Saturday 29 August 2020 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 29/8/2020

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


Market value

This week the tough demands of work found me sitting in the sun on a Tuesday afternoon, drinking a beer and eating just-out-the-oven pizza in the company of Andrea Rasca. He’s the founder of Mercato Metropolitano and, unlike the chief execs and board members of so many companies at the moment, he gets it. First, however, a small slice of explanation about what he does.

Mercato Metropolitano runs community food markets in London – and soon might be heading to a city near you, judging by the list of projects that it has on the go. There’s the original just south of the river in the Elephant and Castle neighbourhood, a smaller operation in the West End and two more capital outposts on the production line. Rasca sees the markets as a way of helping existing communities, doing good by the environment and making places that are simply great fun in which to eat. He also knows how to generate a good profit.

Let’s have a quick look around the Elephant and Castle site, a former paper factory. In the covered market and across the outdoor plots are 42 stands whose owners are grilling fish, scooping gelato, shaking cocktails, pouring coffee, pulling beer (German Kraft, which brews on site, served two-million litres last year) and making Uzbek specialities. But let’s notice another thing: it’s mid-afternoon and it’s already busy. Last year, this one site had turnover of £22m (€24m) and four million visitors. And now, in these turbulent times? Takings are about 5 per cent below last year’s and rapidly recovering those final percentage points.

Rasca has kept his numbers up and his staff and stallholders going because, he says, “What’s the alternative? It’s easy to stay at home if you are rich but how can you stay at home and not think about things like this?” And there’s a lot to think about because the market also helps to supply free meals every year to hundreds of families in the community who need a little help. And what about the Uzbek stallholder? Well, he’s just the latest occupant of a stand that’s always given to a refugee who’s restarting their life. If Rasca had shuttered the operation and fled to Italy for the summer he would have an even better tan but the social fabric that he has woven around the market would have unravelled.

To revive all of this, however, he needed customers – and his great fortune is to be plugged into a very mixed, very local place. Thankfully he did not build the market next to, say, a City bank or a big ad agency whose bosses have fled their offices and started bragging about their new “WFH” lives.

No, Rasca has Londoners as neighbours; people who queued for up to two hours to come in on the first day that he fully reopened back in July. And it’s these ordinary Londoners, rocking up for a beer and a pizza, who are in turn supporting jobs for fledgling entrepreneurs and quality food for local families. Mercato Metropolitano is a project that steps up to play its part in making a sometimes-challenged part of London feel like the best place to be on a Tuesday afternoon. I know that this is a theme that we dwelt on in last week’s column but, sorry, this is important. Whether it’s Theaster Gates reviving the South Side of Chicago or Rasca doing likewise in south London, we need people who push on when adversity gets in their way; who offer shelter from life’s storms and take other people with them.

So next time that your CEO gets all giddy with the idea that nobody will need to come back to the office until 2021, perhaps suggest that they show some humility. Better still, tell them to head to south London, have a beer, look around at their young staff who are still engaging with the city, and witness what real leadership looks like. And also let them know that every stall does a £5 lunch just in case he or she is worried about getting their expenses signed off.


Bridge too far

Within 10 years, New York’s Brooklyn Bridge will serve as a spacious pedestrian link that’s bookended by lush “microforests” (writes Nic Monisse). Well, that could be the reality if plans put forward by a consortium, which includes the Wildlife Conservation Society and Grimshaw architects, are ever realised. However, despite the concept being announced as the winner of a design competition run by New York City council and the Van Alen Institute, it’s unlikely that it ever will come to pass.

So why would an architecture firm sink time into a dream project that ultimately goes nowhere? And why should anyone care? The answer is that design competitions encourage people – including architects, residents, governors and entrepreneurs – to dream big. They capture the collective imagination and are the foundation for ambitious civic projects and political campaigns that unlock funding in their construction.

For evidence, look to my hometown of Perth, Australia. The recent (and necessary) revitalisation of its waterfront was driven by countless competitions and concepts over a 100-year period. So for anyone who’s almost been mowed down by a cyclist on Brooklyn Bridge’s historic wooden walkway, here’s hoping that a few more competitions result in a spacious (and green) improvement for nervous pedestrians before too long.


Badge of honour

What do almost 57 per cent of women in the US House of Representatives and 69 per cent in the US Senate have in common? They were once girl scouts. And now this incubator of political talent is refreshing its look to better fit with the times. But instead of plumping for one new design, the Girl Scouts of the USA has opted for a collection of 18 interchangeable pieces. The new additions include some modern staples: crew-neck T-shirts, drawstring trousers, hoodies, cargo trousers and even a light-wash denim jacket. Designed by three students from New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology – Nidhi Bhasin, Jenny Feng and Melissa Posner – the collection was guided by focus groups that outlined what girl scouts want from their uniforms: individuality, inclusivity, functionality and comfort.

