements we can conserve and sustain? Or are there areas in the process we can reflect on?

Different eras of planning

When recalling how Wah Fu Estate was planned and designed, Dr. Donald Liao, the Chief Architect of the project, repeatedly mentioned how he appreciated the natural environment and wanted to design a public housing estate that the natural and the built environments blend in well as a holistic space.

It was true that Liao was given more or less the “entire” site to develop Wah Fu Estate (that even the existing villages, farms, and cemeteries were relocated and / or removed), that it was much easier to plan. One of the criticisms about the current Wah Fu Estate redevelopment proposal is that it is very fragmented. There are parcels of spaces connected through the road and other circulations, but they don’t seem to have a strong spatial relationship to convey a sense of community. Rather, since the planning of the current Wah Fu Estate location is unknown, this missing component makes it hard to have a holistic planning, making the relocation parcels look like they are taking up the residual spaces from an unknown adjacent design.

It is understandable that the current planning process is a lot more complex than decades ago. Nevertheless, as a reflection, if the whole of current Wah Fu Estate and its immediate developable areas can be reviewed and planned together as a comprehensive development plan, it will increase the possibility of creating a community sensible to all users and the environment.

Flexible use of open spaces 

What can be praised about the open spaces in the old public housing estates are that they often offer great flexibility in using them, at least in their early days. The planning and design of public housing estates in the early days often emphasized on the provision of housing units as homes. While open spaces were there in the physical design to accommodate setback and sunlight exposures between building blocks, what they were meant to use for were often rather ambiguous. It was until later when the task for providing shelter was met, the public housing management authorities were more conscious to plan and designate functions to open spaces in the estates. This is why many open spaces in the early public housing estates are often quite multi-use. There may be one designated function for the open space, but spatially it is flexible to accommodate other uses that locals improvise and use the same space for other functions as they see fit. These ad-hoc functions may also change from day and night, and have seasonal fluctuations.

As the development of public housing estates became more advanced in recent decades, the provision of open space and the kind of programs needed also became more well-planned and sophisticated. Based on the estimated population, the number of playgrounds, sportfields, and sizes of green spaces, are all calculated and listed. On one hand, this contemporary approach safeguards that open space is provided per capita, yet, on the other hand, the way open spaces are provided are rather strict and “single-functioned”. Also, users can only stick with the types of open spaces planned for them in the design of the estate, but have limited flexibility to improvise the ways they would like to engage in the open space. From a contemporary public housing management point of view, it is also easier to have one function for one designated area, and label / name the space for such use only, rather than multi-purposes. This somehow also discourages residents’ creative use of their open space.

The flexible use of Wah Fu Estate’s open space is one of the qualities that make the Estate such a strong community. To reflect on this, it could be an attempt to see how a less rigid open space provision in the Wah Fu Estate redevelopment plan can build upon community participation and engagement in creating open spaces unique to the lifestyle of Wah Fu Estate residents.

Site Design – how circulation becomes open space

Hong Kong has limited flat area for development within the territory. This is why many public housing projects choose sites that are on the hill. From the early public housing estates to the contemporary ones, how the design can work with the topography is always a challenge.

In Wah Fu Estate, the site formation work that established the flat areas for building blocks also created platforms / terraces for open spaces. In the 1970s when escalators and lifts were expensive equipment, stairs and ramps became the only options to connect the different levels of the hillside development of Wah Fu Estate. Interestingly, the slower pace of going up and down, and the stairs’ and ramps’ proximity to the open space, allowed these circulation routes to become part of the extended open space for socialising and interaction.

In the contemporary public housing estate’s design, the use of escalators, lifts, and bridges, is a lot more. People are being brought from point A to point B directly without the need to cut through other spaces, the opportunity for residents to socialise and interact “on the way” is less. Open spaces are a lot more “compartmentalised” due to their single-function nature, they are more contained as a space, rather than flowing and connecting to other spaces adjacent to them, reducing the interaction between those who are using the open space and those who are passing by.

