The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote that a man can never step into the same river twice, because with the flow of time and water, “it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” This is what returning to Hong Kong feels like. It’s often what moving from one day to the next feels like in the city.
Hong Kong’s extreme density seems counter-intuitive for a climate of such urban flux and fluidity. Yet as one concrete forecourt morphs from morning Tai Chi session to market to outdoor classroom in the same day, and the buildings themselves transform from business hubs to containers of a choreographed light show at night, it becomes clear that the city is more platform than place.
Hong Kong’s bamboo scaffolding has always been the ultimate icon of the city’s fluid, malleable magic for me. Sprouting like out of place forests from the sidewalk and rising to heights that register more in the pit of the stomach than the mind, their organic assembly and source material make them unlikely urban ingredients. Yet they warp and weave with the city’s fabric at each turn, every structure an architectural and engineering marvel never repeated identically twice.
The scaffolding’s organic material is only part of the biomimicry taking place in its construction. Watching Hong Kong’s scaffolding be built, the only accurate description I’ve ever found is to say that the city’s scaffolding is assembled like vines grow. The city’s expert scaffolding builders anchor the bamboo to railings and street signs at its base and utilize all opportunities and elements in the surrounding landscape for parasitic support as it rises. Huge empty signs that hang out over the street get swallowed up as the scaffolding grows out and over at angles that seem redefine the laws of physics and support.
An entirely different relationship with the physical city can be read in their presence. They come together in respectful call and response harmony with the surrounding built environment. The lack of the rigid uniformity of steel scaffolding and its angular fixtures allows them to weave and flow with the shell of the building and its location, cowing and crafting in deference to neighboring structures. They are part of a construction conversation with the city instead of an act of dominance. Ladders, debris nets, pulleys and platforms are shaped at speed from the same source material as the structure rises. All needs and necessities for remaking the massive underlying structure are formed from what was just days earlier a massive pile of bamboo and coils of rubber ties.
The finished product is remarkable, and the process of its assembly remarkably inspiring. Skill and craft seem instantaneous, almost instinctive with the speed and dexterity that workers grab poles and lace them into place. The structures are amalgamations of odd length pieces, thin, efficient knots. At times, curved poles appear to provide support from their spring-loaded tension. It is a beautiful and at times heart-stopping performance: the only safety mechanisms at hundreds of feet in the air being the workers’ hands and feet.
There are so many things that can make Hong Kong the line separating “before and after” moments in life. For me, it has changed my appreciation of scaffolding in general. Previously, I would marvel at the wonder of a tall steel scaffolding structure in Western cities. Spend an afternoon watching a 14-story bamboo scaffolding be assembled in Hong Kong and Western scaffolding look less challenging than assembling an Ikea chair.