Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Nangang Metro Station (南港捷運站)

On Christmas Day, the Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation opened the gates at Nangang Station, the newest addition to an elevated and underground rapid transit network which now includes 70 stations. Nangang is the temporary terminal on the Nangang Line's extention, which upon completion next year will connect the district's growing high-tech office cluster and Exhibition Hall to the city's metro system. As a regular user of public transit in the United States, it is incredibly refreshing to travel to another place where public transit seems to be in a consistent state of growth rather than stagnation, and doesn't operate under the constant threat of budget and service cutbacks.

Up until roughly a decade ago, land in this area of Nangang was largely dedicated to agricultural and light industrial use. Though the area in the immediate vicinity of the station is sparsely populated, the station seems to already receive a fairly steady stream of users, probably since it is still one of the only stations that serves any portion of Nangang.

I was happy to see that the station is better designed than the older stations on the Nangang Line, most of which are rather austere and indistinguishable. Here, the standard grey ceramic tile floors are supplemented with cool stone stairwells, and the walls and ceilings are fitted with light green color scheme (especially refreshing in a city enamored of grey and light pink). Furthermore, the station includes an unusually large amount of public art in the form of murals, which all seem to have been done by the same artist. One installation in particular, the mural of chairs pictured below, is quite a hit with families with children.

While Nangang Station is pretty small as far as Taipei's metro stations go, it is quite successful at creating an open and inviting space for transit users. This is also helped by low and unobtrusive fare turnstiles, clear signage and lighting, open information kiosks, and ample indoor plantings.

Of course, it would be un-Philadelphian of me not to compare this to SEPTA's underground stations, which fall woefully short of international standards. Near century-old structures are a problem, but it's still no reason to have stations that feel like Cold War bunkers. In fact, there are quite a few things that SEPTA could do without completely rebuilding its stations. SEPTA's fare collection modernization plan will in a few years present an amazing opportunity to replace bulky and unwieldy turnstiles with ones that feel less obtrusive and defensive. It would also do well to remove the mesh window barriers that cage in certain platform areas like those at 40th Street. And something as simple as maintaining year-round plantings could make a great difference, if SEPTA could get its employees to care. The list goes on, but the point is, for Philadelphia to have the world-class transit system it deserves, it will have to stop designing transit facilities that tell its users, "Keep out." Where the money to do this will come from is another issue entirely.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

In search of colonial Taipei: Zhongzheng District

Having endured 50 years of Japanese colonial rule from 1895 through 1945, Taiwan retains perhaps the most extensive collection of Japanese imperial-era architecture outside of Japan. To this day, many of Taiwan's national and local government institutions still operate out of the grand edifices built for Japan's colonial administration, including the iconic Presidential Office Building and the National Taiwan Museum, pictured above. These monuments of imperialism miraculously survived the nationalist anti-Japanese fervor that swept through Asia at the end of Japanese occupation and led to the destruction of most of their counterparts in China and Korea. Today, they are generally acknowledged as an integral part of Taiwan's architectural heritage.

Unsurprisingly, the strong European influence upon all levels of Japanese society during the imperial period made itself evident in its architectural practice as well. Quite naturally, the Japanese turned to European technology and design aesthetics for the construction of the grand bureaucratic monuments befitting a modern, nationalist state, of which they had no true domestic precedent. Consequently, most Japanese imperial architecture in Taiwan can be identified as variations on a number of architectural styles popular in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including French Second Empire, Gothic Revival, and Renaissance Revival.

Recently however, I have become more interested in the more everyday commercial architecture built during the colonial era - the two, three, and four-story buildings that once lined Taipei's old streets. The pictures in this post were taken around the Zhongzheng District (中正區), in the area between Taipei Main Station and the wide boulevards of Taiwan's government center, which was the city's commercial core for the first half the 20th century. Its colonial-era commercial rows, not built for air conditioning units, backlit commercial signage, or the density demanded by Taipei's post-war population boom, have been nearly entirely replaced after successive generations of rebuilding.

