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.
One of the most visible icons of the Airport Core Programme is the International Finance Centre, a Cesár Pelli-designed skyscraper in Hong Kong’s central financial district anchored by the terminus of a high-speed train that whisks passengers to the airport in less than half an hour. It is also the first stop on a parallel subway line carrying local traffic to Tung Chung, a new town four kilometers south of the airport designed to house the more than 60,000 people working at HKIA. On this particular morning, however, most riders are Mainland Chinese tourists, chattering sopra voce in Mandarin.
Until recently, it was all but impossible for most Mainlanders to visit Hong Kong. But with disposable incomes rising and bureaucratic barriers falling, millions of tourists have come to shop for global brands that are cheaper and more plentiful than on the mainland. And nowhere are those goods cheaper than at Citygate, a gigantic outlet mall that dominates the main plaza of Tung Chung. The outlet stores — Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren — are mobbed, their narrow aisles blocked by the suitcases of tourists on a mission to buy as much as possible before running to catch a flight.
Citygate was designed by Anthony Ng Associates, a local architecture firm that also designed the Ground Transportation Centre at HKIA; its corridors, roof canopy and structural supports recall an airport concourse rather than the dominant mall typologies prevalent in Hong Kong’s new towns.
Tung Chung was originally planned as an “airport support community” for housing pilots, flight attendants and ground staff, but it has lately become a magnet for what might uncharitably be described as B-grade expats: middle-class Westerners displaced by the financial crisis who have found work in Hong Kong but do not enjoy the generous housing and travel allowances that were once standard for expat workers. Affordable rent and easy access to nature makes Tung Chung an acceptable alternative to the astronomical cost of living on Hong Kong Island. The unusual demographics are reflected in the latest census: while non-ethnic Chinese make up just six percent of Hong Kong’s overall population, they constitute one-quarter of those living in Tung Chung.
Across the plaza, an escalator connects the shopping center with Ngong Ping 360, an entertainment complex commissioned by the government that offers gondola rides as a heavily mediated form of natural recreation. Opened two years after HKIA, Ngong Ping capitalizes on the transport infrastructure developed for the airport as well as the attendant restrictions on building height. “Feel the magic of the boundless sea and the rolling grassland slopes right underneath your feet,” a brochure reads. “The new perspective allows you to look at an extraordinarily uncluttered scenery, as if you are flying on your own.” Ngong Ping advertises the one thing that all Hong Kongers lack: space.
The cable cars whisk passengers across the narrow channel of Tung Chung Bay to an artificial hill at the airport entrance, constructed to shield residents of the new town from the airport’s freight facilities. After 25 minutes, visitors arrive at the foot of a “village” street lined with gift shops, fast food outlets and scenic lookouts.
Deep inside the uninhabited mountains of western Lantau, Ngong Ping’s kitschy shopping arcade features a public address system that blasts the complex’s official theme song, an up-tempo techno anthem recorded by the effervescent starlet Sita Chan. Ngong Ping combines the technical and the pastoral in a way that is as inscrutable to the outside observer as it is intrinsic to the territory’s hyperurban culture. Hong Kongers are enthralled with technology and the consumer comforts of city life, yet are developing a growing appetite for bucolic distractions. Through a highly constructed conception of nature, the cable car allows a temporary escape from urban Hong Kong.
A 20-minute bus ride brings us to Tai O, one of Hong Kong’s most remote villages. Connected to Tung Chung by hiking trails and a solitary paved road that snakes through the mountains, this community of 2,000 people retains many of the design elements of a traditional fishing village, which have disappeared elsewhere in the Pearl River Delta. The road terminates at a modest harbor, where villagers and visitors continue on foot through narrow alleyways and across a drawbridge to the wet market and village square.
Home to a community of Daan, a sea-dwelling minority who have lived for centuries in the coastal villages of Southern China, Tai O is known for its distinctive stilt houses, built on low-lying tidal flats, and for the production of shrimp paste and salted fish: two of the basic elements of Cantonese cuisine, used to season broths and bases. Remoteness has exempted the village from the intense development pressures of contemporary Hong Kong, and height restrictions in the airport zone have preserved an older economic and architectural order. The village is home to rare camphor trees, mangroves, and a socio-spatial fabric that conveys Hong Kong’s cultural and environmental heritage more convincingly than artificial development projects like Ngong Ping 360.
