Hong Kong, Grounded

Photographing the zones of contact between the multilevel metropolis and the mountain.

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Hong Kong, Grounded
Where the city meets the ground. Artificial topography of reinforced ferro-cement beside a pedestrian skyway. Registered slope 11SW-B / C65. / © Karl Kullmann

Hong Kong is relentlessly vertical, a city of towers and skyways, elevators and ladder streets, built on a mountainside — a city without ground, according to the architects Adam Frampton, Jonathan D. Solomon, and Clara Wong. In their guidebook to the three-dimensional circulatory networks of downtown Hong Kong, they draw a city that has radically abrogated its relationship with the ground plane.

It’s a beautiful, insightful book, but its sense of gravity is all wrong. For no matter how deeply you lose yourself in the aerial labyrinth, how many escalators you ascend from sea level, how many building portals you pass through, inevitably the mountainous terrain of Hong Kong Island rises up at a faster rate. The levitating pedestrian bumps into the hillside and is brought back to earth. In Hong Kong, the ground is everywhere.

The photographs examine zones of contact between the multilevel metropolis and the mountain. Rocks and soils that in other cities would be buried or obscured are here integral to the setting. The terrain that weaves between streets, through public spaces, and beneath buildings reminds observers of the tenuous relation between the city and its geology. To guard against landslides, the most precipitous grades are stabilized by engineers and classified within a government database that contains 60,000 registered slopes. This is a serious enterprise, with official plates identifying the geotechnical compliance of each slope. Engineering solutions vary from simple block retaining walls to more elaborate structures with anchors, scaffoldings, high tensile wires, and ferro-cement. They constitute a topographic image of the island.

These slopes are frequently put to civic use. Usable land is so scarce that community functions are shoehorned into the engineered hillsides: miniature pocket parks, vertical gardens, seating nooks, bus stops, even ultra-compact municipal storage depots. For flatlanders who are accustomed to cities built on floodplains, this is a novel arrangement. When analyzed in the traditional plan view, Hong Kong’s pocket spaces do not fit conventional templates for good urban legibility, accessibility, repetition, structure, or form. Often, you cannot see from one element to the next, nestled above or below. And yet, the assemblage works. It meets the higher goals of urban design: distinctiveness, variation, and responsiveness to place. […]