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.


September 8th, 2012

Foreign Interventions in (Calle) Honduras

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

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

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

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


July 2nd, 2012

Istanbul: To the Asian Side

Posted in Europe, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Photo by Engin Kurutepe

For an intercontinental journey, F.’s directions were fairly straightforward. “Head to Eminönü,” she’d said, introducing a thicket of tongue-challenging Turkish umlauts. “Take a ferry to Kadiköy. I’ll meet you there, on the Asian side.” The Asian side: nowhere else in the world can you pass between continents without so much as leaving city limits — at least nowhere that “continents” are as well demarcated as they are in Istanbul, where the two landmasses are cleaved by the heaving tidal cavity of the Bosphorus. Here, the divide has not only been bridged — twice — but, where it hasn’t, the opposite continent is a mere twenty minute commute by ferry.

The simple crossing is almost too easy a metaphor for the way Istanbul overcomes preconceived cultural chasms with the same sprezzatura that other places seem to uphold them. On the other side of the Mediterranan, Tangier, in Morocco, can feel like a world away from Algeciras, in Spain, but Kadiköy, Turkey’s gateway to Asia, is a neighborhood that feels practically Scandinavian in its cleanliness and order. And on Istanbul’s European side, boisterous streets spill from the Grand Bazaar to the Egyptian Market. It’s not to consign this part of the city to Orientalist stereotype to note that the hustle there — and dress — can sometimes seem more Kabul than Copenhagen. It is to say that the city’s contrasts — when and if they ever are clear — are rarely found how and where you might imagine them.

Ideas, though, are powerful things, and neither rational understanding that continents were mere constructs nor anticlimactic Kadiköy do much to stymie my sense of wonder at the quick transcontinental crossing. “It’s my first time in Asia,” I tell F., as we began driving away from the ferry terminal and out along Bağdat Caddesi, Champs-Élysées of the Asian side, which juts arrow-straight to the east — in the direction of its namesake, in Iraq. She had asked us to join her here to show off this side of the city — her part of town. The way the city easily scrambles stereotypes has long led outsiders to consider Istanbul a cliché of “East meets West,” a checkpoint between civilizations, but it was the center, not the frontier, of F.’s life. She had no idea why I found suddenly being at a different end of it so remarkable.


April 2nd, 2012

A Nation Slips Beneath the Sea

Posted in Environment, Film, Politics, South Asia, Video by Christopher Szabla

Sweep your eyes across any world map or globe and, unless you squint closely on the ocean expanse just west of India, they can be easy to miss: a chain of about 1,200 tiny islands marching almost in a straight line, from the Lakshadweep Islands to the north and the Chagos Archipelago to the south — the Maldives. With a population of only 350,000 spread over one of the most geographically dispersed landmasses of any state, the country is about as far as possible from a byword for “crowded”. Malé, the capital, is an exception.

With around a third of the country’s population primarily located on an island that’s less than six square kilometers large, the landmass the city occupies has now been entirely urbanized. Save the occasional landfill project, that’s left the growing settlement with nowhere to go but up; aerial views reveal a city that looks like a miniaturized, tropical Manhattan that’s somehow drifted into the south seas. In fact, the Maldivian capital is more densely populated than its famously vertical stateside twin; Malé is actually the fourth most densely populated island in the world (Manhattan, by comparison, is only seventh).

The Maldives’ official tourism website has even begun promoting its “spectacular skyline of candy-coloured skyscrapers” alongside the upscale resorts on which the country’s economy depends most heavily. But total urbanization has actually become a serious problem for Malé; it’s left the city’s population virtually nowhere to flee in the event of flash floods. Monsoon rains turn its streets into waterways on an annual basis; the Maldives are the world’s most low-lying country, with no place more than three meters above sea level. The real wake-up call came during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, when two-thirds of the city were entirely inundated by the sea.

So great was the tsunami’s impact on the Maldives — 50% of its GDP was washed away over the course of a few hours — that it unleashed pent-up demands for political reform. Mohamed Nasheed, a pro-democracy activist, was swept into office in 2008, bringing to a close the the 30-year regime of Maumool Abdul Gayoom. The top of his agenda quickly became climate change; as he successfully made clear to much of the world in the coming years, rising sea levels were due to turn the Maldives into the blank spot on the world map that so many had accidentally perceived.


March 5th, 2012

Graffiti Republic

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


Before Greece erupted into riots against austerity measures, before the sit-ins that convulsed public squares across Spain, long before 2011’s tumultuous protests against world financial systems began “kicking off everywhere“, things had long since kicked off in Argentina. The 2001 protests that gripped the country during its madcap financial crisis offered a sort of preview of what was to come to Europe and — to a lesser, tamer extent — North America, ten years later. So, too, many writers have claimed, did it appear to offer lessons for the future of crisis-battered debtor nations.

