QUESTIONING SPATIAL INFORMALITY: Through the lens of Michael Wolf

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Figure 0, Michael Wolf, back door 13, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Critical & Historical Studies / Dissertation






1. SPATIAL INFORMALITY 1.1 The term informality in spatial theory: Urban informality


1.2 The different interpretations of urban informality


1.3 The need for a dialectical way of thinking towards informality




2.1 Hong Kong’s urbanism: the sociopolitical background


2.2 Investigating informality in the photography of Michael Wolf: 2.2.1 Getting to know the work of Michael Wolf 2.2.2 Critical observation in the photos of Michael Wolf

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G enerally speaking, it may seem quite easy to distinguish what is formal and what

informal, whether that concerns a spatial, an economic or a social condition. However, in the academic field, then notion of urban informality has justifiably been a rather challenging concept the latest 70 years. Starting off with a brief history of the uses of the term and the continuous discourse over different interpretations, given by scholars through the years, this dissertation highlights the importance of understanding the complexity of urban informality and of the proper way to examine it. The main goal of the project is to pass on the knowledge for a critical thinking towards informality, which is the key to a more dynamic and socially interactive approach of urban development and design.

I n the second and main chapter of the dissertation I present potential cases of rereading

examples of images that depict “informal” spaces and design. I use pictures of every day life of the city of Hong Kong, from the portfolio of Michael Wolf, a photographer that willingly aims to shoot “informality” in the city. By analyzing, first, some of the main factors and relations one has to study while dealing with these cases, I am trying to conduct my own critic in a series of selected photos of Michael Wolf.


1. SPATIAL INFORMALITY 1.1 The term informality in spatial theory: Urban informality


ven though it has been used for many years and monopolized numerous discourses throughout academic communities, the term “informal” is still fluid. By this we don’t mean that it is hard to define the literal meaning of the term, but as a concept it has been challenged so much that it still remains difficult to characterize something as informal in an absolute way. But the importance of the absence of this kind of absoluteness is what we will try to highlight in this dissertation. Afterall, there is quite a range of conditions between fully formal and completely informal1, if we could accept that informality could stand as an opposing pole. As a notion it has been involved in many different sectors that relate with the life in the city, with most important ones the cultural, the economic, the social, the political and the spatial. But as Laura Lutzoni points out in her essay: “The first debates on informality focused on informal employment and the economic aspects connected with it, neglecting the spatial sphere and the emerging forms of urbanity.”2. Street hawking or street vending, which in fact describes individuals temporarily occupying pavements and other parts of public space to sell their goods that curry with them, is one of the first recognized informal activities. Regarding space, though, informality has been mostly observed and studied as an aspect of urbanism, so historically we are going to refer to it. A wide range of examples could fall into the spectrum of urban informality, such as spontaneous processes of occupation of the territory, absence of property titles, self-building of houses, illegal inhabiting in contexts with rapid urbanization (squatting), temporary uses of space, forms of selforganization and development of urban areas at city edges (slams), etc.3


The term has been around for more than 50 years, but in the spatial field, in particular, became firmly established in the early 1960s as an alternative to the functionalist urbanism proposed by the CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne). We could argue that Team X, a group that was created within the meetings of CIAM, and especially the architect Aldo Van Eyck were from the first that brought the aspect of social requirements, regarding city development, on the table in the early 60s and provided a serious amount of research, both with observation and analysis and also with design proposals. Van Eyck’s project “The City as Playground” was one the first research-based representations connected with the concept of informality. Between the 50s and 60s the essence of informality was also mentioned in the theory of the Situationists’ movement (Situationist International). The group, that operated in the political, social and artistic fields, were seeking different ways to perceive the space of the city proposing a link between the built environment and the space as a product of social activity.4 Opposing the functionalist planning, they introduced the practice of urban wandering, which they called “psychogeographical dérive”, using the figure of flâneur as a witness of the human condition, that would help to understand over and above the city’s traditional interpretative categories.5 From the 60s onwards, a serious amount of research, that continued the work of the Situationists for a better understanding of urban complexity, was produced by Andrea Branzi.

Then, at the end of the 60s the Archizoom Studio proposed a nonformal urban reality with their No-Stop City project. Another notable reference of the phenomenon of informality can be found in John F.C. Turner’s studies in Peru and his research on the informal districts of Lima (the barriadas). During the 70s and 80s the notion of informality entered and became mostly a subject of other discipline sectors like sociology, anthropology and economics. We could argue, though, that even if they were not handled so much by urbanism and architecture scholars, the different approaches that were developed this period were partially based on and defined by examples of informal spatiality.

1 Nick Devas, ‘Who runs cities? The relationship between urban governance, service delivery and poverty’, Birmingham: School of the Public Policy, University of Birmingham (Theme Paper 4, IDD) (1999) 2 Laura Lutzoni, ‘In‑formalised urban space design. Rethinking the relationship between formal and informal’, City, Territory and Architecture 3, 20 (October 2016), 6 s40410-016-0046-9 (accessed 4 April 2020) 3 Laura Lutzoni, 3, 2. 4 Brian Holmes, ‘Do-It-Yourself Geopolitics – Map of the World Upside Down’, 2007, quoted in Laura Lutzoni, 3, 3. 5 Walter Benjamin, ‘Parigi capitale del XIX secolo’, 1986, quoted in Laura Lutzoni, 3, 3.

1.2 The different interpretations of urban informality


t is evident that, during the first attempts of defining informality, it was unavoidable for scholars not to base their theory on a dichotomous model. By this we mean that it was only possible for them to identify informal as an opposite or as something excluded from the sphere of formal. The period between the 70s and the 90s marked the dynamic beginning of an era in which a variety of theoretical studies focused on developing different approaches to the concept of urban informality. The different approaches did not develop successively, but overlapped and each time were trying to challenge what has been said so far. The most notable phases that stood out during that period were three and formed the dualist, the legalist and the structuralist school. As mentioned earlier above, the fist approaches of defining the term concerned mostly the field of economy, so the three schools were based on that as well.

