Staggering numbers of random, predictable building typologies built wherever land was available by whoever got there first were characteristic of the early days in the Kowloon Walled City. Hundreds of walkways and alleys evolved during this period – The structures were constructed based on squatters’ rights – it was an anarchist society, self-governing and self-regulating; an overcrowded slum which locals called Hak Nam—the City of Darkness.  

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In March 1993, bulldozers were brought to begin condemning the Walled City to China’s history. This unplanned, self-determining, surreal 2.7-hectare enclave was once the world’s most densely populated squat.

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The Story of the Kowloon Walled City

During the 1960s, the need to house fast-growing residential and commercial populations pushed the architecture of the Walled City to leap from two to three-story residential buildings to lankier, six to seven-story towers. This represented an important threshold because at higher altitudes the building technology unavoidably became more complex and required greater labor to realize, advanced technology, more material, more investment, and so on. A different way of living was also born out of this transition. 

For example, water had to now be pumped up to the higher floors. Similarly the cooking gas. The new establishments adapted to accommodate the specific contingencies of their sites. Most of the buildings were erected without architectural or engineering involvement, scientific foundations or piling techniques, there was little uniformity in shape, height, or material, they used construction materials of dubious quality, ignored most engineering standards, entering the city meant leaving daylight and breeze behind, there were no proper water supply or waste disposal system, and certainly no adequate retrofitting. 

The constructions were free from any constraints of government regulations; title deeds, property limits, and regulations. With no law to speak of, buildings were thrown up at an incredible pace. Every building was an example of inventive, renegade design; almost anything was worth a try.

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Kowloon Walled City in China: City of Imagination - Sheet1
An Aerial View of the City

By Ian Lambot – Ian Lambot. City of Darkness – Life in Kowloon Walled City (ISBN 1-873200-13-7). 1993., CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56276668

Modernism and Stepping Up in Scale 

Concrete structures, interconnected bridges, and alleyways replaced open floor plans. The little gardens and animal pens present in the 1950s – vanished. Blocks began to merge and daylight shrank day by day. Thousands of pipes, most of them leaking and rusted, wirings, and cables ran vertically up to rooftop aerials from ground level along every wall and ceiling, wrapping every surface; many wires extended horizontally like countless rolls of dark twine that seemed to strap the buildings together. 

‘Developers’ – were now anyone with the gumption, money, and access to information on basic building construction. These developers made proposals to existing owners about trading their current double-story homes for bigger, better, more ‘modern’ homes. The developers grouped properties to produce a larger footprint, thus enhancing profits. This naturally led to an evolution in the grain of the Kowloon Walled City, stepping it up in scale.

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Kowloon Walled City in China: City of Imagination - Sheet2
A Walkway in the City

By Ian Lambot – http://cityofdarkness.co.uk/dark-alleys/dark-city-04-2/Also found in the book City of Darkness – Life in Kowloon Walled City by Ian Lambot (ISBN 1-873200-13-7)., CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56276672

The Walled City’s Most Distinctive and Interesting Features

There was no drawing to go by – or standards to adhere to. Existing staircases were co-opted, windows of neighboring houses were ignored and walled over, floors were cantilevered over pathways, often until they touched those across the path. Iron balcony cages lurched against the moss-tinged walls.

The roofscape of the Walled City soon turned into its public realm, with terrace gardens, playing children, sitting groups of adults, and where an interwoven circulation system existed. 

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Stubby buildings were not always demolished, but simply had more floors added atop them. Even several stories up, the maze of walkways continued: knotted, interconnecting bridges and stairwells were built to traverse different structures without returning to ground level each time. This amusing ‘organic’ growth became one of Kowloon Walled City’s most distinctive and interesting features at an architectural or design level. 

A 1993 Photograph of the City

By Ian Lambot – Ian Lambot. City of Darkness – Life in Kowloon Walled City (ISBN 1-873200-13-7). 1993., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56276673

The Rise of the Kai Fong Association

An attempt in 1963 by local authorities to evict a part of the northeast corner of the Walled City was halted after the Chinese Government raised objections, and this explicit denial of the British rule within the Walled City opened the gates to rampant development. That same year, the Kai Fong Association was formed by the locals, to help face the challenge of the British eviction effort and to arbitrate property claims. 

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The Kai Fong became the de facto authority for property disputes and transactions in the city and they soon established their stamp as the sole valid proof of ownership on the property papers. Living conditions within the Walled City grew ever worse, as the increased buildings and resulting crowds put yet more pressure on the inadequate infrastructure. Water supply and quality deteriorated further, drainage systems were insufficient and often clogged, electrical outages became a new normal and the few electrical supplies that existed were often overburdened by illegal tapping. 

The authorities accepted that they had to bring some improvements, but were challenged by conditions that made repair and maintenance nearly impossible. Moreover, they were restrained by the concern that any improvements encouraged an illegal settlement that, otherwise, would have been demolished.

The Unsolvable Dilemma That the Government Faced 

Meanwhile, private water wells were dug and the water was used for brazen profiteering. The Walled City grew higher, denser, and darker. The Government faced a puzzling dilemma: they wanted to help conditions without legitimating illegal dwellings, but couldn’t easily do so because of the irreversible mess the Walled City had turned into. By the 1970s, the Kowloon Walled City was at its maximized form, with a tightly packed block of buildings; almost all, 10 to 14 stories high, and virtually no ground-level daylight penetration except the few shafts of sunlight that managed to pierce through the small gaps. 

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However, the Yemen area had somehow escaped vertical development, leased to a missionary society in 1949. Eventually, it defined the only substantial void within the Walled City, with the visible sky. A small shrine near Lo Yan St also survived but was buried in rubbish tossed out from surrounding windows, to a point where there was no visible skylight.

The Last Missing Teeth of the City | Kowloon Walled City

During the 1980s, the few ‘missing teeth’ in the urban block of the Kowloon Walled City were also tightly filled in, and it had coalesced —so tight as to make the whole city appear almost like one massive continuous mass.  Some buildings seemed to lean against their neighbours like ‘lovers’, some were unbelievably narrow. These final-stage high-rises were the most precarious, if creative, of all in the Kowloon Walled City’s history. 

Their builders claimed they were safe, and that they followed the same structural regulations of buildings in Hong Kong. This was probably true, for, none ever did collapse. Yet it is also true that they were erected at the very knife-edge of minimum structural and architectural standards. 

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Structural Failure Defeated by Structural Content

As the Kowloon Walled City grew and solidified into a single block, structural failure was at least partly defeated by structural context. Buildings held each other up and stabilized the physical mass as a whole. Apart from the possibility of a building collapsing vertically onto itself, with interwoven buildings packed skin to skin, it is not easy to bend, buckle or fall when there is no room to do so. 

Was the Kowloon Walled City then a brilliant laboratory test case for urban self-growth, self-regulation, or self-governance? Does its chaotic organic evolution portray what all cities would look like without architectural, engineering, or government intervention? As the city’s social, physical, economic, and architectural interdependency grew, it matured into a truly indigenous physical mass, which is why it continues to fascinate us.

Author

Sowmya is an architectural journalist and writer. In this column, Sowmya takes you through stories on eco-architecture, biophilic design, and green buildings from across the globe.

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