article: Asia's Architects Plan for a People Boom

From: Bill Douglass (
Date: Wed Jan 10 2001 - 00:54:18 MST

This article originally appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal, and was
in the US version on Monday, Jan 8. Generally, it's an interesting piece on
future plans for high-density living in Asia. I think the "Hyper Building"
sounds pretty cool; an all-in-one affair along the lines of what was
mentioned in the recent Soleri thread.

Also, it's exciting to know about the four planned projects which will stand
taller than the current skyscraper world champion, the Petronas Towers in
Kuala Lumpur. I visited the Petronas Towers in August; what a stunningly
attractive set of buildings.

If the "1,914-foot multi-use megalith" planned for Kowloon actually gets
built, it will be a while before any other superscrapers pass it up.

Asian Cities Seek Ways to Boost
Density by Raising Height Limits

With its tightly clustered apartment turrets and overrun sidewalks, Hong
Kong's ultra-dense layout was once viewed as an Asian anomaly: a
migrant-driven experiment in stacked humanity that was every city planner's

But in the past few years, many of those same planners have come to view
Hong Kong's crowded skyline as something quite different: a model for the
future Asian city.

"Everyone is now taking a new look at Hong Kong," says Kim Kiho, Dean of
Planning and Development at the University of Seoul .

That Hong Kong should now be considered in vogue is an indication of the
dramatic scenario facing Asian cities. By 2025, today's 1.1 billion
inhabitants of the East's metropoli will become 2.5 billion, according to
the Asian Development Bank, an increase greater than the entire present-day
populace of China. In 25 years, that nation alone will have 100
municipalities of over two million souls; New Delhi will top 20 million,
Jakarta 30 million.

Bangkok, where traffic currently averages six kilometers an hour, will have
to accommodate twice as many cars. Tokyo, where the standard daily commute
is already 138 minutes, could have twice as much urban sprawl. And cities
across the region will be struggling with an acute increase in air
pollution, diminished water resources and, most importantly, shrinking
agricultural land.

"In our time," declares Sumet Jumsai, one of Thai-land's leading architects
and futurists, "Asia-Pacific must challenge the implied apocalypse."

To meet that challenge, planners across the region are now discussing how
they can dramatically increase urban density by raising height limits and
upping the crucial "plot ratios' that determine how much living space can be
crammed onto each parcel of land. And no place has been able to do that
better than Hong Kong.

Oddly, that has now turned the former colony into something of a showpiece.
Hong Kong University's Department of Architecture hosted a Megacities 2000
Conference last February at which experts from Shanghai, Tokyo and Sao Paulo
applauded presentations like "A Paradigm Shift for High-Density Development
Proposing A Vertical Reinterpretation of the Traditional Horizontal City."
Architects, academics and officials examined visionary schemes like
climate-controlled "bubble cities" and the mundane world of Hong Kong's
waste management, all in an effort to better figure out how to find more
civilized ways to fit more people into a smaller space.

"Conditions differ from city to city and we would never tell anyone else
what to do," says Bosco Fung, the head of the Hong Kong government's Land
and Planning Bureau. But he and others are quick to point out links between
Hong Kong's vertical expansion and its economic prosperity. Few Asian cities
can compete with its relatively uncrowded highways, streamlined pedestrian
flows between offices or modern and effective housing, for example. "We
don't do this by choice," says Mr. Fung, "but we think high-density living
has its advantages -- in terms of cost-effective infrastructure, energy and

Asia's cities have managed rapid growth and massive population shifts in the
past. Hong Kong's population, estimated at 700,000 in 1948, had tripled by
1952 with the influx of refugees from China, and now stands at just over six

Cities like Manila, Tokyo and Seoul were virtually rebuilt from scratch
after war damage. But now, another wave of industrialization and
globalization is set to lure an unprecedented number of people into the

The Great Sardine Cans of the World.

While Asia is already home to nine of the 10 most people-crammed
environments in the world, planners are worried that if they don't actively
promote density, there could be dire consequences. Unchecked sprawl in
China's Guandong province, for instance, is consuming 265 hectares of
farmland a year. And the further a city sprawls the less efficient its
energy and water use become.

In order to keep sprawl at bay, planners across the region are taking up
some ambitious, even far-fetched schemes. In Tokyo, there is talk of
building sky-links between the upper floors of the towers in the central
Shinjuku district.

In Singapore, a paragon of planning and a self-proclaimed "garden city," the
just-released report of a blue-ribbon panel on the city's central plan reads
like a near-capitulation to the values of its civic competitor, Hong Kong.
The report's goal is to adopt "compact city principles that promote
high-density." It suggests increasing plot ratios by four times and
injecting "Manhattan-style housing into the New Downtown."

Kuala Lumpur's 452-meter-high Petronas Towers, the world's tallest building,
is about to lose its top spot. Under construction at the moment are Pusan's
Lotte World, at 107 floors and 464.5 meters, and the Taipei Financial
Center, slated to hit 508 meters, spire included. The Shanghai Financial
Center will crest at 480 meters, and Hong Kong has approved plans for a
580-meter multi-use megalith on its Kowloon peninsula.