6 Laura Lutzoni, 3, 7 7 Nicolo Bellanca, ‘Una breve introduzione all’economia informale’, 2010, quoted in Laura Lutzoni, 3, 7 8 Hernando De Soto, The Mystery Of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs In The West And Fails Everywhere Else (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 89, 241. 9 Diego Coletto, ‘L’economia informale nel sud del mondo fra dilemmi interpretativie di azione’, 2010, quoted in Laura Lutzoni, 3, 8.

Dualist approach According to the dualist theory, informality is something completely separated from the formal range of actions and processes and refers mostly to marginal groups and economic activities at the edge of society.6 It was mostly identified as the “informal sector” which was described as “the part of the urban economy of less developed countries composed of individual, family or small-size enterprises. It provided the major source of employment in the cities, with salaries lower than the minimum level envisaged by the law and production processes presenting high intensity of work, little machinery, low investments and low barriers on entry”.7 The dualist approach encouraged the early acceptance of the dichotomous model, that denies any relation between the formal and the informal. Legalist approach Arising from the dualist school, between the 80s and the 90s, Hernando De Soto’s legalist school proposed its own way of interpreting informality, which didn’t relate at all with the previous theories. It claimed that informal economy was a counteraction to the inability of the State to provide sufficient regulations of the economy and so the inhabitants were forced to take spontaneous and creative decisions. De Soto stated that “This extralegal sector is a grey area that has a long frontier with the legal world, a place where individuals take refuge when the cost of obeying the law outweighs the benefit. […] The poor are not the problem but the solution. […] What the poor are missing are the legally integrated property systems that can convert their work and savings into capital”.8 Once more, this approach promoted duality and couldn’t describe the complexity of the informal sector accurately but defined it again as an equivalent of marginality.

Structuralist approach Finally, after, and in between, a long period of supporting a binary thinking, at the end of the 80s, Castells and Portes (1989) started to investigate the range of dynamic relations between the formal and the informal. They introduced informality as a part of a dense integral system of relationships between the two poles, basing their research on empirical observations instead of analytics and data. The results of their work set the beginning of a new era, at least for the academic community, that started questioning the generality of the term and put forward a dialectical thinking around it. A series of unreasonable assumptions also started to be challenged, like that informality concerned only the countries in the global South.9 Bonus: Relational approach After a small pause of the debates in the 90’s, the interest around the term has risen again during the 21st century. The involvement of informality, so far, in the cultural, social, economic and spatial relations has shown that there is a need for a new multidisciplinary approach. The reason why the subject has gained interest recently relies mainly on an unexpected growth of the (so called) informal economy cases around the world. In addition, it has been considered as a paradigm that can promote the development of sustainable socioeconomical structures. Both of the reasons, though, deal with informality as an exception and a singularity and that could lead again to a dichotomous approach. However, the long-term debates have shown the uselessness of forming universally valued concepts, and thus have helped to create a mapping of the multiple viewpoints of informality. The adoption of this mentality is the reason why I can also explore and present this study today.


1.3 The need for a dialectical way of thinking towards informality


nterpretations of urban informality of the past have either considered it as an element outside State regulations and laws or as something that lacks of structure and proper organization. Those approaches have only led to inadequate and dangerous attempts of legalizing or “formalizing” the informal and mistaken associations of the term with disorganization. Thus, the need for analyzing the strong and complex relations between the two spheres has been created, with the aim of supporting the formal-informal continuum10, and not their dichotomy. As Foucault mentions, regarding the way of conceiving concepts of discontinuities, “the problem is no longer one of tradition, of tracing a line, but one of division, of limits; it is no longer one of lasting foundations, but one of transformations that serve as new foundations, the rebuilding of foundations.”11 Thus said, in order to adopt the method of studying those relations, it is important to understand that there is a series of events defining the phenomena, not a linear chain of actions, in which we have to define each time the elements, limits and relationships.12 Moreover, another extremely significant aspect to bear in mind, which also contributes in abandoning the binary theory, is that informality is produced from the formal systems themselves and so the two of them are deeply connected. They feed each other and their interaction creates an irresolvable tension. Only formal structures and rules have the power to determine what is formal and what is not.13 Similarly, Sassen introduces the idea of the borderlands, a terrain where both the poles and their interaction coexist.14 It describes the importance of focusing on the intersection between the spheres of formal and informal and not on the dividing line, if there is one.


The whole point of understanding and constantly challenging the formal-informal dialectical dynamics, and consequently the aim of this essay, is to contribute to an effective rereading and re-approaching of urban development. By studying the relations and the phenomena, through empirical observation, a new model of urban research is being promoted, that which combines and compares a projectbased knowledge with analytical knowledge. “This plural approach, in contrast with a homogeneous view of the city, favors the success of diversity and alternative points of view. It therefore appears clear that design can be the instrument of knowledge able to cope with both the formal character and the informal one of the city. The tension that develops from the relations established between these spheres produces a different awareness, closely connected with action, which contributes to defining perspectives for the city.”15

10 Elinor Ostrom, Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis and Ravi Kanbur, ‘Beyond formality and informality’, in Linking the formal and informal economy, edited by Elinor Ostrom, Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis and Ravi Kanbur, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) 11 Michel Foucault, The Archaeology Of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), p. 5 12 Laura Lutzoni, 3, 9 13 Ananya Roy, ‘Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning’, Journal of the American Planning Association 71(2), (2005): 147-158 14 Saskia Sassen,‘Fragmented urban topographies and their underlying interconnections’, in Informal city: Caracas Case, edited by Alfred Brillembourg, Kristin Feireiss and Hubert Klumpner, (Munich: Prestel Publishing, 2005) 15 Laura Lutzoni, 3, 12.



n the first chapter, we highlighted that the informal space is based on complex system of relations, each time different and in some cases unique, that prevents us from giving it a universal and absolute definition. We often identify informality in several spatial conditions of every day life, that seem to be out of the system of regulations and values that we personally believe in, but we rarely seam to know the whole background that makes something less or more “informal” than others. Especially when these conditions are observed through a media and not in situ and often refer to places out of our field of knowledge, then the gap of uncertainty of what we can conceive as non-formal grows.

Thus, it is important to get to know, each time, the interactive powers that define a space which we want to examine its “informality”. Bringing back in mind the work of the Situationists, we need to seek and examine the social activity of the space, the creative dynamics that form the interface between humans and the built environment. We have to let out our inner wanderer, our personal flâneur, to stand both in and out of the happenings, in and out the intermediate hazy zone. In this chapter, I am going to make an attempt of trying to identify a series of relations, facts and observations that concern selected cases, that have been characterized by others as informal. I am presenting a case study, of a proposed way of rereading nonformal spatial situations. I am doing so by investigating some of the main, and certainly not all, components that define the characteristics of the examined examples. Those components consist of cultural, historical, social and political data and also my personal critic. The main disadvantage, but also the unique feature of this study, is that it lacks of a key ingredient that we mentioned in the previous chapter, that of the empirical observation. Instead I am conducting an experimental approach of using photography as the medium through which we will criticize the formal/informal characteristics of the cases. To work with this kind of distinctive factor, I figured out that it is crucial to take into consideration one extra relation, that of the creator and the picture. For this reason, I decided to pick selected content from the work of only one photographer, one that I could research about his way of working and his background.

The photographer that proved perfect for providing the required material, is Michael Wolf. The first reason for this is that the German photographer has lived and taken most of his pictures in Hong Kong, a city that has taken part into several discourses around urban informality. The second reason is that in many of his interviews and in his own texts, Michael Wolf has expressed his interest in capturing “informality” in the every day life of the urban terrain. Characteristically, he has even used the term informal in one the most important collections of his work. I would like to perform a kind of “zooming in” the different factors that affect the formal/informal character of the images, starting from the more general ones and concluding with observations that apply to each case singularly. Hence, given that all of the selected case-photos present the space of Hong Kong, I am starting off with a brief investigation on the history of the city’s urban development, focusing more on the sociopolitical aspects that have given it its present form. Then, I continue by presenting the background of Michael Wolf and his work, based mostly on interviews and tributes on him. Bearing in mind all this knowledge, I am making an attempt to do my own critical observations in the photos, in the last section.


2.1 Hong Kong’s urbanism: the sociopolitical background


f Michael Wolf is the ideal photographer to study the formalinformal relations, then it is thanks to Hong Kong that his photos have that rich quality of content. It is maybe the ideal example of place to prove that there are unique factors, experiences and relations that shape people’s comprehension around notions of everyday life, like space. In this case, we could say that the citizens of Hong Kong have shaped a unique perception, over the years, about space, density and as a consequence about what is typical or formal and what is not. This perception is very different from the one that the global majority shares, but it is not to be neglected, because only this way we can have a more complete understanding of a controversial term. Therefore, it is important to have a look at what makes this city so unique and why it has challenged the architectural world so much. If we could seek for the most popular word that is used to characterize either the urban scenery of Honk Kong, or its houses or lifestyle, that would definitely be the word density. Even if it is population density, urban density, area density or any other spatial aspect of the term, it could definitely apply to Honk Kong, though it is not very important to specify for this essay. “Here, virtually any space is viewed as usable space, no matter how crowded or how ugly, or how small.”16 With these words Rooney tries to picture the lack of free space and the way locals perceive it. These people have a long history of coping with density; hence they have developed mechanisms to deal with limited space that have become part of their culture, of their lifestyle and have even turned into habits. They know how to transform anything into a useful space and they do so by ignoring lots of fundamental rules of space convention.17


Of course they do not share the same opinion about conventional space and as a consequence, for them, density is not essentially something merely negative. In fact, it is a significant condition that have taught people to live together and they are unwilling to abandon. But without getting to know all this and without sharing a bit of the sensibility of the natives around space, we tend to prejudge such situations and consider them exceptions to the Western rules, or rather informal cases. It is that kind of normalness, as Geertz states18, this which people take for granted in their everyday life and that defines our perception of representational space. We ought to acknowledge the contributing factors that have affected Honk Kong’s spatial and design knowledge. The same factors that have led them take their own creative decisions for their interior, and not only, spaces based on criteria that would never be considered by designers. It is significantly hard, though, for someone to articulate the standards which unconsciously define their everyday moves and yet that leads again to understand how difficult is to conceive knowledge without the shelf-lived experience. However, even with knowledge embodied within social myths, tales and local narratives, together with a brief retrospective on historical facts can help us distinguish what we, as designers or Westerns, take as the norm in spatial conception (formal) and what non-designers and people in Honk Kong think about it.

It would be useful to mention the significant dates and events and the conditions that developed the domestic spaces of Home Kong, because housing has always been the biggest problem and concern around which the whole of the modern city has been built. Specifically, we will look into the evolution of public housing and how this has shaped people’s lived in space experience.

16 Nuala Rooney, At Home With Density (Hong Kong Culture And Society) (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2003), p. 2 17 Ibid, p. 2 18 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973, quoted in Rooney, p. 8

We could agree that everything started on January 20 1841, when the British occupied the small island, initially with the goal of turning it into a trading and military center. Soon, this idea changed, as trade and development attracted merchants from Europe and even more labourers from China and that resulted into a huge and rapid growth of population (almost tripled), creating a demand for accommodation. The first steps in housing organization, carried out by private developers, followed a system of division between social classes and nations, clearly in favor of the British. The latter constructed homes that met their high architectural standards on the higher levels of the uneven land, while the Chinese working class started pilling on the lower slopes, building in a more vernacular rural style. Wealthy Chinese were allowed to build in the British barrow, but only by following the European style standards. Of course, the majority couldn’t afford something like that and so they started settling in an area known as Tai Ping Shan, where buildings were constructed as closely together as possible and the ventilation and sanitation were inadequate. The speed of construction, for which Hong Kong is still renown today, clearly has its roots in those early days and is part of an exploitation business plan in which landlords, both foreigners and Chinese, also contributed by raising the rents in very high prices. Overcrowding was something that was meant to happen and was welcomed as a very profitable industry.

