Do large-scale cultural events help neighborhoods? Reflections on the #UABB in Nantou, Shenzhen
We visited Nantou on the last leg of our 2016 week-long field trip to Shenzhen on a hot, humid day. In contrast to the pulsating lanes of Baishouzhou and its unapologetic messiness, where we had spent relatively more time, Nantou appeared quaint and well suited to touristic exploration. After all, the settlement had once been a walled city of considerable political importance, and the remnants of that history were strewn across the village in the form of arched gateways, temples and sacred niches. My most vivid memory is that of an active main street full of the myriad tastes of China punctuated by a select number of restored (or being restored) buildings. This, in stark contrast to Hubei, a true blue urban village dating back to the 15th century that faces redevelopment.
This year, Nantou was the venue of the UABB, the bi-city biennale of Urbanism/Architecture that brings together artwork related to the urban experiences of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Walking towards the South Gate of Nantou, we recognized familiar landmarks – the ancestor hall, the ornate gate itself, the garden and its sculptures. And further in, the smaller gate that enters the settlement itself.
Once we stepped inside, we realized how transformed the space was from what it used to be. The street before us, full of vendors and teeming with life, was now a subdued cleaned-up version of itself. New open spaces had been carved out and designed with great taste, but ‘no climbing’, ‘no touching’ signs all over the street furniture in these made us wonder what the village residents were thinking about the redesign interventions. At the very least, these spaces were being used in many ways and by different kinds of people. Newspapers were being read here, mothers and children were catching the winter sun and old women were resting as well. Further in, we found another lovely large open space – a new basketball court, temporarily in disuse. Presumably it will be resurrected and used as it should once the UABB is over.
Shaun Teo, whose PhD research is looking at the UABB’s transformative impacts, pointed out many more interventions in a very interesting tour he conducted that afternoon. He showed us some of the redesigned shops in the village, which looked beautiful but to my eyes were a clear push towards gentrification. Shaun showed us two interventions that emerged from a competition: 1- An attempt at entrepreneurship by a migrant renter who was running a cafe at the UABB in partnership with one of the organizers, and 2- A young urban designer’s redesign of a ground floor shop into the Nantou Living Room, his living space that doubles up into a space for village residents to meet and interact. Already, fresh interventions are spinning off of these. The entrepreneur is gathering capital to set up shop on a more permanent basis and the urban designer is taking baby steps forward with the landscaping of a “secret garden” tucked away behind his alley.
What does an event like the UABB signify to the residents of a neighborhood like Nantou? It is obvious that many have been displaced to make the event possible. Vendors, for sure, have been asked to leave and even some factories in order to get clear floor space for the exhibition halls. Most likely, the UABB has sped up the process of gentrification and the pricing out of current renters, in a location where rents are already quite high. This might mean higher densities and I’m unsure how Shenzhen authorities will balance the heritage value of Nantou will the unfolding densification processes.
On the positive side, the redesigned public spaces and wall art have added value too. From what I heard, the design of the venue was not exactly a consultative process, nor have the venues of previous editions of the UABB retained their look and feel after the event. Perhaps Nantou will reclaim its spaces back and make of them what they want to. Given that Shenzhen is currently working on the redevelopment of urban villages, a gentrified Nantou with a smattering of resident-friendly spaces and interventions is perhaps a best case scenario!
Centre Pompidou: Sensory overload!
Despite a longish four weeks in Paris, its hard to shed the feeling of being a tourist. For there is truly so much to do in this city and so little time to do it in if you put in regular work hours. So I woke up on Saturday morning with determination. And my destination was the Centre Pompidou, which celebrates its 40th year in 2017.
Armed with a online ticket, I set off on a meandering path, certain that I had plenty of time. I got in a couple of quick sketches and a detour through Saint Chapelle and the Conciergerie, which are within a massive Gothic complex that once was a palace but is now the Palace of Justice, housing judiciary functions. I even grabbed a delightful lunch, sitting solo on the sidewalk, enjoying the rare autumnal sun.
