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.”
September 18th, 2012
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.
May 22nd, 2012
It’s a familiar story: old industrial area becomes creative hub. What makes OCT Loft different is that the entire process took just six years — and it’s on the vanguard of Shenzhen’s transformation from factory town to Chinese creative superpower.
In the mid-1980s, a swath of farmland in the newly-established Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was developed into the OCT East Industrial Park, one of first of many new factory districts. Over the next 20 years, they helped transform Shenzhen into one of the wealthiest and largest cities in China.
Then, in the early 2000s, as labour costs and real estate prices soared, most of the factories left for cheaper pastures in Shenzhen’s suburbs and other parts of the Pearl River Delta. The industrial zone was slated to be bulldozed and replaced by a luxury housing complex, but a new policy that encouraged the development of creative industries led OCT Properties, which owned the land, to hand it over to artists and designers.
OCT hired Shenzhen-based Urbanus Architecture and Design to facilitate the transformation. The first order of business, in 2004, was to make a home for the OCT Contemporary Art Termial (OCAT), a Kunsthalle-style exhibition hall and research centre.
The building they chose for OCAT was a 3,000-square-metre shed. “It was hardly a building,” says Urbanus partner Liu Xiaodu. “It had a tin roof and there wasn’t even any insulation. So we were very free to do anything.”
April 11th, 2012
Ningbo is a pleasant 2.5 hour drive from Shanghai, a trip that would otherwise take four hours if not for the Hangzhou Bay Bridge, an impressive feat of Chinese infrastructure which opened in May 2008. It spans 36 km (22 miles) and takes almost 20 minutes to cross by car. Looking out on both sides of the bridge on a foggy day, it’s as if one is standing on an isolated island.
And from afar, Ningbo’s own new landmark, the Ningbo History Museum, looks like a stone ship run ashore; it’s particularly stunning against spring’s blue skies. Its exterior is marked by lean, asymmetrical lines, colored with a blend of salvaged grey stone and orange brick.
I was particuarly excited about visiting the Ningbo museum after learning that its architect, Wang Shu, has become the first Chinese to win architecture’s prominent Pritzker Prize, awarded by the Hyatt Foundation of Chicago. Wang’s style leans towards minimalist and angular lines with an emphasis on Chinese materials — but his preference for local ingredients rarely means merely traditional results (Wang laid out his style in more detail in an interview with Architects Newspaper.)
Inside, the museum’s vast atrium is mapped by giant angled slabs running along all sides of each floor. The interior is huge — maybe too huge — and the layout almost disappointingly generic in comparison to the impressive exterior. The upside: the museum is spacious enough to accommodate droves of visitors even at the peak of May Day — which was probably what Ningbo’s government had in mind when it gave the museum its the generous plot of land.
December 21st, 2011
Mississauga was as close to a blank slate as Beijing-based architect Ma Yansong could hope for. For more than twenty years, the sprawling city in the suburbs of Toronto has been searching fruitlessly for an identity. Its first attempt came in 1987, when a national design competition produced a post-modern City Hall that resembled a mutant farmstead. But it wasn’t enough to counter the effect of the featureless apartment towers, shopping malls and low-density subdivisions that spread over the young city’s flat landscape.
So when Mississauga tried its hand at creating another civic landmark, the Absolute Towers, a pair of 56-storey and 50-storey apartment buildings that would anchor a privately-built housing complex, it opened the field internationally. Ma submitted a proposal for an improbably nebulous structure with no vertical lines. Each floor seemed piled on top of one another like an unwieldy stack of papers. For all the novelty of its form, however, the tower was memorably beautiful, with a curve that brought to mind the hourglass figure of Marilyn Monroe — which is exactly what Mississauga locals began calling the building after it won the competition.
“I was a little bit surprised about Marilyn Monroe, but I was very happy,” says Ma from his office in Beijing, where I spoke with him by phone earlier this year. “I went to the press conference and was asked, ‘Why is this building so sexy?’ I didn’t try to make it a sexy building, but what I like is a natural shape.”
The tower is human in its function as well as its form. Each floor has a different layout and is framed by a wraparound balcony, so “there will be a lot of people on the balconies,” says Ma. “You can see them and they can see each other. That’s my vision of urban life, a lot of people integrated with one another.”
November 3rd, 2011
Lai King Station, next to Hong Kong’s sprawling container port, has special significance for Wilfred Yeung. “This was my first assignment when I joined the MTR,” he says as we ride down the escalator from the busy platform upstairs. In the mid-1990s, as a young architect, Yeung was given the task of expanding the station to accommodate a new metro line. Rather than expand the station into an unwieldy maze of corridors, tracks were rerouted so that passengers could transfer between lines simply by walking across the platform.
It’s this kind of efficiency that passengers have come to expect from the MTR, the world’s ninth-busiest metro system, with 1.41 billion passenger rides last year. Not only efficiency, but seemingly endless expansion. Over the next five years, the MTR will open seven new metro stations and a high-speed rail line; several more lines and an overhaul of existing stations are in the works. But attitudes in Hong Kong are changing, and growth for growth’s sake is not longer held in high esteem. Nor is a purely functional metro system, no matter how fast and reliable it might be. The MTR’s new challenge is to move millions of people a day through a system that is at once convenient, comfortable and aesthetically interesting.
Aesthetics weren’t the top priority when the MTR was first planned in the 1970s, but under the guidance of British architect Roland Paoletti — who later oversaw the design of London’s renowned Jubilee Line extension in the late 1990s — it managed to create a visually distinctive system with limited resources. Paoletti made extensive use of commonly-available, brightly-coloured mosaic tiles to create a distinct identity for each station. “It’s still so significant that it’s hard to depart from when we plan new stations,” says Yeung, who is now the MTR’s chief architect. “People associate the MTR with bright colours.”
April 5th, 2011
Jean-Talon Station’s southwest exit in 2010
Rendering by MileEnd Design
The southwest exit of Montreal’s Jean-Talon metro station — a small but interesting specimen of contemporary architecture — is situated along Jean-Talon Street, at the end of a huge parking lot and between some commercial strips in need of renovation. In that situation, we can hardly tell the difference between the street itself and the parking lot; the sidewalks are invisible.
And yet this is the main exit one uses to reach Jean-Talon Market, one of the most famous landmarks in midtown Montreal. And the area’s density means that Jean-Talon is also a street often densely packed with commuters.
As part of a design exercise, we’ve been thinking about how we could transform this area without investing a significant amount of important resources, and in what way this could be done in the short term.
The simple solution we provide here is an outdoor café and terrace, where people could simply stop by for a drink or have something on their way to the office. The design of the public space suggested, using trees, plants and some furniture, helps structure the street itself. It is, as you can see, a basic concept that we prepared quickly to use as an example.
In light of this solution, do you think Montreal — or other cities — ought to invest resources in some similarly simple transformations ? Could our quality of life be significantly upgraded by little more than such simple urban design?
September 1st, 2010
Dubai feels like it was designed by a five-year-old boy. What kid doesn’t get excited about the BIGGEST BUILDING EVER, or the WORLD’S BIGGEST MALL? And then there’s the idea of a SEVEN STAR HOTEL. Wow!
A real kid’s drawing would have these elements laid out side-by-side, in two dimensions. Drawings by five-year-olds generally don’t have much perspective or depth. Dubai’s recent urban planning efforts seem to lack them as well. Where else can you visit a city that actually implemented all those dumb ideas you thought were cool in kindergarten? And that laid them all out as ineptly as you would have when you were five?
August 18th, 2010
My award for the most underlooked gem in Montreal goes to the Jacques Cartier Bridge Building. Built around 1930, it looks like an art deco take on a Moroccan kasbah. The windows are laid out under arches, in straight lines of narrow arrow slits, and some in diagonals. There are even traditional rub el hizb, or Islamic eight-pointed stars, around the circular windows at the top of the four corner towers. All of this is enlivened by the fact that building supports the bridge itself and twisting flyovers jut out from all sides, creating some dramatic panoramas at its base.
May 13th, 2010
In Shanghai’s French Concession…or la France profonde?
Since the first World’s Fair opened in London in 1851, the event has remade cities, bestowing lasting landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower and Space Needle, and introducing the styles, modes, and technologies that would come to dominate urban life: City Beautiful neoclassicism made its debut at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, and the 1939 New York World’s Fair was a celebration of the car as the transportation of the future.
It’s still unclear what the 2010 Shanghai Expo will do for the future of cities — even Shanghai itself. The fair’s theme, “Better City, Better Life,” points toward a focus on urbanization, but no single great idea has of yet emerged from the event. And while Shanghai has spruced itself up, it’s done so at a cost — including mass evictions — that hardly justifies the result: mostly stylistic hyperbole, including LED light strips attached to highway bridges.
