A longer version of this article, written by current ArchDaily intern Sharon Lam, was originally published in Salient, the magazine of the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association, titled “In the Shadow of the Kowloon Walled City.”
It is the 1970s in Hong Kong, and you are eleven years old. Early one evening, you go out to a nearby neighborhood for dinner with your family. A five-minute walk from your primary school, it is also a place you frequent with your friends. The food here is good and especially renowned for its fishball noodle soup, which is what you always get. You’ve been here so often that navigating the subterranean corridors to the noodle stand is easy, and you know where to step to avoid the ceilings that drip the most. Your bowl of noodles arrives and you slurp them down, unaware of the fact that over the next couple of years this very neighborhood will peak in its population and its infamy, and remain even decades later as one of the most remarkable social anomalies in recent history.
At its peak, the Kowloon Walled City was home to 33,000 people in just two hectares of land—the size of about two rugby fields—making it the densest place on Earth at the time. It was a hastily put together conglomerate of tiny apartments, one on top of the other, caged balconies slapped onto the sides and connected through a labyrinth of damp, dark corridors. All the while, the rest of Hong Kongwent about as normal, seemingly unaffected by the crime and squalor within the Walled City.
This unique society and its complete neglect by the rest of Hong Kong was born of the equally unique political conditions of the Kowloon site. Initially a Chinese outpost for the salt trade during the Song Dynasty (960AD–1279), it was later turned into a military outpost with an added coastal fort in the 1800s. When China lost to the British in the first Opium War, Hong Kong was ceded and officially handed over in 1842. However, the Kowloon site was an exception, with the British allowing the Chinese to stay at the site as long as they did not politically interfere. China went on to fully reclaim the ownership of the Kowloon site in 1947, but its separation from the mainland meant they did little to enforce laws, while Britain also went with a “hands-off” policy. Free from both sides of the law, squatters soon flooded in, and so began the legend of the Kowloon Walled City.
By 1950 the population had grown to 17,000. People moved to the Walled City out of bankruptcy, lack of choice, and to either flee or exploit the lack of law. Construction proliferated alongside population, a truly modern vernacular free from any building regulation or code. Within the darkness of the Walled City, crime, unregulated businesses (everything from opium dens and brothels to plastic bags and spring rolls) and family life went on day after day.
It wasn’t until 1984 that both governments decided the Walled City had become enough of a backwards embarrassment and eyesore that they had to tear it down. In 1992, residents were evicted and given monetary compensation, and the site was converted into a public commemorative park.
Despite my many, often lengthy, trips to Hong Kong, I have never visited the park. It is not a well advertised or well heard of tourist attraction, nor is it a place of local pride. In fact it was from the mouth of a Swede that I first heard of the Kowloon Walled City and each time since then that the Walled City has come up, it has been from Caucasian commentary. In my urban design paper, the Kowloon Walled City was brought up as an example of a “slum” that showed the consequences of the lack of building regulations. There was no mention of the delicious bowls of noodles one could find there. Rather, the Kowloon Walled City is in conversation usually described as “post-apocalyptic,” “scary” and “crazy.”
Compare this to the way in which my dad talks about the city—a smirk broke across his face as soon as the name was mentioned, and I was surprised to learn that his primary school was just next door from this “crazy” mass of drugs, gangs and crime. In fact, most of our conversation focused on the food that you could find there. He describes the place as “very special,” both as the only place in Hong Kong that went unaffected by British rule and as a unique community in itself. He went on to describe the physical environment of the place, with an energy that I have only otherwise seen during one of his jam-making frenzies. Smiling, he recalled the constant dripping of water leaks everywhere and the surreal disappearance of the sky once you entered. He also went on about the many unregulated businesses there, with special mention to the many unlicensed dentists that could operate liability-free, and also the dog meat stalls, which found success while canine cuisine was illegal in the rest of Hong Kong.
He admits that he knew of people being mugged and that people generally avoided the place after dark, but otherwise my dad complimented the Triads on their organization of the Walled City. Acting as a de facto city council (albeit one funded by drugs and enforced through violence), the Triads organized a volunteer fire brigade and rubbish disposal, and resolved civil conflicts, particularly those between competing businesses.
The way my dad speaks of the Walled City, with something approaching pride, gives a very different impression to its popular depiction—it is much easier to tell a story of depraved lifestyles in a dark maze of inhumane living conditions. This isn’t to say that this wasn’t the case, but rather that this wasn’t the only story that the Walled City had to tell.
