Wednesday, 7 September 2011

An Urban Sublime

In his book The Art of Travel Alain de Botton describes the "sublime" as those things which display a great power, a power greater than that of humans. The word is intended to be used to describe things which emphasise the smallness of humanity in comparison to the power and wonder of nature. Most commonly this meant heroic landscapes such as mountains, gorges, deserts etc.

I've been fortunate enough to have my own experience of the sublime, most strongly when I was being driven through the Norwegian fjords, weaving around gigantic barren snow-capped mountains. Unlike the rolling pastures of England, it is a landscape which seems brutally indifferent to human existence.

Being in the metropolis has also aroused a similar feeling in me. Although this strays from the above definition of the sublime by describing an experience of something human-made, I believe the feeling can be just as powerful. An example from my own experience is my encounter with Manhattan. Wandering among the giant buildings, their size beyond the immediate comprehension of a pedestrian I felt enclosed by mountains. At other times the views down the streets brought to mind endless canyons. Immediately I felt small and insignificant compared to phenomenon that is New York City. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling but an awe inspiring and humbling one.



Other examples could include the experience of being in Sao Paolo or Hong Kong.



Do these settings arouse the sublime only because they remind us of natural phenomena which could more readily be described as such? I believe that's part of it. But I also believe that such experiences of extreme urbanity place us in a situation where we face the reality of incomprehensible human abundance and are our place in it. Society suddenly feels very big and we can feel very small.

Among the skyscrapers and heaving masses we feel insignificant, but I would also say that we feel liberated knowing that our own worries and problems are just a small number among millions of others. Although own particular problems may seem personal to us, chances are, out there, many others have gone, are going or will go through the same.

Although it may not be quite the same as the natural sublime, the urban sublime has its own atttraction and is worthy of our attention.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Interesting discussions went down at the Sonic Boom event put on by Future Human. In the panel discussion at the end of the evening Matthew Herbert was talking about how presets in digital music software are the death of the imagination and that someone who uses them to make cookie cutter electronic music is simply participating in the consumerist paradigm of contemporary music. I sympathise but the idea of using music production software in a 'consumerist' way struck me as curious. As software becomes more sophisticated and user-friendly, as technical interfaces become more intuitive and much of the mechanics of music production is 'out-sourced' to the computer, the scope or need for imaginative human input narrows. Will it get to the point, or has it already got to the point, where one does not really produce music, but rather consumes music software.

"just playing FLStudio..."

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Stateside story

With Footcrab comfortably blitzing dancefloors everywhere it's clear that Juke has been cannibalised for parts in the way that 'UK bass music' producers have a habit of doing. It's also the latest stage in the resurgence of an American influence over emergent British scenes. Witness all the US house that was played when Funky was getting hot (like Men At Work, Karizma and that Aaron Carl track). Now it's Juke's turn. Like a banana tossed into a cage of hungry monkeys, its discovery among the British blog/forum massive has caused a bit of stir. Well, by 'stir' I mean there's a long thread about it at Dissensus.

Let's hope the buzz percolates away and we continue to get great Juke inspired tracks from disaffected Dubstep producers. The minimal 808 style pushed by Loefah is a good start, bring on those toms! (Check his mix halfway through this Rinse Podcast).

Now, as this is happening another idiosyncratic American genre has very quietly crept into the UK scene via its side entrance. In recent sets for Lower End Spasm, both Kingdom and GIRL UNIT played tracks from the VOGUE SCENE! Being a long time Vogue House fan I momentarily dropped my butch affectations and screamed like a Femme Queen when I heard Mike Q's 'I am Legend' and Jay R Revlon's 'Godzilla Ha' on Kingdom's and GIRL UNIT's mixes respectively (found here and here).

Does this signal Vogue House's entry into the UK bass scene a la Juke? Let's hope so, I wanna bust some dips and strike some poses at Plastic People. But I do have my doubts because 1) it's very gay and the UK bass scene is traditionally a bit macho and 2) as much as I love Vogue House, it's quite simple music and nowhere near as innovative as Juke can be (so some say Juke's the new jungle?!) so I doubt producers will adopt it out of blinding inspiration. But what Vogue House can offer is its attitude, its ultra bitchy gender-bending "let's werk that motherfucka" fierceness, which is what sets it apart as a genre. After all the screwface/bassface stuff, it would be a breath of fresh tongue-in-cheek air.

