Saturday 31 July 2021 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 31/7/2021

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


Heap of trouble

On Wednesday morning I pootled over on my bicycle to check out what, after just one day of being open, had been ridiculed as “the worst tourist attraction in London”. It’s a pop-up hillock called the Marble Arch Mound that sits like an abandoned slag heap at the western end of Oxford Street. It’s essentially a 25 metre-high scaffolding tower covered in a smear of often sunburnt sedum and the occasional lonely tree – though the pigeons seem grateful for the roost. At ground level there’s a “living wall” (aka drooping wall) packed with out-of-place plants: not hardy British natives; rather tropical-looking big-leaf numbers. You could tell that some had been panicking at the poor reception that the Mound had received as, behind the protective metal fencing, numerous people with clipboards were having earnest conversations and doing lots of serious pointing.

I wanted to go up the hill but ticket sales were apparently suspended. And by the following day the attraction had been suddenly closed down, with both the local council and architects claiming that it had been unwisely revealed before it was ready. “Nothing to see here, move on please,” was the attitude.

Don’t write it off yet; London has a habit of opening things only to temporarily close them down again. The Millennium Bridge by the Tate Modern is still known as the Wobbly Bridge by many Londoners in honour of the sick-inducing swaying movement it had on opening day, as hordes walked across the pedestrian link. It closed after two days and it took engineers some 19 months to fix the issue. But it is now much loved.

Trouble is, the Mound is only supposed to be here until January and cannot close like that. And while the architects have asked the public to be patient and let nature take over, this seems unlikely. Something called autumn isn’t far away and will quickly strip the silver birches of their leaves. We have also been encouraged to see the Mound as a folly in the style of grottos and whimsical towers that were once all the rage in aristocratic gardening circles. Oh, and to savour it as an erection with intent, designed to focus our minds on the need for more nature in our cities. This last bit is hard to take seriously when Marble Arch sits on the edge of glorious, mature Hyde Park. And at the moment, to be blunt, you are more likely to be reminded not of nature’s potential but more an episode of Chernobyl.

So what went wrong? First the pre-emptive opening smacks of an attitude so prevalent in our digital age: just get it open and we can fix the mistakes as we go. But this is not a website or e-commerce platform and hell hath no fury like a social media commentator who has forked out good money (remember, they really don’t like forking out money) to trundle up a shabby hillock. Secondly, its promise is a weak one (“climb a hill and see the city!”) when London has plenty of nature-festooned places that offer epic and ancient panoramic views for free; come and join me for a walk up Parliament Hill or Primrose Hill.

And then there’s the emotion bit. While it’s offered as a lesson in sustainability, the main intent of the council, which commissioned it, is commercial: to lure shoppers back to London’s once-busy retail strip, Oxford Street. That’s not to say that pop-ups can’t work; a short amble away is the popular summer pavilion that’s built by the Serpentine Gallery every year (come to think of it, why didn’t they just place this at Marble Arch?).

The unfortunate thing is that the Mound is the work of a wonderful Dutch architecture practice called MVRDV. We regularly cover its work in Monocle and co-founder Winy Maas is an inspirational speaker, who has joined us on stage at Monocle events. But sometimes things don’t work even when you have a talented crew – and this is one of those times. MVRDV also has to take responsibility for another misstep that explains the widespread anger at the Mound’s £2m (€2.35m) bill. The enticing, digitally concocted images that they allowed to be circulated in recent months show not a drought-hit Sahel but a vast forest. Now, architects’ digital renders rarely match the final outcome but whoever was in charge of adding the trees to these ones got far too carried away. You would have to leave the Mound in situ for a century for it to match the digiville previews. And no doubt the council lapped this all up at presentation stage thinking only of the fulsome Instagram posts coming its way.

Making green spaces, providing spots from which we can get new views of our cities, is important but perhaps it’s more complicated than even skilled practitioners imagine. Just look at the drubbing received by Thomas Heatherwick’s New York viewing tower, The Vessel – some comparing it to a giant kebab-meat spit. So even if the Mound fails we should not turn our backs on such enterprises in the future. We should simply question the intent more at the outset, ask more about the time needed to deliver something great and then examine the architects’ renders with renewed vigour. Our cities deserve better than some of the nonsenses being built in the name of coronavirus recovery and it’s our job to make sure that we get what we need.


