July 31st, 2014

New Life in Old Beijing, Part III

This is the final installment in a three-part series on preservation and urban transformation in Beijing’s hutongs.

Half a kilometre from Tiananmen Square, an unexpected aroma wafts through the Beijing hutongs: fresh-roasted coffee. The source of that smell is just as surprising. Housed in a two-storey structure that was at various times a government-run printing house and a public bath, Soloist Coffee opened in September, part of a new wave of design-led businesses that have opened in Dashilar, one of Beijing’s oldest yet most overlooked neighbourhoods.

“The interior is a tribute back to the industrial age and craftsmen era,” says the coffee shop’s owner, designer and barista, Ma Kaimin, who sourced wood furniture from around the world to create a space that resembles a cross between a factory studio and an old-fashioned schoolhouse, with exposed brick walls, terrazzo flooring and vintage glass light fixtures. The coffee is just as thoughtful, with robust, acidic house blend that Ma describes as having a “nutty hint of orange and aromatic herbs” – a rare feat in a city without much of a coffee culture.

This might sound like the preamble to a familiar story of gentrification: old neighbourhood falls on hard times, attracts forward-thinking entrepreneurs, only to become a high-rent destination that destroys much of the original charm. But Dashilar’s transformation could well prove to be different, part of a deliberate effort by Beijing designers to revitalise the area in a sensitive way. If it succeeds, it would be a remarkable achievement in a city with a poor track record when it comes to preserving its old neighbourhoods.

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July 7th, 2014

New Life in Old Beijing, Part II

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When I arrived in Beijing on the third day of the Chinese New Year, I was expecting the city to be quiet, and it was, except on Nanluoguxiang, a long alleyway near the Drum and Bell Towers that is lined by small shops, cafés and restaurants. Nanluoguxiang was busy — swarming with people, in fact. On my previous two trips to Beijing, in 2009 and 2010, it hadn’t been nearly as crowded. I chalked it up to the holiday.

When I returned to Beijing last month, though, I found Nanluoguxiang just as busy. Not only that, but many of the independent shops I remembered from my first visits were gone, replaced by chain bubble tea outlets and souvenir stores. Dozens of hawkers had set up camp along the street, most of them selling useless tchotchkes with blinking LED lights. It is still a charming street, but it has clearly made a leap from eccentricity to mass-market tourism. There’s even a Starbucks.

(Quick aside: the Nanluoguxiang Starbucks had the lowest food safety rating I saw in Beijing — a “C”. I can’t decide whether that is funny or terrifying, considering the standards in most Beijing kitchens.)

In some ways, it’s hard to begrudge Nanluoguxiang’s success when the alternative is demolition and redevelopment, which has been the case for so many other Beijing hutongs. In China, the normal process of gentrification is thrown out of whack by the sheer scale of everything: you can either go upmarket, which means really upmarket — Maserati dealers and that sort of thing — or mass market, which means an unceasing crush of weekend tourists and trinket vendors. The period of being a pleasantly polished enclave, which lasts for years or even decades in the life-cycle of North American and European neighbourhoods, is astoundingly short in Beijing.

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May 22nd, 2014

New Life in Old Beijing, Part I

Great Leap Brewery in Doujiao Hutong

It’s the third day of the Chinese New Year and Beijing is taking a break. Traffic has unjammed itself, department stores are shuttered and bursts of fireworks cut through the cold, dry air. As my taxi passes over the Second Ring Road, the streets are quiet until the Gulou comes into view. It’s an imposing, 727-year-old tower with vermillion walls and sweeping rooflines. Originally built to house a collection of drums, it now serves mainly as a riposte to the concrete tower blocks that have come to dominate much of Beijing. This neighbourhood is different, consisting of low-slung, grey-walled courtyard houses arranged along alleyways known as hutongs.

I climb out of the taxi and cross the street, plunging myself into a crowd of hawkers selling sugar-glazed fruits and barbecued eggplant. Families pass by, gawking at quirky designer t-shirts hanging in shop windows; a cyclist rings his bell as he negotiates around a group of friends. I am standing on Nanluoguxiang, a narrow row of shops and cafés that cuts through some of Beijing’s oldest hutongs. On this otherwise quiet February night, it seems like the whole city has come here to shop, snack and stroll.

“When you walk through the hutongs, it’s a nice atmosphere, an interesting mix of tourists and Beijing people who have been living there since childhood,” says Michel Sutyadi, a German-Chinese designer who runs NLGX, a lifestyle brand inspired by Nanluoguxiang.

