April 30th, 2015

Street Art Finds a Scene in Hong Kong

HK Walls

Hopare working in Sheung Wan.
This photo and all others from HK Walls

Night falls over Stanley Market and a small crowd of people gather in a back lane, staring at the pristine aluminium of a drawn shop shutter. One of them is 4Get, a prolific street artist who travelled here from his home in Tuen Mun to cover the shutter in paint. Someone asked him what his idea for the mural was. He looked at the shutter and took a drag on a cigarette. “I’m planning,” he says. “I’m thinking about it right now.”

This wasn’t a covert bombing; the mural was commissioned by Print House, a custom screen-printing t-shirt shop, in collaboration with HK Walls, a group that connects street artists with Hong Kong’s willing walls. In March, HK Walls will held its second annual street art festival in Sheung Wan, with live graffiti writing and mural painting by around 20 local and international street artists. As 4Get worked on the Print House mural, the group watching hoped it would convince Stanley shopowners to stage another edition of the festival in the South Side neighbourhood.

“There’s a lot of really bad work on the shutters here, a lot of tagging, and people just don’t care,” says Print House’s owner, Hughie Doherty, who grew up in Stanley and still lives nearby. “I’m hoping this will open up a lot more for HK Walls working in Stanley. People could come at night and walk through this public gallery. Stanley needs something now. It used to be really cool.”

Hong Kong never had much of a street art culture compared to cities in North America and Europe, but things are changing, thanks to organisations like HK Walls, an influx of expat artists and the attention generated by international artists like Space Invader, whose bombarded the city with video game-inspired tilework last year, only to have much of it quickly removed by the government.

“In the past four years, it’s taken off,” says Stern Rockwell, a veteran graffiti writer from New York who moved to Hong Kong five years ago. Hong Kong is riding on the tail of a global wave in street art that began in 1970s New York and exploded in popularity with the internet, as photos of works from the streets of New York, London and Berlin were circulated around the world. Some of the most famous artists in the world are now street artists; Banksy is virtually a household name. It’s also big business: in January, a replica of one of the Space Invader pieces removed by the government, a kung fu fighting dog modelled on the 1970s cartoon character Hong Kong Phooey, was auctioned by Sotheby’s for HK$1.96 million.

None of that seemed possible when Rockwell was growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. He was fascinated by the graffiti that covered the subway. “I asked my mom, ‘How did they do that?’” he recalls. By the time he reached high school, he was joining other graffiti writers in the Park Slope subway layup. “Some nights you could catch 100 cars parked on the tracks,” he says.

A lot of graffiti writers at the time wanted to be “all city,” meaning they had bombed all 34 of the city’s subway lines, but Rockwell’s interest expanded to other kinds of art and design. He eventually studied apparel design and worked for brands like Cartier and Fendi. Those early escapades into subway layups had proved fortuitous – New York’s crack epidemic in the 1980s and 90s made the city a rough place. “People were dying, people were getting locked up,” says Rockwell. “I was poor but I was able to make a living doing graffiti. It saved my life.”

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December 18th, 2013

The Last Days of 5 Pointz

5 ptz, Long Island City, New York, 2013.

Even if you don’t follow street art or hip hop, you might have heard the news: 5 Pointz is dead. Technically, the old warehouse in Long Island City is still standing — though it is slated for redevelopment — but its essence as an art space was stripped away in the early hours of November 19, when 20 years worth of graffiti was covered with white paint. Since 1993, 5 Pointz has been a mecca for artists and graffiti writers from around the world. Inside, 200 artists worked in subsidized studios, while the exterior of the building became an enormous canvas for just about every kind of street art you can imagine, from throw ups to paste ups to elaborate murals.

The building was sold to property developer David Wolkoff, and in August, the New York City Planning Commission approved its demolition. Though the new development will include low-cost housing and a “curated” space for graffiti — along with 1,000 condominiums — the 5 Pointz community has been vigorously fighting against it. The whitewashing was the developer’s attempt to make a point: we own this space now, not you, so fuck off. When I first heard what had happened, I was reminded of the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and while that might seem like an extreme comparison, the two actions come from the same wellspring of contempt for cultural difference.

Not long after the whitewashing, I was emailed by Eric Lau, a New York-based designer and photographer. He wanted to share with me some photos he had taken at the last hip hop battle that occurred at 5 Pointz. The photos were taken on black and white film. Here’s a lightly edited version of what he told me about his experience.

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June 2nd, 2013

Hong Kong’s Silence on Noise Pollution

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Maps, Public Space, United States by Christopher DeWolf

SOGO crossing, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong at night

Sogo Junction in Causeway Bay, where ambient noise levels can reach 118 decibels. Photo by James Shandlon

After Karl Sluis’ richly-detailed map of New York City noise complaints was featured on The Atlantic Cities, my editor at the South China Morning Post got in touch about making a similar map for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong can be an intensely noisy place: roaring buses, skull-shattering pile-driving, incessant jackhammers, video billboards set to max volume. Ambient noise levels in Causeway Bay can reach 118 decibels — equivalent to sandblasting or a rock concert. Paradoxically, the noisiness of everyday life here seems to have made people less tolerant of things like outdoor concerts, which are always plagued by noise complaints. Just as Sluis did in New York, mapping those noise complaints would provide insight into Hong Kong’s geography of noise.

