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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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 🙂

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Elements – Korea Edition

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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