Archive for the Books category

August 30th, 2013

Talking About Cities Without Ground

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Hong Kong isn’t an easy city to navigate. That’s because so much of it exists out of sight: above your head, under your feet, around the corner in a dingy shopping mall. It’s what architect Jonathan Solomon calls a three-dimensional city. “There are all these attempts to map Hong Kong, but most of them are useless,” he says. Maps show streets, others depict shopping malls, but none chart the way Hong Kong’s intricate networks of private and public spaces are linked together by roads, tunnels, footbridges, escalators and lifts. “There’s no record of all the exciting stuff that happens in these spaces.”

Solomon rectifies that situation in Cities Without Ground, an unorthodox guidebook to Hong Kong he published last year with fellow architects Clara Wong and Adam Frampton. Inside its 128 pages is a brief history of Hong Kong’s “condition of groundlessness,” starting with the dramatic, hilly topography that enabled the growth of a vertical city, followed by the popularity of footbridges as a means to connect buildings on different levels and finally the development of vast above- and below-ground pedestrian networks. Most of the book consists not of text but of vivid illustrations dissecting the warren of subways and skybridges, shopping malls and public plazas that make up many parts of Hong Kong.

“There’s an alternative spatial logic in Hong Kong and in order to expose that, we had to reveal something invisible,” says Solomon. “These maps are not meant to be used as wayfinding devices, but I personally find them quite useful as a way of understanding how Hong Kong works.” The maps are as much a document of Hong Kong’s psychogeography as they are of its physical space. Labels include not only the names of buildings and shops, but also human landmarks like “lunching legislators” and the “permanent democracy protest” outside the government headquarters, and “family graduation photoshoots” and a “birdwatching meeting point” in Hong Kong Park.

Cities Without Ground also includes heat maps that chart the range in temperature between different types of buildings: the higher the rents, the frostier the air conditioning. The quality of climate control becomes a quick way to gage the prestige of a given shopping mall. “The network occurs on both the high and the low ends of the economy,” says Solomon. “People talk about Central as one big high-end mall, but if you look at Tsuen Wan, the form is very similar, but it’s all very quotidian middle-class stuff, like hair salons and 7-Eleven and fast food.”

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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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March 29th, 2011

Cairo’s Taxi Revolution

Photos by Peter Morgan (top), and MatHelium (bottom)

Hop in any cab in any city of the world and you’re likely to be treated to lively political commentary. That’s especially true in autocratic regimes, where the availability of other spaces in which random strangers can meet and speak openly has often been severely curtailed. Cairo’s sprawling cityscape, for example — segregated swathes of sumptuous subdivisions and mudbrick shantytowns each stretching out into the desert — rendered such common ground rare.

Despite the vastness of Egypt’s capital, car ownership is a relative extravagance, and the growing but incomplete mass transit system barely reaches even a fraction of the population, making taxis among the most vital forms of transport. At any given moment, the city’s classic, black-and-white cabs form a huge percentage of the vehicles trapped in Cairo’s notorious traffic. According to Greater Cairo’s General Transportation Authority, over 50,000 were registered in the city in 2005. Unofficially, the number is around 80,000 (for comparison’s sake, New York and London have around 15k each).

Most are third-hand Yugos, Ladas, or other now-obscure brands imported decades ago from the Eastern Bloc, their drivers often chasing down, often to the exclusion of keeping their eyes on the road, any potential fare they can find. And yet, despite their general reputation for unpredictability, Cairo taxis’ regimented color scheme is also what grants the capital’s sometimes chaotic streets any sense of uniformity and order. But it wasn’t until I was leaving the country that I pieced together their deeper political significance — with the help of Khaled al-Khamissi’s then newly-translated book, Taxi.

Enroute out of Egypt, at 35,000 feet, I became absorbed in al-Khamissi’s chronicle of taxicab confessions — the book is a compilation of the thoughts he’d gathered from the drivers who plied the streets down on the ground that was receding far behind and beneath me. Many began to replay in my mind when Egypt’s historic protests began in January. For all the debate over how and whether social media stimulated the Egyptian Revolution, much less attention has been paid to the urban social networks that reached many more Egyptians than Facebook. Like honeybees, Cairo’s taxis didn’t just collect the fares that were their drivers’ sustenance; they also cross-pollinate ideas — helping to gather and spread political dissent.

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April 14th, 2010

Lepers, Gods & Immortality: L’India di Manganelli

Posted in Books, Fiction, Society and Culture by Daniel Corbeil

DCorbeil | Lèpre et idoles, Montréal 2010

16h45. L’aiguille marque la minute d’un tac dramatique. Sonorité agaçante et répétitive. Je suis assis à la terrasse du Club Social, Mile End, tantôt le nez plongé dans ce bouquin d’importation, déniché à prix fort dans cette librairie opulente de l’Avenue du Parc. Tantôt le regard scrutateur, balayant la masse vivante qui se tortille autour de moi.

