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Urban Shelters, Parasitic Structures and Cardboard Housing

quo nov 05

In what seems to be a relentless wave of continuous natural force, this year has witnessed several of the most devastating natural disasters; the Indian Ocean tsunami, hurricanes Katrina and Stan in the US and Central America, massive floods in India and China and more recently the Pakistan earthquake. Statistics for 2005 from the International Red Cross accounted for 128 major floods, 121 hurricanes and cyclones and 42 earthquakes and tsunamis. Natural disasters seem to be on the incline and with it an increased awareness towards the importance of responsive disaster relief.

In a situation where the after affects of a disaster are just as threatening as the disaster itself, NGO’s and relief agencies scramble to provide victims with quick solutions to the basic needs of food, shelter and security. Responding to this need for shelter and temporary housing solutions, several architects and designers have come up with some innovative approaches; some strongly utilitarian with widespread practical applications with others more esoteric in nature. The following examples provide a clear range of the ideas currently on the table.

The Cardboard Emergency Housing

Conceived as temporary housing for periods ranging from three to six months and even up to a year, the Cardboard house, although somewhat inconceivable is exactly what it sounds like; the basic structure is a series of plywood pods, with overlapping corrugated cardboard panelling for the roof, walls and floors. The cardboard panels are the same size as a standard cardboard box, and the houses can be as small or as large as required; pods are simply added either up or out.

Four modules, each measuring 1.5 metres by 3 metres by 3 metres, are required to provide liveable short term shelter for a family and each module costs around $1500 Australian Dollars to manufacture.

Urban Nomad Shelter

Designed by Cameron McNall and Damon Seeley with the idea of fostering a dialog between a city and its marginalized homeless populations, the Urban Nomad Shelter is a colourful inflatable structure providing an easy-to-carry and inexpensive (estimated retail cost $24 per unit) protection from cold, rain and hard sidewalks.

Using a specific design aesthetic (think Ikea), the shelter’s neon-coloured cocoons make it impossible not to acknowledge the physical presence of the homeless. The transparency of the structure stemmed from research finding that invisibility is generally considered a bad thing amongst street dwellers; when you are out of view of the police or other people, bad things happen to you.

The Web House

The Web House project by Nadi Jahangiri, Ken Hutt and Ivy Chan of m3 architects in London, have designed an inflatable apartment space that attaches via weblike cords to the side of an existing tall building. The web house consists of cabling which hangs from hooks fixed to the permanent structure and a skin which fills the webbing and is then inflated. The structural core containing the kitchen and bathroom is later dropped in with access being provided through the main building.

As a classic parasitic type structure (generally defined as any flexible and temporary structure (not very inclusively designed by an artist or architect) that feeds off existing infrastructure), the Web House can be erected almost anywhere including hanging from bridges, strung between buildings or even straddling roads or railway lines.

Design Cool

quo oct 05

Apart from the Hi tech industry which seems to reinvent itself at lightning speed while also reducing exponentially in size – it seems psychologically, a long time between inventions; the day to day type that are so startlingly simple that you are left kicking yourself thinking why no one else thought of it before. Inventions to the stature of the zip, Velcro or paper clips sprung out of pure need and a void in the market; the household Band-Aid was developed to protect a clumsy housewife, those yellow sticky Post It Notes to keep ones place in a church hymn book and Liquid Paper by a secretary searching for as an easier way to correct typos.

At the other end of the spectrum there are those designs which rather than alter the true essence of an object, find innovation or design cool in the improvement of aesthetics and/or the way in which existing objects function. Whole industries have been built on the strength of this process of ‘industrial design’ with brands such as Alessi creating a niche market in the house hold goods industry and Apple recently revolutionizing the computer and portable music device market with leaps and bounds in style and functionality.

Falling into the later stream of design is the Mathmos Air Switch lamp. While lamps are usually about as exciting as er . . . lamps and although the Air Switch still functions in the traditional manner by providing illumination it is hard to dispute the innovation of this creation.

Apart from its unusual appearance which resembles that of a science lab chemistry flask, this frosted glass table light is remarkable because it is fully controlled by means of a simple wave of the hand. Similar to a Yodaesque ‘may the force be with you’ type of move, waving your hand just above the rim of the Air Switch turns it on while repeating the same move turns it off. Similarly, the brightness is controlled by means of a gentle tai chi type flourish; an upward motion for more illumination and downward for a more dim lit ambient glow.

