August 12th, 2014

In Defence of SkyCycle


Soaring above the city on a bike: you can’t deny it would be a cool way to get around. One of the greatest pleasures of urban transport is being the passenger in a car travelling along an elevated highway — being immersed in the city yet removed from it, revealing a perspective inaccessible to you as a pedestrian. Why should drivers get all the fun, especially when their cars are so destructive to the environmental and social fabric of the city?

That’s apparently a question Norman Foster has been asking himself. Late last year, the British architect proposed a network of elevated bicycle highways that would run above London’s railroad tracks, giving cyclists the kind of speedy right-of-way that motorists have enjoyed for so long. 220 kilometres of elevated bike routes would thread through the city, accessible from 200 locations. Like expressways, these would facilitate long-distance rather than local travel; the idea is to make cycling to work a quick and comfortable alternative to cars and trains.

Though it is not the first time an architect has proposed a network of elevated bike paths, the idea has proven controversial. It’s not only because of SkyCycle’s expense — a 6.5-kilometre trial section would cost £220 million — but because of its ideological implications. There is something decidedly old-fashioned about grade-separated solutions to transport problems. Footbridges, pedestrian tunnels, elevated highways: these are the future of the past. We live in an era when highways are being dismantled and replaced by urban boulevards; “complete streets” is the rallying call of today’s progressive planners.

Many urbanists did not take kindly to SkyCycle. Mikael Colville-Andersen, who runs the urban mobility consulting firm Copenhagendize, called the scheme a “city-killing, Blade Runner fantasy.” He writes: “Removing great numbers of citizens who could be cycling down city streets past shops and cafés on their way to work or school and placing them on a shelf, far away from everything else.”


December 12th, 2012

Mobile Architecture

View from the Arch

Despite the fact that I’ve never owned a car, and I drive only a couple of times a year, I’ve always had a fascination with car design. When I was a kid, I knew all the marques. I would sit in the back seat of my parents’ van, naming the cars that went by, a copy of the Consumer Reports car guide on my lap. Even today, when I’m stuck on traffic on the bus here in Hong Kong, I’ll gaze out and catalogue my fellow travellers: the bulbous Nissan Marchs, hulking Toyota Alphards, the endless varieties of 3-Series BMWs and C-Class Mercedes that are so common in Hong Kong.

Of course, my interest isn’t limited to private automobiles. When I visited other North American cities with my family, I noted with interest how New Flyer buses were common in the west, Novabuses in the east. I learned to appreciate the classic New Look buses that served as workhorses on so many Calgary Transit routes, retro-stylish even as they struggled up the long hill to my house, ancient engines moaning in protest.

I bring this up because of Thomas Heatherwick, who delivered a very animated and entertaining talk last weekend at the Business of Design Week forum in Hong Kong. Heatherwick is a British designer whose London-based studio has produced, among other things, the “Seed Cathedral” at the 2010 Shanghai Expo and the spectacular cauldron of the 2012 Olympic Games. Heatherwick is also the designer of the New Bus for London, which he highlighted in his talk at BODW.

When the bus was unveiled last year, there was some sense that it was at best a vanity project, at worst an attempt to indulge nostalgia, since the new bus was meant as a revival of the iconic Routemaster bus, which was produced until 1968, retired from regular service in 2005 and known for its hop-on, hop-off open back end. The typically rancorous peanut gallery at Dezeen blasted Heatherwick’s design as “steampunky art nouveau” and a “glorified student project” that put “fashion over function.” One cranky commenter insisted that “the bus should be practical above all else,” as if Heatherwick had produced a three-wheeled jitney that ran on the distilled essence of gold.


October 8th, 2012

Open Doors in Phnom Penh

We’re happy to introduce our newest contributor, Yin Khvat. Yin was born in Manchester in the UK and has lived in Australia for the last six years. She is currently on a short stay in Taiwan and has a particular interest in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh

Photo by Bo Nielsen

A woman is selling green coconuts off the back of her motorbike on the dusty street. With a scythe, she deftly chips the head of the coconut into a point, then guillotines the tip to reveal the sweet juice and tender white flesh inside. Next to her, a barber has set up on the pavement, his shop made up only of bare necessities: a mirror and chair. Young men in makeshift stalls, with car parts hung up on tarpaulin walls, observe you languidly as you watch them, curiosity returned for curiosity. On the corner, policemen in blue on their motorbikes look a little seedy, restricted in their uniforms, smoking cigarettes and surveying the traffic.

