Malaysia's Bersih 3.0: Protest in the Age of Social Media


Bersih 3.0 rally in Kuala Lumpur. Source: Kevin Loh on Facebook

Thousands of Malaysians took to the streets last weekend, calling for electoral reforms at Bersih 3.0 rallies in Kuala Lumpur and other cities throughout the country. The movement's moniker plays on the word bersih, which means "clean" in Malay. Its yellow T-shirts are an appropriation of the color that represents the country's monarchs, within a political system modeled on parliamentary democracy.

This year's rallies mark the third wave of a series that emerged in 2007. Protesters are demanding fairness and transparency in the upcoming elections. These rallies have been repeatedly denied legal sanction, to much controversy, and have been dispersed by riot police with water cannons and tear gas.



For many young Malaysians, participation in persistant rallies of this magnitude is unprecedented. Within the global consciousness, Bersih 3.0 takes place amidst an upswell of memes around dissent and civil society, drawing comparisons to the Arab Spring and remixes of the Occupy theme.

Equally striking, particularly for Malaysians living abroad, is the brave new world of connected cloud protest: the solidarity of watching Facebook profile photos turning yellow over the weekend, the continuous live feed of status updates, photos and videos, and a global platform through which to organize peaceful, nearly simultaneous rallies across 85 cities where Malaysian communities reside.


Bersih 3.0 rally in New York City. Source: Global Bersih 3.0 on Facebook

Use of the Internet and related technologies — the Web, social media, broadband telephony — in grassroots movements allows us to redefine the age-old aphorism of strength in numbers. Most importantly, it empowers us to be engaged citizens, even when far from home. Still, many argue that "soft protest" is a pallid facsimile of the commitment required on the ground, along with its potential risks. Perhaps the digital pen can be as mighty as the proverbial sword, even as political bloggers around the world are banned from returning to their home countries and websites are blocked in attempts at suppression.

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Collecting Graffiti Messages in Quito



Alex Ron, author of "Quito: Una Ciudad de Grafitis" and "Historias de Aerosol," collects graffiti messages to recreate the social imaginary behind anonymous urban poets. In his books, he reveals the lyrical and insurgent value of graffiti, explaining that they "transgress a social order, ideological and linguistic. They are spatial digressions, messages that break with the daily routine... executed furtively, in the most silent and long-lasting moment of the night. The graffiti creator knows the risk and at the same time depends on risk, the art is in the furtiveness and constance of these aerosol creatures."

These are some pieces from his Quito collection:

When I commit suicide I wake up in Quito.

11:21pm, the guardian sleeps, the city manufactures insomnia and I THINK of you...

We are the customs of what will never happen.

Thank God that birds continue shitting on the statues.

Help the police: Torture yourself!

Helmet is a military hat that is idea-proof.

Let's reestablish the disorder.

When will the quaternary period end?

If this wall is the limit of your property, let us decorate your limitations. [below]



Forget what you dreamt of, your dreams have already been sold.

Proletarian of all countries: UNITE (this is the final call).

I consume, you consume, he consumes, we consume, they consume us. [in front of a Burger King]

Rich country of poor people, poor country of the rich.

We live the hangover of an orgy in which we never participated.

Zoociety, where are you going?

The more you fear the more you consume.

Stop looking for paradise, yesterday I burned it.

Che Gevara: God of the atheists.

Don't use condoms, AIDS and abortion are divine mandates.

We're not equilateral, let's give the rules away.

"Marx does not exist." Source: God

Dont kill ideals, they are an endangered species.

Don't loose your life earning it.

Trying to run away I found this wall.



Credits: Images from "Quito: Una Ciudad de Grafitis."

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Remixing Nature in a Digital World


"atto n.7" (2006)

Artist Giacomo Costa creates cityscapes that are as unconventional as the life he leads. Born in Florence in 1970, he studied violin intensively before dropping out of high school to pursue a career in motocross. He began photographing the Mont Blanc region in 1992, eventually improvising on reality with digital media. By 2002, his focus had transitioned from mountains to megacities, often combined with other extreme natural phenomena. Costa now works as a paramedic on city streets and ski slopes, and his artwork is testament to an extraordinary worldview.


"secret garden n.1" (2008)

"Giacomo Costa: The Chronicles of Time" by Luca Beatrice, with a foreword by Norman Foster, contains an insightful overview of the artist's work:

"Giacomo Costa’s research initially began with the study of photography before moving gradually in a direction that has lost all contact with traditional photography. Employing sophisticated digital techniques borrowed from the world of cinema the artist reinterprets the collective imagination of the metropolis, creating unreal cityscapes, spaces with vast perspectives that include spectacular ruins and architectures. Suspended between tradition and modernity, real and dreamlike, the “views” in The Chronicles of Time recall the sci-fi genre (are they perhaps the result of natural catastrophes? nuclear wars?) and at the same time, so rich in meticulous details, they seem to be the fruit of a contemporary reinterpretation of the most classic topos, that of the ideal city."


