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August 12th, 2014

In Defence of SkyCycle

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Soaring above the city on a bike: you can’t deny it would be a cool way to get around. One of the greatest pleasures of urban transport is being the passenger in a car travelling along an elevated highway — being immersed in the city yet removed from it, revealing a perspective inaccessible to you as a pedestrian. Why should drivers get all the fun, especially when their cars are so destructive to the environmental and social fabric of the city?

That’s apparently a question Norman Foster has been asking himself. Late last year, the British architect proposed a network of elevated bicycle highways that would run above London’s railroad tracks, giving cyclists the kind of speedy right-of-way that motorists have enjoyed for so long. 220 kilometres of elevated bike routes would thread through the city, accessible from 200 locations. Like expressways, these would facilitate long-distance rather than local travel; the idea is to make cycling to work a quick and comfortable alternative to cars and trains.

Though it is not the first time an architect has proposed a network of elevated bike paths, the idea has proven controversial. It’s not only because of SkyCycle’s expense — a 6.5-kilometre trial section would cost £220 million — but because of its ideological implications. There is something decidedly old-fashioned about grade-separated solutions to transport problems. Footbridges, pedestrian tunnels, elevated highways: these are the future of the past. We live in an era when highways are being dismantled and replaced by urban boulevards; “complete streets” is the rallying call of today’s progressive planners.

Many urbanists did not take kindly to SkyCycle. Mikael Colville-Andersen, who runs the urban mobility consulting firm Copenhagendize, called the scheme a “city-killing, Blade Runner fantasy.” He writes: “Removing great numbers of citizens who could be cycling down city streets past shops and cafés on their way to work or school and placing them on a shelf, far away from everything else.”

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July 31st, 2014

New Life in Old Beijing, Part III

This is the final installment in a three-part series on preservation and urban transformation in Beijing’s hutongs.

Half a kilometre from Tiananmen Square, an unexpected aroma wafts through the Beijing hutongs: fresh-roasted coffee. The source of that smell is just as surprising. Housed in a two-storey structure that was at various times a government-run printing house and a public bath, Soloist Coffee opened in September, part of a new wave of design-led businesses that have opened in Dashilar, one of Beijing’s oldest yet most overlooked neighbourhoods.

“The interior is a tribute back to the industrial age and craftsmen era,” says the coffee shop’s owner, designer and barista, Ma Kaimin, who sourced wood furniture from around the world to create a space that resembles a cross between a factory studio and an old-fashioned schoolhouse, with exposed brick walls, terrazzo flooring and vintage glass light fixtures. The coffee is just as thoughtful, with robust, acidic house blend that Ma describes as having a “nutty hint of orange and aromatic herbs” – a rare feat in a city without much of a coffee culture.

This might sound like the preamble to a familiar story of gentrification: old neighbourhood falls on hard times, attracts forward-thinking entrepreneurs, only to become a high-rent destination that destroys much of the original charm. But Dashilar’s transformation could well prove to be different, part of a deliberate effort by Beijing designers to revitalise the area in a sensitive way. If it succeeds, it would be a remarkable achievement in a city with a poor track record when it comes to preserving its old neighbourhoods.

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July 23rd, 2014

Hong Kong’s Guerrilla Gardeners

It’s not easy to find the Mango King. “Do you want to go the safe way? Or the quick way?” asks Michael Leung, a designer and urban farming advocate, as we walk past the wholesale fruit market in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei district, halfway up the Kowloon Peninsula. We opt for the quick way, which takes us through a tangled web of highway off-ramps and access roads. Two decades ago, this area was open water, but land reclamation and infrastructure works have turned it into an uninviting no-man’s-land next to one of Hong Kong’s most crowded neighborhoods.

Somewhere in this mess of traffic is a leftover parcel of land that has been turned into an illegal farm.

“We call him the Mango King because he loves mangoes so much,” Leung says after we dodge an oncoming taxi. “He’s a real urban farmer, making maximum use of space that would otherwise go unnoticed. He has 700 square feet of sweet potatoes, 45 papaya trees, five mango trees, three banana trees, two lychee trees. It’s amazing.”

Hong Kong is one of the world’s most densely populated cities, famous for its skyscraper canyons and gritty, neon-lit streets. But most of its 1,100-square-kilometre territory is actually undeveloped — country parks alone account for more than half of the city’s land area. Instead of fostering a close connection between city-dwellers and nature, though, the opposite has happened: Hong Kong today is a city largely devoid of greenery, surrounded by an often spectacular procession of green mountains and craggy shorelines.