The online ticket was to be on no use whatsoever, but the long wait in the line that snaked across the massive square in front of Centre Pompidou offered me a chance to take in the mind boggling structure before me. All steel tubes and pipes, it is a geometrical and structural orgasm created by Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini in the spirit of an “evolving spatial diagram”. The project was part of a larger renewal plan for the area which included the controversial relocation of the giant meat market that was inside Les Halles, which now houses a transport interchange and shopping centre. This facility was to house a museum and a public library that extended the dream of Andre Malraux (author and France’s first Minister of Culture Affairs) to decentralize art and culture. I can imagine the design being met with utter horror by the conservative Parisians, because it sticks out like a sore thumb like a disruption, offering no continuity whatsoever with the surrounding urban form nor showing the remotest respect to the heritage around. Instead it soars up, in white, blue, red and yellow, unapologetic and grand. I was to realize its true impact only a day later when I traveled to Belleville in the northwestern part of the city and saw it glisten from the top of Boulevard de Menilmontant! I read later that the architects saw their chance to bring in new ideas to capture the mood of Paris post the massive political unrest in 1968 that nearly destabilized the country. For them, the bold design signified a changed thinking.
[Click here for some delightful pics and thoughts shared by the architects on the Centre’s 40th anniversary]
Once inside, I felt like a child in a candy store! My first stop was the massive and impressive retrospective of David Hockney. The British artist is 80 this year and the show had works on display since he was about 17 years old. The span of styles and the bold statement his art is left me overwhelmed. I was in that strange state of feeling filled to the brim and drained out at the same time! And this is when the gorgeous views offered by the building rescued me. I wandered the terraces for a while taking in the city sprawling below me, recognizing the monuments on the skyline and appreciating the strange zig zag roofs of Paris.
And then, I delved into the museum’s permanent collection of modern art. I had already soaked myself into the works of the avant garde artists at the Musee d’Orsay in my first week here and later at the Musee l’Orangerie. Now I felt like I was taking that journey forward, moving through the Dada, Cubist, Fauvist, Expressionist, Surrealist, de Stijl and ‘Return to Order’ phases of modern art. An impressive collection, the vast and modern spaces of the museum have much to add to the experience, and its frequent terraces offered timely relief. Unlike the other museums, there was something informal and easy going about the Centre Pompidou. Even the staff was not in uniform and sat around casually, unlike the alert and stern security that is standard at museums across the world.
Walking away from the museum, I just did not feel like heading home. There was too much inside my head, swirling shapes and blocks of colour, too much energy! So I wandered through the lanes in the Marais and treated myself to a glass of Chardonnay, as is fitting at the end of a glorious museum-filled day in Paris.
All content and photographs © Mukta Naik
Because architecture is art: Musee d’Orsay, at last!
A jaunt to the gorgeous Musee d’Orsay made my day today. The museum stays open till late on Thursday, so I wound up work early and walked down from Place St Michel where I’m staying along they Seine. The weather has been exceptionally kind and the walk was leisurely and easy.
The museum has been on my hot list for Paris not because of the excellent collections it hosts, including a choice selection of works from my favourite French Impressionists, but because of its architecture. And it is indeed a spectacular transformation of a Beaux-Arts station, which was built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Even though this rather nasty review of the renovated buildings that appears in 1987 suggests that a breaking up of the volume inside the station was a misstep, I must say that the beauty, intricacy and monumentality of the vault hit me the moment I entered the space! The building combines both elements of the Beaux-Arts style, the structural metalwork as well as the ornamentility and this is still very visible in the current interiors. I do believe the ordering of the galleries has been redone in 2011 though and it is quite easy to figure out how the collections are arranged.
The icing on the cake, of course, was the special exhibit on the portraits of Cezanne, which I savoured with the aid of the audio commentary!
Ooh-ing and Ah-ing at the renovated Rijksmuseum
I’ve visited Amsterdam’s major landmarks iteratively and the Rijksmuseum has been a family favourite, home as it is to some of the most stunning works of famous Dutch artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer. This time though, my trip was dedicated to discovering the results of the major rehaul the museum has been through, planned since 2000 and finally executed between 2004 and 2012!
This is a landmark building through which a zillion cyclists ride each day, that shows it’s severe face to the city and it’s fun side to the open grounds called the Museumplein. The beautifully detailed magnificent masterpiece was designed by Peter Cuypers over 125 years ago and has been a museum since. It was heartening to see that the renovation had aimed to restore it to its original Cuypers design and detail even as the atrium that links its two parts has got a modern twist and a slew of technological advancements to better preserve its precious artworks put in place.
Through my visit, my eyes were riveted by the elegant proportions, exquisite brick detail and stained glass lobby. Most fascinating was the library where Cuypers work has been best showcased. Hats off to Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz for their marvellously sensitive and meticulous work.
