June 3rd, 2013

Rethinking Asia’s Public Spaces


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.”


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.


December 5th, 2011

Mahjong in the Rain

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Sue Anne Tay

The raucous clatter of tiles was unmistakable as I approached the corner of Zhijiang Lu (芷江路) and Xizhang Bei Lu (西藏北路) in Shanghai’s Zhabei district.

In a public playground, groups of middle-aged to old people were lazily gathered for an afternoon of mass mahjong and card games. A large group of spectators followed like moths to a flame.

It was a typical way for the community to pass the Saturday afternoon and enjoy the fickle spells of cool summer sprinkles. It hardly bothered the patrons who sheltered themselves under makeshift tarpaulin tents.


July 27th, 2011

The Slow Demise of Long Spring Lane

Posted in Asia Pacific by Sue Anne Tay

A little north of Shanghai’s Suzhou Creek, nestled behind the cacophony of Qipu Lu’s hectic wholesale clothing district, lies the entrance to Changchun “Long Spring” Lane (长春里). It is a crumbling longtang* (弄堂) marked by one of Shanghai’s ubiquitous brick archways, which lies under the lane’s name, chiseled in stone. And it has a very auspicious address: 858 Tanggu Lu. In Chinese, 858 is “ba wu ba” but sounds very close to “fa wo fa” as in “prosper I prosper”.

But for all its supposed good fortune, the lane has lately found itself less than prosperous. Residents of the front section of Long Spring Lane have moved out after agreeing to take government compensation for redevelopment plans, turning the main alleyway into a repository for rotting trash and festering vermin. Meanwhile, the once-lovely balcony overlooking the street was being slowly eaten away by termites and humidity.

The back portion of the longtang was still intact and home to a few families, but it was slowly emptying out, evidenced by the bricked-up shikumen**. 858 Tanggu Lu is increasingly surrounded by wide asphalt roads and warehouse-like offices. It’s unclear whether any future building will share the longtang’s encouraging address, but if it does, it will certainly promise prosperity of a different kind.


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.


July 16th, 2011

Shanghai’s Seventh-Day Adventist Inn

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

“No, I told you, you can’t go upstairs if you’re not a guest,” the teenage hotel desk clerk scowled at my camera.

Just then, a portly middle-aged man waddled up to the counter and interrupted me, “How much for a room for 3 hours?” Her suspicious eyes not leaving me, the desk clerk pointed to a board on the wall which indicated day and overnight rates.

As the man contemplated, I noted his lady friend seated on the couch, her long legs encased in a mini-skirt, examining her fingernails. Without missing a beat, he grunted, “I’ll take the small room.”

I couldn’t resist a quiet laugh. So there I was, in the tiny lobby of a budget inn watching a man preparing for some afternoon delight, in what was a former Seventh-day Adventist Church (沪北会堂).

It was hard to miss this handsome red-bricked building along Wujing Lu (武进路), close to Wusong Lu (吴淞路), with its Gothic-inspired equilateral arches yet built in a manner reminiscent of its times. It was the first church built by the Seventh-day Adventist in Shanghai in 1905 and later expanded in 1924 to its present two-storey, Settlement design.


April 26th, 2011

Photo of the Week: There Will Be Light

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

And there will be a light...

This week’s photo was taken in Shanghai by Damien Polegato.

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

March 15th, 2011

Public Service Mosaics in Shanghai

Ruihua Lane (瑞华坊) is one of the many old alleys in Shanghai’s Luwan District (卢湾区), but it’s distinguished by its wonderful display of visual public service announcements made up entirely of large mosaic tiles.

Though slightly fading, the posters, in good Party-like slogan fashion, reminded the lane’s former residents of behaviors that went along with a civilized society: protecting the environment (绿化美化,保护环境), maintaining neighborly and familial harmony (邻里团结,家庭和睦) (with the classic two grandparents-two parents-one child family structure), keeping law and order (遵纪守法,遵纪秩序), helping others (in the footsteps of the exemplary revolutionary hero Lei Feng, 学习雷锋,助人为乐)  and promoting the belief in science to combat superstitions (普及科学破除迷). The cartoons were simply drawn, in a style made to resemble that of a young child, but effective.

When asked, an older resident walking his dog said the mosaics were put up sometime in early 2000s. But why here on Ruihua Lane, and not anywhere else?


December 14th, 2010

Fighting Food Inflation in Shanghai

While their boats were moored along the Huangpu River, southwest of the Bund, Shanghai’s Shangchuan Huiguan (商船会馆), or Merchant Shipping Hall, accommodated traders both wheeling and dealing and seeking to rest for the night.

While the Hall itself is authorized for preservation, all the surrounding living quarters have fallen to the wrecking ball. A family from Anhui currently lives on the site, responsible for organizing the razing. On my last trip, I noticed many plots of vegetables surrounding the Hall, on what had been rubble only months ago. Any leftover vegetables were laid out to dry in various parts of the house.


November 10th, 2010

Two Sides of Sinan Lu

The contrast on both sides of the street is only as jarring as you make it out to be, if you notice it at all.