19 Rooney, p. 14 20 Rooney, p. 24-47

Early examples of high-density interiors can be also found in the borough of Tai Ping Shan, in 1880, were we can see how poverty led people into making “informal” spatial arrangements, that favored overcrowding, using what they had. “One floor may have been so divided into tiny cubicles, there could be fifty or more people living inside. Each family might only have the basics for living, and their furniture may have been nothing more than a few boards with reed mats for a bed, and wooden boxes to store their possessions.”19 In 1873, Colonial Surgeon Dr. Phineas Ayres condemned the horrible conditions of these buildings and expressed his fear for an epidemic, but the Chinese landlords didn’t approve of his arguments. They claimed that this way of living is a deep part of Chinese culture and is their way of inhabiting big cities. It was indeed true that Chinese were unwilling or unable to pay high rents and for this reason they used to share or sublet their space surplus (with their own perception of necessary space). However, when in 1894 the bubonic plague broke out it was for the first time clear that the government should take control of the situation. Eventually, the Chadwick report of 1902 recognized the horrible living conditions and also found that they were way worse than twenty years before. Yet again, Chinese would continue to believe that they were not in need of the Western living standards and there were other social reasons for this. Except of the cultural tendencies that made them prefer to live together with other families, they also had different priorities over their money allocation. They chose to save their money for long-term investments such as children’s education over a more comfortable house. In 1940s the Hong Kong homes were clearly far from the globally accepted ideas of modernism.

What’s even more remarkable was that by the end of 1949 there were 30000 people in Honk Kong that lived in squatter homes, many of them had a steady income and good jobs. Once more Chinese had developed their own “formal” typologies of design and rental systems for the squatter homes, that would impress even the most professionals. A special feature of these homes, that formed a habit that still exists in their lives today, is the way they used to occupy the exterior as much as the interior space in a way that many of their daily domestic activities happened outside. In fact, the borders between the interior-exterior were incredibly thin, considering that they used to have their windows and doors open, providing a big interaction with their neighbors. This habit created yet one more inversed standard for the locals, compared to the Western standards, the one that requires social behavior indoors and provides for absolute freedom outdoors. It was an incident in 1953, the Shek Kip Mei fire, that finally triggered the intervention of the government, regarding social housing. A start of a new era can be marked, in which Honk Kong’s government inherits a new role, that of the ‘financier, contractor and landlord’, with the erection of the first emergency housing, the so called ‘H’ blocks. Bellow follows a list with the most significant moments of the development of the state social housing buildings, and the significant changes that affected the evolution of today’s Honk Kong20 :


-1954 / Founding of the Hong Kong Housing Authority (HKHA): responsible for the construction of permanent community homes that meet the basic standards. - 1954 / Erection of Mark I buildings: The first building that sets the base standards for subsequent blocks in Hong Kong. It had 7 storeys and each block was home for more than 2000 people, set to be their permanent accommodation. Each storey shared 6 latrines for about 90 families. Of course, that shows that it was built well bellow the United Nations standards and the Hong Kong space standards. - 1962 / Mark II: 8 storey structures where every apartment had a balcony, water tap and lavatory shared with 2-3 other families. More comforts were provided, such as electrical fittings and that meant higher rental costs. - 1962 / China relaxes its border controls and there is a flood of immigrants into the territory. - 1963 / Mark IV: 16 storeys building where every standard 4-5 persons room had a private balcony and lavatory. It was the first time that each family could live independently of their neighbors. - In April 1967 riots about working conditions brought instability and division throughout the territory. In order to restore stability, the government decided to plan comprehensive housing, industry and social services. - 1968 / Mark VI: the net area of a 4-person flat was increased to 13 m², excluding the balcony, toilet and the public corridor. - 1972 / Governor Mac Lehose introduced a ten-year housing program aimed to provide public housing to 1,5 million people and to upgrade the living conditions of the future and existing accommodation. -1973 / New Hong Kong housing authority responsible for managing and developing all public housing estates and Home Ownership flats.

- 1976 / HKHA increases the space standards from 35 to 90 square feet per person. The HKHA Estates were introduced. They were so big that were considered as self-contained towns, including banks, shops post-offices, playgrounds, social welfare units and shopping centers. - 1978 / Home Ownership Scheme: A service that helped people who weren’t eligible to apply for a public house, but also, they couldn’t purchase a private house. This scheme was the start to the transition from basic housing “towards an affordable residential standard on par with flats built in the private sector”21. - 1979 / Private Sector Participation Scheme: aiming for the aspiring middle class. - 1980 / Making of Trident block: tenants were finally able to plan their homes, within more flexible floorspaces, by putting dedicated bedrooms and separating them with full height walls, rather than flimsy partitions. This could be considered as a fundamental shift from a utilitarian approach to a design that supported convenience and a better lifestyle. - 1990 / Harmony Blocks: The interior design and the level of interior finish are largely left to the tenants, that sometimes consulted also interior design professionals. - 1993 / The maintenance of the old housing is now supervised by Care program and all the construction changes that took place in the building had to meet International standards.

Community housing in Honk Kong has solved a massive problem and even today living in social housing blocks is not considered a taboo, unlike many other countries. Interviews and personal testimonies have shown that the evolution of social housing over the years has changed the perception of citizens about space adequacy and appearance. There are many locals that recall living under far worse conditions, but they confess that they never expected or thought they needed a better home. Therefore, people’s understanding of space is still related to anthropological and social factors, like family and everyday life, even today. They have learnt to bear with density for so long, that they have developed their own “formalities” for spatial design and arrangement, especially about interior space, which are an inextricable part of their culture.

