Archive for September, 2010

September 29th, 2010

Miss Villeray

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Heritage and Preservation by Christopher DeWolf

Miss Villeray by day…

Whenever I wander up to Villeray, usually after a trip to the Jean-Talon Market, I make sure to take Henri-Julien so that I can pass by Miss Villeray. That’s because this neighbourhood bar is adorned by a particularly comely neon sign. It wouldn’t have turned any heads in the 1960s, when this bar first opened and Montreal was filled with neon, but is now one of the last of a dying breed. Luckily, Miss Villeray was bought by a new owner in 2009 who restored many of the bar’s period details, including the sign.


September 28th, 2010

Beyond the Second Ring Road

Beijing is at least two cities. There’s the Beijing of the hutongs, a largely low-slung, grayscaled cityscape lying along the occasionally meandering little streets one can find within the old city walls, a one to two kilometer radius of Tiananmen Square. Then there’s the rest of Beijing, a march of high and midrise office and apartment buildings that have both infiltrated the city of the hutongs and supplanted much of remains of Mao’s capital: the cheaply built factories and shambolic workers’ dormitories built beyond the old city.

There are pockets of modern construction all over Beijing’s historical core, but the incursion of the new Beijing into the old is only really consistent along the ten lane-wide route of Chang’an Avenue, the city’s ceremonial main east-west axis, which slices in half the heart of the city with flanks of flashy new banks and government office buildings. The rest of new Beijing lies out beyond the old city and its present outer limit: the Second Ring Road, Beijing’s innermost orbital expressway, which replaced hutong Beijing’s medieval defenses with a different sort of wall — one formed by bumper-to-bumper traffic.

It didn’t always seem as if this division would persist. Only a few years ago, the Beijing of the hutongs began disappearing at an alarming rate. The outcry among preservationists, though, was loud enough to slow large-scale demolition, and changes to the historic city have proceeded somewhat less rashly since; some hutongs that were spared the wrecking ball have even undergone gentrification. There are exceptions, of course. Limited demolitions still occur — to install new subway stations, for example. But large-scale redevelopment projects, like this year’s plans to wipe out the classic hutong neighborhood around the historic Gulou, or Drum Tower, have gone nowhere fast; after unusually intense local and global media scrutiny, the Gulou project was shelved indefinitely.

The slowdown of Beijing’s “modernization” has brought with it a stalemate between high-rise and hutong. It’s particularly evident in Xicheng, in the western part of the old city, where the shimmering but somewhat stumpy towers of Beijing Financial Street, intended to form the new commercial heart of China, rise awkwardly against a backdrop of some of the city’s dustiest laneways. And not far away, across the Second Ring Road, the chaotic streetlife of the hutongs has even found a foothold even amid the seemingly hostile, modern streets and plazas of the new city.


September 27th, 2010

Mapping Segregation

Posted in Demographics, Maps, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher DeWolf

Four decades have passed since the end of formal racial segregation in the United States, but as anyone can tell you, informal segregation remains a part of everyday life in many areas of the country. That becomes especially clear when you look at Eric Fischer‘s new maps of race and ethnicity in major American cities. In each of these new maps, one dot represents 25 people, and each dot’s colour represents a racial or ethnic group as defined by the US Census: non-Hispanic white is red, black is blue, Hispanic is orange and Asian is green.

Every city in the world is divided along some lines, be they ethnic, linguistic or economic, but what is shocking about Fischer’s maps is how many American cities remain starkly divided according to race. Just look at Detroit, where 8 Mile Road is visible not only as the border between city and suburbs but as the line of demarcation between black and white.

(Along with ethnicity, the maps also illustrate population density — the more densely-populated an area, the more opaque it appears on the map. What surprises me about the Detroit map, along with the starkness of the city’s racial divide, is how the city proper remains just as dense as the suburbs, despite massive depopulation.)


September 26th, 2010

Macau Art Space: Lun Hing Knitting Factory

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Just a brisk walk from the Ox Warehouse is another one of Macau’s contemporary art spaces: the Lun Hing Knitting Factory. When I arrived, a group of old people sat in the lobby playing mahjong as the security guard watched idly. There’s little to indicate the presence of artists, when I took the lift up to the third floor, I found the spacious new home of AFA Macau, an arts organization set up by six artists to host exhibitions, give artists space to work and promote Macau artists abroad.

Photographer James Chu Cheok-son and sculptor Wong Ka Long are two of AFA’s founding artists. “The art market in Macau is not well-developed — there are virtually no galleries,” said Chu as we sat at a table near the back of the gallery. AFA was established in 2007 when it opened artists’ studios and a gallery in partnership with a bar and restaurant next to the ruins of St. Paul’s. Last year, though, the financial crisis and decline in tourism took a toll on the restaurant’s business and AFA was forced to leave. It opened in the Knitting Factory late last year; they share the space with Macau Creative, a design group that often incorporates the work of Macau artists into its work.