This is a typical street scene in Phnom Penh: a living, breathing cross-section of life in the Cambodian capital. Some look at this and see disorder, or a blight on the city’s beauty. Others see freedom, vibrancy, and the right of everyone — including the poor — to make a living. The city council has attempted to “reorganise” these small stalls — sometimes known as “romantic stallss” — believing they are messy or unhygienic. But for the time being, at least, it seems their efforts have not succeeded. Phnom Penh remains a capital city where the poorer sections of society can sell and provide services as the market demands, without the need to lease expensive commercial space.

But the stalls are part of a bigger social fabric, one which appears to define the Cambodian way of life. You see it not only in streets lined with people selling their wares, but also every afternoon and evening along the banks of the Tonle Sap River and Chaktomuk — the “four faces” where the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers meet. On Sisowath Quay, especially, people spend their free time sitting, walking and dancing with friends and family. They enjoy each other’s company under their city’s skies. Take one of the popular boat trips down the river and it is another episode of this same documentary, in which the delineation between viewer and object is blurred. You are watching them as they are watching you. The social interaction is thrilling, an essential element in a society where social integration is the outcome, binding people together and folding lives in on each other.

No doubt the warm weather and dense population contribute to this phenomenon, as does the economic devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge and the civil wars through the 1970s and 1980s, from which Cambodia is only now recovering. But what of the social legacy? When I asked how people here can be so warm after the horrors they have faced, I have been told that many Cambodians “live and let live.” That many adhere to Buddhist teachings that there is good and bad in all of us, and that forgiveness is part of living. Many Cambodians want to put those years behind them.

And so perhaps what we get is something I can’t help feel is unique to Phnom Penh. This is city that is unafraid, welcoming, generous and open-hearted. Tourists don’t need to be invited into the homes of Cambodians to interact with real people, or to get a good taste of life here, of what Cambodians do and how they live their lives. This society has a transparent, wonderful, communal feel — even after what it suffered just a generation ago.


September 18th, 2012

Revisiting the Fortress Embassy

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Architecture, Books, Europe, Politics by Christopher Szabla

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.


August 12th, 2012


Posted in Europe, History, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Wait, that’s not an Olympic sport! Photo courtesy UK Department of Culture, Media, and Sport

Texted, tweeted, teasing browsers of a hundred “sneak preview” slideshows ─ in short, serving as the centerpiece of endless international speculation for weeks prior to its debut ─ the verdant green fields on which the curtain of the 2012 Olympics lifted may remain their opening ceremony’s most salient image. Director Danny Boyle’s show brought this rural idyll to life with braying livestock, maypole dancers, and tunic-swaddled peasants playing pickup games of cricket, their hushed reverie set to the hymn of Sir Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem,” the scored version of William Blake’s famous poem (often called by the same name) rung in by childrens’ choirs from several equally emerald-hued corners of the UK.

Boyle’s opening was a tear-jerking, if hushed, sonata of nationalist sentimentalism ─ and as such, better received in England than elsewhere. Where, the rest of the world impatiently wondered, was the mass, masked extravaganza of drumbeats and leotards that would be the West’s answer to the chest-beating martial pageantry intimidatingly performed four years earlier in Beijing?

Danny Boyle’s “Dark Satanic Mills”. Photo by Shimelle Laine.

Olympic ceremonies typically affect pomposity meant to impress the billion-member international audiences they attract. But London 2012 faced its most skeptical reception closest to home. The intimate, provincial tableau with which he began made clear that Boyle was preoccupied with cutting short this crisis from the beginning: to flatter the country with coded symbolism, to allow Britons to feel that the Games were being staged for them, first and foremost, and not as an alienating global spectacle bound up in their government’s pretensions.

Just as crucial to this effort were the contrasts that followed. Soot-spotted workers emerged, uprooting the stage’s saccharine storyland to install the billowing smokestacks and fiery forges of a steampunk industrial complex. To the beat of thundering drums (meant “to frighten people,” according to musicians who scored the segment), those hoping for a mass spectacle were mollified at last; the Arcadian Albion of placid pastureland had been displaced by a Dickensian dystopia.