"aqua n.6" (2008)

Costa presents a hyperbolic remix of the world as we know it, bringing human power and vulnerability strikingly to the fore. And his cities are no less natural — or unnatural — than his mountains, glaciers, forests and seas.

Credits: All images from the Giacomo Costa website.

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Parks that Embrace the City


Gazing out onto the city. Source: SpecialKRB

Many parks are designed to provide a sense of escape from the city, through separation from the bustle of street life. On the other hand, parks like the High Line engage creatively, offering new ways of seeing and interacting with the urban landscape. The city becomes a feature instead of something to escape, and the park contributes in exciting ways to city living.

A community garden by Green
Guerillas and local residents. Source:
Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space
Of the parks that engage most actively with their urban surroundings, more and more are located on reclaimed space. The community gardens movement in New York City helped pioneer this approach. Since the 1970s, Green Guerillas has been using “community gardening as a tool to reclaim urban land, stabilize city blocks, and get people working side by side to solve problems." They use vacant lots throughout the city to grow food, flowers and other greenery, developing cherished places that are active year-round. Hudson River Park occupies 8.2-acres on a formerly abandoned waterfront area along Manhattan’s southern tip, designed with input from nearby residents: "Park Trust staff and the architects, landscape architects and engineers selected to design each park met with local community members over a several month period to establish the specific program for the piers and upland areas in each community."

Parks that embrace the city often include diverse land uses, involving housing, transit and local employment. The Beltline in Atlanta is the result of a major city investment in the redevelopment of abandoned industrial land. It is expected to include thousands of housing units, transit links and 30,000 permanent jobs, as well as 48,000 temporary construction jobs. The "Parks and the Urban Fabric" track at the upcoming International Urban Parks Conference will “re-imagine parks in a new context of regional ecosystems, green infrastructure and landscape design, community health needs, public-private partnerships, economic growth, sustainable development, neighborhood equity, quality of place, and changing demographics.”


Rendering of the Beltline in Atlanta. Source: Smart Cities

Parks can offer more than a green oasis in urban settings. They are also crucial means of reclaiming abandoned lots, stimulating the local economy and fostering creative engagement with the city.

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Participatory Waterfront Design in Banjarmasin



Located at the southern tip of Borneo in Indonesia, Banjarmasin is the self-proclaimed "City of 1000 Rivers." With a population of 720,000, it is undergoing rapid physical, economic and environmental transformation due to urbanization and climate change. Most residents battle with the water coursing through rivers, canals and tributaries throughout the city to maintain their homes and livelihoods, especially those living in informal settlements on the riverfront, which are some of the most dense in Southeast Asia.





When Alice Shay and Stephen Kennedy, planning students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were working with Solo Kota Kita (SKK), an Indonesian-based NGO, in Banjarmasin in June 2011, the pressing nature of water issues in the city became crystal clear. Along with local architecture students Addina Nur Amalia and Bima Pratama Putra, they developed a proposal to address the challenge. Their project aims to reduce the vulnerabilities faced by local residents due to unstable construction, flooding and sanitation and address the need for improved public spaces in the city’s waterfront neighborhoods. They propose an urban design strategy that uses gabions — block-shaped foundational building materials made of local materials, such as stone — as a platform for different sets of structural, utility and ecological infrastructures.

Considering that neighborhoods have many similarities but different needs, their project aims to create a kit of parts, where gabions have multiple applications according to need — for example, they can serve as foundations for structural support for housing and small-scale commercial establishments, water-cleaning aquatic vegetation or platforms for intermodal transit.



As a landscape mechanism, the gabion allows a high degree of flexibility for local stewardship of the intervention. Since local communities are very active in maintaining and upgrading existing structures, the team recognized the importance of a new structural system that residents can implement and maintain themselves.

At the end of last year, the group won AECOM’s annual Urban SOS competition to further develop and implement their proposal this summer through a participatory design campaign called Firm Foundation. As they carry out their proposal on the ground, they will produce a field guide to document the Firm Foundation project and offer "how-to's" on organizing participatory urban design processes.



