June 19th, 2014

A City Beyond Its Borders

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Halfway through director Heiward Mak’s new short film, SAR², Eric Tsang takes a tumble in front of a propaganda sign in Shenzhen’s Qianhai new development zone. “Supported by Hong Kong, Serving the Mainland, Facing the World,” reads the billboard, reflecting the area’s goal of attracting 100,000 Hong Kong permanent residents to live and work there.

In the film, Tsang plays Lee To, a Hong Kong man who has retired to Qianhai, where he falls in love with Lady Cheung, played by Taiwanese actress Kelly Tien, a native Shenzhener whose oyster farming village was cleared for land reclamation. In one intimate scene, Cheung asks Lee if he misses living in Hong Kong. “I can’t really say,” he replies. “Hong Kong is not my home anymore.”

SAR² is a story of alienation and ambiguity: Lee and Cheung live in spacious, comfortable apartments, but they are surrounded by vast construction sites and cut off from their families. Their romance seems to be as much a salve for loneliness as it is based on any kind of mutual attraction. “They’re wondering, ‘What am I looking for?’” says Mak.

It’s a natural project for Mak, whose acclaimed 2008 debut, High Noon, dealt with a similar kind of rootlessness. And while her notoriety has so far been limited to Hong Kong, SAR² made its debut far from these shores, in Italy, where Hong Kong is participating in the 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s largest and most venerable showcase of the built form. 65 countries have mounted exhibitions in the biennale, which runs from June 7 to November 22, along with hundreds of other shows and events taking place throughout the island city.

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January 19th, 2014

The Quiet Modernist

“中環雨天繁忙時間交通 Rush Hour Traffic in Central on a Rainy Day” / 香港人流 Hong Kong Human Logistics / SML.20130326.7D.36557.BW

Jardine House (right). Photo by See-ming Lee

It’s late on a Monday afternoon and James Kinoshita is sitting at home in Hong Kong’s Sai Kung district with his son, Andrew. Overhead is a tile roof that slopes towards a garden of blooming azalea and bougainvillea; just beyond are the placid waters of Port Shelter. James bought the property in 1976 with his wife, Lana, when he was a partner with Palmer and Turner, Hong Kong’s oldest architecture firm, and Lana was a sought-after interior designer.

“It was a weekend home at first,” says James.

“A work in progress,” adds Andrew.

Needless to say, Sai Kung was a very different place in the 1970s. It was only a fraction as developed as today, though the Small House Policy had recently been enacted, leading to a spread of three-storey village houses across the district.

“I didn’t like the Spanish type of red tiles that all the houses had,” says James. “They didn’t look like Chinese village houses. So what I wanted to do was to have a pitched roof and use black tiles.”

Achieving that meant dealing with a building code designed to encourage the construction of identical boxes, not anything unique. There was a height restriction of 25 feet; no single floor of the house could be larger than 700 square feet. James solved the problem by building two houses and linking them together with a covered terrace.

James is no stranger to dealing with constraints. Though the public would be hard-pressed to recognize his name, the octogenarian architect was responsible for many of Hong Kong’s most famous buildings, including Jardine House, the Polytechnic University campus and the late (and often lamented) Hong Kong Hilton, most of which were built under tight deadlines that would shock many contemporary architects. In an era of starchitects, where every new building seems to be accompanied by pompous self-justification, James Kinoshita stands out as much for his modesty as his enduring modernist legacy.

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July 16th, 2013

Private Paradise

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There was a time when Hong Kong was full of strange and wonderful private gardens. There was a Spanish-style garden built by a Catholic missionary on Seymour Road. In Tai Hang, the seven-storey pagoda of Tiger Balm Garden could be seen for miles around. When Sir Robert Hotung built a second house on the Peak, he surrounded it with a 116,000-square-foot garden built in a Chinese Renaissance style, complete with pagoda and colourful tilework.