Beijing might be the capital of the world’s most populous nation, a sprawling city of 20 million with a centuries-long history, known to the rest of the world for its vastness, off-the-charts smog and the blow-out bash that was the 2008 Olympics. Look past the vastness of the Forbidden City and the traffic-choked ring roads, however, and you’ll find the surprising truth about this northern capital: Beijing is a disarmingly down-to-earth place, where imposing boulevards give way to back streets filled with bicycle peddlers, ancient courtyard houses and endless small discoveries.

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April 28th, 2014

Design for All

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Sendai Mediatheque. Photo by Tomio Ohashi

The building started shaking at 2:46pm. Books tumbled off shelves, magazine racks teetered and ceiling panels swayed violently back and forth like a drunk trying to reclaim his balance. This was the scene in a YouTube video recorded the seventh floor of the Sendai Mediatheque on March 11, when an extraordinarily powerful earthquake shook the Tohoku region of Japan.

What makes the video remarkable is just how little happens: in one of the worst tremors in recent history, the Mediatheque did not collapse. In fact, it suffered only a few broken windows, ceiling panels and rooftop solar panels – and this despite a seemingly precarious design of transparent walls and open floor plans. “This is the kind of architecture that critics of modernism like to call risky and unreliable,” wrote architecture critic Ana Louise Huxtable, after the earthquake. “When flaws appear, schadenfreude follows.”

But the Mediatheque’s architect, Toyo Ito, is no ordinary modernist. While the the winner of the 2013 Pritzker Architecture Prize shares the heroic vocabulary of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, he is using that architectural language to very different ends, and the Sendai Mediatheque, which was completed in 2001, is a prime example of his more humanist philosophy.

“After it was completed, people took care of the building and allowed it to evolve. It was never a finished project,” Ito told me when I met him last December. The building’s unique structure, which is based on tree-like trunks rather than traditional support columns, allows for an exceptionally flexible and permeable interior. (Not to mention one that is particularly resistant to earthquakes, too.) “Especially after the earthquake, it became even more of a place for people to gather,” said Ito. “The staff started holding a lot of events. It has really made me proud to see how people are using it.”

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January 15th, 2014

Value Creation

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If UABB Hong Kong was greeted by a storm of controversy, its counterpart in Shenzhen went off without a hitch. “Cocktails and happiness! No protest at all!” wrote one participating artist on Facebook.

This year, UABB Shenzhen — which bills itself as the “world’s only biennale dedicated exclusively to the themes of urbanism and urbanization” — is being held in the Shekou Industrial Zone, which was the first free-trade zone in China when it opened in 1979. Much of the action is concentrated in the Value Factory, a former glassworks that now houses installations, workshops, two cafés, a restaurant and a farm that will be harvested when the biennale closes at the end of February. Participants were told to “do almost nothing” to their spaces inside the factory, giving it a raw presence that pervades every aspect of the exhibition.

Like all of the land in the Shekou Industrial Zone, the Value Factory is owned by state-owned China Merchants Holdings, which is now transforming Shekou into a high-end office, entertainment and residential district. The company is also the primary sponsor of UABB Shenzhen. Curator Ole Bouman says he wanted to make the venue more than just the backdrop to a show. “The building becomes not just a protagonist of the biennale but of Shekou itself,” says curator Ole Bouman. He hopes to use the Value Factory as a wedge to insert art and culture into Shekou’s development. “The next chapter of Shekou can’t just be about revenue,” he says.

Just as in Hong Kong, though, critics see the Shenzhen biennale as a way to give a kind of cultural legitimacy to the property development machine. “There’s something about putting cultural events in factories and warehouses that are almost immediately appropriated,” says Shenzhen-based critic and curator Mary Ann O’Donnell. “There’s no room for critical engagement because it commodifies everything. This is clearly part of a massive upgrading and restructuring of Shekou that has as its goal a massive increase in property values.”

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December 19th, 2013

A City on Edge

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Protest at the opening of UABB. Photo by Espen Cook

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

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

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

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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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October 31st, 2013

Before Sandy

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The sun was burning through morning fog as I walked down Hoyt Street to the subway, the Williamsburg Savings Bank half-shrouded like in some imaginary Gotham. By the time I reached Beach 59th Street, the sky was a deep blue. It was late October, but it felt like summer. I took off my sweater and put it in my backpack.

It took more than an hour to get to the Rockaways. Train service over Jamaica Bay was suspended for track repairs, so anyone travelling past Rockaway Boulevard had to get off and transfer to a shuttle bus that rumbled at its own pace around the perimeter of JFK Airport. The detour seemed to put everyone off kilter. “No, I’m not on the subway, I’m on a bus,” said a woman on her cell phone, as if she couldn’t quite believe it.

