FIELD REPORT: The Pop-Up Market

Bangkok is reputably a city with the largest urban concentration of night markets in Southeast Asia, becoming something of a nexus for bargain hunters and savvy entrepreneurs. From long-time fixtures such as the Chatuchak Weekend Market to purpose-built commercial developments like the Asiatique Riverfront Market and niche markets that include the Rod Fai Market with its focus on vintage-style goods—the significance of night markets in Bangkok as a leisure activity for some and a livelihood for others is an interesting dynamic for this city on the rise.

Just as fashion trends evolve, Bangkok’s night market scene has also experienced a surge of transformation in recent years. During a trip to Bangkok in May 2016, I visited one of the newest “kids on the block” (literally and figuratively) that is revamping the concept of a night market.

Launched in 2015, Artbox is a “pop-up” market erected from metal shipping containers and other mobile materials. The portability of these construction elements allow Artbox to rove from one site to another—setting up shop in vacant lots around the city for a temporary period of time. The adaptability of Artbox to pop-up in various locations is one novel aspect but, arguably, the more creative (if not marketable) feature of Artbox is its positioning as a “hipsteresque” agora where local designers and young entrepreneurs can ply their trades.

My visit to Artbox took place on a weekend in the neighbourhood of Phrom Phong, where the market was then occupying a vacant lot ideally situated a short distance from the eponymous BTS station. It became very apparent from the “designed” entranceway that this market would not be an ordinary night bazaar.

The whimsical quality and creative vibe that Artbox exudes are by no means an accident of spontaneity but, rather, a feat of organized and strategic planning. That so much planning would be exerted for a temporary market that “comes and goes” speaks to the vision of Artbox as more than just an avant-garde concept—it is on a path towards (re)defining the culture (and economy) of night markets in Bangkok.

Artbox vendors are eager to demonstrate their pride in the products and services that they sell. What might be a typical lemonade stall is, instead, a carefully curated soda bar complete with two bartender-entrepreneurs with a knack for concocting immaculately decorated beverages. Other local creative talents include portrait artists of whom the more popular ones (if, unless, you can get to them early) have a 1-hour waiting list long before the curtain is dropped on this theatrical night market.

On the one hand, Artbox signifies a burgeoning creative industry in Bangkok that is helmed by young local entrepreneurs and supported by young local consumers (the demographics of the crowd serves as a strong indicator of the target market). More significantly, the popularity of Artbox has grown beyond the city boundaries of Bangkok, as it would seem, going by a recent post on its Facebook page which announced that the market would be popping up on the shores of Singapore. The tagline, “It’s Time to Move On”, is apt. The Singapore version of Artbox, from 28-30 April 2017 and 5-7 May 2017, will be host to around 64 food & drinks stalls and 256 fashion & lifestyle vendors. The “mobility” factor of Artbox, therefore, can be read on two levels. Firstly, as a mobile yet community-oriented marketplace akin to the early trading traditions of roving caravans. Secondly, as a “glocal” movement towards micro enterprises and curated consumerism.

On the other hand, Artbox also signifies an underlying process of gentrification. Gentrification of the night markets. In a citywide initiative to clear streets and pavements of itinerant hawkers—an effort which began in 2015 and has resulted in the removal of almost 15,000 vendors (Sauers, 2016)—the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration could very well be advancing this process of gentrification. What then of the urban life in public spaces once teeming with commercial activity that contributed to a bustling street economy? How will urban life, void of street vendors, be reinstated? More crucially, how will these public spaces be “[returned] to the Bangkok people” (Dr Nattapong in Tan, 2017)?

Perhaps the concept of a community-oriented “pop-up” market, with its many possible permutations of temporality, locality, and diversity, might provide the starting point towards a place- and people-centric solution.

Image Credits: All images are the property of Su-Jan Yeo unless otherwise stated.

References

Sauers, Craig (2016) ‘Bangkok’s disappearing street food’, BBC (online), 23 August 2016. Click here to read: bbc-23-aug-2016

Tan, Hui Yee (2017) ‘Sweeping vendors off Bangkok streets’, The Straits Times, 24 January 2017. Click here to read: the-straits-times-24-jan-2017

FIELD REPORT: Heritage & Conservation, (Re)engaged

What makes a city creative? It would seem obvious that ‘creative’ people might beget a creative city. But can a city in search of sustainable creativity rely solely on human capital alone? How significant a role can the physical elements of the environment—buildings, sites, and spaces—play in fostering, if not engendering, creativity? Does the adopted system or approach by which creativity is fostered and engendered matter—and, if so, to whom?