Unfortunately, most remaining colonial-era commercial structures in this part of town seem to have been especially neglected, and have been largely unaffected by the preservation efforts that have created "heritage streets" in other parts of the country. Those that do remain standing also seem to have been built closer to the middle of the century, as they have little of the Victorian, neo-Baroque flourish that Japanese colonial architecture is best known for. I even managed to find a rather rare specimen of Art Deco in the bunch:

Sadly, a good many of them have also been altered beyond recognition by unsympathetic renovations. In a most perverse and extreme case, this last building was literally sliced in half, and further suffered a drastic alteration to its first and second floor façades.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Then and Now: The Rush Hospital, 33rd St. and Lancaster Avenue, Philadelphia


The Rush Hospital for Consumptives and Allied Diseases, completed in 1909, was designed by the firm of Brockie & Hastings, whose work consists mostly of estates in surburban Philadelphia. The Colonial Revival hospital building was purchased by Drexel University in 1961, and soon afterwards converted to classroom use. Today, the Rush building houses Drexel's College of Information Science and Technology.

As can be seen in today's view, the University is also in the midst of several building projects on or around 33rd and 34th Streets. Visible on the left side of the photo is the blue fencing for the expansion of the Daskalakis Athletic Center at 33rd and Market Street, which will push the building wall up to the sidewalk of Market Street, eliminating dead green space and vastly improving the pedestrian experience around it. Drexel's master plan also includes a new western wing to the Rush building, though whether or not this will materialize as anticipated in the current economic climate remains to be seen.

University Master Plan [Drexel Planning, Design, & Construction]

Sources: Philadelphia Architects and Buildings
"Drexel University - PDC: Rush Building Info." Planning, Design, and Construction Department of Drexel University. 23 Dec. 2008.
Original Photo: Hess, Wenzel J. "Public Works-32150-0." 1931. Philadelphia City Archives. Philadelphia Department of Records. 19 Dec. 2008.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A brief introduction: my Taipei neighborhood

After a long journey, I've finally settled in back at home in Taiwan. And since it looks like I escaped the cold December rain in Philadelphia only to return to somewhat less cold December rain in Taipei, I thought I'd spend the morning beginning a long-delayed series of posts centered around my neighborhood here.

To begin with, the Taiwanese aren't nearly as into naming their neighborhoods as Americans are, and more often than not, place names don't get any more specific beyond administrative district boundaries. So I can tell you that I live in Neihu, but that's about as precise as saying that I live somewhere in South Philly. However, I could narrow it down a bit by calling my neighborhood the National Defense Medical Center area. Catchy and extremely marketable, I know. Interestingly, it happens to be one of the few parts of Taipei where one can easily find what can very well be described as rowhouses or townhouses, made possible by large expanses of vacant land that opened up for development in the 90s. Most of the area was entirely built up over the past decade, and as land prices have skyrocketed in recent years, new construction increasingly consists of higher-density towers.

Nonetheless, the neighborhood was built largely to satisfy middle and upper class demand for quieter, "surburban" living, and it shows. Much unlike the rest of the city, zoning prohibits any commercial development on all but major streets, and gated developments and street-facing garages are common. I'm well aware that these are highly antithetical to good, walkable urban design, but somehow they don't seem detract from my enjoyment of the neighborhood as much as one might expect them to. In general, I've noticed that many things that pose atrociously difficult obstacles to pedestrian life in North America have hardly any effect in Asia. Plus, the general lack of motor traffic in the neighborhood makes it one of the most bicycle-friendly parts of the city, a fact I am very thankful for.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Brian goes to Europe

Just as I have gotten into the groove of things around here, I will be leaving the Philadelphia area tomorrow for a two-week visit to Taiwan, after which I will be studying at the University of Paris for half a year. At the latest, I'll be back at school here by September. As amazing as my time abroad will be, I will truly miss roaming around Philadelphia and Lower Merion. But please do stick around - I'm sure that I'll have way more than enough to blog about once I'm in Europe, and I've still got a bit of Philadelphia-area content which I haven't yet had the time to upload and write about.

