Archive for November, 2007

November 30th, 2007

Naoya Hatakeyama’s Urban Illusions

Posted in Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Canada, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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Tobu World Square’s model of New York. Photo by Naoya Hatakeyama

When I was a kid, my grandparents would take me on vacation to Victoria, BC. The highlight of the trip—for me, at least—was always a visit to Miniature World, an odd little museum tucked into the north wing of the Empress Hotel. There, I would race past dozens of dollhouses, castles and spaceships to the museum’s centrepiece, a giant model railroad. I liked it not for the trains, but for the cities: tiny recreations of everything from Victoria to Halifax, strung along the tracks like beads on a necklace.

My curiosity with models was revived last month by Naoya Hatakeyama’s exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Scales, which runs until February 3, 2008. Hatakeyama, a Japanese photographer whose work has dealt in large part with the relationship between nature and cities, was asked by the CCA in 2003 to turn his lens to three different scale models of New York and Tokyo. In the twenty-four photos that came out of the project, Hatakeyama questions, with curiosity and humour, the relationship between architecture, photography and our perceptions of reality.

Two of the models depict New York. One, found in the Windows of the World theme park in Shenzhen, China, is a strange, cartoonish vision of the city, a dilapidated landscape of crooked, colourful buildings. The model seems haphazardly constructed, like the set of a cheap disaster movie. In one photo, an approach to the Brooklyn Bridge abruptly ends in mid-air. The bridge itself is cracked and disjointed, cars scattered across it as if there had been a massive earthquake.

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New York in Shenzhen’s Windows of the World

In sharp contrast to this is the model of New York found in Japan’s Tobu World Square—as detailed and realistic as Windows of the World is abstract. If you didn’t look too closely, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was the real New York. Hatakeyama, shooting in black and white, has created the illusion of reality, evoking the strongly-shadowed, iconic Manhattan of the imagination, or at least in the famous early twentieth century photos of Alfred Stieglitz.

The point here, however, is not to fool us, but to give us subtle hints that we are, in fact, looking at a model, an idealized vision of New York. Despite the cars and pedestrians on the streets, even the graffiti painstakingly drawn on the walls, there is a strange lifelessness about these buildings, their windows empty like dead eyes. In one shot, the side wall of the Plaza Hotel is inexplicably blank. In another, we see a ballcap-wearing man looming between skyscrapers like some bizarrely mundane giant.

Hatakeyama’s photos of the third model, an aerial view of a huge and incredibly detailed rendition of Tokyo, are presented as a black-and-white triptych. It’s hard to tell that the city depicted is not, in fact, the real thing.

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November 30th, 2007

The Baby Cops’ Debut

Posted in Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Every summer, Montreal’s police department sends its most fresh-faced cadets to patrol Ste. Catherine Street. For police headquarters, it’s a way to train their newest recruits and ensure a police presence on the street without shelling out for real, fully-salaried traffic cops. For the cadets, who are sometimes known as “baby cops,” it’s more like a hazing ritual. Baby cops, you see, are entirely powerless: they can’t issue tickets and they can’t arrest anyone — they can only call for backup. Their job is to attempt, as best as they can, to control a river of downtown pedestrians swollen far beyond its normal size by the summer heat.

It’s entertaining to watch them. Montrealers normally waste no opportunity to cross against a red light, but they generally become more obedient when a police cadet is around. Even then, though, just about every red light involves a lot of whistle-blowing and a cadet yelling at someone to stay out of the street. In most cases, when pedestrians ignore the cadets and cross anyway, the cadet does nothing but look annoyed. On a few occasions, however, I’ve seen them break down and start screaming at the jaywalkers at the top of their lungs. If they can’t handle the stress of a summer afternoon on Ste. Catherine, can that really be a good sign for what’s to come?

Still, I have to give them my respect, especially considering the amount of taunts and verbal abuse they must put up with. It takes a lot to stand there, with about as much authority as an elementary school crossing guard, and try to shepherd a huge flock of unruly pedestrians. In fact, I respect them enough to actually wait for the light to change. Sometimes.

November 29th, 2007

Taking it to the Streets

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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“The Nest,” an early October installation by Chih Chien Wang

It glowed amid its sombre surroundings, a giant Lego-brick lantern underneath the Van Horne Viaduct. For three weeks this fall, Chih-Chien Wang’s installation The Nest was hosted by the artist-run centre Dare-Dare in a space at the corner of St. Laurent Blvd. and Van Horne Ave. that has been dubbed The Park With No Name.

Wang assembled his nest using cardboard boxes, painted white on one side and stacked in the shape of a cube. Inside, amid the glare of white fluorescent lights, visitors could hear and feel the sounds of the viaduct overhead.

“(It is) a way to connect people and the city through an organic experience. This is a place where people and city come together,” proclaimed Dare-Dare’s written on-site introduction to the installation.

Ultimately, though, the way people interacted with his art was a surprise to Wang.

“Kids actually came here to smoke. They were very careful and didn’t throw their cigarettes away inside,” said Wang one afternoon as he swept the ground outside the nest. “People also like to drink inside at night. The sound wasn’t too bad.”

One overnight visitor even left behind a drink, a paper bag and, bizarrely, two perfectly assembled hairballs.

Wang’s installation is part of a new wave of public art that reflects – and draws inspiration from – the city’s urban landscape. It is ephemeral, designed to last only temporarily, and it draws heavily from the aesthetic and philosophy of street art.

This past summer, also in collaboration with Dare-Dare – an organization that helps artists develop their projects and bring art out of galleries and into public space – the Dutch artist Franck Bragigand painted the manhole covers along Bernard and St. Viateur Sts.

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November 28th, 2007

The Edible City

Posted in Canada, Environment, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Public space isn’t supposed to poison you. Last year, though, hundreds of Montrealers discovered that their community garden plots were contaminated with lead and arsenic. In some sections of the Plateau Mont-Royal’s Baldwin Garden, located on the site of an old quarry, lead levels were found to be nearly 1,000 times higher than the acceptable limit.

Cleaning the gardens has been a slow process. This past summer, 18 were declared off-limits to vegetable growers. It’s a hard blow for a city that prides itself on having one of the largest and most comprehensive networks of community gardens in North America, with more than 8,200 allotments in 98 gardens – used by as many as 15,000 people – scattered across the island.

Montreal’s city-wide garden program was launched in the 1970s, but after a thirty-year increase, the number of people who use it seems to have levelled off. Now, faced with the spectre of soil contamination, some are looking outside the box – or the garden plot, you could say – for more innovative and adaptable approaches to community gardening.

On a sunny and unseasonably warm October day, McGill University architecture professor Vikram Bhatt takes me to see one of those innovations: the Edible Campus, a small but highly-functional container garden installed on a concrete terrace at McGill’s downtown campus. In a few dozen plastic containers, spread over no more than 1,000 square feet, enough tomatoes, ground cherries, herbs and other fruits and veggies are grown to supply a full third of the food needed by Santropol Roulant, a local meals-on-wheels service.

“It has become so natural,” says Bhatt. “You couldn’t imagine that this was not here before. People hang around, walk through it, people sit on the steps [nearby]. It attracts more people around the area and it’s become a very attractive corner.”

Since it opened last spring, the Edible Campus has given a real sense of place to what was previously an empty space. Put a bunch of plants in some boxes on a concrete tarmac, it seems, and you’ll not only grow a large volume of healthy fruits and vegetables, you will create a spot where people can meet, mingle and interact with food they might otherwise find, processed and packaged, on supermarket shelves.

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November 27th, 2007

Chinese Food Around Corner

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

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Two generations of advertisements in downtown Boston

November 26th, 2007

Steps

Posted in Canada, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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The Vancouver Art Gallery’s steps on Robson St.

It would hardly be an original observation to point out that a simple set of steps can become a well-used hangout. One of the world’s most famous public spaces is, after all, known as the Spanish Steps. But for all their ubiquity, only some steps become popular places to sit. What makes some gathering places and others just passages to somewhere else?

There are at least three key elements to making a successful set of hangout steps. The first is openness: no matter how wide they actually are, the steps must feel and appear accessible. People should feel comfortable sitting on them, which won’t happen if they’re getting in the way of passersby. The second element is location: the steps need to be located in a high-traffic area where people would actually want to sit down. Finally, the steps must have a view: there’s no point in sitting somewhere if there’s nothing to look at.

