Archive for November, 2010

November 30th, 2010

This is Argentina Crying

Posted in Latin America, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

“Everything you foreigners know about Argentina,” the older gentleman asserted, “you know from that Madonna movie.” We’re standing in Palermo Viejo, a trendy neighborhood miles away from the buildings and blocks that pencil in postcard Buenos Aires. If his statement — referencing Evita, the 1996 musical melodrama about Argentina’s most charismatic first lady — were true, outsiders would be thrown by what they found here. There’s little of the country’s trademark tango of mournful melancholy and testy protest politics present among Palermo’s buzzing bars and chic shops. This is not an Argentina that Evita would have ever had to ask to stop crying.

But Palermo is an asterisk on Buenos Aires’ cultural and political map. Elsewhere, BA is a city of brooding memory: the names of generals and battles overwhelm its street signs and the friezes of its major edifices. There’s even a “Parque de la Memoria” in the city’s far north, devoted to the victims of Argentina’s dictatorial Dirty War.

Natives to such history-saturated soil eagerly invoked Evita and her husband, Juan Peron, when the Kirchners (Nestor and Cristina), came to power in 2003 — each eventually taking a turn as president. The parallels went well beyond their power couple personas. Nestor’s gutsy decision to stand up to the IMF on Argentina’s unbearable debt burden earned him acclaim for rescuing the country’s finances. Along with later accusations the Kirchners were attempting to consolidate domestic power, the move helped breed deeper comparisons to their autarkic (and somewhat autocratic) predecessors.

The Kirchners, fittingly, slated a dusty lot just downhill from the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace, as the future site of a vast, permanent homage to Juan Peron. But however prevalent, Buenos Aires’ paint-spacked, graffiti-covered monuments are a reminder that Argentine politics offer only illusory glory. Power here has been made and unmade on the street. Raucous demonstrations for, against, or barely related to the controversy of the week are common in the Plaza de Mayo, the vast square reaching out from the front of the Casa Rosada — and tend to radiate well beyond.

That made it natural for many to gravitate to the Plaza on October 27, when word spread of Nestor’s untimely death — and the political shakeup it might portend. The resulting outbreak of national mourning begat a see-and-be-seen atmosphere of patriotic celebration, protest action, and all-out street carnival, coming to resemble the country’s passionate soccer matches more than any somber state vigil.


November 29th, 2010

Ghosts of Occupied Amsterdam

Posted in Art and Design, Europe, History by Christopher Szabla

Amsterdam civilians were machine-gunned by soon-to-be-retreating German soldiers when they formed a large crowd to await the city’s liberation in 1945. Here the dead and injured haunt modern Dam Square.

Amsterdam’s Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse lives history. The company for which she works as a historical consultant, Historisch Adviesbureau 30-45, specializes in digging up archival material for clients pertaining to “daily life in the years 1900-1950”. In addition, Jo confesses in her Flickr profile, she has “a 1930s lifestyle,” donning clothing from the era and “attending 1930s theme parties”. Even her house has been carefully decorated to look not a day older than 1943.

But Jo is more than just a professional researcher and history buff. Beyond her archival sleuthing, she’s engaged in a number of reconstructive and interpretive projects that bring to life historical material in the present day. One is an effort to recreate 1920s Berlin as an environment for the virtual world of Second Life, allowing users to immerse themselves in the German capital’s long-gone prewar heyday.

In 2007, Jo embarked on what might have seemed like a more conventional project — she took her camera around Amsterdam, capturing street scenes from the same vantage points as old photos she’d found of the city under Nazi occupation during the Second World War — in addition to the archives, she’d located many of the shots in flea markets or on other Flickr members’ accounts. What she did next was less conventional: Jo fused the then-and-now shots into singular collages, juxtaposing ghostly remnants (and residents) of the occupied city with representations of the present day.


November 25th, 2010

Follow My Steps

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

It’s rare to come across any unorthodox street art in Hong Kong — it’s mostly stencils, paste-ups and graffiti. So I was pleased to see these vinyl footprints glued to the pavement at the nearest crosswalk to my apartment. They remind me of a couple of things: the footprints placed rather whimsically on metal grates in the sidewalks of Calgary; and the early work of Roadsworth, which subverted the lines, arrows and stripes that regulate our behaviour in the street.


November 25th, 2010

Sunday Stroll

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Dongzhimen Outer Street, Chaoyang District, Beijing
November 25th, 2010

How a Roast Duck Sees Chinatown

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Food by Christopher DeWolf

Melbourne’s Chinatown as shot with a camera made from a duck

Earlier this week, I paid a visit to Martin Cheung‘s studio in the Cattle Depot Artists’ Village in To Kwa Wan. I was there to speak to him about his work with pinhole photography, a medium that uses crude, handmade cameras to record images that often look as rough as the devices that made them.

