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Liberal Studies Teaching Kit for Senior Secondary Curriculum

Hong Kong Today

Culture in Vernacular
[Teacher notes]

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Teaching plan

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture


Lesson 1: Culture in Vernacular Architecture

1.1 Vernacular Architecture for People 02

1.2 Case Studies: Various Cultures in Vernacular Architecture of Hong Kong 05
1.2.1 Tong Lau or Tenement Houses 05
1.2.2 Stilt Houses 10
1.2.3 Walled Village 14
Exercise: Examine a nearby Vernacular Building 16

Summary, Key words and Further reading 18

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take part in the project. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these materials/events (or by members of the project team) do not
reflect the views of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
© 2012 Hong Kong Institute of Architects
Topic 01
Culture in Vernacular Architecture

Major teaching areas Interdisciplinary teaching areas

Liberal Studies: Module 2 Hong Kong Today Design and Applied Technology:
• Theme 1: Quality of Life • Strand 1 Design and Innovation
• Theme 3: Identity • Strand 2 Technological Principles

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture

• Strand 3 Value and Impact
Related teaching areas
Liberal Studies: Module 5 Public Health
• Theme 2: Science, Technology and Public Health

Learning objectives
• To distinguish the difference between vernacular and professionally designed architecture
• To understand the characteristics of different typologies of vernacular architecture in Hong Kong
• To understand the connection and interplay between architecture, lifestyle, social context and

Teaching plan
Lesson Contents
Lesson 1 • 1.1 Introductory photos of vernacular and professional architecture
• 1.1.1 Concept and definition of vernacular architecture
• 1.2 Case studies focusing on three types of vernacular architecture
and their connections to residents’ lifestyle, social context and
• 1.2.1 Tong Lau or Tenement House
• 1.2.2 Stilt House
• 1.2.3 Walled Village

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture
Culture in Vernacular Architecture
Lesson 1
Lesson 1
Culture in Vernacular Architecture
1.1 Vernacular Architecture for People
In The Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, Professor Paul Oliver defines vernacular architecture as:
‘...comprising the dwellings and all other buildings of the people. Related to their environmental contexts and
available resources they are customarily owner- or community-built, utilizing traditional technologies. All forms
of vernacular architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and ways of
life of the cultures that produce them.’

Are these buildings vernacular architecture? Why or why not?

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture



 1. Palazzi of Venice, Italy

 2. Schröder House, Utrecht, The Netherlands
 3. Tenement house, Hong Kong
 4. Houses in Cinque Terre, Italy

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture


Left to right, top to bottom:

 1. Tulou, Fujian, China
 2. IFC 2, Hong Kong
 3. Bamboo theatre, Hong Kong
 4. Houses in Suzhou, China

Teaching Tips
For further example on how culture
influences architecture, pleases refer
to Arts Topic 03 ‘ Chinese Calligraphy,
Painting and Architecture’; and
Topic 07 ‘ Aesthetics of Zen in Japanese
Garden’ .
By comparing the above examples, we can have a rough idea of what vernacular architecture
means. Usually, buildings designed by professional architects are not considered vernacular. Some
would simply define vernacular architecture as ‘architecture without architects’.

American Architect Frank Lloyd Wright defined vernacular architecture as ‘folk building growing in
response to actual needs, fitted into the environment by people who knew no better than to fit them
with native feeling’.

Characteristics of vernacular architecture are as below:

• Use of traditional or locally available construction skills

• Use of simple technology and commonly available materials
• ‘New structure with old techniques’ as experiment and
innovation are more costly than repetition
• Evolved slowly through numerous experimental trials and Teaching Tips
errors instead of specifically designed by a professional Vernacular architecture is an example
• Functionalistic and simple design which fulfils basic needs of of Hong Kong’s local culture. For further
the people information, please refer to Topic
• Born of people’s needs, culture, tradition and adapted to local 03: ‘Globalization and Localization of
Architecture and Urban Planning’.

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture


The stilt houses in Ma Wan are examples of

vernacular architecture. They were not designed
by architects, but instead were developed slowly
through time by the local people to adapt to the
environment and their living style, and were built
with the most handy materials.

