Book Review: The Making of Hong Kong: From Vertical to Volumetric

Sep 13, 2011
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

The Making of Hong Kong: From Vertical to Volumetric
Barrie Shelton, Justyna Karakiewicz, Thomas Kvan
Routledge, 2010. HB, 184pp

Discussing Hong Kong’s urban form in a western context often involves hyperbole and objectification – the ‘otherness’ of the city’s hyper-dense condition being at once an object of fascination and anxiety. Hong Kong is consistently pictured as a strange, compelling metropolis where extremes of human city building play out; as such, it is the ongoing subject of architectural studies, photo essays and theoretical speculation representing that western preoccupation with its physical and cultural intensity.

MVRDV’s book FARMAX: Excursions on Density provides a good example of this approach to Hong Kong, and the deployment of the city as a rhetorical object in debates about urban form and density. FARMAX, a favourite on architects’ bookshelves in the early 2000s, included short sections on the infamous Kowloon Walled City, as well as building regulations that formed the region’s slender high-rise towers. These mini studies combined evocative image series with florid text – posing the walled city as an “unplanned artificial city … a ‘war machine'”, and the residential tower typologies as “otherworldly”. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the approach related to the rebellious tone of FARMAX, which MVRDV framed as a rejoinder to the “one vast ‘greyness'” they saw in Dutch urban development policies.

FARMAX was similarly provocative in its publishing format. Fat, fragmentary and fervid in tone (adopting a form pioneered by OMA’s S,M,L,XL), it eschewed the linearity and rigidity of conventional book form for a multi-voiced assemblage of text, image, project, data, speculation and analysis. In MVRDV’s hands, the unconventional approach was deftly pointed towards unsettling conventional notions about urban density. Hovering between scholarly research, coffee table monograph and Xeroxed manifesto, it offered an atmosphere of provocation rather than controlled, composed argument.

All this is to help sketch out where The Making of Hong Kong: From Vertical to Volumetric both radically differs from, and yet intersects with, the approach to Hong Kong’s urban condition found in FARMAX. By contrast, The Making of Hong Kong is a slim, yet dense, object. Part of Routledge’s Planning, History and Environment series, it is an unequivocally scholarly book. However, while the content and presentation of most books in that series could best be described (for the average architectural reader) as ‘dry’, The Making of Hong Kong stands out, in taking an engaging approach to a compelling topic. Which is not to say that the book approaches the rowdy juxtapositions of FARMAX, rather that it is well honed, written in an agreeable, lucid manner and accompanied by an extensive series of drawings, diagrams and photographs that support the text.

Drawing on the authors’ collective experience of living, teaching and researching in Hong Kong, the book avoids sensational accounts or strident posturing. Rather, it is a broad typo-morphological history – it interprets material relating to, among other things, Hong Kong’s geology, geomorphology, economics, urban policy, planning, architecture, sociology and demography, but this is all put toward an understanding of how the physical urban form, at various scales, has transformed over time. Using a straightforward chronology, it narrates the changes in Hong Kong’s urban structure, with a focus on morphologies, typologies and morphogenesis. Thus, the book relates the development of the region’s pre-colonial walled settlements and colonial shop-houses, the slab blocks of post-war public housing and later towers, through to the contemporary metropolis of tall, intense multi-level city living.

The overall proposition is that Hong Kong represents the “accidental pioneer of a new kind of urbanism” – its compact components, concentrated functions and multi-levelled movement making it the “quintessential compact metropolis”. This focus is where The Making of Hong Kong does intersect with FARMAX – in the exploration of possibilities opened up by analysing Hong Kong’s extremely dense forms. The authors argue that, as sustainability concerns return our gaze to questions of city form (particularly ‘compact cities’), the relative success of Hong Kong’s intense urban condition offers lessons – particularly its ‘volumetric’, or three-dimensionally connected urbanism. The productive quality of the book lies in the way the framing of that argument is both historical and speculative.

The Making of Hong Kong is evidently constrained by Routledge’s template design approach to its academic books. Although there are elegant touches to the layout, the text and illustrations are set tightly, and dense on the page – the outcome is a visual solidity that can be taxing. However, it shouldn’t be seen as detracting too much from what is a well marshalled, sharp account of Hong Kong’s urban growth that poses worthy lines for future investigation.

Dr Lee Stickells is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. He teaches and researches across the areas of urban architecture and urban design.

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