Un poilu gratte sa guitare, la barbe qui lui dessine une tête de chèvre.

C’est le titre du livre qui m’a attiré et sitôt convaincu de lui faire voir le soleil : Le gout du voyage. Quatre mots qui raisonnent et déraisonnent dans ma lourde cavité cervicale. D’ailleurs, dès le moment que j’eusse trouvé une chaise libre, j’y plongea tête première. Une, deux, dix pages. Un chapitre.

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January 4th, 2010

Empty L.A.

Posted in Art and Design, Books, United States by Christopher Szabla

Photo by Matthew Logue

The density of urban slums once drove city planners and social workers mad — and, in some cases, still does today. But perhaps because of the vicious crime that followed mass abandonment of cities like Detroit, or the specter, for the first time, of an entire city’s virtual erasure in the wake of Hiroshima, the empty, depopulated city has inspired more horror in the last sixty years.

In the original (1953) film version of The War of the Worlds, Los Angeles is almost completely evacuated to await its doom. The philosophical 2001 film Vanilla Sky opens with a nightmare sequence in which the main character wakes up to an empty Manhattan. Alan Weisman’s recent book The World Without Us detailed precisely what would happen to the built environment over time if people really did disappear from cities.

Limited disappearance has even been used as a tool to stress the catastrophic consequences of a particular category of person vanishing, as in the 1922 Austrian novel and subsequent film The City Without Jews (a shocking anticipation of Nazi anti-Semitism), or the 2004 film A Day Without a Mexican.

These apocalyptic precedents are what first came to mind upon first encountering photographer Matthew Logue’s new collection, Empty L.A.

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April 16th, 2009

A City and its Balconies

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Back in 2002, I was hired to write the cover story for Maisonneuve’s breakout third issue. It was my first real writing assignment and a big part of the reason why I ended up on the career path down which I’m now stumbling. Looking back, I cringe at the cloying introduction, but aside from that, I think it’s a pretty decent treatment of one of the defining aspects of Montreal and the first thing that struck me when I moved there: balconies.

My first two apartments were balcony-less; for two years, I was haunted by the feeling of missing out on some essential part of the Montreal experience. Finally, after finding an apartment on Park Avenue that was properly-balconied (one in the front, one in the back), I began to immerse myself in summer’s balcony life. Sitting in the afternoon sun, I chatted with my next-door neighbour, who was on her balcony whenever she wasn’t working at a café down the street. I watched the old Greek man next door tend the tomatoes he grew on the roof of the shed in his backyard. I spied on people cycling or strolling down the back lane.

Walking through any Montreal neighbourhood is an experience defined by the balconies you pass by. Near the corner of Park and Fairmount, an old man spends most of the summer sitting on his first-floor balcony listening to Greek radio at full volume. In north-end Villeray, tenants along busy St. Denis advertise their nationalism with plastic Quebec flags affixed to their balcony’s railings. The darkness of warm summer nights is always softened by the murmur of conversation and clinking of beer bottles coming from the balconies above.

Balcony

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April 14th, 2009

À la bibliothèque

Posted in Books, Canada, Interior Space, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf
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Expounding upon the virtues of public libraries is a bit like talking about how good it is to breathe clean air: it’s kind of obvious. But just as we insist on polluting our air until it is nearly toxic, libraries are often shamefully neglected. That was the case for most of Montreal’s history, but luckily, things have changed. If you ask me, the opening of the Grande Bibliothèque in 2005 was a turning point. Suddenly, Montreal’s underfunded, overlooked public library network had an anchor. People not only flocked to the new central library, their interest in the rest of the system was revived, and City Hall responded with more investment.

An example of that is Biblioclip, an annual video contest launched last year. Filmmakers were invited to make a one-and-a-half-minute spot about the public library network. The grand prize: television broadcast and $4,000. The deadline for this year’s edition is April 30th, and if last year’s submissions were any indication, the standard will be high. On his new blog about Montreal urban life and culture, Andy Riga pointed to a few of last year’s best contenders. I’m a particularly big fan of these two, which both convey the public imagination and knowledge that libraries help foster.

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January 20th, 2009

City in Ruins

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Books, Heritage and Preservation, History by Christopher DeWolf

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Forget the $2 slot machines and high-stakes poker of Cotai – Macau’s true soul hides within the city centre’s Ruínas de São Paulo, otherwise known as the ruins of St Paul’s. Every day, an endless stream of photo-snapping visitors flow north from the Largo do Senado (Senado Square) to gaze at the cathedral’s magnificent Baroque façade, the only thing left standing after a fire devastated the building in 1835. It has since become a potent symbol of Macau itself – but do any tourists know why?