21 Rooney, p. 36-37


2.2 Investigating informality in the photography of Michael Wolf: 2.2.1 Getting to know the work of Michael Wolf


ichael Wolf was trained as a photojournalist in the Düsseldorf school of Bernd and Hilla Becher. The documentary photographic approach is what defines his entire work and even when he tried to resist to it, he realized that he couldn’t, because that is the way he sees things. “As a photojournalist I was always focused on people”22, he says and he usually likes to refer to himself as an anthropologist. His projects, indeed, could be described more as sociological than artistic or mere documentation. His influences are quite remarkable and tell a lot about his work. Among others they include: photographers William Eggleston and Gerry Johansson, Joseph Beuys, Frank Lloyd Wright, Johnny Cash and Louise Bourgeois. His relationship with Honk Kong started in 1994, when he moved there to work as a photojournalist for the German magazine Stern. He admits that coming to Hong Kong was crucial. From the first moment he realized he fitted there because he felt inspired wherever he was in this vibrant city: “It was like I was constantly under electricity”23. 22 De Canvasconnectie: Michael Wolf, dir: Canvas, 2014 23 Ibid. 24 (accessed 4 April 2020) 25 Robert Shore, ‘Roulette with the Real’, Elephant magazine (26), (2018): 114-123, 116 26 De Canvasconnectie: Michael Wolf, dir: Canvas, 2014 27 Ibid.

After a decade of working in Stern, he developed his first major art project, a massive spatial installation with over twenty thousand plastic “made in China” toys covering the walls. Some of the most significant features of his work can be recognized in this initial project, such as his obsession to collect, his interest in vernacular culture, the combination of both macro and micro perspectives and his tendency to tell a story from an object and from what an object reveals24. Soon he started creating his famous series of photos on Honk Kong’s dense architecture. From that point on, he dived into a long journey of exploration of the city which became the material for numerous books, press releases and exhibitions. Michael Wolf’s fascination on everyday objects and sceneries makes him wander around the neighborhoods of Hong Kong with his camera, for hours, to capture all the intriguing “irregularities”. He is a collector, after all, and his typology of working is to put the photographs in folders, seek for the common ground and then invent his topics. He attempts to “put some order into the disorder, or at least to find patterns in the chaos”25. Therefore, we understand how his work is affected by his documenting logic and his overall rational thinking. Wolf may have an abstracting eye, but his work also evokes romanticism, because he always tries to appropriate things with his own carefully set composition. Big part of his ‘magic’ is the particular way in which he crops his photographs.

Characteristically, in a tribute film/ interview of him in the Belgian tv show De Canvasconnectie, he appears to guide the cameraman to achieve a composition similar to his and when he finally makes it, he says: “Exactly! So, that’s a Michael Wolf” and he continues “The aspect ratio is a bit different, it’s 9:12 and mine is 3:4, but still I would say this is very close to a Michael Wolf”26. He tries to follow a typology or investigate the ‘hidden’ existing typology for every theme he photographs. For example, in his big collection of pictures of hanged mops he tries to find out all the different ways you can hang a mop out to dry. In his series “100 x 100” with rooms from a social housing estate, he follows a specific pattern, in order to discover what all these floor plans have in common. He puts the camera always on the doorway, with the person seating in the middle of the room on a chair or on the bed, and their face looking neutral. The whole project is about them, inhabitants, not the space, and so they become the protagonists. The artist has always been struck by how people in Hong Kong make do with what they have and how much more they care about functionality over form. He emphasizes that: “Hong Kong had invented IKEA before IKEA came into being.”27. Michael Wolf has obviously loved Honk Kong and he thinks he owes his carrier to this city. His deep admiration for it is imprinted on a very sensible statement he makes about his favorite back alleys: “For me these back alleys are so unique to Honk Kong that I’ve always thought it would be wonderful to have the back alleys of Honk Kong declared a World’s Heritage Site.”28 .

28 Ibid.


2.2.2 Critical observation in the photos of Michael Wolf


s case studies, I selected sample photos from five categories of the portfolio of Michael Wolf. Each category represents a different scale of spatial informality, including interior spaces, furniture, objects and installations. I chose in purpose to deal with this variety of “informal” design cases, because I wanted to indicate that the continuing discord about the formalinformal relations can also extend beyond the urban field. As a result, this could be the starting point for potential future researches that can influence the thinking around a user-involved architecture. The critics and observations that follow reflect also my personal sensibility of space, which is influenced by sociogeographical aspects and from my design education. Hence, that could be considered as yet another factor that is related with the understanding of the formal/informal characteristics of a specific spatial case.

“100x100” The first category I am about to examine is a selection of photos from the series “100x100” of Michael Wolf. These photos picture typical examples of the tiny apartments that the majority of Honk Kong’s population lives in. They are possibly located in the remaining huge housing estates and that is why most of the tenants are of an older age. Here, it is evident how deep the influence of utilitarian arrangement of space is still in the culture of Hong Kong, if you also think that a lot of the citizens have chosen to live there. “Form follows function” still stands as the greater value for organizing life and that is obvious via the several techniques used for storing and saving only the absolutely necessary livable space. This general point stands as a proof of the formal thinking behind every spatial improvisation. The key features, spotted in this collection of photos, that prove and at the same time question the informal character of the space can be categorized and listed as follows:

- Compact furniture: they give this limited space the ability to transform during the day, from a living room, to dining room and bedroom. The “informality” here lies in the nature of the furniture, because some of them are not designed for this kind of use, but on the contrary the whole concept could be identified as a quite formal management of the available space. In addition, it is a kind of a cultural habit, along with other mechanisms, in order to cope with spatial density that still survives in today’s homes. - Improvised structures: Another significant observation of “formalized” informality, is the adding of numerous draft structures that help transform the space or the furniture into different objects. - Informal Storage: plastics bags turned into cheap boxes and shelves. Other bags, cartons and more materials are used too. A cultural tendency, that wants every bits and bytes to be useful and also a sign of poor living conditions that makes people get through with what they have. - The “Hanging” technique: as, maybe, the most important feature. Objects and tactics that are not meant for this use are utilized in order to smartly take advantage of the vertical space. - Stacking: in every corner of utilizable space, including the extra beds. * Michael Wolf’s composition: the creative decisions of Michael Wolf make the organization of the space seem more pleasing to the eye, by looking at it through his photos. The composition and the cropping of the image seem so carefully thought, and follow fundamental rules of photography. Hence, the medium in this case “formalizes” the perceived space.



