The photographer Michael Wolf has taken some extraordinary photos of Hong Kong. In his project ‘The Density of Space’, he captures the sense of trapped vertical alienation from the residential high rises of the city.
His photos give off a hypnotic effect of both uniformity and complete atomisation. Each divided unit is severely alienated from its surroundings. How these two impressions co-exist is interesting.
It is easy to be critical of mass housing like this, especially if we are used to living in small apartment blocks or semi-detached houses. These photos come from a different world however, a different scale which I think we are unable to comprehend or validate. In a prejudiced way, we may feel apprehensive about the dense nature of the buildings, but only because of our specific background:
"In Western and Eastern Europe, such architecture evokes the crackup of modern utopian schemes to guarantee housing for all, the standardization of architecture presaging a standardization of personal identity in submission to social policy. These social failures played themselves out against an ideological background colored by the notion that the powerful now had the technical and psychological means to reinvent society at will. Apparently Hong Kong people coping with a unique urban geography, view matters differently, seeing a promise of convenience and personal independence in architecture that to Western eyes evokes deadening redundancy and impersonality."
For some reason, it fascinates me in this case the priority of pragmatism over ideals. Hong Kong’s residents are too busy coping with the constraints of daily life to care about how these buildings look or relate to a set of ideas. People have to put up with living so closely to each other, and simply aim to live with pragmatism and convenience as their priorities. It gives a feeling of liveliness when you witness first hand this sort of anarchic self-organisationation. There’s a chaos coming from inside these buildings, but it somehow organises itself around the constraints of space.
A close look at any one of Wolf’s architectural pictures discovers distinctions — in window coverings, in laundry flapping like flags of personal identity, in makeshift exterior storage — that wink out from the apparently identical apartments.
Donald Young writes that the new Hong Kong apartment architecture has turned the lives of Hong Kong people inside out: lack of privacy at home forces people into public expressions of their individuality.
There’s anonymity here, as well as mosaics of individuality. The “leakage of identity” in Wolf’s photos is emphasised in some of the descriptions of his photos:
This unself-conscious practicality has produced a sort of bouquet of colored streamers, leaving the bits of fastening visible for future use and incidentally brightening an otherwise bleak setting.
There’s definitely a cinematic appeal to these vast spatial structures. The sense of alienation between the capsuled apartments would have an interesting role in film.
When isolation and density merge together like this, there is something inherently appealing to the camera. These buildings are a found-reality, they could paradoxically be the backdrop to an intimate story.
In one Hong Kong cityscape, a strict modern facade with rectangular pale yellow, peach and sky-blue balconies is irreverently interrupted by clotheslines and mops left out to dry; it’s as though people had taken up residence in a faded Mondrian painting. By night, Wolf captures light beaming blue, gold and green from apartment-block windows, gracing the concrete boxes with an unexpected cinematic grandeur worthy of great Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai. Indoors, residents go about their business, watching TV, doing the dishes, apparently unaware that their actions are echoed by their neighbors ad infinitum in a relentless but somehow reassuring urban rhythm.
I think the alienation in this case is necessary. It serves to buffer the space for the patchwork of different individuals. Unselfconscious and practical, you can visualize the life of the masses adapted around these giant monoliths.
Wolf’s photos distill all of city life as we know it down to its oxymoronic essence: layer upon layer of existential ennui and pulsating vitality, slabs of concrete and the signs of life that miraculously break through it. For better and for worse, there’s no denying: this is the life.