February 15th, 2012

Photos of the Week: Cold Shoulder

Posted in Europe by Christopher DeWolf


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”.


May 1st, 2011


Posted in Europe, Latin America, South Asia, Video by Christopher Szabla
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Megatransecting Mexico City

In 1999, American biologist J. Michael Fay set out on a project to map and survey the vegetation of Africa’s entire Congo River basin. Heavily promoted by National Geographic as “The Megatransect,” Fay’s feat involved 455 days of walking across 3,200 miles of largely untamed territory. Biologists had actually been using the term “transect” to describe such surveys since the late 19th century, but Fay’s epic-scale journey brought it widespread public recognition. In 2004 and 2005, he and Geographic extended the brand by conducting a “Megaflyover” of Africa, taking photos every 20 seconds during a 60,000 mile plus journey in a small bush plane.

Legendary as the natural surveys of explorer-biologists like Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt are, expeditions like theirs — and Fay’s — are increasingly rare now that most of “the field” has been crossed and recrossed. Geographers have turned their attention toward changes, rather than gaps, in maps of the earth’s surface — particularly those with less than natural causes. So it’s unsurprising that they have become fixated on the sites of the most intense human population growth and activity — cities. By 2008, urban centers contained, for the first time, over half the world’s people.

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A long, long walk through London


April 4th, 2011

Photo of the Week: Polaroid Commute

Posted in Europe, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf


This week’s photo was taken with an iPhone by Matthew Burlem in the London underground. The Polaroid effect comes from running the image through the iPhone’s Polarize app.

Every week, we feature striking images from our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

November 21st, 2010

Time Travel With Nick DeWolf

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Canada, Europe, History, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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Penn Station, New York, 1958

Three years ago, people were still complaining that photo-sharing websites like Flickr were home mostly to “thousands of pieces of shit” — few good photos, endless amounts of clichéd snapshots that nobody really wants to see.

Since then, of course, Flickr has proven its worth by attracting plenty of good, serious photographers, and inspiring many more to improve their work and learn more about photography. It has also become something unexpected: a window into the past. Recently, a number of organizations, including Library of Congress, NASA and the Ville de Montréal, have put portions of their photo archives on the website, taking advantage of its user-friendly format and ready-made connection to social networks.

Private individuals have followed their lead, giving old film photos new life. One such photographer is Nick DeWolf, a American engineer who lived in Philadelphia, Boston and later Colorado, and who never left home without a camera. For decades, starting in the 1950s, he documented almost everywhere he went. After DeWolf’s death in 2006, his son-in-law began putting his photos online.

There are now more than 43,000 images in DeWolf’s Flickr photostream, with 20 more added each day. Among these are scenes of everyday 1950s, 60s and 70s life in cities like New York, Boston and Hong Kong, shot with the passion, curiosity and loose focus of an amateur.


October 8th, 2010

Brick Lane Street Art

Posted in Art and Design, Europe, Video by Nicholas Olczak

It’s right next to the City of London, but the Brick Lane area is everything the financial district is not. It has long been one of the poorest districts of London, notorious for its crime and council housing. It also has an artistic atmosphere and abundant street art that contrasts with the sterile corporate landscape next door.

Impromptu art and graffiti and are everywhere here. There’s pictures filling recessed doorways, stretching across gates, tucked into corners high up on rooftops. They bring new vibrancy to derelict buildings and to the grimy, rundown walls. Lurking amongst all this art, anonymous and legendary at the same time, are works by some of the world’s best know graffiti artists. Banksy, D*Face and Ben Eine all have pieces scattered around the walls here.

This slideshow is an attempt to show what it is like to wander around the area, continually being surprised by new pieces of art that you haven’t noticed before. The soundtrack’s by that ever nostalgic UK beat boy DJ Format.