*Plus! Here's a mix of Vogue House/Cunt beats tracks I did back in 2008 where I strung together a series of bad Imeem rips into 34 mins of camp terror.

Pic courtesy of cross promotional blog whoring via emptyswimmingpool

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Streets and post-streets: Hong Kong's contrasting urban forms

Hong Kong, due to its geography and its particular political and economic development, is one the most densely populated cities in the world. This density is evident in the glittering skyscrapers and endless concrete apartment blocks forming the backdrop to every tourist's holiday snaps.

One would think that such density would result in a uniform urban form, one that pragmatically acquiesced to the demands of thousands of people living on top of each other. On the surface this seems true: as any visitor would attest, almost all of Hong Kong can be typified by huddled buildings, crowded footpaths and congested roads. However further examination reveals that even in this forest of skyscrapers there are varying urban forms which respond differently to the demands of extreme density. This variety can be best understood by looking at two areas of the city which, in terms of urban form, are polar opposites to which all other areas can be placed between. These two areas are Central (and surrounds), on Hong Kong Island itself and Mong Kok, on the Kowloon Peninsula.

The area made up of Central, the Mid-Levels and Soho (which I'll just call Central) is an infrastructure playground. Snaking between the soaring skyscrapers is a maze-like network of pedestrian over- and under passes which themselves weave around a network of motorway flyovers. On Hong Kong island, the response to the congestion problem has been to layer the transport network so that volume is spread vertically, minimising conflict between transport modes. This response can be attributed partly to the island's topography. From the harbour, there is only a small area of flat land before there is a dramatic slope upward to the peak of the island. This sloping topography means that ground level for one building is third floor level to another one downhill. This relationship meant that it made sense to build walkways directly between buildings rather than relying on the steep and undulating street network for circulation. The tendency for redevelopment on Hong Kong island to occur in large chunks also meant that it was easier to plan for these connections as architects and developers had control of large holdings of land. It would be much more difficult to connect many smaller disparate buildings all owned and built at different times.

Overpasses in Central

Pedestrian and vehicle traffic are separated onto their dedication channels

Another overpass

The outcome of this multi-layered pattern of development is an urban form which has transcended the traditional street. Getting from building A to building B in Central is often a matter of navigating pedestrian overpasses and tunnels, hopping from one shopping mall to the next, often without setting foot on a street. In fact, one loses the sense of where ground level is. A train station may be connected to a basement shopping centre which may connect to the second floor of a nearby office block which connects to an overpass to a residential complex etc.

In Central it is almost possible to experience the city without the street, one might say that it is has become post-street. A obvious manifestation of this idea is the Mid-Levels escalator. which connects low-lying Central with the Mid-Levels residential district further uphill. Built at several metres above ground level, the escalator is designed to avoid the winding and narrow streets below. It is an open admission of the limits of the traditional street network in an area of extreme density and difficult topography.

The Mid-levels escalator

In Mong Kok however, the traditional street network is all there is. The streets are laid out in a simple grid on which many old and dilapidated buildings sit. The buildings are on much smaller lots resulting in a fine-grained urban form contrasting with the big block development on Hong Kong Island. What this means is that almost every building relies on the traditional street frontage for access. There are very few connections between buildings which avoid the street thus creating a situation where almost all pedestrian circulation must occur at street level. In a place which is said to be the most densely populated on earth, this means extreme levels of pedestrian congestion. Mong Kok is nuts.

Street level Mong Kok

Buildings on small lots results in an urban environment with a "fine grain"

A Mong Kok street in the early morning

Despite the congestion, it is actually easier to understand Mong Kok as a pedestrian. To use the jargon, it is easier to read because it is more legible. Getting from building A to building B is conceptually simpler: you walk out the front of one place, walk along the street, then walk through the front of the next place. Places are connected by streets. You don't have to use an overpass which becomes an underpass which becomes a shopping mall which becomes another shopping mall. Instead, getting around Mong Kok involves you being inside, then walking outside then going back inside. "Ground level" is still a useful concept.