The city’s disconnect with nature has broad implications. In the early 1990s, a full third of Hong Kong’s fruits and vegetables were produced locally in the New Territories, the hinterland that stretches from urban Kowloon to the border with mainland China. Today, that number has plummeted to 2.3 percent, with nearly everything imported from mainland China and beyond: apples from the United States, kiwis from Italy, oranges from South Africa. Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in local organic agriculture among young people born in the 1980s and 90s, but with a steady supply of cheap, imported produce arriving daily in Hong Kong’s port, changing the attitudes of the broader populace has been a struggle.

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July 7th, 2014

New Life in Old Beijing, Part II

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When I arrived in Beijing on the third day of the Chinese New Year, I was expecting the city to be quiet, and it was, except on Nanluoguxiang, a long alleyway near the Drum and Bell Towers that is lined by small shops, cafés and restaurants. Nanluoguxiang was busy — swarming with people, in fact. On my previous two trips to Beijing, in 2009 and 2010, it hadn’t been nearly as crowded. I chalked it up to the holiday.

When I returned to Beijing last month, though, I found Nanluoguxiang just as busy. Not only that, but many of the independent shops I remembered from my first visits were gone, replaced by chain bubble tea outlets and souvenir stores. Dozens of hawkers had set up camp along the street, most of them selling useless tchotchkes with blinking LED lights. It is still a charming street, but it has clearly made a leap from eccentricity to mass-market tourism. There’s even a Starbucks.

(Quick aside: the Nanluoguxiang Starbucks had the lowest food safety rating I saw in Beijing — a “C”. I can’t decide whether that is funny or terrifying, considering the standards in most Beijing kitchens.)

In some ways, it’s hard to begrudge Nanluoguxiang’s success when the alternative is demolition and redevelopment, which has been the case for so many other Beijing hutongs. In China, the normal process of gentrification is thrown out of whack by the sheer scale of everything: you can either go upmarket, which means really upmarket — Maserati dealers and that sort of thing — or mass market, which means an unceasing crush of weekend tourists and trinket vendors. The period of being a pleasantly polished enclave, which lasts for years or even decades in the life-cycle of North American and European neighbourhoods, is astoundingly short in Beijing.

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June 19th, 2014

A City Beyond Its Borders

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Halfway through director Heiward Mak’s new short film, SAR², Eric Tsang takes a tumble in front of a propaganda sign in Shenzhen’s Qianhai new development zone. “Supported by Hong Kong, Serving the Mainland, Facing the World,” reads the billboard, reflecting the area’s goal of attracting 100,000 Hong Kong permanent residents to live and work there.

In the film, Tsang plays Lee To, a Hong Kong man who has retired to Qianhai, where he falls in love with Lady Cheung, played by Taiwanese actress Kelly Tien, a native Shenzhener whose oyster farming village was cleared for land reclamation. In one intimate scene, Cheung asks Lee if he misses living in Hong Kong. “I can’t really say,” he replies. “Hong Kong is not my home anymore.”

SAR² is a story of alienation and ambiguity: Lee and Cheung live in spacious, comfortable apartments, but they are surrounded by vast construction sites and cut off from their families. Their romance seems to be as much a salve for loneliness as it is based on any kind of mutual attraction. “They’re wondering, ‘What am I looking for?’” says Mak.

It’s a natural project for Mak, whose acclaimed 2008 debut, High Noon, dealt with a similar kind of rootlessness. And while her notoriety has so far been limited to Hong Kong, SAR² made its debut far from these shores, in Italy, where Hong Kong is participating in the 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s largest and most venerable showcase of the built form. 65 countries have mounted exhibitions in the biennale, which runs from June 7 to November 22, along with hundreds of other shows and events taking place throughout the island city.

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May 26th, 2014

The City Without Light

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Two weeks ago, as Hong Kong was swept under the tide of bacchanalia known as Art Week — basically a non-stop stream of parties and other well-lubricated events revolving around Art Basel Hong Kong — something remarkable happened to the city’s tallest building. Normally, the 484-metre-tall International Commerce Centre is illuminated by an unceasingly kitschy programme of LED animations, including (I kid you not) a cloud shaped like a teddy bear. But on a hot and very humid Thursday evening, the LED display suddenly began pulsating, as if representing the rhythm of the city’s heartbeat.

