May 22nd, 2014

New Life in Old Beijing, Part I

Great Leap Brewery in Doujiao Hutong

It’s the third day of the Chinese New Year and Beijing is taking a break. Traffic has unjammed itself, department stores are shuttered and bursts of fireworks cut through the cold, dry air. As my taxi passes over the Second Ring Road, the streets are quiet until the Gulou comes into view. It’s an imposing, 727-year-old tower with vermillion walls and sweeping rooflines. Originally built to house a collection of drums, it now serves mainly as a riposte to the concrete tower blocks that have come to dominate much of Beijing. This neighbourhood is different, consisting of low-slung, grey-walled courtyard houses arranged along alleyways known as hutongs.

I climb out of the taxi and cross the street, plunging myself into a crowd of hawkers selling sugar-glazed fruits and barbecued eggplant. Families pass by, gawking at quirky designer t-shirts hanging in shop windows; a cyclist rings his bell as he negotiates around a group of friends. I am standing on Nanluoguxiang, a narrow row of shops and cafés that cuts through some of Beijing’s oldest hutongs. On this otherwise quiet February night, it seems like the whole city has come here to shop, snack and stroll.

“When you walk through the hutongs, it’s a nice atmosphere, an interesting mix of tourists and Beijing people who have been living there since childhood,” says Michel Sutyadi, a German-Chinese designer who runs NLGX, a lifestyle brand inspired by Nanluoguxiang.

Beijing might be the capital of the world’s most populous nation, a sprawling city of 20 million with a centuries-long history, known to the rest of the world for its vastness, off-the-charts smog and the blow-out bash that was the 2008 Olympics. Look past the vastness of the Forbidden City and the traffic-choked ring roads, however, and you’ll find the surprising truth about this northern capital: Beijing is a disarmingly down-to-earth place, where imposing boulevards give way to back streets filled with bicycle peddlers, ancient courtyard houses and endless small discoveries.

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October 31st, 2013

Notes from a Zhuhai Native

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Silu Zhang

Zhuhai outskirts

Photo by Jonathan Shaw

Silu Zhang is a master’s student at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. She grew up 120 kilometres away in Zhuhai, a boomtown on the border with Macau. Zhuhai was one of the five special economic zones established by Deng Xiaoping in 1980. Since then, its population has grown from around 100,000 to more than 1.5 million.

Zhuhai is a city next to Macau. Under the policy of “one country, two systems,” Macau is capitalist, Zhuhai is socialist. In my education, it was emphasized a lot how different these two societies are and how great this policy is, the policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping the “general designer of Chinese reform and opening up.” Zhuhai is a quiet place, with beach, breeze and blue sky — people call it the City of Romance — while Macau is a flourishing city, with casino, luxury hotels and a high population density; people call it “Little Las Vegas.” Once, I made fun of a friend from Macau by saying she was “someone from the decaying capitalism,” and she looked at me strangely. Later she told me they seldom talked about the difference between the two systems and she never learned about it in school.

I grew up in the 1990s and witnessed Zhuhai changing. It is hard to say how it changed — I think I am so familiar with this place that I get lost. But here are some memories. The beach I used to play on is now being developed into some luxurious apartments; the area of my preschool has been reduced to make way for a wider road. More and more migrants are coming from all over the country and Mandarin is taking the place of Cantonese. The silent street where my father and I used to walk after dinner is now noisy, with loud broadcasts, open bars and shopping malls. Sometimes my father will still say, “When you were a kid, you walked in front of me and I just followed you. There were few people in the street, the light was dim, but I felt safe. I wouldn’t do that now.”

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June 3rd, 2013

Rethinking Asia’s Public Spaces

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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.”

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March 27th, 2013

Landscape = Architecture

Blesso Loft

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.”

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November 21st, 2012

The Road to Shangri-La

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.

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May 31st, 2012

Things to Do in the Streets of Guangzhou

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Sell corn.

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Sell gourds.

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Buy tomatoes.

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May 22nd, 2012

From Industry to Art at Warp Speed

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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.”

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April 11th, 2012

The Ningbo History Museum

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Interior Space by Sue Anne Tay

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.

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February 17th, 2012

The Unsquared Circle of Old Shanghai

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Maps by Christopher Szabla

Take a look at a map of Shanghai and it still jumps out at you — a tightly-wound ball of narrow streets threading through warrens of centuries-old houses. Call it what you will — the neighborhood seems to have no standard English name, and “Old City,” “Round City,” or simply “Old Shanghai” have been used before — but it’s impossible to deny this slice of China’s largest city stands a bit aloof; what’s left of it appears to exist in total defiance of a metropolis that appears ceaselessly hungry for towers that soar high enough to match the gaping width of its newly-broadened boulevards.

Old Shanghai’s uniqueness is a longstanding trend; the last time the neighborhood didn’t buck the rest of the city’s form was during the Middle Ages, when the Round City was Shanghai — a fledgling Ming Dynasty port. But skip forward to the 19th century and Shanghai has grown to become the hub of foreign commerce in China, its cityscape defined by the architecture the colonial powers have brought to their respective concessions — tiny fiefdoms run by local Westerners nominally reporting to overseas capitals.

Somewhat like Hong Hong’s Kowloon Walled City nearly a century later, the Old City, or “Chinese City,” as it began, then, to be called, remained an enclave within these enclaves, a densely-packed and ghettoized dormitory for much of the city’s local workforce. It even remained behind literal, medieval walls — until, during China’s 1911 revolution, they finally came crashing down.