In my opinion, this reliance on the street results in a more vibrant and vital urban experience. The overhead walkways and tunnels of Central seem cold and sterile in comparison. They are designed only to get hoards of people from one place to another. Although the streets of Mong Kok perform this function as well, they are mostly un-programmed public spaces, blank canvasses on which a variety of social interactions can occur. This is why the best street markets are in Mong Kok and why street dining is such an exciting and memorable experience.

Temple Street night market as seen by a streetside dining table.

This is not to say that Central doesn't have its charms, it is a vibrant place in its own way, but Central and Mong Kok represent two differing extremes of the Hong Kong urban experience. This differentiation is a result of the ways in which pedestrian and vehicle traffic is managed. Mong Kok is reliant on conventional intersecting streets on which pedestrians and vehicles must negotiate each other. Although this approach may struggle to cope with the high volumes of traffic involved, it encourages interaction and creates an exciting urban experience. While in Central, although the street is still fundamental, it has been augmented by more specialised networks which take pedestrians and vehicles off the street and onto overpasses and motorways. This dispersal of traffic away from the traditional street means that the the very idea of the street no longer figures so heavily in the urban experience as it does elsewhere.

Who needs the street?

As more large scale redevelopment reaches Mong Kok (see Langham Place, for instance), it will be interesting to see if the same approach is taken to managing circulation. One hopes that if this is the case, it will not be at the expense of Mong Kok's vibrant streets.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Vancouver 2010 as graphic design

Watching coverage of the Vancouver 2010 Winter games, I'm struck not so much by the athleticism of the competitors or the variety and peculiarity of the events themselves, but by how wonderfully graphic the whole spectacle is. From the ground up, everything has been designed for maximum impact at the level of the image. The requisite markings for each course, rink and arena are done in a bold simplistic way. Combined with the stark white background, the bright simple uniforms and the cold non-judgemental gaze of the sports camera, the images presented on our screen attain an almost abstract quality. Although they are photographs, below are some images taken from various news websites which have this strong graphic quality about them (excuse the watermark on the last two).

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Concrete streets

With timber being an expensive import in a country of palm trees and steel and brick also prohibitively expensive for most of the populace, concrete has become the de facto building material for the Philippines. From Mega Manila to the smallest farm shack, concrete is used for anything which requires some permanence in this typhoon prone nation. Bus stops, road signs and even statues of historic figures are rendered in concrete. But it is in the construction of ordinary buildings which reveals the pragmatic relationship that Filipinos have with concrete.

Almost every building in your average Filipino city or town is constructed from concrete, usually in the form of prefabricated blocks supported by a reinforced concrete frame. These block walls are then rendered but often money is tight and it is not unusual to see them left as is.

Despite this economical pragmatism, there is evidence of aspirational optimism too. Buildings are often built with future extension in mind. Concrete frames are erected and filled in but the ends and edges are left completely exposed - even after the building is occupied. Steel reinforcement wires jut upwards and outwards in anticipation of when finances allow the family the extra bedroom or the landlord the extra storey.

This honest approach to constructing a living environment results in an urban landscape which openly admits its propensity for change. These buildings are not close-ended set pieces intended to remain unchanged forever (like most buildings in the developed world), they are literally open-ended components of a constantly changing and adapting habitat system.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

I Love Techno Rundown

This year I finally made it to I Love Techno, that annual gathering of 35 thousand or so techno and electro fans. It takes place in Ghent, Belgium, somewhere I only know about because of I Love Techno. Apparently it has its charms but the city is quite incidental to the fact that there are a series of huge sheds nearby that are perfect for hosting massive raves.

My relatively short time in the UK has afforded me two previous chances to go to ILT but laziness prevailed both times. But this year could be my last opportunity so I seized it. Plus it was a chance to combine my two geeky passions of mine: techno and high-speed rail. Yes this was going to be a shotgun Eurostar affair - last train there, first train back. This didn't daunt me, I've done it before for a New Years Eve adventure to Paris, what did worry me was making the connections with the regional trains and local trams in Belgium. As anyone who regularly goes travelling would know, things, more often than not, go wrong. I was envisioning nightmare scenarios of missed trains, stolen passports and having to bed down in some piss-stained corner of Brussels. What did happen was that Fate, the prankster that it is, had everything run smoothly.

