The idea of living in little boxes stacked one on top of another is to me fairly preposterous and one we might tend to associate with modern living, but in actual fact it is not such a recent concept at all. Ancient Rome boasted living quarters with multi stories to house the thousands of inhabitants that dwelled within the city walls, but they were constrained by the limitations of 1st century engineering. Two thousand years later, when the first passenger elevator was installed in New York City, there was no limit to the heights that humans could ascend, stacking ourselves into the heavens. So many civilisations have gone to great lengths to reach closer to the clouds and it seems that we have now almost nailed it. As of 2015, the tallest residential apartment building stands at 426 meters (432 Park Avenue in New York City) just slightly topping out The Princess Tower in Dubai at 414 meters, although the Dubai building has more floors and you can actually get up to the 100th, which to me, seems completely ludicrous.
If you had asked me three years ago, I would have told you that living in an apartment building of any shape or size was something that you would catch me doing just before hell froze over. Mephistopheles must be shivering, because here I am on the 31st floor of a high rise overlooking the sprawling urban landscape of Hong Kong and Kowloon beyond, mesmerised by the uniqueness of what lies beneath. It is an astonishing example of humans’ natural tendency – or need – to expand outwards, and indeed, upwards. On a clear day we can see right to the hills of the New Territories far beyond the sprawling towers, while the night-time spectacle of twinkling lights is like a year-round Christmas card and a poignant reminder that there are so many individual lives being lived around me and I am not the only one; I am part of something much bigger than myself.
To be honest, I should never have been so presumptuous to come to the conclusion I would hate it before I tried it. After all, how many times have I insisted to my children that until they actually try the sweet and sour eggplant they will never know for sure they hate it?
The truth is that sweet and sour eggplant can be quite tasty, something that grows on you the more times you eat it. Likewise, I have come to rather like apartment dwelling in the same way you might like lime green, or hot bikram yoga or Justin Bieber’s music – you’ll give it a go, and appreciate it’s appeal, but it will probably not become your all-time favourite. I have discovered there are quite a few advantages to living in a high rise building. Firstly, there is the efficient use of space, where no corner of the apartment is left unused; every nook and cranny is taken up with a purpose or function and this I find makes for a very neat and tidy arrangement. As a prerequisite for this order, there is just no room for crap. I do make space for the children’s art pieces from pre-school, and the football medals, the family memorabilia, the piano that nobody really ever plays but looks good in the living room and yes, the mangy leather chair that the cat scratched up, but this confined living forces me to seriously consider what I need and what I must consign to the thrift shop, or in extreme cases the round filing cabinet underneath the sink.
And then of course there is the view. It is one of the magnificent advantages of being perched up in the sky, sharing the space with the black-winged kite hawks that soar outside the windows at our eagle eye level, high above the Hong Kong harbour. It is a marvel to me every time I look out what mankind is capable of, and a sharp reminder of how many of us need to fit onto this planet we call home. It does a person good to remember that daily.
There is another consequence of the 31st floor, and that is the elevator (or lift, depending on your provenance). It is truly the most unnatural of spaces. Imagine this if you will: you walk out your front door and see your neighbour from three doors down so you walk over and stand next to them for a full minute, shoulders almost touching, keeping still and breathing within a foot of them, not moving away for a moment. If that does not seem like the most socially awkward moment imaginable, I’m not sure what is. And yet, because of this awkwardness, elevator time gives rise to the most interesting glimpses of the human condition. The conversations that I have (or indeed that I do not have) in the 48 seconds that it takes to ascend or descend can enlighten, entertain, and serve to pique my curiosity to the point of obsession.
The doors open and in walks a young woman with a very large suitcase, her structured Hermes handbag incongruent with her age. She has papers in her hand, which I can only assume are her tickets and there are beads of sweat forming on her delicate forehead – which is so close I can see each one appear. Where is she going? Is it far away? Judging from the size of her case, she might be gone for months. Is she going to meet someone, or on a business trip or has she just scored a modelling contract?
