Hong Kong’s Lessons from NYC in Vertical Delirium

Event: Hong Kong | New York: Vertical Density | Sustainable Solutions
Location: Chase Manhattan Plaza, 10.16.08; Tishman Auditorium, New School, 10.17-18.08
Speakers: Learning from Hong Kong, 10.16.08: Thomas Wright — Executive Director, Regional Planning Association; Thomas Ho — Property Director, MTR Corporation, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region; Elliot Sander — Executive Director & CEO, MTA; Christopher O. Ward — Executive Director, Port Authority of NY & NJ; Paul Katz, FAIA — Partner & Principal, Kohn Pedersen Fox; David Scott — Principal, Arup & Chair, Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat; Julia Lau — Sun Hung Kai Properties; Vishaan Chakrabarti, AIA — Executive Vice President, The Related Companies; Debating Density, 10.17.2008: Nicholas Brooke — Chairman, Professional Property Services Group, Hong Kong; Mark Willis — Visiting Scholar, The Ford Foundation; Peter Cookson Smith — Founding Director, Urbis, Hong Kong; Christine Loh — President & CEO, Civic-Exchange; Margaret Brooke — Heritage Hong Kong; Robert Tierney — Chair, NYC Landmark Preservation Commission; Carrie Lam — Secretary for Development, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region; Amanda Burden, Hon. AIANY — Chair, City Planning Commission & Director, Department of City Planning; Designing Density: Theory and Practice, 10.18.08: Brian McGrath — Associate Professor of Urban Design, Parsons School of Design; Paul Chu — Hong Kong Urban Design Alliance; Laurence Liauw — Architect & Associate Professor, Chinese University of Hong Kong; Ackbar Abbas — Professor of Comparative Literature, Hong Kong University & UC-Irvine; Alexandros E. Washburn, AIA — Chief Urban Designer, NYC Dept of City Planning; Eric Höweler, AIA — Principal, Höweler Yoon Architecture; Jim Robinson — Executive Director, Hong Kong Land
Moderator: Carol Willis — Director, The Skyscraper Museum;
Organizers: The Skyscraper Museum

NYC and Hong Kong share certain conditions, physical and cultural: excellent harbors, limited buildable land, a history as transit points for immigration and emigration, and a collective willingness to explore the “culture of congestion,” as coined in Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York. If NYC was the original test bed for the idea, Hong Kong has adapted it successfully and stretched its possibilities. Hong Kong now has the world’s highest concentration of skyscrapers. Its middle class and its developers have created a thick forest of high-rise housing to accommodate them. The buildable areas of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula are so Manhattanized that the common description as Asia’s Manhattan has almost run its course and inverted itself, so that Vishaan Chakrabarti, AIA, executive vice president of the Related Companies, could refer to “New York [as] actually America’s Hong Kong.”

Carol Willis, director of the Skyscraper Museum, drew distinctions between forms of density produced by wealth and by poverty: affluent cities, like NYC and Hong Kong plus London, tend to embrace vertical development, while poorer cities like Mumbai and Cairo, though technically denser on a raw statistical basis, are predominantly low-rise. (If only the buildable 25% is considered, Hong Kong, like Manhattan, has about 70,000 people per square mile.) The early 20th-century Futurist vision, a rationalized city of high-tech multimodal transportation, takes literal shape in the elevated pedestrian bridges, large-scale harbor reclamation projects, and single-seat rail-to-airport connections of today’s Hong Kong.

A key part of this realized future is the MTR train system, a profitable private company that pursues an integrated rail/property development model. By coordinating all aspects of construction and management of mixed-use properties atop or adjacent to railway stations, MTR finances high-volume rail operations (some 3.4 million personal trips a day) without any government support. MTR also supports ambitious designs, including the eco-community LOHAS Park (“Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability”) near Tseung Kwan O station, a 50-tower complex that will segregate cars completely from pedestrian space in the interests of air quality, recreation, and healthy living. Local panelists, including the MTA’s Elliot Sander and the Port Authority’s Christopher Ward, expressed admiration for what Ho called a “win-win-win-win” for Hong Kong society, developers, government, and MTR. They wondered whether sprawlbound American culture is ready for such a radical departure into a post-automotive future.

The “Debating Density” discussion produced rigorous self-critiques of development’s erasure of building styles and street life. The panel’s fundamental question — does density pay, or does it cost? — becomes more urgent, said Kohn Pedersen Fox’s Paul Katz, FAIA, in the context of current financial collapses triggered by housing loans; financial, housing, and environmental crises are all consequences of sprawl, Katz finds, and density is the solution. Yet planning for density, incentivizing dense community formation in and around urban areas, and ensuring affordability have also exacted costs: the city is losing a degree of its authenticity, and air pollution undermines postcard views. Panelists stressed that an engineering-based approach to planning can strip away the idiosyncrasies that are inseparable from high-quality urban life. NYC’s street-level diversity is a positive model for Hong Kong and other cities.

Panelists emphasized the importance of bottom-up planning, looking at the city as a multidimensional organism rather than the 2-D zoning maps, photos, and renderings. Hong Kong Urban Design Alliance’s Paul Chu has his students examine sections rather than plans to acquire a sense of self-organizing urban textures and understand how superblocks destroy complexity. Ackbar Abbas, a professor of comparative literature and native Hongkonger, recalled Koolhaas’s idea that congestion is not so much a problem as the “forever insoluble problem that allowed Manhattan to be built.” If a “Hong Kong-ism” is arising, the city’s history as a site of migration, dependence, and recurrent threats give it a unique dynamic balance, forever converting its own crises into vitality.