City Beautiful: Pop-Up Cities

This week’s City Beautiful starts from a post on BLDG Blog about a forthcoming book,  Short Stories: London in Two-and-a-Half Dimensions. Authors CJ Lim and Ed Liu create a new genre of “architectural fiction” where fantastical  environments built in paper are inspired by actual sites in London meshed with stories ranging from the Three Little Pigs to Alice in Wonderland.

This and the other works below tell stories of what is most durable – our built environment – using fragile, ephemeral paper.  As a medium, 3D paper collage lends itself nicely not just to telling kid’s stories of the pop-up book variety, but the intricacies of cities, tales of how they change over time and even what they could be with a little imagination.

Hong Kong

Kit Lau, an animator by trade and dubbed Hong Kong’s “first pop-up book artist“, combines personal narrative, architectural history, and rapid urban growth in his 2009 book Hong Kong Pop Up.  Says Lau on the book’s website:

From the 30s Cantonese tenements, the squatters common in the 50s, the Kowloon Walled City, to the resettlement estates of the 60s as well as the public housing of the 70s, these homes of the many Hong Kong people witnessed how my grandparents struggled through to improve the living standard of the family.

We tend to meet the destruction and construction of cities with kneejerk nostalgia – Lau does document what was, and the stark contrast with current housing trends, in very personal terms. But rather than lament an idealized past it’s more a story of improving the standard of living, and how the built form has changed to accommodate not just a rapidly expanding population but also dreams of a better life (even if that fan of towers looks a little more ominous than the more human-scale low-rise tenements).

A few pages from Hong Kong Pop Up:

The old | Photo credit: Hong Kong Pop Up

The new | Photo credit: Hong Kong Pop Up


Charlotte, North Carolina probably doesn’t come to mind as a booming metropolis, yet it’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. that has exploded with people and skyscrapers as banking and other corporate headquarters have set up shop. This rapid growth is the subject of a stop-motion animation film by Brooklyn artist Rob Carter. I had seen one of Carter’s films last year at a papercraft exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design in New York and was happy to stumble upon Metropolis, which documents Charlotte’s development from its first house in 1775 to the current urban skyline.

Carter’s animations using paper cut-outs are humorous in a way that’s vaguely reminiscent of Terry Gilliam‘s funky collages between skits on Monty Python’s Flying Circus: skyscrapers sprout out of nowhere, a basketball arena sails in and plops down like an uninvited flying saucer, a crinkled wad unfolds itself into highway tendrils that ring the city. As Carter describes it:

The animation literally represents this sped up urban planner’s dream, but suggests the frailty of that dream, however concrete it may feel on the ground today.

I have to disagree with him here – as an urban planner, I watch the film and think that this type of development happens more as a result of a lack of planning, a lot-by-lot real estate boom driven by speculation. The last three minutes of the nine-minute video is shown below, but you can see the whole thing  here:


Lim and Liu’s Short Stories mentioned above takes ten actual sites in London and tells their fictional stories primarily with visuals. From the book introduction:

The short stories of this book’s title are set in different time periods of London, intentionally locating themselves in the liminal territory between fiction and architecture … The stories are neither illustrated texts nor captioned images; the collages represent a network of spatial relationships, and the text, which splices genre such as science fiction, magical realism and the fairy tale, a thread that links some of the nodes of that network together.

The work is about London’s past – its tradition of storytelling, its mythic places and traditions informed by its architecture – but gives the author/architect free reign to re-imagine those places.  Just as we interact with the built environment on a daily basis and it infuses our experience of the city, Lim and Liu’s paper sculptures and  are the setting, a character, and even a narrator of the story.

From the story "Dream Isle" | Photo courtesy of BLDG Blog

From the story "Carousel" | Photo courtesy of BLDG Blog




  1. Wowza! And I thought Matisse and his construction paper cut-outs was impressive? But it does make me wonder: perhaps the best cityscape of all will always be a blank sheet of paper?

    Keep doing great things with your blog … it fills a needed niche by making people consider things they otherwise wouldn’t. Let me know how I can help!

  2. Pingback: City Beautiful: Pop-Up Cities (via Encountering Urbanization) « Urban Observatory

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