Palermo was a surprise. I didn’t know what to expect, because the only images I had in my head were the Sicilian gangsters of early 20th century America and the assassination of Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III, which took place on the steps of the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s biggest opera house and one of Palermo’s greatest landmarks. In other words, I pictured the Mafia and little else. What I encountered was a city with great coffee, back alley markets and bustling streets relatively untouched by tourism and gentrification. Compared to the earnest orderliness of Munich, where I had spent a couple of days before going to Italy, Palermo has a certain grimy insouciance that I find endearing.
Palermo is Sicily’s largest city and also one of its oldest, having been founded by the Phoenicians more than 2,700 years ago. It sits in the island’s northeast, on a stretch of coastline punctuated by limestone mountains. They guard the city in every direction, their watchful stare visible from every major street. Palermo’s population nearly doubled in the 1950s and 60s, and much of the city is dominated by hastily-built apartment blocks that give it a shoddy, crowded appearance. The so-called “Sack of Palermo” obliterated much of the nearby countryside and led to the neglect of its historic centre, but it also gave the city a noisy vitality.
It’s a familiar story: old industrial area becomes creative hub. What makes OCT Loft different is that the entire process took just six years — and it’s on the vanguard of Shenzhen’s transformation from factory town to Chinese creative superpower.
In the mid-1980s, a swath of farmland in the newly-established Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was developed into the OCT East Industrial Park, one of first of many new factory districts. Over the next 20 years, they helped transform Shenzhen into one of the wealthiest and largest cities in China.
Then, in the early 2000s, as labour costs and real estate prices soared, most of the factories left for cheaper pastures in Shenzhen’s suburbs and other parts of the Pearl River Delta. The industrial zone was slated to be bulldozed and replaced by a luxury housing complex, but a new policy that encouraged the development of creative industries led OCT Properties, which owned the land, to hand it over to artists and designers.
OCT hired Shenzhen-based Urbanus Architecture and Design to facilitate the transformation. The first order of business, in 2004, was to make a home for the OCT Contemporary Art Termial (OCAT), a Kunsthalle-style exhibition hall and research centre.
The building they chose for OCAT was a 3,000-square-metre shed. “It was hardly a building,” says Urbanus partner Liu Xiaodu. “It had a tin roof and there wasn’t even any insulation. So we were very free to do anything.”
Tin roofs of a hawker’s bazaar in Kwun Tong, Hong Kong
When I first came across Charles Labelle’s ongoing Buildings Entered project, I was intrigued by the questions it raised about how we relate to the spaces we inhabit. This led me to think about one of the things that has most fascinated me since moving in Hong Kong in 2008: the informal use of urban space, or to put it another way, how people adapt the city to their own ends.
In the years following World War II and the Chinese civil war, hundreds of thousands of people moved from mainland China to Hong Kong, which was then a British colony. A decade after the war, Hong Kong’s population had doubled to more than three million. There wasn’t enough housing for the newcomers, so many built homes for themselves in shantytowns that rose on the hills above Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. At the same time, migrants made work for themselves by selling things on the street: cheap food for factory workers, fruits and vegetables, surplus stock from factories. This continued for nearly three decades after the war. By the 1970s, there were more than 50,000 hawkers in the streets. All of this existed outside the framework of the law: shantytowns were built illegally on government-owned land and most hawkers operated without permits and without paying rent.
Standing inside the cavernous belly of the 800-seat West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre, bamboo master Ying Che and her head worker, Sunny Yim, gaze up at their creation.
“It’s very satisfying,” says Yim, a sturdy man with a boyish face who has been building bamboo theatres for nearly 40 years. “When you come to a performance, you can see the audience looking around, and you can tell that they’re impressed.”
Yim got into the trade when he was growing up in the old Hong Kong fishing village of Shek O. One day, when he was 15, a theatre was built near his home, and he climbed up to the top. “I wondered, how did they do it? That’s when I decided that I wanted to build bamboo theatres.”
Ying married into a family of bamboo masters going back three generations. Every year, she oversees the construction of 30 to 40 theatres, which are commissioned by villagers to mark Chinese festivals. Inside, they eat, drink and watch Cantonese opera. The theatres are built entirely by hand, usually by fewer than ten workers, and they are held together with nothing but plastic ties. The biggest theatres can hold up to 6,000 people.
“We eyeball everything,” says Ying. “We make a plan, but we don’t use tools. It’s tough work. You’re in the sun all day, so your skin gets tanned and wrinkled.”
Last year, Manhattan celebrated the 200th anniversary of its vaunted grid street system, the rectilinear net that stretches from First Street in what’s now the East Village to 155th, in Washington Heights. And any assumption this was too dry a subject for most New Yorkers could have been dispelled by the thickness of the crowds browsing “The Greatest Grid“. The still-ongoing exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York which examines street patterns in the city past and present, and, with a number of (mostly outlandish) proposals from architectural studios and planners, future.
The exhibit lingers not only on the planning and implementation of the New York grid, but also its many detractors — the property interests, real estate developers, planners, and landscape architects who sought to interrupt and impede Manhattan’s monotonous future as a flattened island dominated by identical, rectangular blocks — and the effects of their opposition. Avenues were inserted midblock when city leaders realized that facilitating north-south traffic would prove more vital to the city’s future than ensuring easy crosstown access between rivers. Broadway’s anomalous, diagonal swath was retained, the points where it awkwardly intersected with the grid turned into parks and squares. A vast portion of the grid was interrupted for the creation of Central Park.
Above 155th Street, in particular, a new generation of Romantic planners created a very different Manhattan that respected the island’s original, hilly topography, and complemented it with looping, serpentine streets. Upper Manhattan became a mirror image of the chaotic, colonial streets that characterized the island’s original settlement, at its lower tip, and the closest approximation of pre-grid plans for the city, like the one formulated by Joseph Mangin and Casimir Goerck, which respected property lines far more than it had geometric rigors.
Both aesthetically and philosophically, the grid had chafed at Gilded Age New York, and in particular its high society’s pretensions to be living in city that could equal the capitals of Europe, where avenues headed by monumental governmental, cultural, or religious structures were elegantly expressed the notion that mere business was subordinate to civic institutions. But the attractions of the less hierarchical, more “democratic” grid were embraced more wholeheartedly in the country’s interior. The Land Ordinance of 1785 had imposed a grid system far more dramatic than New York’s — on what would become the entire Upper Midwest. At its heart was Chicago, a city that would far more enthusiastically embrace the right angle than even its most eager proponents in New York.