It’s not the first time that the Girl Scouts has tapped fashion designers for help – Diane von Furstenberg designed a punchy patterned scarf for the organisation earlier this year. But giving the uniform a top-to-bottom rethink might prove to be a smart move for the organisation that has seen its membership decline from 2.9 million in 2003 to 1.7 million in 2020. A more flexible uniform might help to draw in a new generation of would-be scouts.

Rest assured, however, the new collection still includes a sash (now with a discreet pocket for a smartphone) and a khaki vest on which the girls can show off their achievement badges – these now include entrepreneurship, automotive engineering and civics.


Petter Neby

Norwegian technology entrepreneur Petter Neby is best known for founding consumer-electronics brand Punkt. Recently, however, he’s been hard at work with the launch of Komma, an innovative urban-mobility vehicle. From his home in Switzerland, he tells Monocle how he listens to radio broadcasts from his home country – and which Danish crime thriller is worth watching. And, if you’re interested in hearing his thoughts on how to get moving in our cities, join Neby and the Monocle team at The Chiefs conference in St Moritz this September.

What news source do you wake up to?
I never wake up to news – I’m only ready for that ugly world later in the morning, after exercise or meditation and a proper breakfast. As an expat, my FM radio listening is online. Then I’m ready for the Financial Times, The Guardian and The New York Times – which I read on my laptop as the paper version comes much too late at my local newsstand.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
At least two cups of Assam Signorile orange pekoe tea, from Peter’s Teahouse in Florence.

Something from the FM dial or Spotify for your tunes?
Weekdays I only listen to chamber or baroque on FM channels online. On Saturday mornings it’s the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s (NRK) Verdibørsen; a one-hour discussion on values and ethics. And then Sunday morning it’s Monocle on Sunday.

What’s that you’re humming in the shower?
No humming!

Some magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
FT Weekend, Monocle, The Economist, The Guardian Weekly, The World of Interiors and The Paris Review.

Are you a subscriber or more of a newsstand browser?
I am a newsstand browser when travelling. My latest discovery was Hole & Corner. At the weekend I go to my local bar or newsstand for the FT and The Economist. I subscribe only to Monocle.

Is there any cultural gem you have rediscovered in recent months?
Summer means finding pockets of “off time” – off from the grid, with oneself. It’s a time for books. This year, I rediscovered The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov – it’s very contemporary, satirical and humorous.

What’s the best thing you’ve watched of late and why?
Den Skyldige [The Guilty]. It’s a Danish crime thriller like no other. Film at its best, where much is left to the viewer’s imagination. It’s visually minimalist but not forced with a brilliant screenplay and acting. A thriller without the blood or in-your-face horror but deeply exhilarating and troubling.

Sunday brunch routine?
I do a late and long Sunday lunch at home. A highlight of existence for all the senses.

What papers and periodicals will be spread out on the dining room table?
Aside from the aforementioned weekend reading, you might find Mr Brûlé’s original baby, Wallpaper*, and the FT’s How To Spend It, in which I particularly like Jonathan Margolis’s column Technopolis.

Do you still make an appointment to watch the nightly news?

What’s on the airwaves before drifting off to sleep?
Whatever I have recently been compelled to buy on CD. That’s “compact disc”, just in case you were wondering; from Mozart to Klezmerata Fiorentina and Tunnel of Love by Bruce Springsteen.


Delayed gratification

In any normal year, the renovation and reopening of Japan’s oldest public art museum would have been big news. Instead, the celebration on 31 March for the newly renamed Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art went the way of so many cultural events: it was temporarily shelved, only to happen discreetly a few months later. It’s a pity because the museum is a treat. The old brick building, which dates back to 1933, has been restored to its former glory, with new parts added by architects Jun Aoki and Tezzo Nishizawa. Among the opening displays was a first major Kyoto exhibition for Hiroshi Sugimoto, the photographer polymath whose awe-inspiring image of the city’s Sanjusangendo temple is showcased in a stunning new print.

