Archive for the Politics category

December 19th, 2013

A City on Edge

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Protest at the opening of UABB. Photo by Espen Cook

Last week in Kwun Tong, Kacey Wong stood inside a burnt wood cocoon, explaining the concept behind his painstakingly hand-made installation. “I wanted to create a place where people could meet quietly and have a greater understanding of what’s going on,” he said. To access the space, visitors must duck inside one of two small entrances and make their way to an intimate inner chamber filled with tree trunks; embedded in each tree are books of history and political philosophy that span the ideological spectrum. Wong charred the wood to represent the social and political conflict that now grips Hong Kong. “Fire is a process of transformation,” he said. “It changes material, but if you’re not careful you get burned.”

It was an apt metaphor. Outside the cocoon, the opening ceremony of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture (UABB) had broken down into chaos after Chief Executive CY Leung arrived to give a closed-door speech. Residents from the surrounding neighbourhood, outraged by the government’s plan to turn Kowloon East into a new central business district, gathered to protest. Banners were unfurled from the highway overhead; “Don’t bulldoze our culture,” read one. Police and security guards clamped down, shutting off access to the exhibition, preventing some of the biennale’s curators and exhibitors from accessing their work. “It’s ridiculous – they won’t even let us into our own exhibition,” fumed one designer.

This is the fourth edition of UABB, which takes place every two years in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. It is normally a sedate, academic exploration of the issues facing cities around the world. This year, however, the biennale finds itself caught in a maelstrom of controversy over the so-called CBD2 project, which the government hopes will transform Kwun Tong, Kowloon Bay and Kai Tak into a high-value business district, but which critics say will kill one of Hong Kong’s largest creative communities by making the area unaffordable for the small creative enterprises that now call it home. The question for the biennale, which opens this weekend and runs until February 23, is whether it can provide a space for dialogue – or whether it will exacerbate tensions that have already reached the boiling point.

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September 19th, 2012

Regrowth or Replacement?

HK Farm. Photo by Glenn Eugen Ellingsen

Sweating in the bright Mediterranean sun, Glenn Eugen Ellingsen surveyed a little bit of Hong Kong in Venice. “It’s meant to be very organic,” he said, pointing to an array of wood planters, metal racks, video screens and exposed electrical wires.

Ellingsen is one of the founders of HK Farm, an urban agriculture project on the roof of a factory building in Kwun Tong, and he had spent the week sourcing herbs and soil in order to recreate his farm in Venice. He turned his gaze over to a half-dozen wood planters brimming with rosemary, basil and sage. “They’re similar to what we have on the roof in Hong Kong, just a bit narrower,” he said.

It was the opening day of the Hong Kong pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s most prestigious showcase of architecture and urban design, which runs until Novermber 25. In true Hong Kong style, workers were scrambling to finish the exhibition on time, arranging architectural models and painting display cases green — the same colour as Hong Kong’s street market stalls.

The choice of colour was no accident. This year’s biennale is dedicated to “Common Ground,” a theme meant to shift focus away from big-name architects to more grassroots initiatives. Hong Kong’s exhibition, “Inter Cities/Intra Cities: Ghostwriting the Future,” focuses on the future of Kowloon East, a vast swath of city that is home to 600,000 people, Hong Kong’s last remaining factories, a burgeoning office hub and the city’s biggest creative cluster, with hundreds of musicians, designers and artists.

It also includes the former Kai Tak Airport, which is now being redeveloped with housing, offices and a huge cruise ship terminal and exhibition centre designed by Sir Norman Foster. The airport’s redevelopment will be used as a catalyst to transform Kowloon East into the so-called “CBD2” — a new office district that will provide an alternative to the high-priced business hubs of Hong Kong Island.

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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 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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July 27th, 2012

Tourist Trapped

A Mainland Chinese tourist shops in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo from AFP

Sindart was as much a fixture of Nathan Road as the double-decker buses that trundle up the street day and night. For more than 50 years, the tiny shop, tucked beneath an apartment building stairwell, sold handmade slippers embroidered with colourful motifs: peacock features, panda cubs, flowers and goldfish. It witnessed the 1967 riots, the boom years of the 1980s and the handover in 1997, all while serving a steady stream of enthusiastic customers.

But even such a venerable institution was not immune to the vagaries of local real estate. “We had the same landlords for 50 years — two generations in the same family,” says Billy Wong, who joined the business five years ago to help his uncle, owner Chung Kau. Last year, the landlords told Chung and Wong they wanted to use the space for themselves. They gave them one month to leave.

It turned out the landlords hadn’t been honest. Soon after Sindart was forced to leave, the stairwell space came back on the market. “I called the real estate broker listed on the ‘for rent’ sign and asked how much they wanted,” says Wong. “They told me no less than HK$40,000 per month. We never paid more than HK$4,000.” The space is now occupied by a currency exchange counter.

Retail rents are soaring all across Hong Kong. International chains have launched bidding wars for prime shop spaces in neighbourhoods like Causeway Bay, where American fashion chain Forever 21 is paying HK$11 million per month for a space on Jardine’s Bazaar. Spanish retailer Zara is reportedly keen to rent a space on Percival Street that costs HK$5 million per month; the previous tenant paid HK$880,000. On average, Causeway Bay rents have increased 50 percent over the past two years.

Retail analysts say there is one culprit: tourists from mainland China. “What’s driving the change in the retail landscape in Hong Kong is obviously mainland Chinese shoppers,” said property researcher Adrian Ngan on Bloomberg TV last month. “There’s a lot of them and they are spending a lot of money.”

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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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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 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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April 16th, 2012

Another Hole in Montreal’s Heart

The lower Main

The lower Main in 1997. Photo by Kate McDonnell

One of the defining features of Montreal’s cityscape is the abundance of vacant lots. Weedy, gravelly blocks of land, they can be seen in every neighbourhood, in some areas on every street, delineated by rows of misshapen concrete blocks, like boulders left behind by the retreat of urban development. (The concrete blocks, required by municipal law, serve to prevent illegal dumping.) Ten years ago, as the real estate market boomed, many of the lots were transformed into new apartment buildings and hotels. Streetcorners defined by the absence of buildings were reworked into the urban fabric.

Despite the progress, however, new vacant lots are still being created. Part of the reason is the alarming tendency for Montreal buildings to burn down. But mostly it comes down to a lack of foresight by City Hill and a far too cosy relationship between politicians and developers. It’s never hard to find an example. Here’s a recent one: the block of St-Laurent between Ste-Catherine and René-Lévesque.

For decades, this stretch of the lower Main was seedy but lively, and it embodied the schizoid character of Montreal’s downtown core. Under the elegant gaze of the Monument National marched a procession of strip clubs, peep shows, restaurants and dive bars, as including some venerable institutions: Canada’s oldest Middle Eastern grocery store, founded in 1903; the Montreal Pool Room, which had served classic Montreal-style hot dogs since 1912; and Café Cléopâtre, a classic strip club with a flair for the burlesque. It was grimy and past its prime, but it worked in that typically ragtag Montreal way. It was a place where you could get a steamed hot dog, attend Pecha Kucha Night, spend your change on a peep show, buy some smoked paprika and stumble out of a Club Soda concert at midnight — whatever.

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April 4th, 2012

Roadsworth’s Legacy

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Eight years ago, I was crossing Fairmount Avenue near my apartment in Montreal’s Mile End district when I noticed a strange addition to the zebra crossing beneath my feet: barbed wire. Not actual barbed wire, but a painted rendition of it along the edge of the crosswalk, half in yellow, the other half white, both colours indistinguishable from the other road markings on the street.

Strange, I thought. Is this a new initiative by the city to raise awareness of pedestrian rights? A nod to the sanctity of the crosswalk? Before I could finish crossing the street, a car sailed past me without bothering to stop.

