Archive for June, 2012

June 30th, 2012

A Weekday in Lisboa

Posted in Europe by Daniel Corbeil

Lisbon was said to have been founded by Ulysses. It was an ancient Roman city, then a palatial city of the Moors, with a hundred thousand souls living in the hills of the Alfama, while Paris was still a small and frozen town. Theatre of the terrible earthquake of 1755, which, people in the streets of Chiado still say, was felt as far as Africa.

I landed here one evening last February and remembered the sweet smell of the city of Pombal. Cars that smother in the night. Prostitutes that swarm in the avenidas. The old buildings that collapse and become replaced by new ones rendered with a weird vision of modernity.

I walked the city and tried to capture with images a weekday in Lisbon. Some postcards, evincing a spontaneous eternity. Some that repeat thousands of muffled words. That say nothing, but let me still dream.

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June 30th, 2012

In Front of the Theatre

Posted in Europe by Christopher DeWolf

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It’s always a pleasure to wander around an unfamiliar city and come across a corner where the entire place seems to come together. In Palermo, that would be the plaza in front of the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, a robust circular structure built in the 1870s. The theatre sits at the point where the Belle Époque neighbourhood around the via della Libertà gives way to the gritter, duskier confines of the old city.

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June 24th, 2012

Ladder Streets and Unmarked Steps

Ladder Street

A few months ago, I was sitting outside Café Loisl with Melissa Cate Christ, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Hong Kong. We were there to discuss the proposed Pound Lane escalator, which would run straight up the staircase in front of the café, replacing a century-old series of steps with a whirring machine. Beyond the disruptive effect the escalator could have on the surrounding community, Christ was concerned about the potential loss of history when the Pound Lane steps were dug up.

“Old stairs are many times a sign of something else,” said Christ as I took a sip of cappuccino. When the government planned to sell the former Central Police Married Quarters, the presence of an old series of steps led archaeologists to the long-buried ruins of the Central School, Sun Yat-sen’s alma matter, which had been bombed during World War II.

As you might expect from a city built on series of hills and mountain slopes, Hong Kong has a lot of staircases, some of them linking two roads at different elevations, others serving as streets themselves. These so-called “ladder streets” are among Hong Kong’s oldest, and in most cases their stone steps are the oldest surviving structures around. Some of these streets — including Ladder Street, appropriately enough — have been designated as historic sites, but most have no protection whatsoever, so they are often encased in concrete. It seems the city’s engineers, in their quest to transform Hong Kong into a giant highway off-ramp, have decided that a rough mixture of sand, cement and water is more durable than a slab of granite that has withstood a century’s worth of footfalls.

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June 21st, 2012

City Goats

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space, South Asia by Christopher DeWolf

Delhi goat

Cats, dogs, squirrels, pigeons, rats, even raccoons — these are the animals I associate with the city. Not goats. Then I went to Delhi.

There are more than 864 million goats in the world, around 140 million of which live in India. More than a handful of those have found their way to the streets of Delhi, where they are raised for meat and milk, and where some also run wild, galloping excitedly past startled pedestrians.

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June 17th, 2012

How to Rethink Our Streets

Saint-Jean-Baptiste Boulevard, Montreal, Spring 2011

Urban design proposed for the boulevard, February 2012

Last year, my team and the planning service of Rivière-des-Prairies-Pointe-aux-Trembles borough worked to rethink the design of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Boulevard. It is located east of downtown Montreal, where it crosses old districts from the early 1900s and suburbs from the 1960s. It was planned for 2,200 cars per hour, but only 700 cars per hour use it at its peak. In other words, it poses a considerable challenge.

This five-kilometre boulevard starts in the old urban district, bordering the St. Lawrence River, then passes through a commercial area typical of the 1960s, before furrowing through an industrial park, crossing a future train station and then ends up against the Rivière des Prairies in the far east end of Montreal.

Our project evolved for a few months, then was presented to merchants who now fear an economic slowdown caused by an increased risk of congestion on the boulevard. They basically see the projet as a very bad opportunity for them.

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June 12th, 2012

The Underground City

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If you live in Montreal, you’ll eventually be asked the question: “Which way is the underground city?” You will probably be walking along Ste. Catherine Street, the city’s main shopping artery, where H&M and Zara jostle for space with strip clubs and hot dog joints. Or maybe you will be making your way through the lunch-hour crowds at McGill metro, the city’s busiest subway station. Either way, some puzzled visitors clutching a free tourist map will ask you a question that you will find particularly difficult to answer. The best you can do is to point them to the entrance of the nearest shopping mall or metro station and explain, “It’s there, but it might not be what you imagine.”

