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.”
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.
It’s one way to see a city: pick a subway line, any line, and ride to the end. In theory, whatever narrow perceptions you’ve acquired by sauntering through any metropolis’ most busy downtown streets will be balanced out by impressions of its flavor of ragged urban edge.
That’s precisely what my friend Tanveer and I did when we were trying to think, a few years ago, of a creative way to explore Lisbon. Miles out from the tightly gridded 18th century streets of Baixa, the Portuguese capital’s heart, a sprawling housing estate greets anyone arriving at the end of the line with splashes of bold color — and creepily empty streets. It was exactly the contrast with the Lisbon depicted on postcards and tour guides I that would have imagined.
Most termini, though, aren’t very representative of the city’s outer rim. The end of the line is also a starting point — a place where many begin their journeys on cities’ rapid transit systems after disembarking from buses and cars. That means they’re often hubs of activity that mirror the bustle of urban cores — with the crucial distinction that they’re rarely as well-known or experienced by anyone who doesn’t live nearby, as foreign to most residents of those cities as to travelers.
In Berlin, I lived in a bizarre neighborhood of vast, snaking concrete buildings a long walk from the final stop on the U6 line. At Alt-Mariendorf, the line’s last station (or, depending on how you looked at it, its first one), there was a bustling pedestrian plaza that was a hive of activity. Yet, for all the relative action that seemed to transpire there, and not the languid courtyards closer to home, few Berliners were really passing through. The end of a ride they never took to its conclusion, Alt-Mariendorf is, for most regular passengers of the U6, more aspiration than destination.
“Almost everyone in Berlin knows their names,” filmmaker Janosch Delcker introduces his recent short film, which takes viewers to the stations at each end of every Berlin U-Bahn line, “but scarcely anyone has ever been there”. He could be speaking about the last stop of any subway line in the world.
Gary Hustwit clearly wanted his new documentary, Urbanized, to get more people talking or writing about cities. But he might not have expected the very literal way that admirers at Field Notes, a stationery company, would help facilitate that goal — by supplying notepads branded with the film’s logo to audiences attending early theatrical runs.
According to info printed inside, the notebooks, which are like disposable Moleskines, were inspired by “the vanishing subgenre of agricultural memo books”, boasting “innards printed on a Miller TP104 28″ x 40″ 2-color printing press,” and were inevitably produced in Portland, Oregon — capital of all that’s preciously artisanal. It’s not exactly surprising that any tribute to Hustwit would come in the form of such obsessively crafted items; his first two films, Helvetica and Objectified, have attained a certain cult status among font geeks and industrial design nerds, respectively.
Urbanized, the third in Hustwit’s so-called “design trilogy,” has a slightly different valence. There’s a definite utilitarian logic in the decision to value Helvetica over another font, or in thinking about how to craft a tool or household object. But urban design impacts many more lives on a scale orders of magnitude larger than either.
As the film chronicles, that realization has forced a once-distant discipline to consult, increasingly, those whose lives it affects. Many of the ideas the documentary presents underscore Hustwit’s enthusiasm for such engagement — whether initiated by planners and architects or their erstwhile subjects. “You have book clubs,” he implored, after a recent screening in Manhattan, “start city clubs!” Urbanized could be seen as a simple, layered presentation of world cities’ design choices — but to the extent that the documentary moves in any one direction, it’s as a meditation on how and why urban design should be democratized.
Vancouver is working hard to shake off its reputation as a somewhat pious city that values good mountain views over vibrant streetlife. Its architecture has seen a shift away from the back-to-nature style of the 1970s, 80s and 90s towards something bolder and more urban, like the recently-completed Woodwards redevelopment. There seems to be more tolerance for cheeky public art — witness Douglas Coupland’s Digital Orca (which makes up for all the lame whale murals around town) and Ken Lum’s Monument for East Vancouver. And there is more and more playful new street furniture.
Last week, I came across one such piece of furniture in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. The stretch of Robson Street in front of the gallery had been closed for construction for several weeks; when it reopened, a kind of undulating fake lawn was installed. It had bright yellow “grass” and was shaded by white umbrellas; it was a bright, sunny afternoon and the lawn was thronged with people. I returned later, after the sun had set, and sat down for awhile. A couple of guys laid down on the grass, holding hands, and one of them wondered aloud, “What is this doing here? This is so weird!” But if others thought it was strange, it didn’t show. A couple of people worked on their laptops, faces lit by the screen’s blue glow. Others sat cross-legged, talking to friends. It was as if it had always been there.
Two years ago, I spent a lot of time exploring the rooftop squatter villages that spread across the city like mushrooms on a tree stump. There’s an eerie feeling that comes over you as you walk through these settlements. Weeds poke through cracks in concrete walls; birds chirp and cicadas whir in the hot summer sun. It’s as though you’re in an isolated country village, except when you look down, water pipes run along the path in front of you, and when you look to the side, you see a forest of highrises. The nearest street is ten stories below.
