Elements: Jiufen, Taiwan

Jiufen is an old mining town in Taiwan and is famous for a traditional old retail street.  The street is a market that winds down narrow alleys, giving it a souq-like atmosphere.

On the weekends, the amount of people visiting gives it a feel like you’re in Downtown Disney – packed full of people walking in either direction, not exactly leisurely.

But it’s famous for a reason.  The elevation and its placement on the hillside also gives you charming, wonderful vistas like this one.

round-trip-jiufen-shuttle-bus-from-taipei-in-taipei-393436.jpg

So much so, that it was reportedly an inspiration for Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.  You might see the resemblance.

What is the essential element of this place that gives it magic?

1.  The stairways and elevation changes give it a lot of charm.  You don’t know what’s around the corner, and you have a lot of views that are uncommon.

IMG_0930

2.  Red lanterns: lighting is huge, and by stringing these everywhere, basically it gives the night market a special glow.  Warm, inviting, a little magical.  Lighting can be a huge signature, and you can really see the difference here when you compare the market during the day versus the evening.  So simple.

img_0997.jpg

3.  Vibrant tenant mix.  I’ve consulted on a lot of projects where clients try to artificially create this kind of retail entertainment.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but usually where projects like this fail, is that everyone spends time on creating an incredibly fantastic, magical environment and less time on the actual substance of the place – it’s great to have spectacular surroundings, but what will people actually end up doing?

Shopping, eating, being entertained – and that is delivered by the individual tenants themselves.  Ensuring a vibrant, authentic, sometimes irreverent tenant mix is the absolute key.

If you really think about it, and decompose Jiufen into its elements, that last one is really the secret to its success.  There’s nothing so crazy about stringing up red lanterns, or narrow alleys.  But the reason it’s like Disneyland on a summer weekend, with a crush of people walking in either direction, is because of the combination of all three of those elements.

The other place I’ve seen this is in Hongyadong, in Chongqing, which is arguably more fantastic and magical looking than Jiufen.  You can take the whole sight of Hongyadong in, at a glance, but you can’t put the architecture or structures of it into any category.  You can’t even tell where it starts or stops, or what anything even is.  It’s hands down the craziest piece of real estate I’ve ever seen.  Below:

Capture.PNG

Do yourself a favor and Google ‘hongyadong’.  It’s really one of the most insane structures I’ve ever seen.

And inside, it’s much of the same.  Chongqing is a hilly city, and you need to climb narrow winding stairs to get anywhere.  Once inside, you’re greeted by a crush of people, restaurants, shops, like you’ve arrived at a magical floating island.

Back to Jiufen.  Teahouses are one of the essential places to visit in Jiufen.  And there’s a lot to be said about Chinese teahouses.

This is the one we visited in Jiufen.

IMG_0926

img_0995.jpg

IMG_0992

IMG_0971

IMG_0991

The apothecary-like counter and cabinets holding a variety of teas, accessories, paraphernalia imbues the place with a special, bespoke touch.  You get the feeling they’re sifting through all these pots and bottles for the tea that you and you alone ordered, mixing it in the exact proportions right for you.  They possess an arcane knowledge of teas, the depths of which are mysterious and a world to be explored.

The teapots on the counter look industrious.  You get the feeling that something is always brewing 🙂

IMG_0968

img_0979.jpg

IMG_0989

The individual seat compartments are divided by dark woods and stone, and spaced at perfect intervals.  Solid, subdued materials surround you and invite quiet contemplation.

One day I’d like to develop such a place, but it’ll be one dedicated to chocolate.

Elements: Hakone, Japan

Before Hakone, we were in Ginza.  Ginza is the quietest retail high street you’ll ever encounter in the world.  This is the 5th Ave/Rodeo Drive of Tokyo but you can carry on conversations at a whisper.  And the lights, all muted.  True class.

IMG_1233.jpg

A centuries-old ryokan.  It practically looks like the building has grown out of the same soil as the trees around it, the way it’s blended in so well.

IMG_1102

The ryokan where we stayed.  Simple wood, polished by decades (centuries?) of guests walking over it.  The wood creaked and bent – almost bounced – under your step.  I’d never had that feeling of walking on wood before, with so much give.

IMG_5938

The warm lighting in the hallway across this garden really makes this scene.  This was in the dead of winter, and it looks like the building promises warm hearths and fresh, hot tea for a traveler that’s come a long way.

IMG_5940

It’s hard to describe why the below scene affected me so much.  To the right of here is a shrine, and that red torii gate is the threshold to the sacred space.

As you stand here, the sun bursts through the crack in the trees in just the right way to light the moss verdantly.  The wind rustles the leaves gently and they sound like palms rubbing together, some sort of reverential gesture.  You have the sense that this space, which if you were in a hurry and passed by it looks completely ordinary – what with the street signs and electric wires – was hallowed.

