Chasing the City
Models for Extra-Urban Investigations
New York 2018
Only after a second glance do you realize that things aren’t quite what you expected them to be. Lift interiors in Hong Kong, specifically domestic lifts, appear to be the same as most other lift interiors around the world. Possibly the decor is richer in ornament than an equivalent European lift, but the 1.5 meter-square ubiquitous cabin is a standardized component that simply gets installed and allowed to operate following programmed algorithms. In fact, your cognitive faculties cease to function in these com- monly recognized “background” spaces. It is as if your brain goes into default mode, basing conclusions on preconceived assumptions about what is staring straight at you. On closer inspection, you realize that what you thought to be “standard” has been subtly manipulated: the lift buttons marking the floors of the apartment have been tampered as to omit any presence of the number 4 (4, 14, 24, 34. . .) due to its negative local “bad omen” connotations. Pronounced in Cantonese the word “four” phoneti- cally sounds the same as “death,” resulting in a paradoxical Spike Jonze situation where a building has no 4th, 14th, 24th floor, etc.
Such a small, in most people’s eyes inconspicuous, alteration embodies the notion of “Hong Kong Conditions.” The conditional city is, in many ways, a reaction to the anaesthetized and anonymous city architects and urban planners so often pay attention to. Conditions in this context belong to the background city we inhabit, but are unable to acknowledge. The city we live in, yet fail to observe, collectively dismissed and marginal- ized by experts who, in their unyielding attempt to improve our habitat, seem to have lost the ability to appreciate the banal and quotidian urban presence. You will never find an architect who claims authorship of the background city; shame and indignation prevail. By definition, the urban “background” is an orphan and circumstantial soul that at best can be described as an illegitimate urban byproduct only acknowledged via its antonym, the foreground city.
Contrary to the foreground city (the city of icons and architectural state- ments we are so often told constitutes its identity, from the Eiffel Tower in Paris to the Guggenheim in Bilbao), the background city is preoccupied with coexisting, adapting, and avoiding all manifestations of its ego. In short, the background city insists on being invisible. For better or worse, the present reality of cities, the “here and now” of our urban existence, is actually shaped by that 99% we refuse to discuss. Rather than dismiss such pervasive urban agglomerations, this chapter seeks to observe and interrogate the mechanisms and tropes of this non-city.
Just as one can never recall the sound of background noise, the back- ground city cannot be reproduced, only recognized. Yet within this infinite sea of homogeneous scenarios, behind the scenes, back-stage, lie countless moments of inhabitation, existences that can only be brought into focus manually, by sheer determination. In a manner similar to tuning a radio, one has to tune in to the right city wavelength to be able to absorb and appreciate its intimate world of micro inhabitation, the invisible latent energy that makes every background scene distinct. We are no longer following a flat and generic urban landscape, but have entered a parallel actual world that anthropologists define as the cultural identity of a place (Mathews 2013).