'You know, it’s life that’s always right and the architect who’s wrong' le Corbusier
Meet the Boss
Time? he asks. He has time, he has no time. What is my business?
Architect? He flicks his cigarette. You looking for loan? he asks. No? His sharks told him a lot of new customers are architects. Bad economy, no jobs. Don't worry, he pats me on the shoulder, if I can't pay, he has karaokes, massage and mahjong parlors for me to renovate. I owe money, I work for him. He doesn't cut off hands. That is my rice bowl.
I give you tip when next Bubble coming, ok? he offers helpfully. You no idea how much hot money we help important people launder, people in high places.
So you want only talk? You not some tricky reporter? I believe. You don't have guts to lie to me. He laughs.
I explain I want to understand his side of the City.
To him, it was obvious enough. See, you design the buildings but I own the streets, he says. Life begins at the street where the buildings end. But no buildings, no streets. So I thank you for your buildings and you thank me for bringing life to your buildings. He gestures in the air between us.
The man has a point. Hong Kong is a vertiginous, postcard perfect conglomerate of diamond-cut towers - a Darwinian experiment in overdrive that bloomed a thousand architecture species.
This is clearest from the heights of Victoria Peak miles above the city. In the clarified air, the unfamiliar blast of ozonic oxygen induces hallucinatory headiness. Below, the traffic of humans and machines resemble ants in a clockwork maze of proto structures - a wonderland of edifice unfolds where architecture periods are shuffled like the cards of a deck and then exponentially multiplied to apparent infinity. En masse, the result careens towards psychotropic chaos than Euclidian geometry, a fantastical, wild, impenetrable labyrinthian fractal garden both realistic and artificial, perfumed by acid.
But it is also the spaces in between the buildings and the relationships between them that reconfigure the city. With organized complexity emerge urban webs and social intelligence.Although buildings, roads and topography crystallize a city’s image, they are not all of its constitution. It is the inhabitants who rapidly and unapologetically appropriate it, redrawing, remaking, reclaiming, in acts that contribute most significantly to the meaning of the place. The City cannot be conceived in separation from its events, both scarred by its past and to be carved by its future.
Architects big ego. The Boss grins in mocking humor, teasing. You think you make nice buildings, it makes nice City? No Life, no City! You better think more about Life!
You want to learn Life? Watch me.
Big banks, big companies, big shopping, they own the buildings, they run the economy up there. Me, I own the streets, I protect the newspaper stands, the illegal vendors, the prostitutes, the mini-buses, the entertainment industry.
See how I make sure they get handsome guys to play me in movies.
Entertainment? There is no entertainment like street life. Watch people, or show off yourself. It is free. Everyone can afford. Hungry? Eat for $10 (€1) at my street stalls.
Protect the streets from what? From corrupt cops, stupid.
Everyone has to make a living. Everyone has his place. This is a friendly evolution. There is plenty of room for losers. Everything that exists tends to find space for its existence - the drop-outs of society will be accommodated in the cracks that make the structure meta-stable.
We are bad guys, he continues, we admit. But we are not worst guys. Some big business are more ruthless. They are our biggest customers. They pay some of our cold-blooded guys to do things they don't want to dirty their hands with. They own the government, they own everything. But they don’t own us.
Does he know that architects aren't always helpless spectators, that Hong Kong once existed in the dream of an architect? There was someone prescient, who foresaw a radiant towering city like Hong Kong, almost a century ago. To know where we are, we've got to understand how we got here.
Le Corbusier? The Crow? You also give yourselves names? He is amused. One of my best fighters, everyone calls him The Swallow.
Among architects and fighters, in assuming the identity of a bird, is there a desire to take flight, to wander alone, to leave earth-bound companions, a yearning to understand the larger universe, to transcend like Icarius, to commute with vast skies and higher ideals, to risk burning by the sun? Overcoming the mind to allow the heart to soar?
Perhaps our best ideas are like birds, they remain caged until we choose liberty. Early in his career, Le Corbusier knew he had to think in solitude, to act alone in pursuit of new knowledge - he was traveling, stunned by Berlin, Vienna, and most of all the metropolis of Paris which he described as “the crack of the whip at every moment, death for dreamers.” (Note 1, Pg. 41)
“Time spent in Paris is time well spent, to reap a harvest of strength. Paris the immense city of ideas - where you are lost unless you remain severe with yourself.” Le Corbusier wrote in letters. (Pg41)
“My concept is now clear - further on I will give you details of its instigations and basis. To draw it up, I lost no time in daydreaming. It is broad, I am enthusiastic about it, it punishes me, carries me away on wings, when my inner strength shouts:”You can.” (Pg. 42)
Anchored and reassured in the fraternity, there must be moments of lucid awakening and acute alienation when one is seized by pure and authentic impulses to break away, to take off in a self-imposed exile, to face difficult new truths alone, for it takes a different kind of courage. It isn’t so much about the journey to other cities than to go to a faraway place within oneself.
