Crime Against Design – Hong Kong Subway Map vs London Subway Map

3 May

hong kong subway map


london subway map

The London underground (subway) map has always been praised as a masterpiece of graphic design. I used it myself many times in London and it did successfully instruct me how to get to where I need to be. It is not only pretty and colourful in a good way, it has also amazingly simplified a very complicated London’s underground system into a clear map that can be understood by any person with a reasonable working brain size.

There are many little tricks that help make this map so easy to work with. First, the map only shows you how you can use the tubes (underground) to get to your destination, it really doesn’t tell you the actual distance or real direction your destination is. It makes sense since you are using the tubes and not driving or walking. Second, every line is laid out at flat or at a 45 degree angle, and always at a 45 degree angle with a smooth transition between any two intersecting lines. Strangely, it does help people read the map better. I guess the normal brains still don’t believe a train can do a 90 degree turn yet. Third, the map uses this simple dot to tell you where is a station that you can get off or change to a different line. And if there two dots at the same station connected with a line (like a dog bone) that means you have a do a little walking to change line.

What about the subway map in Hong Kong? Darwin claimed that evolution happened to animals. I guess it happened to “things” too. While London subway started in the mid 19th century and the Hong Kong started in late 20th century, people may assume the subway map in Hong Kong would have well evolved into perfection. It is indeed very unfair to make such an assumption. The Chinese were still smoking opium 100 years ago and the British dumped Hong Kong in 1997. The Hong Kong subway so called MTR was returned to the hands of the ex-opium smokers and no wonder the subway map now ends up looking disastrous.

Alright, let’s take a look and fairly examine what crime has been done against good design in Hong Kong, the number 1-asian-world-class city. The first image shown on this blog are parts of the real thing that you will see when you are standing in the MTR. Well, this map is a total chaos for a first timer. First when there are 2 dots placed right next to each other, do the dots actually refer to the same station? Or are there 2 real stations for the same destination but each for a different line physically placed next to each other? Actually there is only 1 station with multiple floors “most of the time” where there are 2 dots.

Second, while some lines go side by side, and some are only 4 mm apart. So what’s the deal? Well silly foreigners, the 4 mm actually refers to a harbour about 5000 feet wide. So don’t even think you can get off one station on one side of the 4 mm and walk to the other side. The old MTR map did have some kind of relationship regarding distance and relative locations of where the stations were. But after the MTR system evolved into a much bigger system, they can’t handle the new design of the map and the map just fell apart.

Third, what is the difference between a short skinny black line and long skinny dash black line? Since I have been there, I can tell you the line means you can walk from one station to another. But why one is dashed and one is not? I guess because the dash black line looks better than a un-dash black line when it is kind of long, so why not?

Fourth, why are some line are cut off? Well, they are cut off because there is not enough wall space, LOL. Where do they go? Well, you will find out when you get there. Don’t expect to find a complete map on the train. If you don’t know where it takes you, you probably don’t live there and shouldn’t go there. Just go where the shoppings are! Other than these chaoses, I am not going to give a critique regarding the aesthetic of the map, I bet you know it yourself.

hong kong subway map

london subway map

old london subway map

all photos from


How Would Christopher Wren Have Arranged for Margaret Thatcher’s Funeral?

17 Apr

st pauls 1 copy
photo from

In 1666, the old St Paul’s cathedral in London was severely damaged by the Great Fire. The king’s chief surveyor, Christopher Wren, took this opportunity to build the new St Paul’s which currently stands. Probably inspired by the domes of the Pantheon and the St Peter’s, Wren designed the new cathedral with this mega dome. To present the domed space in its full grandeur, the design of the floor patterns, the altar, the columns and all the niches around the circular space have been specially detailed to work with the dome. The result is that when a person is standing underneath domed space, he can actually feel it, see it and even hear the whisper of the dome.

Looking at this photograph of Margaret Thatcher’s Funeral at the St Paul’s taken underneath the dome, I started to wonder how would Wren have arranged the chairs for this very important ceremony. I am not a hundred percent sure, but my guess is he would have wanted the coffin be placed right underneath the center of the dome which is also the center of the circular floor pattern (the sun). The lines of chairs would have been arranged in a radial pattern, like ripples from the sun. In a way, paying tribute to Margaret Thatcher at her funeral was indirectly paying respect to the old British Empire. The dome has portrayed this empire once the center of the world and on which the sun never sets. Now that I have thought about the meaning of the dome’s center, it got me to think that this strategic and ceremonial spot may probably be reserved for someone even more important than a prime minister. The locations of everything is suddenly justified.

st pauls 2
photo from

st paul’s cathedral, london – apr 17, 2013

Berkley’s Main Street, Block Party and Parade

15 Apr


Last summer I went to this really cool main street parade in Berkley, a suburb of Detroit. They basically closed off the whole downtown portion of the main street for the Berkley Parade. Although it wasn’t my first time going to a main street festival, when I was watching how these old cars moving from one end to the other, I started to think about how amazing these main streets are for these gridded cities like Berkley.

Unlike cities with piazza or squares, most gridded cities in Michigan have no one single point of focus. Instead they have a long line of main street that joins things together. When compared with a public square, the disadvantage of a main street is that you cannot quite have a big event or festival easily because the main street accommodates both foot and car traffic. I kind of believe that that’s how Americans invented this thing called “block party”. A block party is basically a street getting closed off on its two opposite ends so no car traffic can go through. As a result you can occupy the whole street and use it as a linear piazza temporarily. This is actually very smart because the grid system of the American cities allows you to block off as long a street as you want, depending on your party’s size and need.