Or the middle aged guy who hobbles in on crutches, me flailing with the buttons to keep the door open and accidentally pressing the wrong one so they close in, dangerously close to crushing his foot. I consider what might have happened to him, making up all sorts of stories in my mind. Did he fall? Is it his ACL? Did he go to the same doctor as me? He looks sporty enough, maybe he did it playing tennis or skiing. Or maybe he slipped in the parking lot.
Or what about the nice man who was going in for an endoscopic sinus operation and we had a lovely conversation about books he could read in the hospital? We had a followup conversation in the lobby but I haven’t seen him for some time. Perhaps he moved out. That would be sad as he is one of my elevator friends and we did have some nice conversations in the lift. I told him that I was a Librarian. I have no idea what he did for a living, but I know he had a bad case of sinusitis and liked to read.
It seems odd to have these flashes of lives lived before you in just a few seconds within a very confined space, as if you are witnessing a snapshot of someone’s life, standing still with them for a fleeting moment, sharing it.
The morning bus brigade is an altogether more chatty group and we all know exactly what’s going on with each other. We emerge each morning, bleary eyed shepherding our children to catch the various school buses that pull up on the roundabout outside the front doors. This community is bound together by our focus on not-missing-the-bus. The common ground we share is the silent acceptance that we have all been up for the past half hour screaming some sort of version of ‘where are your shoes, why do you not have your shoes?’ at children who have no sense of urgency whatsoever. When my son and I enter the lift we make full use of the ride to the bottom, beginning with socks, then shoes, followed by the quick tie-knot and the shirt-tuck. Sometimes we even have time to look through the school bag to see what homework we have forgotten, but really, we both know by then it is too late. Neither one of us have the time or inclination to go back up 31 floors to retrieve it.
After the morning rush with the children and the residual commuter traffic, the encounters become much more random, and therefore the likelihood of common ground diminishes. And so, when these elevator moments get just too uncomfortable to bear, there is always the distraction of the phone. Twiddling on the phone is an ideal diversion from having to actually make eye contact with your apartment neighbour during the excruciating journeys in forced confinement. The problem is that there is absolutely no reception in the lift, thereby rendering it impossible to actually be doing anything on the phone other than flicking through messages already received or choosing something cool to add to your favourite playlist. Which is perhaps what everyone is doing. Or maybe the sad fact is that we are all fingering our phones to avoid eye contact and conversation, pretending that there is something much more important that we need to be doing other than communicating with our neighbours. It was much simpler half a century ago when surely we’d all be lighting cigarettes in the lift – then at least we might break the silence by proffering one to our fellow apartment dweller.
Underlying all of this awkwardness I suppose is a question of community in a vast and potentially impersonal city. In some way we are searching to connect with people who share something in common: those few strangely intimate seconds in a small moving box become a bond, the common ground if you will. And yet, there is something so agonising about the intimacy. There is comfort in the anonymity of living amongst strangers and many of us prefer a life that is private from our neighbours, where we don’t have to make forced small talk with people we hardly know. But it is this conflict that perhaps makes those silences so uncomfortable. Our wish for privacy juxtaposed against our basic human instinct to reach out to one another, build communities, and find common ground amongst our fellow dwellers.
What I experience in the elevator is revealing to me. It can occur in any city, in any apartment building, or in a cul de sac in the suburbs, or a small village in the mountains: a genuine need for human contact, to reach out to our fellow humans and the discomfort of it being thrust upon us. When I look out from the 31st floor over the Hong Kong harbour through all the twinkling lights and beyond that sea of humanity, I get the distinct feeling that our need to open up to those around us will only become greater as the decades unfold. Everyday, if we look, we can see evidence of humans expanding outwards and upwards, moving and migrating, and as the world’s boundaries fall in, I think it might be in our best interests to realise we all have an obligation to become interested members of our community, wherever that might be.
So, with apologies in advance to those at Number 8 Garden Terrace, the next time my hand moves to twiddle on my phone in the elevator, I might just strike up an awkward conversation instead.