Many of the world’s great parks began their lives as private gardens — the Jardins du Luxembourg in Paris, the Parque del Buen Retiro in Madrid — but few of Hong Kong’s private gardens have survived, let alone been given over to the public. Civic mindedness is not a common trait among the scions of Hong Kong’s landed class; many treat their family’s property as oversized ATMs. Tiger Balm Garden had in fact been open to the public for decades when Tiger Balm heir Sally Aw Sian sold it to Cheung Kong Development in 1998. It was demolished in 2004 and replaced by a wall of apartment blocks festooned with blinking LEDs. Hotung Gardens has always been private, though Hong Kong’s government made an effort to declare it a monument when its owner declared her ambition to demolish the estate; the preservation drive was deterred when she demanded no less than $7 billion in compensation.

Still, one of Hong Kong’s great private gardens has managed to survive. Dragon Garden was built as a weekend retreat by entrepreneur and philanthropist Lee Iu Cheung, and while it was nearly bulldozed for a tawdry high-end housing estate, it was saved from demolition when Lee’s son Shiu bought out the property from his siblings. Since then, granddaughter Cynthia has agitated for government support to restore the gardens, which I wrote about three years ago. As far as I know, the situation hasn’t changed — money is still tight, Cynthia is lobbying to reform Hong Kong’s heritage policy and the public can only visit the garden on special occasions.

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September 8th, 2012

Foreign Interventions in (Calle) Honduras

Posted in Art and Design, Latin America, Politics by Christopher Szabla

You can tell you’re in Palermo by the names of the streets: Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica — every one of them running parallel to the Rio de la Plata a different Central American country. Together with the bright pastels and fluorescents of the buildings that line them, these calles give the Buenos Aires barrio a sort of carefree party vibe that transports you from sometimes grey, blustery, near-Antarctic Argentina to the tropics.

The wealthy district has also, like so many acronymed corners of New York, been subdivided by real estate neologisms: “Palermo Chico,” “Palermo Soho,” “Palermo Hollywood”. Calle Honduras runs between two of them — Palermo Hollywood, a sort of laid-back hangout for media types, and Palermo Viejo, the old heart of the neighborhood and center of its nightlife. When I wandered through in October 2010, I found signs at both ends of the street were not only plastered with an endless variety of stickers advertising local clubs and galleries, but hacked using a graffiti-like scrawl: “Honduras” (the signs omit “Calle”) had been changed to read “Honduras Resiste”.

At the time, it was clear to what the altered signs referred. For the past year, Honduras had been in crisis. Its populist president, Manuel Zelaya, attempted to hold a referendum on amending the constitution; opponents claimed it was an attempt to extend his term limits. But siding with many members of the government and Zelaya’s own party, the Supreme Court issued an injunction against the attempt for violating the constitution itself. On June 28, 2009, soldiers raided the presidential palace, seized the president, and flew him to exile in Costa Rica. Honduras immediately erupted in protest.

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June 12th, 2012

The Underground City

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If you live in Montreal, you’ll eventually be asked the question: “Which way is the underground city?” You will probably be walking along Ste. Catherine Street, the city’s main shopping artery, where H&M and Zara jostle for space with strip clubs and hot dog joints. Or maybe you will be making your way through the lunch-hour crowds at McGill metro, the city’s busiest subway station. Either way, some puzzled visitors clutching a free tourist map will ask you a question that you will find particularly difficult to answer. The best you can do is to point them to the entrance of the nearest shopping mall or metro station and explain, “It’s there, but it might not be what you imagine.”

One of the first things any tourist guide to Montreal tells you is that the city is home to a 32-kilometre network of shopping malls, office buildings, apartment towers, cultural centres, universities and civic institutions connected by subway lines and a sinuous network of underground passageways. On those brutal winter days when the the thermostat plunges below -20 degrees Celsius, you can go to work, watch a movie, buy a baguette, attend a concert, go skating, visit the library and finally return home, all without venturing outdoors. Somehow, though, the underground city has taken on levels of meaning outside Montreal that it never quite achieved at home. Tourists seem to picture a Willy Wonka wonderland of enterprising Oompa Loompas untouched by the light of day. Locals are nonplussed. For them, it’s a way to get from one place to another. When the journalist Fabien Deglise wrote a book about the underground city, he called it Montréal souterrain, sous le béton, le mythe. Underground Montreal: the Myth Beneath the Concrete.

Make no mistake, however: the underground city is more than the sum of its parts. For one thing, “underground city” is a bit of a misnomer, since many parts of the network exist above ground. It’s really an indoor city, a kind of interconnected, three-dimensional space. “Underground Montreal is an amalgam of grey tunnels and bright avenues, of escalators and indoor squares populated by fast food and shops of all types,” writes design critic Emmanuelle Vieira. “This city in successive layers is incoherent, imperfect, but it holds its own. It is the image of own own society: lively, diverse and creative, linked intimately with the culture of consumption.” It also the unlikely triumph of modernist ideals that long ago fell by the architectural wayside, only to now be reconsidered and—in some cases—rehabilitated.

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May 10th, 2012

Guerilla Warfare in Everyday Space

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Tin roofs of a hawker’s bazaar in Kwun Tong, Hong Kong

When I first came across Charles Labelle’s ongoing Buildings Entered project, I was intrigued by the questions it raised about how we relate to the spaces we inhabit. This led me to think about one of the things that has most fascinated me since moving in Hong Kong in 2008: the informal use of urban space, or to put it another way, how people adapt the city to their own ends.

In the years following World War II and the Chinese civil war, hundreds of thousands of people moved from mainland China to Hong Kong, which was then a British colony. A decade after the war, Hong Kong’s population had doubled to more than three million. There wasn’t enough housing for the newcomers, so many built homes for themselves in shantytowns that rose on the hills above Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. At the same time, migrants made work for themselves by selling things on the street: cheap food for factory workers, fruits and vegetables, surplus stock from factories. This continued for nearly three decades after the war. By the 1970s, there were more than 50,000 hawkers in the streets. All of this existed outside the framework of the law: shantytowns were built illegally on government-owned land and most hawkers operated without permits and without paying rent.

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April 25th, 2012

Escalating Fury

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It’s as predictable as the tide. Every morning, thousands of commuters stream down the Central Mid-Levels escalator, bound for offices, buses and crowded subway cars at the bottom of the hill. Then, at 10:30am, the escalator reverses itself. Now the crowds flow uphill. Helpers return from the market with bags full of choi, the lunch crowd trickles up to Soho restaurants. When evening arrives, work-weary commuters are carried up to drink, dinner and bed.

Nearly two decades after the completion of the Central-Mid-Levels escalator, it’s hard to think of Hong Kong without it. Its network of covered escalators, moving walkways and footbridges spans a distance of 800 metres from Queen’s Road Central to Conduit Road, making the trek up steep hillsides—135 metres in elevation from bottom to top, about the same as a 40-storey building—as easy as a walk through a shopping mall.

It’s certainly popular. When it opened in 1993, the escalator was expected to carry 26,000 people per day. It is now used by nearly 43,000. Its popularity with pedestrians has prompted the government to plan similar escalator links in 20 other locations around Hong Kong. The first of these will open later this year on Centre Street in Sai Ying Pun, while another escalator, on Pound Lane in Sheung Wan, is being planned.

But the use of escalators as a form of public transportation is being met with an increasingly critical response from design critics, academics and activists. “Is this an appropriate use of technology?” asked urbanist Min Li Chan on the international urban issues blog Polis. “Is this simply a shiny new idea with press value that leaves unintended social consequences in its wake? How should we measure its impact on people’s lives, and its return on the city’s investment?”

These are the questions being raised by residents and business owners in the sleepy neighbourhood around Pound Lane, where the government is planning to build a 200-metre escalator from Tai Ping Shan Street to Bonham Road. Along the way, it will pass by Hong Kong’s first public toilet, schools, temples, tenements and Blake Garden, Hong Kong’s oldest public park, which was built after the bubonic plague swept through the area in 1894, killing more than 3,000. Proponents say it will reduce traffic and provide relief to the neighbourhood’s many elderly residents. Opponents say it will destroy the peaceful, low-key ambiance that sets this part of Sheung Wan apart from the development frenzy of Central and the Mid-Levels.

