Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Taking Over Space (Feb. 15)

Ben says that people manipulating their balconies is sheer stupidity and that they just have too much stuff, so that they need to find a way to make their apartment bigger. The way in which they adapted it may very well have been stupid, but the act of doing (means) has much more significance to me. The response to this kind of approach has been to outlaw the process which leads to a certain kind of aesthetic (ends), which has typically been looked down upon by policy makers, planners, and designers. It is precisely the process that holds the power that offers the most significant hope for development of future cities and spaces. While I reserve judgement as to whether the end result is stupid, there is a great potential for designers and planners to help set some of the rules that which people engage the process, thereby maybe changing the end result and potential aesthetic. Most of the other housing being built in Shanghai controls the process and is fully dictated by the planners, designers, and developers, and thereby dictating the aesthetic. The question of standards seems frequently to have direct relationship with aesthetics. But, in the end, it shouldn’t be a question about aesthetics. It is a question about participation.

Yet, in many ways, it is precisely this aesthetic, which draws me and many others to it. It is an aesthetic of difference, of something foreign and alluring. It is easy to focus on the aesthetics, because it is this physical manifestation and embodiment of space that I am trained to understand and look at. Many refer to this as an “aestheticization of poverty.” What impact does this realm precisely have on housing and the capacity of that individual to really adjust or find their space or even improve their lives? What exactly are they doing in this context that they can’t otherwise? Is it just lower income people of those of lesser means that will commandeer their space and surrounding in such a context?

There are, of course, many dangers of focusing on the aesthetics of issues. This sort of aestheticization is very much what has driven the nature of the Xintiandi project. It basically removed everyone from a life and community, while retaining the physical structure and materials of the house. While many may consider this preservation, the only thing that is preserved is the physical structure. In fact, I would argue that there is even less preservation there due to the ramifications that it is having on the entire neighborhood and other communities of Shikumen housing nearby, driving up the property values through gentrification. It is very difficult to talk about preservation without talking about the people inhabiting those structures. On the flip side, if one was serious about preservation, I would argue that more effective approach would be to tear down or renovate (many feel full upgrading of shikumen is prohibitively expensive, as most don’t even have bathrooms) and build new housing for the people that are living there in the first place. In much of my research leading up to this journey, location (access to community and jobs) were equally if not more important than the actual size or type of home, to a certain extent obviously. Yet, it seems as if most people in Shanghai are much more willing to upgrade to new places, even if much further away. I am curious to see the extent that this is true in other cities.

As for preservation, that very much gets to the core of what has been most on my mind in Shanghai. Or more precisely, just the opposite: change. It is becoming increasingly difficult for ways and traditions to remain unchanged. It is a reality of the new world. Those who try and stand in the way to preserve a way of life will probably never be satisfied. The most famous cities of the world have always embodied change, in fact, they have been the catalyst for change within entire countries as well as the world. Change is happening, in a way unlike any other in human history. And Shanghai may very well be undergoing some of the most dramatic changes on the planet. But, in order for people to be adjust to such drastic and overwhelming changes, their needs to be effective negotiators and mediators, and this is where physical space can provide a solution.

The Shikumen historically provided a mediating zone. It was mix of eastern and western styles. It offered a scale that was not overwhelming to many of the new migrants to the city in search of a new life. The small and narrow alleyways offer an intimacy within which strong community is developed (although some feel it is too intimate). Shops were usually positioned right at the entrance to these communities where it would serve as a sort of checkpoint, even controlling who entered (a precursor to current gated communities? I think not). Each shikumen was based around a courtyard. It negotiated the old and the new, the rural and urban, and the collective and individual. As I walked into these alleys and passageways, often off a major thoroughfare, I certainly felt like I entered a completely different world, one of intimacy and community. Often times, the back spaces have been altered to fit individual needs. Yet, I could tell living conditions there are not good.

As the market and times changed, so did the layout and overall nature of the Shikumen. As more western styles of living were introduced, spaces became fixed, serving one function. The spaces shrunk and the alleyways became a little larger, there were fewer shops, and the entrances were now marked with iron gates and bars. But, they still retained their character and overall function: to provide affordable, comfortable, and secure housing for people who need it.

