Archive for December, 2009

December 30th, 2009

Bus Station Feng Shui

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture, Transportation, Video by Christopher DeWolf

One of the things that makes Hong Kong’s incessant concrete and frequently bland architecture so bearable is that public spaces attract a kind of cultural detritus the way a bookshelf attracts dust. It only takes a few years for newly-built spaces to feel well-used and lived-in.

Bus stations are a good example. Often built beneath shopping malls or housing estates, they are deeply unpleasant places that trap noise, exhaust and heat. But bus drivers and supervisors must make their living there and, as a result, you’ll find desks, sofas, random discarded furniture and, most important of all, Chinese altars.

In this video by Thomas Lee, a feng shui master is called to a bus station that has suffered a string of traffic accents. He will perform a hoi dei tsu ceremony to invite a god to watch over and protect the station. It’s a good look at how even an inhospitable space like a bus station can be humanized.

December 29th, 2009

Unbuilt Cities

Posted in History, Maps, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher Szabla

California City

Satellite views of California City (above) and Lehigh Acres (below) from Google Maps

The world is filled with mad dreams only partly come to life. In Eastern Europe, half-built skyscrapers that neither communist governments nor their free market-friendly successors could complete form ironic landmarks, totems of ideological overconfidence. In China’s Inner Mongolia province, authorities built a whole city to boost the country’s GDP — that no one could afford to live in. And vast, empty grids etch the surface of the United States: the hidden ruins of capitalism’s most spectacular failures.

Fly out of Fort Myers at dusk, catching the glint of the setting sun on the vast grid of streets stretching across the marshlands to its east and you may come to understand the level of ambition that led the airport you just left to be grandly styled “Southwest Florida International”. This is Lehigh Acres, quickly becoming America’s most notorious — if not its first — suburban ghost town.

Lehigh Acres


December 28th, 2009

Coffee and a Newspaper

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

Café Myriade, Mackay Street, Montreal

December 28th, 2009

Rooftop Gardening

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Environment by Christopher DeWolf

Container gardening is the ultimate form of urban greening: space-efficient, low-maintenance and productive. People in Hong Kong have been doing it for generations.

Last summer, on a sunny but oppressively hot day, I found myself on the roof of a 1960s-era highrise apartment building in Kwun Tong. Among the lines of billowing laundry were several clusters of potted plants maintained by the building’s residents. Though most were decorative plants, there were some fruits being grown, including kumquats and tomatoes. Anyone interested in growing their own herbs or vegetables could have easily done so.

Unfortunately, informal rooftop gardens like this are set to become a rarity. The Kwun Tong building on which these photos were taken will be demolished next year for a massive redevelopment project. Newer buildings tend to have smaller roof areas and no room for plants. My building has just two flats per floor, for example, which makes for a very small roof, most of which taken up by stairwell entrances and an elevator machine room. Even if I tried to start a container garden up there, it’d probably be cleared away by the building management.

The government is pushing developers to include green features in new developments. The public housing authority, whose buildings house more than a third of Hong Kong’s population, is experimenting with green roofs, vertical greening and community gardens. But there’s something to be said for giving people a bit of empty space and letting them do what they want with it.


December 27th, 2009

Mile End in 1840

Posted in Canada, History by Christopher DeWolf

Mile End 1840s

Montreal seen from Mile End, 1840

One of the old Gazette articles I referred to in my post about the revival of the name Mile End also contains a nice description of Mile End in 1840, when it was sparsely-populated farmland a good 20-minute carriage ride from the edge of Montreal. It comes from Joseph Charles, who lived in the area as a boy.

“We moved out to the Mile End and lived for a time in a great big old stone house on Mr. Jacob Wurtele’s farm. It stood far from the road and there was a fine avenue of basswood, elm and poplar trees in front. Here my mother taught school. The children came in from all round.

The Spaulding farm was a fine farm then, run by Mrs. Spaulding though her husband was living, but he was old and feeble. There was one son, Bill, who worked on the farm, and her son James Spaulding kept the Mile End Hotel. There was another large hotel kept by a French family, and there was a large tannery (Blair’s, I think) and Charlton’s market garden, and about a dozen houses formed the Mile End of that day.


December 27th, 2009

The Resurrection of Mile End

Posted in Canada, History by Christopher DeWolf

Mile End Station postcard

Mile End Station, built in 1878, rebuilt in 1911 and demolished in 1936

The name Mile End might now be associated with Montreal’s trendiest neighbourhood (a distinction that will surely move elsewhere in a few years), but three decades ago, it was in danger of extinction. Though the area north of Mount Royal Avenue was known as Mile End in the first half-century of its development, it became an anachronism after World War II, used only by old-timers and by newspaper journalists who had to explain its past significance.

I was reminded of this when I was browsing through the Gazette’s archives, which were recently digitized and made available by Google News. In a trivia column published on March 15, 1969, a resident of Mount Royal Avenue named Edward McElligott asks about the origin of Mile End’s name, noting that “though few English-speaking people today know much of it, both English-speaking and French-speaking folks of years ago knew it well.


December 27th, 2009

Tongren Road’s Last Stand

Tongren Road

This is a collection of pictures of the last night the infamous Tongren Road strip was open and functioning.