The paint-splattered walls of central Buenos Aires, at least, still seem alive with the spirit of the dramatic standoffs that convulsed the Argentine capital over a decade ago, when they famously forced President Fernando de la Rúa to flee from the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace, by helicopter. In the streets that border and radiate from the Plaza de Mayo, the country’s nexus of power, graffiti suffused with the economic themes that resonated in 2001 continues, after regular rounds of angry demonstrations, to climb the walls of even the most stately banks and government office buildings. Not even the Cabildo, a historic landmark that was the center of colonial government in the city, is spared; its freshly-restored facade is one of protest graffiti artists’ favorite targets.

Long after still-frequent demonstrations recede, the remaining graffiti renders the heart of the city redolent with palpable, present anger. The visual contrasts — incensed slogans set against the neighborhood’s slickly-suited crowds of commuters and imperious, alabaster edifices — suggest something akin to Occupy Wall Street, but the effect, particularly in its semipermanence, is far more intimidating than anything recent New York protests managed to muster. It’s as if militant slogans only slightly less charged than those that have crawled onto facades of cities linked to the uprisings of the Arab Spring had suddenly appeared in an environment that looks more like Washington or Whitehall.


October 31st, 2011

“Urbanized”: Democracy and Design

Posted in Architecture, Art and Design, Film, Politics, Video by Christopher Szabla
YouTube Preview Image

Gary Hustwit clearly wanted his new documentary, Urbanized, to get more people talking or writing about cities. But he might not have expected the very literal way that admirers at Field Notes, a stationery company, would help facilitate that goal — by supplying notepads branded with the film’s logo to audiences attending early theatrical runs.

According to info printed inside, the notebooks, which are like disposable Moleskines, were inspired by “the vanishing subgenre of agricultural memo books”, boasting “innards printed on a Miller TP104 28″ x 40″ 2-color printing press,” and were inevitably produced in Portland, Oregon — capital of all that’s preciously artisanal. It’s not exactly surprising that any tribute to Hustwit would come in the form of such obsessively crafted items; his first two films, Helvetica and Objectified, have attained a certain cult status among font geeks and industrial design nerds, respectively.

Urbanized, the third in Hustwit’s so-called “design trilogy,” has a slightly different valence. There’s a definite utilitarian logic in the decision to value Helvetica over another font, or in thinking about how to craft a tool or household object. But urban design impacts many more lives on a scale orders of magnitude larger than either.

As the film chronicles, that realization has forced a once-distant discipline to consult, increasingly, those whose lives it affects. Many of the ideas the documentary presents underscore Hustwit’s enthusiasm for such engagement — whether initiated by planners and architects or their erstwhile subjects. “You have book clubs,” he implored, after a recent screening in Manhattan, “start city clubs!” Urbanized could be seen as a simple, layered presentation of world cities’ design choices — but to the extent that the documentary moves in any one direction, it’s as a meditation on how and why urban design should be democratized.


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.


May 5th, 2011

Elected by Ethnoburbia

Posted in Canada, Maps, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Election results in Toronto in 2008 (top) and 2011 (bottom)
Red is Liberal, blue is Conservative, orange is NDP

Canada held its 41st federal election on Monday and the results have unleashed a seismic shift in the country’s political landscape. After two consecutive minority governments, the Conservatives have now won a majority. The left-wing NDP, a marginal party for much of its existence (it ran fifth for most of the 1990s), is now the Official Opposition.

Much attention is being paid to the massive surge of support for the NDP, especially in Quebec, where two decades of dominance by the Bloc fell victim to the “Orange Crush.” But Quebec is prone to political mood swings, and even as an NDP supporter, I’m sceptical that they will be able to maintain their current level of support until the next election. What I find especially remarkable about this election is the near-collapse of the Liberal Party — and the political rise of the ethnoburbs.

Take a look at electoral map of Greater Toronto. Red has given way to blue in virtually all of its fast-growing, immigrant-dominated, ethnically-diverse suburban areas. Losing these ridings is what pushed the Liberals to the edge of oblivion. “Of the 18 seats they gained in that region, 14 are more than 45 per cent immigrant, and most would not long ago have been considered un-winnable for the Conservatives,” notes the Globe and Mail.