César Guillén Nuñez, a research fellow and art historian at the Macau Ricci Institute, an organisation dedicated to exploring historical links between China and the West, hopes to make it clear exactly why St Paul’s matters. His new book, Macao’s Church of Saint Paul: A Glimmer of the Baroque in China, attempts to reconstruct the cathedral as it existed before it was destroyed in an inferno. From its architecture and religious art, Guillén draws a portrait of Macau’s position as an early hub of Catholic missionary activity.

“St Paul’s is one of the glories of Macanese architecture,” he says. “It became synonymous with Macau. If you look at any image that exemplifies Macau’s past, it’s an image of St Paul’s façade. It is a strong statement that Macau is a Portuguese Christian city right here in China. That’s very powerful.”

Built towards the end of the 16th century, St Paul’s was part of a cluster of buildings that included a college, a parish church and several charitable institutions, all of which were run by the Jesuits, an influential order of the Catholic Church particularly active in China and Japan. In the 1620s, a few decades after the cathedral’s construction, a new façade was built by labourers from Fujian and Christian Japanese craftsmen who had fled persecution in their homeland. It featured a number of unusual touches, including a granite relief depicting Mary above a dragon-like hydra, accompanied by a Chinese inscription meaning, “The Holy Mother tramples on the dragon’s head.”

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November 7th, 2007

A Book Market for the Big Bibliothèque?

Posted in Books, Canada, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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When it opened at the end of April, 2005, the Grande Bibliothèque defied expectations when it attracted tens of thousands of people who were eager to check out its airy architecture and multimedia, multilingual collection. The crowds never let up: even today, two and a half years later, a visit to the library reveals an always-crowded place enjoyed by a large cross-section of Montreal’s population. It is, quite clearly, Montreal’s most important public building of the past three decades.

There’s just one problem: shortly after it opened, big chunks of the green-glass cladding popped out and fell onto the street below. Temporary safety barriers were erected while the library, city, borough and province all squabbled over how best to deal with the situation. Now, finally, a permanent plan has emerged: decorative planters, fences and awnings will be built around the library to protect pedestrians should any more pieces of glass fall. The work will start next spring and finish by July.

Without any renderings, I can’t say what effect this will have on the library’s architecture. It will at least be improvement over the status quo. But what I’m curious about is whether or not this will finally enable the library to deal with its western flank facing Savoie Avenue, a small laneway in between Berri and St. Denis. When it was built, you see, the library was conceived as being open to all of its surroundings. This building has no back end: there are entrances on all four sides of the building.

Savoie was given a particularly special treatment. Along with a nice entrance bearing the inscription “Vous êtes ici,” the library faces this alley with a succession of shallow retail spaces. According to promotional material during the library’s construction, these spaces were originally intended to be leased to vendors to create a book market along Savoie. Last spring, the city renovated the alley, installing attractive concrete paving stones and new lampposts, possibly in anticipation of the market.

With the falling-glass problem, that plan was shelved, but now that an awning will be build along this side of the library, I don’t see any reason why it can’t be put into action. Let’s hope that, by next summer, the Grande Bibliothèque will finally be able to live up to its full potential.

April 25th, 2007

How Jane Jacobs Changed My Life

Posted in Books, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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I’ve been interested in cities for as long as I can remember. My childhood is marked by Lego metropolises on the living room floor, streetscapes doodled in schoolbooks and early Saturday mornings playing SimCity for hours on end. So it only made sense that, when I was fourteen, on a beautiful summer day spent wandering Vancouver’s streets, my uncle turned to me and insisted that I read Jane Jacobs.

“Sure,” I mumbled in a teenagerly way and we continued walking. He proceeded to tell me about a Marxist-Leninist bookstore on Hastings Street that had a great urban-issues section. “You should go there sometime,” he added.

Later that year, sitting under my family’s Christmas tree, I ripped opened a present from my uncle, revealing a bold mustard-coloured paperback. The title was stamped in bold capital letters: The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Below it was a blurb from the New York Times Book Review: “Perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning… a work of literature.”

It wasn’t until the following spring that I actually got around to reading Jane Jacobs’ 1961 classic, a book so widely read that it has never gone out of print. It opened my eyes. It confirmed what I had already begun to suspect about cities, about the way they worked, looked and felt, about their cultures and economies.

Looking around the Calgary of my youth, I saw how suburban planning had deprived the city of a public sphere. When I moved to Montreal, I was ecstatic to find exactly the opposite: a city whose human spirit was alive and visible in its streets, businesses and buildings. The seed of my interest in cities was planted a long time ago; Death and Life made it grow into something robust.

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