Whenever I see sensational exposes on the supposedly sublime spatial intensity of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City (demolished in 1994), they strike me as nothing more than colonial fantasies that have little to do with the reality of living in the midst of one of the world’s cruelest slums. You see the Walled City pop up constantly like it’s still a valid or even interesting subject. This informal settlement has been diagramed, photographed, and written about for decades from an aesthetic point of view, rendering its victimized and oppressed inhabitants all but invisible. Not to say that this wasn’t home to a lot of people and that no “fond memories” were formed there, but still, like all slums, it was a tough place to live, fraught with contradictions in the haze of hope for a better life.
The extreme conditions of systemic poverty become eclipsed by romantic fables from afar, the fascination of outsiders who marvel at how the place could have even existed on planet Earth. The gaze of the colonist, already historically fixed upon Hong Kong since it became a British Colony in 1898, is even more focused on the Walled City due to its ungovernable defiance in the face of a well-managed colonial system. This was where the illegal immigrants lived, the border-crossers who made it to the brighter side of communist China…back when it was still communist China. It was also where the Triads, or organized crime syndicates, ruled, with foot soldiers buried deep within its extreme density.
Kowloon Walled City was the logical if not inevitable form for a slum to take in Hong Kong, a reach-for-the-sky approach on a limited 2.6 hectare site, in a city where it is not uncommon to build out your own apartment within a concrete shell. In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, it’s a different logic, stacking one on top of the other, up the hillsides overlooking the sea. In many US cities “the projects” simply look like neighborhoods, such as the area formerly known as South Central Los Angeles. They represent different paradigms of poverty, distinct responses to being down and out, with race and class being critical factors.
Now some former residents have those aforementioned “fond memories” of the Walled City. Well, of course. But it is one thing for former locals to have their memories and quite something else for outsiders to wax lyrical as if it were some sort of bizarre garden blooming with weird yet enticing intellectual flowers. As they once said in China, “May one hundred flowers bloom.” There is also the saying, “Cut the weeds and dig up the roots.” This is just what they did to the actual Walled City. And yet the bizarrely intellectualized one still persists.
And Kowloon Walled City keeps blooming…literally. Now there is a sanitized public park where the slum once sat. Ironically called Kowloon Walled City Park, it celebrates and memorializes a once demonized zone of the city while the rest of us continue to marvel at ghosts.
Is there something of value that comes out of the insistent repetition of the place in popular culture? Are there redeeming qualities to be found for architecture? Perhaps only for the potential of informal spatial consequences to be studied and not repeated—an anti-case study. This is what you don’t do when you are planning a city. But all we are left with now is imagination. Best to keep it there. But if you never lived there it’s hard to imagine.
George Packard, writing for The New Yorker on Rem Koolhaas' fly-overs of Lagos, Nigeria had this to say: "The impulse to look at an 'apparently burning garbage heap' and see an 'urban phenomenon,' and then make it the raw material of an elaborate aesthetic construct, is not so different from the more common impulse not to look at all."
Guy Horton is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to authoring "The Indicator", he is a frequent contributor to The Architect's Newspaper, Metropolis Magazine, The Atlantic Cities, and The Huffington Post. He has also written for Architectural Record, GOOD Magazine, and Architect Magazine. You can hear Guy on the radio and podcast as guest host for the show DnA: Design & Architecture on 89.9 FM KCRW out of Los Angeles. Follow Guy on Twitter @GuyHorton.