This summer, Addina, Alice, Bima, Stephen and the SKK team are coordinating a set of participatory workshops, including do-it-yourself techniques for improving infrastructure along Banjarmasin’s waterfront, in collaboration with neighborhood leaders and the local government. While the team has some financial and engineering support from AECOM and the local government, they recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to create social design field guides that document how to interact with local neighborhoods and conduct research through a participatory design process.

Banjarmasin is a test case. If successful, this pilot project has the potential to be scaled up to other cities in Indonesia to address urban vulnerabilities in waterfront areas that abound across the country.

Credits: Images from the Firm Foundation SOS report, courtesy of Alice Shay and Stephen Kennedy.

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Building Compact. Really Compact!

A city’s compactness is a compromise. On one side, a city can be spread-out — giving the advantages of cheap construction costs and plenty of green areas and roads, but also long commutes and dependence on cars. On the other hand, a compact city allows shorter commutes, better public transport, more services and nearby jobs, but suffers the disadvantages of overcrowded roads and noise pollution.

The primary issue boils down to roads. For roads not to be overcrowded, there must be plenty of them, and the population density cannot be too high. But when people's homes are spread out, their need to travel increases, creating congestion and the requirement for more roads.

The solution often employed when a city’s roads aren’t up to the task is to put some of them underground — normally major thoroughfares. This kind of retrofitting is not cheap, and is normally avoided when building new cities.

But what if we put roads underground from Day One? Just lay out the road system on level -1,-2 and -3, and then lay the “real” roads out on the level above? Cars could get all the space they need – zipping around underground – and people could enjoy sun and fresh air without having to put up with the infernal noise of traffic. The whole city could be one large pedestrian zone with shops, parks and green spaces built to a scale appropriate for humans rather than cars.

Expensive? Unrealistic? Not when building a new city from scratch, as some developing countries, such as China, are doing today.
If the site is a greenfield, building a concrete supported floor is not very expensive, as long as there is enough space to use proper tools for the job. If the buildings are tall, the additional expense per square meter should not be excessive.

The advantages would go far beyond making the city more pleasant. With roads underground, it would be possible to build more compactly while installing better infrastructure (you can have as many layers of roads as you desire!). More compact with better infrastructure means more people within easy travel distance, so the likelihood that you and your spouse can find a job that exactly suits your specialization increases. Likewise, your employer is more likely to find customers for specialized products. A large, ultra-compact city is likely to make its citizens ultra-productive, giving economic yields that will pay for the additional building costs many times over. More inhabitants pr square km will also make it cheaper for the city to supply services to its inhabitants, either it be electricity and water or policing and health services.

Now that we’ve convinced ourselves that we wish to build as tall and compact as possible and can do so while maintaining a pleasant living environment, why don’t we see how far we can pull the string? Let’s not just put one layer of roads in the ground – make it three! At the bottom we put thoroughgoing motorways and subways. Then we have a layer for cars, and above that one for buses.

But let’s not finish yet! Since we are building the whole city from a greenfield, we can install more gadgets than a sedate, mature city that is only slowly become dense. Let’s put in gondola lifts between some of the tallest buildings, creating a web of continuously moving lifts that you can hop on without having to dig out a timetable before leaving home. Placing the stations at somewhere between the 30th and 40th floors could be suitable, and at around the same level we can put in public shopping floors interlinked with bridges between the buildings. This way we would get two levels of shops while creating an effective way of moving shorter distances: Take the gondolas a kilometer down the road toward your destination, then walk the last distance by foot. This “skystreet” should be linked with the street level by public lifts. Again, since all this is installed when the buildings are built, the additional cost will be moderate, and gondolas are quite capable when moving large numbers of people shorter distances.

To complete the city, decorate it with plenty of trees and green. Plant trees at street level, but make the rooftops into parks, too. Now do we have a dense city that rivals suburban life?

Bluesteel is a mechanical engineer and MBA graduate from Norway, employed in the oil industry. When he is not blogging, he enjoys skiing in winter and bicycling in summer. 

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On View: 'Urban Evolution: Portraits Project'


"Andy... 3/15/2010 4:12:17pm Los Angeles, Ca" by Burton Machen. Source: Burton Machen

When a work of art is shown, it no longer belongs only to the artist. And when it is placed in public space, a co-authoring process unfolds and evolves over time as the elements and passersby leave their marks.

Photographer and street artist Burton Machen posted two-toned images of political figures, celebrities, friends and other personalities on walls throughout New York City and Los Angeles. The results are interactive collage and assemblage — part expression, part commentary, part documentary.

Burton Machen’s "Urban Evolution: Portrait Projects" will be on view at New York’s Hionas Gallery until May 19.

