August 2014

Tracing Our Architectural Heritage

Facade of proposed new additional part of Peninsula Hotel, pencil on tracing paper, circa 1961

In a relatively short span of just over one and a half centuries, many areas of Hong Kong have been completely rebuilt and the city’s architectural profile, urban landscape and topography has shifted with dramatic results. Evidence of such change is captured in films, photographs and importantly, architectural drawings, which provide accurate representations of popular movements and long gone everyday buildings. The drawings held in HKHP’s Archive help to tell the story of Hong Kong’s architectural history.
HKHP’s extensive architectural drawings collection was gradually built up over a number of years following donations from Kadoorie Estates and Sir Elly Kadoorie & Sons. The collection mainly relates to Kadoorie business interests and the work undertaken by engineering firm The Hongkong Engineering Construction Co., Ltd., (HKECC) which partnered with local and international architects to build and design The Peninsula Hotel, Peninsula Court, St George’s Building and the first generation Peak Tower, amongst other high profile developments. Evidence of these projects is retained in the HKHP Archive’s tracing paper based collection.
Conventionally, architectural drawings were made using ink on paper and any copies had to be laboriously made by hand. The twentieth century saw a shift to tracing paper which gained popularity as a less destructive method of copying (rather than using a stylus or pricking to replicate an image), and as a cheap and plentiful method to capture working drawings. The use of cut and printed sheets began in the early 1950s when architectural firms often incorporated standard information of their firm on adhesive labels. Architects frequently used tracing paper due to its smooth surface, alteration properties, and copying capabilities allowing working drawings to be updated quickly and cost effectively.
Today, almost all architectural drawings are generated by computer, making hand drawings almost obsolete and their earlier tracing paper counterparts an important snapshot of a short-lived time in architectural history. Shirley Surya, Assistant Curator (Design and Architecture) at M+ museum of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, has been collecting technical drawings, blue prints, models and other archival materials such as photographs and documentation from key architecture firms in Hong Kong as part of the museum’s permanent collection. ‘The Buildings Department has kept the original technical drawings from every building project in Hong Kong, while the blue prints are retained by the architecture firms - they are both documenting Hong Kong’s architectural history. What is scarce are the process drawings not intended for retention for legal purposes by the architecture firms. By this I mean materials such as study drawings, sketches, presentation boards, material samples, or presentation models, which demonstrate the creative process outside of official documentation and interaction between clients and the architects.’ HKHP’s collection of technical drawings, elevations, site plans and floor plans depict isometric views that were popular until the 1970s. Importantly, the collection also includes non-technical drawings such as rough sketches and watercolours, for example of the Peninsula barber shop and beauty salon in the late 1950s, and photo overlay designs for St George’s Building by London based, Austrian architect Walter Marmorek.
Despite its many benefits, tracing paper has a short life-span due to its manufacturing process. Past use of pressure sensitive tape (invented in the 1920s) for temporary repair and re-enforcement further compounds this damage, as the tape deteriorates with age and oxidises as it passes through certain stages. Earlier tracing papers tend to become brittle, especially along the edges thus making them vulnerable to tearing and eventual loss. It is therefore important to store drawings flat and separate them using acid-free paper boards and archival grade tissue paper, so as to increase accessibility and protect individual items. Paul Harrison, renowned local conservator, is an expert on the properties and correct handling of historical drawings. He has visited the HKHP Archive many times and is familiar with our tracing paper collection. He suggests using an alkaline backing paper which will neutralise acidity and allow for greater visibility of the item in question. There are also various treatment methods to remove dirt, adhesives, or other unwanted materials from tracing paper, which include dry methods making use of eraser-like substances, wet methods using small amounts of solvents applied topically, and very wet solutions which entails submerging an entire piece in a solution.
With the combined efforts of conservations and archivists, HKHP’s tracing paper collection will be preserved for the next few generations at least.