One of the first things any tourist guide to Montreal tells you is that the city is home to a 32-kilometre network of shopping malls, office buildings, apartment towers, cultural centres, universities and civic institutions connected by subway lines and a sinuous network of underground passageways. On those brutal winter days when the the thermostat plunges below -20 degrees Celsius, you can go to work, watch a movie, buy a baguette, attend a concert, go skating, visit the library and finally return home, all without venturing outdoors. Somehow, though, the underground city has taken on levels of meaning outside Montreal that it never quite achieved at home. Tourists seem to picture a Willy Wonka wonderland of enterprising Oompa Loompas untouched by the light of day. Locals are nonplussed. For them, it’s a way to get from one place to another. When the journalist Fabien Deglise wrote a book about the underground city, he called it Montréal souterrain, sous le béton, le mythe. Underground Montreal: the Myth Beneath the Concrete.

Make no mistake, however: the underground city is more than the sum of its parts. For one thing, “underground city” is a bit of a misnomer, since many parts of the network exist above ground. It’s really an indoor city, a kind of interconnected, three-dimensional space. “Underground Montreal is an amalgam of grey tunnels and bright avenues, of escalators and indoor squares populated by fast food and shops of all types,” writes design critic Emmanuelle Vieira. “This city in successive layers is incoherent, imperfect, but it holds its own. It is the image of own own society: lively, diverse and creative, linked intimately with the culture of consumption.” It also the unlikely triumph of modernist ideals that long ago fell by the architectural wayside, only to now be reconsidered and—in some cases—rehabilitated.

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June 8th, 2012

In the Forest, in the City

All photos by JJ Acuna from the Wanderlister

To get to the Asia Society’s Hong Kong Centre, you must go up. Up from the MTR through shopping mall escalators, up the steep slope of Justice Drive, towards skyscraping apartment towers and the jagged ridge of Victoria Peak. So it’s a surprise that when you finally arrive, the most defining aspect of the new cultural complex is a serene sense of horizontality, like a thin cloud resting against the side of a mountain.

That was the plan from the very start of the project, when New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien made their first visit to the site in 2001. They were there to design a new Hong Kong branch for the Asia Society, a New York-based cultural organisation founded in 1956. The centre includes a gallery, theatre, multi-purpose hall, bookstore, café and gardens.

“We’d been to Hong Kong nearly ten years before, so we thought we knew a little bit about the city, and we certainly knew there were areas of beauty and nature that intersected with the city, but we’d never been given a site like this,” says Williams.

What they encountered were the ruins of the Victoria Barracks, the earliest remnant of British military presence in Hong Kong. Four Victorian era buildings remained on the site, including a former laboratory, a masonry store and two buildings used for the manufacture of explosives. A drainage channel, known locally as a nullah, snaked past them, carrying water downhill from the mountains.

“It was astonishing, a kind of wonderland. We were stunned at how wild and uncivilised it seemed to be. It was like something out a film,” says Williams.

“Like Raiders of the Lost Ark,” says Tsien. “It was a complete jungle, this crazy place in the middle of the city where giant banyan trees were growing out of abandoned buildings and people were camping out, yet it was across the street from Pacific Place [shopping mall] and the British Consulate. It gave us this idea of a lost civilisation.”

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June 5th, 2012

Remembering Tiananmen in Hong Kong

Posted in Asia Pacific, History, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Tiananmen Square vigil in Hong Kong. Photos by dawvon.

Last night, as Chinese internet censors frantically banned words like “today” and “Tiananmen” from web searches and social media, 180,000 people gathered in Hong Kong to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the June 4th massacre. This is an annual ritual that has taken place ever since the first tanks rolled down Chang’an Avenue in Beijing. Its attendance has waxed and waned over the past two decades, but ever since the 20th anniversary of the massacre in 2009, a new generation of young Hongkongers, joined by a growing number of visitors from mainland China, have re-energized the vigil. This year, more people made their way to Victoria Park than ever before.

For many people in Hong Kong, the slaying of student demonstrators in Beijing destroyed any confidence they once had in China. It’s no coincidence that, in the five years following 1989, hundreds of thousands of people emigrated to places like Canada and Australia, seeking insurance against the city’s impending transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China. Before 1997, people actually spoke with some seriousness about People’s Liberation Army tanks rolling down Queen’s Road. Reality turned out to be more benign. China’s economic boom and relatively hands-off approach to Hong Kong restored confidence in the mainland. With the exception of 2003, when opposition to proposed national security legislation led to a surge of attendance at the vigil, the memory of Tiananmen seemed to be growing less relevant by the year. By 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, Hong Kong seemed to be more committed to China than ever before.

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