It can't be overstated how impressive this is and with the added feeling of power you get from controlling it the Air Switch is the perfect solution to for moments wasted fumbling around for the light switch. We can already envisage a future where all the appliances which inhabit or day to day routines (the switching of air-conditioners, the flushing of toilets, the turning of taps) are controlled by an elegantly choreographed style ballet; half yoga half kung fu.

For more information check out the Mathmos web site (

The Art of War: Design Competitions in China

QUO Sep 03

The distraction of terrorist threats, axis of evil, financial crisis, a falling dollar and other fiscal nightmares has left Asia and many other parts of the world in slow motion recovery mode. China on the other hand has been riding along quite nicely on the myth of the Chinese Economic Boom with its consistently robust GDP rates and the lure of a young but fast growing market economy. Local governments all over the country with their natural desire to leave landmarks and improve the infrastructure, green ratios and development potential of their cities have been pouring bucket loads of money into public projects such as Subways, Airports, Cyber ports, Business Parks, Public Waterfronts and/or the ubiquitous Opera Houses, Planning Museums and Universities. Impetus is clearly being felt from the big events such as APEC, the World Expo and the Beijing Olympics. Within this environment comes the rise of the design competition now being applied to a majority of public and many private developments.

Ideally the design competition is an impartial tool for moderating the best design talent in order to get first rate innovative solutions. For the many design consultants new to the Chinese Market however, everything is not all that it cracked up to be in competition land. Take it from Dorothy when she said ‘Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas City anymore.’

Traditionally a way for young and ambitious design firms to get involved in prominent public projects, design competitions offer unknowns a chance to become recognizable or for established firms to break into new markets. Design firms will generally complete concepts for little or no fees in the hope of gaining the commission for follow up works and of course for the customary prestige and prize money that usually accompanies winning. The current environment in the Chinese Market often sees prizes not being awarded, outrageously detailed requirements that leave disqualification an easy option, awarding follow up work to local institutes rather than the entrants and in the worst cases pre-ordained decisions based on those all encompassing powers of guanxi and money. An extraordinary range of built public works being shaped by a sometimes impossible process that does little to add value to the final result.

The competition in many cases is a tool for obtaining ideas on the cheap and as a result there is a lot of design talent out there being wasted (In order to get on board for the Olympics many top firms worldwide are entering competitions for a chance to enter the main competition). If egos, politics, the system and the usual elbowing for contracts allowed, perhaps this talent would be better utilized in a collaborative workshop environment where the focus is clearly set on addressing the projects themselves rather than the chase. There must be an alternative process.

The following list of acronyms, characterize the contemporary design competition environment:

DLF: Dangerously Low Fees (often applies to invited competitions)

DFC: Disoriented Foreign Consultant/Disillusioned Foreign Consultant (usually present at the more ceremonial stage of works involving the mass media)

EBC: Excessive Banquet Consumption (almost always accompanies large public works)

NFP: No First Prize (when funding issues arise)

ELR: Excessive and Ludicrous Requirements (usually applies when it has been decided that someone else will be completing the follow up work)

ULF: Unexpected Loss of Fees (results from ignoring the ELR)

CPA: Certified Professional Abuse (working for free, apparent only with hindsight)

FTC: First Time Competition (where CPA most frequently occurs)

Sustainable Development in Paradise

QUO Jul 05

When I first moved to Shanghai in 2000, it was considered by some as an act of career suicide; China was unfairly perceived at the time as a third world wasteland for many a self respecting architect who could also choose to go to New York, London, Sydney or any other such trendsetting cities. Today, one in every two foreigners (or Hong Kong, Taiwanese, Singaporean) you bump into these days, is a designer of sorts or an architect . . . attracted mostly by the sheer quantity of work and with the idea of turning paper architecture dreams into reality.

China itself is a construction site, with an ongoing pace that is difficult for many professionals to realistically keep up with; one has to be all encompassing, coping with multiple aspects of projects commonly on a mega scale while also learning to de-code the mysteries of the “Chinese way”. While most of us struggle with the professional frustration, many Chinese architects have left their drafting boards and turned to property development, selling architectural packages with buildings, environment and dreams of new life styles. Many architects who have done their time in China simply can not resist the temptation to jump into this exciting and sometimes lucrative playground. The overall premise of design is after all to add value - visually, spiritually and economically.

