Monday, February 25th, 2013
Even in well-behaved cities, late-night public transit often veers into the debauched, as well-lubricated straphangers make their way home from bars. People in Toronto call overnight buses “vomit comets”; passengers riding Hong Kong’s red minibuses are informed by prominent signs that they will be charged HK$300 if “your vomitus smears the carriage.” So it’s almost a bit of a disappointment when, on the few occasions when the MTR runs all night, a 3am ride on the spotless, ever-efficient metro system feels almost the same as a ride at 3pm.
Almost, but not quite. Though the harsh fluorescent lights remain unwaveringly timeless, there’s a noticeable difference in behaviour. During the day, everyone tries to remain as impassive as possible, faces buried in mobile devices or staring up to the ceiling, pretending they aren’t a few inches from a fellow passenger’s ripe armpit or some heavy breather with a chest cold. At night, things loosen up. There are more conversations between friends, people are less guarded with their emotions, as was the case when I made my way home a few hours after midnight last New Year’s Eve.
Wednesday, February 20th, 2013
Industrial buildings in Chai Wan
China’s Pearl River Delta is often called the world’s factory floor, but 40 years ago, that title belonged to Hong Kong. In the 1970s, 22,000 factories and workshops furiously churned out everything from clothes to watches to jewellery. Then, when low wages and a newly-liberalised economy made mainland China an attractive prospect in the 1990s, business owners moved their factories across the border. Left behind were hundreds of now-quiet industrial buildings – and even more out-of-work men and women with skills in sewing, watchmaking, cobbling and other trades.
But that’s not the end of the story. In recent years, a small group of Hong Kong designers are building new brands on the remnants of the city’s industrial heritage and traditional craft skills. What is not yet clear, however, is whether this is the birth of a new generation of skilled and design-savvy craftspeople – or simply the last gasp of Hong Kong manufacturing.
When designers Kit Lee and Jeff Wan discovered that high rents were forcing a 40-year-old shoe workshop named Ming Kee to close, they bought the shop’s equipment and hired its shoemaking master, a 60-something man known affectionately as Uncle Kong. (“He’s a bit media shy,” says Lee, explaining that he doesn’t like to reveal too much about himself.) That was their first step towards Shoe Artistry, a brand that aims to reinvigorate Hong Kong’s tradition of bespoke shoemaking. Uncle Kong now makes shoes in a second-floor space above the busy Ladies Market, where Lee and Wan also hold public workshops. They eventually plan to move to a new studio in the PMQ design hub, which will open next year.
“Design and industry should work hand in hand,” says Lee, who used to source apparel from mainland Chinese factories for a company in Singapore. “Every year there are so many design students being churned out but without industry they have no connection to how things are made.” At the same time, she says, Hong Kong has lost touch with its own industrial skills. “Instead of always looking to China to get things made, why don’t we look at what Hong Kong has to offer?”
Friday, February 8th, 2013
Rendering of the Xiqu Centre
Early December was a busy time for Bing Thom. First, there was his 72nd birthday, followed shortly by an announcement that the renowned Canadian architect had won the competition to design the new Xiqu Centre in Hong Kong, the first of 17 cultural venues to be built in the West Kowloon Cultural District. But Thom looks nothing but energised the day after the announcement, as he stands inside the cultural district’s offices.
“Have you seen the model?” he asks, bouncing over to a scale model to show off the 1,780-seat, US$350 million centre for Chinese opera that will begin construction this year. When it is completed at the end of 2015, the Xiqu Centre will contain a large theatre, a 280-seat teahouse, educational facilities for 200 students, retail spaces and a series of gardens. (A smaller theatre will be added later.) When Thom’s design was first unveiled, its undulating, translucent form caused quite a stir, earning comparisons to a lantern, a curtain being pulled open and even, in less polite corners of the internet, a certain part of the female anatomy.
“I’m trying to capture the soul and essence of what Cantonese opera is about while giving it a contemporary expression of ambiguity,” says Thom. “Even though it’s not physically moving, the quality of light, the seasonal changes and the changing of the gardens with different colours will give the building a moving quality.”
The Xiqu Centre is a sort of homecoming for Thom. Born in Hong Kong in 1940, he left with his family for Vancouver when he was ten years old. After studies in architecture at the University of British Columbia and University of California, Berkeley, he worked briefly for Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki before joining Arthur Erickson’s office in 1972, overseeing a number of major projects including the Roy Thomson concert hall in Toronto and the ambitious Robson Square civic centre project in Vancouver.