The steps in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery are one of Vancouver’s favourite gathering spaces precisely because they fill all of these criteria. They don’t actually lead anywhere — the entrance at the top of the steps has been sealed off — so they serve no purpose other than as seats in an urban amphitheatre. Similar are the steps at Montreal’s Place des Arts. Their panorama view of busy Ste. Catherine St. and the city beyond attracts a lot of people, but they’re broad enough that sitting on them doesn’t impede access to the second-storey plaza to which they lead.

In London, the steps around the statue of “Eros” (actually the “Angel of Christian Charity”) in Picadilly Circus and the sundial at the Seven Dials are popular gathering spots (even if, in the last case, there are only two steps on which to sit). Quite possibly my favourite set of steps, however, are those in front of the Arts Building at McGill University, from which the entire city seems to unfold.

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McGill University’s “Arts steps” in downtown Montreal

November 25th, 2007

Signs of the Far East

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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The topic of old commercial signs is esoteric enough, but I’ve managed to find an even more obscure type of commercial signage: 1960s-era Chinatown signs that use Rickshaw or some other kind of orientalist typeface. Most of them have disappeared, for obvious reasons, but it’s still possible to find traces of them in cities around the continent.

These two examples are from Montreal and Boston. In Montreal, only the shadow — or rust stains, to be more precise — of Restaurant Leo Foo are visible on this aluminum-clad building on St. Laurent. In Boston, I was surprised to see this vintage sign for the See Sun Market (which sells Quality Oriental Food!) on a somewhat dilapidated building on Harrison Avenue.

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November 25th, 2007

Inner City Pressure

Posted in Music, United States, Video by Christopher DeWolf
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I’ve written about music here before, and I’ve even posted a couple of music videos that have absolutely nothing to do with cities aside from the fact that they were shot in them. It feels kind of silly, but still, it’s a nice distraction from the dreary November weather.

So here’s another video, this one by the New York-by-way-of-New Zealand comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. Last year, they landed their own show on HBO. It’s about a pair of New Zealand comedy singers who are trying to make it big on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As with any type of comedy, it doesn’t appeal to everyone, and I have no doubt that some of you will find this song utterly annoying — but I love it.

“Inner City Pressure” is not only a parody of Pet Shop Boys, it pokes fun at the great hipster/artist/creatively-under-employed social substratum that has engulfed large swaths of urban North America. There might even be a bit of a satirical take on Wong Kar Wai in the slow-motion shots of nighttime streets under the elevated rail, which are nothing if not reminiscent of the scenes in the first part of Chungking Express.

November 23rd, 2007

“Hey Paul!”

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

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North Street, North End, Boston

November 23rd, 2007

Village Griffintown: We Have Questions

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As a resident of Sud-Ouest — right where Griffintown, Little Burgundy and Point St-Charles intersect, actually — I was surprised by the scope and scale of the Village Griffintown project announced yesterday for a long-neglected neighbourhood in southwestern Montreal. It’s not at all what we were expecting, and while we welcome redevelopment, and the proposed design has many positive attributes, not least of which is its ability to slow or stop urban sprawl, my neighbours and I have some unanswered questions.

1. Why the megablocks?

The design currently imposes some superblocks onto existing streets, blocking Shannon and Young. The plan view can be misleading, seeming to show through streets in the two large residential-commercial buildings, but these are actually sky terraces for the tower dwellers. Surely the same amount of space could be incorporated with more, smaller buildings, on more intimately scaled streets, and preserving the historic street grid?

2. Why go with Le Corbusier-styled ‘Towers in the park?’

Good retail urban design involves building right to the sidewalk, and lining the streets with shops, windows and displays. The current “superblock” design would seem to impose a lot of blank walls on side streets, and further separates the buildings from the streets with berms and plazas. The same seems to go for some of the smaller apartment buildings to be built canalside – creating isolated, “Habitations Jeanne Mance” dead zones, instead of lively / leafy / intimate streets. The city of Portland in fact discourages new commercial buildings without providing for “living streets” in this fashion, and it’s something we should look at here.

