01 Public art
Architect and sculptor
This summer, seven of my sculptures will be exhibited in the middle of Park Avenue in New York. They are made out of aluminium and painted red, black and silver. Although the forms are abstract, there are many elements that make them relevant to this place. For example, the red I’m using is a very American red. Similarly, all of the figures have an element of animation: they touch the ground at certain points and then rise up. The sculptures try to float in the air like all the skyscrapers around them. The composition of Park Avenue is mostly vertical and the sculptures follow the uplifting nature of this place. They have been conceived in and for New York and they have a flavour of the city, as all public art should.
For pure artistic achievement in this field, I love a city like Florence. When walking around it’s possible to see a wonderful bronze sculpture by Verrocchio. Then you arrive in Piazza della Signoria and you find a line-up of masterpieces as well as pieces by Michelangelo in the Palazzo Vecchio. Importantly, you will also see a Madonna mural on the corner of two streets.
Public art is linked to the substance of the city – sometimes it is eloquent and grand and sometimes modest and anonymous. It’s very important to find this equilibrium. It’s like landmarks in a city: a public building has to sum up the character of its surroundings but this can also be achieved with a sculpture or just simple details. It happens here in Zürich all the time: you will suddenly come across a small, beautiful public fountain. In Paris there are ornate Métro gates and advertising columns; all of these things make up cities.
American cities have great examples of public art. Of course there is New York but let’s not forget Chicago. There are magnificent pieces of public work from the 20th century: Chagall, Picasso, Miró. You have an Alexander Calder sculpture in front of a Mies van der Rohe building. Public sculpture makes cities stick in your mind.
We often speak about art in or in front of buildings but we should also start thinking about buildings as works of art. Close to where my sculptures are located in New York are Lever House, the Seagram Building and the Chrysler: a group of buildings that I consider to be pieces of art. But people may be too close to them to really see them. Art in the street enables a transition of perception between oneself and an enormous building. When you are in a city street, you may not have the vantage point to see edifices such as the Empire State Building because you are too close to them, but you will see an object placed in the plaza in front of buildings. Public art is a way of pushing your gaze out from where you are, on to a plaza and then on to a wonderful building behind it. That’s why public art is so important to planning: it’s a way of giving artistic and architectural qualities to everyday life in our cities.
02. Easy living
Writer and journalist
When people ask me why I moved to Lisbon there are quite a few reasons I give: the beaches, the pretty pastel-coloured city, the fresh seafood and the cafés that serve strong coffee at sun-dappled tables on cobbled squares. But after those glib answers, the truth usually starts to seep out: I came for the southern European lifestyle but I stayed because Lisbon is a supremely affordable city. And a supremely affordable city delivers a very high quality of life.
It’s true that money can’t buy happiness but cost of living translates into so much more than just money. Affordability gives you access to time and space, two commodities that are very difficult to come by in expensive cities.
It is a rare treat in a European capital to be able to live in a home that isn’t a compromise on either location or size. My apartment in Lisbon, almost twice the size of my old London flat, is in a picturesque neighbourhood and a 10-minute walk from the city centre. Yet it costs just €500 a month and by local standards this is not cheap (it’s possible, in some parts of the city, to pay €150 a month or less for a two-bed apartment).
An affordable city also encourages creativity and gives young entrepreneurs the time to grow and develop. I can count more than a dozen Portuguese friends, all under 35, who run their own businesses. One is a graphic designer. Her office space – a desk in a big, light room – costs €90 a month, including utilities. Because the rate is affordable she is now employing a young graduate two days a week. Two others have started a fashion label, working in a crumbling building not far from the city centre. The space isn’t beautiful but it’s virtually free – there’s just a €50 utilities charge each month – and it’s enabling them to experiment, learn and hopefully succeed on their own terms. Walk through the streets of central Lisbon and you’ll see plenty of workshops and stores where young people have the time and space to hone their creative talents.
Quality of life is also about diversity. When cities become enclaves of the rich, they lose something of their soul. In Lisbon, my neighbours include a classical musician – whose evening piano practice lends the street a cultured air – families with children, students and young singles who strut like peacocks through the neighbourhood, and grandmothers who hang out washing that flaps in the breeze above the cobbles and who lean out of their windows to talk to friends in the street below.
It costs €1 for a coffee or a beer here and less than €5 for lunch. As a result the kiosks, restaurants and cafés across the city are buzzing day and night. Old men sit outside drinking wine and discussing football during the day; hip bearded types bring their laptops and talk business and, after school, teenagers hold hands and share soft drinks and cakes.