During an April 2016 worktrip in Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to visit a relatively new conservation project turned ‘creative hub’ called PMQ. Alighting at the Sheung Wan MTR station, I made my way to Aberdeen Street off Wellington Street. Aberdeen Street is an arduous uphill climb which, fortunately, was made more captivating by the visual juxtaposition of shops ranging from old traditional trades and family businesses to boutique retail and contemporary cafes (Figure 1). [1] After the breathless trek, I abruptly found myself on the grounds of PMQ at the corner of Aberdeen Street and Hollywood Road (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Juxtaposition of ‘old’ and ‘new’ businesses/shopfronts on Aberdeen Street.

Figure 2. PMQ Site. Source: Adapted from Google Map.

In 1889, the site served as a school campus for Queen’s College (previously named Victoria College and, before that, Central School). The school buildings were destroyed during the Second World War, and the site later rebuilt in 1951 as the Police Married Quarters (a dormitory for married officers working in the nearby Central Police Station). In 2000, all residents had moved out from the Police Married Quarters, leaving the site vacant and its future undetermined for ten years. The designation of the Police Married Quarters as a Grade 3 Historic Building in Hong Kong in 2010 was a significant milestone that helped to initiate revitalization efforts for the buildings and site. In 2014, after two years of conceptualization and design followed by another two years of renovation, the heritage and conservation site commenced operations as a “hub for design and creative industries” and named after the acronym ‘PMQ’ (Hong Kong Tourism Board, 2016; PMQ Management Co. Ltd., 2016).

PMQ contains approximately 18,000 square metres of gross floor area that is distributed among: two slab blocks (Staunton and Hollywood); a standalone 2-storey building (currently accommodating a F&B establishment); and a multipurpose indoor event space (QUBE) which not only links the two main blocks but, in so doing, also creates a sheltered courtyard on the ground floor for other programming opportunities (Figure 3).

Figure 3. PMQ cross-section plan illustrating the various types of spaces for events and programming. Source: PMQ Management Co. Ltd.

Standard size studio units are available for rent with a maximum 50% discount in the first 2 years of lease for new local designers, specializing in product design and design services, who are just entering the scene (Figure 4). Several units are designated as public exhibition galleries, in this way promoting local creatives and organizations (Figure 5). A resource centre, co-working space, and designers-in-residence are extra facilities intended to help incubate and disseminate creative output.

Figure 4. Standard studio unit used as a retail shop.

Figure 5. Standard studio unit used as a public exhibition gallery.

In addition to these functional spaces, there are also ‘flexible’ spaces on-site that serve as blank canvasses for creativity. Art has helped to enliven walls and staircases, transforming them from utilitarian elements to whimsical objects (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Graphic art applied to walls and stairs.

Meanwhile, internal corridors prove that they can facilitate more than just human circulation by providing intimate niches for dining, retail spill-over, and pop-up activities (Figures 7 and 8).

Figure 7. Extension of dining into the corridor.

Figure 8. The corridor serves as an activity space and/or display area for the nearby retail shop.

Lastly, the varying platform levels and transparency afforded through glass detailing and unobstructed views create opportunities for casual observations, playful interactions, and reflective gazes—which have the potential to stir creativity (Figures 9 and 10).

Figure 9. View of the studio units from the opposite block.

Figure 10. Multilayered views facilitated by seamless exposure between building levels.

In today’s world of globalization and mass consumption, shopping centres tend to look more and more alike (aka ‘cookie-cutter’ malls), particularly in the tenant mix which often comprises well-recognized international brands. [2] For budding homegrown enterprises, finding alternative commercial spaces that are not only affordable but also of comparable quality can be a challenge. PMQ is therefore a unique set-up. With its social enterprise objective, PMQ is a collaboration between the non-profit sector (operations and funding through donations), government (financing of initial structural works), and tenants (provision of rental income). State-owned properties of conservation value certainly present creative possibilities for collaborations, resulting in distinctive projects that could help promote and grow a specific industry sector while also (re)engaging the community to its historical past and architectural heritage.

