Monday, June 3rd, 2013
Talking over dim sum at a busy Wan Chai restaurant, it doesn’t take much prompting for Christopher Law to reel off the failures of Hong Kong’s public spaces. “No matter how small the space is, they try to fence it off,” he says, taking of sip of pu-erh tea. “All the public seating is extremely awkward. And because of maintenance, they use these pink toilet tiles everywhere.”
It’s a subject Law, the director of international architectural practice Oval Partnership, knows well. He points out there are more than 80 small parks and plazas scattered throughout Wan Chai District, but many are so poorly designed they may as well not exist — one “sitting out area” on Queen’s Road East consists of two benches and a patch of concrete surrounded by a tall fence. Recently, though, Law and his firm got a chance to reshape a constellation of public open spaces around Star Street, a quietly fashionable corner of Wan Chai.
“They’re places where you can read a book, eat your rice box or sandwich, have a nap,” says Law. “Most of the public spaces in Hong Kong aren’t designed for that diversity of uses — all those activities are limited or actively discouraged. We wanted to encourage them.”
Hong Kong isn’t the only city in Asia where designers are casting a critical eye over the quality of public space. All over the region, cities ambushed by decades of rapid growth are taking a step back and reconsidering their perfunctory parks, streets and plazas — though in some cases, architects must butt heads against arcane policies, design standards and intransigent officials in order to make a difference.
One of the best-known and most dramatic of these overhauls took place in Seoul, where an ancient waterway known as Cheonggyecheon, long entombed in concrete and covered by an elevated expressway, was reborn in 2005 as a 8.4-kilometre-long stream lined by a promenade and native vegetation. That was one of the inspirations for last year’s transformation of a fenced-off waterway in Singapore’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park into a focal point for the surrounding community.
The crux of the project was the conversion of the Kallang River from concrete drainage channel into a natural stream. “Before, there was no relation to the water — it was the backside of the neighbourhood,” says Tobias Baur, a landscape architect with Atelier Dreiseitl, which oversaw the project. “The problem was that it was a concrete channel completely barred to the residents. It was dangerous for people because the water was very fast and it was a dead zone for vegetation. It was a non-usable space.”
Sunday, June 2nd, 2013
Sogo Junction in Causeway Bay, where ambient noise levels can reach 118 decibels. Photo by James Shandlon
After Karl Sluis’ richly-detailed map of New York City noise complaints was featured on The Atlantic Cities, my editor at the South China Morning Post got in touch about making a similar map for Hong Kong.
Hong Kong can be an intensely noisy place: roaring buses, skull-shattering pile-driving, incessant jackhammers, video billboards set to max volume. Ambient noise levels in Causeway Bay can reach 118 decibels — equivalent to sandblasting or a rock concert. Paradoxically, the noisiness of everyday life here seems to have made people less tolerant of things like outdoor concerts, which are always plagued by noise complaints. Just as Sluis did in New York, mapping those noise complaints would provide insight into Hong Kong’s geography of noise.
But we failed. That’s because every attempt I made to extract precise data on noise complaints from the Hong Kong government were met by obfuscation and outright refusal. Not only does this point to the government’s lack of transparency, it raises questions about how seriously it is committed to handling Hong Kong’s noise problem.
The problem is that, when it comes to noise, the government just doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. “There are not any comprehensive and detailed noise pollution surveys and studies in Hong Kong,” says Yip Yan-yan, chief operating officer of think tank Civic Exchange. The only way to reduce noise pollution is to analyse it — and to make those findings available to the public.
Wednesday, May 29th, 2013
If you read The Atlantic Cities, or follow our Twitter feed, you’ve probably seen Karl Sluis‘ map of the 40,412 noise complaints made last year in Manhattan. It’s a beautiful, richly-detailed effort to chart not only the geography of noise but more subtle variations in New York’s socio-economic landscape, like the fact that complaints about loud music from cars seem only to happen north of Central Park.
