polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

The Wilderness Downtown: Nostalgia in the Modern Web Browser

by Min Li Chan

I've had the good fortune of being a part of an unusual and innovative project led by visualization maestro Aaron Koblin from the Google Creative Lab and writer/director Chris Milk with the band Arcade Fire. Called "The Wilderness Downtown", the project crafts a unique and deeply personal experience for each viewer as you virtually run down the streets where you used to live. (All this is set to Arcade Fire’s new song “We Used to Wait” off their newly released album “The Suburbs" -- the song evokes a nostalgic atmosphere that is fitting of the experience).

The premise of this project is predicated on the realization that truly profound experiences with media (think: the last movie or music video you cried at) can become more emotionally powerful in the era of modern web technologies -- you no longer consume the same piece of media that a few million others do, but instead experience something that is entirely tailored to you. On the backend of "The Wilderness Downtown", the team used HTML5 technologies mashed up with the Google Maps API including Streetview to deliver that personalized experience. Wired Magazine runs an insightful article of what modern web technologies and browsers bring to experiences like this one, and possibilities for the future.

In the context of cities, experiences like "The Wilderness Downtown" provoke us to approach the very cities we live in (or used to) -- ones we may be inured to -- with fresh eyes. What would it be like to take on a swooping bird's eye view into the rooftops of buildings that we're familiar with but don't recognize from a satellite perspective? Have you stopped in the middle of a weary thoroughfare to take a look around and immortalize this very street in memory?

To launch the experience, check out www.thewildernessdowntown.com. (For the best viewing experience given extensive use of HTML5 technologies, you'll need to view it in the browser Google Chrome or a fully HTML5-compliant browser). And if you'd like to learn more about how it was made, go to www.chromeexperiments.com/arcadefire.

Credits: Images from the Official Google Blog, Google LatLong Blog and Google Chrome Blog.

Door in/to Cities: Miami

by Hector Fernando Burga

An urban exploration of Miami is an encounter with contradiction, paradox and re-invention. The following selection of entrances from doorways to public spaces and monuments, challengenotions of authenticity, originality and authorship.

The first picture on the left is the entrance of the old central train station in the municipality Opa Locka. Built in the 1920’s, the station is no longer in use, but like many public buildings in Opa Locka, its display of Moorish/Arabesque architecture signals the aesthetic branding that characterized much of the speculative development in the boom and bust of 1930’s Miami. Miami's weather, combined with vast limestone flatlands offered a tabula rasa where developers could build theme-oriented communities. Utopias of progress became utopias of fantasy, each with their own particular theme. In similar fashion, the Douglas Road Entrance a.k.a "La Puerta del Sol", alludes to the Mediterranean style – a blurred collage of Italianate and Spanish revival in the City of Coral Gables. Now closed and sealing Coral Gables from the rest of Miami, this entrance stands as a wall, a hyper controlled plaza serving public institutions.

Fast forward to the future, where the mimicry of tradition is replaced by primal modernism. Built in the late 1980’s, the entrance to Miami’s Metro Mover, is also a magnet. The "Red M" conjures Miami’s global exposure and attraction during the 1980’s. This is Miami’s tropical modernism, essential and bare, primitive in its scale and formal simplicity. The entrance is a piece of iconography, sculpture-like yet ultimately contextual and reflective of Miami’s imagination of progress.

This selection closes with a note of irony; Kitsch exploding with meaning. The entrance to the Municipality of Hialeah on the right is the mimicry of mimicry. The design came out of a Charrete promoting the City of Hialeah a.k.a “the City of Progress”. The entrance is out of proportion, scale and its details are caricaturesque. It isn’t even an entrance. Yet it represents the desire of Hiealeah residents, politicians and planners to claim the inauthentic in order to craft a vision of progress.

Miami is a chimera, each head a mouth clamoring the complexity of urbanism. 

Credits: Photos by Hector Fernando Burga.