But we failed. That’s because every attempt I made to extract precise data on noise complaints from the Hong Kong government were met by obfuscation and outright refusal. Not only does this point to the government’s lack of transparency, it raises questions about how seriously it is committed to handling Hong Kong’s noise problem.

The problem is that, when it comes to noise, the government just doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. “There are not any comprehensive and detailed noise pollution surveys and studies in Hong Kong,” says Yip Yan-yan, chief operating officer of think tank Civic Exchange. The only way to reduce noise pollution is to analyse it — and to make those findings available to the public.

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May 29th, 2013

Behind the Noise Map

NYC Noise Map by Karl Sluis

NYC Noise Map by Karl Sluis

If you read The Atlantic Cities, or follow our Twitter feed, you’ve probably seen Karl Sluismap of the 40,412 noise complaints made last year in Manhattan. It’s a beautiful, richly-detailed effort to chart not only the geography of noise but more subtle variations in New York’s socio-economic landscape, like the fact that complaints about loud music from cars seem only to happen north of Central Park.

I’ve been working with the South China Morning Post to create a Hong Kong version of Sluis’ map for the past couple of weeks. It hasn’t gone so well. I’ll have more about that later, but in the meantime, here’s a quick interview I did with Sluis by email.

What came first, wanting to do a noise map or coming across New York’s open-source data on noise complaints?

As a freelance data visualization designer, I’m always on the lookout for that next great data set, so I was attracted first to NYC’s Open Data portal. Granted, a lot has already been made with the data released by the city of New York. I was perusing some of the less-popular data sets when I came across the 311 (NYC’s non-emergency information line) data set.

Wired Magazine had already made a visualization out of the same data some years ago, so I hardly wanted to repeat an existing project. What got me excited was the combination of geolocation data, time data, and, particularly, the metadata on what type of complaint had been filed. With such a rich data set, I knew the visualization would have legs.

New York’s an immense, incredible, rich place, and as a resident, I’m always curious to learn more.

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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 15th, 2012

Remembering Columbus

Tatzu Nishi has made a career of bringing monuments down to size. Over the past 15 years, the 52-year-old Japanese artist has enclosed statues around the world in makeshift rooms. Last year, he built a hotel room around Singapore’s Merlion, whose enormous head loomed incongruously over a luxuriously-appointed king-sized bed. This year, Christopher Columbus receives the same treatment. Normally perched 18 metres above Columbus Circle in New York, a four-metre-tall marble statue of the famed explorer now sits atop a coffee table in an upscale American living room. Visitors can contemplate the normally aloof figure in a familiar setting: Bloomingdale’s furniture set, 55-inch Samsung TV, hardwood floors.

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May 1st, 2012

The Greater Grid

Posted in History, Maps, United States by Christopher Szabla

Straight as an arrow: triptych along Lake Shore Drive, Chicago

Last year, Manhattan celebrated the 200th anniversary of its vaunted grid street system, the rectilinear net that stretches from First Street in what’s now the East Village to 155th, in Washington Heights. And any assumption this was too dry a subject for most New Yorkers could have been dispelled by the thickness of the crowds browsing “The Greatest Grid“. The still-ongoing exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York which examines street patterns in the city past and present, and, with a number of (mostly outlandish) proposals from architectural studios and planners, future.

The exhibit lingers not only on the planning and implementation of the New York grid, but also its many detractors — the property interests, real estate developers, planners, and landscape architects who sought to interrupt and impede Manhattan’s monotonous future as a flattened island dominated by identical, rectangular blocks — and the effects of their opposition. Avenues were inserted midblock when city leaders realized that facilitating north-south traffic would prove more vital to the city’s future than ensuring easy crosstown access between rivers. Broadway’s anomalous, diagonal swath was retained, the points where it awkwardly intersected with the grid turned into parks and squares. A vast portion of the grid was interrupted for the creation of Central Park.

Baseball diamond tic-tac-toe in Lake Shore Park

Above 155th Street, in particular, a new generation of Romantic planners created a very different Manhattan that respected the island’s original, hilly topography, and complemented it with looping, serpentine streets. Upper Manhattan became a mirror image of the chaotic, colonial streets that characterized the island’s original settlement, at its lower tip, and the closest approximation of pre-grid plans for the city, like the one formulated by Joseph Mangin and Casimir Goerck, which respected property lines far more than it had geometric rigors.