“One speaks of an art of tomorrow. This art will be, because humanity has changed its way of living and thinking. The program is new.” (Pg. 45)
Yes, The Crow, he saw a shiny city similar to Hong Kong, the vast population secured in airy towers, with Nature flourishing below. I showed him images of Ville Radieuse, a century old. A neat rectilinear network of skyscrapers crosshatched with wide highways for automobiles, freeing the podium for manicured parks. He holds them up and frowns.
We don't make parks below the towers, he snorts, what waste. We make urban jungle for “yan lau”, people flow, lifeblood of cities. Jungle is more exciting, more unpredictable, more dangerous, more dirty, more real. More human.
After you get mobbed by our jungle you will appreciate Nature. He adds, laughing sarcastically.
Le Corbusier wrote, “I have been very careful not to depart from the technical side of my problem. I am an architect: no one is going to make a politician of me. “A Contemporary City” has no label, it is not dedicated to our existing Bourgeois-Capitalist society nor to the Third International. It is a Technical work....”
“Things are not revolutionized by making revolutions. The real Revolution lies in the solution of existing problems.” (Pg.141)
To Le Corbusier, his visionary plans weren’t about politics but solutions, yet the consequences are nothing less than revolutionary.
Among his critics, Gaston Bardet warned the shadows cast by the towers of the Ville Radieuse would create a ville ombreuse and a
climat de cave. This unfortunate effect is most felt in the highrise projects of the suburbs of Europe, the banlieues, where the jagged wind whips through the desolate ravines between towering blocks, concrete schisms and social vacuums, where it echoes the inner turbulence of unemployed youths and percolates with the tumult of violent gangs and the collisons with steel-jawed police.
This Le Corbusian tale, however, is spun into two cities. The late 20C urban environments in hot, humid tropical Asia thrive as a result of these microclimatic consequences. Streets and alleys are cooled by the towering shadows, enough to encourage pedestrians to abandon the air-conditioned cocoons of the buildings and the chilled belly of the subway. In Hong Kong, the furrows between edifices, the “terrain vague” at the podium and street level, the voids of Ville Radieuse/Ombreuse hold promise of the possible, of transformation and expectations of human energy.
Parasitical connections, walkways and linkages copulate, fuse and fall in together until the point is reached when everything coalesces into a perfervid web. Relationships intensify in parallel - the escalation of traffic attract free-wheeling commerce and nuclei of mercantilism spring up by the thousands.
As an urban rhizome, connected from its skybridges to the bowels of its subway, networked to near territorial infinity by intricate metro systems and trains, they weave a matrix upon which the prosperous metropolis thrives, by-passing some of the most spectacular nature of South China, mountains, sand and sea, leaving them pristine. Its staggering monumental density belies the fact that this is an unexpectedly sustainable model for millions. (Note 2)
Le Corbusier did not foresee that the humanity stacked up in his immaculate cruciforests will burst from their fortresses into the free-flowing ground below, hungry for the liberation from the immobility of their vertical lives, luxuriating in the flux of the streets. The towers are scalar fields, the pent-up energy in them disperses by the millions into the podium and streets where fertile mercantile imagination found thousands of ways to capture their fleeting attention, if not their wallets, stomachs, hearts and minds.
The walks brim over with fake and real merchandise, delights from a thousand and one nights, of ambrosial aromas, torrid flavors and €1 gourmets, of rats the size of shoes, of hectic markets larger than many small cities where the intrepid vendor of sundry goods shrieks his wares with the fury of a street prophet.
The result of the inverse relation of the towers and the streets, the Ville Ombreuse, allows a bewildering number of shadier, tenacious, adventurous lifeforms to flourish and multiply in micro-economies and macroecologies.
What would Le Corbusier make of this? At the end of his life, Le Corbusier made a remark of utmost humility and philosophical irony, “You know, it’s life that’s always right and the architect who’s wrong.” (Pg.144) It can be surmised he would have been thrilled at the wild, abundant Life that is unleashed in Hong Kong by architecture, if not architects.
As the lights dim in the business towers towards the night, the power switches over to ignite the overflowing podium malls and streets where swarms of homo economicus brush up rapturously against homo volatilis in the neon crucible of Hong Kong.
The streets are vectors, lines of flight for homo volatilis, a street fugitive on the run, not so much as escape routes but as a diffused conurbation of refuge, until fortunes are overturned, which they will in the yin and yang of things.
Flight or fight, his violent strategies are rooted in ancient codes of honor. In the embrace of a fatal, existential conundrum, he finds philosophical euphoria in a centuries old brotherhood and unknowingly plucks a page from Camus. He thus transcends the futile fight for the ever-elusive material and social success that signal insider status and the path to respectability.
But what makes some fly while others fall? Movies are an odd place to look for clues to the psyche of cities, yet they compress and unravel in relentless motion frames both the inescapable angst of societies and at times, point to their salvation. The spirit of Hong Kong is especially manifested in the most popular of its exports - its movies.
To know what Hong Kong is, one must understand what Hong Kong isn’t.