But as cities reach skyward, it is unclear whether any place will be able to
replicate Hong Kong's compactness, or, more importantly, whether anyone
should even want to.

Hong Kong's intense density came about more by accident than design. It's
tightly packed neighborhoods are the unwitting result of rapid growth,
restricted usable land and policies aimed at protecting green belts while
sustaining high property values. Technically, the city doesn't even have
height limits. Contractors put up 40-story apartment buildings on plots the
size of postage stamps, constrained only by the potential return on their

Charlie Xue, a lecturer in building design at Hong Kong City University,
calls it "the ultimate expression of the commercial spirit, with every site
filled to 100% of its boundaries." But he also has doubts about how
habitable some of the city's most crowded areas are.

At 116,000 people per square kilometer, the Mongkok neighborhood on the
Kowloon peninsula has been termed the most dense spot on earth. The area's
aging housing stock, draped with drying laundry, resembles a giant prison
barracks. The welter of neon signs blots out the sky. Evening shoppers
resemble a herd in a pen; mothers and children wear matching masks of
particulate-blocking kerchiefs. Mr. Xue conducted a study that found not one
public place to sit down along the 20 blocks of Mongkok's main thoroughfare.

On a recent stroll through the area, Mr. Xue, a Shanghai native accustomed
to mob scenes, shakes his head in disbelief as he points out a single,
semi-landscaped lot between the flat concrete flanks of office towers --
Mongkok's only "pocket park." He compliments the city government on turning
several blocks of a major shopping street into pedestrian malls, an obvious
attempt at crowd relief that still bears signs calling it a "trial run."

Yet critics like Mr. Xue concede that residents seem largely unfazed by the
conditions. He recently conducted a survey of Mongkok's denizens, many of
whom are elderly, and turned up few complaints. Mr. Fung, of the Hong Kong
government, explains that locals have adapted to a situation that outsiders
might see as unlivable. "If people don't want to live in high-rises, they
won't. They will vandalize and destroy their buildings, as they did in
Europe," says Mr. Fung.

Some wonder whether others could endure the close-quarter living that many
in Hong Kong take for granted. C.W. Ho, an architecture professor at Hong
Kong University, says that the noise, health risks and lack of privacy could
only be borne by a stoic, passive people like those in Hong Kong -- who, in
his words, "weren't considered human by the British." He calls Hong Kong's
density levels "unnecessary and inhuman, a high price for the populace to

A study-in-progress by Professor Mee Kam Ng of Hong Kong University's Centre
of Urban Planning highlights the lack of community spaces and meeting halls
in the commercialized hyper-dense areas. Ms. Ng's preliminary research
indicates that as neighbor-hoods become more dense, the level of community
often diminishes.

But density advocates argue that the formula can work if it is carried out
correctly. Anthony Yeh, also a professor at the Centre of Urban Planning,
draws a distinction between the grim statistics and a reality in which
people draw strength from the convenience of life in tight spaces. "Density
is a physical condition, while crowding is a psychological experience," he
says. Hong Kong's relatively low rate of violent crime and social unrest, he
argues, show that the benefits of extreme urbanization can outweigh the

Others believe that well-planned density can be more than just efficient,
but will create entirely new forms of urban community. Hitoshi Aoki, an
official at Tokyo's Department of Urban Development, feels that it is Asia's
mission to fulfill the dreams of Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri to
perfect density on a vast, utopian scale. This mild-mannered, vest-wearing,
wavy-haired bureaucrat turns downright messianic when discussing the merits
of density.

For a decade, Mr. Aoki has been advocating a grandiose project called the
Hyper Building. In various blueprints drafted by well-known architects, the
Hyper Building is a 1,000-meter-high structure meant to house all the
functions of a city of 200,000. It would provide 1,000 hectares of usable
space on a very small footprint and would be engineered to last 1,000 years
-- a reference to ancient Japan's most long-lived building, the great temple
at Nara.

When it was first proposed in 1990, the Hyper Building was thought of as
little more than a sci-fi fantasy. But as urban living in Tokyo has become
more unmanageable, the project has moved from the drawing board to the
planning committee. Government seed money and funding from 90 corporations
support the Hyper Building Research Organization.

Mr. Aoki supervises 350 experts, divided into 13 subcommittees, charged with
calculating all aspects of the vast, ever-changing platforms in the sky that
would, in his words, "create an interactive community with its own immune
system, that circulates fresh air, limits waste and water usage, offers
total security, automated mail and goods delivery -- and untouched forest an
elevator ride away."

The project is now being considered for Japan's new capital -- which could
be transferred from Tokyo to a rural area by 2010. It comes with a price tag
of 25 trillion yen ($200 billion). But Mr. Aoki insists that is a bargain:
"A conventional settlement with the same number of people would cost 70
trillion [yen]."

City living in such high-tech castles would make Hong Kong feel like a
stroll in the woods. Still, as Hong Kong must add housing for 150,000 people
every year, Mr. Fung, of the city's Land and Planning Bureau, admits, "Who
knows? We might see a Hyper Structure in the New Territories one day."

Says Tokyo's Mr. Aoki ominously: "The truth is that Asia's cities don't have
any real density yet."

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