It was actually the work of Carsten Nicolai, a German artist commissioned by Art Basel to transform the ICC into what must have been the world’s largest piece of art. Standing on the roof of Central Ferry Pier 4, surrounded by three-metre-high LED panels and replicas of the King of Kowloon’s graffiti, Nicolai created a remarkable, hypnotic show of light and sound called α (alpha) pulse. The effect was enhanced by a mobile phone app that synced up with the tower’s pulse, turning an ordinary handheld device into a cryptic beacon. It was an interesting way of translating the enormity of the ICC into something more approachable. “Artwork should have a human scale,” Nicolai said the next day, in a conversation with German curator Nicholaus Hirsch. “It should not be too monumental.”

Nicolai’s starting point for α (alpha) pulse was the relationship between light, sound and the human experience of the city. “Our body is defined by a pulse,” he said, and this is literally affected by sound and light: “These three elements can synchronize. Our body is always adjusting to the environment.”

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May 22nd, 2014

New Life in Old Beijing, Part I

Great Leap Brewery in Doujiao Hutong

It’s the third day of the Chinese New Year and Beijing is taking a break. Traffic has unjammed itself, department stores are shuttered and bursts of fireworks cut through the cold, dry air. As my taxi passes over the Second Ring Road, the streets are quiet until the Gulou comes into view. It’s an imposing, 727-year-old tower with vermillion walls and sweeping rooflines. Originally built to house a collection of drums, it now serves mainly as a riposte to the concrete tower blocks that have come to dominate much of Beijing. This neighbourhood is different, consisting of low-slung, grey-walled courtyard houses arranged along alleyways known as hutongs.

I climb out of the taxi and cross the street, plunging myself into a crowd of hawkers selling sugar-glazed fruits and barbecued eggplant. Families pass by, gawking at quirky designer t-shirts hanging in shop windows; a cyclist rings his bell as he negotiates around a group of friends. I am standing on Nanluoguxiang, a narrow row of shops and cafés that cuts through some of Beijing’s oldest hutongs. On this otherwise quiet February night, it seems like the whole city has come here to shop, snack and stroll.

“When you walk through the hutongs, it’s a nice atmosphere, an interesting mix of tourists and Beijing people who have been living there since childhood,” says Michel Sutyadi, a German-Chinese designer who runs NLGX, a lifestyle brand inspired by Nanluoguxiang.

Beijing might be the capital of the world’s most populous nation, a sprawling city of 20 million with a centuries-long history, known to the rest of the world for its vastness, off-the-charts smog and the blow-out bash that was the 2008 Olympics. Look past the vastness of the Forbidden City and the traffic-choked ring roads, however, and you’ll find the surprising truth about this northern capital: Beijing is a disarmingly down-to-earth place, where imposing boulevards give way to back streets filled with bicycle peddlers, ancient courtyard houses and endless small discoveries.

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April 28th, 2014

Design for All

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Sendai Mediatheque. Photo by Tomio Ohashi

The building started shaking at 2:46pm. Books tumbled off shelves, magazine racks teetered and ceiling panels swayed violently back and forth like a drunk trying to reclaim his balance. This was the scene in a YouTube video recorded the seventh floor of the Sendai Mediatheque on March 11, when an extraordinarily powerful earthquake shook the Tohoku region of Japan.

What makes the video remarkable is just how little happens: in one of the worst tremors in recent history, the Mediatheque did not collapse. In fact, it suffered only a few broken windows, ceiling panels and rooftop solar panels – and this despite a seemingly precarious design of transparent walls and open floor plans. “This is the kind of architecture that critics of modernism like to call risky and unreliable,” wrote architecture critic Ana Louise Huxtable, after the earthquake. “When flaws appear, schadenfreude follows.”

But the Mediatheque’s architect, Toyo Ito, is no ordinary modernist. While the the winner of the 2013 Pritzker Architecture Prize shares the heroic vocabulary of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, he is using that architectural language to very different ends, and the Sendai Mediatheque, which was completed in 2001, is a prime example of his more humanist philosophy.

“After it was completed, people took care of the building and allowed it to evolve. It was never a finished project,” Ito told me when I met him last December. The building’s unique structure, which is based on tree-like trunks rather than traditional support columns, allows for an exceptionally flexible and permeable interior. (Not to mention one that is particularly resistant to earthquakes, too.) “Especially after the earthquake, it became even more of a place for people to gather,” said Ito. “The staff started holding a lot of events. It has really made me proud to see how people are using it.”

