Archive for March, 2009

March 29th, 2009

Saigon’s Other River

Posted in Asia Pacific, Transportation, Video by Christopher DeWolf
YouTube Preview Image

Saigon owes its existence to the Saigon River, but its languid current and fetid waters aren’t quite as impressive as one might expect. The city’s real river can be found in its streets, where a roaring current of motorcycles, buses, trucks and cars rushes unceasingly for all but a few hours of the day. Although some form of official order is imposed—there are one-way streets, some road signs and the occasional traffic light—most rules of the road are flouted in favour of a more natural order of things. The guiding philosophy of traffic in Saigon is to do everything you can to get ahead without getting hit.

March 27th, 2009

Asking for Advice on West Kowloon

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Canada, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf
YouTube Preview Image

I never thought there could be another major newspaper that would make the Montreal Gazette seem hip and with-it — but then I started reading the South China Morning Post. Whereas the Gazette at least tries to overcome its fuddy-duddy image as the newspaper of record for grey-haired West Islanders (sometimes quite successfully, as in the case of On Two Wheels, its insightful bike blog, or Andy Riga’s new city life blog), the SCMP has almost willed itself into irrelevance. Its website still hides behind an overly-restrictive paywall and it has made only the most hesitant steps towards new media. What it desperately needs is something like the New York Times’ City Room, but the SCMP either doesn’t have the resources or the will to do that.

But there’s hope. Earlier this month, the SCMP teamed up with entrepreneur and cultural critic Sir David Tang to host a forum to discuss the future of the West Kowloon Cultural District, a government-led effort to turn a swath of reclaimed land into a centre for the arts. The forum will be led by a panel of international cultural elites (see below) but the public will be able to ask questions. Interestingly, the SCMP has asked readers to send in their questions via YouTube, and the best of these will be shown at the event. The response hasn’t been overwhelming, to say the least (just three people have posted videos so far), but at least it’s an opportunity for those who might not normally attend a forum like this to make themselves heard.

I’m tempted to post a question myself, if I can think of a way to boil down all of my concerts about West Kowloon into a single coherent sentence. The entire project is terribly misguided, an opinion shared by just about everyone but the government itself, and the current discussion is as much about how to avoid a complete disaster as it is to create a successful cultural district. The official plan calls for three large theatres, a 10,000-seat performance venue, four museums, an art exhibition centre and at least four public plazas. Unfortunately, if that’s the recipe, the final product will be an utterly indigestible mishmash of giant mega-projects, not a lively and creative neighbourhood. It’s a bureaucrat’s vision of culture, the skin without the bones, an entire neighbourhood of Lincoln Centres and Places des Arts.


March 26th, 2009

Concrete Steps

Posted in Asia Pacific, Canada, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Cheung Chau

Cheung Chau, Hong Kong

Wan Chai

Wan Chai, Hong Kong

Latin Quarter

Latin Quarter, Montreal

March 26th, 2009


Lowrise to parking lot conversion, Toronto, 2008

Lowrise to parking lot conversion, Toronto, 2008

March 25th, 2009

Montreal’s Lost Rivers

Posted in Canada, Environment, History, Interior Space, Maps by Christopher DeWolf

Lost rivers

In Montreal, “river” usually means one of two things: the all-important St. Lawrence River, godlike in its power and presence, and the Rivière des Prairies, whose lazy nature is perhaps better reflected in its informal English name, the Back River. Before it was urbanized, however, Montreal Island was covered with creeks and rivers. Some have disappeared altogether, but many still exist, entombed in stone and concrete well beneath the city surface.

Andrew Emond, who first made his mark with well-seen photographs of abandoned buildings in Toronto and Montreal, recently embarked upon a quest to explore subterranean Montreal. His new blog, Under Montreal, is not only visually striking, it’s well-written and well-researched, with some fascinating entries on the city’s lost rivers. “Charting the evolution of the island’s creeks can often be a daunting task,” he writes. “Older maps from the early 1800s show only approximate paths with many minor creeks apparently deemed unworthy of inclusion. By the time more detailed maps started to emerge around 1820, we see that many of these watercourses had already started to disappear.”

Barely any traces remain. There’s a small stretch of creek—the ruisseau Provost, or Springrove Creek—remaining in an Outremont park, but that’s about it. “Even the twin ponds of Parc Lafontaine whose curves take the approximate shape of the creek that once passed through Logan’s Farm are concrete-lined fabrications,” writes Emond. To find what’s left of Montreal’s lost rivers, you have to go underground, which is exactly what Emond has done. Read about his exploration of the underground network of sewers and streams that make of the remnants of the Rivière Saint-Pierre.

Rivière Saint-Pierre

March 23rd, 2009

Refugees in Hong Kong

Posted in Asia Pacific, History, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Squatter settlement

In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, hundreds of thousands of people fled war, famine and social upheaval in mainland China, ending up in ramshackle settlements on the hillsides of Hong Kong. Some photos from a 1962 issue of LIFE magazine—now available online thanks to Google—capture the experience of those migrants. Looking at these images, it’s worth keeping in mind that virtually no traces of these shantytowns and refugee camps are left today. The only obvious reminders of this defining period in Hong Kong’s history are the giant housing estates that stand in the place of the old squatter settlements.

Squatter settlement


March 23rd, 2009

Saigon Streetlife (I)

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

Saigon Streetlife I

“Nobody walks in Los Angeles,” people often say, which is of course completely untrue. There are plenty of places to stroll around, even if LA is a vast, sprawling, auto-oriented city. But in Saigon? Really, nobody walks. You’ll come across tourists wandering around the city’s historic centre, or some people ambling from one shop to another, but the reality is that sidewalks are more often used for parking scooters and sitting in plastic chairs than they are for walking. In this city, the motorcycle rules, and streetlife exists on two wheels.

March 23rd, 2009

Hobbit Houses

Shoebox houses

I’ve always been curious about the flat-roofed one-storey houses that are sprinkled throughout many of Montreal’s neighbourhoods. Rather than traditional bungalows, they look more like growth-stunted plexes that are missing their upper floors. Last Friday’s Montreal Gazette featured a nice feature by Susan Semenak on the houses, looking both at their history and their current popularity with home buyers looking for an in-town single-family house. I never realized they had a name: shoebox houses. (It’s cute, but I prefer “hobbit houses,” which is what one Urbanphoto commenter called them.)

Most shoebox houses are found in neighbourhoods like Verdun, lower NDG, Villeray and Ahuntsic, which were opened to development with the spread of Montreal’s electric tramway. They appealed mainly to working-class families that couldn’t afford to build proper duplexes or triplexes but still wanted a house of their own. According to David Hanna, an urban studies professor at UQAM and Montreal’s plex expert, they could be built for as little at $500 if family members helped with construction. (That’s about $9,500 in today’s money, according to the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator.) The houses were designed to be expandable, so that a second storey could be eventually be added, a piecemeal process similar to the way houses are built in many of the world’s developing countries.

As in the rest of Canada, that kind of independent house construction has vanished in Montreal, as land and construction prices soared and the house-building trade became dominated by professional real estate developers. And even though shoebox houses might be enjoying a resurgence in popularity, they’re also being knocked down for new condominium developments, a trend documented by Guillaume St-Jean on Spacing Montreal and in his series of then-and-now photos. My feelings about this are mixed: on one hand, densification is a natural, desirable trend, but on the other, we’re losing an historically important type of house that remains an affordable entry into homeownership.


March 22nd, 2009

Riding the Light Rail

Posted in Asia Pacific, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

Yuen Long

Compared to Hong Kong or Kowloon, the northwest part of the New Territories feels like a city apart, an earthier, more workaday place. Much of that has to do with its geography and urban development, a low-rise sprawl of villages, farms and subdivisions that runs the length of a wide, flat valley, with two highrise town centres on either end: Yuen Long and Tuen Mun. But part of it also comes from the spine of area’s transportation network, a unique light rail system built in the 1980s.

Although the northwest New Territories is the longest-settled part of Hong Kong, with some villages dating back more than 700 years, it was only in the 1970s that its population began to expand in earnest. After the success of Tsuen Wan, Shatin and other early New Towns—highrise satellite cities built to contain Hong Kong’s swelling population—Yuen Long and Tuen Mun were identified as two more nodes for development. There was just one problem: access. The road network simply wouldn’t be capable of absorbing the kind of population density government planners envisioned, so they decided some kind of rail system would be necessary. Construction began in 1985 and finished just three years later.

I paid a visit to Yuen Long last December. Riding the light rail was one of the goals of my trip. What I encountered was a late-generation light rail system (like the C-Train in Calgary or MAX in Portland, rather than the streetcars of Toronto or tramway of Hong Kong Island) with nine lines serving 68 stations. It boggles the mind to think that a network that would form the backbone of any medium-sized city’s public transit system is completely forgotten by most people in Hong Kong, except those who use it.

You can tell by riding the light rail that it is a purely local mode of transportation. After boarding at the Yuen Long West Rail station (a stop on a new metro line that opened in 2003, partly to reduce congestion on the light rail), we passed through Yuen Long town centre, picking up passengers bound for the villages and housing estates strung out along the route. By the time we reached the outskirts of Tuen Mun, the train was packed with teenagers in school uniforms and more old people than I’d ever seen on any single bus or MTR train. The journey took a little over thirty minutes from end to end. Nobody seemed in too much of a hurry.

Tuen Mun

Tuen Mun

March 20th, 2009

Hong Kong Doorways: Domestic Life

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Cheung Chau Doorway

Cheung Chau Doorway

These doors on the island of Cheung Chau lead to village house apartments. They’re pretty unremarkable at first glance, but if you look at them a second time you begin to realize that they are perfect representations of residential doorways in Hong Kong.

