Cities Without Ground | book review
Recently MovingCities received Cities Without Ground [April 2012, ORO Editions], a publication by Adam Frampton, Jonathan Solomon and Clara Wong. The subject is the city of Hong Kong 香港 and the publication is – as the subtitle suggests – more a Hong Kong guidebook than a pamphlet, manifesto or analysis of a larger urban trend. A book review.
Cities Without Ground | a Hong Kong guidebook
Cities Without Ground is an intriguing title. It almost suggests a form of urban organization flowing above the city’s crust. It makes one think about the experience of meandering through Hong Kong 香港 on central and mid level escalators, of navigating from shoppingmall to shoppingmall thereby hovering over streets and highways. To us, the impression of Hong Kong as a city without ground automatically renders this urban ensemble into a City of Corridors.
The iconic piece of infrastructure is the Hong Kong Central-Mid-Levels Escalator. As Cities Without Ground does not feature any introduction to this subject we discovered that it was officially opened to the public on 15 October 1993 and now carries upwards of 60,000 people a day: “From 6.A.M – 10A.M. the escalator moves downhill and then uphill from 10.15A.M.-12A.M. The complete system of several escalators runs for 800m and climbs a total of 135 meters, some of the ascents can be very steep.” [source]. The Central–Mid-levels escalators in Hong Kong is the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world [source].
On the back of Cities Without Ground, the authors describe the urban experience of urban Hong Kong 香港 as a series of oppositions: chaos versus functional organization, vast versus compact distances and ambiguous versus choreographed crowds. As written in the book “the work that would eventually form Cities Without Ground germinated in a series of seminars taught by Jonathan Solomon at the Univeristy of Hong Kong’s Department of Architecture titled “Learning from Louis Vuitton.”” The authors have decided to put the focus on the footbridge networks throughout the city that, in their understanding, has become “an extensive network and a prevailing development model for the city’s large-scale urban projects.”
By observing, documenting and visualizing a series of passages in Central and Wan Chai Hong Kong, the authors state that “Hong Kong enhances three-dimensional connectivity to such a degree that it eliminates reference to the ground altogether. Hong Kong is a city without ground…”
The book presents Hong Kong 香港 as a template, as a territory that holds a promise of connectivity that soon will influence other and similar infrastructural projects in the city. The book first sets out with a brief introduction to four key themes: Ground, Solids, Connectivity and Activity. Here again we understand that the authors are interested in describing the opposite forces in the city. This contrast, at least in text, is described as following: “Hong Kong’s most generic of spaces: Shopping malls, train stations and corporate lobbies, define and generate a unique culture.”
More than probing or developing a new discourse on the city of Hong Kong, the authors describe the publication as “intended to make Hong Kong’s unique qualities and complexity legible, yielding at once a spatial guide and cultural record.”
Unfortunately for the book most of the images and visuals only illustrate these points, thereby not grabbing the opportunity to present critical interpretations derived from these observations. Next to this, there is a big shortcoming when it comes to contextualizing Hong Kong. We are missing are notions about density, intensity, repetition, frequency, scale and time (too name a few) so to understand the emergence and presence of these programs and various groups within the specific context of Hong Kong. Additional background information (historical, social or structural) would have been welcome. Equally interesting would have been to know a bit about facts: length, weight or dimensions of these elevated corridors, connecting bridges. Or even about its daily use: how many people on daily basis make use of this infrastructure? And last but not least one wonders about the relation between public social life in relation to the seasonal changes of Hong Kong.
What ‘Emergent Architectural Territories in East Asian Cities‘ [Birkhäuser, 2011] is lacking in terms of innovative and readable graphics has this book in abundance, but what ‘Emergent Architectural Territories in East Asian Cities’ has in abundance, and in depth, is content, context and critical commentary. That is unfortunately absent here.
In the drawings something strange is happening. It seems that the authors decided not only to create maps of the existing situation but also to infuse these this with speculative projects. One case in point is for example the proposal for a border crossing facility at Heung Yuen Wai. It is a bit of a mystery why these hypothetical interventions are incorporated into the mapping of the city.
What we although clearly see from these images is the complexity of transitions and connections and the interlocking and interweaving of commercial and public activities. There is no doubt that this multi-level infrastructure is responsible for an acceleration by proxy of various programs. At the same time it becomes clear that these different programs are programmatic particles that are positioned, almost like confetti, at random spaces. The question is what new type of culture of congestion this interplay of public infrastructure and individual activities (smoking paraphernalia, perfume, scarves, fake watches, sidewalk fortune tellers, dog beds, shoe inserts, portable radios and fake iPhads) is generating.
In the end of this 128-pages book there is a small chapter called ‘atmosphere’ where the temperature of the territory is mapped, documented and visualized. Here we find the temperature for an air-conditioned fur boutique (22,8 degrees), freezing train cars (20,5 degrees), an escalator from Park to Mall (bringing one from 22,8 to 27,3 degrees) or an air-conditioned Hotpot restaurant (22,9 degrees).
Overall Cities Without Ground is a mix of facts and figures, of machinations and maps that portray Hong Kong as a city of cascading connections. The axonometric drawings [click here for a selection] are highly readable, but it would have probably been equally useful to have a digital version for this guidebook, a kind of architecture app that guides one through this dense network.
As every guidebook, there is a fear of being outdated before the book reaches its audience. But there should be hardly any fear of this publication being outdated, as it seems there is an archeological quality underlying this project. The book documents a moment in time, but only captures this swirl of activities in a static manner. For all the words on the relations between figures and grounds, there are simply a few basic things missing in order to make this a irresistible document of the times: a timeline and a couple of more data-driven facts and diagrams are the most crucial elements missing.
But the proof of the publication is probably to use it on the ground. So next time we are going to Hong Kong 香港, we’ll bring this copy with us, cruise the corridors of the city and probably will notice the programmatic changes. This is a niche book for probably an audience of cartographers, architectural curators and exhibition designers, compilers and collectors of urban information or for regional academics.
- Cities Without Ground by Adam Frampton, Jonathan Solomon and Clara Wong, 2012
[pp. 128, $ 19.95] ORO Editions
Are you an academic, architect, urbanist or artist? A writer, photographer or psychologist? Are you dealing with urbanism, media, networks, cultures, globalization, architecture, people, re-inventing the world, interventions and observations, the culture of craftmanship [before or after the global crisis] or anything else that could be of MovingCities-interest? Are you also interested in sending a copy of your book to China? [contact us for interest, suggestions and details]