26 July 2010

On Streets


Think of the connecting bridges that ferry our consumerist souls across Central. Rather than enduring the intense sunlight, these bridges suggest that we can take an alternative route in order to steer ourselves away from the crowd and traffic lights. We may embark on our journey from Landmark where it allows us to see a more enchanted world through the shop windows of Paul Smith, Marni, Dries Van Noten, and the likes, wandering towards Alexander House where we betray none of the rituals and sacrifice our credit cards to Dolce & Gabbana, then taking a stroll to the Prince Building, hovering a variety of products, among them expensive mattresses, incense sticks, and Nigella Lawson's kitchenwares, through the hallway surrounded by Giorgio Armani's, passing by The Exchange Square, and finally settling for a film at IFC Palace. How one might easily be seduced to be the victim of consumerism through the human invention of what we call the air-conditioning.

Between the intervals of these bridges, there lies a modern invention called mall, an architecture endowed with a form of utilitarian beauty that conspires to offer all the possible solutions to the human conditions. Though malls may be able to satisfy all our material needs, why are we carpeting the landscape of Hong Kong with works of architecture that only allow us to perform the necessary shopping rituals?

If we are prone to shopping in malls, it is perhaps because we have been inspired by an American sentiment that suggests we could fix our somewhat deeply flawed lifestyles in a compressed environment through consumerism. Our obsession with malls hence reveals our distaste for streets and favours a succession of identical shops rather than fashionable boutiques. It ceases to give birth to what is special and unique and limits our physiological behaviour within a narrow range of already known items, thus once we examine the shops in Tsim Sha Tsui, it might be deemed unnecessary to venture into Causeway Bay.

Streets, on the contrary, tend to surprise us, rather than asking us to circle each floor and encounter the same sets of escalators in the same manner, the main street will deviate itself away and send off many other possible streets that take their own ways. They never cease to surprise us of what is around the next corner or what may be unfolding after our next left turn, as opposed to the predictable nature of malls. Moreover, though with the same type of rubbish bins that devour our used bottles and cans and the same design of traffic lights residing rigidly in the corners, streets could colour the area which makes no allowance for shops, which are identical to those in the malls, but rather, boutiques, which indicate style, that are designated to suit this particular area only, as part of the landscape, instead of being independent of it.

It is, perhaps, easier to draw wisdom from the metaphorical war between nature and technology. Though the modern era seems to have proved that technology has triumphed and that technology and nature are inherently incompatible, but through all works of design, we seem to discover ways to reconcile both, a balance between free will and tyranny, love and civilisation. To extend the analogy, the difference between malls and streets could easily be seen as the difference between what is inside and what is outside. While malls disconnect us from the outer world, namely, the reality, streets seek to reconcile utopianism with realism. Streets may act as a medium, rather than strictly confining us to the utopia where perfect figures are modelling the summer collection, they draw us back to the reality in the midst of delusion that may fool us into thinking that we could carry the clothes as perfect as the models. They create the discrepancy of entering and walking out, allowing us to invest our hope in what is perfect, yet stopping us from losing sight of what is real.


The American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson once in his essay "The Poet" introduces us to a succession of alternative forms of beauty, that is, the beauty of warehouses, railways, and factories. The American artist Edward Hopper also portrays a succession of paintings about cafe, gas stations, trains, and cars. Rather than laying down their judgements of beauty and ugliness according to a traditionally superficial aesthetic logic, they have redefined what is beautiful, ascribing a more "just" and "accurate" aesthetic value to what is common.

I wish to imagine one day which we could appreciate paintings and poems that could portray the same spirit as those made by Emerson and Hopper. We need art that could function for our times, that it could remind us of the gravity of streets, that how the rampant creations of malls may soullessly destroy our love of novelty and steer us away from the real world. We need art that could remind us that our ancestors had once caressed the nature and how malls will shut us out from the reality and damage the value that should be preserved within the human hive.

W

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