With the destruction of so much of the Shikumen, or even the renovation of them by wealthier people may very well signify a loss of a very important mediator. The question remains, is housing being provided that serves a more effective mediator and negotiator of the changes that are still occurring? On one end, there is certainly the high end loft, luxury condo. On the low end are still still shikumen, temporary housing on construction site, high rise high density, and informal settlements. But, what is in between, and what is serving the mediating role now?

I suspect the closer thing to it may be Ding’s apartment complex. It is a mid rise and has two or three bedroom units. You are not allowed to move walls around, although they were able to add a little loft over their kitchen where they have a cathedral ceiling. Most apartment buildings, however seem pretty standard.

With all the craziness and amazing development that is taking place in places like Shanghai right now, you can’t help but to think it is only on the surface, or that things are happening a little too quickly. There were numerous instances of public works projects that just didn’t quite get it right. The new subway car was too far from the platform, the fire hydrant was half buried in the sidewalk, the water pipe rising above where the new sidewalk will be. The entire city of Shanghai is sinking, especially in the Pudong area. I heard 2-4 centimeters a year. Hello New Orleans.

All the consumer goods that this country produces comes at a great environmental cost. As long as there is such a demand for cheap goods, especially abroad, the incentive to better control environmental pollution will probably not be there. The scale of growth here is astounding and is also coming at great environmental cost. As the train comes into the cities, the color seems to turn an overall gray. The air is hazy and there seems to be a film on everything, as a result of the numerous factories and coal plants pumping pollution into the air. I realize it is winter, but it feels like a harsh landscape, not unlike much of the more “developed” world 100 years ago. But, there is a big difference.

Finally, the suppression of free ideas and media is still a mind-blowing concept to me, but serves as a good reminder of the realities of the world. At the end, I have not been able to access my blog and other websites such as wikipedia, which are generated by the people and for the people, contrary to how this country is run and moves forward. Even after knowing this, experiencing it firsthand has been a bit of shock. This is a freedom I truly value, and I am thankful for all those put their lives on the line to may it possible for many more people to have freedom of expression.

Displacement (Feb. 15)

With such a massive projects taking place on a such a grand scale, many people will be displaced. Probably the most famous case of this is the Three Gorges Dam. In the case, of Pudong, which was mainly farmland, it is much less of an issue than with those in urban areas, living in older housing, or even Shikumen (see below for more info on this housing type). I was fortunate to meet with an architect, Ben Wood, who was the designer of the Xintiandi project. This area is probably one of the trendiest areas in Shanghai, and renovated old Shikumen housing into commercial and retail spaces, full of high end bars, restaurants and stores. There were about 8000 people who were displaced, and according to him and David Westendorff, a consultant working on urban governance issues, people were not properly compensated and there were many holdouts. Partly as a result of that project, compensation amounts for people being displaced have increased greatly. Ben mentioned that contrary to most perceptions, people actually want their homes to be bought by developers so they can make a lot of money, and then move to a new apartment or relocation housing. Ding also mentioned that many people have already bought new apartments with the hope that they will be bought out.

At they same time, there seems to be a strong collective mentality, whereby people generally are in support of change, even when it may affect them negatively. If people see it as improving the way of life and helping the country, who are they to stand in the way? Overall, at least in Shanghai, the standard of living has been improving quite a bit for those living there. Of course, what are the impacts when people expect more living space, greater consumer products, and higher paying jobs to support this new lifestyle? I am certainly not making a judgement as to whether or not the Chinese should aspire to a western way of life, or that even of the United States. They are well on their way, as a couple of years ago, they became a larger consumer of their own goods than the US and other western countries did. And you can’t help but notice that. At least in Shanghai, the stores and malls are astounding. Not only are they everywhere, but they are massive and there are always completely jammed packed with people. It is no wonder that so many US companies are doing work in China.

The one group of people that are continually struggling find tenure and are most often affected by displacement are migrant workers. Many come to the city looking for jobs an finding work, but don’t have a permanent resident card. These are very much the backbone physically building the china of the future, but they rarely develop permanent locations in the city, living in rental housing or staying on the move. Westendorff estimates that the size of this floating population may be 150-200 million and will increase to 300 million by 2020. While the overall housing stock may be affordable to a large chunk of the population, (much more so than in many parts of the US), housing options for the lowest incomes are minimal. It does seem that the government is actively addressing these issues and understand well and clear the need to provide adequate housing for all. Amidst all the cranes and massive housing being built all over this country, who is it for? Housing for migrant workers is certainly not adequately addressed. While apparently there are informal settlements, they are not clearly as visible in Shanghai and the surrounding area, as they are in many other cities. It is quite possible that I just didn’t get around to see where these were.

Pudong: Are you Kidding Me?

Right across the Bund is Pudong, that which probably most of you have seen pictures. It is the crazy skyline, with the Pearl of the Orient TV tower (a style and form all to itself), the Jin Mao Tower, and the new World Financial Center completing nearing completion. The crazy part about all of this was this was farmland 15 years ago. Everyone talks about how they remember it being just ride paddies and such. It is just mind blowing not only it has exploded both horizontally and vertically. I went to the top of the of the Jin Mao Tower (90 floors) and still couldn’t see the end to the buildings in Pudong. This growth has sort of paralleled the explosion in the rest of the country. In 1992, under the rule of Deng Xiaoping, the state detached its land use rights from ownership of urban land to allow legal persons to transact land use rights. Pudong instantly transformed into a bustling metropolis, probably signifying Shanghai’s and China’s new role on the world economic stage.

East meets West (Feb. 15)

Overall, Shanghai’s essential draw and character has been defined by its not being a deep traditional Chinese city. It has always been a mix of styles and influences, especially from the West. There are deep involvements of the British and French and that is very represented in its architecture. This mixture is deeply evident, along the Huangpo River, which has traditionally been the hub and main shipping connection to the city. The Western side of the bank, known as the Bund was the traditional edge of the city, and has been lined with a mix of neo-classical and art deco buildings built in the 20’s and 30’s, providing one of the most famous and picturesque portraits of the city. I wasn’t particularly moved them, although the context seems to be different here, and what they actually represent, as the Chinese were never colonized, and such physical manifestations represent the plurality of Shanghai, not a dominating force exercising its might and will at the expense of many people. Right near the Bund is a section of Old Town, representing the more traditional building types.

While the growth and explosion in culture, consumption, migration to the cities is very much a recent phenomenom, Shanghai has always been such mix, much more so than many other countries in the developing world that I have been. One of the beautiful things about Shanghai was my ability to move about and do my thing relatively unnoticed, as a tall red-headed white boy.

Welcome to Shanghai (Feb. 9)

My arrival to Shanghai has been a world of contrasts from New Zealand. I have been thrown into a massive urban environment, tons of people, crazy buildings, contrasting and mixing styles, freezing cold, and very little natural beauty. Yet, in its own right, Shanghai is offering quite a few surprises and has energized me a good bit. And it is cold. There are still very large piles of snow from their Storm of Century 10 days ago.

Upon arrival at the airport, I was a little surprised by how few people there were. I attributed this to it being 7:30 in the morning on a Saturday. After floundering around trying to figure out some basics about phone and money, I decided to take the Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) train into town. Upon entering the station, I was the ONLY person there (quite a contrast from I would quickly find on the subways). We only hit 300 km/h (190 mph), and quickly saw the land of contrasts, with the shacks and shanties in the foreground and the new housing developments in the background.

Leaving the Maglev station, I attempted to buy a ticket for the subway. Well, forget about even being generous or considerate when it comes to getting to and on your train. And people here are not afraid to blatently cut in line right in front of you. I had about 7 or 8 do it until I finally started muttering and getting physical. It was like the world was going to end if people couldn’t get their tickets in the next 5 seconds. And, it wasn’t like I didn’t stand out! Anyway, once I fought through and people saw that I was serious, someone helped me get to the English menu, and off I was.

