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.