Of course, on a crowded Saturday, any attempt to see a museums artworks at leisure is a futile one. Still, I swung by the particularly well renovated Gallery of Honour and saw the crowd that was milling around Rembrandt’s famous ‘The Night Watchman’, then detoured to see my beloved Vermeers with a little more peace. Finally, I wandered through a few more galleries paying particular attention to the section on the East Indies, seeing Dutch colonialism in a new light post my Indonesia wanderings.
Stepping out into a drizzle and watching tourists enjoy themselves straddled across the giant ‘I am Amsterdam’ installation at Museumplein, I felt fortunate for this afternoon of alone time in the Rijksmuseum, the moments of contemplation and admiration, and most of all an appreciation for a culture that genuinely treasures its material history and celebrates it with no holds barred!
What do doodles tell you? #ShenzhenDiaries
Looking through my notes as I write about Shenzhen (I learnt to pronounce it correctly around Day 2 of our trip- it’s Shun-jun for your information), I try to reconstruct the thoughts behind some of these doodles in my notebook. Order, structure, urban forms, technology, the incorporation of nature into cities, human adaptation are some themes I see.
Doodling has been a habit for as long as I remember, predating my training as an architect, usually geometric forms. The doodles usually emerge out of the subconscious, barring the odd sketch of a scene here and there, and its hard to see patterns at times though I keep trying. I’d love to hear about how other people interpret their own doodling. Do share!
‘Notes from B.Town’ by Rohan Patankar #TheCityasMuse Winning Entry
Rohan Patankar is a Delhi-based architect who loves to read, listen, draw, write and delve into the realm of creative spaces, both in terms of function and value. He presently works at Co.Lab design architecture studio and also initiates Delhi Dallying, where a bunch of interesting people write, organize walks, workshops and interactive events. This piece was originally published in The Scribbler.
Comment: Rohan’s fluid and evocative drawings combined with his quirky observations about his experience of Bombay were much appreciated, with one judge practically swooning at the quality of his artwork! As for me, I really like the twist at the end….
In March 2014, I was in Mumbai for a short solo vacation in the city. The intention was to just absorb some energy from the city; draw of it and draw from it. After these few years of Delhi Dallying, being vaguely familiar to Bombay and its local language, I meant to quickly break the touristy ice and get some local flavour.
Still doubtful about what it was exactly that I wanted to do walking around town all alone; my uncle jokingly insisted that I could never get the real feel of Bombay until I spent a night on a footpath. Having lived in the city for almost all his adult life, he claimed to have never even wanted to get this “real feel” of the city for himself. While I decided consciously to have no music playing in my ears when I was out, I was listening to Avishai Cohen’s Gently Disturbed in all the off time I got. He seemed to be getting the vibe of the city quite well; articulating an underlying structure that one can surely sense but cannot decipher completely.
I began with visiting the ancient Sassoon docks, followed by some landmark eateries and public squares in South Bombay. The fresh catch from the sea, the morning flowers and the market of ordinary things by the docks made for one of the most (overwhelmingly) memorable sensations of this trip. Walking through the buildings of colonial lineage at Fort and Ballard Estate, I sensed this comfort for the human scale. The formal building edge, the generous footpath and the sufficiently wide road seemed to really make it comfortable for people and cars. The synergy in the city felt home-grown and deliberate, and somehow, far more mature than what I experience in Delhi usually.
The vivid neighbourhoods and market streets of Dhobi Talao and Bhuleshwar were full of diverse building features and shop signs reading in many many local languages. The public space seemed to have been owned and claimed by people since forever. The threshold of the big Krishna temple at Bhuleshwar had me teleported from this busy transactional hub to a humble un-urbane courtyard. The chatter of the old Gujarati women and men seemed to be suspended in time across all of this space.
Walking along Marine Drive, I was quite surprised to see that many Gymkhana Maidans along the Marine Drive did not have any real boundary wall facing the main street. In an instant, the street felt wider and the open space more public. The Banganga tank in Walkeshwar; this ancient urban oasis seemed unchanging in the face of all the bustle and transformation of the city. It appeared to anchor all the temples that marked the edge of its steps, holding together the essence of the neighbourhood.
Lower Parel was quite a heady mix of the old and the intervened, with many elegant multi-storey glass buildings abutting grimly old low lying neighbourhoods. This looked like a story of aggressive urban transformation that I think would have had equally powerful social consequences. My taxi cab driver told me that most of these towers were built on mill sites. I walked through the Mathuradas Mill Compound where most mill buildings are converted into clubs and restaurants. The adaptive reuse was interesting indeed, but the establishments in this compound just felt disconnected from their setting, almost oblivious and opaque. It felt like the city here had been de-urbanized and reduced to architecture; mere buildings in cement and steel to work with.