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February 28th, 2012

This Year in Havana

Posted in Heritage and Preservation, Latin America by Christopher DeWolf

Havana sunset

If there’s any time to visit Havana, it’s now. After a half century preserved in the formaldehyde of American sanctions and a state-controlled economy, the Cuban capital is set for a remarkable transformation. Private property was legalized last November and the government has offered construction subsidies, which could spell the end for Havana’s long era of romantic decay. The New York Times is already reporting on a “real estate fever” sparked by the reforms. Meanwhile, the United States has loosened travel restrictions for Americans with family in Cuba, and goods and money have been pouring into the country at an unprecedented rate — not tourist money, but intra-family cash that is often injected straight into home improvements, consumer goods and fledgling private enterprises.

morning run

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January 12th, 2012

“Defect Rectification”

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Interior Space by Christopher DeWolf

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Hong Kong’s HK$5.5 billion new government headquarters is falling apart just three months after it opened

Crooked wall fixtures, chipped railings, torn wallpaper, stained walls and signboards held up by masking tape in the Legislative Council: the recent outbreak of legionnaire’s disease is not the only problem at the Hong Kong government’s expensive new headquarters.

Three months after lawmakers moved into the Legco complex, they are still confronted daily by a long list of flaws in the building. This came after the legionnaires’ disease bacteria was found in the water at the dining hall of the Legco building and many other locations in the government offices next door.

“The electric cables for a switch near to my office on the sixth floor have remained exposed since I moved in,” said Wong Kwok-lin, a Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker. “I never dare to touch it as I don’t know whether or not it’s getting electricity.”

Photos posted this week on Facebook highlight shoddy workmanship inside the complex, which is located on the site of the former Tamar naval base. In one photo, an alarm button and handicapped door-opening button are fixed to the wall at haphazard angles. In another, the sign for the Steward and Catering Services Office is attached to the wall with masking tape.

Lawmakers and visitors to the complex complain that stone walls are stained by paint and water, the wood railings inside lifts are heavily chipped, wallpaper is torn inside conference rooms, wall panels rattle when lift buttons are pressed and floors wobble and creak underfoot. Water fountains have been sheathed in plastic, possibly due to concerns about legionnaire’s disease.

Yesterday afternoon, the toilets’ salt water supply was abruptly suspended due to “emergency repair,” forcing building occupants to flush toilets with water from the sinks. No explanation was given.

“It almost seems as if it is a very worn-out building, but it’s not, it’s new,” said Civic Party councillor Audrey Eu Yuet-mee. “Once, one of the ceiling fixtures fell off when I was passing by. Luckily it didn’t fall on my head.”

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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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October 12th, 2011

Land Reclamation — At What Cost?

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, History, Politics, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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Construction of a new underground highway built on the last bit of land reclamation permitted in Victoria Harbour

If you are reading this somewhere in Hong Kong, odds are you’re sitting on a piece of land that was once a part of the sea. Since 1851, more than 60 square kilometres of land has been reclaimed from Hong Kong’s waterways, an area greater than Kowloon and nearly as large as the whole of Hong Kong Island.

Most of that reclamation took place along the shores of Victoria Harbour. That practice will come to an end next year with the completion of reclamation for the Central-Wan Chai Bypass, the last project permitted under the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance, which was passed in 1996 after a rash of reclamation proposals left the public worried that Victoria Harbour would one day disappear under a mountain of landfill.

Land in Hong Kong remains scarce, however, and the government remains intent on keeping reclamation in its toolbox. “It is necessary to resume land production by reclamation of an appropriate scale outside the Victoria Harbour so as to provide land to sustain the social and economic development of Hong Kong in the long run,” said the Permanent Secretary for Development (Works), Wai Chi-sing, last May. The government is now conducting a study of possible reclamation sites. Public consultations will begin next month.

Though Hong Kong has been reclaiming land for the better part of two centuries, it is a markedly different city than it was a century or even a decade ago. These days, nearly every major infrastructure project meets with controversy. Opposition to major development projects is often fierce, as was the case with last year’s protests over the construction of the Express Rail to mainland China. In such a stormy atmosphere, is more land reclamation really feasible?

