Kenneth S. H. King
M. Arch., NCARB
Presentation: Vertical City for Jing Jin Ji
Kenneth King was born in 1933 to a family of modest means, the youngest of four children. They lived in the Yu Yuan section of Shanghai, which is now a tourist area in the southern part of the city. Toys were expensive and therefore few so young Kenneth spent his childhood playing chess, making origami, and raising silk worms. In the process he learned to think strategically, to be dexterous and see geometrically in three dimensions, and to appreciate Nature and the delicate balance of its living systems. In retrospect Kenneth realized that these are the very qualities that predisposed him to become an ecologically-driven architect.During World War II Mr. King’s family moved to the French Concession within Shanghai for better protection from the Japanese occupation. When Japan surrendered, Mr. King remembers vividly how, after years of air raids and huddling under the dining room table, Shanghai exploded with life, flooded by all manner of American war surplus, including everything from C-rations and chocolates to thousands of U.S. sailors. The excitement lasted about two years until civil war broke out between Kuo Ming Tang (the Nationalist party) headed by Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist party under Mao Zedong.
Kuo Ming Tang was riddled with corruption and started printing currency without the necessary reserves. When inflation soared, Chiang Kai-shek sent his son Chiang Ching Guo to Shanghai to restore control. But all of a sudden the goods on store shelves disappeared and the “Black Market” became the only source of provisions. People started losing faith in the Nationalist party. Despite hefty support from the United States, the Nationalists could not prevail and in 1949 Kuo Ming Tang retreated to Taiwan.
In December of the same year, shortly after the Communist take-over of China, Mr. King’s father decided to move to Hong Kong, which at the time was still under British sovereignty. In a practice that was common at the time, almost like insurance, he split the family in two, taking Mr. King and his oldest brother but leaving behind his middle brother and sister. If Hong Kong didn’t work out, the family could always return to Shanghai.
Mr. King attended St. John’s Middle School in Shanghai, finished high school in Hong Kong and, in 1953, went to London where he studied architecture at Northern Polytechnic, now London Metropolitan University. It was there that Mr. King was introduced to modern architecture. He loved the clean Bauhaus aesthetic, its simplicity and rational proportions. But somehow, even while fully won over, he never felt that the siting of International Style buildings was really resolved. To the degree that they had any connection with their surroundings, it was more by accident than purposeful design. Buildings were typically non-contextual, isolated and imposed on the land rather than meaningfully joined with it. Mr. King always felt there should be a better balance, a greater reciprocity that would benefit both the building and everything around it.
In 1958 Mr. King received a full scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and received his M.Arch degree the following year. After a short stint in a small Massachusetts architectural firm he settled in New York City, when he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1965.
Mr. King’s early career focused on hospital design. The complex functions of this specialized field, particularly with respect to critical efficiencies and layered circulation systems, led him naturally to learn more about planning. Mr. King subsequently became involved in the master planning of Mokkattam, a 10,000-acre development in the hills overlooking Cairo. Today Mokkattam is celebrated for its sprawling views, ancient caves and quarries, and its thriving modern community. But it probably best known for its garbage.
Zabaleen (garbage collectors in Arabic) transport the trash of Cairo’s growing population, currently about 18 million, and bring it to “Garbage City” at the foot of the mountain for sorting. In an effective and environmentally-friendly system that is far ahead of most modern green initiatives, the Zabaleen have been an integral part of Cairo’s waste disposal for decades. They feed pigs on the organic matter and then sell the animals profitably for food. The remainder of the solid waste is processed by family members, young and old working together, who sort and recycle some 80 percent of the heap (By contrast, Western garbage collectors recycle only 20-25 percent). This grassroots venture operates virtually without cost; not surprisingly, it has become a model for developing countries around the world.
Another project that Mr. King later became involved in was the planning of Montazah, a 300-acre recreational development on the rocky bluffs overlooking the sea in Alexandria, Egypt. As it is the planner’s role to envision the future and to recognize possibilities even when others cannot, Mr. King started to think broadly about human needs and to explore, eyes wide open, what really works and what does not. This, as much as anything, is the story of Mr. King’s adult life.