Door in/to Cities: Merced

by Natalia Echeverri

During the last decade, the real estate boom reached an unsustainable pace, leaving behind irresponsible developments. The suburbs in the California Central Valley and Delta rolled outward from the core cities in a rush of new developments only to be suddenly arrested.
In places like Merced, CA, the weeds have taken over the abandoned suburban lawns, while the houses sit unfinished--no doors needed.

Credits: Image of Merced foreclosures from Natalia Echeverri.

Doors in/to Cities: Kiev

by Alex Schafran

The fruits of consumer capitalism adorn many of the openings in Kiev's historic center, a place of majestic boulevards and hidden gems amidst some of the bloodiest and most contested history in all of urbania.

For someone raised in the bosom of the computer age on the edge of the fog belt, the good life in Kiev consisted not of affordable Korean televisions, but of people watching in one of the city's numerous parks on a warm summer night, astride a cold beer and a well worn park bench under the bronze gaze of a long dead poet.

Credits: Photo by Alex Schafran.

Doors in/to Cities: Berkeley

by Ivan Valin

You might assume that a house is taken over by nature gradually--from the cracks and edges inward, the places we trample the least. (Alan Weisman describes something like this in The World Without Us) But this house, one I pass on the way to the market some days, shows an apparently sudden, if somewhat violent instance of nature's reoccupation. It's as if the vine (a ficus?) knew that the clearest statement of victory and the most efficient use of its strangulating energy would be to go straight for the the threshold, the heart, the utmost demarcation of inside and out.

Credits: Photo by Ivan Valin.

Doors in/to Cities: Paris

by Ali Madad

Photographed while ambling through the Marais District in Paris.

The inclusion of the Medusa motif harkens back to its role as a warder of evil from Ancient Rome.

Credits: Images of Paris from Ali Madad.

Doors in/to Cities: Fort Smith

by George Carothers

Fort Smith is a gateway that welcomes travelers from the South to Canada’s Northern frontier. A region famous for its natural beauty and incredible views, it is also known for its isolation, social turbulence, and economic instability. A population of 2,046 (2009) makes Fort Smith the fourth largest 'urban centre' in the Northwest Territories.

With an average yearly growth rate of -0.3, Fort Smith is also an emergency exit to the South, providing an opening to the more prosperous, oil-rich communities in Alberta.

Credits: Images of Fort Smith from George Carothers.

Doors in/to Cities: Hong Kong

by Min Li Chan

An inconspicuous make-shift door carved into a corrugated wall: a setting for two boys engaged in make-believe on a hot weekend afternoon --

Vis-a-vis an elaborately crafted door into a place of worship, proclaimed by golden words of wisdom and well-wishing, and enunciated by the luck of the color red.

Both provide some hint of a rich, perhaps unexpected, imagined world within.

Credits: Photos by Min Li Chan.

Doors in/to Cities: Palma de Mallorca

by Melissa García Lamarca

Similar to most medieval cities, Palma de Mallorca was traditionally surrounded by walls, most of which were destroyed in the late 19th century to enable the city's expansion. Yet a section of the Renaissance sea wall built in the 1500s, Dalt Murada, still remains intact, although the Mediterranean no longer laps up to its edge - the space immediately in front has been reclaimed for a seaside walk, a ring road and the Parc de la Mar (of which you can see the edge, below right). Although traditionally an entrance to those arriving to the city by sea, now the doors are likely most traveled by the millions of tourists arriving by plane or on a cruise ship stop in Palma's port for the day.

Credits: Photos by Melissa García Lamarca.

Doors in/to Cities: London

by Andrew Wade

This is the back entrance to a building holding office space for creative industries as well as a photography gallery on Blackall Street in East London.  I occasionally use the office space on the top floor and this serves as my usual gateway into the building.  The door, along with the metal security shutter, grimy London stock brick, and surrounding layers of stickers and graffiti partially captures the genius loci of the neighbourhood.  While the main entrance on the other side of the building - into a double height space framed by glass - is more representative of a presentation space, this narrow service street is less self-conscious and more expressive of the area's creative energy.  To me this side of the building represents the workshop dimension of the area that makes the presentation dimension possible.