In other words, the Canadian election was fought and won in ethnoburbia, the suburban immigrant enclaves first identified in 1997 by the geographer Wei Li. Ethnoburbs are socially and culturally self-contained, but unlike the urban ethnic enclaves of decades past, they are also prosperous and extensively connected to transnational networks. Their affluence and influence have given them enormous political leverage.


April 25th, 2011

Marching for Ai Wei Wei

Ai Wei Wei has become a cause célèbre in Hong Kong since his arrest by mainland Chinese authorities on April 3rd. In the week since I wrote about “Chin Tangerine“, who covered the city with “Who’s Afraid of Ai Wei Wei?” graffiti, artists have rallied to Ai’s support with a blizzard of interventions, homages and protests. Their efforts have ensured that Ai’s plight has remained on the front page for weeks.

You could see that effect at work on Saturday afternoon, when a group of artists organized a protest march in support of Ai. Hong Kong is a city with an engrained protest culture — people here observe the July 1st handover holiday by taking to the streets — but most protests are a mishmash of interest groups, each with its own cause or grievance. Saturday’s march, by contrast, was clear in its message: Ai Wei Wei has been unjustly detained and he should be freed. Even though its attendance was less than 2,000 — a somewhat small protest by Hong Kong standards — it was the biggest story of the weekend.

The march was more spectacular than any Hong Kong protest I have seen. Installation artist Kacey Wong built a large “grass mud horse” out of wood and wool, a reference to a popular meme that mocks government censorship in mainland China. (A grass mud horse is a mythical creature whose name sounds like “fuck your mother” in Mandarin.) River crabs — another swipe at Chinese censorship — made an appearance. Somebody made a large paper worm called the White Terror Bug.


April 16th, 2011

Who’s Afraid of Ai Wei Wei?

At three o’clock on Wednesday morning, the air beneath the Central Mid-Levels Escalator became thick with the fumes of spray paint as a young university student left a message on the escalator’s pillars: “Who’s afraid of Ai Wei Wei?”

Over the past week, the student, nicknamed Chin, has blitzed some of Hong Kong’s most high-profile locations with the message and hand-cut stencil portraits of Ai, the Beijing-based artist and activist who was arrested on April 3rd while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong.

Now Chin is on the run from the Hong Kong police’s Regional Crime Unit, which normally investigates serious crimes like rape and murder. She risks being charged with criminal damage, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail. But she says she remains unbowed.

“It will be worth it if just one person sees what I’ve done and asks themselves, ‘Why should Ai Wei Wei be silenced?’’” she said.

“What I’m doing is not random tagging. I expected there to be an investigation at some point, especially since there is a political message here. If I am arrested, I have trust in the Hong Kong legal system that my case can be heard fairly. In the worst case scenario, I know that I might have to pay a fine and go to jail, and I’m prepared for that.”


April 11th, 2011

How Canada Votes, Street by Street

Posted in Canada, Demographics, Maps, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Election signs in Calgary, 2006

Canada is in the midst of yet another federal election, one that will, if the current trends hold steady, result in a third minority government for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. It’s a pretty dismal state of affairs. But even the most delicious truffle looks like a turd, so things might still turn out well, especially if Canadians finally wake up and grow tired of having a petty tyrant as prime minister.

In the meantime, my friend Cedric Sam has created a pretty good way to kill time: Google Maps of 2008 federal election results based on data from each and every polling station in the country. Since each polling station serves no more than a few hundred voters, the level of detail is extraordinarily precise, especially in dense urban areas. You can check it out at the website of the Montreal newspaper La Presse, which has published the maps in English.

Sometimes the maps can be surprising. Who knew that the well-heeled streets of Outremont held so many NDP supporters, while the immigrant-dominated, working-class north end of Côte des Neiges was so heavily Liberal? Other times, it looks exactly the way you would expect: in Edmonton Strathcona, the densely-populated streets around Whyte Avenue and the University of Alberta voted NDP, while more suburban areas to the south and east voted Conservative. (The NDP won in both Outremont and Edmonton Strathcona.)

2008 results in Outremont, Montreal


March 29th, 2011

Cairo’s Taxi Revolution

Photos by Peter Morgan (top), and MatHelium (bottom)

Hop in any cab in any city of the world and you’re likely to be treated to lively political commentary. That’s especially true in autocratic regimes, where the availability of other spaces in which random strangers can meet and speak openly has often been severely curtailed. Cairo’s sprawling cityscape, for example — segregated swathes of sumptuous subdivisions and mudbrick shantytowns each stretching out into the desert — rendered such common ground rare.

