Conducting an interview on a canoe isn’t easy. An audio recorder is finely balanced on one of the vessel’s wooden crosspieces. Whenever I switch to paddle on the opposite side I have to make sure that water doesn’t splash on it. Then there’s the fact that my subject – architect and urban planner Owen Foote – is constantly moving.
In his spare time Foote is treasurer of the nonprofit Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club in Brooklyn. Its base is hardly idyllic; toxic dumping-ground might be a more apt description. The Gowanus Canal – a beneficiary of a federal environmental clean-up “superfund” – is one of the most-polluted waterways in the US. From our watery vantage point we drift past warehouses and a site where the Big Apple’s street-food trucks are stored at night. Along the way Foote explains the history of heavy industry leaking pollution into the canal, not to mention the city’s overwhelmed overflow system, which means that sewage is often flushed directly into the water.
Canoeing on such a waterway might seem like madness but Foote, who co-founded Gowanus Dredgers, first saw the area’s potential in its darkest days. The club was born when the city fixed the canal’s pumping station in 1999; it had been out of service for almost 40 years. Its aim is altruistic: if people start to value the waterway they might treat it better. “Nothing positive was ever discussed about it and, as an urban planner, I thought we should be talking about it differently,” he says. From a ragtag operation with two boats, the club now has a dozen canoes and its own space.
Over the next decade the neighbourhood and the waterway are set to change beyond all recognition as more buildings are erected, including thousands of apartments. Dredging bulkheads are being installed and the city has proposed a zoning framework; the area is set to switch from manufacturing to mixed-use. This has prompted heated debate about place-making, public space and what Andrea Parker, executive director of advocacy group Gowanus Canal Conservancy, calls “making sure that usages are what the larger neighbourhood needs”. Foote wants to talk to every residential developer working on the canal to ensure that they think about what would make public space on the banks of the Gowanus enjoyable.
It’s now dark and Foote says goodbye with a parting Gowanus handshake: touching elbows instead of clasping palms; he tells me to wash my hands thoroughly as soon as I get home. The clean-up isn’t finished yet.
Visiting a Chinese factory, shipyard or furniture workshop is one of the surprisingly fascinating parts of covering this region. But if I ever had to actually put in a shift making chairs or tin boxes, I’m sure my interest in heavy machinery would vanish.
During the past five years I have seen a lot of production lines and can confirm that the average Chinese factory is a grotty and unforgiving workplace. But this might be changing. A bit.
I recently headed to the new Polestar car plant: a showroom-style factory in Chengdu. This sleek manufacturing facility, designed by architecture firm Snøhetta, is billed as an “experience centre”.
Customers can come here to watch luxury cars being built and drive them on a test track. “We’ve built a factory using the same architects that designed the Oslo Opera House,” says Thomas Ingenlath, CEO of the automotive brand, which is co-owned by Volvo and its Chinese parent Geely.
At the entrance I am given a headset (the fiddly earpiece will be necessary to hear our guide) rather than the usual hard hat and the whole thing feels more like a museum tour than a factory visit. While I ogle the immaculate factory floor, my company, two graphic designers, purr over the fonts on the wall, created by Stockholm Design Lab. Right across the open-plan hangar, neatly dressed workers are assembling the two-seater Polestar 1 at a hushed volume and calm pace; they make just 500 cars a year and each one comes with a €180,000 price tag.
“It’s the most exotic, powerful and expensive car produced in China, and it’s being made in this stunning boutique factory in Chengdu,” says Ingenlath. The German is based in Gothenburg and every month travels to China, a key market for electric cars and premium brands. Polestar is using this hi-tech facility to stimulate demand among wealthy Chinese consumers, as well as people abroad. “Made in China” is undoubtedly shifting up a gear.