Archive for August, 2011

August 31st, 2011

Somewhere to Sit

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

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As befits a city with a tropical climate, in Kuala Lumpur there is always somewhere to sit and, for a small price, slurp a well-spiced laksa or an earthy teh tarik. Indoors, outdoors, it doesn’t really matter — with restaurants spilling into the street and hawker stalls operating inside restaurants, there’s very little distinction between the two.

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August 30th, 2011

Photo of the Week: Eshete

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

Eshete: Cobble Hill Brooklyn

This week’s photos were taken Chris Arnade in Brooklyn. He writes:

I have known Eshete, the “cat man” of Columbia St. for over three years, walking by almost daily, and look forward to our chats. Despite having some serious issues, he has always been super sweet and nice to me. He is obsessed with his cats, riding his bike from upper Manhattan every day to spend afternoons with them.

I don’t know his full history, I am polite enough not to pry. I do know that he’s had a rough life. He was the only member of his family to survive the Ethiopian civil war and spent many years after as a refugee in Northern Sudan.

A geography nut, every one of his cats is named after a place: Congo, Damascus, Venice, Rico (Puerto that is), etc.

I went to the waterfront to see how Eshete was doing as [Hurricane Irene] approached. Not surprisingly, despite being in an evacuation zone, he was there taking care of the cats. I asked him if he needed anything, he said no, and then we chatted about cats.

“The cats are like lions, very intelligent. Mysterious creatures, the Pharaohs buried them. Independent, but if they need you they come. Cats are beautiful intelligent comedians.”

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August 30th, 2011

Neon’s Slow Exit from Hong Kong

Yue Hwa, Chinese Products - Nathan rd., Hong Kong

Yue Hwa in 2005. Photo by choco_late

The Yue Hwa Chinese Products department store has stood at the corner of Jordan and Nathan roads for decades — and for decades, so did its big neon sign, a sentinel that marked the passage north into the seedy streets of Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok.

Sometime in 2009, though, without fanfare or even the simplest of announcements, the sign was removed. So was a similar sign further down Nathan Road. Yue Hwa did not respond to inquiries about the signs’ fate. It is not clear why they were taken down or what happened to them.

Heritage activists were nonplussed about the sign’s disappearance. “We put our priority on conserving some historical buildings first due to limited resources,” says Roy Ng, policy officer at the Conservancy Association, which has fought to save numerous historic buildings from destruction.

Katty Law, a heritage activist who successfully lobbied against the redevelopment of the Central Market and Former Married Police Quarters, says she has “never thought about the issue, probably because many of us are upset with the light pollution problem.”

Although neon signs are some of the most characteristic elements of Hong Kong’s streetscape, there has been virtually no effort to research, document or preserve the city’s landmark them. In terms of heritage conservation, they simply aren’t on the radar.

“Neon signs are such a surprisingly under-researched subject,” says Lee Ho-yin, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Architectural Conservation Programme. “We see them every day and yet we don’t know much about them.”

With more and more businesses switching to cheaper, mass-produced forms of signage, neon is steadily disappearing from Hong Kong’s streets. The effect on Hong Kong’s visual identity could be profound. Neon is such an integral part of Hong Kong’s character that the mere mention of the city’s name conjures up images of glowing Chinese characters and streets bathed in a rainbow of light.

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August 29th, 2011

Urban Pastoral

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

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It comes to me whenever I am in Vancouver: an urge to watch the sunset. Pulled by memories of blue Pacific waters buffeting a tangerine sky, I make my way to English Bay Beach, where I find a seat on one of the large pieces of driftwood that have been arranged on the sand, and join hundreds of others in the nightly spectacle.

Last month, though, on my final day in Canada, I was taken to watch the sunset from the roof of the new Vancouver Convention Centre, a sharply geometric structure that rises from a broad concrete plaza next to Coal Harbour. As I climbed the metal staircase up to the roof, I was sceptical that it would be anything close to the English Bay experience. When we arrived, I was surprised. Built at a slight angle, covered in wild grass, with a gravel path cutting diagonally across it, the roof feels like a country meadow that has somehow found itself three stories above ground. Watching the sun set from there, over the water of Coal Harbour and the tall fir trees of Stanley Park, was a surprisingly bucolic experience.

On the surface, that sounds reminiscent to other recent experiments in aerial urban greenery, like New York’s wildly popular High Line. But the convention centre’s roof has more local roots. In many ways, it is the latest product of a style of urbanism born in 1978, when Arthur Erickson designed Robson Square, a large civic centre in downtown Vancouver that combined provincial law courts, a municipal art gallery, government offices and a series of public spaces.