Tai O’s relatively cheap rents and slower pace of life have spawned a small but growing drop-out culture of Hong Kongers disaffected by the mainstream corporate culture. Occupying the quarters of a colonial-era police station, the Tai O Heritage Hotel is a popular choice for weekend tourists, who come to visit the artist studios and small creative enterprises that offer fair-trade clothing and infuse the narrow alleyways along Tai O’s inlet with a neo-hippie vibe. The village’s underdevelopment, once perceived as a planning challenge, has thus become its most crucial asset. Proximity to HKIA and other transportation routes guarantees a high degree of connectivity for what would otherwise be an exceptionally remote village, allowing Tai O to plug into the flow of visitors traveling to Ngong Ping and Tung Chung.
[Photo from Weekend Weekly, 5 March 2012]
On the airport’s northern edge lies AsiaWorld-Expo: an enormous convention and exhibition center whose indoor arena — the largest in Hong Kong — hosts most of the city’s major pop concerts. Tonight, Jennifer Lopez’s Dance Again tour has attracted an audience of giddy adults and hormonal 12-year-olds, united in their unfailing devotion to J.Lo. She delivers a medley that follows her transformation from Jenny from the Block to a pop dowager with global pretensions: Brazil to Morocco, London to Ibiza.
“Hong Kong!” she shouts, and the audience responds with a high-pitched squeal. “You know, this is my first visit here, and I’ve got a question for you all. How do you say ‘I love you’?” She points the microphone at a group of Filipinas dressed for a big night out. “Mahal kita!” they scream in Tagalog. “What?” J.Lo laughs. “I didn’t get that. How do you say it?” This time, she directs the mic toward a lithe teenager in a tight t-shirt and skinny jeans. “Wo ai ni!” he hollers in Mandarin. The crowd seems perplexed. “What the fuck,” one woman exclaims, in SoCal-inflected English. “This is Hong Kong. Say it in fucking Cantonese!”
The typological tension embedded in airport landscapes — between the technical and the pastoral — is not new. In the pioneering days of civil aviation, airfields were often designed and maintained by municipal parks departments, conceptualized by urban planners as venues for popular recreation as a well as nodes of long-distance transportation. Developers built swimming pools, country clubs and aviation-themed adventure parks that drew upon the public’s enthusiasm for what was then a relatively unknown form of geographic displacement. As air travel became less novel, the airport’s bucolic roots were forgotten and its history rewritten to emphasize the technological and logistical dimensions. Yet over the past decade, the tension between the technical and pastoral has resurfaced, as airports and the cities they serve seek to navigate between conflicting demands for economic growth and environmental sustainability.
[Photo from Our Airport, Our Future: Hong Kong International Airport Master Plan 2030]
Just as air travel has become indispensable to work and leisure in the 21st-century Asian megacity, so too has the airport become a prominent emblem of the noise and air pollution that ravage Asia’s urban landscapes. Seeking to deflect attention away from airport emissions, authorities have commissioned extravagant design campaigns aimed at rebranding the airport as local, sustainable and organic: adding green walls, terminal gardens, and hiking trails in and around the terminal in order to naturalize the fundamentally technical and global processes taking place at the airport. HKIA’s most recent master plan envisions the airport as a tree: Chek Lap Kok’s airstrip is the trunk; the various bridges, skywalks and escalators are branches; and the passengers are leaves. In effect, airports like HKIA aestheticize ecological concerns through relatively innocuous design changes in order to invert the public perception of the airport as a locus of environmentally unsustainable practices.
[Illustration from Our Airport, Our Future: Hong Kong International Airport Master Plan 2030]
The master plan for the HKIA periphery foresees the construction of new logistics parks and a border control terminal at the eastern end of the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai Bridge. When it opens in 2016, the 50-kilometer, Y-shaped link will connect China’s two special administrative regions and one of its special economic zones, via a series of tunnels and suspension bridges spanning the mouth of the Pearl River Delta. In the unbuilt interstices between these facilities, planners are designing a network of “eco-trails” that will connect “theme attractions based on heritage, local character, and natural landscape.” By intensifying Lantau’s dual functions — as an international transportation hub and a preserve of local traditions and rural life — the master plan thus seeks to engage more productively with the tension between development and preservation. At the airport periphery — in places like Tung Chung and Tai O — the hyperglobal and the hyperlocal scales of urban development overlap and collide, challenging Hong Kong’s planners to formulate design scenarios that can accommodate the often incongruent spatial needs and aesthetic predilections of locals, visitors and immigrants.