Archive for January, 2012

January 30th, 2012

Rebuilding the Market Economy

It used to be routine: wake up, walk to the wet market and buy the day’s fresh ingredients for dinner. Markets have always been a part of Hong Kong life, but these days, they are losing ground to supermarkets, whose numbers have grown exponentially over the past two decades.

Chain supermarkets Wellcome and Park’n’Shop now control more than 70 percent of the grocery sector, while the number of independent grocery stores and wet market stalls has declined by more than half since 1996. Tofu merchant Cheung Ching-loi says business at his stall in Tai Yuen Market declined by 60 percent over the past decade.

Other market vendors tell a similar story: fewer customers, quieter markets. In the government’s 102 public markets, one out of every seven stalls is vacant. The vacancy rate is similar in markets run by the Housing Authority and The Link Reit, a publicly-traded corporation that bought 96 markets from the government in 2005.

The situation became so bad at some markets they were simply shut down. Before it closed last year, the government-run Mong Kok Market was more than 60 percent empty. Vendors placed the blame not only on changing consumption habits, but on the market environment: wet, dirty, cluttered and poorly-ventilated.

That was certainly the case at Tai Yuen, which is located near the heart of the Tai Wo shopping district in the suburban town of Tai Po. Thirty years after its construction in 1980, half its stalls stood empty. Customers were so sparse that merchants took the afternoon as an opportunity to nap. There was no natural light, little ventilation and no air conditioning. The roof leaked when it rained.


January 29th, 2012

Exit Shinjuku

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

Outside exit A9, Shinjuku Station, Tokyo


January 21st, 2012

Reading the Moscow Metro

Posted in Architecture, Art and Design, Europe by Marcus Benigno

Taganskaya Station at 36 meters below Moscow streets

Taganskaya Station at 53 meters underground

The announcement that the 77-year-old Moscow Metro would be wired for Wi-Fi access later this year prompted my perusal of photos from a visit to the Russian capital, where, daily, some 6.5 million daily riders descend into the subterranean netherworld. The second heavily used rapid transit system in the world, after Tokyo’s, the Moscow Metro was first constructed in 1935 and spans over 12 lines and 185 stations.

Flipping through hundreds of images largely fixated on babushkas, I stumbled upon a couple divergent snapshots of the Taganskaya Metro station, off Taganka Square. The depot provides an archaeological cross-section of Moscow’s transformative urbanism from the 1950s to 1970s.

Connecting the Koltsevaya Line with the Tagansko-Krasnopresnenskaya Line, Taganskaya actually consists of two stations, one for each line, at 36 and 53 meters below ground, respectively. The latter, deeper station was built in 1950, at the height of post-war garishness so typical of Stalinist Neoclassicism; the former station, closer to the surface, was added in 1966 and designed in a more spartan fashion, privileging function over form.


January 21st, 2012

The Ghosts of Oil Street

Deserted building

Oil Street. Photo by Eric To

This story was originally published in the November 2010 edition of Muse, the new-defunct review of Hong Kong arts and culture.

It was a hot night when I sat inside the cluttered studios of the pirate radio station FM 101, six floors up inside an industrial building in Kwun Tong. I was speaking to one of the station’s founders, a rock musician named Leung Wing-lai, when the doorbell rang. Leung excused himself to go open the door. Three people walked in, including Ah Kok Wong, a composer who has been working with Kwun Tong’s artists to lobby the government against a new policy that made it easier for the owners of industrial units to convert their space into offices or hotels.

Wong told me about an Arts Development Council survey that was meant to determine exactly how many artists, musicians and other creative people are making use of industrial space. Unfortunately, few artists received the survey, so Wong and several others had taken to distributing it themselves. “I have my own studio, a band room and a studio used by the radio station, and we didn’t get copies at any of these places,” he said. If not enough artists completed the survey, he told me, the government would have no clear picture of the thousands of creative people that work in low-rent, run-down industrial buildings, and its new industrial “revitalization” policy would lead to unchecked property speculation, pushing out a huge chunk of Hong Kong’s artists, musicians and cultural organizations.

Leung returned to his seat. We talked about FM 101, which focuses mainly on arts, culture and music and was set up to protest against regulations that make it nearly impossible for a non-profit, community-based radio station to get a broadcast licence. A recent crackdown on the station’s fundraising efforts has forced its volunteers to pay for its operating expenses out of their own pocket, which has only been possible because the studio’s rent is low. “Without this kind of space, where would we go?” he asked.


January 17th, 2012

Photos of the Week: Subway/Show Off

Posted in Europe, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf


Subway, Budapest

Show off

Show off, Ezeres

These are just some of the striking images in our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

January 12th, 2012

“Defect Rectification”

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


Hong Kong’s HK$5.5 billion new government headquarters is falling apart just three months after it opened

Crooked wall fixtures, chipped railings, torn wallpaper, stained walls and signboards held up by masking tape in the Legislative Council: the recent outbreak of legionnaire’s disease is not the only problem at the Hong Kong government’s expensive new headquarters.

Three months after lawmakers moved into the Legco complex, they are still confronted daily by a long list of flaws in the building. This came after the legionnaires’ disease bacteria was found in the water at the dining hall of the Legco building and many other locations in the government offices next door.

“The electric cables for a switch near to my office on the sixth floor have remained exposed since I moved in,” said Wong Kwok-lin, a Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker. “I never dare to touch it as I don’t know whether or not it’s getting electricity.”

