Hong Kong is a city of seven million inhabitants, most of whom live and work in one of its 7,838 highrises. But the city wears its verticality and density in a way that is remarkably different from that of New York City. It is this difference that Carol Willis, the founder and director of the Skyscraper Museum, examines in Vertical Cities: Hong Kong/New York.
Willis’ show, which runs through February 2009, is the second in a series of three called Future Cities 20/21. The first, New York Modern, examined the New York of the early 20th century as a prophecy of the metropolis that it was about to become; some of that show’s historical materials form the basis for Vertical Cities. Considering the diminutive size of the Skyscraper Museum, the incorporation of earlier exhibitions to develop a story line for the new show can be slightly puzzling for the typical visitor, but it may well stimulate the curious to come back for the third chapter in the Future Cities saga: China Prophecy, an exhibition that will explore the 21st-century skyscraper city of Shanghai.
Vertical Cities zooms in on the more contemporary, rapid-fire model of verticality that Hong Kong offers. The show starts enthusiastically with the stark comparison of two wall-size Google maps of Hong Kong and New York. These not only suggest a story of two waterfront cities that developed from colonial ports into bustling hubs of finance and transport, they illustrate how New York’s model of vertical density, which developed a century ago, has been copied and tweaked in Hong Kong. There, it has become a new urban idiom of verticality, and almost forty years after the start of the city’s building boom, bears visual similarity but spatial differences that are well worth a closer look.
Courtesy The Skyscraper Museum
Willis may have felt obliged to present visitors with well-known examples of skyscrapers such as I. M. Pei’s Bank of China, Norman Foster’s HSBC building, and Cesar Pelli’s 88-story IFC2 tower, but the show’s narrative focuses more on the spatial qualities that make Hong Kong such an intriguing place. An aerial photo of New York shows a gray hodgepodge of buildings that is equaled in Hong Kong’s gridded area of Kowloon. Both can be highly suffocating, and both feel very 20th century. But whereas Manhattan’s density of 70,000 people per square mile is relieved primarily by Central Park and the odd pocket of greenery carved out by Broadway’s meandering path, the urban experience in Hong Kong can be completely different.
Hong Kong’s topography is one of hills and valleys, and aggressive conservation efforts by the government—especially on Hong Kong Island—has led to the development of densities up to 100,000 people per square mile amid generous pockets of tropical green space. Some of these urban zones are New Towns in the modernist sense of the word—filled with isolated residential towers of sixty or more stories overlooking the tropical landscape—and thus feel generic and boring, but these are not the rule. Though it isn’t well articulated in the exhibition’s layout and design, which could have done with a stronger graphic hand, it is the inspired layering of space that makes Hong Kong a worthy case study of the possibilities of such intense verticality.
Willis shows the Mid-Levels Escalator, the world’s longest outdoor escalator that snakes up above the steep, narrow streets of Hong Kong Island, connecting the urban grid to slender towers that are soaring high above. Together with the elevated pedestrian bridges that link the lower-level floors of a series of towers in the financial district, this escalator portrays an exciting horizontal, and even diagonal, connectivity. Adding a layer to the busy street level and underground transit systems, it activates the otherwise cut-off verticality: a successful prototype in practice that cries for further investigation in the designs for future cities all around the world.