Lei of the land

A warm welcome is one thing but the reception that Emmanuel Macron received during his official visit to French Polynesia earlier this week was an intensely flowery affair (writes Tomos Lewis). As Macron met dignitaries on the atoll of Manihi, his greeters, one by one, placed a customary lei around their special guest’s neck. The festoons of flowers and strings of seashells historically symbolise friendship, love and, in Macron’s case, status and respect. The more leis bestowed upon you, the greater your standing.

The president was, therefore, piled high. His head sat at the centre of a deepening, petalled porthole, as lei after lei was placed on his shoulders. Assistants hurried over to remove a number of strands to relieve Macron of his floral load but he was quickly garlanded with new nicknames as photographs of his visit were shared widely online (“the flower king” and “fleur de leader” among them).

The practice of bestowing lei began when early Polynesians gave garlands of flowers, shells, leaves and even certain animal bones to their seafarers before they set sail for Hawaii. Lei Day was instituted in Hawaii in 1929 and takes place on 1 May every year, following a campaign by a poet and newspaper columnist from Oklahoma who wanted to champion the celebration of these wreaths’ intricate meanings.

Some feel that the lei’s more recent mass-market appeal has watered down their effect, driven by tourist-trinket shops, tiki bars, student fancy-dress parties and even the likes of Elvis Presley, who famously sported them in his films and concerts in Hawaii in the 1960s and 1970s. But Macron’s lavish leis stole the show this week. And perhaps they will do so again in three years’ time, when Tahiti hosts the surfing competitions for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Then, as now, it’ll be the people wearing them who’ll be in full bloom.


False start

I have developed warm relations with my guard (writes Kieran Pender). Granted, he does not speak English and I do not speak Japanese. And granted, there was an incident earlier in the week where he thought my attempt to collect an Uber Eats delivery was a breakout. But minor quibbles aside, I feel our exchange of vigorous head nods when I leave my hotel early every morning and return late each night has been mutually welcomed. Welcome to life in the Tokyo 2020 bubble.

In the past two weeks, about 70,000 visitors are expected to have entered Japan for the Games – and as Monocle’s Olympics correspondent, that includes me. In the months before arrival, we were subject to a barrage of rulebooks, spreadsheets and endless forms. As I write this I am 10 days into my mandatory two-week “bubble”. After day 14, I will be “permitted” to enter the Tokyo community. Until then, I am limited to my hotel, dedicated transport and Olympic venues. If I stray, I risk being put on the next flight home.

Life in the bubble lends itself to routine. The first thing I do every morning is muster enough spit for a test-tube for daily coronavirus testing. I take my temperature and complete a healthcheck in a special app (if I don’t do this before midday, I receive a stern email). I then eat breakfast in my hotel room before catching a dedicated media bus to an Olympic venue. After making the return trip in the evening, I’m not allowed to visit the nearby mini-mart nor enjoy the area’s superb ramen bars. And so, night after night, I open Uber Eats and catch late-night Olympic action on TV. Thankfully, the guard no longer thinks I’m making a run for it when dinner arrives.


Keen eye

Mexican photographer Alejandro Cartagena has gained a reputation for his quietly subversive pictures of our cities. And though his work primarily focuses on Mexico, it has also picked up a fanbase abroad. In June, Cartagena was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation’s annual prize for his book A Small Guide to Homeownership, a cautionary tale about the dangers of urban over-development in his hometown of Monterrey. We catch up with him to discuss psychology podcasts, 1980s pop and watching TV with the children.

What news source do you wake up to?
I’m signed up to the daily newsletter from The New York Times, so I read that.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
I fast in the morning, so I don’t drink water until 14.00. After I’m done fasting, I’ll go to my garden and eat a guava or a peach.

