Feb. 5th, 2010

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I escaped yesterday from winter-glitched Berlin (grit, dark, dirt, slush and slither) into the warm, clean capsule of sunlight-and-elsewhere which is the Walther Koenig bookstore. Soon I found myself flipping through an interesting architect's-coffee-table book by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham, Portraits from Above: Hong Kong's Informal Rooftop Communities.

Up on the roofs of Hong Kong buildings you often find them: corrugated shacks, little huts, self-built structures which replicate, up in the air, rural Chinese villages. "Informal" means, of course, that they don't meet any building standards and don't have any legal status, so living in one of these skyhuts is a precarious business in every sense; a government inspector will sooner or later mark your dwelling with a fluorescent ink stain which means that you have a minimal window of a day or two to vacate before they pull the place down and chuck its constituent parts onto a skip thirty stories below.



Wu (the Chinese-Canadian who did the meticulous cut-away drawings) and Canham (German, photographs) asked themselves the same questions I did: Who lives here? How do they live? Do they have wifi? Do they have running water and electricity? What's it like in there? Luckily, the pair were invited in quite readily, and allowed to document the living spaces.



Did I tell you I once lived for a year in a hen hutch? Well, it wasn't really a hen hutch, more a garden shed behind a house in Torry, Aberdeen. It was my last year at university, and I actually really enjoyed living there. I put a picture of Alexander Pope on the wall, taught myself Brel songs, warmed myself with a two-bar heater, and, when I had to use the loo or the bath, let myself into the adjacent house belonging to my landlady, Mrs Ross. So that's what I imagine living on a Hong Kong roof to be like.



Humble, fleeting, homemade, ramshackle and cheap, the self-fab skyhut is admirable in all sorts of ways. Okay, so the toilet appears to be in the kitchen in some of these photos, and they wouldn't keep the cold out if Hong Kong ever did get cold (today it's 20c, perfect!). But from the point of view of density, recycling, efficiency and sustainability these structures -- built in a spirit of dung-beetle bricolage -- have a lot to teach us. Up on the roof it's cooler and quieter, you're out of people's way, you have good views out over the city, you can befriend the birds and watch the sun set. You haven't used up any extra land, and you haven't spent a ridiculous amount of money on construction. You're up on the roof, hurting no-one, minding your own business, listening to the aircon.



The nice thing about books like Portraits from Above is that they provide a detailed decor into which you can insert characters of your own. Yesterday, after playing Grand Theft Auto for a while at the Transmediale hub, I invented a character called Mr Pantouffle. He's a semi-retired clown with a heart of gold, always being cheated by the people he meets down on the ground. Only up in his skyhut, with his beloved avifauna around him, is Pantouffle free. He hums, he feeds the birds, he works on his clown act, he scatters fresh rice into his pink plug-in cooker and flips the switch.

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