The reason that Lisbon is so affordable is less palatable. The country’s economic woes mean its wages are among the lowest in Europe; the average wage in Portugal is €12,700 against €33,700 (£24,200) in the UK. Without doubt there are people here for whom life is far from sunny. But despite this, for the majority the quality of life in Lisbon is hard to beat because when you don’t always have to chase the next dollar to survive, you find you have time to live.
03. Bright new world
Director, Balmond Studio
Social housing has to be functional but that doesn’t mean it has to be dull. Walk around most estates, often devoid of considered communal areas and enticing playgrounds and they hardly inspire. Yet these dreary buildings have become a global model for public-housing officials counting every penny. It’s clear that aesthetics typically come way down the list of necessities.
But Singapore is upping the stakes and the difference is the most simple of things: colour. Drive around this small city state and amid the apartment blocks, offices and shopping centres you’ll notice high-rises with clever colour accents and pastel palettes. Key architecture features pop out in bold colours and bright numbering makes getting lost impossible. Here colour uplifts; it’s a mood booster, not only for residents but also for the surrounding community. It’s no secret that colour inspires so it’s always been quite surprising that it hasn’t been more readily embraced by the public sector.
In Singapore it isn’t just a paint job: it’s also about graphics. Here sprawling estates, often comprising multiple towers, are made more manageable, more human, through co-ordinated colour schemes that tie everything together. This attention to detail gives a unique identity – and more importantly, personality – to each estate. Intimacy is created through consistently breaking down the monolithic forms by highlighting certain features such as walls, window frames and columns in specific colour combinations that work together. A more relatable scale emerges. And that brings with it a connection.
Commonly referred to as HDBs, after the Housing and Development Board that runs them, the homes were first erected in the early 1960s under Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action party as a response to what were considered to be widespread slums. With more than 80 per cent of Singapore’s population now living in HDB flats, of which reportedly 95 per cent are homeowners, there is of course pressure on the government to get the housing agenda right. The HDBs didn’t always look like this and colour emerged over time to become an important design consideration. This, coupled with good play areas, outdoor gyms for the elderly, decent function spaces and outstanding cleanliness, makes for a strong adoptable global template.
Colour as a design detail is an easy way to bring a little bit more joy, boosting the overall quality of life. Fiscal and political pressures may bear down but Singapore would do well to continue on this path of prioritising colour. There is always room to go further, too. Get the basics right of course but then broaden the creative remit further. Why not engage the community and artists to create artworks, murals and sculptures that are sponsored by local businesses, for example?
Of course other countries have a strong track record in social housing but there are those who are still falling short. With other developing countries in Southeast Asia continuing to look to Singapore as a leader, officials should take note. The city-state’s social housing is a colourful and provocative template for other countries to follow. After all, housing people happily is surely one of the most important responsibilities of a nation.
04. Museum and the city
Culture editor, Monocle
Although it was criticised at the time (and has been since), Saatchi & Saatchi’s advice of the late 1980s to the v&a to sell itself as “an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached” was visionary. Museums are now at the heart of the contemporary city because they’ve changed and they’ve helped to change cities, too. Are the caffs really that ace? Do people love art that much? How on earth did this happen?
It’ll come as no great surprise that much of this new portrait-fancying, statue-hugging outlook comes down to money, or rather not needing it at all. Across all of the UK, the best parts of Europe and much of Asia, the permanent collections of national museums and the private collections snapping at their heels are free to visit. On a date? Rendezvous by the louche Picassos. Meeting a friend? Catch up in the café. Killing some time before the movie starts? Why not wander around, but not on, a thousand years’ worth of Persian rugs? In the city of the early 21st century, where everything costs something and Starbucks could conceivably advertise itself as “an ace public loo with quite a nice café attached”, the central and civilising role played by museums cannot be overestimated.
So what about the art? Clearly a Delft vase or a Vermeer portrait is as good as it ever was; the improvement has been made in how works are understood and displayed now that museums know their audience is absolutely everyone rather than just an upper echelon of aficionados. At Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, ancient works are polished with the pride of the newly made and items are displayed in pristine vitrines against gunmetal-grey backdrops. The lighting is that of the bijouterie: precise and bright. These are ideas borrowed from Fifth Avenue and Bond Street, from Bergdorf and Cartier; for all these pieces, unless liberated from churches, were once for sale.