Once the bus arrived at Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway, we had to transfer again, this time to the orphaned stretch of A train that runs along the Rockaway Peninsula, a stubborn eleven-mile finger of land that juts into the Atlantic from the far reaches of Queens. I was there to meet my friend Rossana, who was studying a piece of vacant land along the Rockaway boardwalk for her master’s course in urban planning. She’d invited me to take part in a bike tour of the boardwalk that was being run by a few members of the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, a community group that is trying to reconnect Rockaway residents to their waterfront.

We met at a former fire hall the Waterfront Alliance calls home. There’s a small community garden next door, and a group of teenagers were busy putting up decorations for a Halloween party that would be held that evening. Our group assembled — me, Rossana, her classmate Jon, two local teenagers, a man who said he worked for the city water department, “bringing down water from the Catskills,” and our guide, Mark Hoffacker — and we got on our beach cruisers and rode down a potholed Beach 59th Street to the boardwalk. The wooden planks of the boardwalk drummed a steady beat as we rode past grassy sand dunes. Hoffacker pointed to a fenced-off portion of the dunes, a refuge for migrating birds, and said people often trespassed there, leaving behind garbage. For several blocks, there was nothing but scrubland marked by broken strips of asphalt, along which beach bungalows had once stood. Hoffacker told us the vacant land was now used for dumping cars and refrigerators, though the problem wasn’t as bad as it used to be. (A magazine article from 1992 describes a “Third World” scene of decaying houses, mosquito-infested sloughs and dozens of mafia-run dump trucks unloading toxic waste.) In the distance, the elevated subway tracks loomed incongruously over the bush, its concrete arches streaked with rust.

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January 28th, 2013

A Detour in Urban Design

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When artist-activist John Bela wandered around Wan Chai, Hong Kong’s melting pot neighbourhood of historic shophouses, packed street markets and hooker bars, he encountered a sense of déjà-vu. “I felt like a prisoner in a cage surrounded by leering cars and trucks,” he says. “This is the case in many cities where traffic engineers have dominated the design of streets.”

For years, Bela has fought for more humane public spaces in his hometown of San Francisco, where he helped launched Park(ing) Day, a now-global initiative to convert street parking spaces into miniature public parks. When he came to Hong Kong to curate the latest Detour design festival, he was dismayed by the city’s “twentieth century” approach to designing streets, which treats them as traffic funnels instead of public gathering spaces.

With the help of co-curator Justine Topfer and Detour creative director Aidan Li, Bela assembled an international crew of designers to challenge Hong Kong’s approach to public space in engaging ways. The result was “Design Renegade: Prototyping Public Space,” a two-week event held last December at the recently-decommissioned Wan Chai Police Station. In addition to lectures, concerts, a design market and exhibits inside the police station, a vacant lot across the street was transformed into an urbanist’s playground.

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Detour from above. Photo courtesy the organizers

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September 26th, 2012

Ode to an Eyesore

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Eaton’s in 1984. Photo by Gregory Melle

Columnist Alan Fotheringham called it an “unending urinal wall.” That somehow filtered down to the Vancouver population as “the upside-down urinal” or the “great white urinal.” But the name-calling won’t last for much longer. Next year, the great white windowless box that dominates the corner of Robson and Granville will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a dramatic makeover for Nordstrom, its new tenant.

The box was built in 1973 for Eaton’s, the now-defunct department store chain, and it was designed by César Pelli, an architect known otherwise for corporate skyscrapers like the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and One Canada Square in London. Its façade consists on large white marble panels and, to some extent, it really does look like the tile backsplash of some department store washroom.

There are plenty of reasons why it looks the way it does. Eaton’s was built as part of Pacific Centre, a large mall whose sentiment is suburban even if its location is not. Department stores at the time followed a strategy of making their stores difficult to navigate in order to trap customers, so it’s likely Eaton’s requested that the store have no windows. Pelli would have been happy to oblige, since he’s an awfully obliging architect — I mean, just look at his buildings. They aren’t exactly monuments to innovation.

Still, I’ve always had a soft spot for the white box. Its minimalism is clumsy and its presence is brutish. In other words, it is everything that Vancouver is not, so its overbearing, featureless presence serves as a nice foil to the glassy, earnestly humane architecture that surrounds it. Vancouver is “nice.” This building is not. Its obstinance is almost refreshing.

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September 19th, 2012

Regrowth or Replacement?

