Feb 28, 201411:46 AMPoint of View

The METROPOLIS Blog

Why Architects Shouldn't Fetishize Slums

Why Architects Shouldn't Fetishize Slums

Projects like Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City have sparked fascination among architects and designers, who overlook the terrible living conditions these slums fostered.

Courtesy Greg Girard and Ian Lambot via Flickr

This article originally appeared on Archdaily under the title The Indicator: The Slum Exotic and the Persistence of Hong Kong’s Walled City.


Whenever I see sensational exposes on the supposedly sublime spatial intensity of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City (demolished in 1994), they strike me as nothing more than colonial fantasies that have little to do with the reality of living in the midst of one of the world’s cruelest slums. You see the walled city pop up constantly like it’s still a valid or even interesting subject. This informal settlement has been diagramed, photographed, and written about for decades from an aesthetic point of view, rendering its victimized and oppressed inhabitants all but invisible. Not to say that this wasn’t home to a lot of people and that no “fond memories” were formed there, but still, like all slums, it was a tough place to live, fraught with contradictions in the haze of hope for a better life.

The extreme conditions of systemic poverty become eclipsed by romantic fables from afar, the fascination of outsiders who marvel at how the place could have even existed on planet Earth. The gaze of the colonist, already historically fixed upon Hong Kong since it became a British Colony in 1898, is even more focused on the Walled City due to its ungovernable defiance in the face of a well-managed colonial system. This was where the illegal immigrants lived, the border-crossers who made it to the brighter side of communist China, or back when it was still communist China. It was also where the Triads, or organized crime syndicates, ruled, with foot soldiers buried deep within its extreme density.

Kowloon Walled City was the logical if not inevitable form for a slum to take in Hong Kong, a reach-for-the-sky approach on a limited 2.6-hectare site, in a city where it is not uncommon to build out your own apartment within a concrete shell. In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, it’s a different logic, stacking one on top of the other, up the hillsides overlooking the sea. In many U.S. cities “the projects” simply look like neighborhoods, such as the area formerly known as South Central Los Angeles. They represent different paradigms of poverty, distinct responses to being down and out, with race and class being critical factors.

Now some former residents have those aforementioned “fond memories” of the Walled City. Well, of course. But it is one thing for former locals to have their memories and quite something else for outsiders to wax lyrical as if it were some sort of bizarre garden blooming with weird yet enticing intellectual flowers. As they once said in China, “May one hundred flowers bloom.” There is also the saying, “Cut the weeds and dig up the roots.” This is just what they did to the actual Walled City. And yet the bizarrely intellectualized one still persists.

The site on which the walled city stood is now blooming, literally. There is a sanitized public park where the slum once sat. Ironically called Kowloon Walled City Park, it celebrates and memorializes a once demonized zone of the city while the rest of us continue to marvel at ghosts.

Is there something of value that comes out of the insistent repetition of the place in popular culture? Are there redeeming qualities to be found for architecture? Perhaps only for the potential of informal spatial consequences to be studied and not repeated—an anti-case study. This is what you don’t do when you are planning a city. But all we are left with now is imagination. Best to keep it there. But if you never lived there it’s hard to imagine.

George Packard, writing for The New Yorker on Rem Koolhaas’ fly-overs of Lagos, Nigeria had this to say: “The impulse to look at an ‘apparently burning garbage heap’ and see an ‘urban phenomenon,’ and then make it the raw material of an elaborate aesthetic construct, is not so different from the more common impulse not to look at all.”


Guy Horton is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to authoring “The Indicator”, he is a frequent contributor to The Architect’s Newspaper, Metropolis Magazine, The Atlantic Cities, and The Huffington Post. He has also written for Architectural Record, GOOD Magazine, and Architect Magazine. You can hear Guy on the radio and podcast as guest host for the show DnA: Design & Architecture on 89.9 FM KCRW out of Los Angeles. Follow Guy on Twitter @GuyHorton.