It sounds a bit like I’m saying that museums have got better and are more popular because they’ve become more like really good shops. That’s exactly what I’m saying. Museums have learnt from the retail sector by doing business with it, by raising funds with it, by throwing glamorous parties and paying for witty advertising campaigns to run in key publications while courting money and column inches assiduously and disarmingly. Decisions about budgets and the best part of the collection to put on display are not dissimilar to a stock check. The job of a museum director is that of a ceo, for whom lunches are less a chablis-tastic foray into naughty stories about Caravaggio followed by a cab to the club than long – yet well-rewarded – days geeing up personnel before powering through all sorts of spreadsheets and strategy meetings.
As corporate as it sounds, it works. Museums are successful because they are run by people who relish competition and have experience outside their own specialised worlds of the curator, the closed shop of art history and the rarefied area of the purely aesthetic. So, an ace caff with a nice museum attached? That was the olden days; now we’re in the midst of a revolution making old pictures new for an international public who once were savvy and now are wise. Museums have learnt the lessons of retail and the tricks of advertising and it’s time to stop being squeamish about it. Roll up, roll up! It’ll only cost you a postcard, people.
05. Digging it
Contributing editor, Monocle
Until about five years ago I lived in an apartment in inner east London that had no outdoor space. Early on I purchased a pot plant from Columbia Road flower market. I put it on my kitchen windowsill, then went off on a bunch of magazine assignments and it died – and I never bothered replacing it. So for just over a decade the sum of my horticulture was the occasional dusting of an empty blue ceramic vessel perched pointlessly on a redundant matching saucer. By which I mean that I never struck myself as one of life’s gardeners. Then I bought a house slightly further east. It not only had outdoor space but lots of it: a garden maybe 35 metres long by five metres wide. Nor was it low-maintenance.
The half nearest the house was OK, give or take a monstrous, ungovernable jasmine bush. There were three apple trees, a lilac, what I think was a small ginkgo, a few others I didn’t recognise and – a heartening omen for an Australian expatriate – an immense wattle. The rest was a ruin. One part of the fence was missing, replaced with jerry-rigged chicken wire and plastic netting. The rear was dominated by a hillock of rubble, once the source of some long-abandoned water feature running down to a now-collapsed pond. There was a derelict greenhouse, a wooden composter barely distinguishable from its contents and a shed I didn’t want to think about. All of it was overgrown with thickets of angry weeds and strange shrubbery. Whenever I ventured up there, I was never entirely able to banish fears of encountering elderly Luftwaffe pilots, still living off the land and unaware of VE Day.
It is now unrecognisable. With help from a fantastic local landscaper it’s not only a handsome garden but a continually startling source of pleasure and interest. The revivified pond houses frogs and newts, none of which I invited – how do they know? My bumblebee-spotting has advanced sufficiently that I can just about tell my Bombus terrestris from my Bombus lucorum. My unscientific planting programme – more a process of burying things and seeing what happens – has yielded a slowly turning kaleidoscope of floral colour, as well as piles of free raspberries. The jasmine has gone, replaced by another import from the old country: a flourishing cider gum (the bottlebrush, however, appears to enjoy British winters even less than I do). And the variety of London’s birdlife had simply never previously occurred to me. I’ve seen finches, woodpeckers, wood pigeons, magpies, jays, doves, robins and starlings (though the latter essentially appear to be avian football hooligans, not eating the content of the bird feeders but hurling it around as anti-social amusement).
But the most valuable benefit of the garden is something less tangible, something lost to many urbanites – myself formerly among them – who only register the turning of the seasons as a change of outdoor temperature. Access to a garden is access to a constant reminder of the existential comforts of Ecclesiastes 3: that there is a time to every purpose and that there’s always something to wonder at if you look for it. Even a thwarted attempt at encouraging lilies prompted grudging admiration for the ruthlessness of the lily beetle.
Acquiring a garden in a big city is easier said than done; I’m lucky, I know. But in many countries it’s possible to apply for an allotment. Increasing numbers of cities around the world run garden-sharing programmes. Dig in; it won’t necessarily turn you into a suburban bore waddling in wellingtons. Although if that chap next door doesn’t do something about his Japanese knotweed before it spreads, I shall acquaint him with my pitchfork.
06. The gift of cities
I am a Londoner in the purest sense of the word. I have chosen to live here, despite living across continents over the course of my life. But geography is only the start of it: I am also a Londoner at a base, soul-deep level. The city has moulded me, formed me in ways that are written into my physical body and psyche. At the risk of sounding like an overwrought starlet, being born and raised in a city, specifically London, is a blessing. There is no pussyfooting around a stark fact: I am a better person because I am a Londoner. There is no do-over option I would accept, no so-called idyllic countryside childhood for which I would swap it. London is the thing, and the thing is London.
