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Rufina Wu & Stefan Canham: „Portraits from Above“

Self-built, informal settlements on the roofs of high-rise buildings are an integral part of Hong Kong’s urban landscape. The rise of rooftop communities is closely linked to the migration history from Chinese Mainland to Hong Kong. With each of China’s tumultuous political movements in the 20th century, like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, there was a corresponding wave of Mainland Chinese migrating to Hong Kong. The large influx of migrants into a city notoriously short of flat land resulted in severe housing shortage and fostered the emergence of informal settlements. People utilized all available space and constructed homes out of sheet metal, wood, and leftover materials on the flat roofs of high-rise buildings. Existing for over five decades, diverse informal economies have developed around the settlements, enabling the disadvantaged to live in the city by providing housing where it is needed: in central urban areas, in the vicinity of labour-intensive trades. There were an estimated 30,000 households on Hong Kong’s rooftops in 2001. Field research conducted in 2007 reveals that rooftop living continues to be a vibrant phenomenon in the city.

Portraits from Above is a book and exhibition project documenting Hong Kong’s legacy of informal rooftop communities as a highly unique form of architecture without architects. The project offers a comprehensive view into five rooftop settlements found in three targeted redevelopment areas defined by the Urban Renewal Authority of Hong Kong.

Architectural Drawings acknowledge the creative genius behind the construction of each unique rooftop structure. Axonometric drawings and analytical diagrams present entire rooftop communities as complex, functioning systems. Building elevations enrich Hong Kong’s skyline with the inclusion of an informal layer.

Photographs of the domestic interiors of more than twenty households offer a unique and unprecedented insight into life on the rooftops. High-resolution, large-format images present interior and exterior spaces in all their detail for the viewer to “read.”

Text Records convey residents’ stories as they relate to the specific modalities of life on the roof. Rooftop communities need to be understood as a phenomenon generated by the people, or more precisely, by immigrants in an immigrant society.

Portraits from Above aims to uncover the creative cultural energy of Hong Kong’s rooftop communities to a wider public. In the absence of officially sanctioned space, marginalized groups develop innovative tactics to make room for themselves. Such informal building practices typically occupy a subordinate position in the formal discourses on the city. The project reveals how rooftop communities are inextricably linked to their local neighbourhood and social networks. In face of the government’s current tabula rasa approach of urban renewal, however, the future of this Hong Kong legacy remains precarious.


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