Image Credits: All images are the property of Su-Jan Yeo unless otherwise stated.

Notes

[1] For those inclined, there is also the (less strenuous) option of arriving to PMQ via the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator.

[2] Singapore’s major shopping corridor, Orchard Road, features megamalls which have been lamented by their critics for being lacklustre in terms of retail diversity, shopping experience, and identity/positioning. For more, see ‘Bringing back Orchard Road buzz’, The Straits Times, 11 May 2016. Click here to read: the-straits-times-11-may-2016.pdf

References

Hong Kong Tourism Board (2016) ‘PMQ’. Accessed from: <http://www.discoverhongkong.com/seasia/see-do/culture-heritage/historical-sites/colonial/pmq.jsp&gt; [5 May 2016].

PMQ Management Co. Ltd. (2016) ‘History of PMQ’. Accessed from: <http://www.pmq.org.hk/heritage/history-of-pmq/&gt; [5 May 2016].

FILM: Noma, My Perfect Storm

Source: Foodcine.ma (Anonymous)

Gastronomy and the City. Some may argue that this perfect match is as exquisite a pairing as wine and cheese. Where better to practice the art of good eating than in the city. Conversely, where other than the city is there a greater opportunity to partake in good eating. Is it the food, then, that makes the city? Or the city that makes the food?

Earlier in March, I attended the Southeast Asian premiere of Noma, My Perfect Storm. Presented in Singapore by Anonymous, the screening of Noma, My Perfect Storm was the launch to an upcoming film festival themed entirely on food (FoodCine.ma).

Noma, My Perfect Storm is a documentary film that explores the intellectual faculty of René Redzepi who is the Head Chef and culinary creative behind Noma, a two-Michelin star restaurant and four-time winner of ‘The World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ accolade. The other central figure in the film, besides the seductive food concoctions, is place. In this instance, two contrasting places: the Nordic wilderness (where the bulk of Noma‘s ingredients are sourced) and the Danish city of Copenhagen (where Noma is located). While the dominating narrative in the film is that of Redzepi’s compelling rise-to-fame story, there is also the more subtle but equally captivating narrative of food and place.

Noma‘s food philosophy is premised on the concepts of time (seasonality) and place (regionality), thereby creating a demanding and rigorous ‘just-in-time’ methodology of food sourcing, food preparation, and food plating (imagine, live ants on crème fraîche). Positioned as a reinvention of Nordic cuisine, Noma is a champion of Nordic cottage industries on the one hand and a provocateur of Nordic culinary traditions on the other. This deliberate dissension and discord—where place is simultaneously formed and transformed through gastronomic ingenuity—is perhaps Noma‘s raison d’être and the source of its éclat. Furthermore, the transposition of raw ingredients from the rural to the urban highlights the very real and complex nature of the food trail, which begs the question: To what extent does local food foster greater (or fewer) ethical relations between producers and consumers in today’s global food economy?

In order to gain another perspective of the local/global relationship between food and place, one simply needs to Google search ‘Noma’ and the results bring a worldwide audience to Copenhagen. Indeed, Noma‘s well-acclaimed awards and recognition have elevated Copenhagen on the world map (if not, certainly, the food connoisseur’s list of travel destinations). It comes as no surprise that the gastronomy sector is being cultivated more and more within cities as an urban strategy to promote tourism and attract/retain talent. Some of the highly-sought after facets underpinning the culinary domain are ‘creativity’, ‘innovation’, ‘experience’, and ‘authenticity’—all of which are significant branding terms for cities competing in today’s modern rendition of the cultural industry. A state-of-the-art foodscape, therefore, can play a significant role in shaping a city’s branding and identity.

Perhaps, then, it is the food that makes the city.

FILE NOTES: Why Playgrounds Should Never Grow Out of Style

In today’s digital age, the realm of children’s play is expanding rapidly into the fourth spatial dimension—the spatial dimension of virtual realities and cyber networks. From books and games to music and crafts, digital technology has converted traditional (physical and haptic) forms of play into digitized formats with user-friendly qualities that include convenience, mobility, and accessibility. Such technological innovations are garnering mass appeal from users young and old; but it is the younger users, those born into the digital revolution, whose early life experiences are increasingly being shaped by the new digital world.

