January 31st, 2009
Four years ago, on a freakishly cold April day, my girlfriend and I walked up Park Avenue in the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal, heads pressed against the wind, to check out a third-floor apartment in a typical six-plex, the kind with the steep, curving outdoor staircase leading up from the street to a second-floor balcony.
After meeting with the landlord, a talkative Hasidic Jewish woman whose husband owned a travel agency down the street, we decided to take the place. Over the years, we got to know our neighbours—an increasingly famous DJ, a shy couple from Alberta, an eccentric recluse who once came barging into our apartment at 3am, complaining that our bathroom was leaking—and enjoyed the comfortable intimacy of our surroundings.
It was only last winter, however, that I started to wonder who lived in our apartment before us. I knew that our six-plex had been built in 1918, almost a decade after the other buildings on our block, and I knew that the tenant before us had been an artist with a penchant for green-tinted lightbulbs; he left in a hurry to settle his father’s estate in Brazil, leaving behind boxes of old art books, some rubber gloves and a bag of trash.
But who lived here in the years, decades, generations before that? Just how many coats of paint were on these walls? Lovell’s Montreal Directory, which lists Montreal’s residents and businesses from 1842 to 1999, offers me some clues. Scanning the Park Avenue pages, I see that somebody named Chas Larivee lived in my apartment in 1929. Two decades later, there was another Chas, this one from the Axman family. In contrast with the apartment downstairs, where a Mrs. Laurin lived for at least 30 years, ours had high turnover, with a new tenant arriving almost every year. Somehow, knowing the names of the people who once lived in my apartment makes its history more immediate: I’m not the first to have paced its slightly crooked floors.
January 31st, 2009
Huanhe Road next to one of Taipei’s riverside expressways
January 30th, 2009
Boston is one of the most historic cities in the United States, but it’s managed to lose much more of its architectural past than it retains. Sacrificed to urban experiments from concrete piazzas to towers-in-the-park, generations of honeycombed alleys and densely-crammed pockets of housing have largely disappeared from the city center, their former presence registered only in ancient street plans and ghost-like remains. When I first moved to the area in the late 1990s, I would comb through books of old maps and photographs of the city – such as Jane Holtz Kay‘s Lost Boston – with almost the same enthusiasm with which I set off to explore what was left of the city itself.
The internet has grown to include a wealth of resources to help track down the lost urban fabric of past centuries – not the least of which is the Library of Congress’ vast database of historical photographs. But my interest was piqued this week, when I discovered that the Boston Public Library released its much more intimate, if eclectic, collection on flickr. The photos, prints, and postcards it contains present a city that is both immensely altered and curiously unchanged from its 19th century self, providing the contemporary viewer the opportunity to reconsider just which “history” preserved Boston embodies today.
January 26th, 2009
Morning sun over Eglinton Ave East, Toronto
January 25th, 2009
The National Film Board of Canada has officially launched its new website, which includes hundreds of NFB documentaries, animations and shorts, including some that are iconic (The Sweater, which I must have seen at least half a dozen times in school) and others that have long been forgotten (like Paul Tomkowicz, Switchman, which I wrote about last fall). The beta version has been available for awhile, but many new videos have been added, which I shouldn’t need to say is pretty exciting.
One of these newly-added films is Montreal by Night, a fantastic 1947 short that I first glimpsed a few years ago and have been unable to find since. “Out of the fusion of two languages, two outlooks, has emerged a great Canadian metropolis with many moods,” declares the film’s introduction. It’s the first indication that the city you’re about to see is remarkably different from that of today — nobody would refer to Montreal in such grandiose terms anymore, even if it remains la métropole. The Montreal of the late 40s had the kind of swagger and hustle shared only by the most self-assured of cities.
January 20th, 2009
Forget the $2 slot machines and high-stakes poker of Cotai – Macau’s true soul hides within the city centre’s Ruínas de São Paulo, otherwise known as the ruins of St Paul’s. Every day, an endless stream of photo-snapping visitors flow north from the Largo do Senado (Senado Square) to gaze at the cathedral’s magnificent Baroque façade, the only thing left standing after a fire devastated the building in 1835. It has since become a potent symbol of Macau itself – but do any tourists know why?
César Guillén Nuñez, a research fellow and art historian at the Macau Ricci Institute, an organisation dedicated to exploring historical links between China and the West, hopes to make it clear exactly why St Paul’s matters. His new book, Macao’s Church of Saint Paul: A Glimmer of the Baroque in China, attempts to reconstruct the cathedral as it existed before it was destroyed in an inferno. From its architecture and religious art, Guillén draws a portrait of Macau’s position as an early hub of Catholic missionary activity.
“St Paul’s is one of the glories of Macanese architecture,” he says. “It became synonymous with Macau. If you look at any image that exemplifies Macau’s past, it’s an image of St Paul’s façade. It is a strong statement that Macau is a Portuguese Christian city right here in China. That’s very powerful.”
Built towards the end of the 16th century, St Paul’s was part of a cluster of buildings that included a college, a parish church and several charitable institutions, all of which were run by the Jesuits, an influential order of the Catholic Church particularly active in China and Japan. In the 1620s, a few decades after the cathedral’s construction, a new façade was built by labourers from Fujian and Christian Japanese craftsmen who had fled persecution in their homeland. It featured a number of unusual touches, including a granite relief depicting Mary above a dragon-like hydra, accompanied by a Chinese inscription meaning, “The Holy Mother tramples on the dragon’s head.”
January 19th, 2009
En arrivant pour la première fois à Karlsruhe, en Allemagne, j’ai été surprise par le nombre de bicyclettes aux alentours de la gare centrale. Il faut dire qu’avec ses 65 millions de cyclistes, l’Allemagne – et ses villes – se doivent d’être adaptés aux vélos. Et la majorité des villes le sont ; Karlsruhe est une des ces villes adaptées aux bicyclettes, ce qui, concrétement, ce traduit par des facilités pour les cyclistes : pistes cyclables et parkings à vélos.
Parking à vélos à côté de chez un coiffeur
January 18th, 2009
Lime juice on sale in Shida
Deep-fried chicken in Ximending
Brochettes, squid and other treats in Shilin
January 17th, 2009
Inside the Social Club café, St. Viateur Street, on a cold November afternoon in 2006
January 17th, 2009
Mies van der Rohe gas station in May 2007. Photo by Kate McDonnell
As a part of a city’s landscape, does a gas station have any inherent worth? My gut instinct would be to say no: they’re unsightly, detrimental to the pedestrian environment and environmentally destructive. But there’s more to it than that. It’s entirely possible for gas stations to have historical, architectural and cultural value. Some are real neighbourhood businesses, quirky and independently-owned, like the gas station in the Quebec film Gaz Bar Blues. All gas stations speak to the importance of the automobile in the modern city.
Two years ago, Kate McDonnell wrote a bit about gas stations in Montreal, pointing to one in suburban Nun’s Island, designed by Mies van der Rohe, as an example of how they can be built with sensitivity to their surroundings. Built in classic International style, this gas station is a symbol of Nun’s Island’s early development as a Modernist new town. Unfortunately, news broke earlier this month that the station, once operated by Esso, is now closed and boarded up. Montreal’s Conseil du Patrimoine has made steps to have it protected but, for the time being, nothing is guaranteed.
January 12th, 2009
Laneway between Waverly and St. Urbain, Mile End
January 11th, 2009
Photo by Jean-Pierre Caissie
“It’s a phenomenon unique to public art: the possibility of response,” wrote Jean-Pierre Caissie, the artistic director of Dare-Dare, on his blog last month. “Artistic expression is usually a one-way street. The artist expresses himself and the museum presents his work. A few attempts at responding to the artist have ended up in a court date. But street art, or ephemeral public art, offers the opportunity for passers-by to comment.”
Roaming from site to site around Montreal—first Viger Square, then the Park With No Name, and now Cabot Square—Dare-Dare specializes in ephemeral public art. I’ve been lucky enough to chat with Caissie about the various projects that Dare-Dare has helped curate and a common theme that keeps emerging is the opportunity for public interaction and response, something that isn’t normally possible in a gallery or a museum. Dare-Dare takes art from the gallery to the street and opens it up to the public.
What happens then is entirely unpredictable. In 2007, Chih-Chien Wang built a “nest” of cardboard boxes, illuminated from within, underneath the Van Horne Viaduct. People would come at night and drink nearby, but every so often, somebody would knock down all of the boxes, either deliberately or by accident. Each time, he rebuilt the nest in a slightly different way. Not long after, Caroline Dubois and Julie Favreau turned a long-vacant storefront into a space of perpetual construction and reconstruction. Many neighbours, surprised to see the shop doors open, stopped by to chat.
It’s not uncommon to pass by street art—stencils, graffiti, paste-ups and so on—that has been commented on. Caissie has a few examples, including one—a “raton voleur” that spills out from one of Franck Bragigand’s painted manhole covers on St. Viateur St.—that adds so much to the original work that I had always assumed it was painted by Bragigand himself. Two years ago, somebody pasted a long-form poem onto a laneway wall; “Too bad it’s not that good,” somebody scrawled underneath. Last spring, Fauxreel’s controversial Antlerheads were literally defaced by Zato, another street artist, who transformed their Vespa scooter heads into morbidly grinning moster faces.
Compare that to galleries, where any attempt to comment on art is considered vandalism rather than dialogue. Caissie points the way to a handful of news stories about people attacking, defacing and otherwise leaving a mark on various pieces of art.
January 8th, 2009
Watering the plants in Shatin Park
On one of those smoggy days when you’re stuck in the crowds on Nathan Road, choking on diesel fumes and looking in vain for a bit of relief, it’s pretty hard to believe that country parks, city parks and natural areas make up more than half of Hong Kong’s landmass. It certainly makes you wonder that in a city surrounded by verdant hills and dotted by leafy rest areas, why do good parks seem so far away?
“There’s a bit of debate going around about whether or not we need more urban parks, but it’s never come together in a formal sense, so that’s what we’re trying to do here,” says Paul Zimmerman, one of the founders of Designing Hong Kong, an urban development watchdog that will co-present a discussion on the topic in this year’s City Festival.
In The Green Lungs of Hong Kong, a panel of officials from the government’s Leisure and Cultural Services and Agricultural and Fisheries departments, urban planning experts, and representatives from Hong Kong’s various green groups, will discuss whether access to country parks should be limited or encouraged, if Hong Kong needs more urban parks, and whether the parks it does have are accessible and well-designed.
“There’s pressure on land resources, especially now that we’ve decided to halt further [land] reclamation,” says Zimmerman. “The reality is that we’re not going to have any new land in the core area. Even if I might want to see more green spaces, that isn’t going to be easy to achieve. I think we can do more to get some more green in various places, more grass, green roof, green walls. Face it, people spending their lives in narrow streets face a sense of pressure. When there’s open space there’s a bit of breathing room and a chance to relax your mind.”
Zimmerman promises a lively debate about the role of parks in the city. Hopefully, for the city’s leaders, it will be a chance to hear new ideas; for concrete-weary city-dwellers, it might be one step closer to a breath of fresh air.
Another version of this preview was published in the January 7th issue of Time Out Hong Kong.
January 6th, 2009
Stencil graffiti in the streets near Senado Square, Macau