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Photographer captures Hong Kong's mesmerizing 'cocoon' buildings

Updated 2nd November 2018
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Photographer captures Hong Kong's mesmerizing 'cocoon' buildings
Written by Oscar Holland, CNNHong Kong
Enveloped in sheets of blue, green and yellow, the towers in Peter Steinhauer's photographs possess an almost sculptural quality. These temporary facades may serve a practical purpose, but their vibrant colors and geometric surfaces produce a mesmerizing contrast with the surrounding skyline.
The sight of buildings draped in bright nylon mesh is a common one in Hong Kong. Construction companies use the fabric to keep debris from falling to the ground. Workers also continue to use bamboo scaffolding, which serves as a frame for the colorful wraps.
American photographer Peter Steinhauer has been documenting these construction sites for more than 20 years. He refers to them as "cocoons," alluding to the metamorphosis that buildings undergo while enclosed. And now, 100 of his images will feature in an upcoming book going by the same title.
Steinhauer's varied compositions offer a new perspective on one of the world's most photogenic cities -- atmospheric nighttime shots, wide images of the urban context and close-ups showing the nylon sheets rippling in the wind.
"I like to get in close and find the graphic elements, he said in a phone interview. "If you look at the bamboo as it's going up, there's a pattern and design to it. So there are all sorts of design elements and color schemes that all interplay with one another."
Steinhauer said his fascination with the phenomenon occurred "instantaneously" upon first landing in Hong Kong in 1994.
"I was stood in a taxi queue (at the airport) just staring at this thing," he recalled of seeing a tower block encased in yellow sheets.
"It was the end of the day, and the light was hitting it at this great angle. It's always brand new material, so there were these vibrant, beautiful colors. It was just stunning, and I thought it was like a giant work of art."
Almost 13 years after taking his first batch of photos, Steinhauer returned to Hong Kong full-time and resumed his project. Having initially photographed in black and white, he decided to switch format in order to capture the subjects' bright coloration. 
"I always gravitated toward the color," he said. "Hong Kong can be a very monochromatic city. The humidity and pollution really wears the paint down and mutes everything. But when you put up this huge blue, green or white thing in the middle of it all, it just pops out -- it jumps off the page."
Preserving Hong Kong's past in the miniature
No matter how attractive they appear from afar, the fabric facades hide a dirty, dusty reality. Steinhauer knows this only too well, having himself been "cocooned" when his apartment building underwent renovation.
"I hated it," he admitted. "There was jackhammering, and the kids were crying the whole time -- we weren't getting any sleep. We had green material around our windows and, because we usually had sun coming in through the windows, this green light was permeating our living room and bedroom at all hours of the day.
"There are only a few of my photos where I actually show what's happening at ground level -- because it's a mess. It's a construction site."
Nonetheless, he retains a sense of wonder at a practice that, he said, is documented in photos of Hong Kong stretching back more than 150 years.
"It's a true art form to me -- one that is really only practiced in Hong Kong, on this scale especially," he said. "It's a remarkable process."
"Cocoons," published by Powerhouse Books, is available Nov. 20, 2018. An exhibition of the same name is showing at Contemporary by Angela Li, Hong Kong, until Nov. 20, 2018.