A friend was recently hired by an architectural firm based in Beijing to move to Yunnan with the purpose of exploring real estate opportunities in the tourism and secondary home market. As an architect herself, she was totally enthusiastic about the whole mission, believing there to be great potential in creating something that could complete the typical Chinese lifestyle; an ancient mountain town called Dali, on a plateau with stunning views to the mountains and lake, minority culture and an almost permanent blue sky.

A retreat to hide away from the drudgery of the big cities with recreational opportunities that many of the newly developed cities lack; relaxing by the lakeside, sunbathing on a sailboat or hiking up into the snowy mountains in Shangri-la. A gateway through China’s neighboring borders with an old French railway to Hanoi, drives through rain forest jungles on the way to Bangkok and possible sojourns into northern Myanmar, India or Tibet by jeep. Beautiful pictures and the dream of developing idyllic communities with an abundance of retreat like opportunities for adventurer and sloth alike . . . . and for an architect turned developer, the ability of bringing a life style dream to reality.

The Changing face of Public Art

QUO Feb 05

Public art, ideally, emerges as part of a city’s commitment to developing cultural vitality; encouraging artistic expression and community participation, in a meaningful, authentic and distinctive way. As well as the more traditionally accepted domains of literature, music, painting or architecture, it is also an expression of a way of life; a celebration of what community is, where it has come from, and where it is going – an aspect perhaps that should employ great relevance to modern day Chinese communities, having undergone so many rapid changes in recent decades. Public Art essentially brings artworks outside the traditional context of museums and galleries providing increased accessibility to the artworks, their commentary and the artists themselves.

Public art has played a prominent role in China’s recent urban green initiatives; new parks, landscaped boulevards, greenways alongside elevated highways, plazas, waterfronts etc. However, when considering the general tone of these artworks and admittedly this is based much more on impression than any in depth research; it seems that certain trends prevail:

Colossal iconic monuments or gateways sited boldly on traffic islands or at the entrances of towns, industrial parks or along new freeways announcing ‘arrival’ in case there was room for misinterpretation. Mock firework and/or DNA string like light features line public squares and plazas and in reference to more traditional garden design - poetry stones.

The other realm is that of those dedicated to public figures; famous writers, painters or revered leaders which are usually cast in a more traditional light at a human scale, such as the sculpture dedicated to Pushkin at the small square topping Taojiang Road.

Other squares, plazas and gardens also have their share of public sculptures and although there is a lot of value in many of these pieces they rarely however seem to stray from the traditional form of public art; a self contained object to be viewed at an entry, in the center of a clearing or square.

While all of these types of artworks maintain significant importance within our communities, it would be interesting to see the realm of public works expand to incorporate bus shelters, street furniture, building facades, bill boards, signage, paving, lighting, fountains, landscapes or in fact, anything that the artist themselves is willing to tackle. The greater amount of diverse artwork types within the public realm can only lead to greater acceptance of a broader definition of public art.

It seems that government support is essential to the successful implementation of public art initiatives. Many cities have implemented Percent for Art Policies in order to integrate contemporary artworks into inner city construction projects. This is simply a policy by which a percentage of the total cost of new buildings is dedicated towards public art projects. For example, 0.5% 0f the Los Angeles MTA construction budget is dedicated to the commissioning of public art within the rail network, while cities like Melbourne have committed up to one per cent of the City's capital works, as well as integrating these artworks at the earliest stages of the design and construction process. Cities like Shanghai, with its world class towers, entertainment districts and pedestrian malls can surely benefit from such policies as a way of ensuring a reflection of the city’s culture within its ever-changing urban environment.

Villa Rotunda and the Search for a Home in the Round

QUO Jan 05

I had never lived in an apartment before moving to Asia. Coming from a country where single family homes or town houses are common place, plentiful amounts of land combined with a small population, by enlarge has left the prices of single family units affordable to a substantial proportion of home owners. Price variation is determined much more by size, location and construction quality rather than the difference between housing types; apartment, villa or townhouse etc.