Highways Above Villages in China


Construction of the interstate expressway outside Lijiang, China. Source: Natalia Echeverri

In the last decade, China's fast-paced urbanization and construction boom has made a visible impact on its urban and rural landscapes. Cities have overtaken agricultural lands and greenfields. A monotony of residential slabs and a steady competition for uniquely shaped, ever-soaring towers perpetually remake skylines in every city.


Map of China's interstate expressway system (blue indicates completed sections, and red indicates those under construction). Source: newgeography

Less visible, but just as dramatic, is the country's highway expansion. In 2011, China's intercity motorway system surpassed that of the United States to become the longest in the world. Remarkably, most of this 53,000-mile network has been built in the last 10 years. And it is ahead of schedule — the Chinese government has already met its goal for 2020. By comparison, the 57,000-mile U.S. highway system was largely built over the course of 30 years.


Interstate expressway west of Lijiang, China (above and below). Source: Google Earth



This rapid highway roll-out has enabled the expansion of cities and powered economic growth. It has also brought development to remote areas and increased the mobility of the country's migrant workers. Of course, road infrastructure always comes with environmental degradation, increased traffic and pollution.


Construction of an interstate expressway over villages in Yunnan Province, China (above and below). Source: Skyscrapercity



On a recent trip through Yunnan, it was not uncommon to see entire mountainsides blasted away just to create a narrow perch for a new four-lane road. The vision of an endless thread of highway splitting the landscape no longer belongs just to the U.S. or Gernany. The Chinese versions take the uncompromisingly straight axis of high-speed travel to laser-like extremes. Topography is conquered by bride-to-tunnel-to-bridge sequences. A highway coming out of the mountains to cross agricultural plains floats on towering columns for miles, gradually descending to the villages on the valley floor.


Interstate expressway in Sichuan Province, China. Source: Skyscrapercity

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Alexandra Lange on Writing About Architecture


The "T" building type, from Stephen Holl's "Pamphlet Architecture #5: The Alphabetical City."

“The architecture review has a basic form, one that is still valid despite changes in publishing — especially the parameters brought on by digital publishing. But within and beyond the template of theme, approach, and organization, description, argument and conclusions vary. Writing style is personal, developed over time and with practice. And one’s approach to a building is also personal. There is no shame in reviving a theme, analyzing an organization, or taking inspiration from the approach of various critics. Following in their footsteps, literally and figuratively, is how we learn. Each building or urban plan is a new opportunity to haul out the superlatives, kick the foundation, and learn from experience how it works.”

Alexandra Lange, from "Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities," 2012

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others. 

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Typography in the City: Public Service and Pizzazz



New York is a city of opinionated typography — clear, bold and with a point of view. Amidst the vibrant urban cacophony, a keen eye scanning the skyline and baseline will inevitably land upon a feast of serifs or absence thereof, ascenders and descenders, leading and kerning.



A designer friend living in Brooklyn once mused that the flourishing of typography in New York is a function of the city's density of creative cohort, enticed by the possibility of communicative surfaces.


Typography in the city is branding at its most commercial, as well as wayfinding for the public good. It is most effective when cognizant of sightlines, legibility and relations with its surroundings.



How should visual access and intersecting sightlines affect typographic decisions? How does a designer find balance between artistry and legibility? Should the typography blend into its surroundings or should it stand out?



Polis readers, if you have examples of urban typography you'd like to share, we'd love to hear about (and see) them!



Credits: Photos by Min Li Chan.

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Ai Meets Abbott at a Museum in Paris

Perhaps it is no surprise that a city so fundamental to our collective urban imagination should be so rich in brilliant exposés of other urban worlds. We may no longer filter our ideas of cities through Paris the way we once did — Woody Allen notwithstanding — but Paris has not stopped filtering other cities through its own incredible array of galleries, museums and art spaces. There is always a touch of the postcolonial in these gazes, but at least it is matched by an internal examination which is truly impressive: Currently, one can explore the postwar reconstruction of French cities at the Jeu de Paume Tours, the role of movement and circulation in the development of cities at Chaillot, or the future of Paris itself in a permanent exhibition at Pavillon de L'Arsenal, sponsored by the city itself.


"Nightview, New York," 1932, Berenice Abbott. Source: Commerce Graphics

Even more phenomenal is the fact that one regularly encounters urban exhibits that are not officially about urbanism. For the past two months, the Jeu de Paume has hosted an amazing pas de deux: retrospectives of New York photographer Berenice Abbott and Beijing architect/artist/activist Ai Weiwei. The result is more than a conversation between two artists; it is also a conversation between the great urban projects of our age. Abbott's photographs from the 1930s of one of the 20th century's most important cities — taken at the apex of its transformation into the principal center of global capitalism — help us understand just how unreal are the changes that Weiwei has documented in the most important urban transformation of the 21st century. That the conversation takes place in the 19th century's most important city turns a day at the museum into a compact lesson in global urban centrality.


