Archive for February, 2012

February 28th, 2012

This Year in Havana

Posted in Heritage and Preservation, Latin America by Christopher DeWolf

Havana sunset

If there’s any time to visit Havana, it’s now. After a half century preserved in the formaldehyde of American sanctions and a state-controlled economy, the Cuban capital is set for a remarkable transformation. Private property was legalized last November and the government has offered construction subsidies, which could spell the end for Havana’s long era of romantic decay. The New York Times is already reporting on a “real estate fever” sparked by the reforms. Meanwhile, the United States has loosened travel restrictions for Americans with family in Cuba, and goods and money have been pouring into the country at an unprecedented rate — not tourist money, but intra-family cash that is often injected straight into home improvements, consumer goods and fledgling private enterprises.

morning run

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February 24th, 2012

La dignité d’un Portugal en tutelle

Posted in Europe, Politics, Society and Culture by Daniel Corbeil

Chronique d’un court séjour au Portugal, sur fond de crise économique…

C’est dimanche, mi-février 2012. Comme les quelques touristes perdus dans une Lisbonne hivernale, je profite de la journée pour aller visiter Belem et son fameux monastère. Débarquant à la station Cais-do-Sodré, je découvre cette marée humaine qui domine les rues, les monuments, les rails. Impossible de parvenir à Belem, et j’en profite pour faire le tour de cette scène et essayer de comprendre ce qui se passe.

C’est que les lisboètes, comme biens d’autres, ont un ras le bol des mesures d’austérité décrétées par le nouveau gouvernement en place. C’est vrai que depuis ma dernière visite, début 2006, les prix ont explosé. Certainement, une taxe de 23 % sur la restauration n’aide en rien et nombre de petits bistros n’arrivent tout simplement plus à survivre.

Malgré tout, c’est dans une ambiance bon enfant et dans le plus sincère respect que plus de 100 000 portugais sont descendus dans les rues de la Baixa, cet ancien quartier commercial dessiné par Pombal suite à 1755, et emplis la très vaste place du commerce, en front de “mer”.

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February 23rd, 2012

A Creature on the Roof

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

Wan Chai Visual Archive

You can see a lot of unauthorized structures on the rooftops of Wan Chai — sheet metal canopies, rusted chain-link fences, hand-built wooden shacks — but none of them quite looks like KAPKAR, a new sculpture by Dutch artist Frank Havermans, which was installed last week on the roof of the Wan Chai Visual Archive.

“It’s a metal creature that refers to rooftop structures, signboards and those hawker stalls you see around the city,” says Havermans, standing on the roof. “They’re really haphazardly built, without any notions of design, but together they’re amazing. It’s a very Hong Kong thing.”

Havermans’ description of KAPKAR as a “creature” is apt; it looks like a suspension bridge on the prowl. Made of iron by the Sunny and Sons metal shop, just around the corner from the Archive, it has four legs and a spine held up by steel cables. Its snout is a retractable aluminum, glow-in-the-dark signboard — shaped exactly like the Archive’s floorplan — that hangs precariously over the street.

KAPKAR as it was being installed by crane.
Photo courtesy Wan Chai Visual Archive

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February 23rd, 2012

Wednesday in Calgary

Posted in Canada by Karl Leung

Reminders of farmlands and country living now mix with a new generation of pioneer folk and industry. Home to big skies and the rocky prairies… we’re settling the West, and this is what it looks like today. While rightfully modern, Calgary’s still framed up with dairy silos, storage yards, and straw coloured fields.

February 21st, 2012

Alone at the Beach

Posted in Canada, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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Kitsilano Beach, Vancouver

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English Bay Beach, Vancouver

February 19th, 2012

Building a Better Street Market

Photo by Shichao Zhao

When a blaze in the Fa Yuen Street market killed nine people last November, it was Hong Kong’s street hawkers that took the fall. Even before arson investigators had discovered the source of the fire, the government’s Hawker Control Officers ordered market stalls to remove their awnings and reduce the size of their stock.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) put forward a series of proposals to reduce the fire risk posed by market stalls. Options include forcing hawkers to dismantle their stalls at night, installing sprinkler systems, moving stalls away from building entrances, relocating street markets away from residential areas and asking hawkers to voluntarily surrender their licences in order to reduce the size of street markets.

“It’s like they wanted to blame everything on us,” said Fong Kam-mei, who sells children’s clothing on Fa Yuen Street, at a protest against the crackdown two weeks ago. Many hawkers say the government’s proposals would drive them out of business.

Now a group of designers, artists, academics and activists have banded together to improve their situation. “We call it SDU — the Street Design Union,” says artist Kacey Wong, an assistant professor at Polytechnic University’s School of Design.

Their goal is to help design a better street market “to improve the hawkers’ business, improve the street market environment and maintain the social and cultural value of markets,” says Chan Ka-hing, chairman of the Hong Kong Design Community.

The problem: “Before we can take any action, the government needs to have a clear hawker policy,” says Chan. “If the government doesn’t change the way it does things, no matter what designers try, it won’t be functional.”