Even the architecture of the fair’s pavilions is as hit-or-miss as it is temporary; most is slated to be swept away for another round of redevelopment soon after the fair closes in October. But Shanghai’s cityscape evinced cosmopolitan flair well before the world assembled Expo’s theme park of architectural amusements.
Of course, the city’s history may not have encompassed as many cultural traditions as there are token national pavilions at the fair. But because of its colonial past — it rose as a trading port divided into concessions ruled by the British, Americans, and French — Shanghai is filled with streetscapes that sometimes conjure the precise look and feel of London, Paris, or New York.
April 29th, 2008
Madrid’s iconography is strictly prewar. Between the gratuitous ornamentation dripping from the buildings lining Gran Via and the interiors of crowded tapas, the city centre appears decked out in full late-19th century regalia, fit for admirers of coattails and opera gloves. Tread out along the boulevards bursting from the city’s heart, however, and Madrid’s palette of pale yellows and burnt ochres takes on a slightly different form.
In ways, the commercial outskirts of Madrid reprise a sort of cityscape that’s as rare in Europe as it is fatiguingly common elsewhere. Black-ribboned towers wrapped in shades of brown and black will slump along streets that gape by whim, rather than necessity. The packs of pedestrians thin out. Walk along the arteries feeding the gargantuan Avenida de la Castellada, drown out the cheers from the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, and one is in downtown Denver.
April 13th, 2008
Over the years I’ve heard people surmise it to be a temple, a mosque, an Orthodox church, even a synagogue. Familiar sight though it is in central Montreal, the first thing the huge domed building at Saint-Urbain and Saint-Viateur brings to mind is not the Roman Catholic church.
At the turn of the last century there was something of a migration of Irish-Canadian working people from their overcrowded Point St. Charles and Griffintown haunts north into Mile End. In 1902, the Catholic archbishop of Montreal, Mgr. Paul Bruchési, gave his approval for a new parish to be created. The first mass was said upstairs of a fire hall at Laurier and Saint-Denis that no longer exists. Their first small church building was on rue Boucher near there; it no longer exists either.
By 1914 the growing parish decided it needed something bigger and grander. In July of that year excavations began. Work stopped briefly when war broke out that autumn, but resumed in April 1915, and the church was ready to use by that December. The price tag was $232,000 and the church could hold 1400 people.
This information comes from a booklet published in 1927 when the parish was already 25 years old. The text describes, and images show, that the dome and the cap on the tower were both decorated with patterns, and the massive façade with the words Deo dicatum in honorem St. Michaeli and a smaller motto on a banner over the doors. Those flourishes are gone, but carved shamrocks are still part of the façade, a nod to the time when the parish was pretty well a monoculture, with priests called McGinnis, Fahey, McCrory, Walsh, O’Brien, Cooney and O’Conor and church wardens Keegan, Gorman, Dillon, McGee and Flood.
Also, unusually, there’s no mention of bells, and no evidence that the tower ever contained any: unlike most church towers it’s closed all the way to the top.
March 3rd, 2008
The term “skywalk” conjures up something decidedly modern, and for the most part, the elevated pedestrian bridges linking office buildings in cities around the world really are quite recent. Rare before the 1960s and 70s, they have since become popular as a means of separating high volumes of pedestrians from high volumes of vehicular traffic (like in parts of Hong Kong) or of insulating downtown pedestrians from a harsh winter climate (like in Calgary or Minneapolis). At their best, they are a beautiful in their functionality; at their worst, like when a drab modern skywalk has been built between two historic structures, they are a blemish on the cityscape.
Last week, when I saw this skywalk on West 32nd Street in midtown Manhattan, I was surprised not only by how graceful it was, but how it seemed to have been added quite a long time ago, perhaps only shortly after the construction of the buildings it connects.
February 3rd, 2008
It would be a bit of an understatement to say that downtown Calgary is in the midst of a construction boom. Construction explosion, more like it. Nearly two dozen new condominium and office towers are under construction in the city’s compact centre; some are destined for obscurity but others, like Norman Foster’s The Bow, which will become the city’s new tallest building, are daring and ambitious in their design.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of the Le Germain, a hotel, office and condominium complex currently under construction at the corner of Ninth Avenue and Centre Street, right across from the Calgary Tower. I like that it subverts the plain-box archetype that has dominated Calgary since the 1970s; by taking two different boxes and bridging them with an bunch of glass condos, it creates an unusual building in a city that strays far too often towards the banal.
At the same time, though, it’s pretty ugly — but I guess it’s better to be interestingly ugly than pleasantly average.