The Greatest City That Was

A city is a vertical landscape, organized linearly, radially, sometimes seemingly at random; the horizon is not the edge of the earth’s curvature, but instead the structures that define not only space but the dynamics of the space. It is not a sterile grid in which everything is set in its own place, but an integrated system in which everything is interdependent, and yet, it can be self-sustainable all on its own, self-contained cohesive unit separate from the world without.

Then take this city, and compress it. Compress it tenfold, a hundredfold, pushing ever more into a smaller space, and suddenly the old structures are no longer sufficient to support its populace, its original infrastructure and functions and standards. Some things must shift in order to re-adapt and to accommodate its new conditions, while others must be sacrificed altogether. The result is a hyperdense urban area, a living, breathing organism, complex and incomprehensible and breathtakingly terrifying all at once.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing examples exists in the Kowloon Walled City of Hong Kong.

It was once a military fort, existing for hundreds of years without much change. Once urban settlement began, however, it grew and grew- never spilling outside the boundaries of its walls, but building upon building upon building springing up and around and against and on top of and between one another. The buildings tended to hover somewhere between 10 and 15 storeys, depending on the source one reads- and at is peak population may have reached a density of 3,249,000 people per square mile. It was fraught with crime and and violence, and although many of its residents might have been perfectly average and hardworking, the area lay outside the jurisdiction of both the British government and the Chinese. There was no official control, no official regulation. The Walled City was left to its own devices. Yet it thrived and it flourished, a city and a world all unto its own.

Architecture was, on average, haphazard; additions were were made wherever there was space. Wikipedia provides:

The City’s dozens of alleyways were often only 1–2 m (3.3–6.6 ft) wide, and had poor lighting and drainage. An informal network of staircases and passageways also formed on upper levels, which was so extensive that one could travel north to south through the entire City without ever touching solid ground. Construction in the City went unregulated, and most of the roughly 350 buildings were built with poor foundations and few or no utilities. Because apartments were so small—about 60% were 23 m2 (250 sq ft)—space was maximized with wider upper floors, caged balconies, and rooftop additions. Roofs in the City were full of television antennas, clotheslines, water tanks, and garbage, and could be crossed using a series of ladders.”

Instead of streets, there are only alleys so one may navigate between buildings. Yet the buildings are packed so closely together that the space between them is nearly negligible. There is little light, little breathing room. Were one to stand outside at street level, there might peek a sliver of sky, and perhaps sunlight would reach down when the sun was high, as a deep and narrow rift cut through canyon walls. The buildings of the Walled City look less like separate structures than one whole, as if one took any other city, ran it through a trash compactor, and spit it back out- fissures here and there, a crack, a small awkwardly-shaped opening there, where nothing else might fit- but the distinctions and boundaries between personal and public space are no longer defined by conventional standards.

It was demolished in 1993, and in its place today stands an open park. Broken and whole, derelict but alive, the Kowloon Walled City was (and is) nothing to be trifled with. Should it have survived, it might yet be a microcosm of its own, a hyperbole of the metropolis, a distinct urban ecosystem unlike any other.

Other images of interest (which you really ought to look at): The Walled City in 1973, and a ridiculously detailed artist’s rendering of a cross section.

On the artistic unreliability of memory

Love Rosie by Colter Jacobson
Love Rosie by Colter Jacobson

Memory is that capacity within us that we desperately call forth in those last ten minutes of the exam, uncomfortably scanning and re-scanning that last question for which a haphazardly drawn together response was constructed from the faintest of impressions. Our bodies are paralyzed with concentration, yet our minds try at every door, turning knobs and hastily pulling open drawers and cabinets that lie within. Oftentimes, this is the case with voluntary memory — the facts, the abstract words or concepts that have no direct tie to a visual cue require deliberate attention to be committed in our repertoire of knowledge. They ask for much more of our internal resources as they do not automatically strike us in a way that makes them bold against the sea of other lingering thoughts.

Colter Jacobson explores, contrarily, on involuntary memory. He drew the above image, Love Rosie (2008) from a found photograph of a sailor and for a month following, would return to that image in his mind’s eye and regenerate it on paper. As the days pass, the sailor remains distinguishable as a sailor with the same general features — moustache, a sailor’s necktie, friendly eyes — yet his proportions waver relative to one another. The amount of variation is enough to make several of his drawings appear to be different men altogether, yet they all seem to retain the essence that had been most salient in Jacobson’s initial encounter with this man. Details and the diligent specifics might be lacking, but he repeatedly captures that playful, confident smile, the flirtatious edge beheld in his expression. His art piece is not necessarily the sailor himself, but his memory of the sailor and the aesthetic of its volatility, of its subtle inaccuracies. Change is inherent with our vision of time and as events occur – the shattering of a grandmother’s teapot, the acquisition a new job, the acquaintance of a new face — unawares to our conscious selves, our previous memories or at least our perspective from which we look to these previous memories move – liquefied, their edges shift ever so slightly. And of course, this is all coupled with disassembling of the memory itself. Though, like a deteriorating orbit, it never quite loses all trace but retains some essential center that involuntarily stays. This is especially true of visual memory which seems to be more Proustian than for, say, semantic memory.

