Artificial Eden or Concrete Jungle?
You would be hard pressed to find any truly great buildings in Hong Kong. The best one is still the 1986 Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, designed by Lord Norman Foster, its articulations of office buildings components slicked and stacked up into a display of corporate power whose open base creates one of the most exciting urban open spaces I know. It has been downhill since then, from I.M. Pei’s sleek, but meaningless puzzle of triangles for the Bank of China to the IFC Tower, the fourth or fifth tallest in the world and as forgettable as any other structure designed by the alphabet soup of generic big design firms.
It doesn’t matter that much, because faulting the blandness of the almost 8,000 skyscrapers packed into this area of steep hills spreading over a peninsula and group of islands at the mouth of the Pearl River is like saying that the rocks of any of those rises is not attractive. What makes Hong Kong—and especially the central area on either side of its harbor—so beautiful is the human-made geography that results from the dense packing of all this development. Hong Kong Island’s skyscrapers offer a counterpoint to the Peak behind them, while Kowloon, on the other side of the harbor, provides a natural ridge to answer to the hills around the business district.
Beyond these habitable structures, the infrastructural ribbons that tie the city together and to the rest of the world have their own sense of being like a kind of concrete vegetation, perhaps of the kudzu variety, that snakes throughout the area before erupting into the waves that open up Chep Lok airport’s spaces.
This opera of real estate development is possible because of the stage in which it set. Not only does Hong Kong possess a beautiful topography, but for more than half a century first the British and now the Chinese government has severely restricted the use of most of the almost 500 square miles that make up the Hong Kong Special Administrative Zone. Only a quarter of that area has been developed, and all 7 million people crowd into the few flat areas the government has granted to the handful of developers who control the real estate. More than 40 percent of the area has been reserved as open space.
That seems like a collusive scam that has allowed some billionaires to charge exorbitant prices for their developments, and also a political move to try to control the population. Like it or not, the result is an urbanism that is visually more attractive than, say, Shenzen, right over the border, or nearby Guangzhou. It is also, some would claim, more sustainable: crowding people into a restrictive area means that energy is used more efficiently, with less waste on commuting and less despoliation of natural areas.
But the amount of energy consumed by getting goods and people into Hong Kong, and getting waste out, is immense. Moreover, the city can only survive as the value added (or extracted) from those seas of manufacturing zones right across the border, and the agricultural area that in turn supports the mass of humanity in the Pearl River delta. Hong Kong sucks up money and resources from a wide catchment area and only in the past few years has had to contend with some of the problems it has outsourced, such as the massive pollution blowing in from the surrounding areas.
Hong Kong, in other words, is an artificial Eden, made of concrete, glass, and steel, rather than stone, trees, grass, and shrubs. Except it is not so utopian: to live there, you have to make do with crowded situations, from the subway to your own living quarters, where you are almost always looking from a tiny apartment into your neighbor’s sliver of space. And exactly the dichotomy between the individual buildings and the overall shape makes it not ideal: the urban conglomerate does not have the fractal beauty of nature, where the smaller pieces reflect the order of the whole. Only the carefully controlled oases where the rich live, play, and work have that cool, modernized Chinese sense of place.
For all that, Hong Kong is an immensely seductive place, and one from which cities such as Singapore and even Dubai are trying to learn. Can you create an artificial moment of density that is beautiful and sustainable? Even Hong Kong would like to find out, as it tries to change its own development practices in new areas such as West Kowloon, where a massive redevelopment project is meant to be green and cultural. It is a seductive model, and one that just might offer a model for future urban development. For now, Hong Kong is a rough landscape of forced intimacy contained in one of the world’s most spectacular natural settings.