A documentary on the Walled City chronicled this complexity firsthand. Filmed by an Austrian with English subtitles, the 1980s film gives an intimate look at life in the Walled City. We meet a breeder of illegal racing pigeons (an alternative to betting on horses), a kindergarten, and even a Triad-funded pensioner. All these stories, however, are set against a dark, dim architectural backdrop. It is a strange experience—harrowing English subtitles that compare the people to “the dead rats nobody takes umbrage at,” but their attempt at shock-horror is heckled by the background Cantonese, with children wittily mocking the camera crew. This, perhaps, best represents Hong Kong—scary from the outside, but energetic normality within.
While it would be false to say that the documentary makers were exaggerating the extent of the squalid conditions, poverty and cramped spaces, these qualities are only striking in their intensity—not at all in their absurdity. In fact, the most Louis Theroux-ish thing in the whole documentary is an English missionary who resides in the Walled City, curing heroin addicts through her “spiritual touch.” The rest of the picture is grossly inhumane, yes; but illogical, no. Given the conditions and consequences in which the city was conceived, and its complete neglect, it could have turned out a whole lot worse.
The surprising liveliness and community of the Walled City shows that when free from law and liability, things aren’t going to be that great, but they do not have to be an entire failure. When the Kowloon Walled City was torn down by outside forces, many of its residents were dissatisfied with their eviction and not even financial compensation restored the community they left behind. Many, years on, even when fully resettled into the rest of Hong Kong, look back to their days in the Walled City as a “happier time.”
When still under British rule, it is important to remember that the Kowloon Walled City was not the only place of such density in Hong Kong. Contemporary to the Walled City were other urban squatter settlements, also ad hoc conglomerations but only of one storey, and roomier with just 4900 people per hectare—about 2 square meters per person. The settlements sprang up from the population boom of the 1950s, when Chinese refugees fled into the city following political turmoil in the mainland.
After their family land was taken and relatives killed, both my dad’s mother and my mother’s mother were such refugees, and they both experienced some time in informal settlements upon arriving in Hong Kong. They were both lucky, however, and were soon able to settle into more comfortable and stable conditions, helped by the government’s public housing schemes. With this ancestry, and my own upbringing as a Hong Kong-born New Zealand citizen, it irks me to see the persistent fascination with the current density, of housing in particular, in Hong Kong. While physically long gone, the shadow of the Walled City and its colonial conception remains. The multiple photography series, gawk-tourism, and critique of the city’s never-ending apartment towers has not-so-distant roots to the outsider curiosity that drew British colonials to the Walled City as a tourist attraction in its early days.
The common, lazy judgement thrown upon unfamiliar cultures is everywhere. Online, in conversation, and even from university tutors, I have come across phrases like “how can people live like that” and “so crazy how cramped it must be” in regards to small living spaces in Hong Kong and other South East Asian metropolises. Often these phrases are followed by a smug thankfulness that they themselves not have to live in such “terrible conditions.”
My grandmother has, from her arrival into Hong Kong to the current day, lived in public housing. These towers are the most ubiquitous building form in Hong Kong, largely identical and replicated over and over across the city, often painted in pastel for both differentiation and a “happy” aesthetic. There are over 680,000 apartments across 160 public housing estates, with 15,000 more apartments built each year.
Just as with the Walled City, there is rarely any mention of the lives within the towering walls nor the delicious bowls of noodles. Photos of these seemingly endless modules disregard and crop out any sense of thought behind the buildings, ignoring what have in fact been decades of design evolution and an increasing quality of public housing. The average living space has changed greatly over the years, and current legislation makes site-specific considerations, sustainable implementations, thoughtful interior and master planning mandatory.
The Kowloon Walled City’s lack of prominence in Hong Kong itself is not due to political embarrassment, but because it is culturally unremarkable. Today, problems often associated with density, such as crime and sickness, are not notably prevalent in Hong Kong. In fact, crime rates are low on an international scale, and the city has the world’s fourth-lowest rate of infant mortality and also fourth-highest life expectancy. Intimidating and eerie from the outside, dedicated public housing allows even Hong Kong’s elderly to stay self-sufficient.
Density will always be a fact of life in Hong Kong, manifested to its extreme in the Walled City and resolved in public housing today. The city’s cultural apathy toward density sees it excel in other forms—but in the shadow of the Walled City, those without access to public housing still face squalor. The quarters given to the populous domestic maids really are too small, and immigrant housing is an increasing concern, with people renting out taped-off sections of rooftops for residency.
If the energy of young designers in both Hong Kong and abroad were focused less on criticizing places that are actually doing fine, there are real urban and social problems in Hong Kong that are currently, like the Walled City once was, being neglected.
“Sidewalk Salon: 1001 Street Chairs of Cairo is a portrait of the capital of Egypt as seen through the lens of the thousands of curious chairs that dot the sidewalks of Cairo.