You can see it while standing in the middle of Sinan Lu (思南路), facing Fuxing West Lu (复兴西路) in Shanghai’s French Concession. A noted commercial development of ostentatious luxury sits face to face with the ghosts of past riches. Both Shanghai past and Shanghai present are embodied in the traditional, old, European-style villas. But those on one side of the street have had their layouts redesigned, their foundations tilted sideways, their innards replaced with modern amenities (lifts!), and their courtyards beautified with plenty of commercial landscaping. On the other side of the street stand facsimiles of the original, unmodified versions of these structures: tired, broken down and devoid of occupants.


September 15th, 2010

The Street That Became a Gulf

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

On a balmy spring day in Shanghai, I ducked in a narrow corridor to get away from the frantic market activity along the stretch of Anguo Lu (安国路), where the street market bustled with clucking chickens, flopping fish and a rainbow of vegetables and fruits.

I found myself in a compound with squat two-storey apartments. It was a mix of communal housing from the 60s and modest shikumen from the early 30s – nondescript concrete intermingled with old wood.

What struck me most was how neat and orderly everything was. Burgeoning blooms rested in small garden patches that lined a courtyard devoid of clutter and decorated with warm, red windows. What the space lacked in interesting architecture, it made up with a quiet and homey space that was bathed in sunlight.

I struck up conversation with two older men which naturally attracted more people. House-proud, the first gent said he had lived here his whole life, “giving” his apartment to the government after 1949, and reclaiming it in the 1980s.

When I complimented the state of their residence, they beamed. The second gent pointed out, “We make it a point to be civilized (文明) and clean up after ourselves.” Furrowing his brow, he lowered his voice, “Not like the waidiren (外地人, out of state residents) who now dominate the houses across the street. The houses are old and have grown messy and dirty and they don’t take care of it.”


September 6th, 2010

Le Corbusier Died and Nobody Noticed

On August 27th, the forty-fifth anniversary of the death of Swiss architect Le Corbusier slipped by with nobody noticing. His legacy, however, lives on in cities around the world.

His idea was to make things better for people. Getting rid of substandard, unhealthy housing, and separating industry from residential areas was supposed to reform both cities and the people who lived in them. But nine decades after he began to expound his ideas, it is clear that his best-known solution to the problem, the “tower in the park” idea, has been a failure nearly everywhere except under special conditions.

Apartment towers for rich or upper middle class people seem to work reasonably well, but where corners were cut in construction and the poor were isolated in them, urban disaster has been nearly universal. Many such projects in the US lasted only a few decades before they were demolished.

The picture to the left was taken in 2005 in Shanghai, which was then razing low-rise traditional housing in order to build towers. The jury is still out on how well they will succeed, but recent rumbles of dissatisfaction have been heard as far away as North America.


August 25th, 2010

Small-Town Shanghai: Who’s Left?

You don’t have to wander too far from Shanghai to find interesting small towns, that is, ones that have not converted into tourist villages of Disneyland proportions.

An hour-long bus ride from Longyang metro stop on Line 2, deep into Pudong, we found ourselves in the town of Dayuan in Nanhui.

Towns in China have developed with a banal similarity common in suburban America. The same fading welcome signboards, the same layout of buildings, shops and houses populate next to the highway – all of it, engulfed in swirling road dust. There is nothing particularly outstanding about Dayuan town but there was plenty to explore once you push into the interior.

The dynamic of urban and suburban sprawl applies aptly when you compare metropolitan Shanghai and suburban towns like Dayuan. In the town’s older neighborhoods, you see a mix of elderly and children with a conspicuous absence of the robust working age group of 18 to 25 year olds. The young and mobile have migrated to the cities in search of more interesting work and that bit of excitement.


August 23rd, 2010

Two Cities’ Scale Models

Virtual World: The future of China’s largest city is on bombastic display at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre

Set in the seclusion of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, well inside the largest of New York’s outer boroughs, the Queens Museum of Art doesn’t attract the same blockbuster number of international visitors as the megamuseums and power galleries of Manhattan. That hardly means it fails to draw from cosmopolitan sources — in a borough as diverse as Queens, appealing to the local population means displaying art that speaks to many points of origin. But the museum is best known for a work of very local significance: the Panorama of the City of New York, a vast scale model of the five boroughs built on Robert Moses’ orders for the 1964 World’s Fair.

Despite an occasional lack of updates — including one twenty-some year gap — the Panorama has been kept fairly timely. Though the last comprehensive upgrade took place in 1992, sponsors can now adopt buildings and ensure the accuracy of a given plot on the map. There are some exceptions where updates are off limits; the museum preferred the World Trade Center towers remain standing rather than represent Ground Zero (they will be replaced when the new site’s new towers are completed). But by and large, the model is a decent representation of the city — precise enough to use for mapping geodata.

Last year, urban planner and artist Damon Rich did just that, taking advantage of the Panorama to detail the extent of home foreclosures in New York. Reasoning that, for many New Yorkers, the foreclosure crisis appeared to be something taking place in far-flung Sunbelt suburbs, his aim was to bring the extent of the national real estate debacle home to a city that didn’t yet seem to realize the problem had reached its front stoop.