And why was it hallowed?  Because of the torii gate?  The way the sun hit the trees?

Or maybe because the combination of all these things made you just stop.  Stop, and recognize the sacred or hallowed in the ordinary, which is the whole point of shinto and a core part of the Japanese aesthetic.

IMG_6026

There were very few things in the courtyard/garden of this temple.  But for some reason they looked artfully arranged.  I don’t know why the whole scene was so beautiful.  It just is.  The fact that the grounds were completely silent helped.

IMG_5965

IMG_5957

But maybe the point of the space, with very few things in it, is precisely that there is space.

The space brings into greater relief the objects that are in the courtyard, like the bell and the beautiful trees.

Also, the space seems meaningful.  The space allows for things to grow, like the moss.  It provides space for the steps to the shrine.  It provides space for you to move through it.  The space is deliberately there, without space things cannot grow or develop or move.

IMG_5970

Elsewhere in Hakone, this was a restaurant.  And after eating there, you pass through this portal on your way out to the real world again.  The way this dark entryway framed the winter scene outside was astounding.  It wouldn’t have worked, I think, if the distance of this passage were any longer or shorter.

IMG_5911

I just love how these trees are gnarled with character.  Although the branches ended up growing in one general direction, they twisted and took corkscrew paths to get there.  It’s about the journey.

IMG_6024.jpg

Elements – Bangkok Mall Edition

In my opinion, the best malls in the world are in Dubai, Seoul, and Bangkok.  What do I mean by ‘best’?  Good tenant mixes, amenities, facilities, and above all, retail experiences that don’t feel like typical malls.  They feel like other worlds.

Bangkok’s malls are the best in the world in terms of design.  The city itself is underrated in terms of design.

My favorite space here is the 6th floor of the Central Embassy mall and I’ve pasted in a gratuitous amount of images for it below.  The floor is a food hall/market + bookstore.  It also hosts a kids cafe, “co-thinking” space, and a cinema at one of its far ends.

IMG_0333

IMG_0345

The detail on the ceilings.  The interspersed foliage.  The lighting, especially under the shelves.  The lighting of the wood panels and under the bars.  The color of the wood.

This section where I’m standing in the below picture is the ‘out-of-print’ section and houses antique and rare books.  The fact that they dedicated an entire wall to this…well, thank you.

IMG_0325

The “co-thinking” space.
IMG_0326

IMG_0327IMG_0323

This is what the Central Embassy looks like from the outside.  Outside, the design is just as gratuitous as it is inside.  Not gratuitous in the sense of frivolous or excessive, but gratuitous, as in overdelivering beyond expectations.  If you go there, don’t miss the other food court in the basement, which might also be one of the best food courts in the world.

IMG_4618

Pictures of other mall/retail spaces.  A futuristic, space-age apothecary, just a typical perfume and fragrances counter.

IMG_4693

The men’s-wear section in the same mall.

IMG_4692

The rest of that mall.  Again, gratuitous.  I wish there was a better word than that connoting overdelivery, but that’s what these malls are.  You cannot calculate a direct ROI on spending money on design like this.  But the malls in Bangkok do it anyway, and for that, I feel gratitude.

IMG_4691IMG_4698

Standing on the ground level, I like how you can clearly see all three floors above you have a distinct character and pattern.

IMG_4704

Food courts of the world are in general moving towards the food market/hall concept, which makes it look more authentic – food carts and kiosks arranged over the floor like they arrived there organically.  But probably outside of Bangkok, you cannot get decent, filling meals for less than $3, like you can here.

 

IMG_4713IMG_4708

 

 

 

Elements: The Best Theme Park in the World?

DisneySea is the gold standard of theme parks.  Most people in the industry who I ask will nominate it as their favorite, and as the best theme park ever constructed.  Just a few of the examples are here and here.

There are better guides and writeups on DisneySea out there, but this is my personal note of appreciation for it.

DisneySea is my favorite park too, although I think if you’re talking about the best park in the world, it depends on who you’re asking.

You’ll notice that the people declaring this is the best park in the world, are adults.  Most kids would probably not say DisneySea is their favorite theme park.  It has less rides and attractions than Disneyland and is a more subtle experience.

As way of background, Tokyo DisneySea is the second theme park at Tokyo Disney Resort.  It opened in 2001 on land reclaimed by the Oriental Land Company in the 1960s, and while Disneyland got the better, more stable land, DisneySea had to be built with as much attention to the subsurface because it was over a deeper area.

All sorts of fancy engineering was applied to the land to avoid problems of differential settlement, and the inevitable result was cost overruns.

