Tuesday, August 31, 2010

China's Traffic Jam as a Linear City

Just a few days ago the epic 100km traffic jam in China disappeared overnight, but before that it seems as though a small economy had sprung up around the traffic jam to serve the thousands of people caught inside the newly created linear city.

The Globe and Mail reported that nearby villagers were selling noodles and boxed lunches to those in the traffic jam, and that "Drivers caught in the gridlock have reportedly been passing the time by playing cards, sleeping and walking between cars."

How strange though that a temporary (one would hope) almost nomadic in nature linear city with its own food economy and social circles can spring up over a period of ten days on a hot stretch of highway turned parking lot. You can get to know someone pretty well in ten days, so did drivers make friends with their neighbours? Perhaps exchanging real-world addresses so that when the jam finally cleared and their temporary city disintegrated they could keep in touch?

And what if the traffic jam hadn't cleared when it did? I suppose the first signs of traffic jam economics was the villagers selling noodles and lunch boxes, but soon bigger entrepreneurs would move into the area with mobile showers, restaurants, bars and maybe even a nightclub. If the traffic jam had gotten large enough and been there for a long enough time perhaps even a politician would have been assigned to the new "riding" giving a voice for those in what would be called Linear City or Trafficopolis. Eventually the government could build a school or other urban amenities nearby to serve this new population. And then maybe, when the traffic finally cleared, some residents would decide to stay in their newfound home.

This also happens (albeit in a much smaller scale) when people are stuck in their cars waiting in line-ups for a ferry or to get across the border. Growing up in Vancouver with family on Vancouver Island, there were many times when we would be sitting in a vast parking lot of cars waiting to get on the ferry to take us to Victoria. There were shops and a playground nearby as well as a restaurant, cafe, and several washrooms. People walked their dogs, talked to their new neighbours, brought out a frisbee or football -- and then it all disappeared when the ferry loaded and everyone went back to being strangers in their cars.

So, this traffic jam did something else besides reveal the horror that can be a country choked to capacity with vehicular traffic. It revealed how humans can turn a non-place like a highway into something social in just a few days time. All it takes is for everyone to slow down a bit.

Monday, August 30, 2010

City Parks, Burning Man, Roofs That Aren't Roofs, Atmospheric Electricity, & Freeway Demolitions

Could city parks bring urban centres back to life? This article looks at new urban parks in St. Louis, Detroit and Houston. And no, the Detroit one is not a (park)ing lot.

Ever wanted to create a 50,000 person city in the middle of the desert, party for a few days and then take it all down again only to do it the following year? Well, maybe you should go to Burning Man.

These architecture students ask the question when is a roof not a roof? (Answer: when it's a floor. Or a wall.)

Things I wish I could pull out of thin air: money, time, really good zingers. Oh, and I guess electricity would be kind of cool, too.

New Orlean's toys with the idea of tearing down an elevated urban expressway. Toronto, take note.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Photo: High Security Flower Pot, Revisted

Weeks ago I photographed this seemingly ridiculous flower pot on Grange St in Toronto. Yesterday I returned and found it had burst forth into the beautiful display you see in the picture above, proving yet again that you can't judge a flower pot by its cage.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Solar Homes, Iceberg Homes, Animal-shaped Cities, Bike Corrals, and Hacked Billboards & Websites

Architect Ralph Disch builds Heliotrope: the world's first energy positive solar home. It rotates to follow the sun where ever it goes. Except at night.

Daniel Andersson imagines the Iceberg house in Finland: a floating house that shows only its tip above water. Soon to follow: the first cruise ship sunk by striking a house.

Southern Sudan unveils plans to build animal shaped cities. It's like animal crackers, except instead of eating them you live inside them.

Vancouver grocery store owner credits the city's "hippy mayor" for on street bicycle corral that fits 18 bikes outside his store on Commercial Drive.