Figure 1, Michael Wolf, 100x100-72, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Compact furniture: We can identify a temporarily folded table behind the tenant and some more permanently packed folding chairs that can potentially adjust the room to any use. Improvised structures: Characteristically, we can see a straw mat turning the bed into table, an improvised fixed divider for the sleeping zone and an extra supporting structure bound with the top corner of the bed.

Informal Storage: The custom-made carton bags are the highlight here. The “Hanging” technique: Including a lot of adhesive tape as a tool. Stacking: Extra beds

* Michael Wolf’s composition: Even that eye-catching “25” on the calendar seems to be placed according to the golden ratio.



Figure 2, Michael Wolf, 100x100-68, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Compact furniture: A pair of stacked folding chairs together with a lifebuoy and a pillow form an “informal” armchair. Improvised structures: : Improvised decorations, which also serve as useful objects, can also be found. Here, particularly, a patterned sheet is covering the front of a possible fridge or cupboard, in order to hide something, play the role of the divider and also contribute to the aesthetics of the room.


Informal Storage: : Draft boxes, plastic and paper bags make their appearance in this photo too. The “Hanging” technique: At the side of the image we can spot a pair of hanged jackets and it seems that the bed is utilized as a clothes rack Stacking

* Michael Wolf’s composition: Interestingly attractive focal point/ background relation


Figure 3, Michael Wolf, 100x100-49, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Informal Storage: A usual phenomenon where the upper bed is used as storage. The “Hanging” technique: Two thin strings attached on the ventilation grooves might support a hanging installation.

Stacking: This room looks incredibly tidy even though there is a significant load of objects in it. The stacking of the belongings and especially the blankets and sheets on the bed are so carefully and economically, in terms of space saving, organized that it feels everything is in the right place.

* Michael Wolf’s composition


“back door” In the “back door” series we can witness another significant aspect of the social life of Hong Kong, which is the “formal” use of the back-door alleys of the buildings. It is evident, once more, how the problem of limited personal space has led people to find creative solutions for expanding it. Most of the times the back alleys form spaces for secondary uses, like storage and laundry, but there are also numerous examples that show that they can become an extension of the living room. Besides, as we have also mentioned in the previous chapter, Chinese from the earlier years have developed a reversed model of life, that wants people to externalize their private life and interact a lot with their neighbors. What is so special here is how those seemingly informal spatial arrangements follow typical rules and aesthetics of an interior space or stand in for typical domestic objects and utilities. The key features of “informalized” formality that we could point out in this collection are:


Inside/Outside: Typical arrangements and activities of an interior space extended outside. By ‘outside’ we don’t only refer to exterior space, but mostly to semi-private or public areas. - Patina: Signs of erosion and ageing of exposed materials, old objects and dirt compose a rather hostile environment. However, lately this image has been part of a new trend that promotes an idealization and aestheticization of informality. - The “Hanging” technique - Improvised structures * Michael Wolf’s composition


Figure 4, Michael Wolf, back door 38, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Inside/Outside: So carefully and nicely put, this picture combines features of a living room, a bedroom and of course of a backyard space, which in fact is. Can this space be called informal when it is organized with a certain interior typology? Patina: Erosion on different material surfaces, like the concrete wall and the metal door, compose a weirdly beautiful pallet.

The “Hanging” technique: Clothe hangers and improvised string hanging systems. Improvised structures: Improvised protection covers and backdrops, for the clock and the clothes, are probably made to prevent the objects to be in touch with the dirty exposed surfaces.

* Michael Wolf’s composition: It wouldn’t be easy to comment all these at once if it wasn’t for Michael Wolf to have found the perfect size and angle to gather everything. The alignment also of the intersection of the materials on the wall, in the middle, makes it seem as a potential separation of two rooms.



Figure 5, Michael Wolf, back door 03, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Patina: Not the perfect environment to hang washed clothes, but rather useful for already dirty objects. The “Hanging” technique


Improvised structures: Very clever use of the spiked net together with the pipe, taking advantage of the vertical space.

* Michael Wolf’s composition: Centers the “informal” installation like a piece of art


Figure 6, Michael Wolf, back door 29, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Patina: The uniform patina all over the surfaces doesn’t have a lot of differences with a textured purposefully treated surface. The “Hanging” technique: The hanged mops are adjusting to the metal structure so gently that it looks like it is made for that use.

* Michael Wolf’s composition


“informal seating arrangements” I chose to investigate this category of photographs because it shows one more individual section of informal design, which is that of furniture design, examples of which you can read about only under the general umbrella of informal urbanism. It is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult categories to distinguish the informal character from the formal, because it depicts successful examples of upcycling, one of today’s most popular sustainable design strategy. Yet, Michael Wolf names this series “informal seating arrangements” and that proves, once more, the arbitrary use of the term.

- Adaptive reuse: The most successful tactic for sustainable design and architecture. Especially today’s interior design bases its whole theory in adaptive reuse of objects and spaces. Intervention/Insertion/ Installation: According to Professor Graeme Brooker, they are the three fundamental strategies of interior design.29 Those labels could apply to numerous of the structures in this category. What is more formal than that? - Inside/Outside: Parts of indoor furniture used outside.

Key Features: - Improvised structures - Patina * Michael Wolf’s composition

29 Graeme Brooker and Sally Stone, Rereadings: Interior Architecture and the Design Principles of Remodelling Existing Buildings (London: RIBA Enterprises, 2014)



Figure 7, Michael Wolf, back door 30, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Adaptive reuse: A bucket that used to be the container of powder is joined with a ‘legless’ office chair with the use of a permanent adhesive (formal?), concrete.

