April 14th, 2014

A Police Dormitory Reborn as a Design Hub

Hong Kong’s design scene is thriving, but like many of this city’s creative endeavours, it exists beyond the spotlight, in old factory buildings and back alley studios. That could soon change. After two years of renovations, the former Police Married Quarters on Aberdeen Street has been reborn as PMQ, a design hub that aims to raise the public profile of local design by giving designers more opportunities to build their own brands.

“It’s a project that nobody has done before,” says William To, the PMQ’s creative director, who is also project director at the Hong Kong Design Centre. “It will attract all sorts of designers from different disciplines to come and interact with each other and the public.”

Built in 1951 to house police officers and their families, the PMQ now contains 130 design studios, along with shops, restaurants, a library, exhibition space, a rooftop garden and outdoor gathering areas. When it is fully open next month, it will contain a mixture of well-known brands like Vivienne Tam alongside up-and-comers such as Hoiming, a leatherworking studio.

Studio spaces are small — about 450 square feet — but To says the goal is to foster a community, not to create an office complex. Spacious open-air corridors in front of each unit will be used for exhibitions and pop-up events; there will be a co-working space and units for overseas designers-in-residence; and tenants must keep their doors open to the public between 1pm and 8pm every day.

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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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October 6th, 2013

Mapped: Hong Kong’s Public Steps

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The photos I posted last week of Hong Kong’s hilly streets reminded me of a conversation I had more than a year ago with Melissa Cate Christ, who works at the University of Hong Kong’s architecture school. Christ is leading an investigation into the many public staircases and “ladder streets” on the north side of Hong Kong Island, where these attempts to negotiate an unforgiving landscape are often the only remaining signs of Hong Kong as it once existed. Many of these steps predate the buildings around them by decades, if not a century; they’re Hong Kong’s last tangible connection to the city of Victorian balustrades and tile-roofed tenements that once existed on these shores.

Officially speaking, however, most of these steps do not exist. As far as the government is concerned, a set of century-old granite steps is no different than an ordinary concrete footpath. There hasn’t been any comprehensive effort made on the part of Hong Kong’s administrators to understand how all of these ladder streets and staircases work in the urban context — how people use them and how they affect neighbourhood mobility, not to mention their historical value. The consequences of that are misguided projects like the proposed Pound Lane escalator, which would install a very expensive and intrusive piece of machinery on a quiet street, encouraging redevelopment and destroying trees and historic walls in the process.

So Christ and her students are doing what the government has not. Earlier this year, they launched a website, Stair Culture, that was accompanied by an exhibition of maps, photos and proposed interventions that would improve the pedestrian environment of Hong Kong’s hilly streets and provide an alternative to the Pound Land escalator. Christ has also been mapping all of the steps from Wan Chai to Pok Fu Lam, which serves to highlight just how vertical Hong Kong is. When she started making her map, Christ was using satellite imagery on Google Maps to find stairs, but she told me recently that the government has started marking steps on a separate layer in the digital versions its official maps, which suggests that it may be taking Christ’s lead and paying more attention to Hong Kong’s steps after all.

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June 3rd, 2013

Rethinking Asia’s Public Spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 17th, 2013

What Sucks About Walking in Hong Kong

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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I often get angry when I walk around Hong Kong. This is one of the most fascinating cities in the world to explore — densely layered, pulsing with energy — but it’s also one of the most frustrating because of all the ways the pedestrian experience is undermined and made unpleasant. In the city with the lowest car ownership rate in the developed world, pedestrians are treated like second-class citizens.

Designing Hong Kong recently launched an interesting new initiative called Missing Links, which is lobbying the government to improve pedestrian linkages around the city. One particularly egregious example is Salisbury Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, which runs parallel to the harbourfront in Tsim Sha Tsui. In the past, crosswalks allowed pedestrians to easily walk to the waterfront, but a major traffic engineering project about 10 years ago removed all surface-level crossings and forced pedestrians into a confusing system of underground passageways. Walking through them is not much different from being a rat in a maze. To say it’s a dispiriting experience would be an understatement: if life is a series of tile-walled tunnels, I’ll take the next exit out, thank you very much.

This is just one example of what’s wrong in Hong Kong. What’s even more outrageous is the systematic denigration of pedestrians in the city’s entire network of streets. There are the legendarily narrow sidewalks, made even narrower by the presence of roadside fences that eat up valuable pedestrian space. When a sidewalk becomes overcrowded, it isn’t widened, it’s fenced in, the way the jam-packed sidewalk of Dundas Street was fenced in when too many people started walking in the street.

Crosswalks at major intersections are generally too narrow and surrounded by fences that create artificial choke points. Minor intersections have absolutely no provisions for pedestrians: no crosswalks, just a “Look Left” or “Look Right” sign painted on the asphalt. Pedestrians are meant to wait for oncoming vehicles, which always have the right of way unless there is a zebra crossing. And while there are zebra crossings here and there, usually in very quiet parts of town, in recent years they have become even more endangered than the animals for which they are named.

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March 28th, 2013

The Seawall in all its Incarnations

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

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

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

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

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February 27th, 2013

A City Without Streets

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Not too long ago, on a particularly glorious Sunday afternoon — the kind of sunny but cool day that happens all too rarely in Hong Kong — I took the MTR out to Po Lam station in Tseung Kwan O. Leaving the station, I walked along a linear park built atop the MTR tracks, which led me to another path that meandered under a series of elevated highways and then down to the waterfront near Tseung Kwan O station, a couple of stops away from Po Lam.

Lots of people were out enjoying the afternoon. I passed by plenty of cyclists — kids with training wheels, lycra types on road bikes, middle-aged women on rusty beaters with groceries in the front basket. There were skateboarders, teenagers playing guitars, an old man playing the erhu, joggers, people pushing strollers, an old woman selling potato chips and Yakult on the side of the path. There was even a makeshift mosque set up beneath a highway flyover where Indonesian maids sat listening to a sermon broadcast over a crackly radio. It was the kind of diverse urban activity you find on a truly dynamic street.

But none of this was taking place on a street, or even in a real park. The paths where all this activity took place are entirely removed from the surrounding commercial and residential areas. Most of them are lined by rows of trees and shrubs, beyond which are fences, walls or embankments. The paths are not unpleasant, thanks to the greenery, but the heavy pedestrian traffic on that Sunday afternoon existed in a kind of void: a lot of people passing through nowhere to go nowhere in particular.

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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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December 19th, 2012

Free at Last

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

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When the Hong Kong public was invited to choose a master plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District, they were met by ambitious presentations from each of the proposals. The most sophisticated pitch of all came from Norman Foster’s office, which provided seductively realistic renderings of their City Park concept, which included grassy meadows overlooking Victoria Harbour, replete with picnickers, kids kicking around a ball and kite-flyers.

This provided no shortage of amusement to cynics: “As if it would ever look like that — Hongkongers don’t like sitting on the grass!” That’s something I heard more than once. After all, this is a city where people won’t sit on a concrete step without first protecting themselves with a sheet of newspaper, and where putting a handbag on the floor is tantamount to licking crumbs off the linoleum.

But Foster’s plan won for a reason, and it wasn’t just the slick sales pitch. Public behaviour in Hong Kong is strictly regimented by design and regulation, but this is a deeply informal city at its heart — shopping malls may be popular, but even tycoons have a soft spot for dai pai dongs. You could see this last weekend at the Freespace Festival, a music, art and dance event on the waterfront of the future cultural district. There were people on the grass — and not just sitting, but also sleeping, playing games, picnicking and playing music.

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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 3rd, 2012

Relief Measures

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Photo by RH Kamen

Hong Kong was not a healthy place in the late 19th century. For decades after the British founded the colony in 1842, the Chinese settlement of Sheung Wan struggled with overcrowding and chronic disease.

Things were especially bad in Tai Ping Shan, a hillside enclave of tenement houses packed with recent arrivals from mainland China. In 1881, the colonial government hired Oswald Chadwick, a British engineer, to conduct a survey of the district’s homes. He was alarmed by what he found. In some buildings, 80 tenants crammed into a single flat. People shared space with chickens and pigs. Drains were built haphazardly, so they clogged and became septic, toxic sludge leaking into the surrounding soil.

Chadwick was particularly appalled by the way human waste was handled. “As a general rule throughout Hong Kong, in accordance with time-honoured Chinese practice, human excreta are removed by hand, on what may be called the ‘pail’ system,” he wrote in his report, which was published in 1882. “Neither deodorisation or disinfection of any kind is attempted.”

By contrast, the homes in Hong Kong’s European districts were well-equipped with water closets attached to municipal drains. Such luxuries were not afforded to the fast-growing Chinese population, which was limited to cramped quarters like Tai Ping Shan because land use laws prohibited the expansion of tenement housing – a strategy used by the colonial government to keep the European and Chinese populations apart.

Public facilities were non-existent. Entrepreneurs took advantage of the situation by building public latrines—just 25 for a population of more than 100,000—from which they made a hefty profit by selling human excrement as fertilizer. “On the whole the existing latrines are offensive and a nuisance, both as to position and construction, and they are so crowded as to render improvements as to maintenance very difficult,” wrote Chadwick.

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August 24th, 2012

Hawkerama

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Michael Leung’s “Good Morning” towels were a welcome sight. It was a scorching day on Fa Yuen Street, one of Hong Kong’s most popular street markets, and the energetic young product designer was inviting passersby to take part in a game at his market stall, Hoi Tung (“We’re open”). If you managed to use long wooden forks to hang the stall’s rags, socks, shirts and red lamps from ceiling hooks, and you did it under a minute, you were rewarded with one of the kitschy towels, a ubiquitous fixture of working-class Hong Kong life found in butcher’s shops, market stalls and around the shoulders of anyone burdened by summer sweat.

“It’s really about celebrating the street culture,” says Leung, who took time off from his rooftop farm and beekeeping projects to build the stall for Hawkerama, a one-day event that brought 16 artists and designers to Fa Yuen Street. They built stalls that ranged from homages to street culture, like Leung’s, to more conceptual installations like Kacey Wong’s Transform Bar, a market booth-cum-juice bar made from recycled wood and stacked with wheatgrass planters on sliding tracks, a nod to the flexible, space-saving storage systems used by market vendors, who are restricted to 1.1 sqm allotments by the Hong Kong government.

Those kinds of restrictions have multiplied since December, when a deadly fire ripped through Fa Yuen Street, killing nine people after it spread to nearby apartment buildings whose fire escapes were blocked. The government blamed the overcrowded street market and launched a crackdown on hawkers whose stalls spilled out of their allotment, ordering them to remove umbrellas, awnings and much of their goods. A new scheme was launched to reduce the number of street vendors; some government officials mused abou doing away with them entirely, or moving them to designated areas away from apartments and other shops.

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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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June 17th, 2012

How to Rethink Our Streets

Saint-Jean-Baptiste Boulevard, Montreal, Spring 2011

Urban design proposed for the boulevard, February 2012

Last year, my team and the planning service of Rivière-des-Prairies-Pointe-aux-Trembles borough worked to rethink the design of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Boulevard. It is located east of downtown Montreal, where it crosses old districts from the early 1900s and suburbs from the 1960s. It was planned for 2,200 cars per hour, but only 700 cars per hour use it at its peak. In other words, it poses a considerable challenge.

This five-kilometre boulevard starts in the old urban district, bordering the St. Lawrence River, then passes through a commercial area typical of the 1960s, before furrowing through an industrial park, crossing a future train station and then ends up against the Rivière des Prairies in the far east end of Montreal.

Our project evolved for a few months, then was presented to merchants who now fear an economic slowdown caused by an increased risk of congestion on the boulevard. They basically see the projet as a very bad opportunity for them.

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