The Girls: the Lost Interview

This interview was originally published on the Love is the Law website in September 2009. In a sign of complete disrespect to both The Girls and your correspondent here, this ‘magazine’ failed to archive it, and it disappeared some time in 2012.

Well, that’s probably the way all internet content will go one day. (Funny how the physical medium gets more ephemeral as technology advances- stone carvings can last millennia yet many WP formats or Betamax have lost recent stuff forever). Anyway, I wanted to repost this, because (a) The Girls are crucial contemporary artists, especially with the current interest in performance art (let’s keep an eye out for their next move!) (b) photography was by Tom Medwell, who has one of the best camera eyes around (c) they offer insights into not just their craft but also UK supermarket chains, and not least (d) it was one of the most fun interviews I’ve done!

(L>R) Andrea Blood, Zoe Sinclair (The Girls) and Herbert wright © Tom Medwell 2009

(L>R) Andrea Blood, Zoe Sinclair (The Girls) and Herbert Wright © Tom Medwell 2009

So here without further ado (and for the record) is the interview…

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 Andrea Blood and Zoë Sinclair are not just any old girls. They are The Girls. Stars of St Martins School of Art and award-winning photographers, no less. And if you’ve got a date with A & Z, you won’t need an A-Z to find them. They know how to stand out in a crowd like summer blooms in a patch of wasteland. In fact, they were wearing radiant flowery retro dresses as they swept into the crowded foyer of the ICA – Zoë’s patterned with purple roses and Andrea’s blue petunias. They looked so chintzed up, they could have been on the list for a Buckingham Palace garden party down the road, some time around 1954. That’s one of the things about The Girls – they’re masters of disguise, and sometime time travellers. It comes in handy when your speciality is self-portraiture. They create a world, dress up, pose and the effect is theatrical, psychological, and sometimes hilarious. Imagine a quintessentially English answer to Cindy Sherman, but double, and with something of the wit and chemistry of French & Saunders distilled by a camera.

The Girls at the ICA with Herbert Wright, 2009 © Tom Medwell

The Girls at the ICA with Herbert Wright, 2009 © Tom Medwell

I took The Girls upstairs and opened up the balconies looking out across The Mall. With company this girly, I needed the air. They were already giggling before I’d started my quest for the Secret, so I started with a hard one: Describe the chemistry between you two.

A: Our relationship in terms of how we work together is very intuitive…

Z: We share dislikes… It’s very easy to be passionate about things we dislike.

Dislikes like…?

A: Three quarters of modern culture!

Z: A lot of minimalist things

A: As much as we don’t like a lot of pop culture, we like parodying it.

What is it about pop culture that lends itself to parody?

A: Everything’s so packaged- their looks, their style, everything is so controlled. It’s not like the 80s when pop stars naturally came about and naturally had a personality that came across!

Still, The Girls have done brilliant jobs around 80s icons like Madonna. ‘Hung Up on You’ is about an obsessed Madonna fan reliving various Madonna looks, including her Material Girl 1950s style, and Like A Prayer with the crucifix surrounded by candles. But, I ask, what about the photo with Buckingham Palace?

Z: When Madonna was touring in the 80s, she always went jogging, and she got photographed in front of key London landmarks.

A: We know our Madonna!

Will there be any more photo-stories, like the hilarious ‘2-Star Annual’ one with an Adam Ant sort of Prince Charming in a pub?

Z: We do have a story in mind… it’s also got a music theme, funnily enough.

Can you reveal who it is?

A: It’s a Secret!

Is it Michael Jackson?

Z: No.

Male?

A: Female. But it could be both.

Danny LaRue?

Z: No. Very obscure. Very cult-like. You’ll never get it.

Is he/she English?

A: Yes, very English, funnily enough. Like all our work!

Hard to crack The Girls on that one, so back to how to work together… 

Z: We do pick up similar mannerisms and things, and it goes when we’ve spent some time away from each other.

A: We have brainstorming sessions and write lots of lists and words and sketches. And we get to a certain point where we know we’re actually ready to make it. Because we’ve been friends since we were 16, when we spend time together, our voices sometimes start synching!