3. Why this ‘campus style’ unified design?

It may seem picayune to quibble about the aesthetics of the project, but viewed as an ensemble, it resembles a university satellite campus or a superhospital, rather than anything village-like. What we actually have here is not that different than the Terrasses Windsor — inexpensive modern boxes clad in different-coloured brick to make them seem more detailed than they actually are. Looking at Place D’Armes and other historical ensembles that evolved organically over time — where you can see three eras of architecture in the Bank of Montreal alone — how difficult would it be to design an ensemble of buildings that all looked different, yet historically appropriate to the neighborhood – red sandstone, limestone, granite, red and yellow brick, mixing historic styles from 1850s to postmodern — something that’ll age a bit better than the current design?

4. Why the secrecy?

Why was this project developed behind closed doors for so long? According to the Sud-Ouest borough mayors’ office there will be public consultations in either December or January, and a decision has to be made by April…a bit rushed for something so important, no?

5. Why the car-centric development when we’re coming to the end of the oil era?

I applaud the fact that they’re planning to make the development transit-centric, and incorporate the proposed tram line — but the economic reasoning for the large-surface retail outlets (and a 2000-seat theatre, and hotels) depends on a good deal of car traffic. Geology and politics are against car-centric development — most oil geologists believe we have reached the peak of oil production right now, and we’re heading down a rather jagged slope towards depletion. Will this project survive 30, 50 years from now when few people, if any, will be driving?

6. What’s the energy and waste footprint of this ensemble?

Similarly to the car question, we wonder about the infrastructure and energy inputs that’ll be needed to support this development. There’ll need to be new sewer mains, electrical substations, etc. Large-surface retail needs a lot of energy to heat and cool. The flat roofs will create urban heat islands. Could the project use passive and active solar, rooftop or roof-edge wind turbines, or even geothermal loops? Will serious attempts be made to ban waste (disposable cups, excess packaging) and encourage recycling and composting on-site?

7. Will there be space for smaller and local non-chain retail?

As Kate from the Montreal City Weblog notes, “I think what makes me saddest about this kind of megadevelopment, even more than the knowledge that it brings more suburban values right into the heart of town, is that such developments are relentlessly corporate. Where’s the space for the used bookshop, the neighbourhood café, the ethnic chicken rotisserie?”

I would add to that list: space for urban gardening / farming, local produce markets, community space, schools, daycares, clinics, soccer fields, indoor recreation, art galleries, and maybe some decent, non-chain pubs and places to play live music?

Furthering on from points 5 and 6, and touching on all the other points, the more self-sustaining the complex is, the better. In an energy-scarce future, even maintaining buildings of this scope and size is going to be a real challenge. Not impossible, but the developers and promoters need to show us that they’re taking this into account.

November 22nd, 2007

Montreal and its Suburbs… in 1843

Posted in Architecture, Canada, Heritage and Preservation, History, Maps by Christopher DeWolf

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Way back in 1843, Montreal, population 50,000, was big enough to have six whole suburbs to its name. On the west, there was the Recollet Suburb, St. Ann’s Suburb, St. Joseph’s Suburb and the St. Antoine Suburb. On the north, the St. Lawrence Suburb followed the path of St. Lawrence Street, already the city’s main north-south axis. To the east, finally, was the Quebec Suburb, strung along St. Mary Street, the eastern extension of Notre Dame and the main road down river to Quebec City.

Traces of these old extra-muros neighbourhoods are still visible — to an extent. In the early 1970s, nearly all of the Faubourg Québec, commonly known as the Faubourg à m’lasse, thanks to the pervasive odour of molasses from one of its sugar refineries, was demolished for the Maison Radio-Canada, a vast complex home to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation. Around the same time, most of the rest of it was razed for the east end of the Ville-Marie Expressway. Since the late 1990s, what was left has been redeveloped as a residential area known, naturally enough, as the Faubourg Québec. Wholly uninspired in its architecture and design, one of the only remarkable aspects is a reconstructed viaduct and a small plaza that retraces the old rail line that once ran through the area.

Now, a large part of the old Quebec Suburb is set to be transformed into a high-density, mixed-used neighbourhood centered around the old Viger Station, the Canadian Pacific Railway’s first railroad station/hotel combo. Nearby, the giant CHUM hospital complex is set to be built on the remains of the old neighbourhood that emerged on lower St. Denis after a fire devastated most of the Quebec and St. Lawrence suburbs in 1852. Among the buildings slated to be demolished is the St. Sauveur Church, one of the first buildings to emerge after the fire.