I’ve been working with the South China Morning Post to create a Hong Kong version of Sluis’ map for the past couple of weeks. It hasn’t gone so well. I’ll have more about that later, but in the meantime, here’s a quick interview I did with Sluis by email.
What came first, wanting to do a noise map or coming across New York’s open-source data on noise complaints?
As a freelance data visualization designer, I’m always on the lookout for that next great data set, so I was attracted first to NYC’s Open Data portal. Granted, a lot has already been made with the data released by the city of New York. I was perusing some of the less-popular data sets when I came across the 311 (NYC’s non-emergency information line) data set.
Wired Magazine had already made a visualization out of the same data some years ago, so I hardly wanted to repeat an existing project. What got me excited was the combination of geolocation data, time data, and, particularly, the metadata on what type of complaint had been filed. With such a rich data set, I knew the visualization would have legs.
New York’s an immense, incredible, rich place, and as a resident, I’m always curious to learn more.
Tuesday, May 21st, 2013
Lately, Hong Kong has taken on the airs of a carnival gone wrong. In late April, as a damp wind blew and the sky loomed heavy, Florentijn Hofman’s giant rubber duck floated into Victoria Harbour, igniting a media frenzy — the South China Morning Post ran no fewer than 12 articles on the duck — and a general wagging of the tongues (one satirical article reported Hong Kong’s air pollution had given the duck “a cute respiratory infection”). And that was before the duck mysteriously deflated into a sad yellow puddle.
The duck was brought in by the Hong Kong Tourism Board in collaboration with Harbour City, a giant shopping mall, and its presence has been accompanied by a kind of consumer mania as people crowd together to snap photos and buy duck souvenirs. Not far away is a kind of intellectual counterpoint: Mobile M+: Inflation!, a contemporary art exhibition of inflatable vinyl sculptures that runs until June 9. Seven artists and designers from around the world contributed massive works that are being displayed on a rough patch of vacant land that will soon be transformed into a new city park, which itself will be part of the multi-billion-dollar West Kowloon Cultural District.
“The idea for the exhibition came out of questions of what will be in that park,” says Pauline Yao, one of the curators at the forthcoming M+ museum of visual culture, which organized Inflation! “We’re interested in engaging with these questions around public art or art in public space, and to think about how normally public art tends to be sculpture-based, with certain assumptions about what is beautiful and pleasing.”
Monday, April 29th, 2013
When the stretch of Ste. Catherine Street in Montreal’s Gay Village was pedestrianized for two and a half months in the summer of 2008, it was accompanied by a strange policy that forced the street’s bars and restaurants to serve only Labatt beer products on their outdoor terraces. Merchants were unhappy and for good reason: it was summer-long corporate takeover of public space. (I said as much when a journalist for the Globe and Mail called for my opinion — ah, my glory days as a local pundit.)
Things have mellowed out since then. The Labatt-only policy was scrapped and car-free summers are now a well-loved tradition in the Village. What’s especially remarkable is that, unlike Montreal’s other street fairs and festivals, which ban car traffic for a few days or weeks at a time, the Village pedestrianization lasts the entirety of the summer — day and night, rain and shine. I think it owes a big part of its success to artist Claude Cormier, who draped 200,000 pink baubles over the street in 2011. Les boules roses proved so popular they returned the following year, and they’re poised to make a comeback this year, too.
The pink balls work because they create a sense of enclosure. One of the problems pedestrian streets face, especially in a car-dependent North American society, is that they often feel empty and sapped of vitality. You don’t realize how much space cars take up until they’re gone; a street that seems narrow when it’s filled with traffic, like Ste. Catherine, suddenly feels vast when the asphalt is clear. The baubles counteract that by tricking the mind into thinking the space is smaller and busier than it actually is. Plus they’re fun. And, you know, gay.