A group of Toronto artist's take it upon themselves to hack illegal billboards and replace the advertisements with their own art. In a twist of irony, the Toronto website illegalsigns.ca has also been hacked, but of a different less artistic nature.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Architecture of Suicide

A few weeks ago now, I was riding my bike down Bloor Street and eventually came to the Prince Edward Viaduct, where the curious architecture of the bridge caught my attention -- a vast net strung up around us. It was as if we were nestled in the world's largest game of cat's cradle.

As it turns out the "net" is actually something called the "Luminous Veil", an anti-suicide barrier installed in 2003 and designed by Derek Revington at the University of Waterloo. Previous to the installation of the veil the viaduct had garnered the infamous distinction of being the most popular bridge in the city for suicides.

All around the viaduct are signs of its unintended use. On each side of the road at the east end of the viaduct there are large signs with a 24 hour phone number beneath for those who feel they need help. And below those, a conveniently installed phone booth. (On a sidenote: there is also a plaque instructing passers-by that this bridge was the one featured in the opening scenes of Michael Ondaatje's In The Skin of a Lion -- in which a woman falls off the bridge and is saved).

However, 7 years after the installation of the veil, it seems that while suicides from the bridge dropped from an average of 9.3 a year to zero a year, the overall suicide rate for the City of Toronto remained virtually unchanged.

The construction of the veil raises questions surrounding the social function of architecture: Can modifications to the built environment act as a kind of inanimate helping hand? Is the presence of a sign and a phone booth a kind of off-site social worker? And what happens when a piece of infrastructure is hi-jacked for an unintended purpose, especially one so heartbreaking?

It makes me wonder, too, why people choose certain bridges over others. I have heard that people will actually travel some distance to get to the Golden Gate Bridge in order to jump off of it. There is even a film about it called The Bridge. How does that lure get developed? In the report on the Prince Edward Viaduct the authors say:
The argument for putting a barrier on a notorious bridge as a suicide prevention tool is predicated on the idea that individuals contemplating suicide have a preference for that bridge over others in the area. "Suicide magnet" may be a particularly apt term that has been used to describe suicide bridges in the sense that different "magnets" have the ability to exert different amounts of pull and presumably, the more pull a "magnet" exerts the less interchangeable it is with other locations. p. 11
So, perhaps even in their most isolated state people yearn for a connection with others -- with something greater -- even if that connection is through death. Jumping off a certain bridge then becomes a statement or symbol, an induction into a community. However, the authors then conclude that the Prince Edward Viaduct was obviously not a strong "magnet" as suicides just moved to other bridges or means.

After I graduated high school, I heard that a student there had left a note saying he was going to jump off of a bridge in the area. Then he drove his car to a completely different bridge got out and, according to one witness, took off his shoes and simply walked off the edge. Would the Luminous Veil have prevented this? What if there had been a phone? Or maybe he would have simply got into his car and driven over to that other bridge instead.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Photo: No Urban Ball Playing Allowed!

Really? Ball playing was a problem here?

"Hey, Timmy, meet me down in the Toronto Central Business District for a scrub game in front of the BMO tower. After that we're going to go play volleyball in the middle of Bloor and Yonge!"

Monday, August 16, 2010

Design Success!, Design Fail!, iPhone Architecture Tours, High Speed Rail, and a Land of Giants

If you feel in a positive mood, you can check out this list of the top 20 urban planning successes of all time and see if you agree. Spoiler: Vancouver's Granville Island makes it to number 7.

Or if you feel in a negative mood, you can check out the 10 worst design fails of the past 25 years, instead. My personal favourite being the waterpark filled with colourful penises.

The Netherlands Architecture Institute launches Urban Augmented Reality, a smartphone app that will allow you to point your phone's camera at a building and instantly see information on that building, including past images and future projects. Definitely a handy tool for locals and tourists who want to know more about the city as they're walking around and don't want to take the time to do it the old fashioned way and look it up on Wikipedia.

