July 26th, 2013

How to Ruin a Wonderful Space

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The Devonian Gardens in 2007. Photo by norrix

The Devonian Gardens were a wonderland. Located on the top floor of the TD Centre mall in downtown Calgary, the gardens were a fully-enclosed greenhouse of tropical plants and — best of all for a kid — a million nooks and crannies to explore. It seemed like every path led to something fascinating: a hidden alcove surrounded by palms, a wood-framed playground teeming with children, a pond filled with turtles and goldfish, ringed by little coin-operated dispensers that spat out fish food instead of candy. There was an outdoor terrace, too, and in the winter it was exhilarating to emerge from the warm, soupy air of the gardens into the stingingly dry cold.

Built in the late 1970s and donated to the City of Calgary by the Devonian Group of Charitable Foundations, the gardens were operated as an indoor public park, open without restriction for most of the day. It was a popular spot for office workers to eat their lunch, munching on sandwiches as nannies and mothers pushed their babies down the brick paths. Men gathered in the afternoon to play chess near the gardens’ front entrance. There were more than 135 species of plants, many of them tropical, and in a dry prairie city that is brown for most of the year, the gardens felt almost surreal in their lushness, a feeling enhanced by the contrast between the jungly vegetation and the banal artificiality of the design: brown bricks, brown metal railings, faux stone waterfalls that looked like they came from the set of a cheap dinosaur movie.

Five years ago, on a February trip to Calgary, I made a point to walk through the Devonian Gardens when I spent an afternoon photographing the Plus-15 network of interconnected second-floor spaces that spans most of the downtown area. I had no idea it would be the last time I saw the gardens in their original state. Shortly after my visit, TD Centre and two adjacent malls closed for a years-long renovation that included a makeover for the gardens. When they reopened last summer, it became clear that it was much more than a makeover: it was a complete gutting of everything that had made the gardens special.

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June 3rd, 2013

Rethinking Asia’s Public Spaces

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Talking over dim sum at a busy Wan Chai restaurant, it doesn’t take much prompting for Christopher Law to reel off the failures of Hong Kong’s public spaces. “No matter how small the space is, they try to fence it off,” he says, taking of sip of pu-erh tea. “All the public seating is extremely awkward. And because of maintenance, they use these pink toilet tiles everywhere.”

It’s a subject Law, the director of international architectural practice Oval Partnership, knows well. He points out there are more than 80 small parks and plazas scattered throughout Wan Chai District, but many are so poorly designed they may as well not exist — one “sitting out area” on Queen’s Road East consists of two benches and a patch of concrete surrounded by a tall fence. Recently, though, Law and his firm got a chance to reshape a constellation of public open spaces around Star Street, a quietly fashionable corner of Wan Chai.

“They’re places where you can read a book, eat your rice box or sandwich, have a nap,” says Law. “Most of the public spaces in Hong Kong aren’t designed for that diversity of uses — all those activities are limited or actively discouraged. We wanted to encourage them.”

Hong Kong isn’t the only city in Asia where designers are casting a critical eye over the quality of public space. All over the region, cities ambushed by decades of rapid growth are taking a step back and reconsidering their perfunctory parks, streets and plazas — though in some cases, architects must butt heads against arcane policies, design standards and intransigent officials in order to make a difference.

One of the best-known and most dramatic of these overhauls took place in Seoul, where an ancient waterway known as Cheonggyecheon, long entombed in concrete and covered by an elevated expressway, was reborn in 2005 as a 8.4-kilometre-long stream lined by a promenade and native vegetation. That was one of the inspirations for last year’s transformation of a fenced-off waterway in Singapore’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park into a focal point for the surrounding community.

The crux of the project was the conversion of the Kallang River from concrete drainage channel into a natural stream. “Before, there was no relation to the water — it was the backside of the neighbourhood,” says Tobias Baur, a landscape architect with Atelier Dreiseitl, which oversaw the project. “The problem was that it was a concrete channel completely barred to the residents. It was dangerous for people because the water was very fast and it was a dead zone for vegetation. It was a non-usable space.”