Across town, meanwhile, in the remains of the old St. Ann’s Suburb, better known as Griffintown, the stage is being set for an even more massive redevelopment. Today, details were announced for a $1.3 billion retail, residential, office and entertainment district that will contain at least 3,800 housing units, a theatre, a cinema, office space, two hotels, plenty of retail, a tramway connection to downtown, new parks and plenty of parking.

This area was already decimated in the 1960s and 70s, when much of its old industry and housing stock was demolished, as well as St. Ann’s Church, the focus of its large Irish community, so this redevelopment is almost working with a blank slate. At least it will respect the area’s existing street pattern and incorporate many of its surviving historic structures. It looks like, in both east and west, Montreal’s first suburbs are being remade once again — hopefully this time with a bit more sensitivity than before.

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November 21st, 2007

Vacant Lot Concrete Blocks

Posted in Uncategorized by Christopher DeWolf

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Charlotte Street near Berger, Montreal

November 21st, 2007

St. Louis Square’s Old Basin

Posted in Canada, History by Christopher DeWolf

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St. Louis Square, often known as Carré St-Louis (though this is, to the surprise of many, actually an anglicism), is one of Montreal’s greatest public spaces. A traditional Victorian park, ringed by beautiful old greystone rowhouses and villas, it first came into existence as a reservoir in 1851. In 1880, the reservoir was drained and the square as we now know it was built, complete with walking paths and a fountain.

Except that wasn’t entirely the case. The beautiful fountain that now stands in the middle of the square, serving as a central focus for all of its activity, once found itself in the middle of a much larger basin of water. In one newspaper illustration from 1902, the basin appears to cover the entire central section of the park. It has been converted into a summer wading pool for children, who frolic in the water as their mothers, dressed in long dark frocks, promenade around the square under the shade of parasols.

I’m not sure when the basin was redeveloped, but it continued to exist as recently as 1943, according to one photo showing workers improving the basin’s drainage system.

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November 20th, 2007

Charlie on the T

Posted in Transportation, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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I just got back from Boston, where I spent the weekend riding the subway — known there as the T — with a CharlieCard, the reloadable, contactless smart card that was introduced at the beginning of the year. Montreal’s smart card will be introduced in January, with a full implementation in the spring, but its name still hasn’t been released. There really should have been a competition to determine what it will be called; now we will probably end up with a blandly-named card like Atlanta’s BreezeCard, Paris’ Navigo or Washington, DC’s SmarTrip.

Boston, though, was wise enough to avoid that perilous route. To outsiders, CharlieCard seems like an inexplicably goofy choice of name for an important piece of transportation infrastructure, but it actually has deep roots in the city’s transit heritage. The Charlie in question comes from the 1948 “The MTA Song,” which tells the story of a man named Charlie who was forced to ride the rails for eternity because he forgot to bring an extra five cents to pay for the new exit fare:

Let me tell you the story
Of a man named Charlie
On a tragic and fateful day
He put ten cents in his pocket,
Kissed his wife and family
Went to ride on the MTA

Charlie handed in his dime
At the Kendall Square Station
And he changed for Jamaica Plain
When he got there the conductor told him,
“One more nickel.”
Charlie could not get off that train.

Every day, his wife meets him at Scollay Square where she hands him a sandwich, but apparently she doesn’t mind him being away, because she never sees fit to give him a nickel.

Now all night long
Charlie rides through the tunnels
Saying, “What will become of me?
Crying
How can I afford to see
My sister in Chelsea
Or my cousin in Roxbury?”

Charlie’s wife goes down
To the Scollay Square station
Every day at quarter past two
And through the open window
She hands Charlie a sandwich
As the train comes rumblin’ through.

“The MTA Song,” better known as “Charlie on the MTA,” became a hit in 1959 when it was recorded by the Kingston Trio, a California-based folk act. Over the next few decades, it worked its way into Boston’s popular culture well enough to become the winning nomination for the name of the new smart card that replaced the city’s antiquated token payment system last year. While I was using the card and staring at its cartoon rendition of a jubilant Charlie (happy, I guess, to have his fare pre-loaded on a smart card), I thought about whether it would be possible for something as simple as a smart card to work its way into a city’s public imagination.

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