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Raising the Mars bar

By Chiara Rimella

Danish architect Bjarke Ingels has revealed to us that he thinks his studio could soon be designing buildings on Mars. But researchers at the German Aerospace Center might beat him to it: scientists from the Eden International Space Station project are experimenting with greenhouses that allow food to be grown in hostile conditions, including the moon and Mars. But so far the structures tested on the icy plains of Antarctica have yielded great results. Forget Mars: given our changing climate, they could come in handy on Earth.

Art of diplomacy

No clouded judgement

What does the head of the UK Diplomatic Service hang on his office walls? Stuffy old oils? Maps dotted with pins? Not a bit of it. Sir Simon McDonald, also permanent under secretary to the Foreign Office, is friends with UK artist Tacita Dean, who made “Foreign Policy” to loan to him if he got that top job; it’s a billowing bank of cloud in white chalk on a wall-filling blackboard. “If I were to make it now, it’d be darker,” said the artist at the unveiling. “Yes,” said Sir Simon, diplomatically (how else?). “But there is sunlight trying to peep through.”

“Foreign Policy” is brooding and beautiful and, being mere chalk, impermanent as a cloud. Or a government. Metaphorical? Not half. Could it head to Sir Simon’s home when he retires? “I don’t have a big enough wall,” he said, diplomatically. How else?

Blockbuster bust-up

by James Chambers

Real-life drama Horse vs Rooster hits the big screen in November: Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Film awards – the so-called Chinese Oscars – take place on the same day as mainland China’s equivalent cinema ceremony, known as the Golden Rooster. Beijing has deliberately orchestrated the scheduling clash as it pecks away at Taiwan in the build-up to the island’s elections in January.

President Xi Jinping doesn’t want his Taiwanese counterpart Tsai Ing-wen to win a second term so he’s doing everything in his power to isolate Taipei’s government and intimidate voters, from picking off allied countries to restricting mainland tourists. Beijing also wants to rein in the Golden Horse event. Last year’s ceremony was censored on the mainland after Taiwanese documentarian Fu Yu used an acceptance speech to express support for independence. “[Fu] spoke up for many people here,” said Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen in January. “The majority of people here want an independent existence.” Does Fu regret speaking up? “It’s difficult not to,” she says. As well as receiving hateful comments, a Hong Kong film festival pulled her documentary and travel to Hong Kong and China is likely to be restricted.

Her counterparts on the mainland tend to avoid such acts of defiance: directors and actors will stay away from Taipei and most Hong Kong stars will follow suit. The absence of Chinese talent will handicap the Horse: mainland filmmakers won all the big awards at last year’s event, for films including An Elephant Sitting Still.

Horse vs Rooster could be a one-off. But whatever the political outcome in January, a strong Horse is good for the entire Chinese-speaking film industry.

Five things we learned in making this issue

  1. Building an architectural model is expensive: one can set you back €6,000.
  2. In March, Levi’s officially began trading on the New York Stock Exchange. To mark the occasion, the trading floor broke with the no-jeans-allowed tradition and allowed people to wear denim head to toe. 
  3. Urbanists and architects can be funny. Our Design editor Nolan Giles will vouch for John Pawson’s verve – and did you hear Jan Gehl panel at our conference?. Our resident stand-up comedian Nic Monisse concurs. He’s added a joke to his repertoire about his visit to UK town Milton Keynes: “I love the way Milton Keynes has lots of cul-de-sacs. It always makes me think of Greek villages that were made deliberately confusing and filled with dead ends to slow down invading armies. Which makes me wonder:Who the fuck did they think was going to invade Milton Keynes?”
  4. Despite smoking (and vaping) being decidedly out of public favour, the allure of the restaurant matchbox isn’t over yet. Graphic designer Ashlan Williams, who’s behind the branding for many of Atlanta’s food businesses, says that there are plenty of other uses for matches. “They are great for lighting candles, extinguishing with your fingers to impress someone, masking unpleasant smells and holding under your chin to tell a scary story. And, when you’re done with them, they can be flattened and displayed in a scrapbook.”
  5. Whether you’re finding props for a film set or hunting for an outfit, Kris Moran’s maxim still stands: “There is truth in the saying, ‘If you have good taste you can shop anywhere.’”

Table talk

by Tomos Lewis

There’s much to be said about a canteen lunch with colleagues; it’s a moment when projects can be casually discussed, weekends unpacked and gossip passed on. In San Francisco, however, there’s a problem. City hall has an often-fraught relationship with the big technology firms based in the city, which has led to numerous battles. The latest: their employees’ lunch habits.

Last July two of the city’s supervisor, Ahsha Safai and Aaron Peskin, introduced a bill that would have effectively banned technology firms from opening on-site cafeterias and offering free or discounted meals. Free meals and in-house dining rooms, Safai contended, meant that employers could exert too much control over their workers’ movements during the workday. The proposal churned the stomachs of many big technology outfits: vast, glistening canteens helmed by Michelin-starred chefs have become a standard part of the offering that many of these firms use to lure would-be employees into the fold.

But there might be another truth beyond city hall’s initial gripe: by sealing off their employees from the streets and neighbourhoods in which their headquarters sit, and thus allowing their workers to keep their lunch money in their pockets, companies who lavish culinary delights upon their employees in-house are, arguably, robbing the sandwich shop on the corner.

The latest twist? In September, city hall withdrew the proposal but vowed to revisit it in the year ahead. There’s a simple fix: – give local cafés access to some of the commercial canteen pie.

Fighting tusk and nail

Naval security

A Russian naval craft has been sunk by a walrus. The inflatable landing boat was participating in operations in the Arctic archipelago of Franz Josef Land. The walrus was believed to be a female protecting its calves. There’s been recent speculation about Russia training dolphins and whales for military use; the wrong species perhaps?

Grizzly business

Paws for thought

Adopting a city mascot can feel like artificial branding – but not so in Big Bear Lake. The adoption of bears is so widespread in this Californian city that most houses feature a sculpture of the mammal. It’s big business for statue-maker Kirby’s Custom Carvings, which has chipped off a handsome niche.

Norman Foster: Portfolio’

Design by the book

Late Danish architect Arne Jacobsen once said, “Architecture tends to consume everything else; it has become one’s entire life.” And from his Egg chairto the cutlery he designed for Copenhagen’s Royal Hotel, he had a hard time if he wasn’t in control.

Flicking through the brilliant new Foster + Partners book Portfolio and admiring the London firm’s design triumphs – from a small UK factory in 1966 to the sprawling Californian Apple Park 40 years on – it’s clear that fastidious attention to detail is contagious among the world’s best architects. Between expertly engineered bridges and airports there are lamps, taps and toilets, all perfected through the deft hands and obsessive eyes of Norman Foster and co.


No meals on wheels

The railways of the US are about to become a little bit more dispiriting: train operator Amtrak is to phase out formal dining cars on its East Coast routes. They will be replaced with pre-packaged meals delivered to seats and compartments.

That won’t do: the dining car is one reason why trains remain the most civilised means of long-distance transport. Even when the food is the kind of rubbish that would be huffily returned to the chef by the denizens of most pig sties, a dining car can still be a magnificent, romantic experience. It must be hoped that Amtrak does not intend to extend this parsimony to such evocative overland routes as the California Zephyr and the Texas Eagle. 

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