1.2 Case Studies: Various Cultures in Vernacular Architecture of Hong Kong

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture

A series of Tong Lau at Shanghai Street

1.2.1 Tong Lau or Tenement Houses - architecture for a dense population

What is Tong Lau? Why were Tong Lau developed?

The history of tenement houses or Tong Lau (唐樓) When Hong Kong became a British colony in 1842, a large
dates back to the mid-19th century. The ground floor number of Chinese from China’s coastal cities moved to
of a tenement house is occupied by a shop while the this politically stable colonial city in search of better lives,
mezzanine and other storeys are for living. Multiple causing a serious shortage of housing. On the other hand,
tenants usually shared one flat due to the shortage the establishment of Victoria City (維多利亞城), the area
of living space at the time. Eventually this grew to be around Central today, required cheap labour which could
one of the most common building types in Hong Kong, be fulfilled by the influx of Chinese immigrants. Chinese
South China and Southeast Asia, with particular stylistic workers began to settle in Sheung Wan, the periphery of
flourishes in each place. Victoria City. Borrowing the architectural style from South
China, Tong Lau was the quick and convenient answer to
the housing problem.
Life in a shophouse
Most prewar (built before 1945) Tong Laus are 3 to 4-storey high
while later tenement houses after 1950 have 8 storeys at most.
Early Tong Laus were long and narrow, accessed by a long, dark
staircase without any natural lighting and ventilation. There was
also no provision of elevators and toilets which explained the
need for the collection of night soil (倒夜香) in the past.

What is the architectural style of Tong Lau?

Although Hong Kong Tong Laus resemble the other tenement
buildings in South China, they are unique in their details
which display a mix of Chinese and Western styles. Very often,
Tong Laus have balconies or verandahs which project over the
pedestrian pavement. Kee lau (騎樓) type tenement houses have
columns to support the projecting floors, forming a continuous
arcade on street level.

1. Hong Kong’s old corner house in 1960s.

2. Architectural details of Tong Laus at 10-12 Li Chit Street (built
in 1920s). The Tong Laus have been demolished and only one 1 © Raymond Wong
of the façade was conserved after renovation.
3. Architectural details of Tong Laus at 1168 Canton Road (built in

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture

4. The arcade formed by 117-125 Nam Cheong Street (built in

Common Materials in Tong Laus

Canton Brick Canton Tile Timber Planks Clay Roof Reinforced Concrete
How were Tong Laus built?
Early Tong Laus were supported by brick or stone load-bearing walls and beams.
1. Blue (grey) Canton bricks were chosen for the walls as they were cheaper than the stronger red bricks.
2. The ground floor was laid with Canton tiles.
3. The upper floor was made of Chinese timber floor planks supported by timber rafters.
4. The pitched roof was clad with unglazed clay tiles.
Tong Laus after 1935 were built in reinforced concrete.

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture

How do Tong Laus adapt to the climate of Hong Kong?
Despite the cramped living condition and poor design of the earliest Tong
Laus, they are built to respond to the climate.
1. High ceiling (approximately 4-5m high)
2. Large windows
3. Balconies
4. Verandahs

are features which help create a well-lit and well-ventilated interior as a

solution to the hot and humid climate of Hong Kong.
Teaching Tips Verandahs
For further information, pleases refer to In Hong Kong, verandahs are often
Design and Applied Technology elevated to upper floor due to lack
Topic 06: ‘Health and Safety Controls in of space. Movable roof is installed to
Residential Buildings in Hong Kong ’. adapt different weather conditions.

p Balconies and large windows of Lui p Mido Cafe p Nam Cheong Pawnshop
Seng Chung 07
Effects of building design on lives of people
To accommodate different families resulted from the influx Media Corner
of immigrant workers, each flat was divided into front
room, middle room, end room (Fig. 1) or even smaller Hong Kong Stories (Series 15) - Our History
cubicles. Episode 10 - A Roof Over Our Heads
Sometimes the roof and the attic above the kitchen 20-3-2011 Duration: 22 min.
would be rented out too. The front room was the only
room open to fresh air and natural light, and would Chinese version
http://pr o gr am m e.r thk.or g.hk/r thk/tv/p r o g r amme.
usually be occupied by the landlord, the only person who php?nam e=tv /hkstories15& d=2011-0 3 -
could afford the rent. 20& p=5013& e=134356& m =e pisode
Rooms were separated by partitions which were built
lower than the ceiling height to leave a gap for ventilation English version
http://pr o gr am m e.r thk.hk/r thk/tv /pr o g r amme.
since there was no window in the whole flat except at the
php?nam e=tv /hkstories_ourhistor y &d =2 0 1 2 -0 1 -
front of the building. As partitions were thin and without
25& p=5227& e=165561& m =e pisode
any soundproofing, privacy was a critical issue. Hygiene
condition was also poor as all tenants had to share the http://e v ideo.lib.hku.hk/play.php?v id=4 6 9 2 6 5 4
only bathroom and kitchen.


Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture




Ground Floor Plan First Floor Plan

1 4

6 6

Section Elevation
Fig. 1 Typical plans, section and elevation of Tong Lau at 10-12 Li Chit Street in 1920s.

Legend: 1. cookhouses 2. shop 3. smoke hole through the roof and floor 4. cockloft
or platform above tenement cabins 5. tenement cabins 6. street in front of building
Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture
Tong Lau at Wing Lee Street with ventilated staircases

What are the problems in early Tong Laus

In the early days of Tong Lau, there was no regulation on its
design. The buildings were tightly packed, built side to side and
back to back without any space for natural ventilation and light
could not penetrate into the interior and the building blocks
were long and narrow (Fig. 1).

How did the government regulate the Tong Laus design?

Prompted by the outbreak of bubonic plague in the over-
crowded tenement block quarters around Tai Ping Shan Street,
Sheung Wan in 1894, the government finally implemented the
first buildings’ control under the Public Healthy and Buildings
Ordinance in 1903 to regulate the design of Tong Laus in order to
ensure the quality of construction and living space.
1. Improvement of Tong Laus
A back lane and open space had to be provided, which means
that more space had to left between buildings. Building height
was restricted to the width of the street it was facing to ensure
enough daylight penetrate, and building depth was limited to
12m to improve natural lighting condition of the interior.
2. Official Buildings’ regulation on Tong Laus
The statutory regulation over Tong Lau design was further
strengthened with the Buildings Ordinance 1935. Allowable
building depth was further reduced to 11m. Adequate light and
ventilation was to be provided at every storey on every staircase, Fig. 2 Typical floor plan of a Tong Lau designed in
hence caused the emergence of a new type of Tong Lau with a compliance to Buildings Ordinance 1935.
naturally lit and ventilated common staircase (Fig. 2).
© Ferdinand Cheng / H. Y. Lee
Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture
1.2.2 Stilt Houses - architecture for a traditional lifestyle
What is stilt house? p Stilt houses in Tai O. Note the pitched roofs, the multi-
Stilt houses, a type of housing elevated above the water use wooden decks and access to boats by ladders
on stilts, can be found in fishing villages of Tai O and Ma
Wan. They were built by the Tanka, a group of people who
have lived in South China provinces including Guangdong
and Fujian for centuries, and they were also one of the
earliest habitants in Hong Kong. This building typology
has gone through a long evolution to suit the habits and
lifestyle of its creator.

Why did the Tanka people build stilt houses?

The Tanka people live on boats and rely mainly on fishing
and salt production for a living. There is no standard
definition of what ethnicity the Tanka is. It is however
believed that they were a mix of Han and other southern
races who fled to the sea due to war or exile. The stilt
house typology in Tai O was gradually developed around
200 years ago when the Tai O Tanka people moved into
houses as family sizes grew too big to be accommodated
p Lives of people in the 1960s, before the fire in 2000
by the traditional boathouses.
whole structure would shift away during serious floods.
How were stilt houses built? In the 50s, Tai O locals began to take wood from disused
The earliest stilt houses were constructed in a barrel- fishing boats for the construction of stilt houses. This
shape resembling a boat with wooden planks, stone stilts reddish brown ironwood (坤甸木) from South China is
and palm leaves, while later houses were made of metal strong and resistant to water erosion, and therefore
sheeting, wooden planks and stilts. The barrel form was widely used in boat making. Villagers found it to be the
taken over by the pitched roof and houses expanded from perfect material for the local environment.
one-storey to two-storey high.
After a devastating fire in 2000, Tai O saw the birth of a
new type of stilt house. New materials including plaster
Local residents found the earliest structures were not
strong enough. The stone pillars collapse easily and the
and aluminium sheets were used. 10
1 2