"Radio Row," 1936, Berenice Abbott. Source: New York Public Library

From the ethereal "Nightview" to the stunning pictures of the construction of Rockefeller Center, Abbott's New York photos began upon her return from Paris in 1929 and capture the intense energy of the city's transformation. She brought a portraitist's eye to the urban scene, whether shooting people in transit or the march of modernism. One of the most fascinating parts of her collection is a set that would one day hold profound meaning in the history of urban transformation: Manhattan's radio row, destroyed in the 1970s to make way for the World Trade Center, and then destroyed and reinvented yet again.


From "Provisional Landscapes," 2002-2008, Ai Weiwei. Source: Antonio Borghi

Destruction and reinvention are at the heart of Weiwei's work on a changing China. His collection "Provisional Landscapes" was taken between 2002 and 2008, documenting the profound alteration of Chinese urban environments in an understated portraitist style reminiscent of Abbott. It is presented in stunning fashion, in a ceiling-to-floor collage style with dozens of images of hutongs being erased, towers under construction, cranes and dirt lots — a presentation designed to overwhelm.


"Study of Perspective, The Eiffel Tower," 1995-2010, Ai Weiwei. Source: Universalmuseum Joanneum


"Olympic Stadium," 2005-2008, Ai Weiwei. Source: Antonio Borghi

Weiwei is a fascinating character. He spent a decade in New York, much as New Yorker Abbott spent her time in Paris, and his photographs of the Tompkins Square Riots in 1988 are phenomenal. There is a more overt politics to Weiwei, who is now an international celebrity because of his public fights with the Chinese government and his hilarious "Study of Perspective," which began in Tiananmen Square and has continued around the world.

The show is honest — it does not hide the showman nor glorify the artist excessively, presenting his seeming contradictions in clear and unapologetic style. Weiwei is an architect, having famously worked with Herzog and de Meuron on the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium, one of the most potent symbols of Beijing's transformation. He also designed and built a massive art studio on the outskirts of Shanghai at the invitation of the local government — only to have the entire building erased down to the foundation by a displeased central government. Weiwei documented the construction of the Bird's Nest and the destruction of his studio, and they are shown side-by-side, along with photos of schools destroyed in the Sichuan earthquake. Weiwei was beaten by the police for his activism around the earthquake.


"Row of Houses, Georgia," 1954, Berenice Abbott. Source: Commerce Graphics

Weiwei's activism is about architecture and urbanism, a fact often lost in the international coverage of his struggles. Abbott too was an inveterate urbanist, influenced heavily by Lewis Mumford and deeply aware that her work was more than a portrait of a city or a marker of transformation, but a tool for bringing public attention to planning. Abbott, like Weiwei, got out of the city in her later years, putting together a collection more Dorothea Lange than Jacob Riis. She shot the poverty-stricken countryside of the American South and the beach scenes of a Florida just coming into its own. Like Weiwei's photos of the Chinese countryside, these images give a more complete sense of profound urban transformation, now seen through the eyes of Paris, the city that invented the concept in modern times.

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Doors in/to Shangri-La


Doorway of the Main Temple at Songzanlin Monastery in Shangri-La.

Zhongdian, known as "Shangri-La," is a predominantly Tibetan county in China's northern Yunnan Province. The Tibetan influence is evident in its towns and landscape, where hills are topped with white stupas draped in prayer flags. Traditional Tibetan stucco houses with elaborate wood facades contrast with the dry winter landscape. Monks in burgundy robes walk among tourists in the streets and temples.


Tourists pass through a fabric-covered entrance to the Main Temple.

The Songzanlin Monastery is an icon of Tibetan Buddhist architecture with Chinese influence. Its entryways serve as vivid focal points along the facade. Upon entering a temple or prayer room, one passes  through many layers, which are both ornamental and multifunctional. The first is a large black-and-white fabric that hangs over the facade. It serves as a beautiful windbreaker, helping to control the temperature inside.


Painted carvings on a wooden door.

The remaining thresholds are adorned with elaborately carved wooden ornaments. Polychrome religious paintings cover the ceiling and walls.


Entrance to a prayer hall.

While traditional Tibetan entryways follow common patterns, they are each distinct in subtle ways. In some cases, rich colors and intricate details form distinct layers. In others, the paint and woodwork merge together, faded with time and use.


Courtyard doors within an earthen wall.

Credits: Photos by Natalia Echeverri.

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