December 19th, 2013

A City on Edge

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Protest at the opening of UABB. Photo by Espen Cook

Last week in Kwun Tong, Kacey Wong stood inside a burnt wood cocoon, explaining the concept behind his painstakingly hand-made installation. “I wanted to create a place where people could meet quietly and have a greater understanding of what’s going on,” he said. To access the space, visitors must duck inside one of two small entrances and make their way to an intimate inner chamber filled with tree trunks; embedded in each tree are books of history and political philosophy that span the ideological spectrum. Wong charred the wood to represent the social and political conflict that now grips Hong Kong. “Fire is a process of transformation,” he said. “It changes material, but if you’re not careful you get burned.”

It was an apt metaphor. Outside the cocoon, the opening ceremony of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture (UABB) had broken down into chaos after Chief Executive CY Leung arrived to give a closed-door speech. Residents from the surrounding neighbourhood, outraged by the government’s plan to turn Kowloon East into a new central business district, gathered to protest. Banners were unfurled from the highway overhead; “Don’t bulldoze our culture,” read one. Police and security guards clamped down, shutting off access to the exhibition, preventing some of the biennale’s curators and exhibitors from accessing their work. “It’s ridiculous – they won’t even let us into our own exhibition,” fumed one designer.

This is the fourth edition of UABB, which takes place every two years in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. It is normally a sedate, academic exploration of the issues facing cities around the world. This year, however, the biennale finds itself caught in a maelstrom of controversy over the so-called CBD2 project, which the government hopes will transform Kwun Tong, Kowloon Bay and Kai Tak into a high-value business district, but which critics say will kill one of Hong Kong’s largest creative communities by making the area unaffordable for the small creative enterprises that now call it home. The question for the biennale, which opens this weekend and runs until February 23, is whether it can provide a space for dialogue – or whether it will exacerbate tensions that have already reached the boiling point.

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September 19th, 2012

Regrowth or Replacement?

HK Farm. Photo by Glenn Eugen Ellingsen

Sweating in the bright Mediterranean sun, Glenn Eugen Ellingsen surveyed a little bit of Hong Kong in Venice. “It’s meant to be very organic,” he said, pointing to an array of wood planters, metal racks, video screens and exposed electrical wires.

Ellingsen is one of the founders of HK Farm, an urban agriculture project on the roof of a factory building in Kwun Tong, and he had spent the week sourcing herbs and soil in order to recreate his farm in Venice. He turned his gaze over to a half-dozen wood planters brimming with rosemary, basil and sage. “They’re similar to what we have on the roof in Hong Kong, just a bit narrower,” he said.

It was the opening day of the Hong Kong pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s most prestigious showcase of architecture and urban design, which runs until Novermber 25. In true Hong Kong style, workers were scrambling to finish the exhibition on time, arranging architectural models and painting display cases green — the same colour as Hong Kong’s street market stalls.

The choice of colour was no accident. This year’s biennale is dedicated to “Common Ground,” a theme meant to shift focus away from big-name architects to more grassroots initiatives. Hong Kong’s exhibition, “Inter Cities/Intra Cities: Ghostwriting the Future,” focuses on the future of Kowloon East, a vast swath of city that is home to 600,000 people, Hong Kong’s last remaining factories, a burgeoning office hub and the city’s biggest creative cluster, with hundreds of musicians, designers and artists.

It also includes the former Kai Tak Airport, which is now being redeveloped with housing, offices and a huge cruise ship terminal and exhibition centre designed by Sir Norman Foster. The airport’s redevelopment will be used as a catalyst to transform Kowloon East into the so-called “CBD2” — a new office district that will provide an alternative to the high-priced business hubs of Hong Kong Island.

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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 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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January 9th, 2012

Delving Brick Lane’s Layers

Posted in Europe, History, Society and Culture by Nicholas Olczak

Early on a Friday morning, London’s Brick Lane bustles with Bangladeshis heading to prayers at the local mosque. The women wear brightly coloured saris and the men don long pastel robes, looking striking as they stride along this worn English street.

