Kowloon Walled City was the densest—and most interesting?—place on Earth

I have only two major urban regrets: that I'll never get to see Portsmouth's Tricorn Centre, and that I'll never get to see Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City. These structures, in most ways exact opposites, share only the qualities of having been demolished, and of once having contained a surprising range of activity.

The Tricorn Centre, designed by Rodney Gordon and built in 1966, stood in its gray concrete glory as perhaps England's most striking work of Brutalist architecture. Kowloon Walled City, designed by nobody in particular and built bit by improvised bit since the mid-1940s, stood as the densest place on Earth, with 3,250,000 inhabitants per square mile. (Manhattan, for reference, has under 67,000 per square mile.)

Essentially an informal settlement effectively controlled by neither Britain nor China, Kowloon Walled City took the shape of 300 both unregulated and irregular tower blocks mashed up into a kind of single unit, chockablock with residences, shops, opium dens, unlicensed dentists, and the stuff of 30,000 to 50,000 more or less normal lives, each one added to the accretion wherever it could fit. It fell to the wrecking ball in the early 1990s, but many memories of the lives lived within remain. City of Imagination, the short Wall Street Journal documentary at the top, draws upon them to reflect on the reality of this unprecedented and irreproducible urban environment.

boing boing city of darkness

Just as Kowloon Walled City went down, Ian Lambot and Greg Girard published City of Darkness, an extensive photographic and textual examination of the place in its final years. More recently, they pulled in £84,817 with a Kickstarter drive to produce City of Darkness Revisited, an update to the original book that expands on the story and corrects "the many urban legends that forever swirl around this extraordinary community."

But for every tall tale cut down, the legacy of a place like Kowloon Walled City inevitably grows two or three new ones. Hence its extremely, almost unfathomably real environment's popularity as a virtual one in works from William Gibson's Bridge trilogy to the video game Call of Duty Black Ops. It even served as the model for a Japanese arcade previously featured here on Boing Boing. When will they do the same for the poor old Tricorn?