area 128 | informal community

location: Hong Kong

The problem may at first seem complex and multifaceted, but the solution is disarmingly simple. How do we meet the need for a shelter meeting minimal requirements for the most disadvantaged social classes in a megalopolis with 7 million inhabitants, when there is no more free land left? The answer can be found by looking towards the sky. Beyond the cornices of the tall residential buildings that mushroomed in the Fifties and Sixties a second city of sheet metal and cardboard has grown up on the roofs of what is normally recognized as the planned city.
These huts form the rooftop communities of Hong Kong, true urban agglomerates that are heaped disorderly on top of the condominiums, parasitically exploiting their structures and distributive systems, chiefly in the form of steep stairs and electricity. It is a matter of a micro-city superimposed on the existing city, where the streets, houses and collective spaces are duplicated on a smaller scale than some dozens of meters further down.
The two worlds are divided from one another by a variable that is as elementary as it is substantial: namely compliance with building regulations, or more simply with the law.
The consequences are many and contradictory: on the one side the poverty of the materials, the lack of minimal levels of hygiene, the difficulty and discomfort of living roosting on the roofs is evident. On the other, these communities create urban systems rich in spatial and morphological qualities that form a very close relationship with the nature and morphology of the city of Hong Kong, and they are inhabited by social groups that are much more close-knit and solidary than the ones formed in the so-called regular city. In other words, the lack of regulations imposed from top down has brought the rooftop communities to a state of unstable equilibrium where everything is self-regulated, sometimes with dramatic results but more and more often by means of phenomena that could serves as example also for the planned cities.
It is precisely these premises that have given rise to the collaboration between a photographer and an architect, which has in its turn resulted in the creation of an atlas-book that takes a census of the numerous spontaneous agglomerates of Hong Kong. Stefan Canham and Rufina Wu, the former German and the latter Chino-Canadian, have made contact by email and planned their travel among the roofs of the Asian capital by internet before venturing on the operative phase of their project: to live in the different communities populating the skyline of the city for two months and a half in order to photograph, survey and redesign hundreds of spontaneous architectures. The result is the volume Portrait from Above: a series of high-resolution images and very detailed architectural drawings that offer us different levels of reading of this urban system, that are at the same time anthropological, spatial and economic.
While the settlement principle remains the same, the context of the different communities changes radically depending on the areas in which they develop. The extremes are represented by the settlements of Kwun Tong and Tai Kok Tsui. The former is dying, as it waits for the government to demolish the buildings: here the two authors have met people who have just lost their jobs and who do not even have the money necessary to return to their home town. In fact, the first Chinese immigrants are victims to the phenomena of the second wave of immigrants from other, even poorer parts of Asia, who are ready to work for even lower wages than they are themselves. This attitude has given rise to conflicts within the community and situations of serious tension. As the inhabitants know that their community will be torn down, none of them care to consolidate or improve their dwelling: they are simply waiting for the end. In the second case, that of Tai Kok Tsui, the atmosphere is completely different. There is a mixture between young and old residents, who are employed and who help one another with the maintenance of their homes. A young chef lives here, who asserts that he prefers his dwelling by far to the “regular” residence he used to live in. Living on the roofs also means to have more space available, and a certain freedom in organizing one’s private domain with respect to individual requirements.
The work of Canham and Wu is not limited to a mere iconographic documentation or journalistic testimonial of a social phenomenon; it becomes a design instrument with evident operational goals. Why do thousands of people prefer to live clinging to the top of buildings in the centre rather than accepting to move to the public subsidized dwellings that are being erected in the new towns some tens of kilometres away? What are the variables at play that make them opt for a choice that is so evidently disadvantageous? The official data describe Hong Kong as one of the cities in Asia with the highest percentage of social housing as compared to those in the free market, and the phenomenon of the spontaneous communities therefore seems to go against the trend. The real problem is the scarcity of dwellings available in the market at an acceptable price in central urban areas. Many of those who live in the huts on the roofs are hardworking people who, however, need to live near their workplace. To move to a dwelling that may be more comfortable but that is more distant, would mean to face too high expenses. Even if much of the city is being transformed and renovated, the tendency is not to consolidate the presence of the old residents but rather to free the most attractive central areas for the wealthier social classes. Perhaps the upgrading should pay less attention to constructive and architectonic characteristic and more to the value of social relations, to the substance of neighbourly relations and the advantages associated by combining activities as living and working in the same place. The answer suggested by Canham and Wu’s book does not merely describe what is happening in this part of Asia; it could be extended to other contexts, also much closer to us. The values expressed by the consolidated city are not comparable to the advantages associated with owning a decent home: in other words the services, the quality of the relations, the accessibility of jobs and the intrinsic potentials of central urban areas are always determinant factors when choosing where one wants to live.
The parasitic strategy adopted by the rooftop community is not limited to an exploitation of the static characteristics and the systems of the host building; it also includes the more intangible values associated with the urban context in which they are located.
It is a matter of a phenomenon of occupation of strategic areas of the city which goes beyond the experience of the most marginalized and the poorest social classes: in fact, many citizens of the 21st century seem to be seriously determined to reconquer their cities, parks, streets, squares and also the roofs of buildings. If we try for a moment to transfer the parasitic logic of the condominiums in Hong Kong to our own urban realities, some substantial analogies begin to take form. Community gardening has by now become a widespread practice, and it is becoming specialized in forms that tend to link social aspects to the quality of the urban environment to an increasing extent. The mayor of Chicago recently promoted a law which encourages, by means of tax benefits, the occupation and use of the roofs of the buildings in the centre, to realize green gardens and thus improve the cityscape as a whole. Numerous condominium associations are organizing themselves to lease the roof of their building to a share-farmer who cultivates the surface and pays the inhabitants with vegetables. The idea that the only feasible form of management of the public space is the one that enables us to treat it like a small piece of private space in the open is being consolidated. Kitchen gardens, parks, green terraces, as extension of one’s own house: homo urbanus is adopting and colonizing the collective areas, managing them almost as if they were private property.
If what is public formally does not belong to anyone and therefore becomes subject of abandonment and degradation, then it would be preferable if we all were to take care of a small portion of the res pubblica, turning it into countless private yet collective micro-spaces.
Paradoxically, the illegal actions which have given rise to urban decline – as also the spontaneous occupation of the roofs of Hong Kong may appear to be at first glance – are producing a new model of civil responsibility which leads to a surprising upgrading of the public spaces. After decades of ideal models proposed by architects and urban planners, who have designed cities that are extremely limiting and inflexible with respect to the complex utilizations of their inhabitants, we are perhaps learning an alternative lesson from informal, illegal and unplanned cities.