All this is to say that in my opinion, Tokyo DisneySea is the theme park version of the Steve Jobs standard of crafting things to perfection, even the parts unseen.

First, this is perhaps the most beautifully themed amusement park in the world.  Parts of it do not resemble a traditional theme park.  They resemble an art installation, or a museum.

2018-02-13 17.11.59 HDR-2

This is Ariel’s Grotto, a visually spectacular masterpiece.

2018-02-13 11.16.25-2.jpg

This East Coast waterfront area is visually one of the most intricately themed experiences I’ve ever seen anywhere.  They put that much work into this ship floating in the water, and it cannot even be boarded or accessed.  Only appreciated from afar.

2018-02-13 15.25.40 HDR-3.jpg

Most things, when they are simulacra of another, suffer in comparison.  They can’t pass the authenticity test.

This is because too many details are missing.  Here, Tokyo DisneySea has the opposite issue.  It has MORE details and more features, I’m sure, than the originals.

2018-02-13 11.56.45

Gorgeous theming.  Not a brick out of place or corner cut.

2018-02-13 16.10.37

2018-02-13 16.20.29

The park is filled with areas like this, in areas you can’t even access.  Here’s a dhow in the middle of the water, and it’s full of stuff – cargo, utensils, equipment – and the fact that it has this stuff in it deepens the mystery.  You want to go see it, but you can’t.

2018-02-13 11.59.17

Exquisite rockwork.  Bubbling water.  The water doesn’t have to foam and bubble.  But it does, because this is Disney.

2018-02-13 10.16.49

At DisneySea, they’ve recognized that food is an important part of the experience, and for many people, maybe the primary part of the experience.  Why other theme parks haven’t yet adopted this philosophy is beyond comprehension.

At DisneySea, you get multiple popcorn flavors spread out in different areas of the park.  It is a game to either find/taste them all, or find the one you want.  Here’s blueberry popcorn.

2018-02-13 14.30.33

Here’s milk chocolate popcorn.

2018-02-13 14.19.38

Here’s the line for the caramel popcorn.

2018-02-13 11.53.05.jpg

You have a food court that has a line of more than 30 minutes to enter:

2018-02-13 11.54.47

Operationally, it excels.  Every cast member has been impeccably trained.  On the kids’ rides, the cast members wave to you the entire time you’re riding.  Bonus points if you can catch them not smiling.

I can’t tell how much of this part is cultural; i.e., would you get the same frenzy and crowds in say, Orlando?  But in DisneySea, there are queues everywhere.  When I mean everywhere, I mean – at food kiosks.

2018-02-13 12.08.38

To take pictures next to a themed stall.

2018-02-13 13.17.34

And ride-equivalent wait times to take pictures with the characters.  Some of this is undoubtedly Instagram culture, which is worldwide, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not sure you would get a neat, impromptu lines like the above at Disney World.

2018-02-13 11.57.48

Then you get the Easter Eggs and minute details that are completely extraneous, but are the differentiator between a Disney park, and everyone else.

Plaque reads: “They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships, 1623-1912”.  This is taken from the Gloucester’s Fisherman’s Memorial; the original has the dates 1623-1923, but I will bet that the difference of the latter year has some meaning to it and is not an error.

2018-02-13 15.11.36

There are theme parks developed for a fraction of a Disney park.  You can have great theming, good hardware (roller coasters) that rival the best in the world, you can have rockwork and incredible landscapes, but there’ll always be something missing.

That something is internal consistency, but internal consistency wrought with a level of attention to details that would confound a rocket scientist.

Part of this internal consistency that most theme parks ignore is music.  Music in a Disney or Universal park is central to the experience.  Hidden speakers take you on a cinematic journey and evoke emotions appropriate to that land.  The audio quality is superb and makes it seem like you’re in a theater the whole way.  The transitions between the lands are seamless.

Instead, in most parks, what do you get?  Non-immersive, dim audio, sometimes tinny, and lots of areas that are just completely silent.  Soundtracks that are nonexistent, and instead, playing pop music unrelated to the park.

Here are some speakers hidden in a bamboo grove.

2018-02-13 11.51.07-1

And some others disguised into a building facade, all designed to create that seamless experience.

2018-02-13 11.02.45 HDR.jpg

Paying attention to the parts unseen, indeed.

If you decide to do something, to do it all the way, and to completely commit to the conceit that you’ve set up. 

This is DisneySea’s major accomplishment.  This is something worth considering and learning from.

Elements – Bali Edition

This is what you would call an architecture of reverence.

Everywhere in Bali, from big to small, you’ll see little totems of reverence, from shrines, statues, to temples.  And this being an island, often the object of that reverence is water.