September 22nd, 2010

An Afternoon in Taipa

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation by Christopher DeWolf

Macau is selling its soul to the gods of gambling but there are still places to admire the city as it once was. One of those places, surprisingly enough, is the old village of Taipa, just a poker chip’s throw away from the grotesqueries of Cotai, the reclaimed land now home to casinos like the Venetian and the City of Dreams.

Most of Taipa consists of fairly anonymous apartment towers, but the village at its heart is a likable mess of ramshackle Portuguese houses, sleepy streets and small businesses. The tourists that venture here tend to stick to the main commercial district, where they line up to buy Macau-style pastries and pork chop buns. Walk a block away from the bakeries and you’ll find yourself immersed in a quiet kind of life that might soon disappear from Macau altogether.


September 22nd, 2010

The Gap-Toothed Street

Posted in Canada, Heritage and Preservation, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Step one: fire

When I first moved to Montreal in 2002, the city was littered with vacant lots, many of them in very prominent locations. The lots, which were filled with weeds and surrounded by heavy concrete blocks, had become as much a symbol of the city as potholes and outdoor staircases.

Since then, many of the vacant lots have given way to new buildings. But some linger on, joined by new lots created by fire. In some cities, when you hear a siren in the distance, you can safely assume it’s a police car or an ambulance. In Montreal, it’s more likely a fire truck.

Even more alarming than the high number of fires is the fact that many of them appear to be the result of arson. Four years ago, a fruiterie near my apartment was firebombed multiple times. Then the used appliance shop where I bought my fridge mysteriously exploded. After that, a popular sushi restaurant suddenly closed for renovations; an employee later told me that it had been set ablaze by someone to whom the owner owed a debt.


September 22nd, 2010

Those Grey Metal Fences

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

Sidewalk fences at a typical corner in Sham Shui Po, Kowloon

Earlier this month, a pair of pedestrians tried to push their way through a crowd of people on Dundas Street, one of the most crowded streets in Hong Kong’s most crowded neighbourhood. One of them cast a withering glance on the grey metal fence that lined the sidewalk, preventing him from stepping into the road or crossing the street. “What a hassle,” he said to his friend. “That thing is such a pain.”

Every day, more than 200,000 pedestrians pass through the centre of Mongkok. At peak hours, the footpath on Dundas Street, between Sai Yeung Choi Street and the Tung Choi Street Ladies’ Market, becomes so crowded that many people choose to dodge cars and minibuses instead of walking on the packed sidewalk.

In June, the Highways Department hoped to put a stop to that unruly behaviour by installing a long, impermeable fence along the entire length of the sidewalk. But the barrier seems to have had the opposite of its intended effect. On a recent Thursday evening, hundreds of people could be seen walking in the roadway, outside the fence. At one point, there were more pedestrians in the street than on the sidewalk.

“The fence has been bad for business because people can’t easily cross the street to get here,” said the owner of a dispensary located halfway down the block. He said he had not been consulted before the fence was installed. “When the government wants to do something, it just does it,” he said.

Nearby, a man was leaning against the fence while browsing Facebook on his iPhone. “The only reason it’s here is so the government can cover its ass if there’s an accident,” he said.


September 15th, 2010

The Street That Became a Gulf

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Sue Anne Tay

On a balmy spring day in Shanghai, I ducked in a narrow corridor to get away from the frantic market activity along the stretch of Anguo Lu (安国路), where the street market bustled with clucking chickens, flopping fish and a rainbow of vegetables and fruits.

I found myself in a compound with squat two-storey apartments. It was a mix of communal housing from the 60s and modest shikumen from the early 30s – nondescript concrete intermingled with old wood.

What struck me most was how neat and orderly everything was. Burgeoning blooms rested in small garden patches that lined a courtyard devoid of clutter and decorated with warm, red windows. What the space lacked in interesting architecture, it made up with a quiet and homey space that was bathed in sunlight.

I struck up conversation with two older men which naturally attracted more people. House-proud, the first gent said he had lived here his whole life, “giving” his apartment to the government after 1949, and reclaiming it in the 1980s.

When I complimented the state of their residence, they beamed. The second gent pointed out, “We make it a point to be civilized (文明) and clean up after ourselves.” Furrowing his brow, he lowered his voice, “Not like the waidiren (外地人, out of state residents) who now dominate the houses across the street. The houses are old and have grown messy and dirty and they don’t take care of it.”


September 12th, 2010

Backstreets of Ginza

Posted in Asia Pacific, History by Christopher Szabla

In Ginza, it seems almost as if Japan tucks its true self out of view. Sure, the row of colorful, vertical signs advertising the largely upscale shops and services along the district’s main drags echo similar scenes all over the country, but the façades (and often stores) they’re attached to are too cold and modern — too standoffishly minimalist — to really reflect the soul of the country in which they’re located.

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that the area would turn out this way. Once a city of half-timbered matchstick homes, Tokyo began, in the wake of several disastrous early Meiji-era fires, experimenting with brick as a building material. Ginza was an early adopter of the new medium, along with Victorian building styles favored in the West. British architect and engineer Thomas Waters designed a made-over Ginza, completed in 1877, that was known as Renga-gai (“brick street” or “bricktown”). Only the kanji and katakana on its signs would have distinguished it from major commercial districts in North America or Australia.

