Paris is a nineteenth-century city, New York a twentieth-century city, Hong Kong a twenty-first-century city.
Picture the movie models of future cities imagined since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: they are canyons fringed by towers, blocks, and spires. In Bladerunner, the massive industrial places are dank complexes, forever dark and brooding, hemmed in by man-made cliffs. In The Fifth Element, the city is buzzed by traffic, the ground choked in smog and detritus where no one lives. These are three-dimensional places, where people live up as well as out. Likewise the gleaming and clean places of Minority Report and I, Robot.
Paris is street level. From the Pompidou you can see for kilometres, and it’s only five stories high. New York has its famous skyscrapers, but beyond the few buildings, all the action is on the street. These cities spread.
Hong Kong and newer Asian metropolises like Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou climb, embracing the idea of the future city with fervour. The Chinese cities don’t need to: there is plenty of space, but they do.
Flat land gives way to erupted blocks. High density older dwellings like the hutongs give way for neutron dense housing blocks, fitting a small North American town’s worth of people into a footprint the size of a small mall’s parking lot. Massive overpasses fly through the buildings nestled right next to them.
Look up in the new city; it lives over your head.
I am not sure how I feel about all of this. I loved Paris. Human scale (though the Louvre is on a grand scale). Liveable. Central Hong Kong is a place to visit, a wonder of bustle and money, but I was glad to live on Cheung Chau, on a corner only remotely tethered to the financial fjords of Hong Kong. Manhattan was a compromise. Guangzhou encompasses all three centuries, reaches back past the 19th and forward in the 21st. It is a place in transition, which is why it so entrances and frustrates me.