I then went to Bandra to meet my architect friend Pallavi who showed me around. After lunching at the maze like Candies, we walked to the villages of Chuim and Ranwar. Starkly different from the intense urban villages of Delhi, this was pleasant. Walking across the main bazaar street selling fruit and everyday things we reached the back lanes that housed quaint cafes and pretty homes amid street art. There were many people and houses, rich and poor; young and old, but essentially ordinary and comfortable.
And still every bit of urban space appeared to be well defined and utilized skilfully. Elsewhere in the city, I had also noticed the seating created on the edge of buildings, places for potted plants by the windows, large doors that could also work like windows when opened partly. But, Bademiya in Colaba surprised me and inspired me in a whole new way. The main kitchen and seating area in this landmark restaurant are separated by a motorable main street! So it functions like a take-away and a dine-in place with its service circulation space being the most public. I hadn’t seen such sharp intensity in a long while.
I remember when we were at Bandstand in front of Salman Khan’s home (whatte landmark!), Pallavi and I were talking about this thrifty spirit that I sensed everywhere in the city. She felt that it comes from how perhaps everyone comes to Bombay and struggles for years, working really really hard. Only then does life get a little comfortable. So it is never embarrassing to have less money. It’s just an ordinary humble life that one shares with most other people in the city; sharing public space and transport. There appeared to be a sense of celebration in this struggle (couldn’t you see the cliché coming?).
I was found myself back in Bombay a few weeks ago, this time though, considering whether I would want to move to the city for work. And that thought changed a whole bunch of perspectives. Much of the romanticism was washed away instantly and the city suddenly felt like a dense mass of fast moving objects, racing against time. Architecture could actually be reduced to floating geometry that sits back and observes the city unfold through its people and their transaction.
I realized pretty soon that my experience in the city would keep changing every time I would explore it since all of what I saw outside had much to do with who I was within at that point in time. I would still be just another blind man forever looking at Bombay as the fabled elephant.
Remembering the poignancy of the ‘Fallen Leaves’, Judisches Museum, Berlin
Ah June! To be grounded while I could have been traveling the world…that isn’t a good feeling. But then, there’s nothing bad about it either. As much as travel is about moving around and seeing things in the flesh, it is also about making journeys of imagination, reliving past moments and recreating them for your own pleasure.
Last year in June, we were in Europe on an idyllic vacation. The city lover in me was taking my family through some of the most spectacular sites of urbanisation in the world- Amsterdam and Berlin. Traveling in these two cities has offered me some of the most poignant moments of my life. At 16, I remember visiting the House of Anne Frank in Amsterdam and being moved to tears by what I felt inside.
At 38, I had a similarly intense moment as I turned a corner inside the Judisches Museum in Berlin to be surprised by the spectacular work of art, Shalekhet or Fallen Leaves by Menashe Kadishman. I remember gasping in surprise as I saw before me a sea of faces cut out from sheet metal. Sad faces, agonised faces, screaming faces, horrified faces, faces of despair, blank faces, tortured faces…thousands of them right there before us stretching out to what seemed like infinity.
To put things in context, a visit to the Judisches Museum designed by architect Daniel Liebskind was on my to-do list. But I’d heard extreme reactions to the building and I didn’t know what to expect. This is a structure of blacks, whites and greys. It is stark and has used sheer walls of concrete to express a deep anguish over the fate that befell the Jews at the hands of Hitler and the Nazis. But what I liked most about the building were the unusual voids- triangular spaces, spaces out of proportion, spaces with giant cut outs, spaces of deep darkness and sharp pins of light, spaces that held me spellbound.
The Shalekhet occupied one such space, very very tall and extremely narrow, as if life and happiness was being squeezed out of it. I stood there spellbound. And then, the children started to walk out onto the fallen faces strewn on the floor. I remember making a sound of protest, reaching out to stop them. But they were following an older child and I soon realised this is what the artist intended. For us to hear the clanking of the metal as people walked over the faces of all those who suffered and died, to feel that tortured sound of being in chains, of being walked over, destroyed.
For some reason, the Fallen Leaves made me think of the innocent children all over the world who are victims of violence, not just war and terror, but also beaten inside their homes or emotionally abandoned.
We’re letting them down, I thought. A year later, I’m still stung by that thought.