Renga-gai literally bit the dust in 1923, when it was leveled by the Great Kanto Earthquake, but American bombers probably would have reduced it to rubble anyway. In its current incarnation, Ginza bears more than a passing resemblance to plenty of other anonymous shopping zones across East Asia. Its backstreets, though, tell a slightly different story about the neighborhood.


September 11th, 2010

Vancouver’s Most Brilliant Public Space

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

Vancouver’s cityscape is defined not as much by gorgeous architecture or dynamic streetlife as by the natural beauty that surrounds it. You can’t escape the green mountains visible from every angle, the deep blue water that twinkles at the end of hilly streets, the Douglas Firs standing tall in front yards. Even the glass apartment towers that have become a symbol of the city’s progressive urbanism are designed less to shape the city than to facilitate the gaze beyond it.

It’s perfectly appropriate, then, that Vancouver’s greatest public space is not a street or a square but a beach. English Bay Beach, located next to downtown Vancouver, is a crescent sweep of sand with a view of the bay where George Vancouver met Dionisio Galiano in 1792. It is a natural gathering spot, located at the terminus of two commercial streets, near the entrance to Stanley Park. Here, the city doesn’t just brush up against the sea, it spills right into it.

A little over a century ago, the beach was littered with swimming shacks, holiday houses and hotels. A burly man from Barbados, Joe Fortes, made his home in a small beachside house, where he taught a generation of young Vancouverites to swim. He became the city’s first official lifeguard in 1901. After his death in 1922, the Vancouver parks board began buying up beachside properties in order to build a public open space. In 1989, 16 Chinese windmill palm trees were planted near the beach to give it a more tropical appearance, an experiment that has been so successful that another hundred palms have been added to the beachside promenade.


September 8th, 2010

Rush Hour in London, 1970 and Today

Posted in Europe, History, Transportation, Video by Christopher Szabla
YouTube Preview Image

Bulbous black taxis and double-decker buses might supply London’s most recognizable transport iconography, but Britain, where the railroad was born, has long been a nation defined by trains. A look at two videos of London’s rail station at rush hour confirms the country’s undying regard for rail. The crowds pulsating through Waterloo Station in 1970 were at the mercy of the antiquated, almost Steampunk-styled signal equipment featured in the first video, a British Transport Film fished up from the archives of the British Film Institute last year, but if they were at all aware of this, it didn’t stop them from swarming the station in droves (though, being British, they also manage to organize the chaos into an occasional orderly queue).

Not even the materialism of the Thatcher years, their emphasis on homeownership, nor subsequent real estate booms, all of which promoted car ownership and the expansion of the London’s suburban commuter belt along the motorways radiating from the city, could seriously challenge British railways’ importance. Still less hemorrhage resulted from the 1993-7 privatization of the UK rail system, achieved, in the eyes of many, for no practical purpose and with disastrous results; in fact, traffic since privatization has actually increased, even as public impressions of the railways’ reliability and safety have declined. More passengers were carried in 2006 than in any year since 1957.


September 7th, 2010

House Plants

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Environment by Christopher DeWolf

Built with recycled sheet metal, its tin roof held down by bricks, this shack in Hong Kong’s Tai Wai Village is covered by potted plants — an improvised take on the sophisticated green walls pioneered by people like Patrick Blanc.

September 6th, 2010

Le Corbusier Died and Nobody Noticed

On August 27th, the forty-fifth anniversary of the death of Swiss architect Le Corbusier slipped by with nobody noticing. His legacy, however, lives on in cities around the world.

His idea was to make things better for people. Getting rid of substandard, unhealthy housing, and separating industry from residential areas was supposed to reform both cities and the people who lived in them. But nine decades after he began to expound his ideas, it is clear that his best-known solution to the problem, the “tower in the park” idea, has been a failure nearly everywhere except under special conditions.

Apartment towers for rich or upper middle class people seem to work reasonably well, but where corners were cut in construction and the poor were isolated in them, urban disaster has been nearly universal. Many such projects in the US lasted only a few decades before they were demolished.

The picture to the left was taken in 2005 in Shanghai, which was then razing low-rise traditional housing in order to build towers. The jury is still out on how well they will succeed, but recent rumbles of dissatisfaction have been heard as far away as North America.


September 4th, 2010

Tokyo Façade Frivolity

Posted in Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific by Christopher Szabla

The curve of a closed eyelid, the outline of a nose, an unmistakable set of lips: enough to discern the outline of a singer, covering, along with the notes floating up from her mouth, almost all of a multistory building in Akasaka. Halfway across Tokyo, a family of turtles somehow scales the vertical wall of an apartment building in Shinjuku West. The two façades may have little in common otherwise, but both are exceptional in their respective environments — touches of whimsy in neighborhoods best known for their relative seriousness and severity, where staid office suites, the official aura of embassies, and sometimes too tastefully-restrained hotels combine to form a neutral cityscape deferential to the business conducted therein.