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Mar 4, 2014 11:21 pm
 Posted by  rtodd23

The premise of this opinion is ridiculously flawed. Musicians, cartoonists, composers, artists, craftspeople, writers, film makers, chefs, scientists, political and social theorists all draw from places like those referenced here in their own pursuits, but for some reason architects should not be allowed to do so. Why not? Why should architects be singled out as the lone creative discipline that must be directed to look away from slums, favelas, and vernacular, unconscious cities?

Kowloon existed. The fact that Kowloon was the densest place ever settled is reason alone to warrant study, speculation, and yes, even inspiration. The favelas continue to exist. Should architects act as if they do not? How can we address problems such as overcrowding, economic disparity, space, and even aesthetics without contemplating examples that are at the edges of acceptability? Doctors hold morbidity conferences when someone dies while in their care. Slums are the result of failed political and economic policy. Clinical examination of slums, bad housing projects, and other negatively charged examples of the built environment can yield critical evidence for future projects.

The author's dismissive assumption that the creative process for architects can only lead to a literal interpretation of the object under study, that derivation alone is the only possible outcome, is a low view of a discipline that can and often does layer cultural and social sensitivity with aesthetics, safety, and quality.

Kowloon was a no-man's-land, a political aberration, a singular place of anarchy. People moved there on purpose, and without any form of regulation made that place for themselves. Kowloon is an alluring artifact, a fascinating case study for those that deal daily with building codes, engineering and budget demands, and a thousand other restrictions on the final outcome of their designs. Let us, at least, dream as we will.

Mar 13, 2014 01:36 pm
 Posted by  Kayla H.

The above comment is a strange and flawed interpretation of the article. First anyone with any proper historical knowledge knows that Kowloon was not an aberration. It is actually one of many colonial outposts in China and elsewhere that were, indeed, walled, not the least of which reason was to keep the "whites" safe from the "coloreds". And the exoticisation in the comment leads one to wonder whether this person has some investment in Kowloon remaining a colony.

That aside the issue is one of whether as an architect can appreciate such cities without also understanding the historical forces that create it and other cities like it. The answer is a resounding No lest one wants to reproduce the conditions that are, for many in this world, a reminder of oppression and colonization.

For example do we want architects to travel the impoverished regions of the States and replicate the elements from them because they, too, are inspiring? Perhaps we might find tin roofs equally evocative. Of course this is an exaggeration but the analogy is there.

The problem with architects finding certain elements of foreign cities they know nothing about and simply appreciate for their own personal aesthetic pleasure as an example of something that must be preserved is that in the process of de-contextualizing, they run the risk of being culturally reductive and condescending. And if that translates into some "inspiration" in their own work, that cultural condescension becomes materially set. As a last example think of all westerners who mistake the supposedly romantic "hutong" as a rapidly disappearing courtyard style home that represents an equally rapidly disappearing way of life all over China. For those of you who don't know it, hutongs are a Beijing typology. It's not "all of China."

Apr 11, 2014 01:34 pm
 Posted by  rtodd23

Kowloon was first a fort at the edge of British territory, that is true. But the fort that was the basis for the walled city was Chinese, not British, as the comment above seems to indicate. I'd encourage the poster to look further into how Kowloon developed.

The manifestation of the walled city that is the subject of the article really had nothing to do with this first incarnation, however. The original fort, once it was circumscribed by Hong Kong's New Territories, was by political agreement not to be policed by the British. The only remnant of the original fort as it grew into the strange, dense environment was its boundary, inside of which there was no official law. It became a sort of ungoverned free trade zone. It is this aberration in policy that allowed it to become what it did; an aberration, both political and architectural, worth studying.

I am surprised that the respondent agrees with the original article - that architects should not be allowed to study Kowloon or other slums. Not only does this smack of prejudice and censorship, it also has real implications. We can learn from Kowloon, and what we learn can make future architectural and planning projects better. If we don't look, we can't learn.

I reiterate my earlier assertion. If it is okay for other disciplines such as fashion, the media, social/political scientists, etc. to study Kowloon and other such places then it is okay for architects to do so as well.

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