In contrast, the limited-supply villa market in shanghai tends to cater toward the upwardly mobile and/or the super wealthy local, foreign or overseas Chinese; those that can afford the equally upwardly mobile price tag and usually the car to commute to and from these suburban destinations. Sante Fe, CEO, English Tudor, Riviera, Long Island, Maple Forest, Italian Vicenza, French Baroque, Made in Germany; the styles on offer (sometimes even within the same developments) read like a holiday travel magazine, with buyers becoming increasingly shrewd in regards to green percentages, housing aspects, development plot ratios and interior design.

With the traditional extended family size in decline it is still fascinating to see villas that could only be called mansions, ranging from eight hundred all the way up to a whopping eighteen hundred square meters; especially curious, when a comfortable four to five bedroom, two to four bathroom and garage home in many other places around the world, would on average range between four and six hundred square meters. An eighteen hundred square meter home is sensibly one that proportionally requires a country estate rather than a few meters that separates you and your neighbors.

In a city with severe lower income housing shortages, it is no wonder that the government is regulating the amount of land earmarked for these kinds of developments and yet this is also providing the impetus for increased demand in an obviously limited market. Prices for villa developments in Minhang District (which also incorporates the marketable Hongqiao and Xinzhuang areas) are already in the range of 10,000 – 25,000 RMB per square meter with the super luxury end evening touching levels of around 40,000 RMB per square meter. This means that the price of an average sized 400 square meter home can range from 4 million to 10 million RMB. No small potatoes when the majority of buyers is struggling to save for a 500,000 - 600,000 RMB apartment.

It seems that foreign building styles, green parkland settings, gated communities with their associated security and the big is better mantra still holds strong within this small but lucrative market. That and of course the proximity of the local golf course, international school and Carrefour.

The Space in Between

QUO Oct 04

Having looked out onto Shanghai’s emergent skyline for longer than expected now with its increasing number of high rise and newly established green spaces, it has become apparent that despite the trend, downtown still remains relatively low rise.

Due largely to the amount of functional architecture that remains in these areas (from 1980’s office buildings to old lane houses) it has become an ongoing race to develop those largely agricultural or industrial parcels of land in Pudong, Hongqiao and/or any other district within a hop skip and a jump from the local expressway or subway station. Like many other places around the world, development is exerting outward pressure on the city’s traditional boundaries, creating new districts, incorporating nearby towns and establishing the “burbs”.

So what happens in a place where the boundaries are fixed? Hong Kong, with a population of 6.7 million and an area of only 1098 square kilometers is just such a place. Divided into four main areas - Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, the New Territories and the Outlying Islands (any of the 234 surrounding islands), the only expansion options allowed this tightly packed, towering conglomerate of market capitalism is to move up the mountain and/or reclaiming land from the sea (often unachievable, each with an appropriately lofty construction cost). The Result, a bustling Blade Runneresque metropolis with people living and working densely packed in the wall to wall stacks of sardine cans that in some places block out even the tiniest glimpse of the sky.

Traditionally it is architecture that defines the character of a place and with Hong Kong it must be the initial shock of such overwhelming densities. The bulk of the architecture, however remains stock standard high rise feats in engineering, leaving creativity, chaos and culture to flourish in the spaces between; a twelve metre high bypass squeezes barely between two buildings, a small suburban temple lines a pedestrian staircase, restaurants and bars vie for the dark alleyways in the Soho area and a neighbourhood park occupies scarcely two or three car spaces.

The world’s longest escalator winds its way up from Central through Mid Levels and the journey reveals ingenious methods of filling the gaps. Even the tiniest of spaces beside, under, above or between exposes a surprising use, from closet sized retail to attention-grabbing signage, from the smallest of children’s play areas to a shadowy alfresco dining experience. A place where the residents of a city restricted in area but wild with development, have turned to the spaces in between and shaped for themselves an often unique and surprising visual reminder of human scale, culture and traditional customs.

Super Malls, Super Blocks and Super Markets

QUO May 04

The contemporary residential developments of Shanghai, combined with the proliferation of cars, have brought with them a new lifestyle. One where convenience is usually gained through driving a car and one where the needs of daily life are provided by the nearest Super Mall or Mega Mart; superstores like Metro, Carrefour, Home Mart and Whatever Mart have sprung up at a rate of knots in areas of new development like Pudong and Hongqiao.

Many developers citing “giving the market what is wants” have created or followed a strong preference for security and privacy and with these traits, a sense of removal form the public realm of the city. The Mega Mart has evolved from the desire to be removed but also the need for the amenities of daily life.

