The Vertical City, Part I: How Hong Kong Grew Up

Imagine this scenario for a moment. You wake up in your flat on the 36th floor of an apartment building, brush your teeth, get dressed and take a lift to the shopping mall below. You grab a quick steamed bun for breakfast before descending into the MTR, which whisks you beneath mountains and water to the district where you work. There, you complete the same process in reverse, re-emerging from the underground, up several escalators, through footbridges upstairs shopping malls, and into your office on the 55th floor of an office tower, changing lifts at a 36th floor sky lobby in between.

Later that evening, you hop in a taxi and join your friends at a restaurant on the 22nd floor of a building filled with nothing but eateries.

This is everyday life for hundreds of thousands of ordinary middle-class Hongkongers. You need only look out a window at the city’s thicket of skyscrapers to realise that this isn’t Baudelaire’s Paris. In Hong Kong, the flâneur must go up, down and around to fully appreciate the city. This is a city where life is lived three-dimensionally.

The numbers speak for themselves. Hong Kong has an estimated 7,827 buildings more than 35 metres tall, according to real estate data company Emporis. That’s more than any city except Moscow, with its legions of Communist-era tower blocks. Hong Kong is even more exceptional for the average height of its buildings: the Council on Tall Buildings and the Urban Habitat says Hong Kong has 315 buildings taller than 150 metres, besting New York’s 243 and more than double the tally of the next contender, Dubai, which has 153.

Vertical city

High-rise estate in Hong Kong. Photo by Ernest Yuen

What makes Hong Kong even more distinct is just how ubiquitous its towers are – and how many of them are residential. Even in New York, the city that pioneered the skyscraper, most high-rises are concentrated in a few large chunks of Manhattan, while the rest of the city’s neighbourhoods are as low-rise as anywhere else. In Hong Kong, you’re as likely to live in a high-rise apartment tower in the far-flung suburbia of Ma On Shan as you are in the heart of Central.

What’s especially remarkable is the way that Hong Kong has burrowed through this forest of skyscrapers to create a truly vertical urban life. In most places, skyscrapers are monoliths; gated communities with a ground-level entrance. In Hong Kong, there is nearly as much public space inside buildings as there is outside of it. You can find restaurants, public seating areas and even lush gardens in tucked-away spaces well above street level. It’s something that architects Jonathan Solomon, Adam Frampton and Clara Wong call a “condition of groundlessness” in their book Cities Without Ground, which maps many of Hong Kong’s vertical networks.

“In a normal city,” says Solomon, “streets have an axis and if you look down the street there is something important. Parks have an edge, cities have a centre. Really important buildings stand out. The whole history of urban form is about the relationship of the object to other objects.” Not in Hong Kong, where buildings are mashed together with incredible density and the path from A to B might pass up and down through a number of unexpected spaces. “You can’t visually perceive anything, so you have this hierarchy based on other senses. You know when you are in a high-end shopping mall when the air is cool and dry and perfumed. Then you realise you’re in a transit space when things get a little bit warmer and noisier and the materials are a little less reflective.”

That description should ring familiar to anyone in Hong Kong – and certainly anyone who spends time somewhere like Tsuen Wan, where the MTR leads into a warren of elevated walkways, some passing through cluttered old shopping malls that feel like street markets, others leading to high-end hotels and conference centres, still others descending to an equally diverse street level.

composite-miradorBut how did Hong Kong become such a vertical city? Take a look at any historic photo and you will see a low-slung city that could pass for somewhere in Southern Europe. Densely-packed tenements huddled beneath the slopes of Victoria Peak, which were studded with ornate mansions. Central Kowloon was an expanse of broad avenues and suburban villas. Even in the 1920s and 30s, as graceful towers rose above the streets of New York and Chicago, Hong Kong’s tallest building was the squat, 13-storey third-generation HSBC Building.

Things began to change after World War II. Hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into the city from mainland China, fuelling an industrial boom that made the city increasingly prosperous. There was just one problem: a lack of space. Kowloon and the northern part of Hong Kong Island span just 88 square kilometres. There was much more room in the New Territories, but no way to get there, other than a few narrow mountain roads and the slow diesel trains of the Kowloon-Canton Railway. So the urban areas grew denser and denser.

composite-metropoleThe first wave of high-rises were basically supersized tenements known as composite buildings, which had no restrictions on their internal use. “Composite equals domestic uses plus – it could be anything,” says architect Eunice Seng, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong. You can find two of the most famous examples in Tsim Sha Tsui: Mirador Mansions, built in 1959, and Chungking Mansions, built in 1961. Initially billed as luxurious places to live, they soon became filled with guesthouses, small factories, nightclubs and other uses.

composite-chunkingmansionMany of these composite buildings were so enormous, they blocked out light to the street below, which led to a requirement that upper floors be set back, which created the distinctive tapered shape seen in the buildings of Ferry Point, a neighbourhood along Jordan Road that is filled entirely with 20-storey composite buildings. Eventually, it became clear that it was impossible to go much higher without building something that looked like a pyramid. “So the building regulation experienced another change,” says Seng.

That’s where pencil towers came in. “In the 1970s, there was a wave of micro-development – smaller-scale developers who could build a 20-storey building if they bought two shophouses together,” says architect Jason Carlow, who is working on a book about Hong Kong’s residential towers. Five-storey tenements on narrow parcels were knocked down for skinny towers many times taller.

Over the years, a number of architectural innovations allowed buildings to grow ever taller and thinner, such as scissor staircases, a space-saving technique in which a tower’s fire escapes are intertwined. Carlow says that many developers shave a few millimetres off each step in the fire escape, which creates enough extra floor area to cram an additional floor into the building. “Developers are coming up with much more sophisticated financial tools and spreadsheets that allow them to fine-tune the height of the tower to the building regulations and the interest rate of the time,” says Carlow. “All of these combine together to create these extremely narrow towers.”

Meanwhile, another trend was playing out. In 1954, a massive fire ripped through the shantytowns of Shek Kip Mei and left more than 53,000 mainland refugees homeless. The government responded by quickly building resettlement housing for the victims. Eventually, these temporary resettlement estates were replaced by permanent high-rise public housing like Choi Hung Estate, a landmark complex that opened in 1964 with room for 43,000 residents.

The housing units in these estates were functional but small; families shared spaces that ranged in size from 280 to 450 square feet. That set a bar for private developments. “In response to how dense and compact the original public housing was in Hong Kong, private housing followed in its coattails,” says Carlow. “There were minimum standards of how small a room could be, how low the ceiling could be, and private developers and architects had a hand in shaping those because of the need for more housing.”

Choi Hung Estate - 1979 - Vertical city

Choi Hung Estate, 1979, documented by a government aerial survey

Hong Kong’s first private housing estate was Mei Foo Sun Chuen, which opened on the site of a former Mobil oil depot between 1968 and 1978. (美孚 or Mei5 Fu1 is the Cantonese name for Mobil.) Though its accommodations were better appointed and more spacious than public housing, Mei Foo adopted the core characteristics of estates like Choi Hung and amplified them, creating a self-contained community with supermarkets, recreational facilities and 99 high-rise apartment towers home to 80,000 people. Mei Foo was a success; even today, it is considered a benchmark for middle-class housing values, along with similar estates like Taikoo Shing and City One.

Speaking of land values, these were another factor in Hong Kong’s high-rise housing boom. Thanks to its British colonial legacy, Hong Kong’s government owns all of the land in the territory and leases it out for varying lengths of time. That system allowed the government to create a system whereby most of its revenue is generated by auctioning off large chunks of land for billions of dollars. That’s one of the reasons why taxes here are among the lowest in the world, but the tradeoff is that property is extremely expensive, because the government won’t sell land for cheap. The public housing programme was cut back after the Asian financial crisis of 1998, which made things even more expensive.

With each square metre of land worth tens of thousands of dollars, developers build as big and tall as they can to make a profit – which is why the average price of a 430-square-foot shoebox in the sky is now HK$4.3 million, and why sky-high retail rents mean you are more likely to find a restaurant on the fifth floor of a building than on the street level.

Hong Kong’s extreme density has a number of drawbacks. Housing estates built in the 1990s were so tall and dense, they were termed “wall buildings” because they cut off air circulation in the neighbourhoods around them, trapping air pollution and bumping up summertime temperatures by several degrees. Building codes are constantly being tweaked to mitigate these effects, which is why so many buildings look the same – developers simply build what they can according to the regulations of the day. It’s also why there are so many roof gardens and public passageways that pass through private buildings; these are some of the ways the government has attempted to blend the need for public amenities with its culture of high-rise, high-density development.

And so there you have it: the ultimate vertical city. “Hong Kong’s density is definitely unique,” says Solomon. Something to think about the next time you step into a lift.

Illustrations of composite buildings by Eunice Seng. Click here for more information.

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