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May 25th, 2011

Small Houses, Big Impact

Posted in Asia Pacific, History, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Fanling Wai

Sam Wan was 10 years old when his father, an officer in the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, died in the line of duty. Reeling from his death, Wan’s family moved from their Tsim Sha Tsui apartment back to their ancestral village, Tai Po Tsai, where they owned a small tile-roofed house.

The year was 1966 and the village couldn’t have been more different from Kowloon. Situated on a small plateau beneath Razor Hill, about halfway between Clear Water Bay and Sai Kung Town, Tai Po Tsai was a centuries-old collection of ramshackle houses and farm fields. Almost everyone in the village was related to a common ancestor. Most of them made a modest living.

“The villagers were small-scale farmers — they grew rice and vegetables for sale in the market in Sai Kung,” recalls Wan. “Their income was not very good, so most of the male villagers went outside to work as sea crew members. Some went to England to work as labourers or in Chinese restaurants.”

But things were changing. Shaw Brothers had opened a film studio nearby in 1961 and many of the studio’s employees, including some future film stars, started renting houses in the village. Then, in 1972, a revolution: the government passed the Small House Policy, which gave each male villager and his descendants the right to build a 700 square foot house in the village, without having to pay a land premium or licence fee.

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March 6th, 2011

Hong Kong’s Generic Cultural District

Posted in Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Call it déjà vu: five years after Norman Foster’s plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District was scrapped in the face of massive public controversy, another Foster plan for the district has been chosen.

On Friday, the authority in charge of developing the cultural district announced that Foster’s bid was selected over rival plans by Rem Koolhaas and local architect Rocco Yim. It’s not a surprising decision, but it’s a disappointing one, because Foster’s plan is by far the least interesting and most unambitious of the lot.

Foster’s original plan, unveiled in 2001, called for a giant canopy to be built over most of the 40-hectare site, but the government’s decision to let a single property developer take control over the entire district angered the public, forcing it to send the entire cultural district concept back to the drawing board.

Last August, three new master plans were unveiled to the public. Each of the plans had to conform to a set of basic criteria, including the same amount of performance space, exhibition space (including a new contemporary art museum, M+), park space, commercial space and residential space. (The commission was to develop a master plan only; the design of its specific components will be determined later.)

Foster, Yim and Koolhaas took this mix of ingredients and produced plans that were strikingly different. Foster’s plan called for a giant city park with most of the residential, commercial and institutional uses clustered in a single waterfront strip. Yim imagined the site as a vast, multi-leveled, green-roofed complex linked by various levels of passages. Koolhaas’ plan was by far the boldest, with a strong conceptual element that saw the cultural district broken into three urban clusters, inspired in spirit by ancient Chinese villages and in form by Hong Kong’s traditional urban fabric, street markets and all. Each cluster would be separated by green space, some of which would be used for farming.

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January 18th, 2011

A Walk Around Luen Wo Market

Hong Kong’s gloomy winter chill has set in, and with no indoor heating, the best thing to do on a cold day is to set off for a brisk walk. That’s what I did two weeks ago when I took the train up to Fanling, the last major suburb before the border with Shenzhen, where I wandered over to the market town of Luen Wo Hui.

Though it seems old in comparison to what surrounds it, Luen Wo was actually a modern development master-minded by a group of wealthy Fanling property owners in the 1940s. A market was built in 1951 to serve the surrounding farms and villages. Over the course of the 1950s, the surrounding area was developed with shophouses into a regional commercial centre meant to compete with the nearby market town of Shek Wu Hui, about 20 minutes away by foot.

(The story behind Luen Wo’s development is actually quite fascinating, with inter-family rivalries, accusations of price-gouging, rural politics and the influx of Chinese refugees after 1949, many of whom were farmers from around Guangzhou and who resumed their agricultural practices in Hong Kong. It’s all covered in sociologist Chan Kwok-shing’s essay on Luen Wo Hui.)

Luen Wo quickly became economic and political centre for the surrounding area. There were rice shops, dry goods stores, travel agents, barbershops and a cinema, as well as bars that served British troops stationed in nearby military bases. In the 1980s, Fanling was designated as a New Town — a focal point for new population growth — and intense development followed.

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