Walking in the City Without Ground

Afraid of the sun

One of the first lessons of walking in Hong Kong: maps are your enemy. In a city with such dramatic topography, where private and public spaces blend together almost seamlessly, the best routes are not the most obvious.

Take for example the 20-minute walk from the cafés of Star Street to the shops of Queen’s Road Central. Follow the directions offered by Google Maps and you’ll head straight along the Queensway, a flat and easy route but not a very nice one, since you will be accompanied along the way by the noise and exhaust of roaring traffic, without any trees to shelter you from the sun. Far more interesting is a route that takes you through Pacific Place, Hong Kong Park, Citibank Plaza and Government Hill. Sounds complicated, but in practice it is an easy journey that passes through a shopping arcade designed by Thomas Heatherwick, a leafy park forged from the remnants of a British military base and one of Hong Kong’s most historically important clusters of architecture. I’m willing to bet that, on a hot summer day, this route — which combines stretches of indoor air conditioning with leafy green space — is about five degrees cooler than walking alongside the cars and buses of Queensway.

When I first met with Jonathan Solomon, one of the authors of Cities Without Ground, a book that maps Hong Kong’s intricate networks of three-dimensional private-public passageways, he made a very interesting observation: on Hong Kong Island, the ground doesn’t really exist. Solid though it may seem, the ground beneath our feet has been shaped and transplanted like so much spare modelling clay — and that’s just the natural stuff, not including the artificial ground like rooftop public parks. While cities like New York “worship the ground,” as Solomon put it, the very concept of what “ground level” is in Hong Kong is a bit shifty.

You can see this most of all in Pacific Place, a huge multi-use complex built on a steep slope in Admiralty, a district that for most of the 19th and 20th century was occupied by the British military. Opened in 1991, Pacific Place consists of a shopping mall, hotels, apartments, offices and a courthouse. Because of its hillside location, it has at least three ground levels. There’s the main frontage of the shopping mall along Queensway; the roof of the mall, which contains a garden, driveways, restaurants and cafés and the lobbies of several hotels; and Supreme Court Road, at the top end of the complex, which gives access to several more hotels, the courthouse and an escalator running between the mall and Hong Kong Park. In most cities, these kinds of giant retail and office complexes act like a closed circuit, sending electrical impulses in an endless loop — think of the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle in New York, which has many of the same ingredients as Pacific Place, but functions as a self-contained box. By comparison, Pacific Place is like a switchboard, taking in current and rerouting it in many different directions.

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Pacific Place

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Ground level 1: Queensway

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Ground level 2: Mall roof
Photo by Iwan Bann

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Ground level 3: Supreme Court Road

The same principles apply to the spaces I pass through on the rest of my walk. Pacific Place leads me straight into Hong Kong Park, which takes me to a footbridge that feeds into the lobby of Citibank Plaza, through which I emerge onto another footbridge that leaves me on Government Hill. From there, I can take Battery Path down onto Queen’s Road, or I can pass by St. John’s Cathedral to reach Lower Albert Road, which snakes around the hill to the upper reaches of Central. I could also take a footbridge from Battery Path straight into the Standard Chartered Bank headquarters, which in turn connects to a system of walkways that connects all of Central’s office district. In many ways, the footbridges between private buildings mimic varying levels of Hong Kong’s topography.

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The blurring of natural and artificial, ground and above-ground, is taken to new extremes by Tamar Park, a green space at the centre of Hong Kong’s much maligned new government headquarters. The park includes a rare and expansive swath of lawn that slopes gently down from a high point near Harcourt Road to the waters of Victoria Harbour; the slight grade gives it a beautiful view over the harbour. But the slope is entirely man-made: underneath is not a mound of earth but the bowels of the government headquarters. When the park meets Harcourt Road, it ends in an abrupt cliff, with a footbridge leading to the other side of the road.

It’s a brilliantly naturalistic way to connect the upper-floor malls of Admiralty to Victoria Harbour. It also makes the harbour much more accessible. Of course, don’t bother finding this route on Google Maps — like most of Hong Kong’s best shortcuts, it’s not marked.

Central Government Offices and Tamar Park

Tamar Park’s gentle man-made slope. Photo by YY

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday March 13 2013at 06:03 am , filed under Architecture, Asia Pacific, Environment, Interior Space, Public Space and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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