Monday, February 4th, 2013
I’ve been lucky enough to travel pretty extensively over the past few years. There have been sunny mornings in Munich, cold winter treks through Seoul, sweaty nights in Bangkok. Yet for all the cities I’ve encountered, all the streets I’ve walked, I still think Montreal is one of the most enjoyable places in the world to explore. There’s something about the eclectic architecture, untamed vegetation and weather-worn surfaces — brick, wood, stone, concrete — that gives it a particularly satisfying depth of experience. The fleeting light and changing foliage of fall brings out the best of these qualities, adding to them dimensions of sound (the crackling of leaves underfoot) and smell: wood smoke on chilly evenings, the musk of decaying foliage.
Monday, January 28th, 2013
When artist-activist John Bela wandered around Wan Chai, Hong Kong’s melting pot neighbourhood of historic shophouses, packed street markets and hooker bars, he encountered a sense of déjà-vu. “I felt like a prisoner in a cage surrounded by leering cars and trucks,” he says. “This is the case in many cities where traffic engineers have dominated the design of streets.”
For years, Bela has fought for more humane public spaces in his hometown of San Francisco, where he helped launched Park(ing) Day, a now-global initiative to convert street parking spaces into miniature public parks. When he came to Hong Kong to curate the latest Detour design festival, he was dismayed by the city’s “twentieth century” approach to designing streets, which treats them as traffic funnels instead of public gathering spaces.
With the help of co-curator Justine Topfer and Detour creative director Aidan Li, Bela assembled an international crew of designers to challenge Hong Kong’s approach to public space in engaging ways. The result was “Design Renegade: Prototyping Public Space,” a two-week event held last December at the recently-decommissioned Wan Chai Police Station. In addition to lectures, concerts, a design market and exhibits inside the police station, a vacant lot across the street was transformed into an urbanist’s playground.
Detour from above. Photo courtesy the organizers
Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013
Seats of imperial power are often regarded with a certain reverence — they provoke admiration, astonishment, even fear. That’s certainly the case in New Delhi, where British colonialists built a series of massive, belittling monuments to their rule, or in Washington, DC, where the Mall is increasingly seen by its National Park Service administrators not as a civic gathering place but as a kind of “semi-sacred site of national, secular religion.”
Ancient Rome wasn’t like that. One of the points underlined in Mary Beard’s review of Clare Holleran’s new book Shopping in Ancient Rome is “the ubiquity of buying and selling in Roman towns and cities beyond designated shops or markets, or in areas where you might not quite expect it.” That includes the Forum, which was “buzzing with trade as much as with law and politics,” but also “some of the very grandest buildings in Rome,” which “were built specially to accommodate retail alongside their ceremonial function.”
The Temple of Castor included a series of bars and shops built right into its podium, which evidence suggests included, at some point, a shoemaker’s shop and a barber-cum-dentist’s shop (“as we can tell from the large number of extracted teeth found in its drain”). “The religious and ceremonial life of the temple obviously went on against a backdrop of ravens squawking, cobblers hammering and the screams of those having their teeth pulled,” writes Beard.
There’s a similar (though much tamer) scene on the edge of the Wufenpu clothing market in the east end of Taipei, where a row of hawker stalls is integrated into a Chinese temple. A number of stalls serve food and they use the interior courtyard of the temple as a dining area. As I munched on minced-pork noodles beneath red lanterns and a list of temple donors pasted on the wall, a couple of old men set off a string of firecrackers behind me. None of the other diners paid much heed. A man walked his dog through the courtyard.
Sunday, January 13th, 2013
Accra from above by Jason Armstrong
With tree-lined avenues and hilltop views, the ACP Estate in Accra already feels greener than much of Ghana’s fast-growing, densely populated capital. It has the appearance of a comfortable suburb: leafy, peaceful and wholesome.
But the yard of Florence Benson is more than just green. It also boasts a constellation of oranges, purples, reds, yellows and brilliant whites. They are orchids, the work of a former civil servant who has turned her passion into an unlikely, word-of-mouth-driven home business, and who now counts a university campus and an innovative children’s park among her public projects. “Auntie Florence” emerges from the foliage to meet us in a flowing green dress, like the spirit of the place come to life.