Something from the FM dial or Spotify for your tunes?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Phoebe Bridgers lately and also a Spotify playlist compiling the best songs from 1984 and 1985. It’s all power-ballads, new wave and synth-pop. Growing up I always listened to my big brother’s albums and cassettes, so I love it for nostalgic reasons. It takes me back to my childhood.

What’s that you’re humming in the shower?
In the shower, it’s more thinking and dreaming. Not so much singing.

Five magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
Time magazine, Monocle, Wallpaper, Newsweek and Architectural Digest if I want to dream of houses and other beautiful things.

Newspaper that you turn to?
The New York Times, The Washington Post and my Monterrey newspaper, El Norte.

Favourite bookshop?
Gandhi, in Monterrey. It’s probably where I’ve bought the most books in my life. That isn’t many but as the saying goes: in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Is that a podcast in your ear?
Esther Perel. She’s a psychoanalyst who specialises in relationships. In her podcasts she records her real-life patients and comments on the sessions.

What’s the best thing you’ve watched on TV recently?
I have two children and share the TV with them, so the last thing I saw was Craig Gillespie’s Cruella. And I also watch a lot of documentaries. Recently I saw one about the assassination of a presidential candidate in 1990s Mexico called Crime Diaries: The Candidate.

What’s your cultural obsession?
TikTok fascinates me. It’s the only social media space where I’ve found a real community.

Do you still make an appointment to watch the nightly news?
I used to watch late-night talk shows but now, if I don’t want to think about anything, I watch baseball – specifically seven-minute Dodgers and Blue Jays recaps.

Is that what’s on the airwaves before drifting off?
No, that would also be TikTok. The ones I like to watch are mainly political science or finance-related. I also like life hacks and cooking videos.


Bearing fruit

‘Charity’, Madeline Dewhurst. A satisfyingly suspenseful novel set between contemporary London and colonial east Africa, Charity steps back in time to explore one of Britain’s imperial misdeeds: the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in 1950s Kenya. The characters – a young female nail technician, an elderly widow and her suspiciously handsome lodger – defy stereotypes and explore the nuances of race and class. It might be tackling a tough page of history but this story is told with a lightness and humour that make it a page-turning pleasure to read.

‘Madame Gold’, Gavin Turek. The moniker that Los Angeles-based musician Gavin Turek chose for both the record label she founded and her debut album should give you a good indication of the kind of energy she’s bringing to proceedings. Madame Gold is a hymn to the power of independence and the importance of pushing through adversity. And it’s all done in Turek’s signature, 1970s-style funky soul. Put on “2AM” and you’ll find yourself looking for a spinning disco ball to match the vintage atmosphere.

‘Natureculture’, Fondation Beyeler, Basel. Now that Olafur Eliasson’s environmentally focused Life installation (featuring a pool of water flooding into the gallery spaces) has been dismantled, this remarkable museum is continuing its exploration of how and why nature has always influenced art. But this is no dry display of 18th-century landscape painting. Each of the works in this group show deals with a different and sometimes unexpected aspect of the natural world: from Louise Bourgeois’s obsession with web-spinning spiders to Tacita Dean’s quiet meditations on weather and Henri Matisse’s joyous rendition of vegetation.


Promised land

Provincetown, a city of fewer than 3,000 on the northernmost tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is a small place with a big reputation. “The town is known all over the world – as an art colony and, in recent times, as a gay mecca,” says Ed Miller, editor of The Provincetown Independent, the Outer Cape’s only regionally owned newspaper.

Home to a thriving cultural scene, Provincetown’s notable summer residents over the years have included the likes of Tennessee Williams and Willem de Kooning. History aside, Miller thinks that the place still has a lot to offer. “The year-round population includes a really wide variety of people: writers, artists and scientists,” says Miller. “There are some really powerful and valuable institutions out here.” He tells us more about the paper and the importance of regional journalism.

