July 10th, 2012

Creative Urbanity in Taipei

Treasure Hill

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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May 10th, 2012

Guerilla Warfare in Everyday Space

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Tin roofs of a hawker’s bazaar in Kwun Tong, Hong Kong

When I first came across Charles Labelle’s ongoing Buildings Entered project, I was intrigued by the questions it raised about how we relate to the spaces we inhabit. This led me to think about one of the things that has most fascinated me since moving in Hong Kong in 2008: the informal use of urban space, or to put it another way, how people adapt the city to their own ends.

In the years following World War II and the Chinese civil war, hundreds of thousands of people moved from mainland China to Hong Kong, which was then a British colony. A decade after the war, Hong Kong’s population had doubled to more than three million. There wasn’t enough housing for the newcomers, so many built homes for themselves in shantytowns that rose on the hills above Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. At the same time, migrants made work for themselves by selling things on the street: cheap food for factory workers, fruits and vegetables, surplus stock from factories. This continued for nearly three decades after the war. By the 1970s, there were more than 50,000 hawkers in the streets. All of this existed outside the framework of the law: shantytowns were built illegally on government-owned land and most hawkers operated without permits and without paying rent.

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April 25th, 2012

Escalating Fury

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It’s as predictable as the tide. Every morning, thousands of commuters stream down the Central Mid-Levels escalator, bound for offices, buses and crowded subway cars at the bottom of the hill. Then, at 10:30am, the escalator reverses itself. Now the crowds flow uphill. Helpers return from the market with bags full of choi, the lunch crowd trickles up to Soho restaurants. When evening arrives, work-weary commuters are carried up to drink, dinner and bed.

Nearly two decades after the completion of the Central-Mid-Levels escalator, it’s hard to think of Hong Kong without it. Its network of covered escalators, moving walkways and footbridges spans a distance of 800 metres from Queen’s Road Central to Conduit Road, making the trek up steep hillsides—135 metres in elevation from bottom to top, about the same as a 40-storey building—as easy as a walk through a shopping mall.

It’s certainly popular. When it opened in 1993, the escalator was expected to carry 26,000 people per day. It is now used by nearly 43,000. Its popularity with pedestrians has prompted the government to plan similar escalator links in 20 other locations around Hong Kong. The first of these will open later this year on Centre Street in Sai Ying Pun, while another escalator, on Pound Lane in Sheung Wan, is being planned.

But the use of escalators as a form of public transportation is being met with an increasingly critical response from design critics, academics and activists. “Is this an appropriate use of technology?” asked urbanist Min Li Chan on the international urban issues blog Polis. “Is this simply a shiny new idea with press value that leaves unintended social consequences in its wake? How should we measure its impact on people’s lives, and its return on the city’s investment?”

These are the questions being raised by residents and business owners in the sleepy neighbourhood around Pound Lane, where the government is planning to build a 200-metre escalator from Tai Ping Shan Street to Bonham Road. Along the way, it will pass by Hong Kong’s first public toilet, schools, temples, tenements and Blake Garden, Hong Kong’s oldest public park, which was built after the bubonic plague swept through the area in 1894, killing more than 3,000. Proponents say it will reduce traffic and provide relief to the neighbourhood’s many elderly residents. Opponents say it will destroy the peaceful, low-key ambiance that sets this part of Sheung Wan apart from the development frenzy of Central and the Mid-Levels.

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April 16th, 2012

Another Hole in Montreal’s Heart

The lower Main

The lower Main in 1997. Photo by Kate McDonnell

One of the defining features of Montreal’s cityscape is the abundance of vacant lots. Weedy, gravelly blocks of land, they can be seen in every neighbourhood, in some areas on every street, delineated by rows of misshapen concrete blocks, like boulders left behind by the retreat of urban development. (The concrete blocks, required by municipal law, serve to prevent illegal dumping.) Ten years ago, as the real estate market boomed, many of the lots were transformed into new apartment buildings and hotels. Streetcorners defined by the absence of buildings were reworked into the urban fabric.

Despite the progress, however, new vacant lots are still being created. Part of the reason is the alarming tendency for Montreal buildings to burn down. But mostly it comes down to a lack of foresight by City Hill and a far too cosy relationship between politicians and developers. It’s never hard to find an example. Here’s a recent one: the block of St-Laurent between Ste-Catherine and René-Lévesque.

