Cities are much more than meets the eye. In this excerpt from his essay for The Future of Public Space, Hong Kong-based reporter and urbanist Christopher DeWolf takes a multi-sensory approach to navigating his adopted city. Along the way, DeWolf encounters challenging questions of how best to preserve a less tangible cultural heritage.
The Future of Public Space is the second volume of SOM Thinkers, a series of books that poses provocative questions about design and architecture from perspectives outside its professional culture.
Hong Kong is rife with opportunities to meditate on the city’s auditory, olfactory, and haptic experience. Some of the most interesting maps in [Jonathan Solomon, Adam Frampton, and Clara Wong’s book] Cities Without Ground are visualizations of the temperature in Hong Kong’s interconnected, three-dimensional spaces. On a hot summer day in Central, it varies from 33.6 degrees Celsius on an exposed concrete plaza to 27.1 degrees under the stone colonnade of the 19th-century Court of Final Appeal. Indoors, temperatures dip to 20.5 in the excessively air conditioned subway cars of Central Station and soar to 35.2 in the poorly ventilated bus terminus of Exchange Square. Just as perceptible is the humidity. The air inside Pacific Place, a high-end shopping mall, is dry and crisp, but it is heavy and lifeless inside the bus terminus nearby.
Hong Kong’s urban spaces do best when they are allowed to become a palimpsest of human activity. The area around Choi Hung, in working-class East Kowloon, is a mess of postwar housing estates that collide with old villages and busy roads. It looks confusing, yet the density of human activity makes it easier to navigate than you might expect. Emerge from the subway station and you will encounter the roar of traffic, the choking exhaust of minibuses, and the amplified cries of touts selling mobile phone plans. A flow of people carries you up a footbridge and across the road, where you enter a public market, its air pungent with ripe fruit and huge slabs of pork hanging from hooks. A few more steps, past the click-click-click of escalators, and you emerge onto the main street of Nga Tsin Wai Village, a pedestrian promenade lined by restaurant terraces, with their clattering dishes and chattering customers. Take this route more than once and its visual landmarks become almost secondary: your other senses pick up the slack.
“People don’t have strong memories of neutral-scented spaces,” says Virginia Fung, an architect who researches sensory urbanism at the City University of Hong Kong. “It is more memorable in the streets, with these multiple senses, but these places are diminishing and being removed.” Like all cities in the era of late capitalism, Hong Kong’s diverse landscape of street markets and small businesses is ceding ground to the homogeneity of chain stores and tightly regulated upscale shopping malls. High rents create a revolving door of businesses — just when you get to know the Chinese medicine shop on the corner, it closes and becomes a 7-Eleven, which only adds to the disorientation. In Hong Kong, the social and economic terrain doesn’t just shift — it roils like the ground in an earthquake. This raises the question of how to conserve the sensory heritage of a place, and whether it should be conserved at all. Old buildings can be maintained, but what about the more ephemeral sounds and smells that gave them life?
This excerpt comes from an essay written for the The Future of Public Space, the second edition of SOM Thinkers. Each book in the series brings together leading voices on a single topic related to the built environment.
The Future of Public Space explores how different types of public space — urban and rural, real and virtual — influence everyday experiences in an increasingly privatized world. The book is available for purchase.
Christopher DeWolf is the author of Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong, which explores how Hong Kong’s citizens have shaped their city through informal urbanism, despite a rigid government bureaucracy. His interest in cities started with SimCity and eventually expanded into the real world, where he began writing about urban history, architecture, design, and culture for publications such as TIME, the BBC, the South China Morning Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He currently lives in Hong Kong in a tiny apartment with a very good view.