Inside/Outside: Office chair



* Michael Wolf’s composition

Improvised structures



Figure 8, Michael Wolf, 01, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Adaptive reuse: Refurbished plastic chairs.

Inside/Outside Improvised structures

Intervention/Insertion/Installation: Could be described as an insertion as it is cut and perfectly adjusted to the design of the space.


Patina: The plastic is worn out in some parts, but it gives new natural colorings.

* Michael Wolf’s composition


Figure 9, Michael Wolf, 18, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Adaptive reuse: Found cushions, removed from other furniture and reassembled. Intervention/Insertion/Installation: Custom made insertion.

Inside/Outside: Indoor use cushions.

* Michael Wolf’s composition

Improvised structures Patina


“earth gods” It is a fact that Chinese culture is quite religious and one can witness that in multiple aspects of their life. Prosperity and stability are above all material things for this nation, and people often call on the help of “luck” or of any greater power to achieve this. “Earth gods” is a series of photographs that portrays exactly this aspect reflected on moments of everyday life. A matter of religion, for most cultures, either if it is the making of an object or an associated activity, automatically means a handling of higher standards which requires high quality and good care. But again, for Chinese this is not the important thing, and by following their own believes, they can improvise even when it comes to matters of worshiping their gods. The people of Honk Kong, especially, with their own perception of space, can arrange a spot to honor the gods almost anywhere. We could even say that the title that Michael Wolf gave, “earth gods”, is giving the ‘divine’ an “informal” tone. Key Features:


Intervention/Insertion/ Installation - Inside/Outside - Improvised structures * Michael Wolf’s composition


Figure 10, Michael Wolf, earth god 2, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Intervention/Insertion/Installation: A mini religious installation in the urban scenery. Inside/Outside

* Michael Wolf’s composition: The composition smartly integrates the installation with its context, as if it is yet another everyday object.



Figure 11, Michael Wolf, earth god 8, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Intervention/Insertion/Installation: A permanent insertion fused with the structure of the space. It is questionable if it is actually an insertion that was made later or if it was initially designed with the building.


Improvised structures

* Michael Wolf’s composition


Figure 12, Michael Wolf, earth god 34, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Intervention/Insertion/Installation: It could play the role of either an intervention or an installation. From the one hand it seams like an independent structure that was put there, but on the other it looks likes it was attached to the fence and is a part of the building behind. Smaller interventions, boxes within boxes, create a piece with rather architectural character.

Inside/Outside: Some of the components are objects of interior use. Improvised structures: The whole installation is based on a creative improvisation, using found objects and reused materials, but it follows basic construction rules and design.

* Michael Wolf’s composition: The cropping of the image that doesn’t put the thematic piece in the center achieves a better integration of it with the scenery. Michael Wolf deliberately composes his pictures to appear as if no human is behind the camera.


“hk flora” The flora in Honk Kong, like any other component of the city is subject to density and limited space. Of course, that is a major problem for most of the modern mega-cities, but in Honk Kong even the slightest interventions of greenery seem rather squished in. Once more they don’t follow the classic conventions that we know for the arrangement of plants. It is more important ‘where’ they should be than ‘how’ they should be put there. They are basically controlled by the spatial decisions of the locals but sometimes it seems that even nature in Honk Kong has its own understandings of space. Of course, nature, as a notion, is always unexpected and so is hard to identify formalities in it. However, it is interesting to examine it when it is utilized by humans and especially by the people of Honk Kong. Key Features:


- Fake Vs Real: In metropolitan cities like Honk Kong, the use of fake plants is very common, due to the lack of ideal conditions (air pollution, sunlight) but also due to the lack of time for taking care of them. But what is the different with a real plant when it is spatially treated in the same way or when the use for both of them is merely decorative? - HK Display: The creative ways of Honk Kong people to display objects reflect, once more, their unique perception of space. - The “Hanging” technique - Improvised structures * Michael Wolf’s composition


Figure 13, Michael Wolf, hk flora 6, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Fake Vs Real HK Display: Is this plant on display or a captive?

* Michael Wolf’s composition



Figure 14, Michael Wolf, hk flora 30, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Fake Vs Real : The material attributes of these flowers make them look plastic, but why are they in a vase with water? HK Display: Honk Kong seems to have a utilitarian approach even in decoration.


The “Hanging” technique Improvised structures: A custom vase made by reusing a disposable object.

* Michael Wolf’s composition


Figure 15, Michael Wolf, hk flora 18, Courtesy of the artist, accessed 4 April, 2020,

Fake Vs Real : Possibly fake plants sold in a flea market like the real ones. HK Display: The plants are displayed is boxes that remind those of plastic dolls; an unwillingly sarcastic decision.

* Michael Wolf’s composition: Could be possible that Michael Wolf edited the image to emphasize the saturation of the plants over the greyish dull background.




umming up, as we analyzed in the beginning of this text, it is crucial to step beyond dated and misled interpretations, that consider spatial informality an exclusion from a healthy and convenient built environment. We need to understand that the so-called informal cases are, after all, successful examples of an architecture created from the people to cover their needs perfectly, sometimes better than any third person could design it for them. So how could that be considered informal, with the mere negative use of the term? Of course, it is hard to deal with terminology, especially when this notion concerns other aspects of our life, but it is worth trying to change our minds about how to use it fittingly. So, the first step for doing that is to overcome the problematic interpretations, in this case, to transcend the static formal-informal division. Besides, spatial informality as we encounter it today, is a space on the borderlines between the two terms, that doesn’t really belong to any of them.