Had I been born in any other big, vibrant city, I imagine I’d feel the same. Nigerian highlife musician Chris Ajilo sang in the 1960s that “Eko o gba gbere”, which loosely translates as “Lagos takes no rubbish”. I spent half my childhood in Lagos and it is easy to swap in London for the Nigerian city in those lyrics; the skill set it fosters is certainly very similar. And its big-city remix potential is endless: New York, Cairo, Mumbai. There is a sharpness to the locals in big cities, an awareness and an understanding of human nature by virtue of the fact that we live pressed up against the great heaving mass of humanity every day. But a sweetness cuts through the sharpness, the angles filed down if you’re willing to learn. There are lessons to be learnt every day in a big city and all that is required is that you keep your eyes and ears open.
That awareness of self and of others manifests early. Aged six, in London, my older sister and I got on the train, travelling the two stops between Maryland and Manor Park with no adult supervision and crucially very little fear. In Lagos, during a city-wide riot when I was nine years old, I walked the five or so kilometres from school in Maryland home to Ketu. It is why I can scan a room and accurately read it in seconds, a neat trick for when something sketchy is going down, and make a hasty exit as required.
I live defensively, like London does, so it makes me cringe when people, usually adult transplants to my home city, speak longingly of wanting to move out of town to raise their babies, in order to give them a chance at “innocence” away from the polluting influence of the big city. What these would-be parents are looking to preserve is the wonder of childhood, the chance to explore and create and interact with the world. If what childhood is about is being exposed to great and good experiences, then there is no better place than the city. But these people, I feel, are looking for something different: an oddly fetishised innocence. They dream of leaving the front door open and talking to their neighbours. You can do that in London, too – the question is: why would you want to? It’s not smart to leave a door unlocked and hey, maybe your neighbours are terrible people that you shouldn’t talk to? Londoners are not hard but we are canny: we can spot when we’re being sold a crock and execute a flawless body swerve to avoid it.
But this is not a bashing of those unfortunate enough not to have been born and raised in the sweaty metropolis. Not-London (and Not-Big City) has its charms too, I’m sure. And being from the city is what makes me appreciate them. I could be airlifted out of London tomorrow and plonked into any other mass of people anywhere in the world. I’d figure it out. My capacity to empathise comes from being exposed to so many different things, the universal and the particular, and being OK with the peculiar particular. That’s the gift cities bestow.
07. Sky high
The 1947 comedy It Happened on Fifth Avenue tells the story of Aloysius McKeever, a hobo squatting in the vacant mansion of Michael O’Connor, the world’s second-richest man. Soon, McKeever is inviting other vagrants to live with him while also romancing O’Connor’s runaway daughter. While the plot may seem far-fetched, New Yorkers were familiar with the setting. For years Fifth Avenue had been lined with empty mansions whose owners were either part-time residents or Gilded Age robber barons who vacationed in Europe, summered in Newport, Rhode Island, and fled to avoid New York winters.
Since Hollywood keeps recycling New York movies – from King Kong to Arthur to Annie – perhaps It Happened on Fifth Avenue will be next. Updated as It Happened on 57th Street, the absentee owner won’t be a wealthy New Yorker who’s left town for the winter bur rather a foreign investor who rarely sets foot in Manhattan at all.
Fifty-seventh Street is the symbol of New York’s building boom. At one end of the “supertall” corridor is 432 Park Avenue, which recently topped out at 425.5 metres, making it the tallest apartment building in the western hemisphere. Further west, buildings such as One57 (with its record-breaking $100m penthouse) are almost complete while others, including the Nordstrom Tower, are just getting off the ground.
Some observers, including Nikolai Fedak of the website New York Yimby (Yes in my back yard), think this construction will breathe life into a moribund street. “While supertalls in developing cities tend towards anti-urban formats, this is not the case in Manhattan,” Fedak told me, noting that the flagship store in the Nordstrom Tower “occupying the entire base of the tower will transform the surrounding block into a retail destination.”
I’m not so sure. For one thing, many of the apartments in these supertalls are being snatched up by foreign buyers – primarily Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern princes and Chinese billionaires – as a place to park their money, fully sanctioned by the US government. While some are true pieds-à-terre, owned by 21st-century Michael O’Connors, census figures show that in three blocks adjacent to 432 Park Avenue, more than half the apartments are vacant 10 or more months of the year. Most are investments, not all of them above board, even if they have the tacit approval of the government. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists summarised the trend: “High-end New York real estate is an alluring destination for corrupt politicians, tax-dodgers and money-launderers around the globe.”