For decades, this stretch of the lower Main was seedy but lively, and it embodied the schizoid character of Montreal’s downtown core. Under the elegant gaze of the Monument National marched a procession of strip clubs, peep shows, restaurants and dive bars, as including some venerable institutions: Canada’s oldest Middle Eastern grocery store, founded in 1903; the Montreal Pool Room, which had served classic Montreal-style hot dogs since 1912; and Café Cléopâtre, a classic strip club with a flair for the burlesque. It was grimy and past its prime, but it worked in that typically ragtag Montreal way. It was a place where you could get a steamed hot dog, attend Pecha Kucha Night, spend your change on a peep show, buy some smoked paprika and stumble out of a Club Soda concert at midnight — whatever.

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March 16th, 2012

Design in a Police Dormitory

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The sun has already fallen behind Hong Kong’s skyscrapers as architect Daniel Patzold stolls through the lower courtyard of the former Police Married Quarters on Hollywood Road. Beneath a row of tall banyan trees, on what was once a basketball court, 70 young designers are gathered to sell their products at Detour, a festival of creative culture held every December.

“Look at this,” says Patzold, gesturing at cardboard stalls of the makeshift market. A young, fashionably-dressed crowd browsed through books, leather goods and jewellery. In the distance, a group of designers took photos of people wearing paper masks that looked like landmark Hong Kong buildings. “This kind of thing should be happening here every weekend,” he says.

That could soon be the case. The Police Married Quarters have sat empty for more than 12 years, except for the occasional festival like Detour. Until recently, the complex was slated for demolition, but lobbying from preservationists and the creative community have saved it from the chopping block. Now work has begun to transform it into the PMQ, a 15,400-square-metre design hub that will open in 2014.

“This project will be a milestone in the development of design in Hong Kong and the entire region,” says Billy Tam, who is the PMQ’s architect-consultant. “There are a lot of talented designers in Hong Kong and they’re just waiting for a chance to develop their reputation and their business. PMQ will become a name that represents design of the finest quality.”

When it was built in 1951, the Police Married Quarters were an anomaly: functional, modern housing in a neighbourhood of old tenements. Located on a steep, terraced hillside, two eight-storey blocks contained 196 living units arranged around a central courtyard. Each unit consisted of a single open room facing a broad open-air corridor with small kitchens and communal spaces for eating and gathering. Below the residential blocks was a clubhouse and recreational space.

“When I was a kid, all of this area here was my backyard,” said Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang, who grew up in the Police Married Quarters. In a speech two years ago, he waxed nostalgic about the “kung fu shows, fortune tellers, and people telling old folk tales” on the street outside the quarters, where he lived until getting married in 1969.

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February 17th, 2012

The Unsquared Circle of Old Shanghai

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Maps by Christopher Szabla

Take a look at a map of Shanghai and it still jumps out at you — a tightly-wound ball of narrow streets threading through warrens of centuries-old houses. Call it what you will — the neighborhood seems to have no standard English name, and “Old City,” “Round City,” or simply “Old Shanghai” have been used before — but it’s impossible to deny this slice of China’s largest city stands a bit aloof; what’s left of it appears to exist in total defiance of a metropolis that appears ceaselessly hungry for towers that soar high enough to match the gaping width of its newly-broadened boulevards.

Old Shanghai’s uniqueness is a longstanding trend; the last time the neighborhood didn’t buck the rest of the city’s form was during the Middle Ages, when the Round City was Shanghai — a fledgling Ming Dynasty port. But skip forward to the 19th century and Shanghai has grown to become the hub of foreign commerce in China, its cityscape defined by the architecture the colonial powers have brought to their respective concessions — tiny fiefdoms run by local Westerners nominally reporting to overseas capitals.

Somewhat like Hong Hong’s Kowloon Walled City nearly a century later, the Old City, or “Chinese City,” as it began, then, to be called, remained an enclave within these enclaves, a densely-packed and ghettoized dormitory for much of the city’s local workforce. It even remained behind literal, medieval walls — until, during China’s 1911 revolution, they finally came crashing down.

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January 21st, 2012

The Ghosts of Oil Street

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Oil Street. Photo by Eric To

This story was originally published in the November 2010 edition of Muse, the new-defunct review of Hong Kong arts and culture.