With a documentary photographic approach, the project seeks to present the creative practices of design that occur on the sidewalks along with the unplanned interventions in the public space that give Cairo its distinctive character.
“I’ve seen Kelly Ripa there. Two little kids were playing with Legos on the treadmill next to her, and there was nobody else.” — NYT
If you thought China or Dubai are the only places where you enter a multi million dollar condominium just purchased for that unruly son / daughter or a mistress, or laundering money.., hold on… Why is that all sold out prime luxury condo building in New York only occupied 10% with concierge, room service and all?
Mexico City is a giant laboratory of urban morphology. Its 20 million residents live in neighborhoods based on a wide spectrum of plans. Here are some examples.
The colonial center (above) was built on the foundations of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec empire. The old city was on an island in Lake Texcoco. The lake was drained to prevent flooding as the city expanded.
Geometric plans dominate throughout Mexico City. The Federal neighborhood (above) evokes the radiating streets of Palmanova, a town designed by Vicenzo Scamozzi in Renaissance Italy.
Nezahualcóyotl (above), or Ciudad Neza, is a municipality of one million people within Mexico City’s metropolitan area. Its street plans follow a standardized layout — public amenities with green space confined within mega-blocks.
The rich and famous tend to prefer organic forms, and tend not to economize on water for their gardens. In the wealthy neighborhood of Jardines del Pedregal (above), some houses have heliports.
Planners chose a repetitive style for their unfortunate clients in Fuentes de Aragón (above). This neighborhood is part of Ecatepec de Morelos (below), which — like Ciudad Neza — is a municipality within Greater Mexico City. The entire city doesn’t follow an extreme grid, but neighborhoods like Fuentes de Aragón are common.
In recent years, Mexico’s federal government has invested substantially in housing for the poor. Its programs, such as those beautifully photographed by Livia Corona, have rehoused over two million families in massive developments like Los Héroes Tecámac (below) in Ecatepec de Morelos.
Modernist planning is still alive in Mexico, where planners appear to have substantial power in society. The challenge of resettling so many families in so few years has been solved through standardization. Many new settlements resemble enlarged microchips.
Other developments — like Geovillas Santa Bárbara (above) — have curved streets and more diverse layouts, but they are usually for higher-income populations.
The social dynamics behind urban growth in low-income areas are complex, and self-made construction is the rule. Very few public or private initiatives strike a balance between top-down and bottom-up housing development. Instead there are extreme disparities between the two.
Street markets under red canopies show up frequently in satellite images of Mexico City. The market above is in Xico, another municipality within the metropolitan area.
Xico is bordered by Chalco Lake (above) and the Santa Catarina Mountains (below). Here, urban development takes place without much formal planning. Green space and public amenities seem a luxury.
There is a real need for a new approach to urban development — one that empowers informal communities without imposing insensitive planning from above, addressing the roots of urban poverty instead of formalizing it.
Credits: Images from Google Earth.
The human imagination has been technologically transformed in the past century. Not only have the channels through which we communicate been fundamentally reshaped, but the content of what we are saying has changed. New media––new tools for speaking––create new forms of expression. With pocket-sized phones, our voices can be heard across oceans. On the web, we can videochat with friends on the opposite side of the Earth. The once insurmountable communicative barriers of time and distance are now afterthoughts. We are annoyed when our intercontinental Skype conversation freezes. We expect websites to load in less than two seconds.
Space Hacking is a short series exploring the always-rising layers of self-expression in contemporary society
Technology and urbanization have collapsed the distances dividing people and cultures. As populations flock to big cities, many of us now literally live on top of each other (in high rise apartments). And this physical densification, provoked by an expanding web of instantaneous worldwide communication, is reflected in the ways we think and express ourselves.
Today’s urban spaces are the increasingly dense products of interwoven human expression. Even our ‘natural’ spaces (parks, beaches, gardens) are landscaped: manipulations of nature rather than anything truly wild. Having become immersed in society’s manufactured products, our imaginative resources – the raw materials of thought – have already been designed and built. It’s no wonder we are a ‘remix culture.’
Space Hacking is a short series exploring the ever-rising layers of self-expression in contemporary society: the communicative skyline that shifts and expands even faster than the physical profiles of our cityscapes. What we often hear as a single voice is really the mingling of many. Load bearing walls have become art galleriesand marketing platforms. Old LPs (records of music) are themselves now musical instruments. Some see sidewalk curbs and park benches; others see playgrounds.
The contents of the city – to a space hacker – are the building blocks of self-assertion. But what does it imply about our notions of individuality when those blocks have already been built, and are already assertions?