It took Sugimoto seven years to gain permission to photograph the temple’s main draw: an 800-year-old installation of 1,001 statues, stripped of all modern additions including electric lights. Visits to Sugimoto’s show are reservation-only to control numbers and are all the better for it. There is much to enjoy here, including the garden which is currently home to the photographer’s mysterious glass-walled teahouse. The bookshop, part of a new section that runs along the front of the building, is well worth a stop, as is the café. This is a fine addition to a city that is loaded with ancient treasures.

Hiroshi Sugimoto – Post Vitam runs until 4 October.


American dreams

‘Where Does the Devil Hide’, Zella Day. Day has inherited some of Lana del Rey’s baroque brand of nostalgic yet contemporary pop. Produced by Dan Auerbach (of blues-rockers The Black Keys), Where Does the Devil Hide brings to life dreamy fantasies of washed-out California. Tales of heartbreak and musical journeys play out in this homage to life under the hot west-coast sun.

‘Epicentro’, Hubert Sauper. Award-winning Austrian documentary director Sauper travelled to Cuba to tell the story of the island’s perennially painful relationship with external intervention – from Spanish colonialism to US neo-colonialism – and to take the temperature of a waning utopia. Through plenty of interviews with young Cubans (and his own off-screen pondering) he tries to trace a period of change that’s leading to an uncertain future.

‘Blue Ticket’, Sophie Mackintosh. Following her 2019 debut, The Water Cure, Mackintosh returns with a tale in which only certain women are allowed to have children. Protagonist Calla isn’t surprised by her fate – “I was not motherly.” But she begins to crave the thing that she’s denied and, falling pregnant, she is forced to flee and meets another woman also escaping persecution. This is a dark and dream-like exploration of free will and desire.


Back to school

The Eastern Shore of Virginia is a 113km spit of land sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. It’s home to 45,000 people, a robust chicken industry and a Nasa launch site for supplying the International Space Station. While some of the shore’s residents may have their eyes cast upwards, you have to go under the bay’s salty waters through a 28km-long bridge-tunnel to reach the mainland. The doings of this slightly isolated stretch of shore are reported by the Eastern Shore Post, founded in 1999.

The newspaper’s current editor and co-owner is Connie Morrison, who, before moving to the seaside nine years ago, was a transportation adviser for former Michigan governor, Jennifer Granholm. Morrison’s sense of public responsibility permeates the Post’s pages and every copy of the Eastern Shore Post (circulation: 15,000) is free. “We live in an area that has high levels of poverty and I feel very strongly that everyone deserves access to information. Not just the people that can afford it,” says Morrison. Here, she tells us the latest news.


Execution can build your brand

As the world gets back up and running and more people return to the office, many businesses are hungry for their patronage. And for leaders who have been rethinking strategy and contemplating new offerings to entice customers, this week’s guest on Monocle 24’s The Entrepreneurs says the best game plan is to stick to what you do best.

“Make sure you are clear what the strategy is,” says Alejandro Bethlen, CEO of California-based flower company The Bouqs. He says a clear vision not only reassures customers but also allows your team to execute. “The importance of strategy is not what you do, it’s what you don’t do. If you do everything, you don’t have a strategy.”

After more than 20 years working for companies such as Amazon and Procter & Gamble, Bethlen moved from Germany to California at the height of lockdown to join The Bouqs. And he says that his aim as the new CEO is to help the company better execute what it does, not to change lanes. “None of the things that I’m planning in the coming two to three years have to do with candles or coffee. No, it’s flowers: execute on getting farm-fresh flowers directly to consumers.”

Bethlen says that no matter the size of the company, the same “keep it simple” principle applies. “I don’t want to hear how you’re dealing with unprecedented times. Figure out how you adapt your brand to that situation and stop using it as an excuse.”


How clean do I have to leave my holiday rental?

Thank you for this seasonally adjusted question. This was an issue that Mr Etiquette, and my dear new friends from the life-drawing classes, contemplated only last week as we packed up the lovely villa that we had rented on the island of Patmos. Should one strip the beds we wondered? Clean the bathrooms? Perhaps sweep the sand from the terrace floor? Or was that a little meek – and likely to put someone out of a job?

There are some people who believe in making the beds every morning and never leaving a pillow unplumped even when on vacation. Others think that it’s not their job to lift a finger, let alone to empty the fridge of all the leftover yoghurt when they depart. But, like many things in life, a middle route is the wisest one to take.

So we left the villa in a way that clearly showed it had been used, and enjoyed, but we made sure to remove the empty Vinsanto bottles to the recycling centre (one does have some small amount of reputation still worth preserving). And on the table we left a fulsome thank-you note, some money for the local cat charity (in the name of one Mr Tiddly) and departed feeling confident that we would be welcomed back.


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