Carnarvon Road, Tsim Sha Tsui in the 1930s
When Joyce Fitch lived in Hong Kong, rickshaws were a form of public transport, the only way to cross Victoria Harbour was by boat and there were about 1.5 million people living in the territory. Fitch was born in England and spent most of her youth and adolescence in Hong Kong, where she lived with her family on Kimberley Road in Tsim Sha Tsui in the 1930s. I interviewed Fitch recently thanks to the English Schools Foundation’s Alumni News, and because it’s not often you hear first-hand about expatriate life in Kowloon before the war, I thought I’d post a portion of the transcript, which has been edited for clarity.
My father went out to China in 1920 as the captain of a ship for Butterfield and Swire, now Cathay Pacific. He was there trading up and down the coast, from Shanghai up to the Gorges and up to Tientsin. We were there in Shanghai for four years and then he was transferred down to Hong Kong. He was still working on the ship, going away and coming back.
We had rather a checkered family life but we managed. My brother was in England so we would have to go back there every so often. I went to the Kowloon British School near Austin Road — I travelled there by rickshaw — but I didn’t really have much time at school for any length of time. I was always coming back or forwards.
Because my father was away a lot, our life was a little bit different than other families. My mother played tennis and mahjong. I would come home and the [servant] boy would be there and I would have a meal. I was a rather solitary child and didn’t always have friends around to play. I was very independent and could walk around Kowloon all over the place and not feel at all restricted. I would go to dockyards and watch the men work.
We lived on Kimberley Road. The big houses there had gardens — Carnarvon Road too. Down where Carnarvon Road goes, there was a market garden, believe it or not. There weren’t many shops past St. Andrew’s [Church, on Nathan Road near Austin Road]. There was a sort of gap of houses and flats and maybe a few more shops further up Nathan Road, and then there was a theatre up there. I remember going to the pictures very often. It was just a very rural type area. Lots of gardens. I was really quite shocked when I went back to see it the next time. I think it was about 1970 that I went back first. I came back about three times — each time it surprised me more.
Sunday, April 28th, 2013
Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, is known as a summertime destination — seafood, beaches, that kind of thing. Dozens of love hotels dot beachfront neighbourhoods like Gwangan and Haeundae, geared towards couples looking for a sultry oceanside tryst. But I was there in December, just as the city was sliding headlong into winter. Busan’s climate is much milder than that of Seoul, but it’s still chilly, and when a stiff wind blows in off the Sea of Japan, the beach is not the first destination that comes to mind.
Yet even on a windy winter evening, there are still people at the beach. That’s because, along with swimming and sunbathing, one of Busan’s favourite seaside activities is setting off fireworks — which is exactly what a few hardy people were doing on an otherwise quiet Friday night at Gwangalli Beach, the city’s most popular stretch of sand.
Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013
When property prices reach such outlandish heights as in Hong Kong, it creates some peculiar distortions in the local market. Whenever I walk around Kowloon Tong, a wealthy, low-rise neighbourhood not far from my apartment, I’m surprised by the number of derelict and seemingly abandoned houses.
Kowloon Tong was first developed as a garden suburb in the 1920s, with identical tile-roofed houses that strike me as vaguely Southeast Asian in appearance. By the 1950s, many of those houses were being demolished for larger, more modern villas and small apartment buildings, which in turn were redeveloped into luxury townhouses or even larger apartment buildings in the 1980s and later.
Despite the successive waves of redevelopment, there are always reminders of what was left behind. One such reminder can be found on Derby Road, an unassuming little street behind the Maryknoll Convent School. That’s where I came across a large abandoned house, early modern in appearance, with a staggered form that makes it look like it was sliced off the top of an Art Deco skyscraper. The house has two wings, one slightly larger than the other, and a walled, overgrown garden with two gates, one facing Derby Road and another facing Chester Road. On the Derby Road wall are old advertisements for Sprite and Kent cigarettes, with the faded name of a see doh — variety shop — written on the gate. It seems that, at some point in time, there was a small shop or hawker stall on the property.
