There never fails to be a debate about the idea of the city when future plans are at issue. It would seem that there exists a theory of the city in Europe.
Hong Kong similarly is a topic of reflection for critics and writers, and they invariably seek a foothold in Italo Calvino (the imaginary city), Roland Barthes (the city of signs), Paul Virilio (the city of speed) or Walter Benjamin (the city of the flaneur). Perhaps they grasp at such straws in the hope that this will relieve them of their intellectual discomfort with the city’s hard-boiled pragmatism. But Hong Kong has no time and no room for this theoretical discourse. For although there are many theories about the city of Hong Kong, they all derive from and are subordinate to the city’s one overwhelming trait: its compactness. It applies to every aspect and seeps through to every level – Hong Kong is compact in its space and in its buildings, in its politics and its decisions, its crowds and its cars, its ideation and its culture.
The compactness affects everything. It squeezes the space out of modernism, the metaphysics out of the neighbourhood concept and the hesitation out of decision taking. The compactness imposes its laws on everyone and everything. The compactness is not a function of lack of room but has become a system in its own right. The rules and regulations of compactness lead to formulas you can use for building architecture, to organizations that make rapid, bold decisions, and to an ethic of not thinking but doing. The compactness leads to an acceleration of the turnover rate of goods, people, activities and buildings. This creates a measure of freedom: no decision that is made nor any building that is erected here is required to last for an eternity.
Hong Kong has always been celebrated for the phenomenal concentration of trade and traffic on an island trapped between mountains and sea. This density has been much romanticized by Westerners: we, of course, can not live that way, but they do not worry about overcrowding, the noise or the stench. The blurring of the boundaries between public and private space takes an extreme form in Hong Kong. The street is an extension of the house, and this means that people prepare and eat their food on the street, that clothes and laundry hang on every balcony like a flapping wardrobe, that sellers of live, dead and roasted animals are everywhere, and naturally that people play mah jong and conduct telephone conversations out of doors. Hence – to our sensibility – a good part of private life becomes public. Life with such extremes of compactness can hardly be deeply embedded in the culture of Hong Kong, for they have existed only for the last thirty years. Rather, the compactness makes it necessary to suppress complexity with a few simple rules that are not open to discussion. Sociologists once predicted that Hong Kong would descend into an asocial hotchpotch without norms or values, a chaos in which people would tear one another apart like rats in an overcrowded cage. But in reality the contrary is true: urban life is regulated by a compact, no-nonsense legislation not all that unlike that of the Netherlands except that there is a fine for everything (ignoring no smoking signs, spitting, defecating etc.). The authorities thus try to subdue the enormous problems associated with the waste products of such an overcrowded city – the noise, the odours, the heaps of refuse, social friction, inadequate sewers etc.
The social life of Hong Kong’s inhabitants is similarly disciplined by application of a few simple rules of behaviour, which sociologists analyse as, firstly, the closeness of the family circle, and, secondly, an extreme tolerance for the physical presence of strangers. The household operates as though it were a continuous production plant, and is much more flexible in its time schedule than the average Dutch home. The round-the-clock economy has effectively colonized both time and space. Being totally dependent on China for production of its vegetables, fruit and meat, Hong Kong’s every square metre is dedicated to trade. The city has been expanding its land area ever since the nineteenth century by means of an endless series of land reclamations, and high rise construction now raises the effective utilization of every square metre. The usable building area is doubled and tripled by a vertical succession of decks. Functions of every kind are stacked up in a single building. Mixed use has become the slogan of Hong Kong’s urban model.
Modernism without emptiness
The compactness has always demanded considerable adaptability on the part of the inhabitants, and this is sometimes evident in the buildings. Hong Kong is a city of refugees and immigrants, of money-grubbers [NOT gold-diggers], people not in a position to make demands of their surroundings and therefore prepared to put up with an airport on their doorstep or with living [+with a whole family] in a single room. The only widespread sign of civil disobedience are the [?+ramshackle] extensions and trellises visible on the balconies everywhere. They are an elevated version of the verandahs every house used to have, which, like the arcade and the mall, is a typology that offered protection against the climatic excesses of sun and rain. The illicit structures give the housing blocks a second faade which diminishes the uniformity of the original faade and produces a wonderful new image of density through the colourful diversity of the improvised additions [=ijzerwerk en erkers].
