Kwc Far 12 Essay

This is an expanded version of my review of City of Darkness Revisited, which was published recently in the RIAS Quarterly.

City of Darkness Revisited is an unusual book about an astonishing place.  Just over twenty years ago, Kowloon’s Walled City was demolished.  In the early 1980’s over 40,000 people lived there, although only 33,000 were officially registered, and at the time it was the most densely-populated place on the planet – all built without the input of an architect. 

The Walled City evolved from a squatter settlement near Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport.  Some 300 buildings, which ultimately rose to 17 storeys, were crammed onto a site of 200 x 100 metres.  The only building code adhered to was a height limit set by the proximity of Kai Tak’s flight path.

KWC confronted the rest of Kowloon along its north edge, the Tung Tau Tsuen Road.  The thoroughfare was lined with the illuminated signs of doctors, dentists and convenience stores; the precarious caged balconies which residents built to extend their apartments cantilevered out above them.  The city’s south and west elevations overlooked a park built after squatters’ huts were cleared in 1985, and this reduction in density introduced more sunlight into the Walled City.

The Wall consisted of a haphazard elevation of balconies, stairs and verandahs – rifts between the apartments provided the narrow pends through which you entered it.  Behind the apartments, many only one room deep, lay a maze of alleyways broiling in heat, humidity and darkness.  There, the City of Darkness lived up to its name, but most stairways led up to the roof where residents could breathe fresh air and escape the claustrophobia.

KWC’s roof was also a place from which to gaze towards Lion Rock to the north and watch the planes taking off and landing at nearby Kai Tak airport.  In fact, the most arresting images from City of Darkness Revisited show just how close the Walled City was to the final approach into Kai Tak.  Aircraft only ever flew “short finals” onto its runway: the approach was steep, followed by a banking turn after which airliners lined up on the VASI lights at the last moment.  At decision height, they were pretty much flying at rooftop level!

The Kowloon skyline is a jumble of skyscrapers and apartment blocks which make up only part of Hong Kong’s urban agglomeration.  KWC’s architectural identity lay in an extreme version of this, and from ground level the way its seemingly chaotic blocks loomed over the conventional Hong Kong streets surrounding it.

With unimaginable density and living conditions, KWC has been described elsewhere as anti-architecture.  Perhaps no architect could have dreamt it, but film designers have since attempted to re-create it.  Outsiders assumed the Walled City was entirely autonomous and lawless, a place of “drug divans, criminal hide-outs, vice dens and even cheap unlicensed dentists,” but the authorities did collect rubbish and supply power and water – although illegal connections were made whenever folk thought they could get away with it.

The Walled City was condemned in the late 1980’s, but even though Lambot and Girard spent five years photographing it, Mr Lui the postman was acknowledged as the only person who knew his way around the whole City.  A network of bridges and corridors at the higher levels meant the City could be traversed without ever touching the ground.  Photographing there, as Lambot admitted, was a constant adventure. “It was pretty easy to get lost in the maze of stairways and corridors whenever you entered the buildings, so I learnt pretty quickly to photograph anything interesting when I saw it as you might never find it again. It was always that combination of being in the right place at the right time with just the right light.”

Since its demolition in 1993, the Walled City’s influence has extended from the film Chungking Express to William Gibson’s “Bridge” novels, which gave rise to the myth of the city as cyberpunk dystopia and went on to inspire both video game designers and urban theorists.  Laurence Liauw's polemical essay, "KWC FAR 12", in MVRDV's book FARMAX, focuses on the density, fluid organisation and blurred typologies of the place. 

Much of KWC’s influence is down to the Lambot and Girards’ original City of Darkness, which was published in the 1994 and has since become a cult book.  Perhaps that has been amplified by the politics of post-colonial Hong Kong, where natives and expats alike feel sentimental towards what the colony once was.

City of Darkness Revisited is a companion volume which develops the authers’ thesis in a larger format.  It’s a 21st century book, in the sense that they funded it through a Kickstarter campaign, and it goes some way towards de-mystifying the Walled City by focussing on its daily life.  Lambot and Girdard combine oral histories, maps and essays with vivid photos which are evocative of a way of life swept away during Hong Kong’s last few years as a colony.  By fusing architectural, social, cultural and photographic material, the book provides a more rounded understanding of the Walled City.

Now to consider what I didn’t have space to discuss in the printed review: why the Walled City grips our architectural imaginations so hard.

Perhaps KWC appeals to a mindset which has outgrown the systematic, rational approach of Modernism.  The growth of the Walled City bred an intense visual complexity, and made it easy for us to view it as an organism which had somehow freed itself from human agency and taken on a life of it own.  The city as organism (bacteria, fungus, beehive, ant’s nest) is a popular metaphor amongst architectural theorists, but one man’s complexity is another’s chaos.

In KWC the many competing forces reached enough of an equilibrium for the city to work in a quotidian way – but it was forever in flux, and more importantly the human forces at work were subtle and unseen.  Even though the facts revealed in City of Darkness prove otherwise, the idea of Kowloon Walled City operating within its own rules – perhaps like a principality such as Andorra, a city statelet along the lines of Passport to Pimlico, or a micro-nation like Sealand – remains an attractive idea.  It harks back to the walled cities of medieval times, and through that, KWC has become a metaphor for some kind of workable anarchy.

One of the book’s many messages is that you can’t legislate for a community like this – in fact, the authorities tried to stifle it at birth.  Another is that the Walled City’s very persistence offers hope that centrally-planned redevelopment projects, which consume vast amounts of time and resources in their assembly, aren’t necessarily the only way forward.  A third theme is that it’s possible for people to live at far greater densities that we acknowledge, but the highest cost in this case is darkness and squalor.  Like La Torre David which I previously wrote about here, the Walled City is not necessarily a “model” to apply elsewhere, but shows that doctrinal Modernism isn’t the only way to achieve high density urban development.

City of Darkness Revisited is the most engaging book I read in 2015.  If you enjoyed other things I’ve written about – such as Lebbeus Woods’ drawings, Lucien Kroll’s architecture, or what the anarchists achieved at Christiania in Copenhagen – you may well enjoy both text and images in City of Darkness Revisited.  It comes from the same vein of socially-engaged poetic inquiry into architecture in its widest sense.

City of Darkness Revisited can bought from the City of Darkness website, or if you’re in Edinburgh, from the RIAS Bookshop in Rutland Square.

All images courtesy of Ian Lambot at Watermark Publications.

Bibliographic details:
Girard, Greg and Lambot, Ian.  “City of Darkness Revisited”  London: Watermark Publications, 2014.  ISBN: 978-1873200889

Other titles about Kowloon Walled CIty include:

Girard, Greg and Lambot, Ian.  “City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City”  London: Watermark Publications, 1999

Miyamoto, Ryuji; Muramatsu, Shin.  “Kau Lung Shing Chai”  Tokyo: Atelier Peyotl, 1988
A small format photo essay about the Walled City, shot on monochrome film.  This is the first edition, and certainly the more valuable for book collectors.

A later edition was published in a different format as:
Miyamoto, Ryuji.  “Kowloon Walled City”  Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1998

Suzuki, Takayuki and Terasawa, Hitomi.  “Large-scale Illustrated Kowloon City” Japan: Suzushi Kuwabara
Large, intricately-detailed cross section drawings of KWC.

Maas, Winy and van Rijs, Jacob.  “FARMAX: Excursions on Density”  Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1998
Expositionary essays about various places including the Walled City.

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