Credits: Image of 81 Leonard Street back door from Andrew Wade.

Doors in/to Cities: Chicago

by Vivien Park

These doors at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago lead directly into one of their main exhibition spaces. As both doors and walls, when opened they allow artists to easily install works of different scale as well as the public to flow in from the street during exhibition hours. It was during these times that I felt an almost surreal intimacy as the line between inside and outside space were temporarily blurred.

Credits: Photo of Hyde Park Art Center by Vivien Park.

Doors in/to Cities: Ithaca

by Peter Sigrist

I came across this door while walking home the other day. Framed by trees and connected to the ground by a fire escape, it seems both cozy and adventurous.

Here is the view from below. The stairway passes over a chasm of wood, pavement, and stucco. I think it would be nice to live in an apartment like this some day.

Credits: Photos by Peter Sigrist.

Doors in/to Cities: Mumbai

by Katia Savchuk

I used to pass these padlocked wooden doors every day on my way to work in an old Mumbai neighborhood. I thought the fraying paint and mysterious padlocks were incredibly beautiful. I was even more taken with the creative ways that people used the doorways: for hanging things, hawking wares or lounging around. Like other street elements in that crowded city, they blended the line between public and private as people adapted the surroundings to their needs.

Credits: Photos by Katia Savchuk.

Doors in/to Cities: Ulaanbaatar

by Anna Fogel

In the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar, each ger or home is separated from its neighbors by a high wooden fence. When you walk along the roads in the ger districts, you have the distinct feeling of being kept out of residents’ personal space, both visually and physically.

But once past the outer fence, the doorways into the gers are often brightly painted, with colorful patterns and images, evoking a sense of warmth and welcome…

…which sharply contrasts with the outside during the cold, winter months.

Credits: Photos by Anna Fogel.

Doors in/to Cities: A Group Post

by Katia Savchuk

They welcome and exclude. They are the pathways between public and private. They can be utilitarian, majestic or bizarre. Doors usually blend into the urban background, but they have a lot to say about the cities they puncture. Today, the polis team brings you images of doors that caught our eyes in cities around the world.

Credits: Photo by Katia Savchuk.


by Ivan Valin

Some of you may have heard yesterday that Stantec — a big, multi-national, publicly-traded (ticker STN for all you polis readers in the financial sector) corporation — acquired San Francisco based architecture firm Anshen and Allen yesterday. Shame! some cry; just another example of the loss of a recognizable and respected business to the faceless fathoms of corporate structure. It's basically like Walmart came to town and burned down your mama's and your papa's store. But is this really so bad? And, if I may dare, could it be good?

First, what was Anshen and Allen — what did the world supposedly lose? A firm with a 70-year history that might have peaked with the Eichler homes and a cool chapel in Arizona. But since then — since the early 1960s — the firm has built a reputation of responsible and service oriented architecture with a particular focus on health care facilities (Tang Center anyone?). Competent, efficient, professional. Nothing risky. With offices in the US, Canada, and London the firm had already done its work at expanding to fill a global market. Stantec took on the firm not to eviscerate it, but to stretch itself into another niche. In other words, it is in everyone's best interests that Anshen and Allen just keep on doing exactly what they were doing before yesterday. The world might lose an entry in the phone book but it won't lose studio.

And what if this acquisition was a good thing? The urban design/landscape/architecture fields right now are abuzz with the notion that the world will be renewed by virtue of its infrastructure. And simultaneously we are re-conceiving the idea of infrastructure: no longer isolated acts of engineering, infrastructure is the functionality of the city itself and is a site for new symbiotic relationships. (The Mammoth blog has led an interesting discussion with Polis and others on this topic here.) We are no longer so naive as to believe that the site ends at the property line. As builders, as thinkers, as activists, as planners, our work exists within a larger system of relationships; it participates in urban and regional ecologies; it spawns local economies and impacts communities.