The compactness of Hong Kong produces a cityscape which is busy and untidy and visually inescapable, but is nonetheless the product of a smooth-running, disciplined urban motor. The delight and admiration of Western tourists with this image is not however shared by the urban authorities of Hong Kong. As in most other South-East Asian cities, there is an official predilection for uniform shininess of modernism: the urban image of the Bijlmer district, which is seen as so problematical in the Netherlands, is there on the other hand regarded as the ideal. The planning authorities no longer wish the complexity inevitably associated with compactness to be visibly expressed in the cityscape, but wish to replace it by an orderly, controlled image of efficiency and prosperity. The city becomes the object of clean-ups and upgrading schemes. The illegal extensions must be removed, as must the houseboats for which Hong Kong used to be famous but which now appear to serve only for tourist trips. The definitive image of compactness, the infamous Walled City, has made way for a little park with a reconstructed, educational temple.
The new Hong Kong is antiseptic, it has made it to modernity, it is clean and shiny and does not stink. Perhaps we can interpret this new image as the outcome of a search for a new identity for Hong Kong, now that the old colonial one is fading and the identity of the Chinese Republic [People’s Republic of China] is ominously nearby. It is undoubtedly also a tangible expression of the upcoming prosperous and well-educated middle class, with their obsession for fashion and consumerism, which is beginning to make its mark on the culture: ‘If you cannot choose your own leaders, at least you can choose your own clothes.’
Hong Kong’s skyscraper centre is a compact Ville Radieuse with the space between the point blocks squeezed out. Zoning of a kind exists but it is a vertical one. Vertical zoning and stacking are the two basic urban planning principles of compactness. Every building is a neighbourhood in itself: shops at the bottom, a three-storey restaurant reachable only by lift above them, and on top of that flats with a school somewhere in between. All activities are deliberately pressed as closely as possible next to, into and on top of one another.
Hong Kong is a modernistic city without the emptiness. The Corbusian tower blocks in the New Towns stand side by side, dozens of them in a bunch, without any attempt being made to arrange them to produce some kind of spatial effect. We find point blocks lined up along a street – a hybrid model, a combination of Colin Rowe’s city of objects, and the city of streets.
The strange aha-experience of seeing familiar European avant-garde models distorted in their application in Hong Kong is also evoked by the pedestrian deck in Central Hong Kong, countless kilometers of elevated walkways, atriums and escalators. Some may recognize a resemblance to the plan the Smithsons made for Berlin, but the deck is here meant purely as a doubling of the traffic flows, not as a separation of them, and it does not have the least metaphysical significance.
The only means of keeping the dense crowds of Hong Kong in a fluid state is public transport. That is after all what determines the efficiency and speed of circulation in the city and can therefore reckon on a high political priority.
The contact mass of people makes a smooth-running metro system essential and at the same time offers the ideal conditions for it. The first underground line was laid in the seventies through the middle of Kowloon, the busiest industrial suburb of all, the place that in those days manufactured those daily millions of plastic thingummies stamped with ‘Made in Hong Kong’. The metro introduced some system into the city and grew together with its enormous clientele to become a well-oiled machine where comfort and control go hand in hand. On the platforms, coloured stripes painted on the ground define the intended formations of incoming and outgoing passengers, like the markings on a sports field. The train stops exactly in the right place and the passengers stand exactly in the right place. The effect is weird, a ‘quasi-mechanized feeling like in SIM-city’.
What is true for the transportation, the buildings and the households of Hong Kong is also true for political decision making: it has a compact character and a high turnover rate. The government does not consist here of a towering pyramid of ramified institutions, but of a few single, convenient, quick-acting and not very democratic bodies. This paradigm even managed to get the prestigious Chek Lap Kok Airport built (to a design by Norman Foster) in no more than ten years. The construction of the new airport prompted the simultaneous building of several other infrastructural works, bridges, roads and tunnels. Now all Hong Kong is bound together by a few sweeping lines. Here a longest and highest bridge, there the widest and most rapidly constructed highway, a few dotted lines on the map, a remaining empty hilltop soon to be built up: the urban development of Hong Kong plays out along the records of the new lines of infrastructure.