Being a neuroscience major, it has come to my attention how little we do know about memory, let alone about the brain itself. Despite the acceleration of the sciences, there remains still a great degree of mystery left that cannot possibly be all “resolved” in our lifetime. But if it, by some miracle of human prowess, does, I wonder about the nature of the implications it clearly will have on philosophy and of course, on art.

Sue majors in Neuroscience & English and tends to lurk in bookstores.

24 rooms in 1 apartment

Discovering innovative new uses for space has become a new trend among contemporary artists and architects.  For those people working in cities where the densely packed urban environment leads to smaller confinements of space and limited building sizes, space becomes a hot commodity and so does creative thinking.

For one architect in Hong Kong, this issue of space became highly problematic in one of the densest cities of the world.  Gary Chang, coping with the tight space wasn’t necessarily a towering obstacle; rather it became another problem to solve in his field of design.  Desiring to live in the tiny three bedroom apartment formerly owned by his family, he decided to take space into his own hands.  Creating a “futuristic” system comprised of wheels, tracks, and much glass and metal, Chang transformed his cramped home of childhood into a highly efficient and eco-friendly adaptable apartment.  With moving walls and furniture, Chang is able to create 24 different rooms and designs in his small 33x10ft (approx.) flat.

Watch the video for more information!

Homemade Creativity

Homemade Iron Man Costume from Target Commercial
Homemade Iron Man Costume from Target Commercial

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays.  At what other time of year can you see a hippie, a whack-a-mole, and the jolly green giant proudly walking down the street together?  I love seeing the clever costume ideas people come up with at Halloween, and all of my favorites have been homemade.

In Target’s Iron Man costume Halloween commercial, which can be watched here, we’re shown a kid in an Iron Man costume his mom made.  The premise is that the costume is much less cool than the store-bought version.  As much as I love Target, I just don’t “get” this ad; I thought the kid’s homemade costume was awesome!  Sure, the push light on his shirt fell off part way through the commercial, but with a little ingenuity, that could easily be fixed.  The homemade costume may not have been the most accurate representation of Iron Man ever, but it was cute, clever, and 100% unique.

I just don’t think you can beat a homemade costume.  Not only does making your own costume force you to be creative in bringing a costume idea into reality, but it also gives you so much more freedom in deciding what you want to be for Halloween.  Anyone can walk into the store and pick up the latest witch’s hat, but when is the last time you saw a whack-a-mole costume hanging on the supermarkets’ shelves.  Most costumes are fun, but homemade, super-creative costumes will always be the best.

Halloween Town

Halloween is fun

Halloween, you can look like a bum!

Trick or Treaters out about

Heard all around me are screams and shouts!

Goblins, Witches, and Ghouls galore

Everyone is dressed like a freaking whore!

Cowboys, Indians, Batman and Robin

Hey, look there goes the green goblin!

All of these costumes should bring others fright,

But for me this is a glorious sight.

You don’t want to miss out, don’t even blink

Plus, it’s an excuse for four nights to drink!

Haunted houses and crazy hayrides

Be on the lookout for those bloody brides!

Scary pumpkins with lit up faces

Watch out that candy might get stuck in your braces!

Halloween will be gone by tomorrow,

And all we’re left with is November football sorrow.

All in all it’s a wondrous night

Hope you enjoy the Halloween delight!

Ah, Sweet Dissonance

Space chords are perhaps among the most beautifully chilling sounds in existence. Like a proclamation of terror and enlightenment, of omnipotence and microcosms, of everything and nothing at once, space chords are nothing short of awe-inducing.

Observe, the Blue Devils at warmup:

(Skip to 1:08-ish to cut straight to it.)

To be honest, I know little about this musical phenomenon. A quick Google turns up nothing particularly explanatory, and it seems that the majority of results are of the brass section of some professional drum corps going away at their warming-up or tuning exercises with impressive skill and precision.

I’ve always wanted to know how these chords were constructed, but never, never, could I pick apart exactly what notes were in there (I’ve a bad ear for that sort of thing). Somehow, “simultaneously playing every note in existence” did not seem like it would achieve the intended effect. Apparently, space chords are particularly finicky and there is a finesse to getting them in tune.

Consider: that’s not only a bit of dissonance, such as one gets by playing two notes very close to one another at the same time (like the jarring wails of sirens and alarms), but it’s dissonance on top of dissonance. They cannot be so messy so as to be a meaningless jumble or sound, nor can they fit too well and become suddenly harmonious. It’s a tricky one to balance.

But what defines the allure of the space chord? It is in human nature to shy away from discord and conflict, from clashes and horrid sounds that grind and screech against one another. Harmony offers a path of less resistance, seems natural and pleasing to the ear, and does not require shoving a shoulder against the offending sound with a lopsided grimace and proclaiming, “of course it sounds beautiful!” In medieval times, the tritone, a far simpler and more common form of dissonance, became associated with the devil and was subsequently banned by the church. The space chord? Like a tritone, multiplied tenfold. Even I occasionally wince a tad upon hearing one. They are, admittedly, an acquired taste.

That, perhaps, is what one might see in these unusual chords. There is a sort of otherworldly, indefinable quality to them, something that is off but not off, something that is almost right but not quite. The sound, the eerie feeling, is everywhere and nowhere all at once, now and in the past and the future. It might foreshadow something ominous, but is so much greater than you, so beyond the scope of your comprehension and your ability to do anything about it, that there is naught to do but to listen. It’s strange, and it’s beautiful.

By the by: I found this.