Later in the day, I ended up at the People’s Square station, a major connection between three different lines That was a scene. There were a ton of people there waiting for the train, and when it arrived a ton of people were getting off. No one even waited for the people to get off, and I am thinking, “How rude!” until the doors suddenly closed before a third of the people waiting to get one even got on. People started yelling and all of a sudden the door police are there with there whistles, shoving people back and doing everything in their power to get every door shut so the train could leave. I don’t remember this intensity even in Japan. I quickly learned that underground is no place for consideration and selflessness: It is all about me getting on that train no matter what!

I wandered around a bit and quickly found a number of interesting buildings. Aside from the glitzy and fairly wacky skyline (all the tall buildings are doing really funky and formal stuff with their tops), Shanghai is a crazy mix of old and new, traditional Chinese and Western, and everything in between. What quickly caught my eye was the manner in which people were hanging their clothes out to dry. They have their horizontal rods that stick out perpendicularly from their balconies, totally entering into the public space. I guess I find this interesting because in the Western world, boundaries seem to be so clearly defined, or at least attempted to be. While there are many zones and areas where the public and private are not so clearly defined, city streets seem to be one of them, where the vertical space defined by the street is clearly delineated.

A number of apartments where people were hanging their clothes also had drastic alterations on their balconies. Most had fully enclosed theirs, almost all of them being done differently. One particular apartment was on the corner and had residential units above it. There was a large space directly on the corner where the residential portion was pulled back, thereby leaving some space in between. The residents of those apartments had constructed small “outbuildings” in that small space. It is clear that the space as it was did not serve their needs, and they did something about it, in the small amount of space in which they had control over. It is that small amount of space, the balcony, the roof of the floor below, the rods drying laundry, that seems to offer great potential and possibilities. To the eye, it may not look that attractive, but it is a very practical solution and allows people to solve some of their own problems within what little freedom they do have.

Later in the day, I went to the Shanghai Library and found a free wireless single where I tried to access my blog. No dice. I had heard lots of stories about the censorship of the media here, but experiencing it is something quite extraordinary. Such freedom of the press and expression is something I have taken for granted. My guess is that it will one of the most defining experiences of my time in China, much more so than any physical building or skyline that may look amazing. With the rise of Shanghai, and China, how deep and real is the transformation that is really going on?

Woah, I am watching the workers at my hostel unwrap large boxes of firecrackers, and getting ready to unleash them out in the street. It is Chinese New Year here, and not uncommon to hear firecrackers and fireworks. I don’t think I have ever seen so many in my life. Another nice aspect of the Chinese New Year is that everyone is on a holiday, and there is hardly any traffic. Yep, those were some serious firecrackers. I still feel like I might die from all the smoke…. And can I hear anything????? Oh yeah, ringing.

As I went to sleep that night, there was someone sleeping in my bed. He was sound asleep. All my stuff was on a ledge right above his head, toothbrush, books, headlamp, and of course, my ear plugs. When I arrived to the hostel, another traveler was actually in my bed, because he said that someone else was in his bed, etc. So, I thought nothing of it, until someone was in my bed. I found another bed and a blanket, and lied down listening to the barrage or firecrackers and fireworks. I have never been in a warzone, but it couldn’t sound much different. Of course, it wasn’t a war zone at all. I got my bed back the next day….

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Raglan and the Addition of the Bach

Yesterday, I went to Raglan to check out some of the houses there that had been added onto a good bit over time. Raglan is more known for its surfing and having the longest left break in the world. Some people looked at me kind of funny when I told them I wasn’t really going to surf, and instead look at some of the houses. Most of the folks there had some serious chillin’ on their minds. Not that that was that far from mine. I did ride some serious waves, with just my body, almost as far as some of the surfers made it.

But, Raglan is another one of those old weekend communities, made up of baches, which I had mentioned in an earlier post. While it certainly still houses the weekend getaway, there are many more people that now call it home. Consequently, there are many new homes, but the original housing stock has been modified quite a bit, with a majority of the houses having very defined additions. Such additions varied greatly, as one might suspect, ranging from just formal interventions maintaining the same materials to very distinct differences based on materials, size, color, and relationship to the street. Many of the original houses were one or two rooms, and certainly couldn’t cover the more permanent lifestyle or one in which the standards were constantly changing. Many of the houses had clear additions of garages, as they were probably built before cars were a commodity. Some houses stayed very small and simple, and just had small campers parked in front.