Here was the itinerary:
19:34 Eurostar to Brussels via Lille

22:30ish arrived at Brussels and milled around looking for the right platform for the train to Ghent. Saw some fellow travellers in clubbing clothes with no baggage and followed them. Hung around platform 15 as an educated guess. A bunch of very drunk and rowdy Spaniards come running onto the platform shouting "Ghent?!?Ghent?!" and harassed the nice train man with their drunken questions. Turns out Platform 15 is the one! Muchas Gracias mis drunken amigos!

23:20 get on the train to Gint-St-Pieters. Said Spaniards dominate the train carriage with their drunken and progressively drugged out rowdiness. I occupy my time by watching a group of English guys trying to maintain their ketamine affected balance on the rocking train.

24:00 Arrive in Ghent and follow the intoxicated crowd to the tram station. Luckily there's a tram waiting and I figure it must be the right one as people are drinking and smoking joints (!) inside. It's definitely the party tram.

00:15ish, arrive at Flanders Expo Centre. I was fearing massive queues to get in but there were none, seems like everyone is inside already.

00:20 Encounter the most efficient mass coat-check system I've ever encountered (those organised Belgians!)

00:25 Inside I Love Techno proper.

The trek for techno!

I was happy and quite surprised I made it with little hassle. I've been stung by European train journeys before so this was a miracle of mundane efficiency.

The event itself consists of 5 rooms and a chill out room all arranged around a massive central area with toilets, stalls, bars etc. Despite it's name I Love Techno has more electro acts than techno acts but the event is so huge that you can surround yourself with techno and avoid the annoying electro kids. Accordingly, I made my way to the Green Room which had the most techno line-up of the night.

The first act I caught was Luke Slater and some other guy playing live. I don't remember much but it was nice middle of the road techno with a minimal bent. Next up was Adam Beyer who continued the same vibe but going a teensy bit harder and rougher but still quite safe. I thoroughly enjoyed it though as the beats were suited to a massive warehouse environment. At some point when I went to buy more drink stamps I saw that Dave Clarke was playing in the Red Room. I totally forgot about Dave so I made a beeline to catch whatever I could. Luckily the night was also the night the clocks go back and when 3am came around it magically became 2am again and I got a free hour of Dave Clarke. He was by far the highlight for me. DC played his usual banging hiphop influenced techno in his rough chop and change style. This hour was what imagined I Love Techno was all about: thousands of people going crazy to bash-your-face techno.

After Dave Clarke was done Carl Craig stepped up to play some Detroit stuff. I love Detroit techno but the change of pace from Dave Clarke made it sound so pedestrian, I was in the mood for some banging-ness. So I returned to the Green Room to wait for Chris Liebing to come on. After Deadmau5 finished their set the MC asked the crowd if they wanted it louder, harder, faster? With wide-eyed expectation I thought "Yes yes yes! Let's go! I'm ready!" Then Chris Liebing came on and played some surprisingly plodding tracks. I don't think anything went above 130bpm. In fact it was basically minimal, just a tiny bit faster. I was slightly disappointed. For a 4am set, I was expecting a bit more. Maybe it'll get harder after 5am? I dunno, I couldn't stick around to find out, I had to get back to Brussels in time for my train back to London.

After being impressed by the coat-check system again I joined the massive queue to for the tram back to the train station. Trams were coming one after the other so the queue moved quickly. Security were on hand to control the queue and keep the trams rammed at a civil level. Unfortunately no such service was provided at the station for trains back to Brussels. What a scrum! I couldn't help but laugh at the cynical desperation ravers can display after a night out. I didn't get a seat but managed to score the steps near the door allowing me to sit on the floor with some comfort.

Back at Brussels the fatigue was wearing in and I simply slouched the time away in the departure lounge. It was nice to see that there a few other sketchy characters with the same idea. When it was time to go I simply passed out in my train seat. Sitting there with no luggage and reeking of cigarettes and vodka I must have a been a sight for the Francophone Belgian who sat next to me.

9am - Back at St Pancras and it was time for breakfast before heading back home and ending the most protracted post-rave journey home.

Overall, it was a great night. I Love Techno itself was great, but not amazing. I'm not sure 7 hours of travelling is worth it for 5 hours of raving, but for me, the journey there and back was half the fun. I wanted to see if it was doable and it really is. If I'm still in UK this time next year and I have nothing better to do, I'll happily do it all over again.