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.
Thursday, November 15th, 2012
Tatzu Nishi has made a career of bringing monuments down to size. Over the past 15 years, the 52-year-old Japanese artist has enclosed statues around the world in makeshift rooms. Last year, he built a hotel room around Singapore’s Merlion, whose enormous head loomed incongruously over a luxuriously-appointed king-sized bed. This year, Christopher Columbus receives the same treatment. Normally perched 18 metres above Columbus Circle in New York, a four-metre-tall marble statue of the famed explorer now sits atop a coffee table in an upscale American living room. Visitors can contemplate the normally aloof figure in a familiar setting: Bloomingdale’s furniture set, 55-inch Samsung TV, hardwood floors.
Sunday, November 11th, 2012
It’s a fun exercise to think of how long it would take for reclaim our cities if humanity were to disappear overnight. How many months until Dubai is returned to the desert? How many hurricanes until New Orleans becomes part of the Gulf?
Here in Hong Kong, nature’s plan is well underway. In a city entombed in concrete, it’s easy to forget just how fertile the surrounding land is, until you remember that this is a place where century-old banyan trees grow from the cracks in stone walls. The same scenario occurs in many smaller instances: tile roofs taken over by grass; shrubs sprouting from broken drainpipes.
There’s a particularly derelict building at 23 Temple Street. After a similarly-aged building in Hung Hom collapsed two years ago, emergency scaffolding was installed to hoist up its concrete balconies and it has been there ever since. But there is a benefit to such dilapidation: there’s a fig tree growing on the building’s roof. I can only guess that it came into being the same way as any other tree, seeds deposited by wayward birds, but in this case it grows so perfectly — protruding right from the middle of an old concrete shed — you’d almost think it was planted deliberately.
Friday, October 26th, 2012
Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, au coeur du dédale du vieux coeur greco-romain napoliain.
Assis à la terrasse du Gran Caffè Napolis, un mouvement soudain de vie me surprend par son intensité. C’est vrai que les cloches sonnent l’arrivée de la longue pause de la mi-journée.
De nombreux ménestrels nouveau genre envahissent un bon cinquième de la place et chantent une sorte de trame sonore vaguement inspirée par les différentes cultures qui ont tour à tour choisies de faire de Napoli leur capitale. Et ils sont nombreux à avoir rêver de posséder la baie légendaire, des grecs aux bourdons d’Espagne, en passant par les romains et les normands. Même Napoléon a savourer les lumières de Campanie. De toutes ces cultures, je crois que la cité est demeurer la Neapolis héllénistique de ses origines.
Il est très tôt encore, le matin du septième jour, alors que j’écris à la hâte ces quelques lignes trop diffuses sur cette cité si complexe. Pourtant, j’en suis à mon cinquième séjour en autant d’années.
Napoli, le nom évoque la mer, le volcan, les mioches qui trainent la rue dans Montecalvario. Une cité qu’on apprend, au fur que les jours passent et que les découvertes s’accumulent, à désirer. Et puis, alors que l’on quitte une des nombreuses ruines de la baie, au détour d’une falaise qui projette le regard loin dans cette mer turquoise, l’on se prend de nostalgie pour ces visiteurs des siècles derniers. Le concept même du voyage n’est-il pas ce qui à survécu du Grand tour que ces nobles anglais et allemands accomplissaient afin de parfaire leur éducation intellectuelle et sexuelle ?
Thursday, October 25th, 2012
Sometimes it seems as though everyone knows Michael Leung — even the owner of a Kwun Tong dai pai dong, who chats amiably with the young designer as he sits down for lunch. “We made a zine about him,” Leung explains later. “He’s really proud of it.”
Scratch the surface of Hong Kong’s creative scene and you’re bound to come across something that Leung is involved in. There’s HK Honey, the urban beekeeping project he founded two years ago; Shanghai Street Studios, which runs art, design and cultural initiatives in Yau Ma Tei; HK Farm, an experiment in rooftop agriculture; 2 Years Ahead, a publishing and furniture-building project.
And that doesn’t even begin to cover Leung’s freelance work or his teaching at the Polytechnic University’s School of Design, where he will lecture on “design for the Asian lifestyle” in November.
“I think all the projects are so related, it’s almost like they’re the same thing,” says Leung, settling into a wicker chair on the roof of the Easy-Pack Industrial Building in Kwun Tong, where he maintains an organic farm and apiary with the help of photographer Glenn Eugen Ellingsen and archivist Matthew Edmondson. “I’ll do a food-safety project and I won’t know whether to put it in HK Honey or HK Farm.”
Leung is 28, with a shaved head and photogenic features. On a blustery day in late September he is dressed in grey shorts, worn pink slip-ons and a Ngau Tau Kok graphic t-shirt made by his friends at Start from Zero, the street art crew whose studio is just down the street.
Wednesday, October 24th, 2012
Over the past 30 years, Vancouver has transformed itself from provincial outpost to globally-renowned metropolis — a crucial link in the Pacific Rim necklace of capital, culture and migration. The change has been physical. Since 1990, more than 150 skyscrapers have been built on the Canadian city’s downtown peninsula, creating a densely-built environment that has more in common with Singapore or Shanghai than with most North American cities.