Inspired by this very feeling, a young German filmmaker named Marco Sparmberg has created Squattertown, a new mini-series based on a dystopian vision of Hong Kong. In this parallel universe, the wealth gap has grown so large, a vast underclass is forced to live in a ramshackle, parallel city that exists above the heads of the affluent. Threatened by this sprawling rooftop shantytown, the wealthy from below send up a thug to terrorize the leader of the roof society.
It’s what Sparmberg calls a “Dim Sum Western,” a new genre that draws from the genre-redefining syncretism of two hallmark film movements: the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s.
The scenario is fantasy, but like any good allegory, it’s not too far removed from reality.
“I was trying to tackle the issue of property developers trying to push out people by any means, especially those people in rooftop housing,” said Sparmberg when I met him on the roof of the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre. Last fall, he spent two months scouting rooftops that would be good for shooting. He found most of them on buildings slated for redevelopment by property developers and the Urban Renewal Authority.
In 1999, American biologist J. Michael Fay set out on a project to map and survey the vegetation of Africa’s entire Congo River basin. Heavily promoted by National Geographic as “The Megatransect,” Fay’s feat involved 455 days of walking across 3,200 miles of largely untamed territory. Biologists had actually been using the term “transect” to describe such surveys since the late 19th century, but Fay’s epic-scale journey brought it widespread public recognition. In 2004 and 2005, he and Geographic extended the brand by conducting a “Megaflyover” of Africa, taking photos every 20 seconds during a 60,000 mile plus journey in a small bush plane.
Legendary as the natural surveys of explorer-biologists like Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt are, expeditions like theirs — and Fay’s — are increasingly rare now that most of “the field” has been crossed and recrossed. Geographers have turned their attention toward changes, rather than gaps, in maps of the earth’s surface — particularly those with less than natural causes. So it’s unsurprising that they have become fixated on the sites of the most intense human population growth and activity — cities. By 2008, urban centers contained, for the first time, over half the world’s people.
You’ve probably heard the term “voodoo economics” before. Famously used by George H.W. Bush to denounce Ronald Reagan’s theory of trickle-down wealth when the two were vying head-to-head for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, they never again escaped the elder Bush’s lips after he became Reagan’s running mate in that year’s general election. The former’s subsequent silence and the latter’s historic victory ensured that voodoo economics would reign unchallenged throughout the 80s, fueling a period remembered for overall prosperity — but an alarmingly huge income gap.
It’s no coincidence that the 80s were also the period when the word “gentrification” began to play a major role in US public discourse. So did “yuppies”, who became the subject of routine social satire during the decade. Less well documented, though, are the earlier, murkier beginnings of postwar gentrification, well before the tipping point that brought the concept into mass consciousness. In the late 1960s and 1970s, as white flight continued hollowing out American city centers, the first gentrifiers were also taking their initial, cautious steps into what is now some of the most coveted real estate in the country.
Director Hal Ashby’s first film, a 1970 comedy called The Landlord, marks the period well. The protagonist is Elgar Enders, a dandy-suited suburban WASP who lives off his parents’ money — the original trust fund kid. His plan to buy a ghetto tenement, evict its tenants, and transform it into into his new mansion seems rebellious and eccentric, though it’s no less whimsical than the change of tastes that brought mass gentrification to similar Brooklyn neighborhoods (the movie was filmed in a now unrecognizably destitute Park Slope) in the 80s and 90s. In fact, Enders’ scheme might have been prophetic — in the last decade, the mansionization of New York apartment buildings has become a small trend.
“Chrysler: Born of Fire”, presented during the last Super Bowl
Am I the only one that feels the spirit of a city in this advertisement? I believe Chrysler and Eminem were able to capture the true identity of this American city. I could say that I enjoy the way they first present Detroit as an historic industrial hub while they present themselves as hard workers and creative citizens.
Are we watching a city that tries to wake up and scream to the world, telling us they want to survive, asking for help?
I am not American, neither am I a fan of cars, Eminem or Detroit itself, but I must say that I felt almost proud after watching this advertisement. I wish Montreal could at least try to do something as emotional as this.
“Everyone’s talking about the weather,” runs a loose translation of an old German political poster, “except us.” The slogan was used to parody a period railroad ad that trumpeted the Deutsche Bahn’s storm-resistant resilience, but it also attempted a deeper point: that meaningful politics is serious business, above the fray of such trivial, provincial preoccupations as the latest shower, hail, or frost.
In a recent essay at 3 Quarks Daily, Alyssa Pelish takes the other side of the argument. At first, she wonders whether talking about the three-day forecast might really be a sort of code obscuring some underlying purpose — functioning as a form of empathy, for example. Ultimately, she sees an even greater significance in sharing news about the weather: it provides one of the few “universally shared narratives” available to everyone.