HK Farm. Photo by Glenn Eugen Ellingsen

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

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

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

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

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

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July 20th, 2012

Hawker City

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Not long ago, I was wandering around Kwun Tong trying to find an Indonesian restaurant. I arrived outside its front door only to find the shutter drawn, with a notice from the Urban Renewal Authority announcing that the property had been acquired for redevelopment. Then I looked around: nearly every storefront on the street was the same. I took my phone out and looked for another nearby restaurant on OpenRice — the local equivalent of Yelp — and walked a few blocks away to find it. Same story.

Built in the 1950s as Hong Kong’s first suburban New Town, Kwun Tong is a gritty, thriving working-class neighbourhood with a short but colourful history. This was Hong Kong’s industrial heartland, where the plastic flowers and fluorescent toys that earned the city its first fortune were made. It was home to Hong Kong’s longest-running Communist cinema, a legacy of the days when the political opposition in Hong Kong was made up not of liberal democrats but leftist revolutionaries. When I first visited the tight web of streets around Man Yee Square in 2005, they throbbed with red minibuses, neon pawn shop signs, old men playing chess, teenagers with plastic bags full of street market clothes.

Soon it will all be gone. Most of the shops have closed, the apartments vacated, the streets quieter than they have been in 50 years. The buildings will follow suit to make way for a HK$20 billion redevelopment project spearheaded by the URA, which will transform Kwun Tong’s town centre into a glossy shopping and business hub for East Kowloon. Plans call for a series of malls and highrises connected by gardens and plazas. It’s the kind of tabula rasa urban renewal that was common in Europe and North American until it fell out of favour in the 1980s. It looks like it will be a disaster.

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July 10th, 2012

Creative Urbanity in Taipei

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Treasure Hill, Taipei. Photo by the Kozy Shack

When Chou Yu-jui was growing up near Yongkang Street, an old part of Taipei near two of the city’s universities, it was a quiet neighbourhood of wooden Japanese cottages, small shops and back alleys filled with potted plants. Ten years ago, it started to change. Small cafés, boutiques and bakeries opened and lent the area an eclectic charm.

“It’s interesting, because you have a lot of shops that sell things you won’t find in a department store,” says Chou, an industrial designer who specialises in products made from recycled and sustainable materials.

Last October, Chou was leading a group of foreign designers on a tour around Yongkang Street and nearby Treasure Hill, an old squatter’s village that has been transformed into an art district. Similar tours were happening around the design shops of Zhongshan, inside the Red House creative centre and at the wholesale market around the Taipei Rear Train Station, where industrial designers hunt for raw materials.

The message from the tours was clear: Taipei’s creative scene is not only alive and well, it’s changing the very face of the city. The transformation began just over a decade ago and has accelerated in recent years. In 2007, a century-old public market known as the Red House was renovated to include a theatre, music venue and retail space for emerging local designers. 2010 saw the conversion of Treasure Hill, an informal village once threatened by demolition, into a collection of exhibition spaces and studios. Most recently, an old tobacco factory was restored and reopened last year as Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, home to the Taiwan Design Museum and the focal point of the 2011 World Design Expo — a coming-of-age event for Taiwan’s design industry.

The new creative spaces have been accompanied by the growing involvement of artists and designers in Taipei’s urban life, especially the informal city of night markets, street hawkers and illegal structures that thrives in the Taiwanese capital, something the Finnish urbanist Marco Casagrande described as the Instant City, in contrast to the Official City.

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May 22nd, 2012

From Industry to Art at Warp Speed

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It’s a familiar story: old industrial area becomes creative hub. What makes OCT Loft different is that the entire process took just six years — and it’s on the vanguard of Shenzhen’s transformation from factory town to Chinese creative superpower.

In the mid-1980s, a swath of farmland in the newly-established Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was developed into the OCT East Industrial Park, one of first of many new factory districts. Over the next 20 years, they helped transform Shenzhen into one of the wealthiest and largest cities in China.

Then, in the early 2000s, as labour costs and real estate prices soared, most of the factories left for cheaper pastures in Shenzhen’s suburbs and other parts of the Pearl River Delta. The industrial zone was slated to be bulldozed and replaced by a luxury housing complex, but a new policy that encouraged the development of creative industries led OCT Properties, which owned the land, to hand it over to artists and designers.

OCT hired Shenzhen-based Urbanus Architecture and Design to facilitate the transformation. The first order of business, in 2004, was to make a home for the OCT Contemporary Art Termial (OCAT), a Kunsthalle-style exhibition hall and research centre.

The building they chose for OCAT was a 3,000-square-metre shed. “It was hardly a building,” says Urbanus partner Liu Xiaodu. “It had a tin roof and there wasn’t even any insulation. So we were very free to do anything.”

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