If a square or a circular piazza is prefect for a center-focused event like a circus or a music show, a main street would be more suited for a linear type of event that can incorporate the notions of time and movement like a music score. What’s better than a parade for that purpose? Using buildings on main street as a backdrop, parade proudly showcases the community’s achievement all the way from one end of the street to the other other end. Maybe that;s why parades have become so popular in Michigan at least.

I especially liked the Berkley Parade because I was with my best friend, but also I enjoyed seeing the few blocks of Berkley’s Main Street through the sun set. It was an amazing experience particularly at the end when people along the blocks gathered outside the Berkley Theatre for a little music time. The “line” becomes a “dot”.







berkley parade along twelve mile road by robina ave., berkley, michigan – 7:10pm, aug 18, 2012

Buchanan and Eddy – The “Most Dangerous” Neighborhood in San Francisco

9 Apr


This one day on my way to see the Saint Mary’s Cathedral, I walked into this supposingly low-income housing project at Buahanan and Eddy streets. The streets were clean and it was a sunny day. The “architecture” there was a little dry, solely residential, un-san francisco, but it seemed okay. However I was overwhelmed by the tons of surveillance cameras and warning signs in the neighborhood. It was as if something really bad had happened many times there before. There are many things I can write about these housing projects. But what I found very interesting was that signages and installations alone can psychologically affect how people feel about a space.

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corner of buchanan st. and eddy street, san francisco

Ruins of Luk Keng Village

30 Mar


Very interesting to know that villagers are eager to pull down the ruins of their hundred-year-old homes to put up completely new three-story concrete villas. Some of the villagers had let the old houses decay on purpose years ago when they left, believing that the villages and/or their descendants would one day come back and rebuild them. Their plan works.











luk kent village, fanling, hong kong – 4:05pm, mar 29, 2013

Sunset at Ocean Beach in San Fran – A City Defined by Its Stunning Outdoor Spaces

12 Feb

view to pacific ocean

Before the first time I moved to San Francisco, my friend told me: “Kam, things especially housing are very expensive there. But the weather is really nice and you get to do a lot of free outdoor stuff there. They have great outdoor space in San Fran.” Well, the old me paid way much more attention to buildings than outdoor space. To me, cities were defined by their buildings in the downtown – NYC and Empire State Building; Chicago and Sears Tower; Seattle and Space Needle. And of course, San Francisco was defined by the downtown’s skyline featuring the Transamerica Pyramid.

The more time I spend in SF, the more I feel that the city is all about its open spaces – the hills, the parks and the oceans. Downtown does not really pay a big part in the locals’ life at all. In everyday conservation, people like to tell you what they have done in the parks over the weekends and what nice walk or hike they have taken. I slowly have become one of them too. Taking the dog to the Buena Vista Park which is indeed a hill and chilling out at Dolores Park have become a daily ritual to me. In the city of seven hills, it is amazing how many different vistas you get from up and down the hills.

Indeed every city has outdoor space, but not many of them are able to preserve the rustic quality of these spaces. Take Ocean Beach as an example, there is no McDonald’s, giant parking lots, tourists’ center, surf shops, hotels or any other commercial components. A beach is pretty much what you get there. The natural beauty of the beach simply touches your heart and makes you come back for more. That is what makes most San Francisco’s outdoor spaces so successful

view to land’s end, with people watching sunset

view to pacific ocean, with people chilling out



final sunset

ocean beach, san francisco – 5:35pm, jan 25, 2013

The Mysterious Twin Gymnasiums by Golden Gate Park

6 Feb


looking west at the two gymnasiums on federick st. with kezar stadium on the right

When you walk down Frederick St. by the Kezar Stadium near the Golden Gate Park, you will see a row of Victorian houses and in between them there are two enormous masonry buildings topped with an arch. These two almost identical art deco-styled buildings that seem so un-related to the current streetscape are indeed the remains of the former San Francisco Polytechnic High School. The narrower one on the east was the Girls’ Gymnasium and the one of the west was the Boys’ Gymnasium. When the city tore down the school to build residential housing, the neighborhood managed to rescue the two gyms which have become the current homes for the Circus Center and the ArcoSports Center.

I really admire the effort put into saving the gyms by the people of San Francisco. Most of time whether these buildings would be saved has nothing to do with the physical context such as the buildings themselves or the design of the new projects. The buildings are only saved when the people who care about them do something about it. And of course, the concerned authority would only have respond to its voters’ want in a democratic society. If it were in mainland China or even in Hong Kong, protests would mean nothing to the government and every bit of the old buildings and infrastructure including streets and landscape would be demolished in no time.

Keeping these old monuments have contributed positively to the diversity of built environment of San Francisco. The grand scale of these monuments, the engravings on buildings and the lavish ornaments simply cannot be done in the modern day budget-oriented buildings. These artifacts of the past really make the city more charming, rich in history and memory. And they give you something to discover during each walk or ride. Isn’t that what we like about taking walks in San Francisco?


looking eastat the two gymnasiums with buena vista park at the end of federick st.


new housing development in between the two gymnasiums


current look of the west gymnasium (home of the circus center)


circus center trains student to perform circus arts


the lavishly ornate entrance to the circus center


the large practice hall inside the circus center


classes and events at the circuit center


wall painting at the circus center


the relationship of the two gymnasiums to the kezar stadium, too bad the trees have over grownn to block the view of the west gymnasium

federick st. by kezar stadium, san francisco – 11:30am, feb 5, 2013