Saturday 4 July 2020 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 4/7/2020

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


Inner belief

It happened in cities all over the world. But here’s a moment when I noticed the switch taking place in London. It was 1993. I was working at Time Out magazine and got an invite to see a new concept in London living – the city’s very first loft apartments. I cycled over from the magazine’s offices on Tottenham Court Road and met the two young developers, Harry Handelsman and John Hitchcox, at their project in Summer Street in Clerkenwell. They showed me around the old printworks and explained the concept – they would run the services to the front door but you would design almost everything else with the help of an architect. The shell units started at £80,000 and climbed to £245,000 (you’d be paying about 10 times that amount today).

I haven’t been able to find the piece that I wrote (clearly it would have been perspicacious) but I did locate another report that ran in The Independent newspaper and noted “buyers’ enthusiasm for a relatively unfashionable backwater of central London”. And it was true. Clerkenwell had watch repairers, printers, greasy-spoon cafés, a rave club, a nice church or two and the vestiges of a once-strong Italian community but there was no real reason to live there.

But that project lit a touchpaper, even in the depths of a terrible house-price slump. Soon the area’s old buildings were being snapped up and converted at an incredible pace – the dinkiest pad would soon be marketed as a “warehouse-style conversion”. Within just a few years, Clerkenwell was both highly desirable and, yes, fashionable. Next came the Hoxton boom as art galleries took over its industrial spaces, then Hackney, Spitalfields and beyond as the city pivoted east. Yes, this all came with challenges but it also resulted in an explosion of restaurants, nice offices, clubs and entertainment. And it was all part of a rekindled desire to live in the midst of the action. The timing was also perfect: people had good careers and weren’t settling down until they were in their thirties, so the lure of inner-city life (and a loft apartment) put suburbia on hold.

You can hear this same story in Los Angeles or São Paulo: how a generation rediscovered living in the heart of the city, how they were willing to compromise on space and a garden for access to some excitement, culture and the frisson of being part of the action. Downtown was even championed as the best place for seniors – don’t rot in the countryside, keep living and, if you do have a heart attack, be grateful you are close to a hospital.

But now? In the UK, property-search companies are reporting that inner-city dwellers are frantically looking for homes in the suburbs, shaken by their garden-free lockdowns. Pundits are predicting that we will see an exodus of the young and the talented; that inner cities will lose their appeal as people avoid public transport, refuse to return to their office towers and, in turn, ensure the demise of numerous stores and restaurants that lured them there in the first place.

But will city living really lose its allure for this dynamic set? I have spoken to lots of people who headed to their country cottages during lockdown and not all of them have glowing reviews – too many angry locals who suddenly didn’t like anyone in the village whose family hadn’t lived there for 300 years. And really, suburbia? People fought hard to escape a life of mowing the lawn and fitting in.

The trouble is that cities are at their humming, spinning, gyrating peaks when theatres are open, cinemas packed, clubs jumping and bars rammed. They need a sense of possibility to be on the breeze. While all of these lures slumber, cities will be challenged and, yes, will lose some good people to suburban dreams and their new-found passions for pickling and polishing the SUV.

Back in 1993, I left that old printworks in Summer Street and thought that I’d like to live in the heart of the city one day – and somehow it happened. Although the city might be taking its time to burn bright again, I am confident that it will and I will be here, ready to embrace all that it offers (and maybe even offer the spare room to suburban friends who miss the last train to tranquillity). And even if city living dips, there will be another generation of entrepreneurial developers and architects who will seize the moment and trigger a revival. It will all work out. The city cannot be beaten.


Tree cheers

Zürich’s architecture is revered for its fine deployment of concrete, stone and glass but lately it is timber – more typically seen in rural Swiss chalets and barns – that’s having its moment in the city sun (writes Nolan Giles).

Locals have been enjoying the lush lakeside landscaping and handsome wooden buildings that make up Zürcher Kantonalbank’s new pavilion (pictured), which opened earlier this year as a gift to the city to highlight the sustainable ambitions of the canton’s bank. Events for this summer are paused due to the pandemic but the site (still open to the public) is expected to gradually expand and become a full-blown entertainment venue by this time next year – before it is all taken down again. There is a problem, however. Swiss timber architecture tends to be so well built that locals are starting to ask whether the pavilion could become a permanent fixture.

Across town, Tonhalle Maag, a magnificent spruce-built concert hall designed by Spillmann Echsle Architects, is also due to be demolished when the city’s existing concert space finishes its refurbishment. But there’s a growing citizen-led movement to make this hall permanent too.

With wood being a cost-effective and environmentally friendly material, property developers in Switzerland are also increasingly using it in residential urban projects. So it seems that the nation’s Alpine valleys might soon lose their hold over good timber construction.