Wednesday, April 17th, 2013
I often get angry when I walk around Hong Kong. This is one of the most fascinating cities in the world to explore — densely layered, pulsing with energy — but it’s also one of the most frustrating because of all the ways the pedestrian experience is undermined and made unpleasant. In the city with the lowest car ownership rate in the developed world, pedestrians are treated like second-class citizens.
Designing Hong Kong recently launched an interesting new initiative called Missing Links, which is lobbying the government to improve pedestrian linkages around the city. One particularly egregious example is Salisbury Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, which runs parallel to the harbourfront in Tsim Sha Tsui. In the past, crosswalks allowed pedestrians to easily walk to the waterfront, but a major traffic engineering project about 10 years ago removed all surface-level crossings and forced pedestrians into a confusing system of underground passageways. Walking through them is not much different from being a rat in a maze. To say it’s a dispiriting experience would be an understatement: if life is a series of tile-walled tunnels, I’ll take the next exit out, thank you very much.
This is just one example of what’s wrong in Hong Kong. What’s even more outrageous is the systematic denigration of pedestrians in the city’s entire network of streets. There are the legendarily narrow sidewalks, made even narrower by the presence of roadside fences that eat up valuable pedestrian space. When a sidewalk becomes overcrowded, it isn’t widened, it’s fenced in, the way the jam-packed sidewalk of Dundas Street was fenced in when too many people started walking in the street.
Crosswalks at major intersections are generally too narrow and surrounded by fences that create artificial choke points. Minor intersections have absolutely no provisions for pedestrians: no crosswalks, just a “Look Left” or “Look Right” sign painted on the asphalt. Pedestrians are meant to wait for oncoming vehicles, which always have the right of way unless there is a zebra crossing. And while there are zebra crossings here and there, usually in very quiet parts of town, in recent years they have become even more endangered than the animals for which they are named.
Monday, April 15th, 2013
This story was originally published in 2010. See the postscript for an update.
In 1974, as a typhoon bears down on Hong Kong, a gangly twenty-seven-year-old Vietnam War reporter named Luke stands in the toilets of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Head ringing, hung over, he washes blood out of his mouth—he just fought in a brawl over a bar girl—and frantically tries to recall a juicy scoop his old Chinese landlord had let slip earlier that day. Suddenly, he remembers and storms into the bar, which is packed with journalists deep in their cups. Luke leaps straight onto a table, breaking several glasses and cracking his head on the ceiling. The room barely looks up.
So begins The Honourable Schoolboy, a 1977 Cold War spy novel by John le Carré. The book sealed the reputation of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club as a place of mischievousness, harebrained schemes and occasional sobriety. For sixty-one years, the FCC has served as a hangout for some of the world’s legendary reporters. Hugh van Es, the photographer who took the famous picture of Americans scrambling desperately into a helicopter during the evacuation of Saigon, was a regular until his death last year. His frequent barmate was Clare Hollingworth, the first reporter to break the news of the German invasion of Poland. (She had been driving along the Polish border when she noticed an ominous massing-up of Nazi troops.) Pushing one hundred, she still manages to drop in regularly.
The club has changed almost beyond recognition since the day Hollingworth joined. The big-game reporting, and the men who pursued it, are gone. When Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, many foreign news organizations closed their Hong Kong bureaus and opened offices in Beijing instead. More recently, the collapse of traditional news media has taken its toll, eliminating correspondent jobs and killing some of Asia’s best English-language publications, like the muckraking Far Eastern Economic Review. These days, only business journalism and luxury lifestyle writing make money. Few well-established journalists practice the sort of broad-minded, general-interest reporting that was once the mainstay of good foreign correspondence.
Friday, March 29th, 2013
Thursday, March 28th, 2013
Walking the length of Vancouver’s Seawall is a lesson in design fads and fashions. The Stanley Park stretch dates back to 1914 and is elegant in its simplicity; a rough-hewn stone wall threads its way around the park’s craggy shoreline, rainforest on one side and cool Pacific waters on the other. Near Granville Island, the path takes on a late-70s look with brick paving, timber planters and suburban landscaping, a trend that continued into the 1990s, with some variations — square-cut timber gave way to painted steel tubes as the material of choice for benches and railings, and the pine trees of the 70s were usurped by a 90s love of palms, which matched the SoCal architecture that was fashionable at the time.
