Noah Brier | March 11, 2021

The City Aesthetic Edition

On Hong Kong, future visions, and the past

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2001: A Space Odyssey

A film by Stanley Kubrick that renders a not-too-distant future, incorporating contributions from major brands for its set designs and influencing future design trends.

Noah here. Hong Kong is one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever visited. I was there about a decade ago with CJN and blown away by what an interesting aesthetic the place has. To some extent, I think every city is a tapestry of imagined futures: different aesthetic visions for where the world is headed and how the city should operate within that time. The brutalist buildings on the Southbank in London sit across the river from the majesty of St. Paul’s cathedral, which is right next door to the glass and steel of the Gherkin and Walkie Talkie. Each one is a snapshot of an imagined future.

What’s so strange about Hong Kong is that it’s one of the few cities in the world that feels like it maintains a kind-of cohesive aesthetic that the jury is still out on. It’s modern, but not too modern, and features oddities like a giant escalator running right up the middle of a central district. As opposed to the sterile nature of so many big cities these days, being in Hong Kong feels kinda cyberpunk: it’s a bit like being in a future that was envisioned decades ago and still just might yet arrive.

The collisions are incredibly interesting: soaring, futuristic skyscrapers run up against backstreet, traditional stalls of Chinese medicine and elements of traditional culture. While there aren’t the wet markets there used to be, it was always a trip bouncing between elements of a sophisticated, Blade Runner-style city. 

Why is this interesting? 

I was mentioning all this to a friend and was reminded of this great bit about how Stanley Kubrick got the aesthetic of 2001: A Space Odyssey so right

By rendering a not-too-distant future, Kubrick set himself up for a test: thirty-three years later, his audiences would still be around to grade his predictions. Part of his genius was that he understood how to rig the results. Many elements from his set designs were contributions from major brands—Whirlpool, Macy’s, DuPont, Parker Pens, Nikon—which quickly cashed in on their big-screen exposure. If 2001 the year looked like “2001” the movie, it was partly because the film’s imaginary design trends were made real.

The answer was two parts: first, use brands that had been around for a while. This is the Copernican (aka Lindy) Effect in action. Basically, the longer something has been around, the longer it should stay around. Brands like Nikon that have been around 100 years have probably figured out how to stay alive reasonably well. And the second, which is harder to predict, is that those brands and others then took the aesthetics and played it back into culture, thus reinforcing the vision. 

In the case of Hong Kong, it similarly plays this balance by mixing natural splendor with aesthetic collisions and plenty of commerce. Even the Kowloon light show, which happens nightly at 8 pm, just kind of fits. In the end, it all makes for a cacophonous city that manages to still look and sound right. (NRB)

TIL of the Day:

Churchillian Drift is the term, coined by British writer Nigel Rees, which describes the widespread misattribution of quotes by obscure figures to more famous figures, usually of their time period.” (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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