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February 17th, 2012

The Unsquared Circle of Old Shanghai

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Maps by Christopher Szabla

Take a look at a map of Shanghai and it still jumps out at you — a tightly-wound ball of narrow streets threading through warrens of centuries-old houses. Call it what you will — the neighborhood seems to have no standard English name, and “Old City,” “Round City,” or simply “Old Shanghai” have been used before — but it’s impossible to deny this slice of China’s largest city stands a bit aloof; what’s left of it appears to exist in total defiance of a metropolis that appears ceaselessly hungry for towers that soar high enough to match the gaping width of its newly-broadened boulevards.

Old Shanghai’s uniqueness is a longstanding trend; the last time the neighborhood didn’t buck the rest of the city’s form was during the Middle Ages, when the Round City was Shanghai — a fledgling Ming Dynasty port. But skip forward to the 19th century and Shanghai has grown to become the hub of foreign commerce in China, its cityscape defined by the architecture the colonial powers have brought to their respective concessions — tiny fiefdoms run by local Westerners nominally reporting to overseas capitals.

Somewhat like Hong Hong’s Kowloon Walled City nearly a century later, the Old City, or “Chinese City,” as it began, then, to be called, remained an enclave within these enclaves, a densely-packed and ghettoized dormitory for much of the city’s local workforce. It even remained behind literal, medieval walls — until, during China’s 1911 revolution, they finally came crashing down.

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February 15th, 2012

Photos of the Week: Cold Shoulder

Posted in Europe by Christopher DeWolf

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February 15th, 2012

A Fire on Mount Royal

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

Mount Royal bonfire

The temperature was edging below zero when the first drug dealer approached. “You want something?” he asked, peering at us from under the hood of his jacket. We said no and he wandered away, casting us a suspicious glance over his shoulder. Soon, half a dozen men were eyeing us. “What you doing here?” shouted a man with a Jamaican accent.

To be fair, we were on their turf. If you’re waiting around the Sir George Étienne Cartier monument at nine o’clock on a cold October night, you probably aren’t there to enjoy the view of Mount Royal. We could hardly pass judgement, since we were waiting for our friend Boris to meet us for an illicit activity of our own: a campfire in the middle of the city.

The steep, densely-forested east slope of Mount Royal is a peculiar place. There’s a spot about halfway up that is so well sheltered by rocks and trees that patches of winter snow can last until June. Walk into the woods from Park Avenue and it never takes long to feel as though you’ve somehow been transplanted to somewhere in the Laurentians. The illusion is even more pronounced at night, when raccoons rustle in the bushes and rock outcroppings appear unexpectedly in the dark.

Of course, the city never disappears completely — the faint rumble of traffic, the wail of an ambulance. The sky is so bright you don’t even need a flashlight to see your way through the woods. That’s exactly what makes a nighttime trip up the mountain so exhilarating, because you’ve managed to escape the city without actually leaving it. And really, what else are you going to do in the woods at night? It’s only natural to make a fire.

When Boris finally arrived, we said goodbye to the dealers and made our way into the forest, armed with various essentials: flashlights, beer, marshmellows, mulled wine. Boris knew a perfect spot for a fire, a small clearing on the edge of a short cliff. I’m still not sure how we found our way there — the part of your brain that identifies two-for-one pizza places and dépanneurs as navigational landmarks can apparently do the same for trees and rocks — but it didn’t take us long to arrive. I made quick work of unpacking the beer while others scavenged for firewood.

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February 12th, 2012

Auto Invasion

Hong Kong Traffic

Photo by Charlotte Huang

Hong Kong’s not a big place, and with 28 million mainland Chinese visitors a year, it’s beginning to feel even more crowded than usual. The stress seems to have gotten to a lot of people. Over the past month, a handful of seemingly banal conflicts between Hongkongers and mainland tourists have been amplified beyond all proportion.

An argument over spilled noodles in the MTR somehow led to a Peking University professor calling Hong Kong people “dogs” and “bastards” who should speak Mandarin instead of Cantonese. An ill-advised remark by a Dolce & Gabbana security guard, who said that Hong Kong people are banned from taking photos of the shop but mainlanders aren’t, sparked an online firestorm and protests in the street. Mainland women who come to Hong Kong to have their babies delivered in local hospitals, thus ensuring Hong Kong residency for their children, were called “locusts” in a full-page printed in Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s second-most-read newspaper.

Now, the latest source of controversy: a government plan to allow mainland Chinese visitors to bring their cars into Hong Kong, despite the mainland’s notoriously poor standards of driving and the perils of operating a left-hand-drive car on the opposite side of the road — not to mention Hong Kong’s worsening congestion and air pollution. Those are some of the concerns of the thousands of people who have pledged their support for various Facebook protests, which call for the government to scrap its scheme. They are being joined in their demands by a coalition of environmental groups, social activists and opposition political parties.

“Drivers don’t obey the rules on the mainland,” says Kay Lam, a columnist for Apple Daily, who started a Facebook group opposed to the scheme. “Why would they follow the rules here? One mistake could be fatal. When it comes to safety, there should be no compromises.”