Nearly 40 of those towers were designed by James Cheng, one of Canada’s most quietly influential architects. Born in Hong Kong, educated in the United States and based in Vancouver since 1972, Cheng pioneered a form of slender “point tower” set atop a low-rise podium that became the emblem of “Vancouverism,” an urban design movement that advocates high-density residential construction with an emphasis on public amenities, natural light, open views, urban greenery and lively, pedestrian-oriented streets.
Yet Cheng remains an architectural outsider, even as his ideas have reshaped Vancouver’s urban identity. “As city-builder and innovator in high-density housing, he is without rival in this country, fighting for public amenities and public open space in his city-transforming projects at a time when autonomous architectural sculptures get the praise,” writes Vancouver-based architecture critic Trevor Boddy. Cheng describes himself in slightly less grandiose terms: “I don’t want to be a global player. I have no dream to be a superstar. I just want to do good-quality buildings.”
Saturday, October 20th, 2012
For a few days, I walked all around Turin, talking to locals, enjoying the unique light you find there.
Most people asked me why I came to Turin. I couldn’t say. I told them I came without purpose, except perhaps to spend some time doing nothing else than having a caffè, eating well and observing people so that I could write about how they live in this northern Italian metropolis.
Turin strikes you less for its individual monuments than with the overall impression it gives you. There’s nothing special to say about its architecture, other than realizing how perfectly built the streets and public spaces were back in the old days.
Friday, October 19th, 2012
Marchant dans les pas de Mark Twain, Nietzsche et bien d’autres, je parcours Turin, longeant d’un rythme paresseux ces rues longues et rectilignes, encadrées d’arcades si émouvantes de par leur charme démodés et franchement surannées.
Je trouve quelques chemises, dans une de ces nouvelles boutiques qui pullulent de plus en plus, jouxtant de vieilles échoppes aux façades noircies.
J’entends les pas qui résonnent, amplifiés mille fois par ces voutes qui me surplombent : l’Italie est une patrie où l’élégance est digne d’une dramaturgie grecque.
La perspective bute soudainement sur une vaste place qui forme une sorte de demi-lune étirée sur la longueur. Puis je devine le serpent d’eau que forme la Po, écrasée sous la masse informe des collines alpines. Un pont et une église ronde un peu pompeuse.
Monday, October 8th, 2012
We’re happy to introduce our newest contributor, Yin Khvat. Yin was born in Manchester in the UK and has lived in Australia for the last six years. She is currently on a short stay in Taiwan and has a particular interest in Cambodia.
Photo by Bo Nielsen
A woman is selling green coconuts off the back of her motorbike on the dusty street. With a scythe, she deftly chips the head of the coconut into a point, then guillotines the tip to reveal the sweet juice and tender white flesh inside. Next to her, a barber has set up on the pavement, his shop made up only of bare necessities: a mirror and chair. Young men in makeshift stalls, with car parts hung up on tarpaulin walls, observe you languidly as you watch them, curiosity returned for curiosity. On the corner, policemen in blue on their motorbikes look a little seedy, restricted in their uniforms, smoking cigarettes and surveying the traffic.
This is a typical street scene in Phnom Penh: a living, breathing cross-section of life in the Cambodian capital. Some look at this and see disorder, or a blight on the city’s beauty. Others see freedom, vibrancy, and the right of everyone — including the poor — to make a living. The city council has attempted to “reorganise” these small stalls — sometimes known as “romantic stallss” — believing they are messy or unhygienic. But for the time being, at least, it seems their efforts have not succeeded. Phnom Penh remains a capital city where the poorer sections of society can sell and provide services as the market demands, without the need to lease expensive commercial space.
But the stalls are part of a bigger social fabric, one which appears to define the Cambodian way of life. You see it not only in streets lined with people selling their wares, but also every afternoon and evening along the banks of the Tonle Sap River and Chaktomuk — the “four faces” where the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers meet. On Sisowath Quay, especially, people spend their free time sitting, walking and dancing with friends and family. They enjoy each other’s company under their city’s skies. Take one of the popular boat trips down the river and it is another episode of this same documentary, in which the delineation between viewer and object is blurred. You are watching them as they are watching you. The social interaction is thrilling, an essential element in a society where social integration is the outcome, binding people together and folding lives in on each other.
No doubt the warm weather and dense population contribute to this phenomenon, as does the economic devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge and the civil wars through the 1970s and 1980s, from which Cambodia is only now recovering. But what of the social legacy? When I asked how people here can be so warm after the horrors they have faced, I have been told that many Cambodians “live and let live.” That many adhere to Buddhist teachings that there is good and bad in all of us, and that forgiveness is part of living. Many Cambodians want to put those years behind them.
And so perhaps what we get is something I can’t help feel is unique to Phnom Penh. This is city that is unafraid, welcoming, generous and open-hearted. Tourists don’t need to be invited into the homes of Cambodians to interact with real people, or to get a good taste of life here, of what Cambodians do and how they live their lives. This society has a transparent, wonderful, communal feel — even after what it suffered just a generation ago.