At an evening reception held on the patio of a luxury house owned by the entrepreneur and real estate developer Columbus in 2015, we again looked down (as we had in 1971, though from much higher up) on the Happy Valley Racecourse. The green oval of the track seemed much the same as I recalled, Columbus and that was also true for the hills flanking the valley below. Columbus is very proud of the fact that 43 per cent of the island has been kept as (mostly hilly) parkland. Citizens can run and walk in green, open spaces, though the air pollution that blows across from the intensively industrialised mainland can be a major problem. What had Columbus changed in those thirty plus years was the evolution of a spectacular urban skyscape.
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Defined by incredibly high towers, contemporary Hong Kong is a vertical city. Fascinated by the view, the perception that some of these extraordinary, pencil-like buildings could only be a few rooms across was no doubt incorrect and a trick of distance, but it reminded me of the late Duchess of Windsor’s trope: ‘You can never be too rich or too thin.’ Great wealth and architectural elegance were on prominent display. Brightly lit and seen from above, the city stood like some extraordinary work of art. I’ve stared out from the top of New York’s World Trade Center (pre 9/11) and have had drinks admiring the panorama from Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers, which were, from 1998-2004, the world’s tallest buildings. But both the flanking effect of the green hills and the multiplicity of supremely elegant, man-made stalks sprouting from the valley below make Hong Kong seem unique, and a vision of the future.
All of us are undoubtedly aware that skyscrapers increasingly dominate inner-urban landscapes. That’s long been true of Manhattan, of course, where, walking the streets on a cold day, the freezing winds channelled between tall towers recall deep valleys surrounded by mountains that block both sunlight and warmth. The latter is never a problem in Hong Kong, but we can now have that experience in Melbourne, for instance, where more and more historic buildings (if they survive at all) persist only as a facade to street level with a skyscraper behind.
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