Whereas in the Netherlands metropolitan railways are built by the RET or ATM, the highways by the Department of Public Works and the offices that flank them by property development companies, here all aspects of urban development have been brought under one roof. The mighty Mass Transit Railway Corporation is constructing the Airport Express from the airport to the centre and the Lantau Line, in combination with immense real estate developments above the stations.
The way a private corporation is able plan the city by the simultaneous development of urban fabric and railways is unique, and it is explainable by Hong Kong’s obsession with making money which ensures that even public transport has to be a profitable enterprise. The colonial heritage of autocratic institutions also simplifies the execution of such huge projects. The process a design has to go through in order to be realized is an extremely short one; planning, too, is subject to the laws of compactness.
On the basis of the metro, the corporation has devised an urban planning strategy called the Metroplan, which involves creating an extremely high density around the stations and a lesser urban density between them. Five of the stations have individual programmes that are comparable in scope to that of Euralille. They are junctions of all kinds of transport facility and vertical stacks of shopping malls, offices, hotels and homes. It is not clear whether one should regard these stations as buildings or as urban expansion projects. All the elements of an urban district are present in the programme. MTR’s master plan distributes these functions over the available area and organizes their interactions. The vertical stacking principle then sculpts the programme into a block. The latter may be read equally as either a building or a small town. Compactness has wholly eliminated the distance between the disciplines of town planning, architecture and infrastructure.
The base slabs of the stations extend over the entire land area of their colossal sites (from four to twenty hectares) and are five or six stories high. The bottom layer contains the railway and the metro lines, the ticket offices, car parking garages and taxi ranks; above these are on average 70,000 m2 of shops stacked around atriums; standing on top of the slab there are tower blocks containing on average 5,000 homes, 120,000 m2 of office space and some 1,000 hotel rooms. In cross section, the stations bear a superficial resemblance to the Pampus Plan or Toulouse le Mirail, but in reality everything is different. Here, the aim is not to separate the traffic streams but to double them. Here, the aim is not to reduce nuisance or to create a certain kind of urban experience, but purely to effectuate a logistics that speeds the circulation of people and capital.
The placing of the tower blocks on the base slab does not appear to be determined by an inherited idea of the spatial composition of urban space. Their distance of separation is unrelated to the height or mass of the towers, nor is the intervening space designed by reference to any idea of enclosure or of lines of sight. The result is a configuration that resembles a random collection of buildings and adjuncts of public space. The MRT has laid out the deck as it would a station platform: with lines of comfort and control, which in this case are not painted stripes to serry the ranks of passengers but are walking routes, benches, fountains, tennis courts, and rows and clusters of trees.
Some 50,000 people will inhabit and use the base slab and the towers on a daily basis. During office breaks, employees and residents will share the use of the tennis courts and benches; ten thousand passengers a day will buy their tickets or other goods in the mall. Each station will have a range of functions and the population appropriate to that of a large city district. And this brings us to the neighbourhood concept, well known in Hong Kong because of the New Towns planned by Abercrombie. The MTR projects present a purely a quantitative interpretation of the neighbourhood concept without any form of social engineering. A station is a ‘rubber stamp’ item [?=stempel] with a specific mix of homes, workplaces and shops. The three dimensional form adopted by each function, their relationship to one another, the shape of the intervening space and all those other things that were established and overdefined by designers such as Holland’s own Lotte Stam Beese, are here simply dictated by the technical and practical circumstances. The precondition for existence of a community can be defined quantitatively. A recent documentary about the Bijlmer district of Amsterdam revealed what a group of Chinese visitors thought of as a remedy for the district’s problems. ‘Your flats are too low,’ one of them said, ‘only at 30, 40 floors you get community’. Collectivity flourishes in large buildings with a high density of occupation: it is a definition of the neighbourhood concept with the last drop of metaphysics squeezed out of it.