The superstores of today usually take the form of an island; a voluminous two/three story un-fenestrated, internally looking box surrounded by car parking. The circulation within these spaces is often designed to hold the shopper inside for as long as possible, allowing for maximum commercial bombardment. Just go to a Carrefour on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and you can hear the silent screams of the lone shopper trying to make a quick exit.

There is no doubt something very convenient about finding everything you need in one spot. The trouble is that, like an island, these kinds of commercial malls do little to enhance the nature of the public spaces that surround them; the vibrancy of public commercial street life has been lost. Unlike many of Shanghai’s older neighborhoods, the smooth transition form public to private has in many ways disappeared. Now, in order to meet one’s daily needs for grocery shopping, bill payment for letter posting, one must travel (usually by car) from a largely private gated development to the Mega Mart-Clearly a very public destination; the jump from the very private to the very public with not much hierarchy in between.

In many traditional cities and indeed the older neighborhoods of shanghai many civic and commercial amenities are found within walking distance of one’s home and this trait is not only available to residents of a certain income level, but to all. There is something very comfortable about being able to walk from home in the morning to pick up a cup of coffee, a loaf of bread, a carton of milk if your tastes desire a cup of dou jiang (soymilk) and boazi (baozi are baozi); convenience combined with the vibrancy of public commercial street life. In spaces like Hong Kong it was always mind-blowing to be within a stone’s throw of every type of amenity but also to literally be able to walk from the front doorstep to the airport (via an express train).

Certainly, the lure of the new, clean environments is very seductive to a population tired of the often-polluted dilapidation of the older neighborhoods. However, the question is how sustainable is this kind of development on a culture that in the past has relied strongly on the social network of the extended community.

Many other countries are now trying to repair the damage to urban areas and thus the social fabric of the city caused by the proliferation of these kinds of developments favored in the last few decades. Perhaps Shanghai should make the great leap forward and avoid the mistakes that may other countries must now deal with.

City for the 21st Century

QUO Apr 04

I recently saw a David Bowie Concert, and for those not old enough to remember who he is, he was the one that penned the Nirvana hit “The Man who Sold the World.” Appropriately he is now writing songs about an image of a city reclaimed by rainforest, inhabited by a population dramatically short of the millions that it was planned for; the city he refers to is Brasilia, the capital of Brazil.

The site chosen for Brasilia was a 6,000-square-kilometer, sparsely inhabited plateau, 1,200 km from Rio de Janeiro. The competition for the urban master plan was won by architect and urban planner, Lucio Costa while the major government buildings were designed by the grandfather of the Brazilian modernist movement Oscar Niemeyer. On April 21 1960 Brasilia started functioning as the new capital of Brazil. Today the built up urban core has a population of around 625,000 .

The purpose of the new capital was threefold; to open the center of Brazil to new development, to relieve the pressure of growth from the old Capital Rio de Janeiro and thirdly, to create a renewed sense of national pride by constructing an entirely modern 21st Century city, assuring Brazil a place in the world of highly sophisticated, industrialized, and modern nations. It was a time where architects all over the world were directed by a belief in universal truth and an international style guided largely by the stripped down aesthetic of function and for Brasilia, a winning combination of modernist dogma and the aspirations of a rapidly developing country.

Brasilia was entirely built around road transport with the edge of the city reachable from the center by a 10 minute drive. This meant that residents could not go to the shopping centre, cinema or CBD without driving or taking the bus. The design mixed residential super blocks (similar in size to the residential communities of Pudong) with commercial districts or shopping streets. In theory, the necessities of work and daily life could be provided for by the super block and local commercial street.

In reality, planning restrictions prevented lower cost, higher density housing, leaving the option of living within the city unaffordable for the people who worked in the super blocks (shop-workers, porters, cleaners, plumbers, electricians etc.) These people would commute in by bus each day from satellite centers around 30 km out of town. Meanwhile, those living within super blocks work in large numbers for the government, meaning a mandatory drive into the city centre.

Most Chinese cities do not have the many issues that Brasilia had many but still the lessons to be learned from it are numerous. The city illustrates both the great expectations of its creators and also the unforeseen shortcomings.

