Crossing Borders In Macau: The Experience of Manuel Vicente

Jorge Figueira

In 1983, an issue of L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui presented “Huit Architectures Différentes”. The Fai Chi Kei, a project in Macau by Manuel Vicente (1934-2013), was published alongside works by Böhm, Renaudie, Niemeyer, Venturi, Shinohara, Sawade and Foster. Describing the ensemble of the two social housing blocks, the magazine refers to street “animation” which was not foreseen in the project, concluding that: “in contrast to preconceived ideas, a rigorous, even severe architectural writing is not necessarily monumental and sterile” (M.E., 1983, 37). This dichotomy between the “severity” of the architecture and the often suffocating appropriation of the created spaces is recurrent in Manuel Vicente’s body of work in Macau. The Fai Chi Kei, designed and built between 1979 and 1983, was the recipient of the 1994 Arcasia award and was demolished in 2010. It was the high point of Manuel Vicente’s social housing works, a synthesis of a complex itinerary and a mediation project between old Macau and the urban growth that took place in the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1961, the gaming concession to Stanley Ho’s Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau (STDM) sparked exponential urban expansion and in so doing attracted a growing number of migrants from mainland China. “Lisboa”, the STDM’s flagship casino, was built on the land reclamation area named ZAPE (Landfill Zone of the Outer Harbor), which was later followed by NAPE (New Landfills of the Outer Harbor). However, the expansion of the territory through land reclamations also served a social policy. The slums in the southern area of the peninsula generated social housing and rehousing projects, such as the two case studies in this text: the previously mentioned Fai Chi Kei, and the STDM rehousing block (1978-1984).

In the context of this urban growth, the Portuguese government, active until the 1999 handover of Macau to the People’s Republic of China, increased its presence in the city’s management, commissioning successive projects to an increasing number of architects working in the region. As Rui Leão wrote: “From the 70’s until the 90’s there was a significant collective reflection on housing in Macau. It happened for a set of reasons: social housing and the CDH (housing scheme at controlled price) were two common government strategies to deal with the big fluctuations of population in an unstable region and other social shifts” (Leão, 2011, 77).

In addition to the migration related to the gaming industry, the political and economic instability in Southeast Asia should also be taken into account, namely in Indonesia and Vietnam, which caused a large increase in Macau’s population, resulting in waves of mass migration that transformed the territory into one of the regions in the world with the highest population density. An immediate consequence, given the small size of the territory, was the construction of high-rise buildings for housing, vertical growth and a high occupation density which has characterized the Macau experience since then.

The Portuguese government’s initiatives, often in partnership with private entities, allowed for the design of large-scale urbanization plans intended for rapid implementation. The results were operations with great urban complexity, in an attempt to respond to the Asian reality with models of European and American origin, but with an uncertain endpoint. That uncertainty transformed in architecture is particularly visible in the work of Manuel Vicente.

Fai Chi Kei, Manuel Vicente, 1979-1983
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