The Kowloon Walled City: The sunless city

Forgemind ArchiMedia3

Full text By Peter Torrijos (@Pedro_Torrijos). Originally posted in Spanish at Yorokobu.es Magazine. Photographs of Greg Girard Webpage.

Once upon a time a city where it was always night. A city without light and air. A city that had grown at the rate of a tumor; swollen and without order. A city that turned its back to planning. A city that gave back to the man.

If we speak in purely social terms, urban planning is the most important discipline of architecture. Because brand relations of man as a member of that construct that we call society. It is not just that indicate the places where homes are built and distinguishes them from parks and shopping, sports, hospital or denotational spaces; also regulates the lengths and widths of the streets, edification occupation and therefore the height of the buildings. And that means ordering the sunlight, air and light. That means organizing health and, ultimately, the lives of people.

Unfortunately, in economic terms, urban planning is the most important discipline of architecture, for the great mass of money that moves. Both legal and illegal. It is not surprising therefore that the planning was largely associated corruption cases appearing a other day as well, in Spain and in fact, in almost any western city. But again, this is no fault of urbanism as a discipline, but of money orbit around and use it to make our beloved public officials.

Since homo sapiens stopped being nomadic and became a farmer, human settlements have needed some sort. Obviously, the first towns only simple groups consisted of roughly neighboring houses. And his approach had to do mainly with climatic or orographic conditions of the territory on which they are built. However, from ancient Greece are examples of planned cities perfectly conscious way. And even more so since the emergence of classical Rome, the urban layout sustained about two orthogonal axes marked Western cities to this day. Indeed, the trace of Eixample or even Manhattan is virtually identical to those of the Roman Caesaraugusta or even the Greek Miletus the V century BC

The evolution of planning as a tool for social management has generated very interesting drawings in cities worldwide. Since variegated maze of Al-Andalus or Venice to suburban houses that colonize the outskirts of American cities. Going through the unique Italian Trace, the fortification system in star that appeared in the Renaissance in response to artillery guns, and avoided the frontage allowing the defense of individual fragments of the wall from the adjacent sector.

Thus, throughout history, the conditions that marked the urban layout have been many: air and light, access to the sea or a river, road or pedestrian traffic, defense or war. But what happens when the only condition is that there are no conditions? Then happens the Walled City of Kowloon.

Kowloon en 1971, en una fotografía aérea tomada por el gobierno de Hong Kong.

Kowloon in 1971, in an aerial photograph taken by the government of Hong Kong.


The Kowloon Walled City was a Chinese military fort, hence its name since it was founded in the tenth century until the end of the nineteenth century, when the Chinese government completed the sale of the New Territories of Hong Kong to the British Empire in 1898 . However, even though the British took possession of the enclave the same year, in the following decades barely lifted a civilian building in the inner-some municipal offices and a place for the elderly. Otherwise, they practiced a great exercise for dereliction of responsibility. In fact, the British governor of Hong Kong preferred to keep the walled city as a tourist attraction. As “a piece of ancient China.” Kowloon were 2.6 hectares without government, self-sustaining and self-regulated by its mere 500 inhabitants, somehow, living in an anarchic harmony.

In 1933, before the misrule of the city, the authorities announced the demolition of the enclave, compensating the people with new houses in neighboring Hong Kong. Before the Second World War in Kowloon was just the wall, school and municipal buildings.

Things changed dramatically after the war. During the Japanese occupation, the army of the rising sun had broken through the wall, reducing the ancient Chinese fort to a rubble. The problem is that, in 1947, following the surrender of Japan, the Chinese authorities want to recover the old city. In response, a violent revolt ended with more than 2,000 residents of Hong Kong Kowloon occupying land and building more than 500 houses, mostly of wood. Three years later, without intervention or regulation by any authority, the city was coagulated by 17,000 people in 2,500 slums. At that time, the density of population was about 650,000 inhabitants / km2. To get an idea, the current density Madrid is 5,200 inhabitants / km2.

In January 1950 a fire reduced to ashes most of the wooden houses. The city practically started again, but this time I was going to do with brick and concrete. And I was going to do a lot more to the beast.

For three decades, from 1950-1980, the Walled City of Kowloon grew quite uncontrollably. Crowded buildings leaning against each other. Built on top of each other. Literally. Locked cells as explosive. Multiplying without government and plan. No sun and no air. Yes, like a tumor.

If the authorities did nothing to control the urban development of the city, not engaged in law enforcement. Thus, this area of Kowloon was governed ipso facto by the Triads, who unfurled a criminal network based gambling, prostitution and drug trafficking.

Greg Girard, Canadian National Geographic photographer toured this part of Kowloon in the late 80s, taking pictures of life among the garbage and the facades of the city impossible. He published his work on the formidable book City of Darkness. Photos are overwhelming, not only by the monumental horror of uncontrolled urban teaching us, but also by the fascinating images of everyday life that, despite all, made his way in a world without sun. The bare wires, butts falls in the corners. The twisted and wet dishes, eaten by corrosion. The doors and windows forming a conglomerate thousand pieces of sheet metal and wood and glass. But the windows and signs and lying summers between rooftops. And the smiles. Yes, smiles between stagnant and thick air that filled every street and Kowloon well as an unstoppable flood.

Indeed, the Kowloon Walled City was terrible. It was unhealthy, dark and depressing. It was dirty and very dangerous. It was everything a city should not be. But it was also fascinating; at least from a distance. In fact, this fascination with the overcrowded city led a group of Japanese architects to draw a very detailed section of Kowloon, which in 1996 published the book The big picture of Kowloon and can be viewed at Deconcrete Magazine.


Fragmento de la sección transversal de Kowloon
Fragment of cross-section of Kowloon

In 1987, after several attempts over the years, and considering that the situation was untenable, the Chinese and British governments agreed to its complete demolition. Hong Kong‘s authority spent about 350 million dollars to compensate and relocate the inhabitants of the city, although some of them did not consider satisfactory the agreement and had to be forcibly removed between 1991 and 1992. In April 1994, after a year of demolition work, the Walled City of Kowloon ceased to exist forever. Today, the land on which it stood is a public park. A green, bright and quiet place called the Walled City Park in Kowloon. A place where nothing reminds the three decades in which there in the same space, a city without sun rose.


Parque de Kowloon en la actualidad (DP)Kowloon Park today (DP)

Note: All images of Kowloon, unless expressly stated, are from the web formidable Greg Girard, where you can see many more.

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