As the city with the most skyscrapers in the world, Hong Kong is constantly in a state of aerial growth. New buildings are always going up, and old ones coming down, in the dense port. While the towers are under construction, whether it’s for a new façade or a demolition, they are shrouded in bamboo scaffolding and brightly-colored nylon mesh.
San Francisco-based photographer Peter Steinhauer first noticed the distinctive scaffolding in 1994, when he was then living in Hanoi. As he stepped out of the airport and joined a taxi line, a building encased in yellow material caught his eye. “My immediate thought was that the environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, were in Hong Kong wrapping buildings,” he writes in his new monograph Cocoons. “As I rode in the taxi to my hotel, which was on Hong Kong island, I saw two or three of these buildings wrapped in different colors and realized that this was some sort of a renovation process.”
Later, in 2007, he moved to Hong Kong, and devoted more time to documenting these temporary interventions of blue, yellow, green, and gauzy white in an otherwise monochromatic skyline. Cocoons, recently released by powerHouse Books, features 100 of these images. The publication follows Steinhauer’s Vietnam: Portraits and Landscapes (2002) and Enduring Spirit of Vietnam (2007), which also explored contemporary life in Asia.
In each of the Cocoons photographs, Steinhauer captures how this construction process, designed to contain dust and catch falling debris, creates surreal moments in the urban landscape. Whereas bamboo scaffolding has mostly disappeared from other Asian cities, replaced by metal, it endures in Hong Kong. The lightweight and flexible bamboo is especially suited to the region’s rains and winds, and the skilled workers who daringly climb hundreds of feet in the air work quickly to envelop whole structures, frequently working at night.
In a book essay, curator Linda Benedict-Jones describes how Steinhauer was inspired by 19th-century Scottish photographer John Thomson, who spent time in Hong Kong in the 1860s and 1870s. “Thanks to his extraordinary efforts, which was requisite in the wet plate era, we know that this scaffolding practice did not begin in the era of modern skyscrapers,” writes Benedict-Jones. “Instead, these brightly colored fabrics are the 21st century evolution of a practice that can be seen in this 1871 image by John Thomson of a man climbing the bamboo scaffolding encasing a European style building under renovation.” (The photograph cited by Benedict-Jones is embedded below, courtesy of Wellcome Collection.)
Although 19th-century Hong Kong was a very different place from the contemporary metropolis, there is this material link across a time of rapid development. Steinhauer spent hours driving to hilly vistas and gaining access to balconies and rooftops, shooting on overcast days and at night when the lighting was at its most ethereal. Lattices of bamboo and the sporadic advertisement, such as the arches of a McDonald’s sign, are often the only interruptions in the colorful drapery that has consumed the curves and angles of a skyscraper. He and his family even experienced what it was like to live inside this cloaked architecture. In 2008, their apartment building was bundled in bamboo scaffolding and semi-transparent green material, turning the light through their windows an emerald hue for several months. And after the nylon and bamboo was removed, they emerged back into the city, looking out from one of the numerous towers clustered around Victoria Harbour.
“My vision is to help preserve the history of a city that never stops transforming, always changing and redefining itself (and yet so many things are the same), also somewhat like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar,” writes Steinhauer. “There is immense beauty in this transformation, and yet it is often overlooked or under-appreciated when we are more focused on the small details of our lives.”