Rinsed out

I left New York because of washing machines. OK, I’m exaggerating a little – but only a little (writes Ed Stocker). In the Big Apple, where space is at a premium, the majority of rentals don’t have washing machines. You might get lucky and have a communal one in the basement but, for most of my six years in the city, I traipsed to the nearest laundromat and fed coins into a slot. These laundries have none of the romance of Hollywood films or that memorable Levi’s advert from the 1980s in which a tanned, chiselled Nick Kamen strips off to his briefs to wash his jeans (there’s more on the fashionable denim manufacturer in the story below). And so I got to the stage where I longed for the ease of putting a mixed colour load on overnight and forgetting about it. And the answer seemed to lie overseas.

Now I have just arrived to start a new life in Italy and having a washing machine in my home feels like the height of luxury. And as a result our apartment has become an OCD-sufferer’s dream of almost constant washing; the whirr of the spin cycle representing a signal of new-found progress. I’ve also noticed a cultural difference. In the UK, washing machines tend to be neatly recessed under kitchen work surfaces or perhaps in a laundry room. Not so in Italy where you’ll find them standing proudly alone in a bathroom, doubling as a toiletry shelf. I don’t have the answer for this cultural trait just yet but it can wait while I enjoy that lovely whirr.


Double jeopardy

In 1951, so the fable goes, Bing Crosby, the US crooner of Christmas classics, tried to check into a Vancouver hotel following a hunting trip to Canada’s west coast with an American friend. Upon inspecting both men, the receptionist refused to give them a room (writes Tomos Lewis). The reason? Crosby’s companion was dressed head-to-toe in denim – not a look that satisfied the sartorial standards of the hotel in question. Crosby retold the tale and the look soon became smirky shorthand for Canada’s fashion savvy (or alleged lack thereof) and soon an all-denim ensemble was being referred to as Canadian tuxedo, which consists, simply, of denim, worn upon denim, worn upon denim. Levi Strauss, Crosby’s favoured clothier at the time, made him a bespoke tuxedo jacket in denim upon his return to the US, having heard of his friend’s predicament in Canada.

Although many a Canadian toe has curled at the idea of this ensemble being viewed as the country’s de facto national outfit, the tuxedo’s fortunes have ascended over the past few years. Models have worn it, fashion magazines have declared it a trend and notable Canadians, including prime minister Justin Trudeau and the rapper Drake, are among those to have donned denim-on-denim.

During the country’s coronavirus lockdown, sales of denim in Canada – jackets, shorts, jeans – have soared, according to recent figures. While the Canadian tux might still be a lazy stereotype for how Canada clothes itself, there’s much to be said, broadly speaking, for wearing something that you know, which gives you comfort and makes you feel at home, particularly in uncertain times.


Rejina Pyo

South Korean-born designer Rejina Pyo’s eponymous brand is known for its effortless, elegant womenswear, oversized trench coats, puffy-sleeved dresses and architectural skirts. Here she talks about her love of matcha tea – and a particularly uplifting pop playlist.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
I love matcha tea with organic soy milk in the morning. I am in Korea at the moment where they have wonderful ceremonial-grade matcha from Jeju Island.

How are you handling working at this time?
Since the beginning of the pandemic I have not really been at home as such. Initially we were staying in Ireland with my husband’s family in south Dublin. We were able to make it work with the team using daily Zoom calls, digital mood boards, and sending prototypes back and forth. However, as we moved forwards with developing the collection, our design team (who are also Korean) and myself relocated to Korea to be with our families and work from our office in Seoul, as things had reopened in Korea much sooner and it was far easier to work here. I look forward to being back in my home in London but we were so fortunate to have this option available to us.

Something from the FM dial or Spotify for your tunes?
I am currently playing an ’80s Italo-disco playlist from Spotify on loop while working or cooking in the kitchen with my family. It is incredibly cheesy and uplifting.

What’s that you’re humming in the shower?
My to-do list!

Five magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
Monocle – naturally – as well as The World of Interiors, Vogue, Cereal and Suitcase.

Bookshop you can’t wait to return to?
Some of my favourites in London are Artwords Bookshop, the ICA’s bookshop, Daunt Books – and I have a particular love for Claire de Rouen, which is now an online shop.

What’s the best thing you’ve watched lately and why?
I loved watching the Argentinian film Wild Tales. It’s a black comedy made up of six short stories, all of them directed by Damián Szifron. It’s about people losing control, with wildly funny repercussions.

Sunday brunch routine?
My husband is a chef and food writer and makes the best fried kimchi, egg, avocado and feta on toasted sourdough, so this usually kicks off our Sundays. With a three-year-old son, Sundays begin like all other mornings, with him hollering for mum and dad for a morning cosy in bed. We love having friends over, so around 10.00 or 11.00 we might have a few people join us at home. If we are lucky, we might stay at the table all day eating and chatting.

What’s on the airwaves before drifting off?
My husband and I sometimes listen to an audiobook together if we are both interested in the same subject. It never lasts long though, we get distracted or fall asleep.


Centre stage

‘Hamilton’, Disney+. As Broadway theatres will remain closed at least until early 2021, Disney+ brought forward the film release of the celebrated play about one of the US’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who plays the titular character in a career-defining role, also wrote the script, music and lyrics. The play deservedly won a Pulitzer prize for drama as well as a handful of Tony awards. The score remains magnificent, with its great mix of contemporary hip-hop and jazz. It’s a potent play for our times.