October 5th, 2010

The Reluctant Urban Artist: Anish Kapoor

Posted in Art and Design, Europe, Public Space, United States by Christopher Szabla

In the omphalos of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, Chicago

The contemporary art world can be a fickle place. Less than a decade ago, Damien Hirst somehow managed to earn an overnight fortune by preserving a dead shark in a fish tank. That was before a host of personal troubles — and the ongoing recession’s damper on the market for ostentatious art. These days, Hirst’s star is falling — fast. But at least one international art sensation of the last decade, sober sculptor Anish Kapoor, is still rapidly on the rise.

Born into Bombay’s community of former Baghdad Jews and educated in Israel and Britain, Kapoor has always been a consummate cosmopolitan, but he’ll have a truly unique place on the world stage all to himself in 2012, when his wild design (co-conceived with Cecil Balmond) for a centerpiece to the London Olympics — a 115 meter high tower, complete with a sort of pretzeloid roller coaster frame that looks even more mad than the games’ controversial logo — is likely to be lingered over by the cameras of broadcasters around the globe.

If Kapoor’s Olympic piece is a coup — it’s already touted as a future landmark on par with the Eiffel Tower — it may cement his everlasting fame. But as a practitioner of urban art, the work he’s left behind to date — more intimate, intricate, and people-friendly — may yet prove more valuable. Warmly embraced wherever it’s been exhibited, Kapoor’s outdoor oeuvre has represented a rare popular success for conceptual sculpture — reflecting, and unavoidably engaging with — the surrounding city, even if that isn’t quite what the artist originally intended.


September 8th, 2010

Rush Hour in London, 1970 and Today

Posted in Europe, History, Transportation, Video by Christopher Szabla
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Bulbous black taxis and double-decker buses might supply London’s most recognizable transport iconography, but Britain, where the railroad was born, has long been a nation defined by trains. A look at two videos of London’s rail station at rush hour confirms the country’s undying regard for rail. The crowds pulsating through Waterloo Station in 1970 were at the mercy of the antiquated, almost Steampunk-styled signal equipment featured in the first video, a British Transport Film fished up from the archives of the British Film Institute last year, but if they were at all aware of this, it didn’t stop them from swarming the station in droves (though, being British, they also manage to organize the chaos into an occasional orderly queue).

Not even the materialism of the Thatcher years, their emphasis on homeownership, nor subsequent real estate booms, all of which promoted car ownership and the expansion of the London’s suburban commuter belt along the motorways radiating from the city, could seriously challenge British railways’ importance. Still less hemorrhage resulted from the 1993-7 privatization of the UK rail system, achieved, in the eyes of many, for no practical purpose and with disastrous results; in fact, traffic since privatization has actually increased, even as public impressions of the railways’ reliability and safety have declined. More passengers were carried in 2006 than in any year since 1957.


July 15th, 2010

How to Fix a Troublesome Highway

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When Montreal’s Turcot Interchange opened in 1966, no one had seen anything quite like it. Floating one hundred pillared feet above the ground, its concrete spans swirled and swooped through the air, finally coming together in a knot of jaw-dropping proportions. It comprised over seven kilometres of road and spanned an area of seventeen acres. Underneath its four levels of overpasses and elevated ramps, boats floated on the Lachine Canal and trains chugged with freight. In an especially futuristic touch, two continuous bands of fluorescent lights glowed from the highway’s walls. Driving on it, the city unfolded before you: a skyline studded with smokestacks and steeples and the slow blink of the Farine Five Roses sign. More than a mega-project, the Turcot was a Modernist victory cry.

The Turcot still inspires, but, like any relic of a bygone era, its sheen has worn away. The railyards that once spread out from the interchange—and from which the Turcot took its name—were closed by Canadian National in 2002. Ordinary highway lights replaced the space-age illuminations when the aluminum wiring decayed. Winter road salt has soaked the structure in a corrosive brine, inflating steel reinforcement bars into rusted balloons ten times their original size, causing concrete to fall off in chunks.

In 2007, the Ministère des transports du Québec (MTQ) proposed tearing the whole thing down and building a new ground-level interchange in its place. According to the renderings, vehicular capacity would be increased by 20 percent, but the new interchange—projected to cost $1.5 billion over seven years—would require the demolition of two hundred homes, including an entire street of walkup apartments and a large loft building that housed more than four hundred people. Its embankments would cut off links between St. Henri, Côte St. Paul and the other working-class areas adjacent to the interchange.