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August 29th, 2011

Looking for Life in Puerto Madero

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

The walk from the Plaza de Mayo, the political heart of Buenos Aires, to Puerto Madero, its redeveloped waterfront, begins inauspiciously. Cars barrel down multilane boulevards devoid of people; a weed-strewn lot slated to become a monument to the country’s deeply-loved former president, Juan Perón, lies unconvincingly fallow.

Then there are the railroad tracks severing most of the city from the streets near the sea: Puerto Madero’s redevelopment was accompanied by the construction of a new light rail line, helping turn this frustrating barrier into a vital transit link. But here, in the hostile borderland between B.A.’s bustling Microcentro and the waterfront, the ominous sight of Puerto Madero Station inspires little confidence, its relatively new platform facing tracks overgrown by weeds.

The unused station was not meant to serve the light rail line, which blasts past it, but a half-built commuter rail restoration that had never entirely got off the ground. The sight of the overgrown tracks, encapsulating the miserable fate of much of Argentina’s older, conventional rail network — a once sterling, nationwide system now reduced to a few rump lines around the capital — illustrates exactly the sort of broader decline in national prestige that Puerto Madero’s rise was meant to help reverse. However ambitious those intentions, though, they hardly make it less disconcerting that Puerto Madero Station, spotless in its desertion, serves as an appropriate introduction to Buenos Aires’ newly built-up waterfront itself.

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August 24th, 2011

Photos of the Week: ATM

Posted in Public Space, United States by Christopher DeWolf

Boardwalk 1

Boardwalk 2

This week’s photos were taken along the Brighton Beach boardwalk in New York by Keith Goldstein.

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August 24th, 2011

Walk This Way

Posted in Art and Design, Europe, United States by Christopher Szabla

Maya Barkai’s crowdsourced art installation has brought pedestrian crossing symbols from around the world to New York’s streets

Only a block north from the construction barriers surrounding the former site of the World Trade Center, which brim with boastful renderings of progress on the nearly-complete September 11th Memorial, another, less conspicuous hole opens up in Lower Manhattan’s lapidary landscape. Compared to the blocks bordering Ground Zero, it’s a stretch of Church Street that’s relatively empty. Maybe that’s part of why the netting surrounding this construction site was passed up as glossy adspace showcasing the real estate to come and instead given over to art — currently, Israeli artist Maya Barkai’s installation “Walking Men,” which juxtaposes images of pedestrian walk signs from around the world.

In North America, it’s easy not to devote much thought to the design of “walking men”. While the pictograms are relatively new to the US — until recently, it was still not uncommon to come across a spelled-out “WALK” sign on the streets of New York — bright-white walk symbols are now not only fairly uniform across dense American cities, they’re also uniformly ignored by jaywalkers, who normally treat the signals as well-meaning but unnecessary suggestions.

Elsewhere, though, walk signals are much more diverse — and sometimes more meaningful. In Germany, pedestrians who cross against the light aren’t really braving traffic as much as the reproachful glances of those dutifully remaining at the opposite corner. From Munich to Münster, old women wait at otherwise empty street crossings for the signal to change — on principle. Ordnung — the organizing principle of German civilization — begins at the intersection.

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August 19th, 2011

Prairie Skies Come to the City

Posted in Canada by Karl Leung

Well known for snowy summers and minuteman weather tantrums, Calgary was treated to some magnificent cloud cover after this Thursday’s storm.

August 18th, 2011

Make Your Own Public Space

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

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No cycling. No ball-playing. No gambling. No remote-controlled vehicles. No walking on the grass. No fun. Hong Kong’s public parks are burdened by so many rules, they end up discouraging the very thing that parks are meant to provide: an escape from the many stresses of urban life.

The same is true for many of the city’s other public spaces, from sidewalks to plazas and the ubiquitous “sitting-out areas” found in every neighbourhood. Caught in a stranglehold of metal fences, filled with concrete and ugly tile walls, they seem to discourage the lingering and spontaneous interaction that is cultivated by good public space.

In response, Hong Kong people make their own public space. Throughout the city, leftover bits of concrete and greenery have been claimed by citizens and transformed, through piecemeal intervention and crafty ingenuity, into lively, informal gathering spots.