How do stilt houses evolve? 1&2: An early vaulted stilt house on concrete
supports and a close up view of a vaulted
1. Spatial arrangement roof. Note how the roof is repaired with handy
Houses belonging to different households often cluster along materials.
a common wooden walkway which stretches from land to
sea. Facilities such the kitchens and the shared bathrooms
are placed along this axis. The house at the end of the
walkway and right above the water is built with a wooden
deck. Fishing boats are tied right underneath and are easily

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture

accessible by a ladder which stretches from the deck to the

2. Constructural improvement
An early vaulted stilt house is divided into two rooms while
a newer house has 3 compartments on the ground floor and
bedrooms on the upper floor. Cross bracing was also used to
improve structural stability of the stilt supports.

3. Reconstruction of the vernacular village

p An open kitchen next to a common corridor. Behind
After the fire in 2000, affected residents were allowed
this kitchen shed are a bathroom, a shed for storage
to rebuild their houses. Despite the need to apply for
and other stilt houses.
reconstruction licence and to comply to fire safety
requirements, the reconstruction process was organic and
flexible as typical in vernacular architecture. The residents
communicated closely with the builders, and the resulting
new houses were all customised to the owners’ needs.

p A new generation stilt house with cross-braced wooden p Wooden stilts with concrete footings 11
stilt supports and aluminium boards
Evolution of stilt house: 4 generations

Architecture is always changing in response to the

needs of people. Such intense integration with
people’s lives is particularly evidenced in vernacular
buildings such as stilt houses. Vernacular architecture Bamboo
may appear unprofessional and not the most strips
aesthetically pleasant, but it evolves through time to
fit into people’s life and is therefore a good solution Compartment
for its users.

First generation
• Bamboo arch roof
• Wooded structural framework
• Circular stone plinth Stone
Section plinth
• Single storey rectangular compartment
First generation of stilt house
Second generation
• Wooden truss roof
• Wooden structural framework Wood truss
• Slender stone plinth
• Single storey rectangular compartment

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture

Third generation
• Wooden frame roof
• Wooden structural framework
• Wood pillar as base support
• Multi-storey compartment with semi-open deck Stone
Section plinth
Fourth generation Second generation of stilt house
• Wooden frame roof
• Wooden structural framework Roof
• Further division of space framing
• Balcony over front deck
• Wood pillar protected with concrete plinth

Front deck
Wood pillar

Third generation of stilt house

Front deck

for kitchen
Section sanitation
Wood pillar
with concrete
Fourth generation of stilt house plinth 12
p Multi-purpose outdoor space is important for the

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture

fishermen families. The deck is where the family
gathers, prepare for work and for meals, as well as
to relax.

How do stilt houses adapt to lifestyle and needs?

1. Terrace
The terrace side facing the water is regarded as the front/
head (棚頭) of the stilt house. As there was insufficient
electricity supply in the past, a lot of activities such
as drying of salted fish, net knitting and cooking were
conducted under the sun and such outdoor space was
p Mr Wong’s house rebuilt with red roof and in important. As the fishing industry diminished, families
resemblance to houses in Jiangnan (江南) — an and young people would still enjoy barbecue on the deck
example of vernacular architecture adapted to while older people dry salted fish, salted egg yolks and
individual taste and combination of traditional shrimps in the sun.
building technology.
2. Personal taste of architectural design
When residents rebuilt the houses that were lost in the
fire of 2000, they worked closely with the builders to
make sure the new houses suit their individual needs.
For example, Mr. Wong wanted to explore new methods
of construction, and so he used red roof tiles instead
of the traditional metal sheeting. Mr. Fan, who owned a
salted fish shop, was allowed to build a larger platform
for producing salted fish. Another Mr. Wong, who was a
painter, decided to incorporate a double-volume space
with a skylight to be his studio.
These examples show how dynamic architecture can
be. Such interaction, flexibility, adaptation according
to needs, environmental condition and resources are
all essential elements in vernacular architecture which
p A new house with aluminium sheeting, aluminium modern, professionally designed architecture often
windows and a large deck lacks. 13