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February 12th, 2012

Auto Invasion

Hong Kong Traffic

Photo by Charlotte Huang

Hong Kong’s not a big place, and with 28 million mainland Chinese visitors a year, it’s beginning to feel even more crowded than usual. The stress seems to have gotten to a lot of people. Over the past month, a handful of seemingly banal conflicts between Hongkongers and mainland tourists have been amplified beyond all proportion.

An argument over spilled noodles in the MTR somehow led to a Peking University professor calling Hong Kong people “dogs” and “bastards” who should speak Mandarin instead of Cantonese. An ill-advised remark by a Dolce & Gabbana security guard, who said that Hong Kong people are banned from taking photos of the shop but mainlanders aren’t, sparked an online firestorm and protests in the street. Mainland women who come to Hong Kong to have their babies delivered in local hospitals, thus ensuring Hong Kong residency for their children, were called “locusts” in a full-page printed in Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s second-most-read newspaper.

Now, the latest source of controversy: a government plan to allow mainland Chinese visitors to bring their cars into Hong Kong, despite the mainland’s notoriously poor standards of driving and the perils of operating a left-hand-drive car on the opposite side of the road — not to mention Hong Kong’s worsening congestion and air pollution. Those are some of the concerns of the thousands of people who have pledged their support for various Facebook protests, which call for the government to scrap its scheme. They are being joined in their demands by a coalition of environmental groups, social activists and opposition political parties.

“Drivers don’t obey the rules on the mainland,” says Kay Lam, a columnist for Apple Daily, who started a Facebook group opposed to the scheme. “Why would they follow the rules here? One mistake could be fatal. When it comes to safety, there should be no compromises.”

The government’s plan is based on a 2010 agreement made with authorities in the mainland province of Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong. Starting next month, Hong Kong motorists will be able to apply for a limited number of cross-border driving permits. Later, Guangdong drivers may do the same, giving them a chance to bring their cars to Hong Kong. When I asked a spokeswoman for the Transport and Housing Bureau for details, I was told that “there is not yet a concrete timetable” and the specifics still need to be hammered out.

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February 12th, 2012

Teahouses of Chengdu

On a bright Sunday morning, the courtyard of the Wenshu Teahouse in Chengdu was bustling. A group of women chattered away noisily as they munched on sunflower seeds, cracking their shells between their teeth and then piling them in a heap on the tabletop.

Nearby, a shaven-headed man peered over his customer before sliding a metal pole down into the latter’s ear. Another man leaned back in his creaking bamboo chair, put his feet up on the table in front, and spread out a big newspaper to read. A large group cried out excitedly as they threw playing cards down onto the table. A white haired waiter came dancing between these different groups, refilling their white porcelain cups of tea with the long spout of large, battered metal teapot.

These are every day scenes at the Chinese teahouses of Chengdu. It is estimated that there are more than 3000 teahouses in the city, the Wenshu temple teahouse being one of the largest. Teahouses play an important role in the city’s society, serving as places to socialise, to meet, to do business, even to look for a husband or wife.

“Few other institutions in the first half of twentieth-century Chengdu were more important in everyday life than teahouses,” says Di Wang, author of The Teahouse: Small Business, Everyday Culture, and Public Politics in Chengdu. “And no other city in China had as many teahouses as Chengdu.”


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January 9th, 2012

How Tall is Too Tall?

Dubai's Skyline

Dubai. Photo by Zeyad T. Al-Mudhaf

The Burj Khalifa defies the imagination. It stands nearly one kilometre above the streets of Dubai, spanning a total of 163 floors — 209 if you could the maintenance levels in the building’s spire. When it was completed in 2010, at a cost of more than US$1.5 billion, it was by far the world’s tallest building and almost certainly its most extravagant.

That extravagance was made all the more apparent by the economic turmoil that shook the world just before the Burj was set to open. Dubai was on the verge of bankruptcy, saved only by a US$10 billion bailout from the ruler of nearby Abu Dhabi, for whom the Burj was ultimately named. With most floors standing vacant and maintenance costs as dizzyingly high as the building itself — it takes a full four months just to clean the windows — the Burj revived long-standing questions about the sustainability of super-tall skyscrapers.

Those questions are especially relevant in Asia, where seven of the world’s ten tallest buildings can be found. Another 30 buildings taller than 300 metres — generally considered the limit between an ordinary high-rise and a “super-tall” — are now under construction in South Korea, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and India.

“It’s an ego thing,” says co-founder of Singapore’s WOHA Architects, Richard Hassell. “I think a lot of the developers themselves have a ‘mine’s bigger and better than yours’ mentality. I think cheap energy was bad for architecture because people could basically make any kind of building comfortable, and that freed up the building to be anything they wanted it to be, so architecture’s become a bit lost in gratuitous form-making. The Dubai ‘look-at-me’ architecture. It’s a bit of a dead end.”

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December 21st, 2011

Ma Yansong’s Organic Architecture

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.”

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December 5th, 2011

Mahjong in the Rain

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Sue Anne Tay

The raucous clatter of tiles was unmistakable as I approached the corner of Zhijiang Lu (芷江路) and Xizhang Bei Lu (西藏北路) in Shanghai’s Zhabei district.

In a public playground, groups of middle-aged to old people were lazily gathered for an afternoon of mass mahjong and card games. A large group of spectators followed like moths to a flame.

It was a typical way for the community to pass the Saturday afternoon and enjoy the fickle spells of cool summer sprinkles. It hardly bothered the patrons who sheltered themselves under makeshift tarpaulin tents.

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