Stefan Canham was born in England in 1968. He studied Film at the Hamburg Academy of Fine Arts, Germany and has been working free-lance on documentary photo and television projects since 1995. He is interested in the amazing and beautiful things people create even under adverse circumstances, and in their representation. In 2003 he was artist-in-residence at the Schleswig-Holsteinisches Künstlerhaus in Eckernförde, Germany. His photographic record of the mobile squatter culture in Germany was short-listed for the 3rd International Bauhaus Award 2004 and published under the title Bauwagen / Mobile Squatters by Peperoni Books (Berlin) in 2006.

Rufina Wu was born in Hong Kong in 1980. She studied at the University of Waterloo in Canada where she completed degrees in Environmental Studies and Architecture. She was a CCSEP Visiting Scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China from 2005 to 2006. Beijing Underground, her graduate thesis, focuses on migrant housing found in Beijing’s underground air raid shelters. This body of research won an AIA Medal and was exhibited in Canada, United States, and Germany. From December 2007 to February 2008, she was artist-in-residence at Hong Kong’s Art and Culture Outreach, collaborating with Stefan Canham on Portraits from Above. The project won the 5th International Bauhaus Award 2008 in Dessau, the WYNG Masters Award 2012 in Hong Kong, and was published by Peperoni Books, Berlin, and MCCM Creations, Hong Kong.