As digital technology becomes more and more pervasive, there ought to be a counterbalance provided by tactile environments such as playgrounds in the case of children. Physical playgrounds, those which are thoughtfully designed and age appropriate, can enhance early childhood development—emotional, social, motor, and cognitive skills—through opportunities for (inter)active play.

Often times, however, playgrounds are only ever viewed from a ground level perspective which privileges the experiential aspect of play over the inner workings of its design. In order to better understand and appreciate the dynamics of space, landscape, and design in the planning of playgrounds, an equally important angle is that of the plan view. Photographer Stefen Chow and economics-trained market researcher Lin Hui-Yi are the creative minds behind The Play Project—“an aerial survey of 100 playgrounds across Singapore”.

Browsing this photographic archive of neighbourhood playgrounds affords fascinating discoveries, precisely because of the novel visual approach employed by Chow and Lin in presenting the physical sites to the viewer. With a bird’s eye vantage point, the shapes and patterns of the various playgrounds are illuminated to reveal the relationship between playscape, landscape, and builtscape. Paradoxically, the utilization of drone and digital technologies has made it possible for these images to be captured and (re)presented. Yet, through a reverse effect, it is the transfer of new design knowledge into the construction and ultimate use of future play spaces that, ideally, could become the tangible outcome of such a project—and, to this end, championing the need for urban areas to be planned for children as well.

Note: All images are sourced from The Play Project website unless otherwise stated.

Figure 1. Location / Tembusu Park, Choa Chu Kang

Figure 2. Location / 650A Jurong West St 61

Figure 3. Location / 55 Havelock Road

Figure 4. Location / 273 Punggol Place

FILM: Urbanized

Urbanized, the third and most recent feature-length documentary in Gary Hustwit’s design trilogy film series, has been on my radar for quite some time since its debut in 2011. Last week, I had the opportunity to watch the DVD format of Urbanized. With a running time of 85 minutes, the film managed to explore an array of divergent as well as overlapping urban issues—from sensational architecture and urban design principles to DIY urbanism and civic democracy—while also incorporating interview footage with an impressive cast of Who’s Who in the world of architecture, planning, and local government.

The film is decorated with memorable and provocative quotes, which left me deeply inspired and compelled to respond with further thoughts on these urban issues…

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ON URBAN LIFE

“…do not look at how many people are walking in the city, but look at how many people have stopped walking to stay and enjoy what is there.” (Jan Gehl)

A dynamic city thrives on transient flows of people, goods, services, and ideas. One could argue that the rhythms underpinning these flows give the city its electrifying ‘beat’. Not surprisingly then, a city that bustles is a city often perceived as vibrant, fun, and innovative. But such a city also needs places that enable the pulses of urban life to rest, even if momentarily. Like a grand pause, or fermata (  ) in a musical score, the public spaces of a city have the potential, if designed well, to vary the tempo of urban life by providing opportunities for people to stop, linger, and take in the surrounds. In other words, urban vibrancy is as much a measure of quietude as it is a measure of rapidity on the streets of the city.    

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ON THE HUMAN DIMENSION

“We are really talking about the urban habitat of Homo sapiens. It’s the same Homo sapiens all over the world. Cultural circumstances differ, economic circumstances differ, climatic circumstances differ; but, basically, we are the same little walking animal.” (Jan Gehl)

Our shared existence as human beings point to the fundamental basic needs of our species that are common across the spectrum. For the most part, our species-specific traits influence how cities are planned and buildings designed for our comfort, safety, enjoyment, and day-to-day functions. Indeed, culture, economics, and climate shape our practices and behaviours in urban space, creating variations of urban forms (aesthetically and operationally). While sensitivity to these differences, in relation to understanding the core human needs of a liveable habitat, is an important facet of the design process, equally important is the knowledge of how technological innovations are enabling us to circumvent the physiological limitations of our species and physical limitations of our built environment.

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ON PUBLIC PARTICIPATION

“…even though the needs are obvious, it then becomes even more important to systematically involve people who live these realities in trying to figure out what’s the most strategic way to respond.” (Edgar Pieterse)

The essence of architecture and urban planning is to create habitats for people and their human activities. Everyone is, in one way or another, an invested user of architectural and planned spaces. We have an innate understanding, though coloured by individual preferences, of how design solutions could be derived to work for us and our communities. Often times such commonplace knowledge of our lived worlds are taken-for-granted, resulting in cookie-cutter design solutions repeated from one project to another with little regard to the specificities of their impact on individuals and local places. The moment when planning situations become all-too-familiar is the moment when we need to break down prior assumptions through deeper design conversations between practitioners and communities.

