Archive for June, 2011

June 30th, 2011

Tokyo’s Urban Bungalows

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf



One of the greatest surprises I encountered when I visited Tokyo last spring was how quiet the city became when you ventured away from the train stations. The above photos were taken less than 15 minutes by foot from Shinjuku, one of the world’s busiest transportation hubs and the centre of a huge business, entertainment and shopping district.

The bungalows I came across in central Tokyo reminded me a bit of the Japanese-era houses I found in Taipei neighbourhoods like Shida. But those parts of Taipei were intensively urbanized less than 50 years ago — Shinjuku has been a busy part of Tokyo since the Yamanote Line opened in 1885. Then again, multi-family dwellings didn’t become common in Japan until after World War II.

June 29th, 2011

An Old Building Given New Life — For Now

In Hong Kong, the fate of an old building is virtually predetermined. Worn by years of intense use and little maintenance, it is snatched up by a property developer who waits for the right moment to knock it down and replace it with shoebox apartments, or maybe a cookie-cutter hotel.

Carl Gouw wants to break that pattern. When the young property developer purchased an old building in Wan Chai, he planned to eventually demolish it for a new block of serviced apartments. But that might not happen for two or three years. In the meantime, he thought, why not do something out of the ordinary?

So the Wan Chai Visual Archive was born. Upstairs, twelve renovated apartments rented to long-stay visitors and expatriates. Downstairs, a bar that serves as a neighbourhood gathering space. And in between, a non-profit, community-oriented space for art and design that is subsidized by rent from the commercial and residential units.

“The idea is to bring an element of creativity into the serviced apartment business,” says Gouw. “Instead of just being passive as a property investor and doing nothing with the building until redevelopment, we thought we could create a platform to engage the local culture.”


June 27th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Manhattan Roofline

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

View of Chinatown from the Manhattan Bridge 11

View from the Manhattan Bridge. Photo by Vivienne Gucwa

High Line Views, New York City - 06

View from the High Line. Photo by Vivienne Gucwa

Every week, we feature striking images from our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

June 26th, 2011

Morning Coffee: Navarino

Posted in Canada, Food, Interior Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


Eight years ago, I was an undergraduate student in Montreal, living in a two-room apartment that had nice wood floors but no natural light. One morning in early December, I awoke with my girlfriend, who had an end-of-semester exam, and as we left my building we discovered a thick blanket of fresh show that had been deposited on the city overnight. I remember a few things from that day. The first was my fatigue — getting up before eleven o’clock has never been one of my strengths. The second was the sunshine, which was brilliant in a way that it can only be on a cold day immediately after a snowstorm. The third was where we went after we left my apartment and trudged north up Park Avenue: Navarino.

Wedged between a former Banque Nationale and Lipa Klein’s kosher supermarket, Navarino is a Greek bakery-café that has been run by the Tsatoumas family since the early 1960s. Originally, it was just a bakery, but in the economic doldrums of the mid-1990s, when Montreal was still reeling from Quebec’s second referendum on national sovereignty, the younger generation of the Tsatoumas clan installed some tables and started selling coffee. That appealed to the layabout bohemians drawn into the neighbourhood by the cheap rent and good food left behind by departing Jewish, Greek, Portuguese and Italian immigrants.

By the time I moved to the neighbourhood, Navarino had taken on the appearance of a well-worn dive, with a rusted 60s-style sign in French and Greek, on which stood a comely waitress holding up a cake. For years, the staff behind the counter consisted only of young women who were called Les déesses de Navarino, according to a sign taped to the tip jar.

New Navarino


June 21st, 2011

Photos of the Week: Circles and Squares

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf


Footbridge, Macau. Photo by eva

Window cages, Macau. Photo by eva

Every week, we feature striking images from our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

June 19th, 2011

The Over-Regulated Street

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

佐敦 - 庇利金街、寶靈街 交界 c.1970's

Top: 1970s. Bottom: 2011. Photo by Lee Chi-man

It’s always easy to depict a city’s changes through the broadest of strokes. Buildings fall so that others may rise; new roads are built; shops come and go. But the most important transformations are often the most subtle.


June 15th, 2011

Green Wall, Green Roof

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf



Perhaps not quite what you’d expect.

June 13th, 2011

Recovery by Design

Ein Junge nach der Zerstörung. Erdbeben und Tsunami, Japan 2011

Photo by the Swiss Red Cross

The violence of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that shook Japan on March 11th was shocking enough, but what followed was almost unimaginable. Thirty minutes after the quake, a massive tsunami swept through the northeastern Tohoku region with waves up to 120 feet high. Entire towns were crushed and swept away. By the time the water receded, tens of thousands of people were dead and half a million left homeless.