Then and Now: 30-36 E. Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore

August 2007 - December 2008

Pictured here is 30-34 E. Lancaster Avenue before and after an ambitious first-floor facade renovation by the team behind J.R. Monaghan's Pub & Grille, which deserves enormous credit for filling the enormous black hole left behind by the dingy All Natural Market. The first-floor renovation was so successful that it's difficult today to imagine how abysmal the building looked less than a year ago without consulting a photograph. However, it would be unfair not to note that a good many facade renovations in Ardmore would not have happened without 50-50 matching grants provided by its Business Improvement District, the Ardmore Initiative, where I previously interned. The ability of BIDs, downtown development corporations, and other Main Street programs to leverage state and federal grant funds to encourage redevelopment can provide a crucial starting point for small town revitalization.

Original Image: "036-30 E Lancaster Ave." 2007. Lower Merion/Narberth Buildings. Lower Merion Historical Society. 15 Dec. 2008.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Then and Now: the Ardmore Trolley and Llanerch Railway Station, Ardmore

c. 1910-2008

Though Philadelphia's Main Line suburbs came to existence thanks largely to the efforts of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, it was not long before the city's rapidly growing streetcar and trolley network made its way into Delaware and Montgomery Counties. The Philadelphia and West Chester Traction Company (later known as the Philadelphia Suburban Transit Company) first brought surburban trolley service to Llanerch and south Ardmore in 1902. Service was extended to Lancaster Pike three years later with the opening of the Ardmore trolley terminal, a short walk from the Pennsylvania Railroad's Ardmore Station.

Unfortunately, trolley service between downtown Ardmore and West Philadelphia did not survive America's postwar public transportation crisis. The Philadelphia Surburban Transit Company ended service to Ardmore in 1966, and the trolley station and tracks were demolished and replaced by a pocket park and (of course) an adjoining parking lot. The pocket park has subsequently been renamed Schauffele Plaza, and underwent a facelift several years ago as part of Ardmore's streetscape improvement project. It the only public park and seating area downtown, and is a stop for several SEPTA bus routes. Three of the PSTC's more fortunate suburban trolley lines are still operated today by SEPTA - routes 101, 102, and the 100 high-speed line.

Source: "Montgomery County: The Second Hundred Years - 1983." 15 Dec. 2008.
Original Image: "Ardmore Trolley and Llanarch Railway Stations, Ardmore." c. 1910. Lower Merion Historical Society Archives. Lower Merion Historical Society. 10 Dec. 2008.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Nanzhou Handdrawn Noodle House

This is a radical departure from regular programming, but on a cold Pennsylvania winter day like this one there are few things that comfort me more than a hearty bowl of noodle soup, and I can imagine none less perfect than one to be found at Nanzhou Handdrawn Noodle House. The menu is limited, but it's basically impossible to go wrong with any of their noodle soups. It goes without saying that the noodles, hand-drawn in the back of the store, are excellent, but the true star of the show is the rich beef broth (sorry vegetarians). It strikes a delicate level of heartiness that is neither too weak nor overpowering. Topped off with a generous helping of vegetables, it's a fine bowl of noodles. The meats, while delicious, are honestly just gravy. What's even better? Everything is under $7, and the last time I checked the egg and vegetable noodle soup sold for an unbeatable $4.

This is easily one of the best noodle soups to be found anywhere, and if I lived in Chinatown I would surely be a regular patron. Having grown up mostly in Taiwan, I've had my fair share of noodles. But I still do miss these when I'm back in Asia, which truly speaks to how great they are, and makes me infinitely grateful to live near a Chinatown as great as Philadelphia's. In fact one of the things I enjoy most about urban living is the ability to eat truly well, and hence there will always be a place for food on this blog.

Nanzhou Handdrawn Noodle House
927 Race St
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Friday, December 12, 2008

Then and Now: 17th and Ludlow looking south, Philadelphia


The shops on the right side of the original photo were replaced by the United Plaza building (and plaza) in 1976. The hotel building now that houses the Westin was finished in 1990 alongside Two Liberty Place and its enclosed shopping gallery and rotunda.

