Archive for March, 2012

March 28th, 2012

The Other Colors of La Boca

Posted in Art and Design, History, Latin America by Christopher Szabla

The rainbow-hued streetscape squats somewhere on nearly every postcard of Buenos Aires — those, that is, it doesn’t dominate — like some psychedelic, bizarro-world version of the city, a clownish counterpart to the stately Second Empire apartment houses lining the boulevards of Retiro and Recoleta. “The Paris of South America” this isn’t — La Boca, as the neighborhood it’s located in is called, owes its architectural lineage to instead to Genoa, whose sons disembarked on the dirty banks of the Riachuelo River, south of the city center — only now being tidied up after two centuries of industrial effluence and studied neglect — during the 19th century. Throwing up wood and sheet metal tenements plastered in the paint colors left over from nearby shipyards, they promptly set out to build a distinctly different Buenos Aires.

Long before Jorge Luis Borges complained about the forced Gallicization of his native city, La Boca was a world apart from the rest of the city. As journalist José Ceppi, nom de plume Aníbal Latino, wrote in his book Argentinos y europeos, in 1888:

[C]ommunication [between La Boca and the rest of Buenos Aires] is convenient, easy, fast, continuous, by tramway and by rail, and yet [the neighborhood] has a character so different, so special, seems to be fifty miles away. Many, even in Buenos Aires, speak of La Boca as if it were out of town, not a neighborhood that is a few steps from the main square. The contrast derives from the different architecture of its houses — and more still, the nature, character, and morals of its inhabitants.

A “few steps from the main square” (the current Plaza de Mayo) was an exaggeration, but the cultural divide Ceppi noted was not. In 1882, the neighborhood had even seceded, briefly, from Argentina, raising above the neighborhood the Genovese flag. The attempt to make the rotten-smelling but riotously colorful slum the continent’s first Italian city-state had to be repressed with a show of arms.

Today’s invaders are more likely to be led by tour guides than military commanders, blithely oblivious to the crumbling destitution of most of La Boca barrio, stumbling through that postcard street — the Caminito — and packing another, Magellanes, which overflows with overpriced food and drink. Because of this incursion, there are really three Bocas: the brightly-painted, two-block tourist cloister at the neighborhood’s heart is one. Another is the greyscaled dirge of urban poverty that stretches to the barrio boundaries, encompassing burnt-out cars, homeless encampments, and streets with enough potholes to no longer qualify as “paved”. The third awkwardly straddles the chasm between them — a transitional region of slowly decaying storefronts and brightly painted tavernas alike.


March 26th, 2012

Too Many Pedestrians, Not Enough Space


When Hong Kong urban planner Peter Cookson-Smith steps out of his office in Wan Chai, he doesn’t like what he sees.

“You go out into the street and find yourself walking on the road because the pavements are so crowded,” he said. “People just want to walk in an unobstructed way, but there are railings everywhere and you must walk halfway down the block just to find a crossing. It’s psychologically debilitating. You think, oh my god, how do I get from here to there?”

Hong Kong is the world’s most densely-populated city and it is growing more crowded every day, as its neighbourhoods are intensively redeveloped with high-rise shopping malls, apartment towers, hotels and offices. Increasingly, residents are being joined by tens of millions of tourists, whose numbers have skyrocketed over the past decade, thanks to a loosening of visa restrictions on travel from mainland China.

Other space-deprived cities have coped by reducing the flow of traffic — see London and its congestion charge — and by converting car-choked streets into pedestrian areas, as New York did with Times Square. But Hong Kong’s efforts to make the city more pedestrian-friendly appear to have stalled, and local planners and urban design critics say the government’s day-to-day management of the pedestrian environment is actually making things worse.

“Pedestrians are not respected in Hong Kong,” said Pong Yuen-yee, former vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Planners — and this despite the fact that all but 10 percent of the population gets around by foot and public transport. “For a long time, the vehicular traffic has been in top priority. These days, people don’t want to walk in the streets because of the air quality, because of the environment, the noise. They forget what a pleasant footpath can be like.”


March 24th, 2012

Photos of the Week: Mechanical Athens

Posted in Europe, Interior Space by Christopher DeWolf

Viktoria / Βικτώρια : long exposure escalators

Viktoria / Βικτώρια

This week’s photos were taken by Spiros K in Athens. These are just some of the striking images in our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

March 16th, 2012

Design in a Police Dormitory


The sun has already fallen behind Hong Kong’s skyscrapers as architect Daniel Patzold stolls through the lower courtyard of the former Police Married Quarters on Hollywood Road. Beneath a row of tall banyan trees, on what was once a basketball court, 70 young designers are gathered to sell their products at Detour, a festival of creative culture held every December.

“Look at this,” says Patzold, gesturing at cardboard stalls of the makeshift market. A young, fashionably-dressed crowd browsed through books, leather goods and jewellery. In the distance, a group of designers took photos of people wearing paper masks that looked like landmark Hong Kong buildings. “This kind of thing should be happening here every weekend,” he says.

That could soon be the case. The Police Married Quarters have sat empty for more than 12 years, except for the occasional festival like Detour. Until recently, the complex was slated for demolition, but lobbying from preservationists and the creative community have saved it from the chopping block. Now work has begun to transform it into the PMQ, a 15,400-square-metre design hub that will open in 2014.

“This project will be a milestone in the development of design in Hong Kong and the entire region,” says Billy Tam, who is the PMQ’s architect-consultant. “There are a lot of talented designers in Hong Kong and they’re just waiting for a chance to develop their reputation and their business. PMQ will become a name that represents design of the finest quality.”

