Archive for April, 2012

April 25th, 2012

Escalating Fury

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It’s as predictable as the tide. Every morning, thousands of commuters stream down the Central Mid-Levels escalator, bound for offices, buses and crowded subway cars at the bottom of the hill. Then, at 10:30am, the escalator reverses itself. Now the crowds flow uphill. Helpers return from the market with bags full of choi, the lunch crowd trickles up to Soho restaurants. When evening arrives, work-weary commuters are carried up to drink, dinner and bed.

Nearly two decades after the completion of the Central-Mid-Levels escalator, it’s hard to think of Hong Kong without it. Its network of covered escalators, moving walkways and footbridges spans a distance of 800 metres from Queen’s Road Central to Conduit Road, making the trek up steep hillsides—135 metres in elevation from bottom to top, about the same as a 40-storey building—as easy as a walk through a shopping mall.

It’s certainly popular. When it opened in 1993, the escalator was expected to carry 26,000 people per day. It is now used by nearly 43,000. Its popularity with pedestrians has prompted the government to plan similar escalator links in 20 other locations around Hong Kong. The first of these will open later this year on Centre Street in Sai Ying Pun, while another escalator, on Pound Lane in Sheung Wan, is being planned.

But the use of escalators as a form of public transportation is being met with an increasingly critical response from design critics, academics and activists. “Is this an appropriate use of technology?” asked urbanist Min Li Chan on the international urban issues blog Polis. “Is this simply a shiny new idea with press value that leaves unintended social consequences in its wake? How should we measure its impact on people’s lives, and its return on the city’s investment?”

These are the questions being raised by residents and business owners in the sleepy neighbourhood around Pound Lane, where the government is planning to build a 200-metre escalator from Tai Ping Shan Street to Bonham Road. Along the way, it will pass by Hong Kong’s first public toilet, schools, temples, tenements and Blake Garden, Hong Kong’s oldest public park, which was built after the bubonic plague swept through the area in 1894, killing more than 3,000. Proponents say it will reduce traffic and provide relief to the neighbourhood’s many elderly residents. Opponents say it will destroy the peaceful, low-key ambiance that sets this part of Sheung Wan apart from the development frenzy of Central and the Mid-Levels.

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April 25th, 2012

New Life for the Blue House

The Blue House

Hong Kong’s Blue House has a secret. The Wan Chai landmark, built in 1923, is known as one of the city’s last remaining examples of early shophouse architecture, but it is even more renowned for its azure hue – rare for a place where blue is associated primarily with funerals. But the colour came about by accident, when the Hong Kong government took over the building in the 1990s and freshened it up with some leftover paint from the Water Supplies Department.

The building’s other qualities are less recent. Nearly all of the Blue House’s original timber staircases and other fixtures are intact and in good shape. Many of its flats, which haven’t been touched in years, are a throwback to an earlier way of Hong Kong life when kitchens were communal and multiple families and lodgers squeezed into a handful of small apartments. Eight families, most of which have lived in the building for decades, still call the Blue House home. In a city that makes and remakes itself every few years, it’s a remarkable feat of continuity.

Things are likely to stay that way for generations to come. Under the guidance of the Hong Kong government and charity organisation St. James Settlement, the Blue House and two adjacent tenement buildings, the Yellow House and Orange House, will be restored into a “living museum” with shops, exhibition spaces and public gathering space. Most importantly, all of the Blue House’s current residents will be allowed to stay -– and they will be joined by dozens of new neighbours in 23 low-cost flats.

“It’s a pioneer project,” says CM Lee, Director of Conservation at LWK Architects, which is handling the Blue House’s restoration. “The residents are the main stakeholders. The goal is not just to maintain but to rejuvenate the community.”

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April 19th, 2012

Delhi Bikes

Posted in South Asia, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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I came across these bicycles on Janpath, in Central Delhi, not far from Connaught Place. They were resting just outside a construction site, so I assume they were owned by workers. What caught my eye wasn’t the bikes, though, it was the woven plastic baskets hanging from each of their handles.

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April 16th, 2012

Another Hole in Montreal’s Heart

The lower Main

The lower Main in 1997. Photo by Kate McDonnell

One of the defining features of Montreal’s cityscape is the abundance of vacant lots. Weedy, gravelly blocks of land, they can be seen in every neighbourhood, in some areas on every street, delineated by rows of misshapen concrete blocks, like boulders left behind by the retreat of urban development. (The concrete blocks, required by municipal law, serve to prevent illegal dumping.) Ten years ago, as the real estate market boomed, many of the lots were transformed into new apartment buildings and hotels. Streetcorners defined by the absence of buildings were reworked into the urban fabric.

Despite the progress, however, new vacant lots are still being created. Part of the reason is the alarming tendency for Montreal buildings to burn down. But mostly it comes down to a lack of foresight by City Hill and a far too cosy relationship between politicians and developers. It’s never hard to find an example. Here’s a recent one: the block of St-Laurent between Ste-Catherine and René-Lévesque.