What is interesting most about these is that they express a strong chronology, beginning with a very small unit, that served very basic functions. But, as these functions changed, values, and culture changed, resulting very much in the changing physical form of the house. I suspect that this language and character will be very similar to what I will see in the developing countries. The quality of standards of housing may be different, and a lot of that depends on time. Time and standards are themes that will continually be surfacing during my explorations.

PS. More pictures will be coming soon. Just trying to keep up with my thoughts before they drift away.

Highlands Station

For two days, I stayed on the 3000 acre farm known as Highlands Station, outside of Rotorua on the North Island. John and Catharine Ford (aunt and uncle of a friend of mine) ran the family farm. It is a beautiful set of land, shaped and sculpted by recent volcanic activity, which gives rise to many of the thermal baths, springs, and pools that Rotorua is known for.

The Fords lived in what they called the Big House. Ironically, or not, this was the name given to traditional folk dwellings in Western North Carolina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were called big houses because most everyone lived and slept in the same room, often to utilize the heat of the fireplace, but also because kitchens were removed from the house. I didn’t to ask John and Catherine about the name Big House, but in some regards, I guess it probably has to do with the fact that it is the biggest on the farm (others include workers’ and sheep shearers’ quarters).

The original house was built in the 1930’s and had undergone a series of additions. At one point, the kids were taught at home, and they added a room on just for this purpose. Much of the original floors are still in the house, and you can see where such additions happened. The Fords then did a pretty extensive renovation in 1996. The renovations were a combination of adding some space and serving to make the house more energy efficient. As with many original farmhouses, there was no insulation in any of the walls. So, once they started getting into the work, they gutted and opened up all the walls from the inside, since the house was going to be ripped up and added insulation. Their renovation unified a lot of the house, as John said his father was tight with money and would sort of add on ad hoc, without a whole of planning but a lot of doing. He did see a lot of the work on the house taking away from the farm work, and so he wanted to be quick with the changes to the house. He described one story where his father and mother hired a landscape architect, and he was ready to come in there and do the work with a wheelbarrow and shovels. Instead, his father just came out with his bulldozer and did it himself, resulting in a more unplanned version than the landscape architect was hoping for.

John described two main themes as to why the house had changed over time. The first was the family circumstances: family size, age of family, addition and subtraction of wives, which had different tastes and different abilities of ownership. Technology was the other driving factor. They used to have a long drop loo (outhouse), and as in most places, the introduction of plumbing drastically changed the makeup of houses, resulting in changes within kitchens and bathrooms. Such changes have continued to play a large role in the continual change of kitchens, with the constant change and upgrading of appliances. As advances in insulation changed, so to did the Fords change insulation as well.

As a result of changing conditions and standards, they have had to update their house as well as the shearers’ quarters, in order to serve and have a quality of housing that would attract quality workers to their farm.

If they had to do it again, they would have been more focused on more efficient energy sources. Of course, the technology available for that now is much different than it was 10 years ago.

John posed an interesting question at the time. As cities are regenerating, will suburbs become the slums of the future? I’ll have to ponder that on a little more.

I am grateful for the time, hospitality, and information the Fords shared with me. It was a good insight into a more local and real New Zealand family and life centered around the farm. I am sure I will refer back to much of what they have shared through my upcoming posts and such.

Once Were Warriors

One interesting part about the Fords is that John’s grandfather sold land that used to have a dairy farm to the city of Rotorua. They ended up building a lot of state housing there. John took me on a driving tour, and I would have to say I was fairly impressed with the variety and quality of the homes, especially after 50 years. All the homes were detached single family, as Rotorua is not struggling with land or density issues. Yet, they did put many of the new subdivisions to shame in the United States with character and diversity of the homes and forms.