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April 14th, 2014

Street Food in Busan

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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I can still remember the ssiat hotteok in Busan: moist, thick pancakes stuffed with brown sugar, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds, as if a French crêpe had voyaged to America, eaten too many Krispy Kremes and stumbled head-first into a Korean dry goods shop. It was the perfect salve for the early winter chill.

In Seomyeon, a busy shopping and nightlife hub that is the closest thing Busan has to a centre, there were two hotteok stalls on the street behind a large department store. One had a perpetual line of customers, evidently because it had been featured in magazines and on TV — there was a small screen fixed to the side of the stall playing clips of food show hosts eagerly snacking on the pancake. Immediately adjacent was another stall, which never seemed to have any customers. I first tried the popular one and then, feeling sorry for the competitor, I returned the next day to try it out, too. I’m sorry to say, there was a reason for the lines. As much as I want to support the underdog, its hotteok was just not up to stuff. Not bad, just underwhelming — somehow less plump and flavoursome as the stall next door.

In a way, that’s kind of how I felt about Busan. Maybe it was the time of year — early winter, when the sun sets early and everyone is shell-shocked by the first signs of chill — or maybe it was just the contrast to Seoul, which is such a huge and dynamic city it makes everywhere else in Korea seem shoddy and sleepy. It doesn’t help that Busan is a nebulous sprawl that flows along shorelines and in mountain valleys, never acquiring enough mass in any one place to feel as big as its size should allow. More than 3.5 million people live in Busan, but they are spread out across 767 square kilometres, a slightly larger area than Seoul’s 10 million people.

Busan is nevertheless a very likable city. It is much less formal and inhibited than Seoul, and one of the ways this manifests itself is in its street life. Much of the city is low-slung and quiet, but the busy parts are filled with street vendors selling hotteok and much, much more: egg pudding, spicy rice cake, fresh fruit, or best of all, outdoor restaurants run by middle-aged women with permed hair, who gruffly serve you soup and bowls of rice.

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April 14th, 2014

A Police Dormitory Reborn as a Design Hub

Hong Kong’s design scene is thriving, but like many of this city’s creative endeavours, it exists beyond the spotlight, in old factory buildings and back alley studios. That could soon change. After two years of renovations, the former Police Married Quarters on Aberdeen Street has been reborn as PMQ, a design hub that aims to raise the public profile of local design by giving designers more opportunities to build their own brands.

“It’s a project that nobody has done before,” says William To, the PMQ’s creative director, who is also project director at the Hong Kong Design Centre. “It will attract all sorts of designers from different disciplines to come and interact with each other and the public.”

Built in 1951 to house police officers and their families, the PMQ now contains 130 design studios, along with shops, restaurants, a library, exhibition space, a rooftop garden and outdoor gathering areas. When it is fully open next month, it will contain a mixture of well-known brands like Vivienne Tam alongside up-and-comers such as Hoiming, a leatherworking studio.

Studio spaces are small — about 450 square feet — but To says the goal is to foster a community, not to create an office complex. Spacious open-air corridors in front of each unit will be used for exhibitions and pop-up events; there will be a co-working space and units for overseas designers-in-residence; and tenants must keep their doors open to the public between 1pm and 8pm every day.

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March 31st, 2014

Casting New Light on Architecture

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Rendering of M+

In Hong Kong, a city with an increasingly toxic political atmosphere, where the future looks uncertain and just about every small endeavour is greeted by controversy, M+ is one of the few bright spots on the horizon. That’s not to say the 60,000-square-metre, HK$5 billion museum of visual culture has enjoyed a smooth ride; there has been grumbling about its entirely foreign cast of curators, its aloofness when faced with the political sniping of the local art scene and its ability to work with a budget that seems increasingly inadequate, given rising construction costs. But this is Hong Kong’s best chance at seizing its moment in the cultural spotlight, when the art market is booming and global attention is shifting away from the West – and, so far, M+ has been striking the right notes as it composes its identity as a fresh-thinking, innovative institution.

That was in evidence in its recent architecture exhibition, Building M+, a showcase of the museum’s future home and a sneak peek at its growing architecture collection. Hosted last January at Artistree, a cavernous exhibition space in the bowels of corporate Taikoo Place, the show greeted visitors with a procession of models depicting the six finalists in the international competition for the museum’s design. These were followed by a large scale model of the winner, by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, which came in for ribbing because of its stark, tombstone-like form. But it is clearly the best of a sorry bunch; somehow, despite the talent involved in the competition—including Toyo Ito, Renzo Piano, Shigeru Ban, Snøhetta and SANAA—most entries were haphazard and even goofy, with little regard for the interdisciplinary focus of M+, which aims to bridge art, architecture, design and film. (One of the designs actually consisted of boxes stacked upon one another like Lego pieces, as if to emphasize the difference between these different fields.) Though unexciting, the winning design at least offers the museum programmatic flexibility. “They won because they understood the importance of creating dialogue between these different platforms for culture instead of just compartmentalizing everything,” says museum director Lars Nittve.

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March 25th, 2014

The Best Tram in the World

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As the tram lurched past the dried seafood shops of Des Voeux Road, a cool breeze passing through its open windows, passengers were served a round of cocktails. “Do you reckon this is the best tram in the world at the moment?” asked one woman sipping an Old Fashioned. “I think so,” replied another.

Needless to say, this was no ordinary tram journey. For ten days last December, four of Hong Kong’s double-decker trams were made over for Detour, an annual art and design festival. One tram was converted into a classroom; another was transformed into a giant camera obscura; a maintenance tram became a mobile radio station and concert venue. The fourth was the Eatery tram, whose teak-framed upper deck was fashioned into a sleek dining hall, blond wood and brass railings bracketed by strips of soft LED lights.

“To make the space feel bigger, we removed all hand holds and rails that obstructed the line of vision, made all the tables and benches out of light-colored pine, painted the walls and ceilings white and put in light-colored wood veneer flooring,” says Billy Potts, who designed the interior with partners Albert Tong, Cara To and Sjors van Buyten.

Detour tram

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March 20th, 2014

Neon Gets Its Due

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For decades, neon has defined Hong Kong’s cityscape, bathing its skyscraper canyons in rainbow hues that have provided a memorable backdrop to films like Chungking Express
and The World of Suzie Wong – and inspiration for classics such as Blade Runner.

But Hong Kong’s neon signs are starting to vanish, which has prompted the city’s future museum of visual culture, M+, to launch an online exhibition dedicated to the city’s neon heritage. Mobile M+: NeonSigns.HK goes live today and will be continuously updated over the next three months.

“These signs are starting to disappear quickly, and as the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” says M+ architecture and design curator Aric Chen. “What we can do is help people appreciate the value of neon signs.”

That is a situation M+ hopes to redress. NeonSigns.HK includes a video documentary about neon signmaking, a crowd-sourced map of neon signs and contributions from cultural luminaries like photographer Wing Shya and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. There will also be a series of real-world events over the next three months, including nighttime bus tours, workshops and self-guided audio journeys through Hong Kong’s neon landscape.

Chen says the catalyst for NeonSigns.HK was the iconic cow-shaped neon sign outside Sammy’s Kitchen, a family-run steakhouse on Queen’s Road West. Though the sign has loomed over the street since 1977, its removal was ordered last year after the government’s Buildings Department found it contravened local building codes.

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February 24th, 2014

Tokyo in the Snow

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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It didn’t look like much at first. “Just a bit of snow,” I thought as I gazed at the thick, heavy flakes settling onto the street outside. But Tokyo doesn’t get a lot of snow in the first place, and I should have realized from the way it was sticking to the willow tree outside — or the excited news coverage on TV, whose live-on-scene reporters stood in front of struggling commuters, snow piling up on their sodden heads — that this wasn’t going to be a light dusting. This was snow day snow.

We walked to the metro, plastic umbrella struggling against the wind, passing by grimacing cyclists and buses with chained-up tires thudding ominously down the street. By the time we arrived in Harajuku, half an hour later, the city was already in blizzard shutdown mode. Service on a growing number of train lines was suspended; there was hardly any traffic on the streets. As we passed down one back alley, a car got stuck in a snowy gutter and its driver rushed out and used his hands to dig out snow from beneath one of the tires. “Mondai nai, arigato” — “Don’t worry about it” — he said when we offered to help push the car, so we trudged on down the street, the sound of fruitlessly spinning wheels receding behind us.

Later that evening, as the sun set and we made our way down Meiji Dori to the heart of Shibuya, shops began to close early. Cars rolled past with a muffled crunch; people giggled and smiled as they made their way through snowbanks. Here’s the thing about snow: it makes even the biggest city in the world a very small place indeed. There was a sense of common purpose, a temporary breach in the anonymity of the streets. Grown men and women threw snowballs at one another in front of shuttered department stores. A week later, when Tokyo was blanked with another record-breaking snowfall, people were spotted skiing around Shibuya.

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