It was a hot night when I sat inside the cluttered studios of the pirate radio station FM 101, six floors up inside an industrial building in Kwun Tong. I was speaking to one of the station’s founders, a rock musician named Leung Wing-lai, when the doorbell rang. Leung excused himself to go open the door. Three people walked in, including Ah Kok Wong, a composer who has been working with Kwun Tong’s artists to lobby the government against a new policy that made it easier for the owners of industrial units to convert their space into offices or hotels.

Wong told me about an Arts Development Council survey that was meant to determine exactly how many artists, musicians and other creative people are making use of industrial space. Unfortunately, few artists received the survey, so Wong and several others had taken to distributing it themselves. “I have my own studio, a band room and a studio used by the radio station, and we didn’t get copies at any of these places,” he said. If not enough artists completed the survey, he told me, the government would have no clear picture of the thousands of creative people that work in low-rent, run-down industrial buildings, and its new industrial “revitalization” policy would lead to unchecked property speculation, pushing out a huge chunk of Hong Kong’s artists, musicians and cultural organizations.

Leung returned to his seat. We talked about FM 101, which focuses mainly on arts, culture and music and was set up to protest against regulations that make it nearly impossible for a non-profit, community-based radio station to get a broadcast licence. A recent crackdown on the station’s fundraising efforts has forced its volunteers to pay for its operating expenses out of their own pocket, which has only been possible because the studio’s rent is low. “Without this kind of space, where would we go?” he asked.

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September 8th, 2011

Brooklyn’s Fractured Faces

Posted in Art and Design, Politics, United States by Christopher Szabla

Know which leafy block to turn down off the numbered avenues of Brooklyn’s Park Slope, squint past the bright spots of sun and deep shadows dappling the ground late into a summer day, and you can puzzle them together — a series of portraits, “ghostly apparitions” as the New York Times called them — spanning the steps of front stoops of the brownstones lining a short span of Bergen Street.

This is an improbable venue for a public protest against the wildly expensive and potentially transformational real estate development several blocks north, let alone a global art sensation, yet the photos on Bergen Street manage to be part, nevertheless, of both. They’re intended as a demonstration of solidarity with immigrant shop owners, the subjects of the portraits, whose businesses, local residents fear, are in danger of displacement in the wake of the Atlantic Yards project, an effort to develop several blocks wedged between Park Slope and the adjacent neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights into a basketball arena surrounded by skyscraping office buildings and condo towers.

But the portraits have drawn more attention as a prominent local iteration of “Inside Out,” a worldwide participatory street art project orchestrated by JR, a seminonymous French photographer who rocketed to Banksy-level fame for his work, which began as a guerilla effort to bring portraits of marginalized suburban youth to the affluent streets of central Paris and grew to include pasting “supercolossal” photo portraits covering the roofs and walls of largely impoverished urban neighborhoods from China to Kenya to Brazil.

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August 29th, 2011

Looking for Life in Puerto Madero

Posted in Architecture, Latin America, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

The walk from the Plaza de Mayo, the political heart of Buenos Aires, to Puerto Madero, its redeveloped waterfront, begins inauspiciously. Cars barrel down multilane boulevards devoid of people; a weed-strewn lot slated to become a monument to the country’s deeply-loved former president, Juan Perón, lies unconvincingly fallow.

Then there are the railroad tracks severing most of the city from the streets near the sea: Puerto Madero’s redevelopment was accompanied by the construction of a new light rail line, helping turn this frustrating barrier into a vital transit link. But here, in the hostile borderland between B.A.’s bustling Microcentro and the waterfront, the ominous sight of Puerto Madero Station inspires little confidence, its relatively new platform facing tracks overgrown by weeds.

The unused station was not meant to serve the light rail line, which blasts past it, but a half-built commuter rail restoration that had never entirely got off the ground. The sight of the overgrown tracks, encapsulating the miserable fate of much of Argentina’s older, conventional rail network — a once sterling, nationwide system now reduced to a few rump lines around the capital — illustrates exactly the sort of broader decline in national prestige that Puerto Madero’s rise was meant to help reverse. However ambitious those intentions, though, they hardly make it less disconcerting that Puerto Madero Station, spotless in its desertion, serves as an appropriate introduction to Buenos Aires’ newly built-up waterfront itself.

