Apr 11, 201409:35 AMPoint of View
The Story of Kowloon Walled City: How Hong Kong's Vertical Village Came to Be
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The following is an excerpt from the revised and expanded edition of City of Darkness, the authoritative text on Kowloon Walled City. The book's authors are now seeking funds to faciliate the volume's printing. Help Kickstart their project here. See Guy Horton's critical piece for a different opinion on the Walled City.
The early phases of the Walled City were characterised by predictable building typologies and the buildings were constructed on the principle of squatters’ rights, with random construction on spots of available land by whoever got there first. Alleyways and passages evolved—unplanned—into the established 'map' of the city, which would remain until it came down. A basic electric supply existed, increasingly burdened by illegal connections that frequently overloaded the system, and the few standpipes supplied the only water. As the need to accommodate the ever growing residential and commercial populations forced it to in the 1960s, the building typology of the Walled City made the leap from two- to three-story residential structures to taller, six- to seven-story ones. This represented an important threshold, because at these greater heights the buildings unavoidably became more complex and required greater labor to realize, reinforced concrete, more investment, and so on. They also required a different way of living. Water had to be transported up to the higher floors by hand. Likewise the propane gas canisters that furnished fuel to cook or heat water.
The new buildings adapted themselves in relation to the specific contingencies of their sites. Erected without architectural or engineering participation, proper foundations or piling, they used materials of dubious quality, ignored conventional mechanical and electrical standards, lacked proper circulation and fire egress, access to daylight or fresh air, water supply or waste disposal, and certainly didn’t enjoy adequate maintenance once constructed. They used available space—free from the normal constraints of title deeds, property limits, and regulations—in completely original ways. They were inventive, renegade architectural specimens.
The only constraint observed with consistency was the Kai Tak Airport height limit that existed for the entire area of Kowloon. Presumably even the most unscrupulous developer realized that to challenge this would be counterproductive, as it would force the government to respond negatively. Aside from this one 'golden height limit,' almost anything was worth a try.
Ground-floor open space—the small gardens and animal pens still present in the 1950s—was soon gone, replaced by concrete structures and alleyways. At ground level, daylight shrank month by month. 'Developers'—anyone with gumption, funds, and access to knowledge about rudimentary building construction—made proposals to existing 'owners' such that they might trade their current two-story structure for larger or more units in new, more 'modern' buildings constructed in their place. When possible the developers grouped sellers’ adjacent properties together to produce a larger footprint and thus the ability to construct a larger tower, thus increasing profits. This naturally resulted in an evolution in the grain of the city; a step up in scale not only in height but also in breadth.
Because there was no masterplan to follow—or regulations to adhere to—unconventional circulation routes starting to weave through the city, rising and descending through adjacent structures. Existing staircases were co-opted, windows in adjacent buildings were ignored and walled over, floors were cantilevered over alleys, sometimes until they touched those across the way. The roofscape of the Walled City became its own public realm, with potted gardening, playing children, reposing adults, and where lateral circulation occurred (even by the postman). Lower buildings were not always demolished, but simply had additional stories built atop them, occasionally even by taller buildings next door. At higher levels, corridors were connected to allow people to traverse different structures without returning to ground level, so that while moving through the city, it became difficult to know when you had crossed a 'property line' between one building and the next. This ambiguity was irrelevant to the residents familiar with the routes, who navigated the interwoven circulation system of the city fluidly. This extraordinary 'organic' growth became one of the Walled City’s most distinctive and interesting characteristics at an architectural and urbanistic level.
An attempt in 1963 by local authorities to clear and evict a section of the north-east corner of the Walled City was halted after objections from the Chinese Government, and this explicit denial of British power within the Walled City opened the floodgates to rampant development. That same year, the local Kai Fong Association was formed by the residents, in part to help face the challenge of the British eviction effort and in part to arbitrate property claims, which undoubtedly increased in number and urgency thanks to the building boom. The population by this point had surpassed 15,000 people. Complete anarchy was no longer sustainable. The Kai Fong became the de facto authority for property disputes and transactions in the city, and established their stamp as the sole recognizable proof of ownership on property records. Very quickly, it also assumed responsibility for oversight of other services as well, and for negotiations with the Hong Kong Government on the residents’ behalf. It proved a vital organizational body right up to the demolition of the Walled City.