2017-07-30 09.54.38-1

I don’t know if you can call this ‘worship of a god’ as some people would label it.  That term sounds too much like it stems from a monotheistic, jealous-god-type religion.  Here, the shrines are subtle.  Women wake up early in the morning to fill it with offerings, in a natural, respectful way, not in a cowering, bow-before-my-wrath-type god.

2017-07-29 08.45.47

Townspeople come out and conduct a ceremony before the water to ask it for its blessing.

2017-07-30 09.49.28

Temples are placed on rocks in the middle of the ocean, accessible only during low tide.

2017-07-29 15.54.43 HDR

Small shrines are everywhere.

2017-07-29 18.00.21 HDR

There’s something in the Hindu faith that appeals to me, in these kinds of gestures and rituals as a way to express your respect for something.

And there’s something doubly more appealing about these gestures of respect for the ocean.

2017-07-30 15.23.21

As surfers, we enter and exit the waves only by the grace of the ocean, which is indifferent to our wishes, desires, hopes.  Sometimes the ocean feels like a wild vengeful spirit, sometimes it feels playful.  Stay out in the water long enough, bobbing on the waves, and the ocean will make you feel part of it, the undulations returning you and your mind to something fundamental, grounded, and of the world.

2017-07-30 15.24.13-1

To me these shrines are appropriate, whatever your faith.  This is the right way to regard the ocean, which has the power to take away your life at any time.  Reverence, and gratitude.

2017-07-30 15.25.55

Elements – Philippines Edition

1. This rooftop garden in the foreground, at bottom, hovering above Makati.  So lush and alluring.  I’ve decided that my company’s future office will be located in such a setting.

2018-06-20 10.37.06.jpg

2.  In most developed countries, furniture has become disposable.  Of course there’s a role for disposable furniture, but there’s a role for solid, permanent furniture too.  I present this picture of a table setting in El Nido to introduce a single thing – the sheer mass of the table and chairs.  These chairs were at least 40 pounds each and were difficult to move just with an arm.  And no, I didn’t even try moving the table.  This is the kind of furniture that will stock the office in our rooftop garden.

2018-06-22 09.05.22 HDR.jpg

3.  Bedside tables/reading desks built right into the bedframe.  Why is this not more of a thing?  And as expected, solid.  Could probably have supported by weight as a chair.

2018-06-20 16.26.33.jpg

4.  This is where I stayed in El Nido, and I moved the desk from the corner to here.  I tried for many years to work out of minimalist virtual offices where my desk was nothing but an empty surface surrounded by nothing but blank walls.  And while that might work for some people, I couldn’t work more than an hour before needing refreshment or a walk outside.  Eventually I moved out of the private offices to cheaper hotdesks where I was surrounded by ambient conversation, open space, and windows.  This, is a natural extension of the ‘office’ setting that works for me, and will serve as inspiration for my eventual rooftop garden office.

2018-06-22 11.07.46.jpg

Elements – Korea Edition

1.  This is a ‘study library’ in Jamsil, near where I’m staying.

img_8702.jpg

This is a study hall+library+coffeeshop, where you pay a little over $3 to read or work for two hours, and drinks like tea and coffee are free.

I especially like the lighting and the colors.  The windows actually face an elevated train platform and a mess of wires, but the dark wood shelves do a good job in covering it up – while still letting the light in in abundance.

IMG_8700

The warm lighting is especially nice against the dark wood motif.  Elements will be taken from this for my future library.

2.  The National Museum of Korea.  The overhang creates a nice shaded canopy that reminded me of La Defense, in Paris.  La Defense made an impression on me when I visited it in high school almost half a lifetime ago.  I remember that because of the large open plaza and the shape of the arch, it created this nice breeze all around it, especially at the top of the stairs.  Like you were under a tent.

It was the same here.

img_8655.jpg

Inside, the building is like a cathedral.  Love the color, I love the materials.  Elements will be taken from this building for my future Museum of Chocolate.

IMG_8658.JPG

Not sure if these trees in the courtyard were intentionally placed like this, or were in transit to a planting, but noted as elements for my future avocado or cocoa tree groves.

IMG_8668.JPG

3.  This restaurant in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Incheon had an element I’ve never seen before.  Carved like a cave into a sinuous wall, it supported an extra layer of lighting  – and was very inviting, also inviting of a certain mystery.

IMG_7667.JPG

4.  The courtyard behind the Lotte World Mall – this picture does not do it justice.  Just to the left of this photo is an aerial walkway between two wings of the mall.  Standing under it, you have the same kind of tent-like effect as in the museum above, but it also feels like a gate.

You enter the gate, and see this wide, sprawling courtyard and greenery – and the fact that the building curves around the grassy area made the whole area seem much less expansive, and more intimate.  That latter part struck me.

IMG_8730.JPG