Once we shape our perception accordingly, there is room for a substantial reform and progress of spatial theory and design. And that is the ultimate goal of this dissertation, to trigger the start of a new corresponding research. The first section to start work with could be that of informal urbanism, as there is plenty of bibliography and controversial discourses on the subject. But how can informal urbanism be a catalyst for enhancing spatial theorizing?30 One initial small step is to adopt a dialectical thinking for reading the different urban cases. It is important to seek for all the unique associating relations and factors that define every spatial arrangement. That can vary from sociological to economical, cultural, anthropological and political factors. For example, Ananya Roy argues that the right to property ownership and other matters of social justice is something that planners seem to constantly forget.31 There is also a very important aspect, which is that of the personal embodied experience of the space and of the intimacy developed within it. As we saw in chapter 2.1, the citizens of Hong Kong take certain things for granted in their perception about space and it is hard for them to even articulate the reasons why. On the contrary, Michael Wolf who thinks of himself as an outsider to Hong Kong32, presents a different perspective of the city, with observations that a local would never be able to make. This could be the start of a new era in spatial research, in which the experience is taken into account as much as objective scientific data.

But what happens when the option of an in situ, self-conducted investigation is not available? In most of the urban cases, that people refer to as informal, the decision about the characterization has been preconceived only by looking at it through a medium. That, of course, is not a proper understanding and requires a more critical point of view. We could argue that in order to read an informal case through a visual medium, we need to collect also information about the creator, the one that perceived that view in the first place and made some crucial decisions before trying to mediate it. It is quite typical for visual artists to romanticize the rendering of their material, so we ought no to be deceived by it. In the age of the image, it is even more important to keep in mind all the associating factors, in order to examine spatial informality, because that will contribute to a refreshing development of spatial theory.

30 M. Acuto, C. Dinardi & C. Marx, ‘Transcending (in)formal urbanism’, Urban Studies 56(3), (2019): 475–487, 1 31 Ananya Roy, ‘Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning’, Journal of the American Planning Association 71(2), (2005): 147-158 32 De Canvasconnectie: Michael Wolf, dir: Canvas, 2014




BOOKS Benjamin, Walter. Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. ed. by Peter Demetz. 1st edn (New York: Schocken Books, 1986) Brooker, Graeme and Stone, Sally. Rereadings: Interior Architecture and the Design Principles of Remodelling Existing Buildings (London: RIBA Enterprises, 2014) Chase, John. Crawford, Margaret and Kaliski, John. Everyday Urbanism. (New York: Monacelli Press, 1999) De Soto, Hernando. The Mystery Of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs In The West And Fails Everywhere Else. (New York: Basic Books, 2000) Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology Of Knowledge. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972) Frampton, Adam. Solomon, Jonathan D. and Wong, Clara. Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook. 3rd edn (Berkeley: Oro editions, 2018) Franck, Karen A and Stevens, Quentin. Loose Space: Possibility And Diversity In Urban Life. (London: Routledge, 2006) Ho, Pui-yin. Making Hong Kong: A History of its Urban Development. (Cheltenham; UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2008) Hong Kong Construction Association. Walker, Anthony and Rowlinson, Stephen M. The Building Of Hong Kong: Constructing Hong Kong Through The Ages. (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 1997) Hou, Jeffrey. Insurgent Public Space: Guerilla Urbanism And The Remaking Of Contemporary Cities. (London: Routledge, 2010)


JOURNALS Loukaitou-Sideris, Anastasia and Ehrenfeucht, Irena. Sidewalks: Conflict And Negotiation Over Public Space (Urban And Industrial Environments). (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009) Loukaitou-Sideris, Anastasia and Mukhija, Vinit. The Informal American City. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2014) Ostrom, E. Guha-Khasnobis, B and Kanbur, R, ‘Beyond formality and informality’, in Linking the formal and informal economy, edited by Elinor Ostrom, Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis and Ravi Kanbur, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) Rooney, Nuala. At Home With Density (Hong Kong Culture And Society). (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2003) Sassen, Saskia, ‘Fragmented urban topographies and their underlying interconnections’, in Informal city: Caracas Case, edited by Alfred Brillembourg, Kristin Feireiss and Hubert Klumpner, (Munich: Prestel Publishing, 2005) Stavrides, Stavros. Common Space: The City As Commons. (London: Zed Books, 2016) Stevens, Quentin. The Ludic City. (London: Routledge, 2007) Wolf, Michael. Baker, Kenneth and Young, Douglas. Hong Kong: Front Door/ Back Door. (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2005)

Acuto, M., Dinardi, C., & Marx, C. ‘Transcending (in)formal urbanism’, Urban Studies 56(3), (2019): 475–487 Chien, Ker-hsuan, ‘Entrepreneurialising urban informality: Transforming governance of informal settlements in Taipei’, Urban Studies Vol. 55(13), (2018): 2886–2902 Devas, N, ‘Who runs cities? The relationship between urban governance, service delivery and poverty’, Birmingham: School of the Public Policy, University of Birmingham (Theme Paper 4, IDD) (1999) Issaias, Platon, ‘On Conflict, Generic and the Informal: the Greek Case’, Very Vary Veri (2) (2016): 89–100. Roy, Ananya, ‘Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning’, Journal of the American Planning Association 71(2), (2005): 147-158 Shore, Robert, ‘Roulette with the Real’, Elephant magazine (26), (2018): 114123

ONLINE JOURNALS Alfaro d’Alençon, P., ‘Interrogating informality: Conceptualisations, practices and policies in the light of the New Urban Agenda’, Habitat International, (2018), https://doi. org/10.1016/j.habitatint.2018.04.007 (accessed 24 March 2020) Laura Lutzoni, ‘In‑formalised urban space design. Rethinking the relationship between formal and informal’, City, Territory and Architecture 3, 20 (October 2016), (accessed 4 April 2020) Recio, R.B., et al., ‘Revisiting policy epistemologies on urban informality: Towards a post-dualist view’, Cities, (2016), cities.2016.08.018 (accessed 24 March 2020) FILMS De Canvasconnectie: Michael Wolf, dir: Canvas, 2014 Peeping, dir: Willem Aerts, 2012 WEB (accessed 4 April 2020)