No other movie provides a contrasting frame of highrise reference than the brilliant, shattering film “La Haine” by Mathieu Kassovitz, a film about the banlieues of Paris. In the introduction, a ghostly, dismembered voice recounts a terrifying Falling, juxtaposed against grainy images of angry protestors, clashing riot police and uncompromising barricades. The character described the feeling of someone plunging from a tower of 50 floors, muttering on his way down past each floor,
"So far so good...
"so far so good..."
“How you fall doesn't matter. It's how you land!”
Falling, like a blazing comet, through slivers of glass shards, hurtling towards the bull’s eye of infinity in a shower of light, to burn out at the point of impact.
The towering projects of the banlieues speak of a division that isn’t mathematical, of a life trapped in cages up in the air, perfecting parkour at knife’s edge, overlooking the violence and the void of existence below, peering at the gathering storm of riot police and youths in the streets, of the recurring nightmare of the apocalypse.
A skyscraper city of nothingness is one that pulls vulnerable souls with the full gravitational force towards its spinning vitreous vortex.
In the eye of the concrete and steel maelstrom, Hong Kong seems to have defied gravity. People do fall in equally spectacular fashion in Hong Kong movies, but before they crash, invisible wires seem to yank them buoyantly into the air, levitating into fantastical aerial flips, leaping across roofs and soaring over the streams of traffic. From above the rise and fall of the cityscape, one is struck by the deluge of abundance, of a million scintillating possibilities. Violence is subverted by grace, the long arc of action, the flight of the psyche at escape velocity, for nothing is more central to its beauty and coherence than this lucidity.
The mark of Hong Kong action movies, the realization of their breathtaking choreography is inspired by the redemption found in the city, understanding that in the liquid torrents of the city, we are in perpetual motion, that we are headed somewhere, that there is a future unfolding, that transition is a state of polymorphic freedom.
We triads run but we do not hide. We have our codes of “yi hei” - honor, loyalty, justice, he intones dourly. We swear in blood before Lord Kwan (a historic general renowned for his integrity and valor, the god of the triads,) to protect the brotherhood. Or Kwan Kong will come slit our throat when we dream. What about you architects?"
Nodding, I explained in the affirmative.
You honor humanity? You serve society?! Really?
He laughs so hard he spits out his toothpick, his chair falls precariously backwards, his spittle flies over my laptop. Wiping tears from his eyes, he snorts, you honor HSBC, you slave to Li Ka Shing (the richest man in HK) and you kiss-ass to the government!
Indignant, I protest. Most of us in Hong Kong are but bread and butter wage peons bending to the mighty winds of influential men, and we're not without concerns and an incremental sense of responsibility for...the Earth.
Green? Sustainability? Grow vegetables on walls? He asks incredulously. You so funny, poor people have been living "sustainable" for all of human history, and then the rich and the government toxic dump in their backyard.
Even a bad man like me don't poison poor people. No morals. He shakes his head.
Now a lot more middle class people are joining the poor, so of course you have to prepare them for "sustainable living,” he adds sarcastically.
Turning hot and red at the glib facetiousness, I challenged him with a catalogue of crimes.
He lights up his cigarette with a fake $100 note afire. Counterfeiting? Look, a bowl of noodles costs $10 a dozen years ago. Today, it is $30. Inflation is more paper money chasing the same goods. You are right, it is a type of robbery of people who save every cent. Somebody has been printing lots of money, my friend, and it is not me."
Whoring? You want to blame me for running the oldest profession in the world? Let me tell you some of my best customers are police officers and politicians.
He turns defensive. I run mahjong parlors, they run a bigger casino, the stock market. People win or lose a few hundred dollars at my game, they lose their life savings in the finance market. They think they are "investing", not gaming. Now that is daylight robbery.
Such is Life.
The lights are out as I leave. I slowly climb the pedestrian bridge and momentarily pause at a point where the streets of Causeway Bay converged like mighty rivers below me in between towering canyons, where an expressway swerves dangerously at eye level close to where I stand, startled by the rush of warm diesel-smoked air, the blinding psychotropic flares of the on-coming headlights and the deafening roar of unstoppable traffic. The ebb and flow of cars, trucks, buses and swarms of crowds resemble stampeding herds of elephants, zebras and wildebeests - marauding tribes and charging metallic beasts under a neon-lit sky, illuminating the ferocious truths behind the glittery promises of modern post-industrial societies, subverting its false optimism. This societal vertigo, this material abyss, this adamantine poetry. My adrenaline pumped, in a state of simultaneous disorientation, exhilaration and clarity, I am returned to a primordial self - a hunter and gatherer of a jungle terrifying in its radiance.
(Note 1) The quotes of Le Corbusier are excerpted from “Le Corbusier and the Continual Revolution in Architecture” by Charles Jencks, published in year 2000 by The Monacelli Press
(Note 2) Hong Kong’s 2009 per capita carbon footprint (29 tonnes) may be among the highest in the world, yet it is due mainly to its voracious consumption of imports. The actual domestic per capita footprint (17% of its total carbon footprint) generated as a result of this living model is among the lowest for developed countries, at 6.7 tonnes.
Team: Louise Low
2010, ice - ideas for contemporary environments