For residents of Kowloon Walled City, life was anarchy.
As many as 50,000 residents, many of which were squaters, were crammed into the 6-acre settlement that once served as a Chinese military outpost. And while the British claimed jurisdiction of the town in Hong Kong after a handover in 1898, the city was largely left alone.
Without health regulations or law enforcement, the community, which comprised of 350 densely packed high-rise buildings, served as a refuge for drug dealers, criminals and gangs. In time, the virtual absence of government oversight lead to a society ruled by powerful mafiosos known as Triads.
By the 1950’s, the city became an epicenter for triad-controlled brothels, casinos, and opium dens. Even the neighborhood doctors and dentists were shady, with many unlicensed practictioners choosing to set up shop locally so that they can operate without fear of prosecution. If the police ever did venture inside, it was only in large heavily armed groups.
Still, reports and testimonials indicate that generally the locals lived peacefully. Photos published in the book “City of Darkness,” which chronicled life within the city, showed children playing on rooftops not too far away from adults taking in the fresh air high above the constant buzz of illegal activity. In fact, the city’s rooftops actually served as an important gathering place, enabling nieghbors to bond and help one another endure the miserable conditions.
That’s because even from such a remote viewpoint, the squaler was unavoidable. Dwellings were built entirely without the help of architects and many apartments were so small (about 250 squre feet) that garbage, TVs, water tanks were stored on rooftops. The lack of building codes and regulations also meant homes had poor foundations and few or no utilities. Outside, the network of staircases and passageways on the upper levels was so extensive that pedestrians can cross the entire city without ever touching solid ground.Conditions improved in the 60s and 70’s when a police crackdown led to over 2,500 arrests and the confiscation of over 4,000 pounds of drugs. Charities, religious societies, and other welfare groups were gradually introduced and the Hong Kong government began to provide water supply and mail services.
Despite these efforts, Hong Kong officials decided in 1987 to demonish the city, athough many residents resisted the forced evictions.
However, by April 1994, Kowloon Walled City was no more.
I walked through the bustling gullies of old Delhi, from Chandni Chowk to Jama Masjid and then to Ballimaran. This area was part of the walled city of Shahjahanabad founded by the Mughal emperor Shahjahan, who built the Taj Mahal. The city was a symbol of Mughal cultural and architectural wealth. In 1857, during the first armed revolution against British rule, soldiers destroyed 80 percent of the palaces here.
Today, the area is crowded with rickshaw pullers, kebab sellers, biryani makers, goats and a few cows. The dynasties are gone; the nobility has vanished. What remains are dilapidated buildings, and dangling serpentine electric cables.
Among the poets and artists that the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, assembled at his court was the great Urdu and Persian poet Mirza Ghalib. In a letter to a friend in 1861, Ghalib wrote:
The city has become a desert… by God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonment… No fort, no city, no bazaars, no watercourses… Four things kept Delhi alive – the fort, the daily crowds at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Yamuna Bridge, and the yearly fair of the flower-sellers. None of these survives, so how could Delhi survive? Yes there used to be a city of this name in the land of Hindustan.
I intruded into the fallen minarets, libraries and palaces of a bygone era, asking myself: Delhi, where shall I find you?
Aslam Saiyad is an animation instructor and freelance photographer from Mumbai, India. He also volunteers for the Borderless World Foundation, a non-profit organization that works with children in conflict areas.
Credits: All photos by Aslam Saiyad
I thought you may like to see a little green wall/ roof inventions applied
(seen parked in Noordhoek beach parking lot) by Penny Moir
Not all urban photographers are o voyeurs of poverty – journeying to Khayelitsha or crossroads in Cape Town on a “reality tour” some provide values that go beyond the simplistic snapshots of barefoot children and cardboard and corrugated iron shacks – this post by Katia Savchuk in [polis]
In reflecting on how to better portray a city through photographs, I am inspired by the work of Brendan Bannon, a Nairobi-based photojournalist that I interviewed for an article on ethical travel photography. Tired of photographing only refugee camps and health crises for his editors, last April he put out Daily Dispatches to paint a fuller portrait of Nairobi. His warm, quiet photographs are brimming with dignity — you don’t realize how skewed the typical portrayals of African cities are until you see his counterpoint.
STEFAN WEHRMEYER, a 23-year-old German programmer, has developed a Google Maps application called Mapnificent (harhar). It’s pretty cool: it shows you the places in your city that you can reach in a given amount of time using public transport. This does not yet work in South African Cites , but is still an interesting application of already existing cloud network i.e. Google Maps and the programming API has lots of potential for creating your own applications