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March 28th, 2013

The Seawall in all its Incarnations

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Environment, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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Walking the length of Vancouver’s Seawall is a lesson in design fads and fashions. The Stanley Park stretch dates back to 1914 and is elegant in its simplicity; a rough-hewn stone wall threads its way around the park’s craggy shoreline, rainforest on one side and cool Pacific waters on the other. Near Granville Island, the path takes on a late-70s look with brick paving, timber planters and suburban landscaping, a trend that continued into the 1990s, with some variations — square-cut timber gave way to painted steel tubes as the material of choice for benches and railings, and the pine trees of the 70s were usurped by a 90s love of palms, which matched the SoCal architecture that was fashionable at the time.

By the time the late 2000s rolled around, fashions had changed yet again, and this is reflected in the newest stretch of the Seawall, which runs along the southeast side of False Creek next to the Olympic Village. The materials used are at once rustic yet contemporary: cool materials like concrete, granite and steel juxtaposed with warm timber. Natural shorelines were preserved rather than obliterated, wild grasses are abundant and there is generally a more diverse array of spatial experiences than on the more rigid parts of the Seawall: paved plazas, boardwalks, pebble beaches, piers jutting into the water. (The entire Seawall is documented on Google Street View, so feel free to take a virtual bike ride to see if you agree with my impressions.)

It’s that depth of experience that sets the newest part of the Seawall apart from its predecessors. It is not simply a space meant for enjoying the view; it’s a space that encourages active participation. There are lounge chairs, a seemingly unregulated community garden and — most interesting of all — there’s Habitat Island. This spit of scrubby offshore land is accessible only at low tide via a pebble beach. The last time I visited, on a sunny spring day, the island was filled with people: teenagers rummaging through the bush, some people smoking pot, others drinking beer, families examining the aquatic life of tidal pools. It’s a lovely, unmanicured island, its wildness made all the more striking by the wall of glassy condominium towers across the water.

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November 23rd, 2012

La Grande Jatte

Posted in Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Every day from spring to fall, a scene reminiscent of Georges Seurat’s most famous painting is reenacted next to the Lafontaine Park pond in Montreal. It’s as much of a scene as any bar or café: teenagers flirting, sunbathers bathing, les ostie de gratteux de guitare strumming their guitars.

Thinking back to my most recent visit to the park, in late October, and looking at Seurat’s painting, I wonder what particular alchemy leads to a place becoming a natural gathering spot for loafers and loiterers. English Bay in Vancouver, the southeast steps of Union Square in New York, Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath — is all it takes a slope and an open view? Or is there another ingredient?

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August 12th, 2012

Pastoralympics

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.

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June 5th, 2012

Remembering Tiananmen in Hong Kong

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

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Tiananmen Square vigil in Hong Kong. Photos by dawvon.

Last night, as Chinese internet censors frantically banned words like “today” and “Tiananmen” from web searches and social media, 180,000 people gathered in Hong Kong to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the June 4th massacre. This is an annual ritual that has taken place ever since the first tanks rolled down Chang’an Avenue in Beijing. Its attendance has waxed and waned over the past two decades, but ever since the 20th anniversary of the massacre in 2009, a new generation of young Hongkongers, joined by a growing number of visitors from mainland China, have re-energized the vigil. This year, more people made their way to Victoria Park than ever before.

For many people in Hong Kong, the slaying of student demonstrators in Beijing destroyed any confidence they once had in China. It’s no coincidence that, in the five years following 1989, hundreds of thousands of people emigrated to places like Canada and Australia, seeking insurance against the city’s impending transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China. Before 1997, people actually spoke with some seriousness about People’s Liberation Army tanks rolling down Queen’s Road. Reality turned out to be more benign. China’s economic boom and relatively hands-off approach to Hong Kong restored confidence in the mainland. With the exception of 2003, when opposition to proposed national security legislation led to a surge of attendance at the vigil, the memory of Tiananmen seemed to be growing less relevant by the year. By 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, Hong Kong seemed to be more committed to China than ever before.

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February 15th, 2012

A Fire on Mount Royal

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

Mount Royal bonfire

The temperature was edging below zero when the first drug dealer approached. “You want something?” he asked, peering at us from under the hood of his jacket. We said no and he wandered away, casting us a suspicious glance over his shoulder. Soon, half a dozen men were eyeing us. “What you doing here?” shouted a man with a Jamaican accent.

To be fair, we were on their turf. If you’re waiting around the Sir George Étienne Cartier monument at nine o’clock on a cold October night, you probably aren’t there to enjoy the view of Mount Royal. We could hardly pass judgement, since we were waiting for our friend Boris to meet us for an illicit activity of our own: a campfire in the middle of the city.

