Twenty years after its demolition, the Kowloon Walled City (KWC) in Hong Kong remains an intriguing example to urban planners and architects today. With 50,000 people and businesses housed in a mere 2.79 ha, KWC was the densest place in the world (1,920,000 people per km2). (Figures 1 and 2)
KWC was originally a Chinese military outpost that remained under Chinese jurisdiction during the 99-year lease of the New Territories to Britain in 1898. Britain occupied KWC by force in 1899, but ownership and regulations remained ambiguous thereafter. This led to an anarchic development of the city that rose from the 1970s following Hong Kong’s economy boom. Without any architects or building and sanitation regulations, the city grew into a lawless labyrinth of 500 interconnected high-rise (maximum height of 14 storeys) concrete towers, featuring narrow, dark and damp alleyways (Figures 3 and 4). The lack of governance fuelled the growth of vices in KWC, and the city was famous for prostitution, drugs and unlicensed dentists.
A DYNAMIC ECONOMY AND COMMUNITY
However, despite all of its shortcomings and the slum-like conditions, what makes KWC so remarkable lies in its ability to outperform other planned housing developments in terms of economy and community. Other than the residential units, self-governed KWC had a dynamic localized economy, supported by complex societal functions such as manufacturing, food and textile productions, religious structures and community services (Figures 5 to 8). Despite the quality and accessibility, water and M&E services were also available to residents. Furthermore, recreational and play spaces permeated the corridors and roofscape, and the everyday lives of people co-existed with the illicit activities. In short, KWC was able to accomplish what many architects could not today – an organic city that responds and grows according to changing needs, and at the same time providing avenues for the establishment of intimate and long lasting social relationships. These community networks brought structure into the chaos of KWC’s community fabric. There was a strong sense of place and identity, and despite outsiders calling it the City of Darkness, many others considered KWC as their home with cherished close-knit relationships between neighbours.
UNIQUE SPATIAL DEVELOPMENT
Interestingly, these strong community bonds were fostered through various intimate and three-dimensionally interlinked interaction spaces and platforms within estates. Firstly, despite dilapidated conditions of the streets and corridors, they were utilized as shared communal areas, such as play spaces for children (Figures 9 and 10). Staircases became a major platform for residents to meet as well, and when buildings have their individual stair cores, the communal spaces remained exclusive to their own building residents. However, when several buildings shared one common staircase, the shared circulation doubled up as an effective platform for residents from different buildings to encounter and interact with each other (Figure 11). On the more micro scale, illegally extended balconies not only allowed residents to have an escape space from the small apartments (Figure 12), they also served as areas of interaction for the residents, both physically and visually (Figure 13).
The roofs of KWC were critical recreational areas for residents as well. Whereas people living near to the ground gravitated to the outside spaces of KWC, people living near the top travelled to the rooftops. These rooftops were a sanctuary for people to escape the unbearable and claustrophobic spaces below, and varying roof heights were interlinked to form a series of interesting interaction spaces and zones (Figures 14 and 15). The continuous roofscape is further connected to staircases, and a three-dimensional interaction network unfolds, allowing exposure to various people in the KWC (Figure 16 and 17). To some of the residents themselves, KWC was like a maze.
In fact, the internal circulation and social network within KWC is so comprehensive that most residents rarely venture out of KWC to other developments for socializing or recreational purposes, and one can actually travel from one end of the KWC to the other without touching the ground entirely (Figure 18). This kind of extensive elevated circulation network that also doubles as main social spaces actually reflects the development of Hong Kong in general. Heralded as the “City without Ground”, the concept of figure-ground relationship is irrelevant in Hong Kong given the dense build-up of high-rise towers as well as series of elevated circulation networks that connects malls, transport facilities, private lobbies and parks (Figure 19). The concept of a ground is eroded not just physically, but also culturally since the plane of major social gathering has been shifted upwards vertically, replacing conventional public squares and plazas. In this sense, public spaces and the nature of social interaction have been transformed and re-defined.
There are many lessons to learn from the KWC in relation to community planning and design, especially on the type of environment that can be conducive for the nurturing of close-knit communities as well as building up a dynamic and resilient local economy.
The intimate clustering of building blocks and spaces has shown to be an effective environment that increases social contact and exchange, stimulating social bonding. Additionally, even though it is crucial to establish management and regulations to ensure desirable living conditions, at the same time the idea of using de-regularization to facilitate spontaneity is something to be considered, especially in Singapore whereby spaces are heavily regulated. KWC has proven that sometimes without stringent rules, community can function even better through the building up of self-order and peer surveillance. Hence, a balance in terms of both administration and architectural spatialization can be studied further into.
Finally, the elevated circulation and social network has provided insights into new spatial grounds of interactions ideal for future communities that are densely populated. The interesting transitions from the private to the collective, as well as from the compact to the open are all strategies that can be further developed. Although crucial way finding might be lacking in this network, much can still be learnt from its interweaving maze-like character in envisioning future dynamic typologies that encourage spontaneous exchanges between people.
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