What’s the big story this week?
Mosquitoes are always a nuisance but this summer it’s 10 times worse. It’s almost impossible to go outdoors. We ran a story about it; the surge is something to do with the big storms that took place in winter. The storms washed over some dunes and a whole bunch of seawater flowed in and didn’t flow out again. So, because stagnant seawater has been sitting there since the winter, certain species of mosquito have been able to thrive. With sea levels rising and the increased severity of storms, this kind of thing is going to become more common.

Why did you launch an independent paper?
The industry is dying in the US. Increasingly, papers are owned by people who aren’t journalists and who aren’t interested in the social or political value of having a newspaper. All they care about is squeezing as much money out of the business as they can. Having been in the industry for a long time, it has become clear to me that this was a community that really badly needed an independent paper. So we raised some money and we put out The Provincetown Independent a little less than two years ago. Now, even with the pandemic, we’re doing great.

Any events on the horizon?
There’s an event here that we’re co-sponsoring with two amazing people: Martha Minow and Jamie Raskin. Minow is the retired dean of Harvard Law School and a very highly regarded constitutional scholar. She has just written a book called Saving the News, which is about the business of media. Raskin is a US congressman, who was the lead manager of the second Trump impeachment trial earlier this year.


Spree and easy

Hong Kong’s permanent residents will wake up a little richer tomorrow as the latest government handout arrives in more than six million digital wallets. These “consumption vouchers” are intended to be spent in shops, hotels and restaurants to boost the city’s economy. Here’s how we’d spend our HKD$5,000 (€540) on an independent retail safari.

  1. Designers Studio Adjective is making good use of its new ground-floor office in Sheung Wan, which doubles as a design shop. Pick up a “tripodal” stool for HKD$2,880 (€310), designed by co-founders Wilson Lee and Emily Ho as part of their ongoing furniture collaboration with Japanese manufacturer Ishinomaki Lab.

  2. Bookshops in Hong Kong need extra support right now and Bleak House Books justifies a trip to Diamond Hill. Given a budget of HKD$800 (€87), co-founder Albert Wan suggests Ray Bradbury’s censorship classic, Fahrenheit 451; his wife Jenny recommends Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun; while colleague Angel picks a Hong Kong academic title, Eunice Seng’s Resistant City, which is popular among architects and urban planners.

  3. A factory shop in Prince Edward and a Hong Kong staple, Twemco has been making flip clocks in the city since the 1960s and ships its analogue icons to commercial customers around the world. If you play your cards right, you might even get a glimpse of production next door. A QD-35 calendar clock comes in English or Chinese characters for HKD$1,500 (€162). Safe in black, standout in orange. Money well spent.


Ink big

When was the last time you wrote a full sentence with a pen? The efficacy of word processors – not to mention their capacity to expunge mistakes without trace – has reduced the need to jot things down in ink to almost zero. So why do pens routinely fetch thousands under the hammer?

An online auction currently underway at UK auction house Dreweatts is selling an extensive private collection, with pieces spanning the golden age of the fountain pen (between the 1890s and 1950s) up to modern limited-edition models. Consigned by a single anonymous client, the lots’ earnings will all be donated to an educational establishment.

“There can be an element of romanticism with fountain pens,” says Nicholas Mann, a specialist at Dreweatts. “Where have they been; what have they signed? Did they help to change their owners’ fortunes?” A marbled black-and-white Parker Duofold (pictured; lot 1016) has, true to its name, already doubled its lower estimate with five days to go. Pristine examples will fetch the highest bids but reliable jotters can be snapped up from about £40 (€47) and all come with a sense of provenance. “There are a number of limited-edition pens that are no longer available at retail and can be had for a fraction of their original cost,” says Mann. Lot 1055, for example, is a Montblanc 149 Unicef limited edition, with a matching pot of black ink. Its sub-£500 (€588) reserve is a relative snip.

Opportunities to abandon the computer screen to create something permanent should be jumped at. And, whether it’s a personal diary, letters to friends or just adding a little extra elan to your signatures, there’s something to be said for the personal touch and the satisfying scratch of an inked nib on paper. Certainly something to write home about.

Images: Getty Images, Alejandro Cartagena. Illustration: Mathieu De Muizon


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