Techno-Pastoral Fantasies at Hong Kong International

Ngong Ping 360 gondola rides near Hong Kong International Airport. [Photo by Max Hirsh]

Over the past 20 years, Hong Kong has shed its roots as a colonial trading hub and emerged as a global financial center, a transition enabled by massive investments in infrastructure and land reclamation that have physically reprogrammed the urban landscape. The most dramatic (and costly) of those endeavors was the Airport Core Programme, a 10-point urban redevelopment scheme that accompanied the construction of the new Hong Kong International Airport on an artificial island off the coast of Lantau, on the territory’s sparsely populated southwestern fringe. The program included a land reclamation project in Victoria Harbour that increased the size of the central business district by more than 20 percent, as well as a 34-kilometer high-speed rail and road corridor between the airport and downtown Hong Kong. Throughout the 1990s, nearly all of the world’s dredging equipment was stationed off the coast of Hong Kong, harvesting sand from the South China Sea upon which to build office towers, hotels, shopping malls and the infrastructure that supports them.

In little more than a decade, HKIA has become the world’s busiest trans-shipment center for air cargo; it also serves more than 50 million passengers annually. Among the tight-knit community of airport designers, HKIA is famous for the infrastructural bravado underpinning its rapid construction. Less well known is the unusual diversity of urban activities that flourishes on its periphery: a new town of 100,000 residents; a giant pop concert arena; a cable car network spanning the rugged mountain ranges; and, on the airport’s southwestern flank, a string of ancient fishing communities sustained by the production of dried seafood. As shown in this gallery, it is a sprawling landscape of hiking trails and villages, expressways and logistics complexes, that spatializes the contradictory impulses shaping urban design strategies in Asia’s leading metropoles.

On the one hand, cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore are locked in an arms race of urban development, each trying to claim the dubious title of Asia’s preeminent “global city.” That aspiration has generated a decisive political will to invest in the heavy infrastructures — ports, airports and high-speed rail — that multiply, optimize and accelerate the movement of goods, people and information. (In the blunt vernacular of the logistics industry, this is known as “throughput,” and Hong Kong’s throughput has increased by an order of magnitude since the 1980s.) At the same time, many residents — especially younger generations — are showing signs of globalization fatigue, marked by a mounting unwillingness to countenance urban development at any cost. They are growing disenchanted with senior political leaders whose deep-seated status anxiety reveals itself in conspicuous consumption of foreign goods, fanatical pursuit of GDP growth, and an unshakeable belief that imported models of urban design are inherently better than locally developed ones. From Seoul to Singapore, many 20- and 30-somethings claim that they no longer recognize the cities in which they grew up. Their growing sense of alienation from the urban landscape has spurred a compensatory interest in local traditions, historic architectural forms and environmental protection, and has obligated political leaders to learn, however grudgingly, the language of urban ecology and historic preservation.

These contradictions are never far from the surface in Lantau, and they intersect at odd angles with the peculiarities of the airport typology. HKIA has been substantially responsible for increasing the flow of goods and people through Hong Kong; and those flows, in turn, have generated a variety of commercial developments in and around the airport. And yet height restrictions and security concerns have limited the scope of development, so that much of the surrounding region remains a low-density, rural landscape — home to one of Hong Kong’s largest green spaces and some of its oldest continuously inhabited villages. In effect, the airport’s unique design constraints have produced a landscape distinguished by the juxtaposition of the technical and the pastoral. Here we find a new type of urbanism that does not fit neatly into the established spatial and typological taxonomy of global cities. Balancing the needs of locals, tourists and immigrants, Hong Kong planners are advancing a cosmopolitan approach to urban design that avoids the extremes of parochial protectionism and placeless homogenization.

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Max Hirsh, “Techno-Pastoral Fantasies at Hong Kong International,” Places Journal, July 2013. Accessed 08 Jun 2023.

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