It is a real dilemma that with the aged population, stairs and ramps are no longer the first choice of circulation means. However, perhaps they can still be provided as the secondary means of circulation within the estate and considered as part of the open space, as they provide space for socialising and interaction which are essential for enhancing the bondings among residents.

Heritage conservation

Wah Fu Estates’ architecture is arguably one of the most classic modern architecture pieces in Hong Kong. The redevelopment of the area means these modern architecture pieces will be demolished. While many Wah Fu residents would opt for such demolition and prefer to move in to new buildings since the structures and other conditions of the current Wah Fu Estate residential blocks are beyond repair, it does pose a reflection on how heritage conservation has been managed through the years in Hong Kong. The emphasis on conserving monumental buildings rather than the everyday buildings has left many modern architecture pieces in derelict state or lack of maintenance. When it comes to the time for consideration of conservation for everyday buildings, it is much harder to meet the heritage conservation standards.

While conserving all modern architecture building blocks in Wah Fu Estate is impractical, there is precedent in Hong Kong for conserving one of the building blocks when an old public housing estate went through redevelopment. For instance, Mei Ho House is an example of a residential building block (Mark I) being conserved and converted to a youth hostel during the redevelopment of Shek Kip Mei Estate.

It will be a hard decision to select which building block(s) to be conserved, knowing the crumpling conditions of the current buildings as well as the unknown of how such heritage building(s) can fit in to the future plan’s spatial configuration and program usage.

What can be added as a reflection is, sometimes heritage conservation focuses too much on the building block itself and when its surroundings are all transformed, it is hard to find its relevance to the new context. If the future plan could protect some of the modern architecture buildings as heritage conservation, it will be recommended that some of the surrounding contexts relevant to the buildings should also be conserved. Also, how such existing context can integrate to the new plan of Wah Fu Estate redevelopment should also be considered thoroughly, to avoid the protected heritage becoming an isolated object without interconnecting / blending in to the future use of the site.

The natural environment of Wah Fu Estate has also transformed so much through the years, that many locations that might have considered as natural heritage before are now part of history. For example, the relationship between Wah Fu Estate and Kellet Bay could be a strong landscape feature. Due to the establishment of Wah Kwai Estate, Kellet Bay was reclaimed and such a relationship was gone. On the other hand, Waterfall Bay, though has gone through many transformations due to the nearby developments through the years, is still there. People also leave statues of deities there, creating a local cultural landscape. If Waterfall Bay is known to relate to and is important to Hong Kong’s history, its conservation should be considered in the redevelopment plan of Wah Fu Estate, in order to find ways to sustain this piece of historic landscape in Hong Kong.

It is also essential to address the existing vegetation as part of the natural heritage. Many of the trees in Wah Fu Estate were planted in the 1970s or 1980s. Although they are only a few decades old, their species selections and planting techniques reflect the culture and practice at the time. So tree conservation in the Wah Fu Estate Redevelopment should not be ignored.

The end of flexible layouts of modern architecture?

One of the merits of Hong Kong’s early public housing estates is that the residential flat layout is often an open plan for the tenants’ flexible use. It also suited the condition at the time as many families had large numbers of members, an open plan could accommodate change of internal configurations for different allocations of space within the flat.

In contemporary design, there are guidelines and regulations governing the dimensions of things. Public housing in Hong Kong also follows these rules, adopting recommended sizes and dimensions when designing the flats, ensuring each household member is given sufficient living space. For example, there is a guideline suggesting what is the minimum size of a single-bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, etc. The way the design is done is more based on the function and its necessary dimensions, resulting in compartmentalising spaces to single-use. Residential flat in contemporary public housing is more like a “composite of space” grouped together to form a unit, rather than designed as a unit.

If the open plan layout has no practical disadvantages, but just that it is hard to calculate how much area is designated for what function, and the estimated living space provided for each capita, perhaps this can be an aspect that future public housing development can explore further to meet mid-way between the two trajectories of design.