Architecture of Brownfields

Playful landscapes of New Materialism in Hung Lung Hang

Jason Lau Kin Keung
MArch thesis 2018

This thesis interrogates the ambiguous phenomenon of brownfield in Hong Kong by investigating its background, corrupted ecologies and multiple material orders (smell, sound, sight, touch, tectonic) in order to speculate on a heterogeneous architecture of brownfield – one that provokes a critical environmental consciousness through playful, disjunctive experiences, alternative public interfaces and inventive architectonics.

New Materialism, Dark Ecology and Subnature

Emerging anti-Anthropocene trends of New Materialism reposition our complex contemporary relationships with the planetary environment, going beyond treating nature as romantic imagery for preservation, finite resources for positivistic exploitation and management, or cyclical hazards to be overcome by technological mastering. 21st century bio-politics is demanding new accounts of nature, agency in matter, and environmental consciousness that question the ways we produce, reproduce, and consume our material environment, rethinking our embodied involvement in a material world.

Neyran Turan imagines a renewed dialogue between environment (as systemic performance) and aesthetics (as legible objects) to open up alternative trajectories of architectural imagination in a geographic scale, while Tim Morton coins “Dark ecology” to force us to confront the weird realities of “Subnature” we have created – all the undesirable by-products of urbanization, industrialization, war, etc. For Morton, our future environmental infrastructure should reveal the hazardous ecology of waste and pollution we generate, bringing “hesitation, uncertainty, irony, and thoughtfulness back into ecological thinking”.

Empirical brownfield study – Hung Lung Hang

This thesis empirically examines brownfields in Hong Kong as sites of accumulation and production of pollution and waste (as “matter out of place”), acknowledging their necessary existence as the unwanted backyard of modern urbanization. New infrastructural layers are proposed to reconfigure existing material realities so as to enable unconventional programmes that attempt to transform the negative public perception of brownfields.

Unlike in the western world, the word “brownfield” in Hong Kong generalizes all operating car repairing yards, container yards, recycling yards or other industries (parking, storage, etc.) located

on former agricultural land. Market-driven and without proper planning, brownfield development in the New Territories began with the rise of light industries and fall of local agriculture in the 1970s. By the 1980s Brownfields boomed with the rapid container port-related logistics growth and the lack of port back-up land planning, as well as the polluting yet profitable e-waste recycling. The release of NDA plans after 2000s added incentive for landowners to turn nearby farmlands into brownfields to anticipate better bargaining on compensation. This has led to brownfield expansion from agricultural land to green belt or even site of special scientific interest (SSSI). Landowners now employ “destroy first, develop after” strategies to go across government’s environmental consideration for new development approval.

Hung Lung Hang in northern New Territories, a remote, undeveloped valley between Fanling North and the Shenzhen border is where brownfield clusters currently proliferate, infiltrating natural landscape and farmland. The ambiguous terrain, with a river running through it, contains areas for wargame, model plane fields, model car racing tracks, a little mountain for SUV, undulating tracks for motorbikes, undulating bike track, strawberry fields in leisure farms. In 2018, the opening of the Liantong crossing nearby will facilitate cross-border transportation in addition to Man Kam To road. Together with planned new housing developments, this makes Hung Lung Hang a convenient site for illegal dumping or fly-tipping, and hence susceptible to further brownfield proliferation.

Re-ordering Hybrid Landscapes

Empirical study of the various material orders of Hung Lung Hang include recording sensory experience (visual, audio, tactile), analyzing their formation and operation, and drawing from the makeshift constructional tectonics (ground, foundations, wall, canopy, signage, vegetation). The heterogenous, aggregate nature of brownfield materialities recalls the example of plastiglomerate (rock congealed from earth plus plastic) that has certainly become part of our slightly unfamiliar, contaminated ‘natural’ environment.

The project attempts to extract inspiration from the composite material and aesthetic orders of brownfields (in a manner akin to the plastic-rock hybrid). Four layers of infrastructure are proposed to transpose as-found brownfield experiences – Bypass, Illusion, Search and Confront – into differentiated horizons of flow, mobility and meaning. Reconfigured architectonic orders in the form of routes, enclosures and self-organized assemblages make tangible and intensify the interplay between existing brownfield operations and ongoing recreational activities. Further proposed programmes attempt to open up and transform public consciousness of these sites by creating a surprising variety of publicly accessible sequences and playful yet strangely familiar architectonics to co-exist with the continued presence of brownfields.

The project’s design interventions demonstrate the contribution of architectural imagination to develop a critical but playful ‘architecture of brownfield’ that creatively interprets local conditions to embody contemporary concerns of New Materialism.

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