July 22nd, 2012

Lofty Skies from Yonge and Bloor

Posted in Canada by Karl Leung

Toronto, November 2011
May 1st, 2012

The Greater Grid

Posted in History, Maps, United States by Christopher Szabla

Straight as an arrow: triptych along Lake Shore Drive, Chicago

Last year, Manhattan celebrated the 200th anniversary of its vaunted grid street system, the rectilinear net that stretches from First Street in what’s now the East Village to 155th, in Washington Heights. And any assumption this was too dry a subject for most New Yorkers could have been dispelled by the thickness of the crowds browsing “The Greatest Grid“. The still-ongoing exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York which examines street patterns in the city past and present, and, with a number of (mostly outlandish) proposals from architectural studios and planners, future.

The exhibit lingers not only on the planning and implementation of the New York grid, but also its many detractors — the property interests, real estate developers, planners, and landscape architects who sought to interrupt and impede Manhattan’s monotonous future as a flattened island dominated by identical, rectangular blocks — and the effects of their opposition. Avenues were inserted midblock when city leaders realized that facilitating north-south traffic would prove more vital to the city’s future than ensuring easy crosstown access between rivers. Broadway’s anomalous, diagonal swath was retained, the points where it awkwardly intersected with the grid turned into parks and squares. A vast portion of the grid was interrupted for the creation of Central Park.

Baseball diamond tic-tac-toe in Lake Shore Park

Above 155th Street, in particular, a new generation of Romantic planners created a very different Manhattan that respected the island’s original, hilly topography, and complemented it with looping, serpentine streets. Upper Manhattan became a mirror image of the chaotic, colonial streets that characterized the island’s original settlement, at its lower tip, and the closest approximation of pre-grid plans for the city, like the one formulated by Joseph Mangin and Casimir Goerck, which respected property lines far more than it had geometric rigors.

Both aesthetically and philosophically, the grid had chafed at Gilded Age New York, and in particular its high society’s pretensions to be living in city that could equal the capitals of Europe, where avenues headed by monumental governmental, cultural, or religious structures were elegantly expressed the notion that mere business was subordinate to civic institutions. But the attractions of the less hierarchical, more “democratic” grid were embraced more wholeheartedly in the country’s interior. The Land Ordinance of 1785 had imposed a grid system far more dramatic than New York’s — on what would become the entire Upper Midwest. At its heart was Chicago, a city that would far more enthusiastically embrace the right angle than even its most eager proponents in New York.

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March 9th, 2012

The View From Brooklyn Bridge

Posted in United States by Christopher Szabla

“Flood-tide below me!” Walt Whitman exclaimed, in 1856, “I watch you face to face”. Whitman was riding the Brooklyn ferry, referring to the crowds that piled onto it during its constant journeys from and two Manhattan. Only a few decades later, this vital, centuries-old water link was obsolete; the Brooklyn Bridge, first to span the East River, had arrived, joining cities that would soon formally merge into what was then quaintly called Greater New York. It could hardly handle the masses crossing the river much better, though. As Manhattan and Brooklyn grew together, the bridge’s traffic steadily increased; after a century that brought subways and taxis and telecommuting (not to mention other bridges) many feet still pound its narrow wooden walkway, arching between boroughs.

The ensuing drama is a microcosm of the difficulties ailing a city where so many egos rub shoulders. Chief among the bridge’s intractable conflicts is the one between cyclists and pedestrians; the former accusing the latter of failing to respect their dedicated lane, the latter accusing the former of taking murderous aim as they fly down the bridge’s descents. The anecdotes are drawn, like knives in a street fight, whenever a fracas between one group and the other flares anywhere else in New York.

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February 6th, 2012

Photos of the Week: Cloistered

Posted in Architecture, United States by Christopher DeWolf

Hyatt Regency View 3

This week’s photos were taken from a hotel in downtown Atlanta by Greg Hickman. These are just some of the striking images in our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

Hyatt Regency View 5

December 24th, 2011

Real-Life SimCity

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

The aroma of wood smoke is not one of the things I expected to smell when I moved to a new apartment on the 35th floor, but there’s a rooftop barbecue restaurant just down the street from my building and the smell often floats upwards. When I sit on my balcony, I can watch little clumps of people around the fires, grilling fishballs and pork chops.

In Montreal, I always thought it was better to be close to the street. Why sequester yourself in a high-rise, buffeted by northern winds, when you could be close to neighbours and the street and your local dep, which is always well-stocked with beer? As much as I could appreciate a good view, being able to watch alley cats make their nightly inspections seemed somehow more important.

In too many parts of Hong Kong, though, proximity to the street does not confer many real pleasures. The traffic is noisier, the pollution more irritating, the sunlight so very fleeting. In the absence of a true convivial streetlife, life on a low floor is not a matter of engagement with your surroundings, just a feat of endurance.

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June 27th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Manhattan Roofline

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

View of Chinatown from the Manhattan Bridge 11

View from the Manhattan Bridge. Photo by Vivienne Gucwa

High Line Views, New York City - 06

View from the High Line. Photo by Vivienne Gucwa

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

June 15th, 2011

Green Wall, Green Roof

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

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Perhaps not quite what you’d expect.

February 24th, 2011

Shenzhen from Above

Thirty years ago, Shenzhen was a collection of farming towns and fishing villages home to not much more than 300,000 people. It is now a sprawling metropolis of several million, with around 3.5 million in the city centre and another five or six million in the suburbs and industrial towns that stretch for miles beyond.

The story of Shenzhen’s growth has been told many times, in many places, but it is still hard to understand exactly how quickly the city has grown until you see it from above. 1,200 feet above ground, in the observation deck of Shun Hing Square, the city’s tallest building, the ad hoc nature of Shenzhen’s development becomes obvious.

It might only be thirty years old, but Shenzhen has been built and rebuilt so many times, it has the urban layers of a city four times its age. Country fields developed into worker-unit housing blocks in the 1980s were redeveloped into low-rise private housing in the 1990s and then into high-rises in the 2000s. None of these generations fully subsume the other — there are always traces left of the past — and the city is littered with discarded planning initiatives, like attempts to build tree-line boulevards that were abandoned after just a few blocks.

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December 22nd, 2010

Hong Kong Rooftops: You Are Being Watched

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Last month, I paid a visit to Hong Kong Reader, a great independent bookstore on the seventh floor of a building in Mongkok. Before I entered the shop, though, I gazed up the stairwell and wondered whether there was an interesting view from the roof. I climbed an extra few floors and emerged onto a rubbish-filled rooftop with a view of only the surrounding buildings and billboards.

On the roof next door, somebody had left a pile of rose petals to dry in the sun. (A romantic gesture?) I took a few photos, gazed at my reflection in the mirrored windows of an office tower across the street — and noticed, out of the corner of my eye, two men staring at me from an even higher rooftop a few buildings away.

Startled, I looked up. One man took a drag on his cigarette. They continued to stare. I wondered what they were doing up there and my mind flashed to the climax from Infernal Affairs when Tony Leung sneaks up on Andy Lau with a gun. A bit unnerved, I ducked back into the stairwell and went down to the bookstore.

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November 1st, 2010

Vintage Aerials

Posted in Canada, History by Christopher DeWolf

Looking north over Lafontaine Park and the Plateau in 1965

It’s a rare treat to come across some aerial photographs that are both old and high-resolution. I recently happened across a bunch in the Flickr photostream of Le présent du passé de Montréal, who also has lots of photos of street scenes, markets, buses and streetcars from the 1940s to the 1980s.

While there’s some good shots of the central parts of the city, like the one above, most of the aerials focus on Montreal’s north end. The photo below shows the notorious Acadie Circle in 1974. The parking lot of the Rockland Centre mall is on the lower right and the north end of Park Extension is just above that. The empty fields on the centre-left have since become home to the Marché Central, a wholesale food market surrounded by a terrible collection of suburban big-box stores.

The Metropolitan Expressway at Acadie Circle, 1974

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October 29th, 2010

Mongkok Sunset

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Sunset over Mongkok, Kowloon, Hong Kong
September 8th, 2010

Rush Hour in London, 1970 and Today

Posted in Europe, History, Transportation, Video by Christopher Szabla
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Bulbous black taxis and double-decker buses might supply London’s most recognizable transport iconography, but Britain, where the railroad was born, has long been a nation defined by trains. A look at two videos of London’s rail station at rush hour confirms the country’s undying regard for rail. The crowds pulsating through Waterloo Station in 1970 were at the mercy of the antiquated, almost Steampunk-styled signal equipment featured in the first video, a British Transport Film fished up from the archives of the British Film Institute last year, but if they were at all aware of this, it didn’t stop them from swarming the station in droves (though, being British, they also manage to organize the chaos into an occasional orderly queue).

Not even the materialism of the Thatcher years, their emphasis on homeownership, nor subsequent real estate booms, all of which promoted car ownership and the expansion of the London’s suburban commuter belt along the motorways radiating from the city, could seriously challenge British railways’ importance. Still less hemorrhage resulted from the 1993-7 privatization of the UK rail system, achieved, in the eyes of many, for no practical purpose and with disastrous results; in fact, traffic since privatization has actually increased, even as public impressions of the railways’ reliability and safety have declined. More passengers were carried in 2006 than in any year since 1957.

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July 19th, 2010

The View from Above

Posted in Canada, Film, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf
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Part of the brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window was the way it acknowledged voyeurism as part of urban life. In the city, we’re always being watched and we’re always watching others, be it on the street, from across a café or on the web, through street photography.

I’d be lying if I said that the thrill of spying on others wasn’t part of the reason why I like rooftops. The exchange of glances on the street is replaced by a position that gives you a privileged view of everything around. I’ve never seen anything particularly exciting from a roof — it’s not like I bring a pair of binoculars — but I do enjoy catching the occasional glimpse into the normally sheltered world of somebody’s private life. Not too long ago, while hanging out on a friend’s rooftop, I was able to catch part of a World Cup game being watched on a large high-definition TV in the building next door.

Obviously I’m not alone. Peepers, a new film by Montreal’s Automatic Vaudeville Studios, takes the idea of rooftop voyeurism and builds a movie around it. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m happy to see some of the rooftops I know and love featured in the trailer. At least one of the scenes looks like was filmed on the rooftop where writer/actor Mark Slutsky lives — a rooftop my friends and I have snuck up to many times.

July 15th, 2010

Game On

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Soccer game seen from the roof of the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre