Breathing fire into Chinatown...

Nick Myall
Wednesday 04 Apr 2018

The proposed design for Dragon Gate by ODA New York could become an exciting new addition to New York City’s vibrant Chinatown

Bound roughly by borders at Hester and Worth Streets to the north and south, and Essex and Broadway to the east and west, New York City’s Chinatown is home to largest ethnic Chinese population outside of Asia. As many of its pricier neighbours fold to the forces of gentrification, Chinatown remains a rare bastion of unspoiled immigrant culture.

But even as this inimitable immigrant community continues to resist change, it can also be regarded as a uniquely contemporary phenomenon—Chinatown is the American project at work, born, in particular, of NYC’s unprecedented inclusivity.

In a new proposal, ODA New York’s designed an entrance and gateway to the neighborhood, which deftly marries these contradictions. Deploying modern materials and forms to invoke traditional Chinese symbolism, The Dragon Gate at the Canal Street Triangle manages to capture Chinatown’s remarkable duality—to honour the spirit of a place that feels at once timeless and original.

Envisioned for the triangular traffic island at the intersection of Canal, Baxter, and Walker Streets, ODA’s design calls for a pavilion roughly—and correspondingly—triangular in shape, taking full advantage of its site. Rising 33 feet, The Dragon Gate comprises a three-dimensional, gridded structure formed from interwoven steel.

Because a standard gate—typically, a two-way threshold—would fail to accommodate pedestrian traffic flow from multiple directions, ODA’s inflected the structure with sweeping archways to create several access points. Each point feeds the pavilion’s central gathering area, where a set of interactive digital display screens would host community notices and way- finding information. Meanwhile, creeping upward from the pavilion’s base, climbing plants supply this gritty locale with a welcome infusion of green.

As it criss-crosses overhead—with a delicacy and ethereality that bely its impressive scale— there’s a decidedly contemporary feel to ODA’s vision. Indeed, tubular and painted light bronze, the gridded steel mass was designed to recall the bamboo scaffolding still used in high-rise construction throughout Chinese cities.

But beyond that contemporary, utilitarian reference, ODA’s decision to evoke bamboo has far deeper and more ancient significance. Associated with China’s beloved national animal, for centuries the woody tropical grass has been held up as a significant cultural symbol—variously, a sign of longevity and vitality, as well as virtue and luck.

Within this “bamboo” grid, at points where the weaving densifies, artfully placed red paint creates the impression of a dragon, appearing almost suspended in mid-flight. Again, there’s deliberate duality here: On one hand, the dragon’s form is decidedly modern—distinguished by an almost pixelated affect. On the other hand, the dragon represents, of course, one of the most time-honored, ubiquitous and important symbols in Chinese culture—indicative of strength and good fortune.

Beyond the historic contextuality achieved by its symbolism—and true to precedent for ODA—the design is marked by an exceptional regard for physical context, drawing heavily from its surroundings. In The Dragon Gate, one may detect glimpses of the Manhattan Bridge’s archways; the low-slung segmental arch and truss-like structure where Pearl Street passes under the Brooklyn Bridge; and the curved planters of Kimlau Square. Looking further, The Dragon Gate’s ascending curves echo the upturned eaves of traditional Chinese roofs, and its arches recall the ancient fortified city walls found throughout China.

Achieving its practical purpose, ODA’s design creates a community nexus, totem, forum all in one, intended to draw traffic to the area and bolster economic activity. Less concrete, but equally important, is a metaphorical purpose—the meaning conveyed by a deliberate choice of symbolism. Expressing longevity, strength, good fortune, etc., there’s an implicit message of support here for this longstanding community of immigrants. One that, within the context of rising nationalistic sentiment across the globe, feels particularly potent.

Nick Myall

News editor

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