‘The Dragons, The Giant, The Women’, Wayétu Moore. Moore’s family fled Liberia as civil war erupted but the tough escape path that took them through Sierra Leone didn’t get any smoother once they got to the US. This impactful memoir tells us how hard it is for an immigrant to find a place that truly feels like home – and the importance of familial love and commitment to help us weather the darkest times.

‘Les Eaux de Naples’, Bleu Toucan. French electropop duo Bleu Toucan are back with a single that’s as refreshing as the waters in the scorching southern Italian city of its title. With an EP on the horizon for later in the summer, the Parisian band have written an ode to the hot season filled with signature exhilarating beats and whispery vocals – all accompanied by a charming, if slightly trippy, animated video by London-based studio Plastic Horse.


Free press

Lesotho is surrounded on all sides by South Africa (writes Louis Harnett O’Meara). The tiny nation has the highest average altitude of any country on the continent and many local tribes practice subsistence farming on the towering green peaks of the Drakensberg mountains. But the majority of Lesotho’s 2.1 million citizens live and work on the lowlands, where you will find the capital, Maseru. “Or else, they go to South Africa to find work,” says Bethuel Thai, owner of Maseru-based publishing company Thabure, explaining that after years of political instability the economy of Lesotho is fragile and leans heavily on its neighbour.

After working as a journalist and successfully launching two weekly newspapers – Lesotho’s investigative news-sheet Public Eye and Southern Sotho-language paper Mosotho – Thai decided that he wanted to provide journalism to those who could not afford to pay. In 2017 he established Metro, which prints 35,000 copies of a special free edition in Maseru every Thursday. Here, he describes Metro’s coverage of a grisly murder plot and a touch of (ahem) “indecency”.

What’s the big story this week?
The former prime minister and his second wife are accused of having his first wife murdered. She died mysteriously a few days before he was inaugurated as prime minister in 2017 – the police have since come up with a case that places him and his new wife at the centre of a plot to kill her. They have linked his phone to the killer. Previously, his defence against the charges was that an incumbent prime minister cannot be prosecuted. However [in May], he stepped down. We have not heard his new defence yet but he will have to give it in court soon.

Do you have a favourite headline from a recent issue?
“Deputy prime minister chased out of parliament”. He visited South Africa recently because of the current economic instability. This was before we had any coronavirus infections. When he came back, the politicians were worried that he had Covid-19 and he was made to leave parliament. But it is thought that people knew he wasn’t infected – it was seen to be more of a means for the opposition to make him look bad.

A recent down-page treat?
There is some corruption in the police here – they will often fine you for minor things. Recently, a man farted in public and, unfortunately for him, the authorities were close by. They charged him with “public indecency”, fined him, and sent him on his way.

What’s the next big story?
When the coronavirus outbreak began our government closed its borders which prevented some people from Lesotho who were working in South Africa from coming home. But these people then lost their jobs due to the outbreak and the South African government would not offer them the stimulus handouts that it offered its own citizens. Recently, an NGO won a court case for these people. We’re looking forward to covering the payouts when they come.


Bagging rights

Couture is not new to the world’s most venerable art-auction houses; Sotheby’s started selling Yves Saint Laurent gowns back in 1997. But the enthusiasm with which these establishments and their clientele are embracing fashion items is escalating. In May, Sotheby’s fetched $560,000 (€497,000) for a pair of red-and-white Nike Air Jordan 1s (this record amount for trainers surely owes something to the recent hit documentary series The Last Dance). Meanwhile Bonhams launched a handbag and fashion department at the beginning of this year and, on 16 July, will host its first handbag auction. The line-up includes a clear PVC Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton tote and a number of Hermès Birkin bags (estimates for these range from €4,400 to €26,000).

The success of fashion auctions chimes with the general ascension of the luxury resale market; an under-the-hammer purchase at Bonhams is a very wealthy shopper’s version of a transaction at Vestiaire Collective or other popular vintage sites. Additionally, the pandemic has underscored the robustness of some luxury items in retaining their value. So if you’re looking for a handy investment vehicle buy a (very good, preferably French) bag.


Can I call people by their first name?

The UK prime minister is clearly just Boris – would he even swivel his mop if you said, “Mr Johnson”? But it’s not always helpful to presume that you are on first-name terms with every person who you meet. Age, experience and culture all leave some people happier being addressed as “Mr”, “Ms”, “Mrs” or “Your Royal Highness” (well, you might move in such circles) rather than, say, Bob or Jane.

Some grumps bridle at using even the simplest of appellations, fearing they are losing at some status game. Relax. Sometimes respect has been earned and a nod to this is nice, polite and right. And if you are unsure, ask. A simple “How would you like to be introduced?” or “I didn’t catch your name?” will leave you properly informed on the title front. And, yes, I am definitely Mr Etiquette although my feline side-kick is happy with Tiddly or the more formal Lord Tiddly of Tiddleshire.


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