It’s true that everyone experiences weather, full stop. But the way we do seems like it might be more effective at fostering individual communities rather than any single, universal one. Think, for example, of a snowstorm, when the collective, Herculean task of removing tons and tons of heavy, disruptive white stuff requires a city’s residents to work together — and, together, to interact with their government — at the most intimate, personal level.
How do you document the passage of time, the experience of place? Millefiores Clarkes, a filmmaker from Prince Edward Island, found her answer in the fragments of memory that linger long after something has passed.
Last month, when she visited friends and family in Toronto, Clarkes documented her trip with an entry-level Canon DSLR. She pieced together her material in a way that is dreamlike, nightmarish even, with jump cuts, reverse action and a creepily disjointed soundtrack. It’s vaguely unsettling, like when you try to remember something that happened a year or two ago, catching only half the words, textures and smells you know were there.
It’s these puzzle pieces that I enjoy most about this video: the bits of conversation recalled from a walk down the street with a friend, the sound of a taxi dispatcher’s voice crackling on the radio, a fuzzy glimpse of fellow passengers on the subway. It reminds me of the way memories of past travels come back to me at unexpected moments, like when I catch a whiff of the Boston T’s distinctive musk, or the smell of Beijing heating coal, or the crunch of snow beneath feet.
Bill Brand’s “Masstransiscipe” installation in New York’s subway
I first noticed subway tunnel wall animations in Boston, where the long gaps between stations on the MBTA Red Line provides a captive audience. The animation, composed of dozens of stills that simulated movement as the train zoomed by, was an ad. The message: visit Vermont and its great outdoors, which certainly must have resonated with more than a few claustrophobes riding the crowded rush hour rails.
Animated ads in subway tunnels are expensive, both to design and install, which helps explain why the Vermont ad’s successor, a campaign for a movie “coming to theatres” last February, was only removed recently — with no ready replacement. But the medium is a popular one, if only because it’s relatively novel and rare. Examples from Budapest, Hong Kong, Kiev, L.A., Tokyo, and Washington, D.C. have been enthusiastically documented for upload to YouTube. And given that cash-strapped transit agencies have allowed almost every other subway surface to be colonized by ad space, including seats and whole exteriors of rolling stock, it was almost a logical next step.
Much of the credit for introducing these flipbook or zoetrope-like ads goes to two independent innovators: New York astrophysics student Joshua Spodek and Winnipeg animator Bradley Caruk. Spodek’s ads debuted in Atlanta in 2001; his company, Sub Media, continues to produce similar ads today. In 2006, Caruk won a Manning Innovation Award for his concept, which his partner, Rob Walker, first thought up while staring at the blank walls of Paris’ Metro. The company they co-founded, SideTrack Technologies, set up its first system in Kuala Lumpur and has since opened others across the United States — and beyond, to London, Rio de Janeiro, and cities in Mexico.
It’s right next to the City of London, but the Brick Lane area is everything the financial district is not. It has long been one of the poorest districts of London, notorious for its crime and council housing. It also has an artistic atmosphere and abundant street art that contrasts with the sterile corporate landscape next door.
Impromptu art and graffiti and are everywhere here. There’s pictures filling recessed doorways, stretching across gates, tucked into corners high up on rooftops. They bring new vibrancy to derelict buildings and to the grimy, rundown walls. Lurking amongst all this art, anonymous and legendary at the same time, are works by some of the world’s best know graffiti artists. Banksy, D*Face and Ben Eine all have pieces scattered around the walls here.
This slideshow is an attempt to show what it is like to wander around the area, continually being surprised by new pieces of art that you haven’t noticed before. The soundtrack’s by that ever nostalgic UK beat boy DJ Format.
Détroit: Ville Sauvage (Detroit Wild City), film de Florent Tillon (2010), présente de façon particulièrement poétique et imagée la réversibilité du processus d’urbanisation. Dans le cas très précis de Détroit, il s’agît d’un phénomène directement lié à la baisse de production dans l’industrie automobile américaine et des pertes d’emplois qui sont une conséquence directe des déboires dans cette industrie.
Les quartiers anciens de la ville – ainsi que certaines banlieues – sont laissés à l’abandon, vidés de leurs habitants. Plusieurs tours anciennes du centre-ville sont en attente d’un preneur et d’une nouvelle occupation. D’autres sont simplement détruites… Une attention particulière à été porté aux sonorités ambiantes, ce qui plonge le spectateur dans un environnement sonore particulièrement persistant, qui marque.
Quel est le destin des mégapoles en perte de vitesse? Quel est l’avenir du mode d’urbanisation nord-américain? Peut-on sauver ces témoins de notre passé industriel, lorsque les ressources financières se font rares? Quelle est la valeur – et le sens – de notre banlieue, si la ville centrale disparait?