A few hours later, they are gone and the feel of the street has completely changed. Now it is busy with hipsters with slicked over retro haircuts and skinny jeans. Like the stars of alternative music videos, people lounge on benches outside cafes dragging at roll ups and drinking cans of beer.

These are just two of the many different scenes that are staged every day on Brick Lane. The long, narrow London road gained its name because it was used to transport bricks from the outskirts of the city to building projects in the centre. It now sits hemmed in between some of London’s poorest neighborhoods and the sleek skyscrapers of the City, London’s financial district, from which it couldn’t be more different.

For me, Brick Lane epitomizes that mingling of different cultures and rich multilayered history that make London so special. Other cities claim to be very multicultural, but the way London mixes tastes and traditions feels different. Hong Kong has residents who hail from different countries — but they remain somewhat segregated. In London, a huge variety of people knock up against each other every day.

London’s development has also been distinctive. Instead of new buildings occupying greenfield sites, or replacing old ones outright, you get developments that build upon what’s beneath. History piles on top of history, like layers of fallen leaves. Brick Lane has witnessed a particularly impressive number of these strata. As the artists Gilbert and George, who live just off the street, once said, Brick Lane has been (and seen) “everything”.

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September 8th, 2011

Brooklyn’s Fractured Faces

Posted in Art and Design, Politics, United States by Christopher Szabla

Know which leafy block to turn down off the numbered avenues of Brooklyn’s Park Slope, squint past the bright spots of sun and deep shadows dappling the ground late into a summer day, and you can puzzle them together — a series of portraits, “ghostly apparitions” as the New York Times called them — spanning the steps of front stoops of the brownstones lining a short span of Bergen Street.

This is an improbable venue for a public protest against the wildly expensive and potentially transformational real estate development several blocks north, let alone a global art sensation, yet the photos on Bergen Street manage to be part, nevertheless, of both. They’re intended as a demonstration of solidarity with immigrant shop owners, the subjects of the portraits, whose businesses, local residents fear, are in danger of displacement in the wake of the Atlantic Yards project, an effort to develop several blocks wedged between Park Slope and the adjacent neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights into a basketball arena surrounded by skyscraping office buildings and condo towers.

But the portraits have drawn more attention as a prominent local iteration of “Inside Out,” a worldwide participatory street art project orchestrated by JR, a seminonymous French photographer who rocketed to Banksy-level fame for his work, which began as a guerilla effort to bring portraits of marginalized suburban youth to the affluent streets of central Paris and grew to include pasting “supercolossal” photo portraits covering the roofs and walls of largely impoverished urban neighborhoods from China to Kenya to Brazil.

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March 30th, 2011

Gentrification or Redevelopment?

Light from a new fashion boutique floods an alley
near Blake Garden, Hong Kong

Alan Lo Yeung-kit is an unlikely critic of urban renewal. Three of his successful restaurants — Classified, Press Room and The Pawn — are located in Urban Renewal Authority projects in Sheung Wan and Wan Chai.

Critics have accused his businesses of taking part in the kind of URA-style renewal that is destroying the character of Hong Kong’s old neighbourhoods. But Lo is no fan of bulldozer redevelopment. “Our whole approach to urban renewal needs to be rethought,” he said.

Lo said he has come up with an alternative model for urban renewal, one that is both profitable and preservation-based. Last year, he and partner Darrin Woo founded a new design and development firm, Blake’s, that was inspired by the old neighbourhood around Blake Garden in Sheung Wan. The firm’s first project took a mid-century tong lau at 226 Hollywood Road and converted it into four luxury apartments. The units sold out soon after they went on sale in November, fetching more than HK$25 million apiece.

“It’s about getting out of the box-standard big-developer approach and making something that fits the neighbourhood,” says Lo. “The vision is to rethink an old, slightly sleepy neighbourhood with respect for what has been in the district for a long time, and without having to knock things down.”

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March 3rd, 2011

Voodoo Gentrification

Posted in Film, History, Society and Culture, United States, Video by Christopher Szabla
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You’ve probably heard the term “voodoo economics” before. Famously used by George H.W. Bush to denounce Ronald Reagan’s theory of trickle-down wealth when the two were vying head-to-head for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, they never again escaped the elder Bush’s lips after he became Reagan’s running mate in that year’s general election. The former’s subsequent silence and the latter’s historic victory ensured that voodoo economics would reign unchallenged throughout the 80s, fueling a period remembered for overall prosperity — but an alarmingly huge income gap.

It’s no coincidence that the 80s were also the period when the word “gentrification” began to play a major role in US public discourse. So did “yuppies”, who became the subject of routine social satire during the decade. Less well documented, though, are the earlier, murkier beginnings of postwar gentrification, well before the tipping point that brought the concept into mass consciousness. In the late 1960s and 1970s, as white flight continued hollowing out American city centers, the first gentrifiers were also taking their initial, cautious steps into what is now some of the most coveted real estate in the country.

Director Hal Ashby’s first film, a 1970 comedy called The Landlord, marks the period well. The protagonist is Elgar Enders, a dandy-suited suburban WASP who lives off his parents’ money — the original trust fund kid. His plan to buy a ghetto tenement, evict its tenants, and transform it into into his new mansion seems rebellious and eccentric, though it’s no less whimsical than the change of tastes that brought mass gentrification to similar Brooklyn neighborhoods (the movie was filmed in a now unrecognizably destitute Park Slope) in the 80s and 90s. In fact, Enders’ scheme might have been prophetic — in the last decade, the mansionization of New York apartment buildings has become a small trend.

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November 18th, 2010

The Cheonggyecheon Experience

What amazed me most about Cheonggyecheon was its freedom. Here was a stream running through the middle of Seoul, one of the world’s largest cities, and it gurgled as contentedly as any country creek. You can walk next to the water, sit next to it, wade in and feel its sharp chill on your calves.

It becomes all the more remarkable when you realize that, ten years ago, it was little more than a sewer running beneath a traffic-clogged highway. For decades, Cheonggyecheon was buried under an expressway; it was famously restored in the early 2000s. (David Maloney wrote an exhaustive account of its history a few years ago.) When I visited Seoul last year, it was one of the things I was most eager to see, and luckily enough, I happened to be staying a short walk from it.

After the expressway was demolished, a six-kilometre linear park was built along the stream, from the business district near Gwanghwamun in the west to another river, Jungnangcheon, in the east. The stream runs several metres below street level, and descending towards the stream is a liberation from the noise and exhaust above it. Late at night, I sat next to the water and watched two couples wade into the stream, pants rolled up, giggling as they splashed around. During the day, kids played on stepping stones that traverse the water.

Cheonggyecheon is one of the best-designed examples of urban nature I have encountered. Its impact has been fare-reaching. Fewer cars enter central Seoul now and public transit use is up. Summer temperatures around the stream have been reduced by several degrees since the stream was restored.

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November 10th, 2010

Two Sides of Sinan Lu

The contrast on both sides of the street is only as jarring as you make it out to be, if you notice it at all.

You can see it while standing in the middle of Sinan Lu (思南路), facing Fuxing West Lu (复兴西路) in Shanghai’s French Concession. A noted commercial development of ostentatious luxury sits face to face with the ghosts of past riches. Both Shanghai past and Shanghai present are embodied in the traditional, old, European-style villas. But those on one side of the street have had their layouts redesigned, their foundations tilted sideways, their innards replaced with modern amenities (lifts!), and their courtyards beautified with plenty of commercial landscaping. On the other side of the street stand facsimiles of the original, unmodified versions of these structures: tired, broken down and devoid of occupants.

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October 22nd, 2010

A Walk Through San Lorenzo di Roma

Aux portes de Rome

Un quartier singulier. La seule zone de Rome bombardée, lors de la deuxième guerre.

Quatre mille bombes ; trois mille victimes, dont le souvenir flotte toujours autour de ces rues.

Ces quelques rues, un kilomètre carré tout au plus, où se regroupe la Rome révolutionnaire.

Malgré tout, ce qui choque le visiteur, ce sont ces milliers de mètres de graffitis.

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October 20th, 2010

Say Goodbye to Old Hong Kong

Old buildings bought for redevelopment are displayed in the window of an acquisition company office on Victory Avenue in Ho Man Tin

There goes the neighbourhood. A new government policy on compulsory sales in old buildings has led to a property gold rush in Hong Kong’s older districts, putting homeowners on guard and worrying many that well-established communities will be uprooted and destroyed.