In encouraging this strip of vacant homes it would seem like New York has doomed 57th Street to a sinister future – more Gotham City than the Big Apple. Anyone who remembers Wall Street in the 1990s (before post-September 11 tax incentives lured developers) will recall the desolation on evenings and weekends, even with tourists flocking to the nearby Statue of Liberty and World Trade Center. Even by day, the wtc complex seemed like a remnant from some sci-fi film. Downtown was a ghost town.
By contrast, 57th Street is lively and engaging – for now. Perhaps a glance up at an apartment tower at night reveals mostly dark windows but one’s attention rarely wanders away from the street, in part because of the annoying scaffolding but mostly because 57th Street still evokes a human scale. A handful of protected New York landmarks dot the street, from Carnegie Hall to the magnificent Art Students League headquarters, which stand as reminders of the city’s rich architectural history. Soon they will be dwarfed by this dystopian corridor of steel and glass.
Some beloved older structures, such as the Rizzoli Bookstore, have already been demolished; others, like the now-vacant Steinway & Sons showroom, are being absorbed into new construction, which is contributing to the street’s increasingly sterile, anonymous character. A decade from now will the fact that Carnegie Hall is on 57th Street even matter to the new generation of owners? The oligarchs and sheikhs aren’t investing in New York’s cultural life, even if it does raise the property values – they just want the Central Park views that they are never around to see.
Half a century ago, urbanist Jane Jacobs railed against developers in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Cities need old buildings so badly,” she wrote, adding that it is “probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them”. Any neighborhood built all at once quickly dies. “Actually,” Jacobs wrote, “it was dead from birth but nobody noticed this much until the corpse began to smell.”
As foreign money pours into 57th Street, New York runs the real risk of creating whitewashed sepulchres: buildings that draw scores of tourists to ooh and ahh at the architecture and the baubles at Nordstrom’s but which contain no real life. On second thought, maybe they’d better not remake It Happened on Fifth Avenue. I doubt it could still be a comedy.
08. Think inside the box
When my father was a young boy growing up in 1950s Stockholm his parents used to put a tag around his neck with his name and address and let him play in the streets. At that time adults were seen as being there to help children, responsible for the upbringing of all children in society. Today we look at other adults as a possible threat to our children.
We have started to build gated communities in Sweden. It is a very aggressive way of saying that we don’t trust what’s outside the gates, that we disclaim our responsibility to those who are on the outside. This attitude is taking our society in a totally new direction and this is what my new project is all about.
The idea for the square began when I was making Play, my third feature film, about young boys robbing other young boys in the centre of Gothenburg, the city I live in. It was inspired by true events. The robberies were taking place in the centre of the city with a lot of people around. Even though adults understood what was happening there were very few cases where they did anything about it. The adults’ world and the kids’ world were taking place on two parallel planes.
For the new project we decided to create a symbolic place where we could be reminded of our common responsibility: a 3x3-metre square, marked with a white outline. If you need help you can go and stand in this square. When people stand in the square we have to address this person and try to help them. If you don’t want to carry your luggage you can leave it in the square, because in the square we don’t steal. But the square also has a philosophical aspect to it. I want to raise questions about were the borders of our responsibilities are. Are they within our property, our neigbourhood, our nation?
We built this square in the town of Värnamo. It’s quite beautiful. After one week it was destroyed and someone stole the copper plates with the inscription of what the square is about. But we restored it and people are becoming more engaged. People have protested there, people have even got married there; it has become a small movement.
The idea of the square will also be at the heart of my next feature film. We need to ask ourselves, “Why are we losing our trust in the state?” We used to put so much trust in the state but when the state didn’t take responsibility as it used to, we became passive.
We don’t take responsibility for each other any more; we don’t trust each other any more. That lack of trust is changing attitudes. We are putting locks on ourselves, putting fences around where we live. Crime is down and society has become safer but fear and the idea of some kind of threat still holds. Part of the reason we don’t trust each other as much is to do with the media, which is dealing with topics that are creating a paranoid society, creating a fantasy about something that doesn’t exist.
I always try to engage the audience and get them to struggle with a moral dilemma, a situation that is easy to relate to but difficult to handle. Many believe that my films are provocative and that’s OK. I like provocation, it makes us question our own values and see ourselves from a different perspective.