Renowned architect Chung Wah Nan once described pavilions as “useless”, in the sense that he could not make a buck off building one. But it is precisely because of this “uselessness” that pavilions can accommodate the most avant-garde of designs. In Morse Park, Wong Tia Sin, I encountered one such impressively odd pavilion – odd not in the architecture but in the quasi-sculpture at its centre. One cannot help but wonder how this came into existence.
Morse Park was built between 1966 and 1967 by the then Works Bureau. Local architectural talent was in short supply those days and people in charge of the Works Bureau were mostly British, so it stood to reason that the design was influenced by the modernist architecture and socialism trends contemporary to the UK of the era. Back then, “play sculpture” was all the rage in Europe and the US, as a number of artists focused on creating abstract “art” that had both aesthetic and creative play value. Architecture and art, at the time, weighed creativity heavily in terms of its social functions.
The Morse Park Pavilion stood on a small hill. The circular roof is supported by six slanted pillars, with a circular skylight in the middle, allowing the sunlight to shine through and upon the “sculpture” at the centre. This “sculpture” composes of four triangular concrete slabs, a design no one can seem to tell the significance. But because of how this is elaborately staged, I choose to consider it an art piece.
Whether this odd sculpture has any artistic value is open to individual interpretation. I personally found it curious because its abstract construction, as well as the modernist designs of the entire Morse Park, originated from a unique era.
In 19th to early 20th century Hong Kong, the colonial government erected numerous colonial statues and memorials in a show of power. After the return of the city to China in 1997, the Central and Hong Kong SAR Governments also put up numerous memorials rich in political connotations, with examples like “The Forever Blooming Bauhinia Sculpture” and “The Monument in Commemoration of the Return of Hong Kong to China”. During the in-between years (after WWII and before 1997) the reach and influence of the Great British empire dwindled and colonialism came under fire. Colonial architecture – rich in western symbolisms – fell out of favour in British colonies, replaced by rising modernism/internationalism a new architectural norm. As such, the second half of the 20th century saw the colonial Hong Kong government abandoning colonial architecture but instead building the second-generation Statue Square and Hong Kong City Hall, the fourth-generation General Post Office, as well as public facilities the likes of Morse Park in clean, modernist styles. Modernism, freed from nationalist influence, helped to close the distance between the public and the colonial government, and forged the impression of a practical, social-oriented regime.
With the rise of modernism also came modern art. The rebuilt Statue Square is dominated by a fountain, leisure spaces, a pavilion, a relief wall by Italian artist Antonio Casadei; while the statue of HSBC banker Sir Thomas Jackson is placed at one side. Morse Park, located in the midst of public housing estates and completed in just one year, was built on a budget and thus could not afford sculptures by the likes of Henry Moore. This odd sculptural piece, I like to believe, was born of a period of modernism, during a brief vacuum of monument-building by Chinese and British regimes; a gift bestowed upon the Hong Kong public by the park architect.