On August 11th, the groundbreaking for the Transbay Transit Center -- a high-speed rail station that will link San Francisco with Los Angeles -- took place. The 2.25 billion project will see trains running at 354 km/h with a travel time between the two cities of about two and a half hours. Watch this beautiful 3D rendering of the future station and be consumed by jealousy (unless you live in SF).

Choi + Shine Architects re-design the boring electrical tower into a stunning Land of Giants, proving that infrastructure we long ago shrugged off as a necessary evil can be turned into imaginative and though-provoking architectural wizardries.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sugar Beach or Sugar "Beach"?

Today wasn't the nicest day (cloudy and humid), but I decided to check out Toronto's newest beach, Sugar Beach, which opened officially to the public on August 9th. The beach is situated at the end of Jarvis St and next to the Redpath Sugar Refinery -- a big hulking warehouse of a building that sits across from the beach -- and is part of Waterfront Toronto's revitalization of, um, the waterfront of Toronto.

Waterfront Toronto's webpage on Sugar Beach uses the word "whimsical" twice in its description. This would be annoying if it wasn't so true. Whimsical is exactly what Sugar Beach is: there are the bubblegum pink umbrellas, the white Muskoka chairs, the candy-cane striped granite rocks, the ground-quartz sand, the pipes shaped like candy-canes with subtle metallic striping. Like I said: whimsical.

Sugar Beach is also quite surreal, located as it is next to an industrial building it seems an odd place to find such an idyllic area, but I enjoyed the contrast between the carefully designed beach area and the more grimy industry nearby. And if you get bored you can watch ships get loaded and unloaded or watch the ferries heading to Toronto Island.

The design of the beach itself, done by Claude Cormier Landscape Architects (they're also doing the Evergreen Brickworks), is great. It does, however, have the feel of a fancy meal at a restaurant where the food is constructed in such a way that it seems you don't want to eat it for fear of ruining it. But I was in love with the benches chosen, of which there are two kinds: one backless, and one with a curving, almost plant-like looking back. Both are quite comfortable.

In Mark Schatzker's review of the beach in the Globe & Mail he calls it a: "a postmodern park with beach references – sand, umbrellas, a boardwalk, even lifebuoys." In a way, I agree. But it all depends on your definition of beach. Schatzker's definition seems to hinge on water lapping against sand. In this definition, Sugar Beach is actually Sugar "Beach" because there is a low guard rail separating the beach from a several foot drop to water. There is definitely no sand-on-water contact happening here.

And, yes, Sugar Beach probably stretches the beach moniker a bit. Sugar Park doesn't sound as good, though. And, honestly, does it matter? One can argue semantics and the tenets of postmodern urban design, but at the end of the day Sugar Beach is still a spiffy new public space that reconnects downtown Toronto to its waterfront. And besides, breaking out the air-quotes every time you wanted to invite someone to Sugar "Beach" would be cumbersome.

Located nearby is Corus Quay, a new LEED Gold building that is to house the Canadian Media company Corus Entertainment. I thought the building would be imposing, but its facade is completely transparent and engaging, allowing passers-by to peek into the interior and check out what looked to me like a water slide.

Schatzker also wonders if people are going to use the beach and if children will be disappointed at the lack of sand-castle building ability in the sand (it's really good for sticking sockless toes into, though). Although it may have just been the excitement of a new toy taken out of its packaging, I can say that Sugar Beach was pretty busy today, even with the sticky weather. Most of the chairs contained people and there were a fare amount of children digging around with plastic buckets and shovels. They seemed content, beach or "beach".

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Parkour and the City as a Playground

Years ago when I was in one the earlier years of my undergrad degree at UBC, I took a film course with a guy who seemed to be highly caffeinated at all times and would constantly be bouncing off the walls. And I mean, literally bouncing off the walls. We would be out on campus and he would take a running leap toward an inverted corner of a building and, using one side as leverage against another, run halfway up the building.