Not far from my apartment in jam-packed Mongkok is a place I like to call the Hill With No Name. I call it this because, as far as I can tell, it has been overlooked by the gods of toponymy: it’s simply a small hill that was never developed, save for an underground reservoir and the Tsung Tsin Primary School. Even my friend Olivia, who grew up nearby and who attended the school as a kid, was stumped when I asked her what the hill was called. “I always just call it the hill behind Tsung Tsin,” she said.

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August 17th, 2011

The Robson Street Lawn

Robson Street lawn

Vancouver is working hard to shake off its reputation as a somewhat pious city that values good mountain views over vibrant streetlife. Its architecture has seen a shift away from the back-to-nature style of the 1970s, 80s and 90s towards something bolder and more urban, like the recently-completed Woodwards redevelopment. There seems to be more tolerance for cheeky public art — witness Douglas Coupland’s Digital Orca (which makes up for all the lame whale murals around town) and Ken Lum’s Monument for East Vancouver. And there is more and more playful new street furniture.

Last week, I came across one such piece of furniture in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. The stretch of Robson Street in front of the gallery had been closed for construction for several weeks; when it reopened, a kind of undulating fake lawn was installed. It had bright yellow “grass” and was shaded by white umbrellas; it was a bright, sunny afternoon and the lawn was thronged with people. I returned later, after the sun had set, and sat down for awhile. A couple of guys laid down on the grass, holding hands, and one of them wondered aloud, “What is this doing here? This is so weird!” But if others thought it was strange, it didn’t show. A couple of people worked on their laptops, faces lit by the screen’s blue glow. Others sat cross-legged, talking to friends. It was as if it had always been there.

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August 15th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Step by Step

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

Meditating on Wall Street #1

Wall Street Death Watch 5 (Man with Plan)

This week’s photos were taken by tribensee on Wall Street in New York.

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August 14th, 2011

How to Bike Around Montreal in 1897

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

The modern bicycle was invented in the 1860s, but it wasn’t until the “safety bicycle” was introduced in the 1890s that cycling really caught on. The new bikes featured chain-drive transmission, pneumatic tires, a metal frame and two small wheels of equal size; they were exponentially more comfortable than the bulky, bone-shaking dandy horses and velocipedes of earlier eras. Their innovation led to cycling’s first episode of mainstream popularity.

More and more city streets were being paved, and with the Model T still a decade away from production, the only things that newly-minted cyclists had to worry about were pedestrians and horse shit. The map above, pulled from the collection of the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec by Spacing Montreal’s Alanah Heffez, shows a collection of bike-friendly streets and roads in turn-of-the-century Montreal. The emphasis is clearly on recreational cycling through the countryside — most of the island was still undeveloped back then — but it suggests the extent to which cycling was seen as an attractive way to get around.

Things changed in the twentieth century, of course. Like most cities, Montreal became more and more oriented around the automobile. Cycling never quite died out the way it did in other cities, and it enjoyed a resurgence in popularity after the 1970s, but it was still a distinctly eccentric way to get around. Even when new cycling infrastructure was built under the Jean Doré administration in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it wasn’t clear whether it was built with the intent to facilitate cycling as recreation or transportation. Plenty of people got around Montreal by bike, but it wasn’t until very recently, when the number of cyclists and cycling infrastructure reached a kind of critical mass, that cycling became a widely accepted way of moving around the city.

Last month, I returned to Montreal for a couple of weeks and I made great use of Bixi, the city’s expansive bike-sharing system. Bixi is now in its third year and the honeymoon it first enjoyed with the public is clearly over; in recent months, the local newspapers have been filled with stories about discontent over broken bikes, a budget shortfall and new advertising panels on each bicycle. Yet the system remains vastly popular: its ridership has grown by 40 percent this year alone, with two million trips taken halfway through the cycling season.

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August 5th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Straight Shooter

Posted in Europe, United States by Christopher DeWolf

Stratocaster

This week’s photos were taken in Glasgow by Stephen Cosh and in New York by Camille Beckles.

Cosh writes: This guy always plays in Buchanan Street. His guitar playing is first rate but his singing is pretty poor. He saw me taking his picture and nodded towards his guitar bag, hinting at me to donate to his cause, so I gave my son a couple of pounds and he ran up and threw it in. Then my boy whipped out his camera and fired one off right in his face! He’ll make a great street shooter one day!

caught in a downpour - 322/365

Beckles writes: Took shelter under construction scaffolding. The rain kept stopping and starting, so that when you thought the coast was clear and ventured out under the open sky, it started downpouring again and you had duck in somewhere else to let it pass. Took 20 minutes to walk three blocks.

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