Source: "United Plaza, Philadelphia." 11 Dec. 2008.
Original Image: "Department of City Transit-39618-0." 1959. Philadelphia City Archives. Philadelphia Department of Records. 1 Dec. 2008.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Then and Now: The Williamson Store, Ardmore


The Williamson Store originally stood at the southeast corner of Lancaster Avenue and Ardmore Avenue, and was completed sometime before 1908. The block housed four storefronts and was one of the first brick structures to be built on Lancaster Avenue, heralding a wave a commercial development that would quickly transform the then residential avenue into a fully built-out town center within two decades. Unfortunately, the stores and estates on downtown's edges were the hardest hit by the pressures of auto-centric development after WWII. Today, Lancaster Avenue any west of here quickly disintegrates into a world of surface parking, strip malls, and car dealerships. Not pictured behind Bryn Mawr Trust's prefab fortress is its always spacious parking lot (how much parking does a bank need anyways?)

Source: "Properties on the Main Line Pennsylvania Railroad from Overbrook to Paoli."Atlas. Philadelphia: A.H. Mueller, 1908.
Original Image: "Williamson Store, Ardmore." 1911. Lower Merion Historical Society Archives. Lower Merion Historical Society. 8 Nov. 2008.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Then and Now: Southwest corner of 18th and Arch, Philadelphia


The handsome Philadelphia YWCA building was completed in 1891 across the street from the Arch Street Presbyterian Church. Shortly after the original photo was taken by the Historical Commission, the building was demolished in the summer of 1980. After sitting vacant for nearly 30 years, the site is now the proposed location of the American Commerce Center, a supertall to rise over 1500 feet upon completion. The proposal has thus far been cruising through the approvals process with enthusiastic support from city hall and the Planning Commission. Anything else you could possibly want to know about the project can probably be found on its Skyscraperpage thread.

Photo courtesy of PhillySkyline

Source: Philadelphia Architects and Buildings.
Original Image: "Historic Commission - PAB-20526-4." May 1980. Philadelphia City Archives. Philadelphia Department of Records. 23 Nov. 2008.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Then and Now: 6-10 E. Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore


The three-story Tudor revival building which once occupied 6-10 East Lancaster Avenue was completed in 1911 next to the Ardmore and Llanerch trolley terminal. The Randegg Block, as it was known, was demolished in 1946 and replaced several years later by the nondescript one-story building which stands there today. It's interesting to wonder why the property owner decided not to include residential units in the new building, and the comparison gives the uncanny impression of watching a shrinking town. The original photogragh seems like it was taken sometime before the 1930s, at a time when Lancaster Pike moved at a significantly slower pace. I can only imagine what the views from those bay windows must have been like.

Source: Lower Merion Township: Searchable HR Database. Lower Merion Township Historical Commission. 5 Dec. 2008. Search: 6 E. Lancaster Ave.
Original Photo: "Lancaster Avenue Retail Stores, Ardmore." Lower Merion Historical Society Archives. Lower Merion Historical Society. 5 Dec. 2008.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Then and Now: 16th and Chestnut looking east, Philadelphia


Original Image: "Department of City Transit-39795-0." 1959. Philadelphia City Archives. Philadelphia Department of Records. 1 Dec. 2008.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Then and Now: Southeast Corner of 11th and Arch, Philadelphia


The elevated parking deck that now runs over 11th Street between Filbert and Arch Streets was built in 1984 to accomodate the expansion of the Gallery at Market East. The Hilton Garden Inn was built on top of the garage in 2000, at which point the tacky pastel columns were added by Cope Linder Architects in an attempt to make the garage somewhat less unpalatable. The 11th Street underpass is home to one of the few Wawas left in Center City as well as a Chinatown Bus stop. Its key redeeming feature however, is the presence of Dim Sum Garden, an unassuming little joint which is one of the few establishments in the region that makes highly recommendable Shanghainese soup dumplings (or xiao long bao - 小籠包) and other authentically delicious Chinese fare. So I guess it's not all bad.

A nice overview of the Gallery [Labelscar]
Craig Laban couldn't keep Dim Sum Garden a secret [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Because one review doesn't do it justice [PhilaDining Blog]

Source: Belden, Tom. "Hilton Garden Inn to rise in unused space above a Center City garage." The Philadelphia Inquirer. 19 Apr. 1999. Newsbank Access World News. Haverford College Library. Haverford, PA. 1 Dec. 2008.
Original Photo: "Historic Commission - PAB-41209-0." 1960. Philadelphia City Archives. Philadelphia Department of Records. 1 Nov. 2008.