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture

1.2.3 Walled Village - architecture for defence p The watch tower at the corner
of Shan Ha Wai (also known as
What is walled village? Tsang Tai Uk) (山下圍,又稱曾大
Early residents of the New Territories were mainly 屋), Shatin. It is believed that the
farmers from South China. In an agricultural society, fork-shaped feature on the ‘pot-
people lived with their own clan (氏) in a cluster of ear-shaped’ walls (鑊耳形山牆) is a
farm houses in South China architectural style. symbolic device to drive evil spirits
The main entrance, assembly hall and the ancestral and bad luck away.
hall aligns to a central axis. As the clan expanded,
side houses were built around the older houses but
the symmetrical layout was retained. Between the
houses were courtyards and lanes for circulation and
which also allowed natural ventilation in the hot wet
climate of Hong Kong. Some walled villages even have
watch towers at the corners and moats around the
2 3

Why were walled villages developed?

The history of Hong Kong’s walled village dates back to
Ming and Qing dynasties. There are 2 types of walled
villages - the Punti (本地) and the Hakka (客家). In
Ming and Qing dynasties, Punti villagers began to
build walls around their houses to protect themselves p Wooden shutter for security
from pirates’ attack. In late Qing, Hakka people began
to settle in the New Territories. Due to their different
culture, language and customs, they also built walls to
protect the village against rival clans.

How were walled villages built? Teaching Tips

Houses in a walled village were constructed with Field trip to the walled village, Sam Tung
traditional materials such as stone, bricks, timber and Uk, under Topic 04: ‘Visit: Sam Tung Uk —
Chinese tiles. Strong metal gates and wooden shutters Chinese Walled Village in Hong Kong’.
were installed at the main entrances.

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture
Fig. 8 Master layout plan of the walled village Tsang Tai Uk

3 2

B 5 B

Ground Floor Plan Section AA

2 3

B 3 4 B
3 4

First Floor Plan Section BB

Fig. 8 Plans and sections of a house in the walled village Tsang Tai Uk (plans and sections)

Legend: 1. Dinning room 2. Living room 3. Bedrooms 4. Kitchen 5. Skylight

Identifying and examining a vernacular building nearby

1. Identify a vernacular building nearby

Students should identify a vernacular building near the school or in their neighbourhood.

Type of the vernacular architecture:

To be completed by students

Photograph of chosen building here Year of construction:


Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture

Current use:

2. What do you notice in the surrounding environment?

What is the population density in the area?

What are the historical and current development in the area?
Are there any physical constraints?

To be completed by students

3. Suggest one solution of the vernacular building in response to the people’s life and the
Photo of the feature

Photograph of chosen building here

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture

To be completed by students

Physical What is the physical feature?


What problem is the physical feature responding?

4. Report your findings to the class and conclude by answering these questions:
What lifestyle does this vernacular building represent?
- How could it improve the quality of living?
- Can you see signs of the building’s evolution over time?

• Vernacular buildings are designed by everyday people who use and live in them. The building methods
and designs have gone through a long process of evolution in response to culture, climate and

• The Tong Lau / tenement house is a building type popular in South China from late 19th century to
1960s. The ground floor of a Tong Lau is occupied by a shop while the other stories are residential

• A stilt house is a building type created by the Tanka people who rely mainly on fishing for their
livelihood. The house is made of wood with metal sheeting, and is supported above the water by
wooden stilts.

• Walled villages are found throughout Southern China. They are formed of a group of houses
enclosed by a protective wall, and were usually built by Hakka or Punti farmers.

Key words
Vernacular architecture
Tenement house

Liberal Studies | Culture in Vernacular Architecture

Stilt house
Walled Village

Further reading
1. 《 大澳- 尋回昔日的香江 》 網站
2. 張兆和、廖迪生《香港地區史研究之二:大澳》,香港:三聯書店(香港)有限公司 2006。
3. 陳翠兒、蔡宏興 《 空間之旅 - 香港建築百年 》,三聯書店 2005。
4. Yeung, Gary. “Practicing the Built Tradition in Tai O Hong Kong: the meaning of revitalizing vernacular
neighborhoods in post-traditional environment”. HKIA Journal issue(2007) 48.

Organizer Sponsor Research Team