Photos posted this week on Facebook highlight shoddy workmanship inside the complex, which is located on the site of the former Tamar naval base. In one photo, an alarm button and handicapped door-opening button are fixed to the wall at haphazard angles. In another, the sign for the Steward and Catering Services Office is attached to the wall with masking tape.

Lawmakers and visitors to the complex complain that stone walls are stained by paint and water, the wood railings inside lifts are heavily chipped, wallpaper is torn inside conference rooms, wall panels rattle when lift buttons are pressed and floors wobble and creak underfoot. Water fountains have been sheathed in plastic, possibly due to concerns about legionnaire’s disease.

Yesterday afternoon, the toilets’ salt water supply was abruptly suspended due to “emergency repair,” forcing building occupants to flush toilets with water from the sinks. No explanation was given.

“It almost seems as if it is a very worn-out building, but it’s not, it’s new,” said Civic Party councillor Audrey Eu Yuet-mee. “Once, one of the ceiling fixtures fell off when I was passing by. Luckily it didn’t fall on my head.”


January 10th, 2012

Montreal by Bike

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

My love affair with Bixi remains undiminished. This despite the wear-and-tear its popularity has caused — I have been left frustrated by broken docks and bikes on more than a couple of occasions — and the fact that accessibility on the fringes of its service areas is a bit spotty. (It’s no fun to bike home to Park Extension at 3am only to find out there’s no docking spots left at Parc metro, the only Bixi station in the entire neighbourhood.) I love the convenience of being able to cycle without worrying about a bike, the heft and stability of the big Bixi bikes, and even the name, which rolls off the tongue so easily and can be used as both a verb and a noun.

While Bixi has made cycling an even more assertive part of Montreal life, this was a bicycle city long before the first bike share stations opened in 2008. It’s one of the only places in North America where you see lots bikes used not only by students and cycling enthusiasts, but also by parents with children, deliverymen riding specialized three-wheel bikes and people hauling stuff around. I’ve put together a handful of photos, mostly taken last summer, of Montreal by bike. Take a look.

January 9th, 2012

Delving Brick Lane’s Layers

Posted in Europe, History, Society and Culture by Nicholas Olczak

Early on a Friday morning, London’s Brick Lane bustles with Bangladeshis heading to prayers at the local mosque. The women wear brightly coloured saris and the men don long pastel robes, looking striking as they stride along this worn English street.

A few hours later, they are gone and the feel of the street has completely changed. Now it is busy with hipsters with slicked over retro haircuts and skinny jeans. Like the stars of alternative music videos, people lounge on benches outside cafes dragging at roll ups and drinking cans of beer.

These are just two of the many different scenes that are staged every day on Brick Lane. The long, narrow London road gained its name because it was used to transport bricks from the outskirts of the city to building projects in the centre. It now sits hemmed in between some of London’s poorest neighborhoods and the sleek skyscrapers of the City, London’s financial district, from which it couldn’t be more different.

For me, Brick Lane epitomizes that mingling of different cultures and rich multilayered history that make London so special. Other cities claim to be very multicultural, but the way London mixes tastes and traditions feels different. Hong Kong has residents who hail from different countries — but they remain somewhat segregated. In London, a huge variety of people knock up against each other every day.

London’s development has also been distinctive. Instead of new buildings occupying greenfield sites, or replacing old ones outright, you get developments that build upon what’s beneath. History piles on top of history, like layers of fallen leaves. Brick Lane has witnessed a particularly impressive number of these strata. As the artists Gilbert and George, who live just off the street, once said, Brick Lane has been (and seen) “everything”.


January 9th, 2012

How Tall is Too Tall?

Dubai's Skyline

Dubai. Photo by Zeyad T. Al-Mudhaf

The Burj Khalifa defies the imagination. It stands nearly one kilometre above the streets of Dubai, spanning a total of 163 floors — 209 if you could the maintenance levels in the building’s spire. When it was completed in 2010, at a cost of more than US$1.5 billion, it was by far the world’s tallest building and almost certainly its most extravagant.

That extravagance was made all the more apparent by the economic turmoil that shook the world just before the Burj was set to open. Dubai was on the verge of bankruptcy, saved only by a US$10 billion bailout from the ruler of nearby Abu Dhabi, for whom the Burj was ultimately named. With most floors standing vacant and maintenance costs as dizzyingly high as the building itself — it takes a full four months just to clean the windows — the Burj revived long-standing questions about the sustainability of super-tall skyscrapers.

Those questions are especially relevant in Asia, where seven of the world’s ten tallest buildings can be found. Another 30 buildings taller than 300 metres — generally considered the limit between an ordinary high-rise and a “super-tall” — are now under construction in South Korea, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and India.

“It’s an ego thing,” says co-founder of Singapore’s WOHA Architects, Richard Hassell. “I think a lot of the developers themselves have a ‘mine’s bigger and better than yours’ mentality. I think cheap energy was bad for architecture because people could basically make any kind of building comfortable, and that freed up the building to be anything they wanted it to be, so architecture’s become a bit lost in gratuitous form-making. The Dubai ‘look-at-me’ architecture. It’s a bit of a dead end.”


January 1st, 2012

Photo of the Week: One Step Ahead

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Walking Alone. New Year's, Zenko-ji Temple.

New Year’s Eve, Zenko-ji Temple, Nagano, Japan.
Photo by Peter Schön.

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