The Search for An Alternative Office Space

QUO Mar 04

Last year we moved our design office to a warehouse along Suzhou Creek. It is a great space with lots of natural light, high ceilings, a large open plan and a view of the boats as they chug ( I must say rather noisily) up and down the creek. The down side is that it gets cold in winter, the streetscape out the front is no Nanjing Road and the management likes to lock the door at night (not so good for the sometimes crazy hours of a typical design office).

Dating back to the 1930s, the building was previously a storage space for a cooking oil manufacturer. Since then some of the floors have been reincarnated into galleries, rave or fashion show venues, and office space. Most of the building, however, still maintains its overall storage use.

Recently, we have been getting a lot of enquiries from other companies looking for similar spaces; internet firms, photographers, publishers, graphic designers, wine merchants, architects, unidentified freelancing consultants. It seems that the demand for alternative office space is on the rise in Shanghai.

For the many newly arrived or expanding companies, looking for distinctive office space can be quite demanding. There is a staggering amount of depressingly drab offerings on the table, but the downtown prices are relatively high and not everyone wants to move to Pudong. Despite specific requirements, real estate agents are apt at showcasing spaces similar to the tight, endless number of cubicles, shared desk through the wall scenario of films like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and for their reference, offices on smaller than multinational corporate budgets, generally still desire windows.

Many of us spend a huge percentage of our waking hours at work, so what’s sp wrong with wanting a few creature comforts; buildings with character, floods of natural light, enough space for a lounge area, a shower, gym equipment, an espresso machine with the copper eagle on the top… the list goes on forever.

Many offices are now broadening their search to include old houses, warehouse buildings, factories and above-shop spaces. The thing about these spaces is that they can function comfortably as an office, a residence, a retail store or café. Apart from special use buildings like concert halls, sports stadiums and chip manufacturing plants, etc., good architectural building stock should be flexible enough to adapt to the changing market demand. Today, in many cities around the world, downtown office towers are being converted into residences or serviced apartments and warehoused into office space, galleries or loft-style living. In prime locations, an inflexible building, or one designed to be too use specific would usually be assigned the wrecking ball if there were no longer demand for that use. It will be interesting to see how much of Shanghai’s newly constructed skyline will stand the test of time.

New Years Resolutions in the Midst of Design, Development and Maglev Trains

QUO Feb 04

After year of continued impetus in the construction/development industry; many an Olympic or World Expo bid has been decided and begun work, the Maglev train from Pudong’s International Airport will finally be in operation this month, the non Bund side of the Huangpu River is heavily populated by exclusive commercial and residential towers and those ubiquitous villa projects are still being churned out at the rate of knots to a consistently buoyant property market. With all this stimulating project experience have the design strategies that shape Chinese cities today become older and wiser in their maturity or just fatter around the waist?

With the passing of the New Year and with the Year of the Monkey upon us, we thought it was time to prepare a list of new years resolutions; probably better expressed as an urban wish list for this city of ours and its desire to match those internationally appealing cities of the world.

1.The Will to Preserve

It seems that the ‘out with the old in with the new’ dogma of past years has finally seen increased opposition with the renovation of some of the older neighborhoods, developments like Xin Tian Di and the re-use of some industrial and warehouse type buildings for galleries, offices and residences. Shanghai should seek to retain the character of its built history and urban fabric and hopefully the preservation and re-use of some of the city’s traditional building stock will be a continuing trend.

2.Mixed Communities

Many of Shanghai’s older neighborhoods and indeed many of the world’s most interesting places include a vibrant mix of age groups, economic groups and planned uses (retail, commercial, entertainment and civic). Too many of today’s developments are single use and attract a consumer of similar age and economic status. Contrastingly, think of the Quartiers of Paris where old and young, wealthy and not so wealthy alike have the opportunity to live, grab a meal, shop or go to the local library all within a stones throw of each other. Quality communities are created in this manner and hopefully the aspiration for the clean, the new and the segregated will not be at the expense of these mixed communities (whether old or new, public or private).

3.A Park is a Park, is a Park

Over the last few years the amount of green space has increased dramatically within the urban areas and this is generally recognized as a positive step. A poorly placed park or greenway however, can just as easily limit circulation and create inaccessible community black holes. The increased green space within the city is a good thing so long as it is undertaken with the proper planning, design and integration of the surrounding fabric; with these in place, a park can become the focus of a neighborhood or the recreational center for a city.

