Kowloon Walled City was a crazy social experiment, except there were no scientists in charge; the test subjects were. On the site of a dismantled Chinese fortress in Hong Kong, refugee squatters began building makeshift homes in the 1940s. What started out as 2,000 refugees in huts gradually grew into 50,000 people crammed into ramshackle, unregulated skyscrapers leaning on each other for support. (It’s reported that no architects or engineers were involved in building the structures, which went up to 14 stories, but were somehow erected by the community that lived there.) And amazingly, it all formed a cohesive—and largely contiguous—structure, resembling a castle or fortress.
KWC had water and electricity siphoned from wells and the rest of the city, but was an unregulated mess of ad-hoc infrastructure largely unsupported by government. Police were afraid to venture inside (though unbelievably, postman were reportedly forced to deliver mail there!). It was filled with criminals, drug dealers and prostitutes, as well as honest families, schoolchildren and one-man manufacturing shops.
Tiny, cramped spaces did double duty, with units that were classrooms during the day transformed into strip clubs at night. There were restaurants and gambling dens, hair salons and convenience stores, unlicensed doctors and dentists. So close were the buildings that sunlight was hard to come by on street level; thus fluorescents were hung for illumination. Rooftops became social spaces.
The government finally shut it down in the 1990s and razed it. But in the years during and since, Kowloon Walled City has captured the imaginations of everyone from architects to sci-fi authors to set designers to artists.
Speaking of artists, photographer Greg Girard, who documented KWC in the 1980s, probably has the best photo essay on it (shot both inside and outside) right here. We also wanted to show you the fantastic KWC-inspired work done by a handful of illustrators: