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September 23rd, 2012

COB on Calle Florida

Posted in Latin America by Christopher Szabla

It may share a name with a certain sedated, semitropical retirement home of a state to its north, but nowhere is the raw verve of Buenos Aires more palpable than on Calle Florida. In a city of Brobdingnagian boulevards, it’s as claustrophobic as an Istanbul alley. Whereas most of Argentina’s capital is a blend of French and Spanish architectural influences, buildings in the Microcentro, the dense commercial district that the street burrows through, seem to display more than a dash of Manhattan. And then there’s the frenetic foot traffic, as close as anywhere in South America comes to Tokyo.

The pedestrian mall is thronged for most of the day by window-shoppers, street performers, and cube farmers hunting for lunch, striding past and stepping over street vendors — at least, until many were removed by the city, earlier this year — crouched on the ground, where their wares, mostly native handicrafts, are spread out, rare connections to the continent in which Buenos Aires has often been accused of acting as if it’s accidentally gone astray.

On Calle Florida, especially — in so many other ways like so many other places bundled into one — it can seem that being anywhere other than caught in the crosswinds of global commerce is just a detail to be ignored. A harried commuter, rushing home at the end of the day, might have never paused to glanced at all the unsold necklaces still laid out on the blankets that rolled, almost continuously, down the center of the street — and she might have never noticed when they were gone.

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September 18th, 2012

Revisiting the Fortress Embassy

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Architecture, Books, Europe, Politics by Christopher Szabla

Security forces intervene during the protests at US Embassy Cairo. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim.

There are probably at least a few in your city, hiding on the upper floods of office buildings, secluded in elegant townhouses, tucked somewhere behind high fences out of view. Nearby cars’ license plates are sometimes their only identifiable feature. Whether embassies in capital cities, consulates elsewhere, most diplomatic offices articulate an architecture that often seems as if it’s striving to be as discreet as the professionals practicing statecraft inside.

The foreign bases of diplomatic heavyweights are another story. In New York, small island states’ representatives to the UN often share the same small office suites, but the Chinese consulate occupies looming concrete monolith along the Hudson River. France’s massive embassy in Berlin is situated right next to the Brandenburg Gate on a square named, appropriately, Pariser Platz (Parisian Square).

US Embassy Abu Dhabi. Photo by Ryan Lackey.

Few of these countries lay claim to more conspicuous diplomatic real estate than the US. Ottawa’s American mission stretches the width of a neighborhood. In London, the US Embassy has long been considered a blunt statement of the most disfigured principles of American foreign policy. And perhaps no diplomatic complex in the world is as infamous as the Green Zone, Saddam Hussein’s palace-cum-fortress from which Iraq’s long, bloody occupation was run; the current US compound in Baghdad is as large as Vatican City.

For all its recent stumbles and whispers about its relative decline, the US remains the world’s sole superpower. The size of its embassies reflect that fact — and so do measures taken to protect them. Walking through Cairo’s Garden City, home to some of Egypt’s largest foreign delegations, it was always impossible for me to avoid feeling intimidated — even as a US citizen — by the American Embassy’s fortresslike ramparts, its deep setback, and the security forces who manned roadblocks at either end of the street that ran between it and Britain’s also very fortified (if more elegant) facility. That lasting impression left me all the more shocked when, last week, protesters breached the compound’s walls; in Egypt, only military bases had ever seemed less vulnerable.

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September 13th, 2012

As The Romans Do

Posted in Europe by Christopher Szabla

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September 8th, 2012

Foreign Interventions in (Calle) Honduras

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

You can tell you’re in Palermo by the names of the streets: Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica — every one of them running parallel to the Rio de la Plata a different Central American country. Together with the bright pastels and fluorescents of the buildings that line them, these calles give the Buenos Aires barrio a sort of carefree party vibe that transports you from sometimes grey, blustery, near-Antarctic Argentina to the tropics.

The wealthy district has also, like so many acronymed corners of New York, been subdivided by real estate neologisms: “Palermo Chico,” “Palermo Soho,” “Palermo Hollywood”. Calle Honduras runs between two of them — Palermo Hollywood, a sort of laid-back hangout for media types, and Palermo Viejo, the old heart of the neighborhood and center of its nightlife. When I wandered through in October 2010, I found signs at both ends of the street were not only plastered with an endless variety of stickers advertising local clubs and galleries, but hacked using a graffiti-like scrawl: “Honduras” (the signs omit “Calle”) had been changed to read “Honduras Resiste”.

At the time, it was clear to what the altered signs referred. For the past year, Honduras had been in crisis. Its populist president, Manuel Zelaya, attempted to hold a referendum on amending the constitution; opponents claimed it was an attempt to extend his term limits. But siding with many members of the government and Zelaya’s own party, the Supreme Court issued an injunction against the attempt for violating the constitution itself. On June 28, 2009, soldiers raided the presidential palace, seized the president, and flew him to exile in Costa Rica. Honduras immediately erupted in protest.

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August 12th, 2012

Pastoralympics

Posted in Europe, History, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Wait, that’s not an Olympic sport! Photo courtesy UK Department of Culture, Media, and Sport

Texted, tweeted, teasing browsers of a hundred “sneak preview” slideshows ─ in short, serving as the centerpiece of endless international speculation for weeks prior to its debut ─ the verdant green fields on which the curtain of the 2012 Olympics lifted may remain their opening ceremony’s most salient image. Director Danny Boyle’s show brought this rural idyll to life with braying livestock, maypole dancers, and tunic-swaddled peasants playing pickup games of cricket, their hushed reverie set to the hymn of Sir Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem,” the scored version of William Blake’s famous poem (often called by the same name) rung in by childrens’ choirs from several equally emerald-hued corners of the UK.

Boyle’s opening was a tear-jerking, if hushed, sonata of nationalist sentimentalism ─ and as such, better received in England than elsewhere. Where, the rest of the world impatiently wondered, was the mass, masked extravaganza of drumbeats and leotards that would be the West’s answer to the chest-beating martial pageantry intimidatingly performed four years earlier in Beijing?

Danny Boyle’s “Dark Satanic Mills”. Photo by Shimelle Laine.

Olympic ceremonies typically affect pomposity meant to impress the billion-member international audiences they attract. But London 2012 faced its most skeptical reception closest to home. The intimate, provincial tableau with which he began made clear that Boyle was preoccupied with cutting short this crisis from the beginning: to flatter the country with coded symbolism, to allow Britons to feel that the Games were being staged for them, first and foremost, and not as an alienating global spectacle bound up in their government’s pretensions.

Just as crucial to this effort were the contrasts that followed. Soot-spotted workers emerged, uprooting the stage’s saccharine storyland to install the billowing smokestacks and fiery forges of a steampunk industrial complex. To the beat of thundering drums (meant “to frighten people,” according to musicians who scored the segment), those hoping for a mass spectacle were mollified at last; the Arcadian Albion of placid pastureland had been displaced by a Dickensian dystopia.

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July 16th, 2012

The Faded Glory of Not-So-Ancient Rome

Posted in Architecture, Europe by Christopher Szabla

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July 2nd, 2012

Istanbul: To the Asian Side

Posted in Europe, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Photo by Engin Kurutepe

For an intercontinental journey, F.’s directions were fairly straightforward. “Head to Eminönü,” she’d said, introducing a thicket of tongue-challenging Turkish umlauts. “Take a ferry to Kadiköy. I’ll meet you there, on the Asian side.” The Asian side: nowhere else in the world can you pass between continents without so much as leaving city limits — at least nowhere that “continents” are as well demarcated as they are in Istanbul, where the two landmasses are cleaved by the heaving tidal cavity of the Bosphorus. Here, the divide has not only been bridged — twice — but, where it hasn’t, the opposite continent is a mere twenty minute commute by ferry.

The simple crossing is almost too easy a metaphor for the way Istanbul overcomes preconceived cultural chasms with the same sprezzatura that other places seem to uphold them. On the other side of the Mediterranan, Tangier, in Morocco, can feel like a world away from Algeciras, in Spain, but Kadiköy, Turkey’s gateway to Asia, is a neighborhood that feels practically Scandinavian in its cleanliness and order. And on Istanbul’s European side, boisterous streets spill from the Grand Bazaar to the Egyptian Market. It’s not to consign this part of the city to Orientalist stereotype to note that the hustle there — and dress — can sometimes seem more Kabul than Copenhagen. It is to say that the city’s contrasts — when and if they ever are clear — are rarely found how and where you might imagine them.

Ideas, though, are powerful things, and neither rational understanding that continents were mere constructs nor anticlimactic Kadiköy do much to stymie my sense of wonder at the quick transcontinental crossing. “It’s my first time in Asia,” I tell F., as we began driving away from the ferry terminal and out along Bağdat Caddesi, Champs-Élysées of the Asian side, which juts arrow-straight to the east — in the direction of its namesake, in Iraq. She had asked us to join her here to show off this side of the city — her part of town. The way the city easily scrambles stereotypes has long led outsiders to consider Istanbul a cliché of “East meets West,” a checkpoint between civilizations, but it was the center, not the frontier, of F.’s life. She had no idea why I found suddenly being at a different end of it so remarkable.

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May 3rd, 2012

Au Café in Buenos Aires

Posted in Latin America, Public Space by Christopher Szabla

San Telmo

La Boca

Palermo

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May 1st, 2012

The Greater Grid

Posted in History, Maps, United States by Christopher Szabla

Straight as an arrow: triptych along Lake Shore Drive, Chicago

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.

Baseball diamond tic-tac-toe in Lake Shore 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.

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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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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.

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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.

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March 5th, 2012

Graffiti Republic

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

Splat!

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.

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February 17th, 2012

The Unsquared Circle of Old Shanghai

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Maps by Christopher Szabla

Take a look at a map of Shanghai and it still jumps out at you — a tightly-wound ball of narrow streets threading through warrens of centuries-old houses. Call it what you will — the neighborhood seems to have no standard English name, and “Old City,” “Round City,” or simply “Old Shanghai” have been used before — but it’s impossible to deny this slice of China’s largest city stands a bit aloof; what’s left of it appears to exist in total defiance of a metropolis that appears ceaselessly hungry for towers that soar high enough to match the gaping width of its newly-broadened boulevards.

Old Shanghai’s uniqueness is a longstanding trend; the last time the neighborhood didn’t buck the rest of the city’s form was during the Middle Ages, when the Round City was Shanghai — a fledgling Ming Dynasty port. But skip forward to the 19th century and Shanghai has grown to become the hub of foreign commerce in China, its cityscape defined by the architecture the colonial powers have brought to their respective concessions — tiny fiefdoms run by local Westerners nominally reporting to overseas capitals.

Somewhat like Hong Hong’s Kowloon Walled City nearly a century later, the Old City, or “Chinese City,” as it began, then, to be called, remained an enclave within these enclaves, a densely-packed and ghettoized dormitory for much of the city’s local workforce. It even remained behind literal, medieval walls — until, during China’s 1911 revolution, they finally came crashing down.

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