4.Streets as Public Domain

Too often the design and layout of streets emphasize the efficiency of traffic circulation at the expense of the pedestrian experience; just think of the dehumanizing scale of many of Shanghai’s roads and those numerous pedestrian bridges and underground tunnels. Streets are an important part of the public domain and should be designed inclusively for both pedestrian and vehicular activity. The desire to segregate the two is not always the best option. Opportunities for planting, retail activity, street parking and sidewalk dining can positively transform the character of neighborhoods.

The Subterranean World of the City

QUO Aug 03

In many cities, the spaces that link up with transport infrastructures have become the most important public domains. These spaces have evolved as a pragmatic reaction to our modern day cities and their superimposed systems of transport.

In Hong Kong, one can travel from airport to shopping mall in half an hour without crossing from interior to exterior. Traffic efficiency experts are happy in the knowledge that their roads are not interrupted by the crowds of Shanghai pedestrians pushing their way from department store to department store through basement tunnels. The daily commute to downtown is often experienced through the subway’s complex underground network of advertisement laden through-space.

Welcome to the contemporary public realm, with its emphasis on activity, exchange and egress; a far cry from traditional notions of urban public space.

The city of Harbin, with its six months of icy temperatures is planning to extend its existing subterranean network of shopping malls. In Winter, the pulse of the city will remain underground in a space that rarely acknowledges the traditional streetscapes and buildings above. Shanghai also has its share of these underground commercial havens. From Xujiahui to People’s Square, basements house food courts and subway passages with their more reasonable rentals often provide a starting point for younger and funkier retailers. These spaces and their street level entries often materialize as a perfect expression of the way they were created – an after though: an explosion of signage and disabling levels, essentially a highly serviceable haphazardly created throughfare.

For comparison one looks to Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau Paris Metro entrances. Constructed between 1899 to 1905, the fluid curvilinear lines and organic forms introduced ornamental and decorative values to the classical, angular architectural trend of the times. This did not occur without resistance and the style was often criticised as being German not French (not a criticism in everyone’s book but damning at the time). Due to the pervasiveness of these structures however, the art nouveau movement came to be known as le style Métro.

Guimard himself wrote: A style of architecture, in order to be true, must be the product of the soil where it exits and of the period which needs it. This kind of Regionalism in many of our modern day urban centres has taken a beating by accelerated globalization and its unifying devices (telecommunications, infrastructure and virtual technologies). A new, often subterranean public realm has been created as a pragmatic response to these devices. The question that begs to be asked is: has public space lost its context and character and if so, how can we bring it back?

The Search for the New in the Old

QUO Jun 03

Lilong or lane housing (taken from “li” meaning neighborhood and “long” meaning lane) describes an urban housing form which is uniquely characteristic of Shanghai and the city’s growth from the 1840’s up until 1949. Although fast disappearing, linong settlements still comprise the majority of the city’s central housing stock. Today, with their unique character, courtyards, roof terraces and sometimes gardens, an increasing number of expatriates aspire to reside within these communities. They are drawn largely by the human scale, the convenience of the old neighborhoods and perhaps an eagerness to indulge in nostalgia for old Shanghai.

The ‘20s and’ 30s witnessed rapid development and commercial prosperity as the city was engulfed in open trade. Highly valued downtown land resulted in capitalization of street frontage with commercial activities being placed along every street façade. Lane housing developed out of the need to cater for an ever-increasing population of mostly Chinese migrant without interrupting the spatial continuity of commerce along the main streets-to create a comfortable living environment on mass without sacrificing real estate values. An urban pattern emerged placing commercial spaces along street frontages and residential space inside, accessible by lanes which opened to the street façade. This arrangement was harmonious with traditional ways of living- introspective with a tense sense of privacy and tranquility that kept out the hustle and bustle of the city.

Lane housing neighborhoods with their pleasant living environments became loved by the local population and today, with preservation codes and the re-gentrification of these old communities this should continue well into the future. The advantages are unmistakable: convenient locations that preserve the continuity of the urban street, quiet surrounds, a clear separation of public and private zones, neighborhood safety control and a strong sense of community. It would be beneficial if some of these qualities could be introduced to the more marketable high rise gated developments that are now sprouting all over the city.

Shanghai is a city whose very substance and tastes have in the past been based on new fashions and imported international styles. Perhaps, as the city matures and takes its place within the international subconscious, it will be an appropriate time to take stock, look past the imported architectural styles currently on offer and explore the expressions of Shanghainess that already exist within the city’s urban fabric.