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ON CIVIC SOCIETY AND PUBLIC SPACE

“Cities and their form will always be the terrain of struggle as different interests contest for power, for position and for influence in the shaping of the city.” (Michael Sorkin)

“Democracy itself is always showing the strains and stresses from time to time. And in a way the city is an expression of that, in many ways, in microcosm. Some of those societies—which are now being torn by inner strife, and tensions, and ambitions, and repressions—it is the public spaces which become the symbols.” (Norman Foster)

From sidewalks to street corners. From parks to plazas. From the ordinary to the sensational. All forms of urban public space operate at their most basic level as shared common resources and, thus, the grounds for socio-political expressions. If we accept that contestations and negotiations will naturally occur in public space, then what seems to be of greater importance is not that we sanction such places with prescriptive rules of conduct but, rather, that we move towards a better understanding of where and how innovative design can help transform tensions into acceptance over time. Undeniably, such terms of acceptance may be shaped and imposed by the more dominant groups of users, thus implying an imbalance of powers. Nevertheless, the general social health of a city is closely linked to the observed ‘publicness’ of the city’s public spaces. Public spaces which are inclusive and tolerant, where sameness and difference coexist with a mutual desire for harmony, are often a good indication of an open city at-large.

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 ON URBANIZATION

“In the past 30 years, cities were conceived and designed to be part of the economical development, which is okay, but I think livability has really been ignored until very recently….Those mistakes, they didn’t have to happen even if you build a city fast.” (Yung Ho Chang)

The idea that a city ought to be, first and foremost, liveable has largely escaped us in today’s era of rapid urbanization. The surge of interest in the last decade on the topic of urban liveability is a startling revelation of how humanity has lost touch with our primeval understanding and desire for basic rights to liveability in the face of economic global competition to be a ‘world class’, ’24-hour’, ‘creative’ city—among other lofty titles. In recent years, liveability has (positively or negatively) made its own title in annual city rankings published by lifestyle magazines, research institutes, and consulting agencies. Whether or not such attempts to popularize liveability has, in effect, turned the tide towards greater thinking on liveability, in general, and liveability planning, in particular, needs to be examined more critically in these times of rapidly-made cities.  

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ON DESIGN

“As a landscape architect, a question I always ask is what will design actually mess up here. What through design will you anaesthetize? Will you destroy?” (James Corner)

Planning and design are disciplines with a shared tradition of being shaped by systematic processes inculcating a positivist stance which favours the rational (and authoritarian) approach towards land and space utilization. Lacking in planning and design is the practice of self-reflection and self-reflexivity, which would not only impose questions about the very processes by which these disciplines have come into being but also the roles of planners and designers in today’s world of experimental collaborations, participatory partnerships, and hackathons. Self-reflection and self-reflexivity can be a learning opportunity that produces new insights into the ever shifting boundaries (and, in turn, limitations) of planning/planners and design/designers.

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EXHIBITION: The Price of Neglect

In The Price of Neglect, Lu Guang lifts the heavy veils of human indignity shrouding ostracized communities in China from the public eye. Lu Guang’s cogent photographs expose the raw realities faced by entire villages grappling with HIV/AIDS (where poor peasants have contracted infected blood after selling their own through unregulated procedures), cancer (where industrial-related pollution has devastated agricultural land and water), and drug addiction (where drug use has reached alarming proportions along the Sino-Burmese border).

The understated set-up of Lu Guang’s exhibition at DECK features richly-pigmented photographic prints devoid of elaborate framing and mounting, in this way drawing the viewer to the image and the image alone. Indeed, the images (in terms of style and presentation) are telling of Lu Guang’s photojournalistic background and, thus, his deep engagement with the pressing social, economic, and environmental issues of a newly-industrialized China.

The presentation delivered by Lu Guang to a full house on 20th June 2015, which I caught as a ticketed attendee of the O.P.E.N. SIFA, further emphasized the salient practice of activism that not only underlies every poignant moment of human struggle captured on film by Lu Guang but also the impressive lengths through which Lu Guang invested in the communities (at the risk of his own freedom and life) as a photographer, narrator, fellow compatriot, and concerned human being.