Kowloon Walled City

Kowloon Walled City, a Chinese settlement in Hong Kong was at one time thought to be the most dense place on the planet. At its peak, the Kowloon Walled City was home to 33,000 people in just two hectares of land—the size of about two rugby fields.

It also earned itself the nickname ‘City of Darkness’, for its terrible living conditions and for being a hotbed for organized crime.

Pretty dense indeed.

However, what interests me is how this neighborhood was completely neglected by any form of building regulation as it grew, resulting into the darkest example of vernacular architecture I’ve ever seen.. or perhaps I am wrong?

As this article on ArchDaily explains:

The buildings were constructed on the principle of squatters’ rights, with random construction on spots of available land by whoever got there first. Alleyways and passages evolved – unplanned – into the established ‘map’ of the City.

The new buildings adapted themselves in relation to the specific contingencies of their sites. […] They used available space – free from the normal constraints of title deeds, property limits and regulations – in completely original ways.

The roofscape of the Walled City became its own public realm, with potted gardening, playing children, reposing adults, and where lateral circulation occurred (even by the postman). […] At higher levels, corridors were connected to allow people to traverse different structures without returning to ground level.

They were inventive, renegade architectural specimens.

Photo from the book City of Darkness: Life In Kowloon Walled City by Greg Girard and Ian Lambot

In this second article, the author recalls show his dad spoke of the Walled City, with something approaching pride, gives a very different impression to its popular depiction—it is much easier to tell a story of depraved lifestyles in a dark maze of inhumane living conditions:

He describes the place as “very special,” both as the only place in Hong Kong that went unaffected by British rule and as a unique community in itself.

He went on to describe the physical environment of the place, with an energy that I have only otherwise seen during one of his jam-making frenzies. Smiling, he recalled the constant dripping of water leaks everywhere and the surreal disappearance of the sky once you entered. 

It goes to show that one persons eye-sore is the other person’s pride, and that you can never assume anything.

Kowloon was disassembled in 1993, but was remains are some vital cues for accommodating people’s needs in dense, high-rise architecture and how they lead to interdependent and self-sufficient lifestyles.