Bright Lights, Big City?

QUO Feb 03

The city is being lit from all angles; the neon and glitz of Nanjing Road could easily rival the kitschy glare of Vegas, Blue ultraviolet lights trace the freeways and resemble something out of Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’, the most densely packed fairy lights this side of Paris adorn the commercial and entertainment promenades of Huai Hai Road and Xin Tian Di, the night time grandeur of the Bund has largely become the traveler’s quintessential image of the city and Shanghai’s newest economic icons, the sky scrapers of downtown and Luijiazui battle it out in the ‘look at me’ stakes, adorned with glowing crown effigies and shooting beams far into the night sky.

As the city of Shanghai forces its way onto the international subconscious, the wattage increases and the night sky slowly becomes more dazzling. If anyone remembers the lead up to last year’s APEC summit, driving along Changsu Road could clearly have been an epileptic’s worst nightmare. Apart from the cutesie neon A’s. P’s, E’s or C’s hanging in the street trees, 4 to 5 hours of rapidly flashing strobe lights announced ones arrival and probably infuriated the neighbors. During shopping hours the intersection at Xujiahui frequently puts on a theatrical extravaganza of lanterns and musically coordinated light beams.

Like that of its southern neighbor Hong Kong, the city’s night time manifestation is as much about identity as it is about economic success. From my slum of an apartment in Hong Kong I used to be able to stand on a chair and look out onto the glittering dress like facade of ‘the Shirley Bassey Building (Cheong Kong Centre)’ or the night time kaleidoscope of ‘the ecky (ecstasy) building (The Centre Tower)’. Now Shanghai has its own ‘ecky building’ with a state of the art fiber optic system that allows the characteristic facade of flowing colors.

As the city emerges on the world scene we are likely to be bathed in an ever-increasing radiance. At present we can still be calm in the knowledge that the lights still go down around 11 or 12 at night leaving Shanghai not quite the city that never sleeps, but one that still gets a good 8 to10 hours beauty rest and wakes refreshed to face the anticipated changes of the next day.

Dressing Up the Past

QUO Dec 02

There never seemed to be anything exceptional about the Hen Shan Hotel. In fact, at night time with little pedestrian action on the corner of Hen Shan and Wan Ping Roads the hotel’s environs could be rather shady. Thankfully the beginning of this year saw scaffolding and the tarps go up in preparation for a long needed overhaul of one of Shanghai’s understated architectural landmarks.

Previously a French styled apartment building The Picardie , as it was formerly known, was built in 1934 by Minutti and Cie (the same architectural firm which designed the Messageries Maritimes building on the Bund). and was one of the larger apartment buildings on Heng Shan Road,nee Avenue Petain. More recently the building has been functioning as a government hotel and judging by the cars constantly parked out front, an apparent favorite amongst government officials. If anyone remembers what it was like just last year, picture this; little visible activity from the street, fenced off, red carpets and doilies on armchairs. The recently completed renovations have certainly been for the good of the people.

The detailing is classic art deco which tends to emphasize the verticality of elements-take note of the motifs and patterning in the railings ,the profile of the cladding materials and the alabaster light.

Features which are essentially elongated triangular forms pointing skywards. The façade has been given greater articulation through the use of plaster moldings and fortunately the designers have chosen to reclaim the once enclosed balconies. Now a double height glassed space, the entry lobby appear light and open yet maintains a sense of grandness. The strong use of gold on window and door frames, wall finishes and lighting also adds to that sense of opulence that hotels often strive for.

The hotel’s transformation is not overly dramatic; instead the designers have gone for a subtle approach which has successfully opened up the corner of the block and created a better relationship with the surrounding buildings and parks. Context has played an important role in some of the design decisions such as the sensible choice of granite cladding which matches that of the adjacent Regal East Asia Hotel. Increasing the amount of fenestration at the ground floor has also vastly improved the visual connect at street level.

The new hotel fits lot more comfortably within the streetscape. Increasing the amount of fenestration at ground floor has vastly improved the visual connection at street level; it’s all about breaking down the barriers between the public and the private and that is a good thing.

Heng Shan Hotel.jpg was scanned from the following book:

French Town Shanghai – Western Architecture in Shanghai’s Old French Concession

by Tess Johnston and Deke Erh