Archive for December, 2011

December 29th, 2011

The Other Side of Hong Kong Nightlife

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


Nobody really remembers how they first discovered Sense 99. Usually, they hear about it through a friend, who heard about it through a friend, who heard about it through a friend and so on. It is not quite a bar, not quite a private club, not an art gallery or a music venue, but it combines elements of all of these. To get there, you must make your way down Wellington Street, past the green-painted stalls of Hong Kong’s oldest street market, until you arrive in front of a worn metal door at the base of an old stone shophouse. Press the second doorbell from the top and a tinny voice will greet you through a speaker in the door.


There is no secret password. Say pretty much anything and you will be greeted by a loud buzz. The door unlocks. Head up to the second floor, towards the sound of conversation and live music, until you enter a room that appears not to have been touched since the early colonial days of Hong Kong: green-and-white tile floors, wood windowframes, French doors opening onto a narrow balcony. There is a small bar on the right and a collection of stylishly mismatched furniture on the left. Upstairs, another balcony and a lounge where musicians bring their instruments and jam until the early hours of the morning.

This is not a typical Hong Kong bar.


December 29th, 2011

In Between

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf


The neighbourhood around Marconi Avenue is a bit of a strange place. I’m not even sure what to call it. Marooned between Little Italy to the east, the CPR tracks to the south, the Outremont railyards to the west and Jean-Talon to the north, it’s a kind of urban interstitial space, not entirely industrial, a little bit residential, without a name or any real defining features. Even the street names here are strange, changing unexpectedly and duplicating themselves for no reason, like at the corner of rue Alexandra and avenue Alexandra.

When I was back in Montreal last summer, I stayed with a friend in Park Extension, so I passed through this area almost every night on my way back home. It has become somewhat trendy in recent years. Dépanneur Le Pick-Up draws a mix of hipsters, taxi drivers and neighbourhood old-timers with its pulled-pork sandwiches and good coffee. Bands that once played further south have found a home at Il Motore on Jean-Talon. These are islands of activity in an archipelago of odd things: lonesome houses, unexpected churches, former factories.



December 27th, 2011

Inside Foster’s Plan for West Kowloon

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

When Norman Foster won the international competition for the master plan of the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong last spring, I was disappointed. I thought it was plug-and-play urbanism, a crowd-pleasing design that had too much in common with so many interchangeable urban neighbourhoods that have sprung up in the past 20 years.

Of course, there’s another argument to be made. While Foster doesn’t take any big risks, he gets the fundamentals right. On paper, his plan for West Kowloon is environmentally-sensitive, pedestrian-friendly, small-scale and full of greenery. Given that it is more than a cultural district — it will be home to thousands of residents, 16,000 workers, hundreds of retail outlets, 18 cultural venues and countless visitors — it’s possible to see West Kowloon as Hong Kong’s most ambitious experiment in urban planning since the creation of the New Towns in the 1970s, which laid the groundwork for decades of large-scale modernist tower block development. The cultural district is a significant and positive departure from that model.

I wanted to hear more about the plan from the architects who worked on it, so last summer, I paid a visit to Colin Ward, the amiable lead architect on Foster’s West Kowloon team. We spoke in a conference room with a view over Victoria Harbour, barges and ferries streaming through its waters like ducks in a lake.

Ward began the interview with a warning. “Exemplar cultural districts can be, if you’re not careful, terrible urban districts,” he said. He stressed the importance of what the Foster team calls the “19th venue” — the public realm. “Culture should be embedded in the city — wrapped in the city,” he says. “Two thirds of this brief is ‘city,’ the filler that goes in between the cultural venues.”


December 25th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Christmas in the City

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

Barbershop Christmas: Mott Haven Bronx

The Bronx, New York. Photo by Chris Arnade

Wreath 8187

Chinatown, New York. Photo by Keith Goldstein

Chicago. Photo by Gabriel X. Michael


December 24th, 2011

Real-Life SimCity

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

The aroma of wood smoke is not one of the things I expected to smell when I moved to a new apartment on the 35th floor, but there’s a rooftop barbecue restaurant just down the street from my building and the smell often floats upwards. When I sit on my balcony, I can watch little clumps of people around the fires, grilling fishballs and pork chops.

In Montreal, I always thought it was better to be close to the street. Why sequester yourself in a high-rise, buffeted by northern winds, when you could be close to neighbours and the street and your local dep, which is always well-stocked with beer? As much as I could appreciate a good view, being able to watch alley cats make their nightly inspections seemed somehow more important.

In too many parts of Hong Kong, though, proximity to the street does not confer many real pleasures. The traffic is noisier, the pollution more irritating, the sunlight so very fleeting. In the absence of a true convivial streetlife, life on a low floor is not a matter of engagement with your surroundings, just a feat of endurance.


December 21st, 2011

Ma Yansong’s Organic Architecture

Mississauga was as close to a blank slate as Beijing-based architect Ma Yansong could hope for. For more than twenty years, the sprawling city in the suburbs of Toronto has been searching fruitlessly for an identity. Its first attempt came in 1987, when a national design competition produced a post-modern City Hall that resembled a mutant farmstead. But it wasn’t enough to counter the effect of the featureless apartment towers, shopping malls and low-density subdivisions that spread over the young city’s flat landscape.

So when Mississauga tried its hand at creating another civic landmark, the Absolute Towers, a pair of 56-storey and 50-storey apartment buildings that would anchor a privately-built housing complex, it opened the field internationally. Ma submitted a proposal for an improbably nebulous structure with no vertical lines. Each floor seemed piled on top of one another like an unwieldy stack of papers. For all the novelty of its form, however, the tower was memorably beautiful, with a curve that brought to mind the hourglass figure of Marilyn Monroe — which is exactly what Mississauga locals began calling the building after it won the competition.

“I was a little bit surprised about Marilyn Monroe, but I was very happy,” says Ma from his office in Beijing, where I spoke with him by phone earlier this year. “I went to the press conference and was asked, ‘Why is this building so sexy?’ I didn’t try to make it a sexy building, but what I like is a natural shape.”

The tower is human in its function as well as its form. Each floor has a different layout and is framed by a wraparound balcony, so “there will be a lot of people on the balconies,” says Ma. “You can see them and they can see each other. That’s my vision of urban life, a lot of people integrated with one another.”


December 14th, 2011

Photos of the Week: New York/Istanbul

Posted in Europe, United States by Christopher DeWolf



This week’s photos, of famous landmarks in New York and Istanbul on dreary December days, were taken by MissTschoermeni.

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

December 7th, 2011

The City in an Art Museum

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

Paddling Home, Kacey Wong, 2010

It’s not often that you get a chance to build a museum from scratch, but that is exactly what’s happening in Hong Kong, where a long-awaited museum of contemporary art and visual culture will soon take shape.

The 40,000-square-metre museum, known as M+ — short for Museum Plus — will be the centrepiece of the West Kowloon Cultural District, an ambitious US$3-billion project whose birth has been nothing if not troubled. After struggling for years to settle on a master development plan that pleased the public, the district lost its chief executive when British cultural administrator Graham Sheffield abruptly stepped down last winter. He blamed the resignation on ill health, but two months later, he landed a plum new job as Director Arts of the British Council. The attitude of the Hong Kong arts community towards the district can be charitably described as cynical.

Amidst all of this controversy, however, M+ seems like a beacon of hope, if only because of the talent involved in its development. The museum’s director, Swedish museologist Lars Nittve, led the creation of the Tate Modern in London. Lead curator Tobias Berger, originally from Germany, shook up the Hong Kong art scene when he became curator of the city’s premier alternative art space, Para/Site, in 2005. Later, he left for Seoul, where he worked as curator at the Nam June Paik Art Center.

Nittve and Berger’s ambitions for M+ are not modest. “Every epoch and almost every place has its museum,” says Nittve. “Asia is still waiting for a museum that reflects its time and place.” His goal, he says, is to create a museum that does for Hong Kong what MOMA did for New York in the 1940s and 50s, by placing it at the very centre of the cultural zeitgeist. “It totally rethought how you work with collections, how you work with exhibitions,” says Nittve. “People had never seen anything like it before. It was super radical. And it reflected a turning of the tables in the global balance.”


December 6th, 2011

Pigeon Keepers of Bushwick

Posted in Environment, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher DeWolf

Sunset on Goodwins Roof 2:  Bushwick Brooklyn

If you’ve been following our Photos of the Week, you’ve probably seen the work of Chris Arnade, a New York-based photographer who creates particularly lovely images. Arnade has a particularly good eye for urban characters.

Last week, he emailed me about a series he has been working on about men who raise pigeons on the rooftops of Brooklyn. “A real urban sport that is dying out as gentrification pushes into the outer boroughs,” he explained. Arnade agreed to share his photos and commentary with us below.

Building and Pigeons: Bushwick Brooklyn


December 5th, 2011

Mahjong in the Rain

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Sue Anne Tay

The raucous clatter of tiles was unmistakable as I approached the corner of Zhijiang Lu (芷江路) and Xizhang Bei Lu (西藏北路) in Shanghai’s Zhabei district.

In a public playground, groups of middle-aged to old people were lazily gathered for an afternoon of mass mahjong and card games. A large group of spectators followed like moths to a flame.

It was a typical way for the community to pass the Saturday afternoon and enjoy the fickle spells of cool summer sprinkles. It hardly bothered the patrons who sheltered themselves under makeshift tarpaulin tents.


December 5th, 2011

Catholic Shrines of Carroll Gardens

Posted in Art and Design, Demographics, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher Szabla

At Court Street and Fourth Place is the Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Social Club’s Madonna Addolorata

Jesus has risen again on Brooklyn’s Wyckoff Street. His hand outstretched toward passersby, Christ silently sermonizes from a lightbox that both protects him from the elements and casts a holy aura around his colorfully-painted, ceramic torso. He’s also a home improvement with which the Joneses can’t keep up — the small stone statue next door (it looks a little like popular images of St. Francis of Assisi) is literally outshined and overshadowed by the devotionally double-padlocked shrine that’s built around him.

Wyckoff Street is technically in Cobble Hill, a largely gentrified slice of brownstone Brooklyn bordering tony Brooklyn Heights. Further south is Carroll Gardens, where awnings grow more metallic, siding more aluminum, and residents are more consistently old timers, many of them Italian. Carroll Gardens has seen its share of wealthier newcomers, too, but not to the extent of Cobble Hill.

The density of its shrines is a testament. Spreading out in Carroll Gardens’ unusually spacious front lawns (which give the neighborhood the second half of its name), boldly occupying prime real estate even on Court Street, one of the area’s main drags, Catholic iconography stands guard against the aesthetic imperatives of newcomers whose taste for prosciutto is more affected than acculturated.