Tongren Road runs right through the commercial heart of the Jing An district in Shanghai. A very small strip (like half a block) of this road was one of many red light districts that are scattered through out the city. What made this particular strip interesting was that it existed for a quite a long time surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate in Shanghai and China. On December 17th, this notorious half a block was shut down in preparation for the Expo in 2010. There is also a billion-plus-dollar development going up right across the street. The new Kerry Center office complex and a Shangri-La hotel will open in two years.

While I don’t normally frequent areas like these, I have to admit that I always had a soft spot for Tongren Road. It was its long-lasting grittiness and sleaziness amongst the immediate gentrification that surrounded it that made it unique.


December 25th, 2009

The Hockey Sweater

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf

Though it’s not actually a film about Christmas, I’ve always associated Sheldon Cohen’s “The Sweater” with the holiday season, maybe because it evokes all of the bittersweet feelings that come with receiving an eagerly-awaited gift, only to discover that it isn’t quite what you wanted. It’s also probably the most quintessentially hivernal of all the NFB shorts. And you can’t beat Roch Carrier’s narration, both in the English version above and in the French version.

Since you might have a bit of extra time for reading this afternoon, check out a couple Christmas posts from previous years, on Chengdu’s strange Christmas Eve tradition and tacky holiday decorations in Montreal.

December 23rd, 2009


Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Environment by Christopher DeWolf

Air conditioning units

Air conditioning is a bit like a narcotic: once it claws its way into your life, you begin changing yourself to accommodate its demands. When air conditioning became common in Hong Kong, it changed the very fabric of the city, shrinking windows, destroying verandahs, turning streets into dripping, humming corridors meant to serve the useful space, which moved indoors.

In the past, Hong Kong architecture emphasized shade and ventilation, with arcaded sidewalks and large windows. The new architecture of A/C turned its back on these traditional ways of coping with a hot climate, eventually creating a city that struggles with a severe urban heat island effect and wall-like buildings that block the wind and trap pollution.

December 23rd, 2009

Excavating the Present

Hung Bak

In the most remote corner of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale‘s West Kowloon site, three architects, Kingsley Ng, Syren Johnstone and Daniel Patzold, are digging up Hong Kong’s heritage from virgin land. The concept: it’s several centuries into the future and an old street market has been discovered, leading to an archaeological race to save what remains of it.

Artifacts from the Central street market are scattered around the dig, including an old green market booth the team brought in from Gutzlaff Street. It now sits incongruously in an open plain with the giant glass-and-stall wall of the just-built International Commerce Centre rising incongruously behind it.

“When something like this is in the market, you don’t notice because it’s a shitty old thing, but when you move it here, you start seeing all of the details. There’s a lot of stories here,” says Johnstone. “If we found an old market 350 years in the future, we would want to preserve and protect the ruins. Why not today for the markets that still exist?”


December 23rd, 2009

Hong Kong’s Wild West

Posted in Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

West Kowloon

Last Sunday, Clara Lee and her nine-year-old daughter Hoi-ching were wandering through the craggy grass and gnarly trees that make up the West Kowloon site of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture.

“It’s big here!” exclaimed Hoi-ching. “I don’t often go to the countryside.”

“Actually,” said her mother, “this is not the countryside. We’re in the city.”

Hoi-ching looked up, perplexed. “But it feels like the country.”

She could be excused for being mistaken. After it was created from landfill fifteen years ago, parts of West Kowloon were developed with malls and highrises, while a narrow strip of waterfront was recently converted into a public park and promenade. But most of it was simply fenced off and left fallow; land reclaimed from the sea was gradually reclaimed by nature. With the totems of Hong Kong finance soaring at either end of the site, it’s an odd experience to wander along a dirt road past wild grass, untamed shrubs and the sound of crickets buzzing in the sun.


December 21st, 2009

The Many Chinese Words for “Lane”

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Suoyi Hutong Beijing

Suoyi Hutong, Beijing

There’s several different names in English for small, secondary streets that run between blocks or behind major roads. Alley and lane are the words most often used in North America, but there’s significant variation in the UK, where regional words like vennel, chare, wynd, twitten and jigger are common.

It’s a similar story in China. Just about every city has a lu (路), which is the word mostly commonly used to describe important roads. And even though there is a basic word for lane — xiang (巷) — there are also many regional variations. In Beijing, it’s hutong (衚衕); in Shanghai, it’s longtang (弄堂) and in Chengdu, it’s xiangzi (巷子).

I don’t know anything about the exact origins of these different words for alley, but I imagine they have roots in local languages and geography. In Guangzhou, for example, a common name for alley is tung jeun in Cantonese (衕津), which literally means “alley dock” and refers to a lane near the Pearl River. Nobody uses this word in Hong Kong, where two other words are used to refer to alleys: fong (坊) and lei (里), which is a Cantonese transliteration of the English word “lane.”


December 19th, 2009

Taxi Triptych

Posted in Asia Pacific, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

Hong Kong taxi

Hong Kong taxi

Hong Kong taxi

December 18th, 2009

Hydro Pole Art

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

Hydro pole street art

Hydro pole street art

I found these plaques attached to a few hydro poles on Esplanade Avenue between Bernard and Saint-Viateur. I like how the copper plate etchings are a mischievous response to the official Hydro-Québec plates that are normally found on the poles. The wood one is striking for the way it mimics the natural texture of the pole, right down to the staples. As street art moves beyond the conventional media of paint, posters and stickers, it will be interesting to see it take on more unusual forms like this.