One of the more famous people that resided on this tract of land is Alan Duff, who wrote ‘Once Were Warriors’. While it is set in Auckland, it was based on the Duff’s experiences on the Ford tract in Rotorua. I ended up watching the film and whew, what a powerful one it is. This very intense story weaves through issues of intense domestic violence, Maori culture, poverty, family, and state housing. It is certainly the other side of New Zealand from what I have been experiencing, but more in line with many of the more difficult questions that I believe is critical for architects to explore.

The question and extent of the how the quality of people’s physical environment affects their behavior has always been a nagging one for me. While I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a physical determinist, I find myself continually wanting to believe in the power of the built environment to change lives, culture, and family for the better, largely because that is the profession I have signed up to be a part of. But most of the struggles and continued issues that affect the characters in Once Were Warriors are certainly not unique to New Zealand, Auckland, Rotorua, or even Maoris and are not dictated by the physical house. But they are certainly influenced by it.

Would Jake have been so violent and destructive in his own home had he owned it or even rented it, instead of having the attitude that the state would always provide it for them? Certainly, the context and neighborhood was at debilitating as the physical space of the housing itself. Like the housing in Rotorua, the physical house didn’t seem that bad, but had been significantly altered, changed, and adapted by the behavior within it. And seen from the outside with my own eyes, these looked like they housed quality families. But, that rarely tells the truth as wealthy and middle class non-minorities are just as likely to develop broken families and habits.

In talking with John and reflecting a little more about the movie, it became clear that this was a struggle about the change in values and culture through the migration of people from rural to urban areas, which is a topic I will continually explore much more in depth through many of the next stops of my travels. The movie seems to say that Beth and her family’s conflicts came and were manifested in a large part by her rejecting the traditional Maori way of life and place. This seemed to be quite common as people flocked to cities for better employment opportunities, often times finding life to be a much greater struggle. The question of how cultural and social values are manifested in the physical sense is another one of those big questions of architects. In particular, as cities across the world are exploding, often as a result of rural to urban migration, the ability and need for people to maintain certain heritages and ways of life are often critical and sometimes not possible. Yet, people have found ways to do that, and I still believe the house as a physical structure and a process, not a product can serve as a better conduit to serve as the transition and intersection of many colliding and conflicting realms.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


On Monday, I made it Wellington after an incredibly beautiful ferry ride from the South Island. The weather was a bit rough, but going through the coves and sounds there is quite a wonderful experience. It was a true New Zealand experience with a full truck of sheep right below the deck we were sitting on. Ahh, the sites and smells of New Zealand.

I met with a couple of architects who work for Melling Morse Architects ( who do a lot of pretty cool housing designs that are often affordable, yet beautiful. Their office is situated on an alley with one of the partners living in a sweet box/loft that has been basically been mounted on top of on older building where their office is. Their works consistent of a fairly regular palette of materials used in many different ways: Monterey cypress, which grays and weathers over time, cement board, and corrugated metal. Apparently, this material that I was inquiring about on the previous post was originally used in ballast for ships, as each sheet could easily be moved by two people and stacked deep. It is currently one of the most affordable building materials, as concrete and masonry are still quite expensive, which is another reason many of the houses are raised above the ground on pillars as opposed to solid foundations.

In terms of affordability and allowing ease of expansion, many of their projects are based off a module of 900 millimeters (3 ft). Typically, houses are being built for around NZ$3000/sq.meter or US$238/sq.ft if my conversions were right (when is the rest of the world going to catch up with the forward thinking US measurement system?). Many of their projects are coming in around NZ$1800 or $US142/ sq. ft. Most of this cost is in materials, as land isn’t so much of an expense as in the US.

I was able to visit a couple of their projects and related ones in and outside of Wellington. Their little Havana project was a fascinating housing conversation, converting the top floor of a Spanish colonial building to an open street with lofts and smaller units opening out into it. Another project originally served as eleven low cost housing units for battered women. Once again, the palette of materials served to offer a contextual, but innovative approach.

As Allan Morse, one of the architects put it, you have to have a dream to make it work. If you don’t have a dream as a motive, then all you get is architects showing off without any real social solution. Dream big, and then you work back from that. I am grateful to their hospitality and continued good work.

More soon related to farming, farm houses, and the challenges of living in state housing. And more pictures soon.