At the time, I had never heard of Parkour -- my friend called it something like "freerunning", which to me didn't entirely encapsulate the craziness of what he did -- but in the time since it has become far more popular. A Toronto chapter even offers lessons. The definition (on the American Parkour website) says that "Parkour is the physical discipline of training to overcome any obstacle within one's path by adapting one's movement to the environment."

Translation: They're like monkeys released into the built environment.

They swing off bars, run up walls, jump across the chasms of buildings only to land perfectly on a narrow ledge, flip off roofs, and engage in any other number of gravity- and fear-defying acts.

Basically, Parkour is -- like street art -- a re-imagining of the urban landscape. Where graffiti and street artists use the city as a canvass or a giant installation project, the practitioners of Parkour (traceurs) use the city as one sprawling, integrated jungle gym. The movements can be so fluid that they seem connect buildings, almost knitting the city together and making it seem like a cohesive whole instead of solitary structures sitting near each other and separated by alleyways, guard rails and walls. Where I see a barrier I have to walk around, they see something that can be leaped over.

So, I guess I disagree with the last little bit of the American Parkour definition. Although it is definitely about adapting your movements to the environment, it is also about adapting the environment to your movements and that's where the real creativity of it comes in. You have to have the ability to look at architecture and see something other than a building or wall or a railing; you have to look and see the possibility of movement, which ultimately makes Parkour a pretty artistic practice as well as a physical one. Afterall, one of other names for it is l'art du d├ęplacement, which translate as the art of movement.

Often I think we get caught up in seeing the city and our environment in a routine way, and so it's jarring and kind of exhilarating to watch someone take your assumption about what the city can be used for and shatter it. Also, it's just damn cool to watch.

First image source.
Second image source.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Photo: High Security Flower Pot

OK, I get you want to protect your flowers from the dangers of the open street, but this kind of defeats the purpose of having flowers, no?

[taken in Toronto sometime in July]

Monday, August 9, 2010

Busses you can drive beneath, super high-speed trains, Soviet-style Tetris, vertical gardens, and a fake cloud in New York

China plans to build huge busses that you can drive underneath, with construction of the first 186km track to be started at the end of the year. But wait! China's not finished yet! They're also building a maglev train that will be capable of ground speeds of up to 1000km/h. After riding the GO train to Niagara Falls from Toronto a few days ago, a 1000km/h high-speed train is almost unimaginable.

But let's say you don't really care about crazy busses and high-speed trains and are more into, oh, I don't know, building Soviet-style apartment blocks in a giant game of Tetris. Well, now you can! Or, you can at least watch a video of how it's done.

Spain has created a six-story vertical garden in the town square of San Vincente del Raspeig, which to me looks like a big green patch-work quilt thrown over a building.

Architects, NAMELESS, propose a fake cloud in New York called PlayCloud, which, in my opinion, should be renamed The Big Giant White Jellyfish.

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Yarn-Bombed Tree and Unexpected Street Art

Yesterday in Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park I came across this tree at the Queen St edge that had been yarn-bombed, a kind of graffiti using yarn instead of spray paint. It reminded me of those spinning tops with the pen fastened at the tip that create a kind of geometrical drawing as it spins, except this one is full of linear lines.

I also liked how it took the natural chaos of the tree and imposed something grid-like and orderly.

I sat near the tree for awhile and watched as people walking by stopped and stared at it for a second before passing. It turned the tree, briefly, into an event, a kind of temporary sculpture in the park.

This is the thing I like most about street art as opposed to art you might find when you are walking through a gallery or museum: there is a surprise factor involved with street art. When you're in an art gallery you are expecting to see capital-A Art, but not so when strolling a park or walking the streets. Street art kind of comes out of nowhere, or so it seems, and that is part of its greatness, its ability to be truly eye-catching and thought-provoking simply because we aren't expecting it.