The steep, densely-forested east slope of Mount Royal is a peculiar place. There’s a spot about halfway up that is so well sheltered by rocks and trees that patches of winter snow can last until June. Walk into the woods from Park Avenue and it never takes long to feel as though you’ve somehow been transplanted to somewhere in the Laurentians. The illusion is even more pronounced at night, when raccoons rustle in the bushes and rock outcroppings appear unexpectedly in the dark.

Of course, the city never disappears completely — the faint rumble of traffic, the wail of an ambulance. The sky is so bright you don’t even need a flashlight to see your way through the woods. That’s exactly what makes a nighttime trip up the mountain so exhilarating, because you’ve managed to escape the city without actually leaving it. And really, what else are you going to do in the woods at night? It’s only natural to make a fire.

When Boris finally arrived, we said goodbye to the dealers and made our way into the forest, armed with various essentials: flashlights, beer, marshmellows, mulled wine. Boris knew a perfect spot for a fire, a small clearing on the edge of a short cliff. I’m still not sure how we found our way there — the part of your brain that identifies two-for-one pizza places and dépanneurs as navigational landmarks can apparently do the same for trees and rocks — but it didn’t take us long to arrive. I made quick work of unpacking the beer while others scavenged for firewood.

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July 27th, 2011

Urban Gulch: Edmonton’s Big River Valley

Posted in Canada by Karl Leung

There’s a long-standing rivalry out here on the Prairies. Beyond local football and hockey antagonisms, Calgarians and Edmontonians seem to have a lot of other beef with each other.

I am a native Calgarian, but I must admit the unspeakable: Edmonton is a beautiful place! It is, in fact, a walkable, friendly and interesting city to explore — a fine serving of urban living and the great outdoors.

As these photos attest, one exemplary feature of Edmonton’s urban and natural landscapes is the cavernous North Saskatchewan River valley, which carves a vast swath of parkland through concrete groves of modest apartment buildings crowding along its edge.

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May 22nd, 2011

A Citadel of Colonial Power — For Sale

Central Government Offices

Later this year, when Hong Kong’s government moves its headquarters to a glassy new building next to Victoria Harbour, it will leave behind the leafy hill it has called home since the 1840s. Rather than conserve the hill for public use, however, the government wants to sell half of it to developers, who plan to tear it up for a new shopping mall and 32-storey office tower.

“This hill belongs to the public and it should stay public,” says heritage activist Katty Law, who is part of a spirited coalition of groups that oppose the plan.

Over the past few months, a litany of groups have come out against the government’s plan, including the pan-democratic political parties, designers, environmental activists, architects, historians and congregants from St. John’s Cathedral, which is located on the hill.

Even feng shui masters think it’s a bad idea. One master, who is also a registered architect, told the South China Morning Post that the new office tower would block the site’s chi, which comes from the balance between Government House, at the top of the hill, and the three 1950s-era office blocks immediately below.

The government’s rationale for the redevelopment plan is straightforward: there’s a shortage of Grade A office space in Central and the new office tower would provide 28,500 square meters of it. The project is essential “to maintain Hong Kong’s competitiveness,” a spokeswoman for the Development Bureau told me.

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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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February 25th, 2011

Strange Graffiti in King’s Park

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

I’m a big fan of street art for all sorts of reasons: it is a sign of dynamic urban life, it is a jab in the face of authority, it makes my walks through the city more interesting. But street art, like all forms of art, can get stuck in a rut. When it takes itself too seriously I begin to lose interest.

That is why I am so fascinated by what might be termed outsider street art. This is the work creates by people who don’t see themselves as artists and who don’t necessarily conceive of what they’re doing as art. Their work is a means to an end, but because that end is often opaque, the message is seductively ambiguous. Two prime examples of this are the King of Kowloon and the Plumber King.

Last weekend, I came across another example while walking through King’s Park, a hilly green area not far from my apartment. On the side of a quiet road leading up to an underground reservoir, somebody had scrawled dozens of words, phrases and names on a white retaining wall. Some referred to history, others to literature, still others to common sayings. What they had to do with one another wasn’t clear.

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November 24th, 2010

Nap Time

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Restaurant workers asleep in a Wan Chai plaza, Hong Kong

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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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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.

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