Benson’s market is small but lucrative — many miles from the cut flower mega-producers of Kenya or Ethiopia, both literally and metaphorically. She sells to other orchid enthusiasts and to wealthy individuals, some of whom are willing to spend hundreds of US dollars on ready-to-go prestige plants. User-friendly Vandas, a culture that takes well to Ghana’s semi-tropical climate, are a top seller.
She is also emblematic of the struggle to create and preserve green space, recently agreeing to work on Accra and Spokane-based charity Mmofra Foundation’s Playtime in Africa project. Designed to promote educational and exploratory play, its plan features rain gardens, wild areas, performance spaces and vegetable patches. It is mould-breaking stuff for a West African city, and follows on from her work on the campus of Ashesi University College, founded by former Microsoft engineer Patrick Awuah. Both projects are linked to the green-minded Ghanaian architect Ralph Sutherland, an old friend.
Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013
A couple of months ago, I wrote about the fig tree that has taken root atop a dilapidated building on Temple Street in Hong Kong. 800 kilometres to the northeast, across the Taiwan Strait, there is something even more spectacular: an enormous tree that grows straight through an otherwise ordinary shophouse.
You can find the tree on Roosevelt Road, a wide boulevard that runs through the heart of Taipei, from the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to some of the city’s largest universities. From afar, it looks as though the tree stands in a courtyard, but walk closer and you’ll find its trunk rooted in an adjacent sidewalk. It rises up through the building’s first floor, curves through the interior and explodes past the roof into a riot of foliage. What came first, the building or the tree? Either way, accommodating the tree would have required serious effort and expense on the part of the building’s owner.
It goes without saying that cities impose themselves rather heavily on nature. Manhattan was verdant and hilly when the Dutch arrived; now it is flat and stripped bare of nearly all primeval forest — even Central Park is a simulacrum, its landscape meticulously planned by Frederick Law Olmstead. Even recent efforts at urban greening — vertical gardens, rooftop farms — stop short of being truly transformative.
Thursday, December 27th, 2012
On the morning of my single day in Palermo — a city that left a real impression on me, despite the short amount of time I spent there — I came across a vacant lot near the harbour that was overgrown with vegetation. The funny thing is, I didn’t realize it was a vacant lot at first, because it didn’t look particularly weedy or ratty. Under the bright May sun, grass gone to seed, flowers blooming, it looked a lot like the fields I had encountered the day before on the south coast of Sicily. An unintentional incursion of the countryside into the city, I guess.
Wednesday, December 19th, 2012
When the Hong Kong public was invited to choose a master plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District, they were met by ambitious presentations from each of the proposals. The most sophisticated pitch of all came from Norman Foster’s office, which provided seductively realistic renderings of their City Park concept, which included grassy meadows overlooking Victoria Harbour, replete with picnickers, kids kicking around a ball and kite-flyers.
This provided no shortage of amusement to cynics: “As if it would ever look like that — Hongkongers don’t like sitting on the grass!” That’s something I heard more than once. After all, this is a city where people won’t sit on a concrete step without first protecting themselves with a sheet of newspaper, and where putting a handbag on the floor is tantamount to licking crumbs off the linoleum.
But Foster’s plan won for a reason, and it wasn’t just the slick sales pitch. Public behaviour in Hong Kong is strictly regimented by design and regulation, but this is a deeply informal city at its heart — shopping malls may be popular, but even tycoons have a soft spot for dai pai dongs. You could see this last weekend at the Freespace Festival, a music, art and dance event on the waterfront of the future cultural district. There were people on the grass — and not just sitting, but also sleeping, playing games, picnicking and playing music.
Wednesday, December 12th, 2012
Despite the fact that I’ve never owned a car, and I drive only a couple of times a year, I’ve always had a fascination with car design. When I was a kid, I knew all the marques. I would sit in the back seat of my parents’ van, naming the cars that went by, a copy of the Consumer Reports car guide on my lap. Even today, when I’m stuck on traffic on the bus here in Hong Kong, I’ll gaze out and catalogue my fellow travellers: the bulbous Nissan Marchs, hulking Toyota Alphards, the endless varieties of 3-Series BMWs and C-Class Mercedes that are so common in Hong Kong.
Of course, my interest isn’t limited to private automobiles. When I visited other North American cities with my family, I noted with interest how New Flyer buses were common in the west, Novabuses in the east. I learned to appreciate the classic New Look buses that served as workhorses on so many Calgary Transit routes, retro-stylish even as they struggled up the long hill to my house, ancient engines moaning in protest.