Another aspect of street art that I love is that it is often anonymous and ephemeral. Not only do I have no idea who wrapped the yarn around the tree, but I have no idea how long it will be up there before it is removed, which gives me a greater sense of appreciation for having stumbled upon it when I did. I suppose when the notorious Banksy visited Toronto a few weeks ago, the people that found his art on the street had a similar feeling of surprise and fleetingness (much of the work was erased or defaced soon afterwards).

Finally, I love street art because it re-imagines street surfaces and parts of the city in a totally different way than we are used to experiencing them. The tree turns into a giant crotchet project; the alley wall is a canvass; a stop sign a chance for a statement; a dumpster a vehicle for a declaration of love; and, as I saw once in Vancouver, a mattress left in an alley used as a farewell.

It's a contentious issue as many of the surfaces used are private, but when thrown up on alley walls or unused surfaces and objects it can be thrilling. In a time when much of what we see in our city streets is corporate, paid-for advertising, it's refreshing to come across something truly novel and there for no other purpose than to be looked at, like a tree covered in yarn in a park.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Dichotomy of the Don Valley & Reflections on Urban Highways

A few days ago, I rode my bike along Bloor and over the Don Valley Parkway (DVP), a wide highway that threads through the green of the Don Valley. What struck me most about my view of the highway from the pedestrian/bicycle bridge, was the marked dichotomy between the two uses of the Don Valley -- one as smooth-paved high volume six lane highway, and the other as green parkland and river.

It was the stark physical representation of past planning decisions, laid out with two visions: one a fast-flowing mechanized stream of cars, trucks and motocycles, and the other a slow-flowing stream of water through a green valley. I wonder what the area would look like if the highway was absent? It's a shame that Toronto's widest streets and highways (Lake Shore Blvd, Gardiner Expressway, the DVP) are placed exactly in the spots that severe Torontonians connection to things like the Don Valley River or Lake Ontario. It seems easy in this city to forget that water lies so close.

Originally Woodbine Avenue, the DVP fully opened in 1966 and was conceived as part of a network of highways for Toronto including the constructed Gardiner Expressway that snakes along Toronto's waterfront, and the much opposed (thank you, Jane Jacobs) and never-built Spadina Expressway that would have literally chopped Toronto in two. This was all during the era of Robert Moses, the highway builder who loved to carve cities up with ribbons of asphalt. In fact, there is an entire book written by Roberta Brandes Gratz, The Battle for Gotham, that chronicles the "fight" between Jacobs and Moses.

Lying on the grass at Riverdale Park there are three things that are noticeable. One is the fantastic view of downtown Toronto (a rare sight it seems in a city that is so flat). The second is the broad, sloping grass of the park (I will have to remember to come sledding here in winter). And the third is the constant hum and buzz of the DVP, which is noticeable just at the bottom of the park (although not in this picture).

Projects to revamp the natural side of the Don Valley, including the Don Mouth Naturalization and Port Lands Flood Project are currently under way in the city in an effort to reestablish some of the natural environment of the Don Valley that has been affected by the DVP and other waterfront developments.

In the case of the Gardiner Expressway, Waterfront Toronto has been studying options on what to do with the ugly, elevated highway, including options, as they say, of "removal, replacement, enhancement, or maintaining the status quo." Parts of the Gardiner were already removed in 2001 and 2003. Their study also include the previously mentioned Lake Shore Blvd. To me, a boulevard is meant to evoke the kind of street you'd like to stroll along, especially one with the moniker 'lake shore"; however, the actual street is a daunting, multi-lane barren strip of pavement between the city and the lake.

Other cities that went urban highway crazy during the Moses years are also wondering what to do with them. San Francisco demolished the elevated Embarcadero in the early 90s, effectively reconnecting the waterfront with the rest of the city, while Boston spent billions of dollars to bury their urban freeway underground, a construction project nicknamed The Big Dig, which has opened up a long, corridor through the city to be developed.

On the other side of things, there are city's like Vancouver, which opposed highways bisecting their city and now don't have the expensive job of demolishing or re-routing them. Vancouver did, however, start the process of building the highway with the demolishing of the black neighbourhood of Hogan's Alley and subsequent construction of the elevated Dunsmuir Viaduct -- and there is even talk in city hall about demolishing that.