We spoke for awhile about Cheung’s fascination with pinhole photography. It’s meditative and not as aggressive as conventional photography, he told me, and it forces you to consider the process of taking a photo rather than the result. He showed me how to make a simple pinhole camera with paper and tape. Then the conversation turned to ducks.

Cheung studied art in Melbourne, where he also worked in a Chinese restaurant as a waiter and kitchenhand. Nine years ago, in his final year of study, Cheung had a thought: “Roast duck is such a symbol of Chinese cooking, so I wanted to see how the duck saw Chinatown.” So he bought a roast duck and turned it into a pinhole camera.


November 24th, 2010

Saint-Sauveur Needs a Saviour

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

Sauvons l’église Saint-Sauveur!” I wrote three years ago on Spacing Montreal. And for three years, it seemed vaguely possible that the 145-year-old church on lower Saint-Denis Street wouldn’t be demolished. The huge hospital for which it was supposed to make way, the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montreal (CHUM), has been stalled for years, and for awhile it would have been reasonable to guess that it would eventually crawl into the back room where tired, abandoned Montreal megaprojects go to die.

Alas, that wasn’t the case. Kristian Gravenor broke the news in yesterday’s Gazette that Montreal’s city council has issued a demolition permit for the church, which has sat empty and abandoned for years. It isn’t in the best shape — its prized stained glass windows, designed by the renowned Guido Nincheri, were stolen in 2006 — but its bones are strong. More importantly, it remains a testament to the city’s history.

Saint-Sauveur was built thirteen years after a fire swept through the Faubourg Saint-Laurent in 1852, its greystone façade, neo-Gothic architecture and tin steeple a testament to the fashion of the era. In the beginning, it was actually an Anglican church named Holy Trinity. It didn’t become Catholic until the 1920s, when Holy Trinity moved west to NDG and the church was sold to a Syrian congregation.


November 24th, 2010

Nap Time

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Restaurant workers asleep in a Wan Chai plaza, Hong Kong


November 21st, 2010

Time Travel With Nick DeWolf

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

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Penn Station, New York, 1958

Three years ago, people were still complaining that photo-sharing websites like Flickr were home mostly to “thousands of pieces of shit” — few good photos, endless amounts of clichéd snapshots that nobody really wants to see.

Since then, of course, Flickr has proven its worth by attracting plenty of good, serious photographers, and inspiring many more to improve their work and learn more about photography. It has also become something unexpected: a window into the past. Recently, a number of organizations, including Library of Congress, NASA and the Ville de Montréal, have put portions of their photo archives on the website, taking advantage of its user-friendly format and ready-made connection to social networks.

Private individuals have followed their lead, giving old film photos new life. One such photographer is Nick DeWolf, a American engineer who lived in Philadelphia, Boston and later Colorado, and who never left home without a camera. For decades, starting in the 1950s, he documented almost everywhere he went. After DeWolf’s death in 2006, his son-in-law began putting his photos online.

There are now more than 43,000 images in DeWolf’s Flickr photostream, with 20 more added each day. Among these are scenes of everyday 1950s, 60s and 70s life in cities like New York, Boston and Hong Kong, shot with the passion, curiosity and loose focus of an amateur.


November 21st, 2010

Prayer Time in Dhaka

Posted in Architecture, Society and Culture, South Asia by Patrick Donovan

Sitara Mosque

Prayer Sitara Masjid Dhaka Bangladesh

Prayer Sitara Mosque Boy

Sitara Masjid (Star Mosque) in Dhaka, Bangladesh
November 20th, 2010

Tunnel Vision: Subway Zoetrope

Posted in Art and Design, Transportation, United States, Video by Christopher Szabla
Bill Brand’s “Masstransiscipe” installation in New York’s subway

I first noticed subway tunnel wall animations in Boston, where the long gaps between stations on the MBTA Red Line provides a captive audience. The animation, composed of dozens of stills that simulated movement as the train zoomed by, was an ad. The message: visit Vermont and its great outdoors, which certainly must have resonated with more than a few claustrophobes riding the crowded rush hour rails.

Animated ads in subway tunnels are expensive, both to design and install, which helps explain why the Vermont ad’s successor, a campaign for a movie “coming to theatres” last February, was only removed recently — with no ready replacement. But the medium is a popular one, if only because it’s relatively novel and rare. Examples from Budapest, Hong Kong, Kiev, L.A., Tokyo, and Washington, D.C. have been enthusiastically documented for upload to YouTube. And given that cash-strapped transit agencies have allowed almost every other subway surface to be colonized by ad space, including seats and whole exteriors of rolling stock, it was almost a logical next step.

Much of the credit for introducing these flipbook or zoetrope-like ads goes to two independent innovators: New York astrophysics student Joshua Spodek and Winnipeg animator Bradley Caruk. Spodek’s ads debuted in Atlanta in 2001; his company, Sub Media, continues to produce similar ads today. In 2006, Caruk won a Manning Innovation Award for his concept, which his partner, Rob Walker, first thought up while staring at the blank walls of Paris’ Metro. The company they co-founded, SideTrack Technologies, set up its first system in Kuala Lumpur and has since opened others across the United States — and beyond, to London, Rio de Janeiro, and cities in Mexico.

Caruk’s system, which relies on motion-sensitive LEDs, made subway advertising widespread and profitable. The MBTA raked in $1.5 million in SideTrack’s first two years of operation in Boston, and one ad alone brought the L.A. Metro the equivalent of 192,000 new riders in revenue. But he was hardly the first person to experiment with subway animation.


November 18th, 2010

The Cheonggyecheon Experience

What amazed me most about Cheonggyecheon was its freedom. Here was a stream running through the middle of Seoul, one of the world’s largest cities, and it gurgled as contentedly as any country creek. You can walk next to the water, sit next to it, wade in and feel its sharp chill on your calves.

It becomes all the more remarkable when you realize that, ten years ago, it was little more than a sewer running beneath a traffic-clogged highway. For decades, Cheonggyecheon was buried under an expressway; it was famously restored in the early 2000s. (David Maloney wrote an exhaustive account of its history a few years ago.) When I visited Seoul last year, it was one of the things I was most eager to see, and luckily enough, I happened to be staying a short walk from it.

After the expressway was demolished, a six-kilometre linear park was built along the stream, from the business district near Gwanghwamun in the west to another river, Jungnangcheon, in the east. The stream runs several metres below street level, and descending towards the stream is a liberation from the noise and exhaust above it. Late at night, I sat next to the water and watched two couples wade into the stream, pants rolled up, giggling as they splashed around. During the day, kids played on stepping stones that traverse the water.

Cheonggyecheon is one of the best-designed examples of urban nature I have encountered. Its impact has been fare-reaching. Fewer cars enter central Seoul now and public transit use is up. Summer temperatures around the stream have been reduced by several degrees since the stream was restored.


November 17th, 2010

Along the Buriganga

Posted in Environment, South Asia, Transportation by Patrick Donovan

Ferries on the Buriganga

Ferry canoe buriganga

While railways are the nerves and sinews of India, rivers are the lifelines linking the cities and towns in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Last spring, I was in Dhaka, the congested capital, with my brother. The city of 14 million people lies on the banks of the Buriganga. After getting lost in the atmospheric narrow warren of streets in the old city for a few hours, our perspective eventually opened up upon reaching the wide, pitch-black river. Dozens of small canoes were parked on the trash-strewn riverbank. Skinny boatmen in lungis beckoned out for business with raised hands, offering to take people across. A one hour cruise can be had for a little over a dollar, probably less if you’re a miserly jerk who wants to argue over pennies.

On the buriganga


November 17th, 2010

Good Morning, Hutong

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Beijing is not a good walking city. Its roads are too wide, its blocks too long — this is a city meant to be experienced on wheels, whether those of a bicycle or (increasingly) a compact sedan.

But as Christopher Szabla reminded us earlier this year, “Beijing is at least two cities”: the city beyond the Second Ring Road, with its new office blocks and apartment complexes, and the older city within it, made up of hutong alleyways and old, low-rise courtyard houses.


November 16th, 2010

A Chilly Fall Day? Perfect for a Swim

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

The first time I visited Beijing, almost two years ago, I had no idea about the existence of Sichahai, the three interconnected lakes just northwest of the city’s imperial heart. Built more than 800 years ago during the Jin Dynasty, the lakes later became the northern end of the Grand Canal, a 1,700-kilometre waterway that was for centuries the backbone of China’s economy. Today, they are one of the most beautiful spots in Beijing, ringed by willow trees and ancient buildings.

As lovely as they are, though, what makes them so memorable is not the scenery so much as the way they remain the setting for ordinary Beijing life. Walk north along the banks of Houhai, the largest of the three lakes, and you’ll pass by cycling hutong dwellers, people practising tai chi and playing traditional instruments. What stood out to me the first time I visited were the swimmers. It was early March and there was still ice on the lakes, so I was astonished to see a group of men emerge from the frigid water in tiny bathing suits, their skin as red as cooked lobsters.