Before April, acquisition companies working for developers had to buy 90 percent of a building’s units before they could force the remaining owners to sell. Now the government has lowered that threshold to 80 percent for buildings more than 50 years old.

The impact can be felt in places like Ho Man Tin, where up to 20 buildings in the few blocks just east of the MTR’s East Rail Line are now targeted for redevelopment. About half are being acquired by Richfield Realty, a company whose controversial acquisition methods include the hanging of large red banners over targeted buildings, a tactic that many homeowners say creates an atmosphere of intimidation.

“We’re very angry and upset to see those banners all over the place — it’s like a cancer that’s spreading throughout the city,” said Kobe Ho, a bookstore manager who lives on Waterloo Road in Ho Man Tin. Some of her friends in the neighbourhood have already been displaced by Richfield’s acquisitions.

“The new legislation has really sped up the process of urban renewal in Hong Kong,” said Wong Ho-yin, a member of the Minority Owners’ Alliance Against Compulsory Sales, which works with homeowners who do not want to leave their homes. “But urban renewal has so many negative effects, in terms of urban planning, social networks and protecting the rights of homeowners. It’s bad enough with the Urban Renewal Authority, but when the private sector gets involved, things are even worse.”

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July 4th, 2010

Growing Pains in a Hong Kong Backwater

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Last month, two stray dogs were found dead on a Mui Wo beach. News of their fate spread quickly through the nearby villages. “It was definitely a poisoning,” said a worker in a beachside restaurant. She explained that people walking through the nearby hills often felt intimidated by the dogs.

But who would do such a thing? “Those people coming from D.B.,” she said with a scowl, referring to Discovery Bay, the upscale development north of Mui Wo.

Mui Wo has long been a shabby sprawl of rural villages on Lantau Island, prized for its eccentric lifestyle and cheap housing. But recent years have seen an influx of transplants looking for suburban luxury at prices far lower than those in Discovery Bay or Sai Kung. As village houses are bought and renovated, property prices have more than doubled in the past five years, and the government now plans to spend HK$300 million on beautification and leisure facilities over the next few years. All of the change has been met by audible grumbling from some long-time Mui Wo residents. “The yuppies are taking over the asylum” is how one blogger described it.

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June 21st, 2010

Cape Tin

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Politics, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher Szabla

A row of numbered tin shacks in Blikkiesdorp. Photo from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign

Nestled in a sun-kissed valley amid coastal mountains, pastel-hued, historic Cape Town is arguably one of the world’s most beautiful cities. So it’s long been a rude awakening for first time visitors expecting to arrive amid its sweeping vistas and colonial architecture that the N2, the highway stretching between the Cape Town’s airport and the city center, is lined by the handmade shacks that constitute the Joe Slovo informal settlement.

Nestled between the highway and the formal black townships established by the apartheid government on the Cape Flats, Joe Slovo was the result of the rapid population influx into South Africa’s cities since the end of racial discrimination in 1994 — and of the government’s inability to keep up with demand for housing, guaranteed as a right in South Africa’s progressive constitution.

In 2005, a fire that rapidly ate through Joe Slovo’s makeshift shacks left hundreds homeless. At the same time, the government began planning a permanent solution to the housing crisis that had produced the settlement, which was ironically named for Nelson Mandela’s first housing minister. Joe Slovo’s shacks were to be replaced by the N2 Gateway, a proper housing development. But first, Cape Town needed a place to put the refugees of the fire — and those whom it would eventually relocate to the N2 Gateway.

Enter Blikkiesdorp, officially the Symphony Way Temporary Relocation Area, and unofficially what translates from Afrikaans as, literally, “block village” — more often known as “Tin Can City” in English. Established in 2007, it was initially built to house another set of shack dwellers who had set up camp nearby — and it’s increasingly housing refugees from shack settlement and apartment evictions all across Cape Town. Enclosed by a thick concrete fence, constantly patrolled by vigilant police, its rows of numbered tin shacks have elicited comparisons to a concentration camp.

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