Photos

The Strange Beauty of Density Taken to the Extreme

Photos of Hong Kong high-rises that appear both claustrophobic and stunning.

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Michael Wolf

The Hong Kong-based photographer Michael Wolf first began to photograph the city's residential high-rises, like the one pictured above, in their entirety – or, at least, with some sense of sky and horizon and scale in the frame. Then he printed them out and began to rearrange them.

"At some point, I just began folding the prints, folding way the sky, folding away the sides, until I basically had an image that looked like a supermarket bar code," Wolf says. "I somehow had the feeling this was the right way of doing it, this was the gut decision."

This was the best way to capture life amid extreme density, in a compact city of 7 million people jammed full of 80-story apartments and infinitely replicated facades. Wolf's own 300 square-foot studio looks out on such patterns of stacked homes, with maybe 10,000 other units in view. Collectively, they form a kind of geometric art that appears in Wolf's tightly cropped photos as simultaneously stunning and claustrophobic. The images have recently been reprinted in the book Architecture of Density. Each photo produces the disorienting sense that these buildings could stretch into the sky forever.

"I realized it was a very effective way of communicating density exactly for those reasons: You had no idea how big these buildings actually could be because there were no real references," Wolf says. Most of the images are cropped near the tops of buildings, although they look like they could continue for another 30 floors. "It’s an illusion which I’m creating," Wolf says. "It gives you an idea of an unlimited scale."

The images invite a kind of ambivalent reaction: They make dense city living look almost inhumane – as if people were living amid computer chips – despite the implied mass of humanity behind all these windows. At the same time, these photos capture endearing glimpses of private lives seen through all that geometry.

"The primary statement is about life in cities, it’s about the living conditions in mega cities," Wolf says. "But on the other hand, if you look at these photographs at a distance, at 10 or 15 feet, they look very beautiful, they have a beautiful aesthetic. They could almost be like op art, with very geometric patterns. But when you go closer, you realize each one is an apartment, each one is inhabited by a human being – you see that from the curtains, and from the objects which people hang out to dry."

That very geometric beauty has made these images popular among collectors at the blown-up scale of a living room wall ("The irony," Wolf says, "is most of these collectors have 5,000 or 10,000 square-foot apartments").

In a parallel project, Wolf has also photographed the interiors of people living within 100 square-foot apartments. And some 80 percent of those residents told Wolf they were happy with their homes. The reason? The sense of community, density's greatest benefit.

"The important lesson to be learned is that it’s not space which is important for humans," Wolf says. "It's your neighbors."

All images courtsey of Michael Wolf.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.