For decades, this stretch of the lower Main was seedy but lively, and it embodied the schizoid character of Montreal’s downtown core. Under the elegant gaze of the Monument National marched a procession of strip clubs, peep shows, restaurants and dive bars, as including some venerable institutions: Canada’s oldest Middle Eastern grocery store, founded in 1903; the Montreal Pool Room, which had served classic Montreal-style hot dogs since 1912; and Café Cléopâtre, a classic strip club with a flair for the burlesque. It was grimy and past its prime, but it worked in that typically ragtag Montreal way. It was a place where you could get a steamed hot dog, attend Pecha Kucha Night, spend your change on a peep show, buy some smoked paprika and stumble out of a Club Soda concert at midnight — whatever.

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April 12th, 2012

Photos of the Week: Burning Chametz

Posted in Public Space, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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Burning Chametz, Bedford Avenue

Hassidic Jews burning chametz — leavened foods — for Passover, on April 7, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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

April 11th, 2012

The Ningbo History Museum

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Interior Space by Sue Anne Tay

Ningbo is a pleasant 2.5 hour drive from Shanghai, a trip that would otherwise take four hours if not for the Hangzhou Bay Bridge, an impressive feat of Chinese infrastructure which opened in May 2008. It spans 36 km (22 miles) and takes almost 20 minutes to cross by car. Looking out on both sides of the bridge on a foggy day, it’s as if one is standing on an isolated island.

And from afar, Ningbo’s own new landmark, the Ningbo History Museum, looks like a stone ship run ashore; it’s particularly stunning against spring’s blue skies. Its exterior is marked by lean, asymmetrical lines, colored with a blend of salvaged grey stone and orange brick.

I was particuarly excited about visiting the Ningbo museum after learning that its architect, Wang Shu, has become the first Chinese to win architecture’s prominent Pritzker Prize, awarded by the Hyatt Foundation of Chicago. Wang’s style leans towards minimalist and angular lines with an emphasis on Chinese materials — but his preference for local ingredients rarely means merely traditional results (Wang laid out his style in more detail in an interview with Architects Newspaper.)

Inside, the museum’s vast atrium is mapped by giant angled slabs running along all sides of each floor. The interior is huge — maybe too huge — and the layout almost disappointingly generic in comparison to the impressive exterior. The upside: the museum is spacious enough to accommodate droves of visitors even at the peak of May Day — which was probably what Ningbo’s government had in mind when it gave the museum its the generous plot of land.

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April 4th, 2012

Roadsworth’s Legacy

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Eight years ago, I was crossing Fairmount Avenue near my apartment in Montreal’s Mile End district when I noticed a strange addition to the zebra crossing beneath my feet: barbed wire. Not actual barbed wire, but a painted rendition of it along the edge of the crosswalk, half in yellow, the other half white, both colours indistinguishable from the other road markings on the street.

Strange, I thought. Is this a new initiative by the city to raise awareness of pedestrian rights? A nod to the sanctity of the crosswalk? Before I could finish crossing the street, a car sailed past me without bothering to stop.

By the time summer arrived, everyone had noticed the funny new road markings around town. Lane dividers were turned into giant zippers. Crosswalk zebra stripes became birthday candles. One crossing had become a giant shoeprint. Many of the works made brilliant use of nighttime shadows: owls stranded in the middle of asphalt during the day found a perch after dark. It was unlike any graffiti I had seen before. I wondered who had done it.

My answer came in July, when I visited Wooster Collective, a street art blog. There, I found images of the road stencils I had been walking past for month, and attached to them was a name: Roadsworth. They were accompanied by a brief Q&A.

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April 2nd, 2012

A Nation Slips Beneath the Sea

Posted in Environment, Film, Politics, South Asia, Video by Christopher Szabla

Sweep your eyes across any world map or globe and, unless you squint closely on the ocean expanse just west of India, they can be easy to miss: a chain of about 1,200 tiny islands marching almost in a straight line, from the Lakshadweep Islands to the north and the Chagos Archipelago to the south — the Maldives. With a population of only 350,000 spread over one of the most geographically dispersed landmasses of any state, the country is about as far as possible from a byword for “crowded”. Malé, the capital, is an exception.

With around a third of the country’s population primarily located on an island that’s less than six square kilometers large, the landmass the city occupies has now been entirely urbanized. Save the occasional landfill project, that’s left the growing settlement with nowhere to go but up; aerial views reveal a city that looks like a miniaturized, tropical Manhattan that’s somehow drifted into the south seas. In fact, the Maldivian capital is more densely populated than its famously vertical stateside twin; Malé is actually the fourth most densely populated island in the world (Manhattan, by comparison, is only seventh).

The Maldives’ official tourism website has even begun promoting its “spectacular skyline of candy-coloured skyscrapers” alongside the upscale resorts on which the country’s economy depends most heavily. But total urbanization has actually become a serious problem for Malé; it’s left the city’s population virtually nowhere to flee in the event of flash floods. Monsoon rains turn its streets into waterways on an annual basis; the Maldives are the world’s most low-lying country, with no place more than three meters above sea level. The real wake-up call came during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, when two-thirds of the city were entirely inundated by the sea.

So great was the tsunami’s impact on the Maldives — 50% of its GDP was washed away over the course of a few hours — that it unleashed pent-up demands for political reform. Mohamed Nasheed, a pro-democracy activist, was swept into office in 2008, bringing to a close the the 30-year regime of Maumool Abdul Gayoom. The top of his agenda quickly became climate change; as he successfully made clear to much of the world in the coming years, rising sea levels were due to turn the Maldives into the blank spot on the world map that so many had accidentally perceived.

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