But back to the pedestrian/bicycle bridge overlooking the Don Valley River and the Don Valley Parkway. It is quite humbling to peer over the edge at the cars, which seem to appear from nowhere as if they have been shot out of a cannon below the bridge. Of course, if you turn around you can see where they come from: kilometres of highway. If you close your eyes you can imagine the sound as a rushing river of rapids. But when you open them again you realize the real river is tranquil and silent and just over to the side, behind that highway fence.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Inception and the Architecture of Dreams

Yesterday I saw the film Inception, a sci-fi puzzle thriller that proposes the idea that we can go into other people's dreams (or invite them into ours), design a dream world for them that they then fill with their own subconscious meanderings, and proceed to extract information. Aside from a few stodgy lines of dialogue and some melodramatic acting, the film was fairly mind-blowing, and all the more because it dealt with the subject of architecture in the rule-free world of our dreaming mind.

Designing a dream world would be any architect or urban planners own wet dream. Not only would you be able to walk around your fully-formed designs, but you could bend physics to create twisted, paradoxical structures. It would be the ultimate form of uninhibited creation, as Ellen Page's character, a promising young architecture student, points out.

Escher's Ascending and Descending staircase is used as an example in the film, and it's a good one. What would Escher have done if he could have created the dream worlds he put to paper? If he could have had the chance to walk inside them?

[M. C. Escher, Ascending and Descending, 1960. 35.5 cm × 28.5 cm]

Just imagine: a giant game of Sim City where you are walking the streets instead of perched above with your birds-eye view. You come to a spot where a bridge would be nice, so you create one--and then watch how people use it, how it affects traffic. You keep walking and decide that instead of a skyscraper the spot should be a public plaza, so you get rid of the tower and insert the plaza, but then you notice that the buildings around the plaza mean that no sunlight will ever hit it--so you shorten them.

How would this change the way we build cities and buildings? Would we grow underwhelmed by the architectural possibilities of the real world? By the constraints of physics and material? Or would it allow more creativity, more risk-taking, simply for the fact that you could test it out before spending millions or billions of dollars to actually build the thing.

[M. C. Escher, Balcony, 1945. 55 x 65 cm]

What would architects like Buckminster Fuller, Rem Koolhaas, and Frank Gehry create if they could design a dream world without physical limitations? What kind of world would Tim Burton make? Stanley Kubrick? Stephen King? I wonder if Le Corbusier had gotten the chance to walk the streets of his Radiant City -- his towers in the park -- would he have stuck with the design?

Maybe one day 3D modelling will advance to the point where architects and planners actually have this ability to enter their creations and invite developers, government officials, citizens, and whoever else, inside that same world to give them a guided tour of what exactly they'd like to build.

I also think of the Salvador Dali Museum, still under construction in St. Petersburg, Florida. The inside of the building features a coiled staircase, like a spring pulled apart, while the outside is a concrete box being engulfed by a bulbous glass amoeba. But what would Dali himself have created, if he could use this dream-world technology to build one for himself? How wonderful and frightening and strange it would be to walk that world.

© HOK + Beck Group

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Urbanized Film, Plastic Jug Planters, 21 Architectural Marvels, More Electronic Billboards?, and Fishy Frank Gehry

Gary Hustwit, director of the documentaries Helvetica and Objectified, says his next project, to complete the "Design Trilogy" will be a film titled Urbanized that will explore ideas related to urban design.

Old, plastic jugs turned decorative planters pop up in London.

Vanity Fair lists 21 architectural marvels. Expect some of the usual suspects. Rem Koolhaas makes the list three times. Canadian buildings completely absent.

John Lorinc writes about the renewal of upper Yonge Street in Toronto, featuring...more electronic billboards a la Yonge & Dundas Square?

Frank Gehry clears the air on his fishy inspiration.