When it was built in 1951, the Police Married Quarters were an anomaly: functional, modern housing in a neighbourhood of old tenements. Located on a steep, terraced hillside, two eight-storey blocks contained 196 living units arranged around a central courtyard. Each unit consisted of a single open room facing a broad open-air corridor with small kitchens and communal spaces for eating and gathering. Below the residential blocks was a clubhouse and recreational space.

“When I was a kid, all of this area here was my backyard,” said Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang, who grew up in the Police Married Quarters. In a speech two years ago, he waxed nostalgic about the “kung fu shows, fortune tellers, and people telling old folk tales” on the street outside the quarters, where he lived until getting married in 1969.


March 13th, 2012

Nizamuddin’s Tomb

Posted in Public Space, Society and Culture, South Asia by Nicholas Olczak

In the central courtyard of Nizamuddin’s Tomb, in Delhi, stands a beautiful white building. Pillars support an ornate canopy with an onion shaped dome. Its underside is finely painted with swirling greens and reds: a floral pattern. Crowds push between the pillars, straining to reach the golden chamber at the centre. Inside is a bed-like marble platform, the pillars at its corners stretching up to the ceiling. A bright lumpen cloth lies on the platform, like a covered body.

I watch the people circle slowly around it. Some bring wreaths of flowers and drop them delicately onto the cloth. Others stroke, or kiss the four smooth pillars. They appear hypnotised, their whole minds consumed by the spiritual experience and solemnity of the occasion.

The tomb was built to commemorate the Saint Sheikh Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia Chisti shortly after his death in 1325. Nizamuddin practiced Sufism -– a form of Islam that emphasises embracing god within life. He offered food and spiritual education and was revered for his kindness and tolerance of different people. Since then, the original buildings that comprised his tomb have been rebuilt several times, but the place has retained its power.

I first encountered the tomb through fiction, in the short story ‘Royalty,’ by Anita Desai. Describing the buffalo’s innards that “hung like curtains” in the butchers’ booths, and the air “rife with raw blood and the thrum of flies”, Desai wonderfully captures the atmospheric approach to the tomb and uses this to express the turbulent emotions of the story’s characters as they encounter it.

For me, the journey to the tomb is as wonderfully overwhelming as its destination. In the crowded and ragged neighborhood where the tomb is located, also known as Nizamuddin, poverty and strong Muslim spirituality jostle together. After work one evening, I join the scrum pushing their way onto a spluttering old bus and hung on as it lurches its way south to get there.


March 9th, 2012

The View From Brooklyn Bridge

Posted in United States by Christopher Szabla

“Flood-tide below me!” Walt Whitman exclaimed, in 1856, “I watch you face to face”. Whitman was riding the Brooklyn ferry, referring to the crowds that piled onto it during its constant journeys from and two Manhattan. Only a few decades later, this vital, centuries-old water link was obsolete; the Brooklyn Bridge, first to span the East River, had arrived, joining cities that would soon formally merge into what was then quaintly called Greater New York. It could hardly handle the masses crossing the river much better, though. As Manhattan and Brooklyn grew together, the bridge’s traffic steadily increased; after a century that brought subways and taxis and telecommuting (not to mention other bridges) many feet still pound its narrow wooden walkway, arching between boroughs.

The ensuing drama is a microcosm of the difficulties ailing a city where so many egos rub shoulders. Chief among the bridge’s intractable conflicts is the one between cyclists and pedestrians; the former accusing the latter of failing to respect their dedicated lane, the latter accusing the former of taking murderous aim as they fly down the bridge’s descents. The anecdotes are drawn, like knives in a street fight, whenever a fracas between one group and the other flares anywhere else in New York.


March 5th, 2012

Graffiti Republic

Posted in Art and Design, Latin America, Politics, Public Space by Christopher Szabla


Before Greece erupted into riots against austerity measures, before the sit-ins that convulsed public squares across Spain, long before 2011’s tumultuous protests against world financial systems began “kicking off everywhere“, things had long since kicked off in Argentina. The 2001 protests that gripped the country during its madcap financial crisis offered a sort of preview of what was to come to Europe and — to a lesser, tamer extent — North America, ten years later. So, too, many writers have claimed, did it appear to offer lessons for the future of crisis-battered debtor nations.

The paint-splattered walls of central Buenos Aires, at least, still seem alive with the spirit of the dramatic standoffs that convulsed the Argentine capital over a decade ago, when they famously forced President Fernando de la Rúa to flee from the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace, by helicopter. In the streets that border and radiate from the Plaza de Mayo, the country’s nexus of power, graffiti suffused with the economic themes that resonated in 2001 continues, after regular rounds of angry demonstrations, to climb the walls of even the most stately banks and government office buildings. Not even the Cabildo, a historic landmark that was the center of colonial government in the city, is spared; its freshly-restored facade is one of protest graffiti artists’ favorite targets.

Long after still-frequent demonstrations recede, the remaining graffiti renders the heart of the city redolent with palpable, present anger. The visual contrasts — incensed slogans set against the neighborhood’s slickly-suited crowds of commuters and imperious, alabaster edifices — suggest something akin to Occupy Wall Street, but the effect, particularly in its semipermanence, is far more intimidating than anything recent New York protests managed to muster. It’s as if militant slogans only slightly less charged than those that have crawled onto facades of cities linked to the uprisings of the Arab Spring had suddenly appeared in an environment that looks more like Washington or Whitehall.