Shoes are clustered around the door, a testament to the cramped conditions in typical Hong Kong home (nobody wants to waste precious living room space on a shoe rack). Nearby are the altars used for burning incense in honour of family ancestors. Special New Year emblems are placed around entranceways for the two weeks after the Lunar New Year. There’s some laundry drying outside next to assorted junk. Finally, there are the gates: just about every apartment door in Hong Kong is protected by a metal gate, which is odd considering that the city doesn’t have a particularly high crime rate. The gates have become such a staple that they are even available in glitzy decorative versions. I’ve never really understood those — if your apartment has a fancy metal gate, doesn’t that just advertise to potential thieves that there’s something worth stealing inside?

Normally all of the things I’ve described above would be found in apartment building corridors, not in the street. But that blend of domestic and public life is of the things I like about Cheung Chau and Hong Kong’s other islands. It’s indicative of a more casual, relaxed lifestyle than in the urban areas. After all, just look at the shoes piled up in front of the doors above: flip flops.

March 17th, 2009

Don’t Hate

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Don't Hate

I first passed by this paste-up late at night in Taipei’s Ximending district. When I happened to be nearby a couple of days later, I was doubly impressed: whoever made it knew that by placing it here, it would illuminated each afternoon by a thin sliver of light, a ready-made art space in an otherwise dark lane.

March 16th, 2009

Opening Up the Oratory

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

St. Joseph's Oratory

It’s the thrill of discovering a new perspective on what you see everyday: that’s why I have such a thirst for finding new vantage points from which to overlook the city. If you ask me, a great night out usually involves some beer and a spot on some apartment building’s rooftop. (That’s no secret to regular readers: check out the new Rooftops and Views from Above tags.) You can pretty much guess what I think of the new plan to create a public observatory inside the dome of St. Joseph’s Oratory, then.

The Oratory, a Catholic basilica, is one of Montreal’s most distinctive landmarks. You can see it from just about any spot in the south or west in the city, its giant copper dome peeking up from above the trees of Mount Royal. In the north, its presence is monumental, lording over the neighbourhoods of Côte des Neiges and Snowdon. You can even see it from the airport in Dorval, where it looks like the nipple of a large, misshapen breast. Every year, the Oratory receives two million visitors, many of them Catholic pilgrims from Korea and Latin America, and it has been looking for ways to attract even more tourists. Opening an observation deck would be a sure-fire way to make the basilica an essential stop for anyone spending time in Montreal.

It could also change way that Montrealers see their own city. Maybe I’m investing too much hope in the transformative power of a good view, but the Oratory’s observation deck would possess an entirely unique perspective Montreal; it would be the only spot in town with a view completely unobstructed by Mount Royal. By extension, it would also be the only place where you could actually look over on Mount Royal. People would be able to get a better sense of how the mountain relates to the city and how its presence has shaped the urban development of Montreal. It would be a spectacular change from the usual vantage points.

Oratory observatory

March 16th, 2009

The Dimensional Door


Imagine if you could walk through the doorway in one place and arrive elsewhere on the other side. Could we create a practical and easily replicable device that would allow for safe and simple instantaneous travel from one place to another regardless of the distance? How could the two doorways be connected? Once connected, what would you see inside the doorframe? Could you get chopped in half whilst passing through? Would such travel affect your body chemistry, DNA, atoms, etc.? Would differences in air pressure from both sides create gusts of wind or other differential phenomena? These are a few of the questions that quickly come to mind.

The previously invisible was made visible. To put this idea into perspective, the telephone has been around for less than 150 years. What was it that brought us to discover that we could project our voices across vast distances? Humans began to fly in the 1870s with the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon followed by the first ‘heavier than air’ flight by the Wright brothers in 1903. In the 1890s, the wireless was another strange inspiration that mobile telephone users do not even think twice about today, never mind high definition multi-channel satellite services. In less than 200 years of human evolution, all of these impossible ideas have become commonplace.

Gravity: what is this force that we have only superficially harvested for hydroelectric power generation? In what other way could this puzzling force be harnessed? How could it be related to magnetism and time? Could this all be explained by the fifth or another dimension? These are very big questions that physicists have been studying for a number of centuries.

Ideas about dimensional travel have been around for a long time. H.G. Wells published, The Time Machine, in 1895. Instantaneous travel is explored further in stories such as Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 book, A Wrinkle in Time, or the way the witches and wizards in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, first printed in 1997, are able to travel from one fireplace to another. The film, Stargate, released by MGM in 1994, also contributes to the canon of teleportation stories not to mention Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek from the 1960s. Nonetheless, the question remains how to adapt these ‘fantasies’ into a real world application?


March 15th, 2009

Prince Edward Road

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Prince Edward Road

Looking east down Prince Edward Road