By the time summer arrived, everyone had noticed the funny new road markings around town. Lane dividers were turned into giant zippers. Crosswalk zebra stripes became birthday candles. One crossing had become a giant shoeprint. Many of the works made brilliant use of nighttime shadows: owls stranded in the middle of asphalt during the day found a perch after dark. It was unlike any graffiti I had seen before. I wondered who had done it.

My answer came in July, when I visited Wooster Collective, a street art blog. There, I found images of the road stencils I had been walking past for month, and attached to them was a name: Roadsworth. They were accompanied by a brief Q&A.

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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 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 24th, 2012

La dignité d’un Portugal en tutelle

Posted in Europe, Politics, Society and Culture by Daniel Corbeil

Chronique d’un court séjour au Portugal, sur fond de crise économique…

C’est dimanche, mi-février 2012. Comme les quelques touristes perdus dans une Lisbonne hivernale, je profite de la journée pour aller visiter Belem et son fameux monastère. Débarquant à la station Cais-do-Sodré, je découvre cette marée humaine qui domine les rues, les monuments, les rails. Impossible de parvenir à Belem, et j’en profite pour faire le tour de cette scène et essayer de comprendre ce qui se passe.

C’est que les lisboètes, comme biens d’autres, ont un ras le bol des mesures d’austérité décrétées par le nouveau gouvernement en place. C’est vrai que depuis ma dernière visite, début 2006, les prix ont explosé. Certainement, une taxe de 23 % sur la restauration n’aide en rien et nombre de petits bistros n’arrivent tout simplement plus à survivre.

Malgré tout, c’est dans une ambiance bon enfant et dans le plus sincère respect que plus de 100 000 portugais sont descendus dans les rues de la Baixa, cet ancien quartier commercial dessiné par Pombal suite à 1755, et emplis la très vaste place du commerce, en front de “mer”.

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February 12th, 2012

Auto Invasion

Hong Kong Traffic

Photo by Charlotte Huang

Hong Kong’s not a big place, and with 28 million mainland Chinese visitors a year, it’s beginning to feel even more crowded than usual. The stress seems to have gotten to a lot of people. Over the past month, a handful of seemingly banal conflicts between Hongkongers and mainland tourists have been amplified beyond all proportion.

An argument over spilled noodles in the MTR somehow led to a Peking University professor calling Hong Kong people “dogs” and “bastards” who should speak Mandarin instead of Cantonese. An ill-advised remark by a Dolce & Gabbana security guard, who said that Hong Kong people are banned from taking photos of the shop but mainlanders aren’t, sparked an online firestorm and protests in the street. Mainland women who come to Hong Kong to have their babies delivered in local hospitals, thus ensuring Hong Kong residency for their children, were called “locusts” in a full-page printed in Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s second-most-read newspaper.

Now, the latest source of controversy: a government plan to allow mainland Chinese visitors to bring their cars into Hong Kong, despite the mainland’s notoriously poor standards of driving and the perils of operating a left-hand-drive car on the opposite side of the road — not to mention Hong Kong’s worsening congestion and air pollution. Those are some of the concerns of the thousands of people who have pledged their support for various Facebook protests, which call for the government to scrap its scheme. They are being joined in their demands by a coalition of environmental groups, social activists and opposition political parties.

“Drivers don’t obey the rules on the mainland,” says Kay Lam, a columnist for Apple Daily, who started a Facebook group opposed to the scheme. “Why would they follow the rules here? One mistake could be fatal. When it comes to safety, there should be no compromises.”

The government’s plan is based on a 2010 agreement made with authorities in the mainland province of Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong. Starting next month, Hong Kong motorists will be able to apply for a limited number of cross-border driving permits. Later, Guangdong drivers may do the same, giving them a chance to bring their cars to Hong Kong. When I asked a spokeswoman for the Transport and Housing Bureau for details, I was told that “there is not yet a concrete timetable” and the specifics still need to be hammered out.

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