The ‘MTR Cities’ are beehives of activity and contain the most complicated transport intersections imaginable, but present a sedate exterior which is in no way dynamic or flexible. The tower blocks on the base slab also come in fixed models: the Corbusian star-shaped towers are residential, the shiny rectangular ones are offices and the eye-catching designer towers with a slightly peculiar shape are hotels.
This static image is surprising in Hong Kong, where movement has always formed part of the cityscape. The latter is not only due to the continuous coming and going of ships and the aeroplanes which scream over the city, but also to the temporary character of the buildings which are sometimes are replaced even before they have been completed by a more lucrative building, to the obsession with time and with film, and to the ‘space of flows’ which Hong Kong has become through the streams of money and information that form the core of its existence.
Many of the most beautiful parts of Hong Kong consist of completely unpretentious concrete structures dating from the sixties and seventies. They possess a pronounced image and a strong identity, without a designer ever having had to think about it. The anonymous concrete structures of the densely built Kowloon do not appear in any architectural guide book, but they do appear on every picture postcard. The uniformity of the architecture is interrupted by the countless showy advertising displays of the users. Even in the industrial tower blocks [?=industrieflats], small companies plaster their portion of the faade with advertising or paint it white while the rest of the building remains sooty grey. The faade becomes a patchwork in which the life of the building is legible. Perhaps that is another of the laws of compactness: the more anonymous the building, the less anonymous is the environment.
Another form of vernacular architecture is the horizontal slab with tower blocks on top of it, a product of the urban development principles of vertical zoning and stacking. The most archaic and famous example of this style is the Chung King Mansion which has figured in so many films and still exists in Kowloon. The slab is a dangerously compact, closed, dark block penetrated by labyrinthine shopping passages that flout every fire regulation, with grubby tower blocks of flats and restaurants above it.
The horizontal slab with tower blocks on it is a type that belongs to Hong Kong as unmistakably as does the perimeter block to Berlin and the skyscraper to New York. They are more properly part of the vernacular than of global architecture, even though the modernistic towers built to designs by famous foreign architects such as Foster, Farrell and Pelli suggest otherwise. Not only the typology but the design method of the MTR stations originates from the practice of anonymous architecture: the design starts from the footprint and the plot ratio and is represented in numbers and sums of money. It is not so much design as a formula.
Despite the mixed pedigree of Chung King Mansion and the new stations, the compact city has undergone a complete metamorphosis at the hand of the MTR. The chaotic visuality and the congestion of old Hong Kong is conquered and transformed into a clean, orderly world by the MTR stations. The complexity of the interior, the dynamics of the main line trains and metro, the inhabitants and the shopkeepers: all these blend into an organized image without fragmentation, individualization or appropriation. Here there will never be a place for illegal extensions or unruly company advertisements. This is the new Hong Kong of clean-ups and upgrading.
The artificial, generic world of the station malls stands in contrast to the hectic passages of Chung King Mansion. They are the total opposite of the hot, evil-smelling, noisy Kowloon. The trendiest malls are everything that the old city is not: quiet, white and chique, air-conditioned and filled with murmuring piped music. They are in a time warp relative to the existing shopping streets that are so nearby. The MTR projects are the latest version of the compact city, a version wholly focussed on the interior and bent on replacing the old.
The principles of compactness have been perfected and have had their sharp edges taken off in the MTR stations. The stations are even more compact, even more full of activity and even more densely inhabited than Chung King Mansion, but have an antiseptic image that conceals every movement, excludes every individual and parades order, tidiness and consumer glamour as the new icons. This is the new Hong Kong.
1. Lodewijk Brunt, Stad, Amsterdam 1996, Chapter 5, ‘Samenleving onder druk. Openbaar gedrag in Hong Kong’, pp. 86-106.
2. Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong. Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, Minneapolis 1997, p.5.
3. Kazuhiro Kojima, ‘Hyper-dense Market City: A Metropolis for the People’, Space Design 1992, no. 330, p. 66.
4. For example in the film Chung King Express by Wong Kar Wai, and also in many gangster movies such as To live and die in Tsim Sha Tsui by Lau Wai Keung.