Both aesthetically and philosophically, the grid had chafed at Gilded Age New York, and in particular its high society’s pretensions to be living in city that could equal the capitals of Europe, where avenues headed by monumental governmental, cultural, or religious structures were elegantly expressed the notion that mere business was subordinate to civic institutions. But the attractions of the less hierarchical, more “democratic” grid were embraced more wholeheartedly in the country’s interior. The Land Ordinance of 1785 had imposed a grid system far more dramatic than New York’s — on what would become the entire Upper Midwest. At its heart was Chicago, a city that would far more enthusiastically embrace the right angle than even its most eager proponents in New York.

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April 12th, 2012

Photos of the Week: Burning Chametz

Posted in Public Space, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher DeWolf

burning chametz, passover 2012

Burning Chametz, Bedford Avenue

Hassidic Jews burning chametz — leavened foods — for Passover, on April 7, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

This week’s photos were taken by triebensee. These are just some of the striking images in our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

March 9th, 2012

The View From Brooklyn Bridge

Posted in United States by Christopher Szabla

“Flood-tide below me!” Walt Whitman exclaimed, in 1856, “I watch you face to face”. Whitman was riding the Brooklyn ferry, referring to the crowds that piled onto it during its constant journeys from and two Manhattan. Only a few decades later, this vital, centuries-old water link was obsolete; the Brooklyn Bridge, first to span the East River, had arrived, joining cities that would soon formally merge into what was then quaintly called Greater New York. It could hardly handle the masses crossing the river much better, though. As Manhattan and Brooklyn grew together, the bridge’s traffic steadily increased; after a century that brought subways and taxis and telecommuting (not to mention other bridges) many feet still pound its narrow wooden walkway, arching between boroughs.

The ensuing drama is a microcosm of the difficulties ailing a city where so many egos rub shoulders. Chief among the bridge’s intractable conflicts is the one between cyclists and pedestrians; the former accusing the latter of failing to respect their dedicated lane, the latter accusing the former of taking murderous aim as they fly down the bridge’s descents. The anecdotes are drawn, like knives in a street fight, whenever a fracas between one group and the other flares anywhere else in New York.

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February 7th, 2012

Death by Elevator

Posted in Interior Space, Transportation, United States by Christopher Szabla

Photo by Bartek Kucharczyk

It all happened so quickly. Suzanne Hart, a 41 year old ad exec, was heading to work in her Midtown Manhattan office building on a busy mid-December morning when, crossing the threshold of a filling elevator, her foot became stuck between the elevator car and the solid ground of the first floor. That’s when the unexpected occurred: the car, with its doors still open, suddenly shot upward, dragging her body into the narrow space between its still-open doors and the walls of the shaft it was travelling through. The passengers who had made it safely on board were forced to watch through the open door as, in the dim, grim crevasse outside, Hart’s life ended instantly. It took an hour before they were able to get away — about nine before anyone was able to extract Hart’s remains.

Like buses, subways, and cabs, elevators are a critical form of urban transportation, even if — outside of the handful of places where public elevators scale hills and cliffs — they’re much less likely to be thought of as such. For millions of people who live and work in vertical cities like New York, São Paulo, and Hong Kong, they’re more than mere appendages to morning and evening commutes. Workers and residents in particularly tall buildings may sometimes spend more time in elevator shafts than subway tubes; “the local” is how many New Yorkers jokingly refer to elevators that stop on every floor (many supertall skyscrapers, like the Empire State Building, actually do have local and express elevator systems that mirror the city’s two-tiered subway).

The density of a city like New York would scarcely be possible without transit that can transcend congestion by moving underground as well as ascend from it to the soaring towers above. When Haruki Murakami wanted to emphasize that a character in his latest novel, IQ84, had never experienced the city, he described her as having never ridden either a subway or an elevator. “As the world urbanizes—every year, in developing countries, sixty million people move into cities—the numbers [of those who ride elevators] will go up, and up and down,” writes Nick Paumgarten in a 2008 article for the New Yorker. “The elevator, underrated and overlooked,” he continues, “is to the city what paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war.”

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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 25th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Christmas in the City

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

Barbershop Christmas: Mott Haven Bronx

The Bronx, New York. Photo by Chris Arnade

Wreath 8187

Chinatown, New York. Photo by Keith Goldstein

Chicago. Photo by Gabriel X. Michael

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December 14th, 2011

Photos of the Week: New York/Istanbul

Posted in Europe, United States by Christopher DeWolf

NYC

Istanbul

This week’s photos, of famous landmarks in New York and Istanbul on dreary December days, were taken by MissTschoermeni.

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

December 6th, 2011

Pigeon Keepers of Bushwick

Posted in Environment, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher DeWolf

Sunset on Goodwins Roof 2:  Bushwick Brooklyn

If you’ve been following our Photos of the Week, you’ve probably seen the work of Chris Arnade, a New York-based photographer who creates particularly lovely images. Arnade has a particularly good eye for urban characters.

Last week, he emailed me about a series he has been working on about men who raise pigeons on the rooftops of Brooklyn. “A real urban sport that is dying out as gentrification pushes into the outer boroughs,” he explained. Arnade agreed to share his photos and commentary with us below.

Building and Pigeons: Bushwick Brooklyn

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