The government’s plan is based on a 2010 agreement made with authorities in the mainland province of Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong. Starting next month, Hong Kong motorists will be able to apply for a limited number of cross-border driving permits. Later, Guangdong drivers may do the same, giving them a chance to bring their cars to Hong Kong. When I asked a spokeswoman for the Transport and Housing Bureau for details, I was told that “there is not yet a concrete timetable” and the specifics still need to be hammered out.

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February 12th, 2012

Teahouses of Chengdu

On a bright Sunday morning, the courtyard of the Wenshu Teahouse in Chengdu was bustling. A group of women chattered away noisily as they munched on sunflower seeds, cracking their shells between their teeth and then piling them in a heap on the tabletop.

Nearby, a shaven-headed man peered over his customer before sliding a metal pole down into the latter’s ear. Another man leaned back in his creaking bamboo chair, put his feet up on the table in front, and spread out a big newspaper to read. A large group cried out excitedly as they threw playing cards down onto the table. A white haired waiter came dancing between these different groups, refilling their white porcelain cups of tea with the long spout of large, battered metal teapot.

These are every day scenes at the Chinese teahouses of Chengdu. It is estimated that there are more than 3000 teahouses in the city, the Wenshu temple teahouse being one of the largest. Teahouses play an important role in the city’s society, serving as places to socialise, to meet, to do business, even to look for a husband or wife.

“Few other institutions in the first half of twentieth-century Chengdu were more important in everyday life than teahouses,” says Di Wang, author of The Teahouse: Small Business, Everyday Culture, and Public Politics in Chengdu. “And no other city in China had as many teahouses as Chengdu.”


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February 7th, 2012

Death by Elevator

Posted in Interior Space, Transportation, United States by Christopher Szabla

Photo by Bartek Kucharczyk

It all happened so quickly. Suzanne Hart, a 41 year old ad exec, was heading to work in her Midtown Manhattan office building on a busy mid-December morning when, crossing the threshold of a filling elevator, her foot became stuck between the elevator car and the solid ground of the first floor. That’s when the unexpected occurred: the car, with its doors still open, suddenly shot upward, dragging her body into the narrow space between its still-open doors and the walls of the shaft it was travelling through. The passengers who had made it safely on board were forced to watch through the open door as, in the dim, grim crevasse outside, Hart’s life ended instantly. It took an hour before they were able to get away — about nine before anyone was able to extract Hart’s remains.

Like buses, subways, and cabs, elevators are a critical form of urban transportation, even if — outside of the handful of places where public elevators scale hills and cliffs — they’re much less likely to be thought of as such. For millions of people who live and work in vertical cities like New York, São Paulo, and Hong Kong, they’re more than mere appendages to morning and evening commutes. Workers and residents in particularly tall buildings may sometimes spend more time in elevator shafts than subway tubes; “the local” is how many New Yorkers jokingly refer to elevators that stop on every floor (many supertall skyscrapers, like the Empire State Building, actually do have local and express elevator systems that mirror the city’s two-tiered subway).

The density of a city like New York would scarcely be possible without transit that can transcend congestion by moving underground as well as ascend from it to the soaring towers above. When Haruki Murakami wanted to emphasize that a character in his latest novel, IQ84, had never experienced the city, he described her as having never ridden either a subway or an elevator. “As the world urbanizes—every year, in developing countries, sixty million people move into cities—the numbers [of those who ride elevators] will go up, and up and down,” writes Nick Paumgarten in a 2008 article for the New Yorker. “The elevator, underrated and overlooked,” he continues, “is to the city what paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war.”

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February 6th, 2012

Photos of the Week: Cloistered

Posted in Architecture, United States by Christopher DeWolf

Hyatt Regency View 3

This week’s photos were taken from a hotel in downtown Atlanta by Greg Hickman. These are just some of the striking images in our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

Hyatt Regency View 5

February 1st, 2012

Neon History

In the middle of the 1980s, after lobbying from businesses and Chinese community leaders, a series of decorative gates were built to mark the various entrances to Montreal’s Chinatown. One of these is found at the corner of de la Gauchetière and Jeanne-Mance, the western end of the district. But to me, the real signal that I have entered Chinatown is when I pass beneath the Wing’s Nouilles Chinoises neon sign, one block east at Côté Street.

The Wing Building is the oldest surviving structure in Chinatown, built in 1826 and designed by James O’Donnell, who had moved to Montreal from New York to oversee the construction of a somewhat more illustrious project. Over the past 186 years, it has served as a military school, paper box factory and warehouse, according to Barry Lazar and Tamsin Douglas’ Guide to Ethnic Montreal. These days, the building is known for a distinctly eggy smell: this is the main supplier of fortune cookies to Chinese restaurants across eastern Canada.

The first time I came across Miss Villeray, she was looking a bit worse for the wear, holding fort above a neighbourhood bar that had seen better days. In 2008, the bar was sold to an ambitious entrepreneur who fixed it up without throwing away the original decor. It’s now a haunt for Villeray’s trendy thirtysomethings. Not my crowd, but I always appreciate the fact that Miss Villeray was restored to her former glory.

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