By the time the late 2000s rolled around, fashions had changed yet again, and this is reflected in the newest stretch of the Seawall, which runs along the southeast side of False Creek next to the Olympic Village. The materials used are at once rustic yet contemporary: cool materials like concrete, granite and steel juxtaposed with warm timber. Natural shorelines were preserved rather than obliterated, wild grasses are abundant and there is generally a more diverse array of spatial experiences than on the more rigid parts of the Seawall: paved plazas, boardwalks, pebble beaches, piers jutting into the water. (The entire Seawall is documented on Google Street View, so feel free to take a virtual bike ride to see if you agree with my impressions.)
It’s that depth of experience that sets the newest part of the Seawall apart from its predecessors. It is not simply a space meant for enjoying the view; it’s a space that encourages active participation. There are lounge chairs, a seemingly unregulated community garden and — most interesting of all — there’s Habitat Island. This spit of scrubby offshore land is accessible only at low tide via a pebble beach. The last time I visited, on a sunny spring day, the island was filled with people: teenagers rummaging through the bush, some people smoking pot, others drinking beer, families examining the aquatic life of tidal pools. It’s a lovely, unmanicured island, its wildness made all the more striking by the wall of glassy condominium towers across the water.
Wednesday, March 27th, 2013
Joel Sanders’ Broadway Penthouse
Five years ago, New York-based architect Joel Sanders was renovating a downtown Manhattan penthouse when he ran into a problem. “There was a rooftop garden, and what we needed to figure out was how to connect it to the loft,” he says. “We decided to reverse Modernist convention. Instead of taking hard materials outside, we brought the outside in.”
Like a waterfall of greenery, the roof garden makes its way into the centre of the apartment through a skylit atrium, through which a runs a minimalist wood-and-metal staircase. The green space serves a dual function as both focal point and barrier, separating the public areas of the apartment—the kitchen and living room—from the bedrooms. Glass walls in the bathroom look out to lush foliage; bathing inside “is like being in a spa,” says Sanders. “We made living with nature part of the lifestyle of the apartment by literally weaving the indoor and outdoor spaces together.”
It’s a concept that scales up. Last year, Sanders and landscape architect Diana Balmori, who both teach at the Yale School of Architecture, published Groundwork: Between Landscape and Architecture, a new book that seeks to eliminate the “false dichotomy between architecture and landscape” – the idea that the built environment is somehow distinct from the natural one.
“What we need to do now, because of the imperative to face environmental issues today, is to see buildings and landscapes as always being interrelated to one another,” says Sanders by phone from Yale. “We need design buildings that are green, sustainable and tied into the environment, but which also spatially integrates the indoors and outdoors.”
Tuesday, March 26th, 2013
Human life and natural life are often seen to be at odds, so the points where they intersect — urban beaches, wall trees, overgrown vacant lots — feel wonderfully transgressive. Cities are such regulated environments that the intrusion of a self-governing natural element is disruptive and thrilling.
That’s especially true around this time of year, when cherry blossoms begin to bloom. In Japan, this occasion is used an excuse to throw hanami parties under the blossoms, and similar gatherings occur elsewhere in the world. When I was in Vancouver last spring, there was a sakura festival outside the Burrard Street SkyTrain station, with music and bento boxes that people held up to the flowers and photographed. Elsewhere in the city, small crowds gathered around particularly attractive blossoms to take photos.
These sakura spaces are ephemeral in the extreme: one week they’re there, the next they’re gone. The area outside Burrard station is a pretty unremarkable place, a sunken concrete plaza where office workers eat their sandwiches before returning to another slog in the cubicle. But for two weeks each spring, the arrival of the cherry blossoms transforms it into somewhere almost magical, a feather-ceilinged outdoor room that people go out of their way to visit.