I bring this up because of Thomas Heatherwick, who delivered a very animated and entertaining talk last weekend at the Business of Design Week forum in Hong Kong. Heatherwick is a British designer whose London-based studio has produced, among other things, the “Seed Cathedral” at the 2010 Shanghai Expo and the spectacular cauldron of the 2012 Olympic Games. Heatherwick is also the designer of the New Bus for London, which he highlighted in his talk at BODW.
When the bus was unveiled last year, there was some sense that it was at best a vanity project, at worst an attempt to indulge nostalgia, since the new bus was meant as a revival of the iconic Routemaster bus, which was produced until 1968, retired from regular service in 2005 and known for its hop-on, hop-off open back end. The typically rancorous peanut gallery at Dezeen blasted Heatherwick’s design as “steampunky art nouveau” and a “glorified student project” that put “fashion over function.” One cranky commenter insisted that “the bus should be practical above all else,” as if Heatherwick had produced a three-wheeled jitney that ran on the distilled essence of gold.
Friday, November 23rd, 2012
Every day from spring to fall, a scene reminiscent of Georges Seurat’s most famous painting is reenacted next to the Lafontaine Park pond in Montreal. It’s as much of a scene as any bar or café: teenagers flirting, sunbathers bathing, les ostie de gratteux de guitare strumming their guitars.
Thinking back to my most recent visit to the park, in late October, and looking at Seurat’s painting, I wonder what particular alchemy leads to a place becoming a natural gathering spot for loafers and loiterers. English Bay in Vancouver, the southeast steps of Union Square in New York, Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath — is all it takes a slope and an open view? Or is there another ingredient?
Wednesday, November 21st, 2012
Pilgrims en route to Lhasa
It takes a lot of work to capture a good photo. Last month, Michael Yamashita was sitting in a Hong Kong bookstore, clicking through slides of pictures from his new book, Shangri-La: Along the Tea Road to Lhasa, a five-year project that documents the incomparable beauty and changing face of Tibet.
He arrived at a photo of several young men dressed in leather aprons, heavy mittens, plastic covers on their shoes, making their way down an empty road high on the Tibetan plateau. One of them was lying prostrate on the ground, another rising to his feet, others walking forward. They were pilgrims making an arduous month-long journey to Lhasa.
“To get this frame that’s perfect, with one guy on the ground, another rising, other standing, I must have had to walk half a mile backward,” said Yamashita. “And it was raining.”
Later, I asked him how far he has gone to get a single shot. “I wouldn’t risk my life, but it’s all about getting the picture,” he said. “You’ll do what you have to do.”
Yamashita is no stranger to legwork. In 30 years of taking photos for National Geographic, the American-born photographer has retraced the footsteps of Marco Polo, Ming Dynasty explorer Zheng He and the Japanese poet Basho. His travels have taken him to nearly every corner of Asia; his photos have spanned the gulf from film to digital.
Now he is one of the last remaining photojournalists from an era when photographers commanded big budgets for ambitious assignments. “I’m the last of a breed,” he says.
Tuesday, November 20th, 2012
The Venice Biennale of Architecture closes this week, which has given me opportunity to think back to its opening days in late August. I was there to cover the Hong Kong exhibition, but I had a bit of time to soak up the rest of the show. It was big, unruly and dramatically uneven, but it was clear enough that this year’s curator, British architect David Chipperfield, was eager to capture the zeitgeist of grassroots urbanism and do-it-yourself architecture. The theme, “Common Ground,” was meant to reflect the importance of everyday urban environments, which are “created in collaboration with every citizen,” according to Chipperfield.
But Venice is not a city that embraces change, and neither does its biennale. Big names and established players still dominated the event. This year’s show “mostly just glides over issues like public housing and health, the environment, informal settlements, economic decline and protest,” wrote New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman. “It suggests above all an uncertainty about how to unpack, evaluate, present and tame the messy, multilayered social, political, economic and architectural processes that go into making good buildings and places today.”
Austrian architect Wolf Prix went even further than Kimmelman and savaged this year’s biennale for promoting “compromise” with authorities instead of outright resistance to the status quo. “It is no longer about lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture, but rather about empty, conservative and perhaps populist shells that are charged with feigned meaning,” he wrote.