A Creature on the Roof

Wan Chai Visual Archive

You can see a lot of unauthorized structures on the rooftops of Wan Chai — sheet metal canopies, rusted chain-link fences, hand-built wooden shacks — but none of them quite looks like KAPKAR, a new sculpture by Dutch artist Frank Havermans, which was installed last week on the roof of the Wan Chai Visual Archive.

“It’s a metal creature that refers to rooftop structures, signboards and those hawker stalls you see around the city,” says Havermans, standing on the roof. “They’re really haphazardly built, without any notions of design, but together they’re amazing. It’s a very Hong Kong thing.”

Havermans’ description of KAPKAR as a “creature” is apt; it looks like a suspension bridge on the prowl. Made of iron by the Sunny and Sons metal shop, just around the corner from the Archive, it has four legs and a spine held up by steel cables. Its snout is a retractable aluminum, glow-in-the-dark signboard — shaped exactly like the Archive’s floorplan — that hangs precariously over the street.

KAPKAR as it was being installed by crane.
Photo courtesy Wan Chai Visual Archive

The Archive is a six-storey tong lau tenement building just around the corner from Wan Chai’s famous Blue House. It’s a kind of experiment in urban redevelopment: eventually, it will be torn down and replaced with a highrise hotel, but for now, it has been converted into a creative cluster, with a quirky bar on the ground floor, exhibition space above and luxury serviced apartments on the top four floors.

A light rain begins to fall as Havermans, dressed in paint-spattered cargo pants and an old sweatshirt, looks out from the roof. “You have a really good view of the different layers of the city,” he says. “You have these heritage buildings right below, these 1980s buildings, some new ugly buildings and in the back, behind us, you have the mountains.”

Havermans recently spent three months in Shenzhen, where he produced a series of five scrap-wood sculptures based on the old farming and fishing villages that can be found throughout the city. After the creation of the Special Economic Zone in 1979, villagers tore down their houses and build tenements for migrant workers. Like a coral reef growing on the remains of a sunken ship, they are densely-packed, haphazardly organized and teeming with life in a city that is otherwise vast and rational.

Havermans found a parallel phenomenon in the informal urbanism of Hong Kong’s street markets, rooftop shacks and thickets of shop signs hanging over the streets. “It has to do with self-organization,” he says. “In a place like this, every square inch is used. It’s great. It might seem horrible to live in but it makes for a great city. It has an energy that you can feel. That’s why a lot of people like Hong Kong.”

These urban layers usually exist in the shadows of the law. Hong Kong’s famous signboards are largely unregulated; many hawker stalls have been illegally modified beyond what the government allows; and rooftop houses and squatter’s huts are completely illegal, but tolerated by officials because they provide affordable housing in a city where property prices are soaring.

The concept of these things being technically forbidden but tacitly accepted is a key aspect of Havermans’ installation, which is mounted on the Archive’s roof without permission from the government. “Everyone is nervous,” says Havermans. “If we get a demolition order, that might be for the best, because it will start a discussion.”

Wan Chai Visual Archive

Wan Chai Visual Archive

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday February 23 2012at 06:02 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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