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July 20th, 2011

Collecting the Scraps of a Changing Shanghai

Posted in Asia Pacific, Interior Space, Society and Culture by Sue Anne Tay

There was no reason to have entered what looked like a dumpster north of Wangjiamatou Lu (王家码头路) which was located in Shanghai’s Old Town, or known better to some as the former walled city of Nanshi (literally ‘southern town’ (南市)) — until a small head in pigtails poked out from behind the rusty doors and stared at me with shiny eyes.

As I pushed past the entrance, I found myself in a cavernous warehouse where makeshift rooms lined upon the side, assembled from a variety of wooden doors, corrugated sheets and curtains.

The television was blaring in one room while two young girls were doing their homework. A man was napping next door and I could hear the clatter of mahjong tiles behind a closed door. Nearby, fresh vegetables were laid out on a table ready for dinner. Across was a small meeting area filled with loose, old furniture. More than two thirds of the space was filled with vast collections of wooden beams, metal scraps, steel rods, glass panes and bottles and much more.

Where there’s major demolition happening, be it of residential or old factory spaces, there are scrap collecting operations that follow. Whether it is the lone peasant picking through trash with a pushcart, or the scrap mogul with a fleet of rumbling trucks to transport high-valued materials to Zhejiang or Jiangsu provinces, the scrap business is an important livelihood for many.

That includes the massive number of migrants attracted to China’s largest city. At the last count, the “floating population” (流动人口) or migrants that spend less than six months at a time in Shanghai make up 37% of the city’s staggering population of 22.2 million. For many migrant workers and their children, home is where they can find rent-free or at least cheap rent space, be it in abandoned factories or makeshift rooms in half-demolished homes with minimal amenities and substandard hygiene. As such, temporary enclaves have emerged in scrap collection zones across Shanghai to house those who work in them.

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June 29th, 2011

An Old Building Given New Life — For Now

In Hong Kong, the fate of an old building is virtually predetermined. Worn by years of intense use and little maintenance, it is snatched up by a property developer who waits for the right moment to knock it down and replace it with shoebox apartments, or maybe a cookie-cutter hotel.

Carl Gouw wants to break that pattern. When the young property developer purchased an old building in Wan Chai, he planned to eventually demolish it for a new block of serviced apartments. But that might not happen for two or three years. In the meantime, he thought, why not do something out of the ordinary?

So the Wan Chai Visual Archive was born. Upstairs, twelve renovated apartments rented to long-stay visitors and expatriates. Downstairs, a bar that serves as a neighbourhood gathering space. And in between, a non-profit, community-oriented space for art and design that is subsidized by rent from the commercial and residential units.

“The idea is to bring an element of creativity into the serviced apartment business,” says Gouw. “Instead of just being passive as a property investor and doing nothing with the building until redevelopment, we thought we could create a platform to engage the local culture.”

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June 5th, 2011

Slow Heal

Posted in Architecture, Canada, History, Public Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

The Montreal metro being built under de Maisonneuve, early 1960s

For a long time, the boulevard de Maisonneuve was one of my least favourite streets in Montreal. It was built in the 1960s by linking and widening four distinct streets: de Montigny, Burnside, St. Luc and Western. The final product was a Frankenstein’s monster of crudely-stitched appendages and half-healed wounds.

In the east end of downtown, near Place des Arts, the street curved through a landscape of parking lots and weedy terrains vagues. Further west, it sliced through blocks of greystones and apartment houses, creating a sad streetscape of crudely amputated buildings. Although the metro runs underneath, de Maisonneuve’s primary objective has always been to funnel cars through the city centre, and it was never very pleasant to walk along its narrow sidewalks. The push for automotive supremacy went so far that the road was tunnelled straight through the lobby of an apartment building whose owner refused to sell to the city.

Then, in the mid 2000s, things began to change. The real estate market awoke from a decade-long slumber and new apartment towers rose along the central stretch of de Maisonneuve. The city widened sidewalks and planted trees. Further east, in the Quartier des Spectacles, the 1960s-era curve was straightened, slowing traffic and creating space for some whimsical new public spaces. The renovation of Norman Bethune Square near Concordia University gave the western stretch of de Maisonneuve a prominent facelift. In 2008, a lane of traffic was taken from cars and given to bikes, which immediately gave the hodgepodge street the kind of singular identity it had always lacked.

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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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