If this is the scale of our enterprise, then do we want it all done by a single firm? Of course not, this work necessarily pulls from the expertise of many. We need collaborative problem solving more than creative inspiration. Corporations like Stantec and AECOM house many of these experts under the same global roof and are ideally positioned to take on the new scope that we are imagining for ourselves.

Two things stand in the way of reaching this potential: corporate villainy and design pedagogy.

The first I don't know much about but I don't deny it. Certainly, the corporate structure exposes its various component businesses to new levels of risk and risk management that may compromise the professional capabilities of that business. And then there is the greed …

But failure may also be preordained in the education of designers. The top schools still teach a largely self-centered, individualistic process and reward creative and artistic excellence. In this environment, the word “corporate” is tantamount to “wasted” and the brightest minds leave school to toil away for their idols, not for Stantec or AECOM or WPS or URS Corp.

If you peeled away all the jargon, however, these corporate design firms — as assemblies of diverse collections of experts — might have something in common with universities and think-tanks. We talk about the advantages of working across disciplines, but in corporations collaboration is structural. It stands to reason, then, that if collaboration leads to innovation then corporations — and the collected minds within them — could be the new avant-garde.

Credits: Original photo of the Chapel of the Holy Cross from Wikimedia Commons.

Project Morrinho

by Andrew Wade

Project Morrinho began in the favela Vila Pereira da Silva in Rio de Janeiro as an effort to strengthen social ties and build community by allowing youth to gather and build a model of their own hillside settlement.  By using local bricks, recycled building materials and paint, the participants could slowly build a model of how they see, and how they wish to see, their community.

This summer the project expanded to become a collaboration with youth in London, who continued to build the model favela on the South bank of the Thames.  The potential of Morrinho to build its own momentum and gather attention to a resource-based view of slums is admirable.  For many it overwrites a stereotypical categorisation of favelas as one-dimensional backdrops to scenes of violence, drugs, and poverty and instead centres around complex themes of community, identity, and belonging.

A potential pitfall of bringing the project to the UK has been its inclusion as a small component of the wider Festival Brazil, running all summer at the Southbank Centre.  Mixed in with Samba workshops and traditional Brazilian food stands, it can be easy to romanticise favela living into an exotic, vibrant, and escapist experience.  Hopefully a raised awareness and ignited imagination regarding slums will recognise the values and struggles of their inhabitants and facilitate partnerships leading to urban upgrading and hope for future transformation.

Credits: Images of Project Morrinho in London are from Andrew Wade.

Variations on Urban Housing

by Peter Sigrist

In an earlier post on public space in Russia, I briefly mentioned wooden houses with elaborate carvings in smaller cities like Vladimir. Although most are in need of repair, they offer a striking counterpoint to the uniformity of housing blocks from the Soviet era. I've included examples of Vladimir's wooden houses below, along with a few examples of housing blocks for comparison.

Even among the housing blocks, examples of unique adaptations are not hard to find. Balconies are perhaps the most common example. The ways people customize their balconies are especially evident in earlier Soviet buildings, which are smaller and more densely arranged around wooded courtyards. Scenes from a few of these are included below.

What if these spatial arrangements (i.e. smaller buildings around courtyards) were combined with the artistry of Vladimir's wooden homes? In order to avoid problems with fires and longterm maintenance, builders might use brick or stone. Early twentieth-century Russian brickwork could provide inspiration. Phipps Garden Apartments in Queens is the closest I've seen to this kind of design. Below are a few photos of a courtyard at Phipps Garden.

As evident in the historic layers of housing in Vladimir, there are many ideas and lessons from the past to draw upon. I hope we can make use of them, prioritizing comfortable and attractive urban settings over wholesale efficiency. Does this have to be prohibitively expensive?

Credits: Photos by Peter Sigrist.