Despite the vastness of Egypt’s capital, car ownership is a relative extravagance, and the growing but incomplete mass transit system barely reaches even a fraction of the population, making taxis among the most vital forms of transport. At any given moment, the city’s classic, black-and-white cabs form a huge percentage of the vehicles trapped in Cairo’s notorious traffic. According to Greater Cairo’s General Transportation Authority, over 50,000 were registered in the city in 2005. Unofficially, the number is around 80,000 (for comparison’s sake, New York and London have around 15k each).

Most are third-hand Yugos, Ladas, or other now-obscure brands imported decades ago from the Eastern Bloc, their drivers often chasing down, often to the exclusion of keeping their eyes on the road, any potential fare they can find. And yet, despite their general reputation for unpredictability, Cairo taxis’ regimented color scheme is also what grants the capital’s sometimes chaotic streets any sense of uniformity and order. But it wasn’t until I was leaving the country that I pieced together their deeper political significance — with the help of Khaled al-Khamissi’s then newly-translated book, Taxi.

Enroute out of Egypt, at 35,000 feet, I became absorbed in al-Khamissi’s chronicle of taxicab confessions — the book is a compilation of the thoughts he’d gathered from the drivers who plied the streets down on the ground that was receding far behind and beneath me. Many began to replay in my mind when Egypt’s historic protests began in January. For all the debate over how and whether social media stimulated the Egyptian Revolution, much less attention has been paid to the urban social networks that reached many more Egyptians than Facebook. Like honeybees, Cairo’s taxis didn’t just collect the fares that were their drivers’ sustenance; they also cross-pollinate ideas — helping to gather and spread political dissent.


March 18th, 2011

Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, Hiding in Plain Sight

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

Photo by Sarah Carr

I couldn’t quite glimpse Hosni Mubarak from my balcony in Garden City, but simply knowing that his portrait was nearby made me unable to shake the sensation of being watched. Not exactly towering over, but nudged by its rooftop mechanicals above the rooflines of the neighborhood’s decadently decomposing 19th century apartment houses was its home, the khaki hulk of the Ministry of Social Solidarity — more Orwellian in name than purpose. Mounted on its façade, the multistory banner depicting the longtime Egyptian president — slumping, casually, in shades — was what really gave the place its authority. I never encountered a more affirming symbol of Mubarak’s power than his pose on that photo: the longstanding ruler was so calm, collected, comfortable.

Dictators survive by avoiding blame and instilling awe. Both served Mubarak well. Russian peasants were said to have hated the czar’s officials — who constantly interfered in their daily lives — but to have loved the distant czar, whom they imagined, were he in touch, would ultimately set their lives right. Perhaps that’s why it was relatively hard to find, in Cairo, many more of the trappings — monuments, murals, political paraphanelia — that mark personally invested, ideologically rigid, and, hence, vulnerable regimes. It’s possible that, walking through Bolshevik Petrograd or late Maoist Beijing, you could have somehow put the omnipresent slogans and statues out of your mind, but in Cairo there seemed to be far less need.

True, Mubarak’s visage still gazed out from many posters, murals, and portraits, but their relatively low degree of frequency reflected the fact that his regime was more of a shadowy, bandit kleptocracy than a mass-murderous personality cult. Every classroom in Egypt apparently had an image of the president mounted on its wall, but they must have only made the president appear as a fixed, unresponsive certainty of daily life, or else an image that would recede in memories as quickly as algebra and playground fights. Many of the old posters were already fading by themselves. The bridges, streets, and stations named after the former president made him seem like a figure from distant history rather than someone who could be held to the consent of the governed.

By refraining from stuffing itself into Egyptians’ fields of vision, the regime also ensured it did not become a default excuse for the sometimes crumbling condition of the country or its inhabitants’ stagnant fortunes. That few, casual images of Mubarak produced — such as the one that hung from the ministry — spoke volumes about his removal from the people. As the revolution that broke out in January helped attest, they made the old ruler seem out of touch. Their isolation, for the longest time, made him seem untouchable.


February 24th, 2011

The Death of a Village

It was bound to happen. 26 months after Tsoi Yuen Village received its death sentence, 100 police officers burst into the remaining villagers’ houses and told them to leave.

The villagers were incredulous. “I was negotiating with the government peacefully only a few days ago,” one man, Cheung Sun-yau, told the South China Morning Post. Tuesday morning, after workers cut through his front gate, police pushed him into his house and searched him, before telling him that it was his last chance to leave before a new high-speed railway is built through the village.

Tsoi Yuen’s residents have been protesting their village’s impending demolition for more than two years. Despite an evacuation order last year, 60 villagers have chosen to remain as they continue to negotiate with the government for compensation. Yesterday, apparently, the government decided it had had enough.