It was Japan’s worst disaster since World War II, but this is a country familiar with nature’s wrath, and not long after the quake, Japan’s designers sprung into action with plans to help deal with the catastrophe. Their attitude was summed up by architect Shigeru Ban. “We don’t need innovative ideas,” he told the New York Times. “We just need to build normal things that can be made easily and quickly.”

Ban speaks from experience. For years, he has been used paper tubes as a material in his buildings. When an earthquake devastated the western Japanese city of Kobe in 1995, he put the technique to use in building emergency shelters with beer crate foundations and paper tube walls. He has done the same thing for earthquake survivors in Haiti, Turkey and China. He has even built a paper tube concert hall in the earthquake ravaged Italian town of L’Aquila, whose opening was marked in April by a performance of Japanese musicians with an Italian orchestra.

This time, Ban focused on building partitions for earthquake survivors living in emergency shelters. With a frame made of paper tubes and walls of white canvas, the partitions create flexible rooms that offer privacy, which becomes increasingly important as the wait for temporary government housing drags on for months. “People are evacuated to locations under a big roof, such as gymnasiums,” said Ban. “For the first few days, it’s okay, but then people suffer because there’s no privacy between families.”


June 13th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Zones d’affichage

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

Je m'affiche

Posters for cultural events in Montreal. Photo by übung

Hong Kong

Real estate posters in Hong Kong. Photo by Damien Polegato

Every week, we feature striking images from our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

June 12th, 2011

The Sea Breeze That Kills

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf


People living near Hong Kong’s massive container port are being subjected to life-threatening levels of sulphur dioxide, says the author of a new government report on marine pollution that will be released later this year.

Scientists, environmentalists and even the shipping industry accuse the Hong Kong government of dragging its feet in regulating pollution from container ships and other ocean vessels, putting at risk the heath of thousands of people living in portside areas like Kwai Chung and Tsing Yi.

“It’s a very big health threat,” said Hong Kong University of Science and Technology visiting scholar Simon Ng Ka-wing, who is working on a report on marine emissions for the government’s Environmental Protection Department (EPD). “At the moment, many people living in Kwai Chung don’t even know that shipping emissions are harming their health.”

According to an index developed by University of Hong Kong public health professor Anthony Hedley, Hong Kong’s air pollution kills between 1,000 and 2,000 people a year. About a third of those deaths can be directly attributed to shipping emissions, based on studies conducted after the government legislated low-sulphur fuel for road vehicles in the 1990s.

“If you have grown up in highly polluted air, you will likely have lower levels of lung function, which will expose you to a higher risk of heart and lung disease and premature death,” said Hedley. “We are stacking up a great deal of problems for many children growing up in Hong Kong’s environment because the pollution levels are so very high.”


June 8th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Three Streets

Posted in Latin America by Christopher DeWolf

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.
Photo by Christopher Canning


June 5th, 2011

The Lingering Ghost

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

British Consol cigarettes

On a bright summer day in 1996, Kate McDonnell was wandering through an alley in the eastern Plateau when she spotted the remnants of a hand-painted tobacco ad on the wall of an old triplex.

Fifteen years later, Kate ventured down the same alley and, sure enough, the ad was still there, a bit more faded than before but otherwise intact. Unfortunately, the bottom of the ad is now blocked by the tall wood fence of a terrace built on an adjacent garage.


June 5th, 2011

Slow Heal

Posted in Architecture, Canada, History, Public Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

The Montreal metro being built under de Maisonneuve, early 1960s

For a long time, the boulevard de Maisonneuve was one of my least favourite streets in Montreal. It was built in the 1960s by linking and widening four distinct streets: de Montigny, Burnside, St. Luc and Western. The final product was a Frankenstein’s monster of crudely-stitched appendages and half-healed wounds.

In the east end of downtown, near Place des Arts, the street curved through a landscape of parking lots and weedy terrains vagues. Further west, it sliced through blocks of greystones and apartment houses, creating a sad streetscape of crudely amputated buildings. Although the metro runs underneath, de Maisonneuve’s primary objective has always been to funnel cars through the city centre, and it was never very pleasant to walk along its narrow sidewalks. The push for automotive supremacy went so far that the road was tunnelled straight through the lobby of an apartment building whose owner refused to sell to the city.

Then, in the mid 2000s, things began to change. The real estate market awoke from a decade-long slumber and new apartment towers rose along the central stretch of de Maisonneuve. The city widened sidewalks and planted trees. Further east, in the Quartier des Spectacles, the 1960s-era curve was straightened, slowing traffic and creating space for some whimsical new public spaces. The renovation of Norman Bethune Square near Concordia University gave the western stretch of de Maisonneuve a prominent facelift. In 2008, a lane of traffic was taken from cars and given to bikes, which immediately gave the hodgepodge street the kind of singular identity it had always lacked.