I thought she said their voices start sinking, but they weren’t and sure enough they can sound a bit like twins. They grew up around Bournemouth, which Zoë reminded me was known as God’s Waiting Room because of the old people. No, she said, they don’t particularly use God’s telephone there. I asked: Isn’t there something of Bournemouth is in your works? The sea and the saucy postcards…

Z: The whole traditional of seaside humour is probably something that is innately within us because that was our reality growing up. We both had families who encouraged us to have fancy dress boxes and tree-houses rather than lots of modern toys. You know, use your imagination and be involved in making your own world.

Aha! That explains the dressing up that is central to their work. I wondered if it was like a mask, concealing The Secret of who they really are. But then again, their renowned picture ‘The Embodied Soul Passes Through Girlhood to Death’ (1998) is actually an autobiography with reincarnation thrown in. It’s on a whacking great Jeff Walls sort of scale (4.2m x 1.5m), and starting at the edges, shows The Girls in their previous lives as wenches, then moves through death and rebirth and childhood to their modern selves in the centre, all set against a Dorset seascape backdrop. Pretty honest stuff.

A: That was inspired by Hare Krishna. At the time we were going to the Hare Krishna café a lot, on Soho Square.

Did you have to accept a Bhagwad Geeta from them?

Z: No, you can just have a cheap vegetarian lunch.

The picture was exhibited in LA, but they didn’t go.

A: We like to keep our carbon footprint very small!

The Embodied Soul was the culmination of their work at St Martins, which they moved on to after studying together at the Arts Institute at Bournemouth.

Z: Every year, St Martins would come down to interview people from the foundation course.

A: To be honest, we were such bumpkins, we didn’t know about (the global reputation of) St Martins!

Z: We said, we’ll try for the interview, we’ll see how we get on. It was only after we’d been accepted that we realised that it was such a big deal to go there!

Not surprisingly, Andrea and Zoë found the St Martin’s experience totally life-changing. At age 19, the ‘country girls’ from genteel Dorset were thrust into a Brixton flat-share and a totally open course with students from around the planet. It was there that they started to collaborate on their photography and define the style. 

Z: We loved it. We found a niche. We supported each other, we were a little unit. Because we found our signature thing, we weren’t floundering like other people who were still figuring out what they were doing.

Yet, a few years after graduating in 98, it was seven years before The Girls reformed.

A: Working together in St Martins, we had a lot of success. It was quite hard to sustain and it affected our friendship was under strain… It was just too intense, we needed a long break. When we started working together again, it felt like the right time in our lives, we really talked about how to work together carefully this time.

Z: It felt very fluid. We don’t have that horrible feeling you have in your 20s, of everything being such a big drama. It’s so much nicer being in your 30s, more relaxed.

In 2008, they had their first solo gallery show at the Beverley Knowles Gallery off Portobello Road, legendary for giving exposure to vital female artists (and sadly no longer there). Talking of exposure, one of that show’s highlights was a re-enactment of their performance piece ‘Garden Party’, which had Zoë lying naked and covered with food. All the food looked sweet, I suggested, except the cucumbers?

Z: No- there were some eggs!

A: Representing ovaries. Hard-boiled eggs. Biological clocks.

What did the cucumbers represent?

Zoë chortles: What do cucumbers normally represent?

And the cakes- they seem to tie in with a frequent Girls theme – food guilt, as in ‘E102’ which is about tartrazine, or a favourite of mine, ‘Friday’, where a mermaid scoffs fish’n’chips in a bath.

Z: Women’s relationship with food is entirely different to men’s relationship with food. Women have an emotional connection with it. Men are really just refueling a lot of the time.

A: That was what we were exploring in that picture, and in all the food pictures.

Is it a sensual relationship with food?

Z: In Garden Party, it was titillating, I suppose. Although some people don’t find it titillating, that’s what’s so interesting about that work, actually. We don’t want to tell people what to think. Some people find it really quite repulsive… When we do that work in a live performance, you can hear what the public are saying. And obviously, you’re lying there with your mouth shut. You just have to let it wash over you. It’s quite fascinating.

Ever fancy quickly nibbling some of the food yourself?

Z: Absolutely not. Not only that, but you don’t feel like eating for a while beforehand! You don’t want to be moving, that was a very static piece, the whole thing about being a statue, you’re meant to be inert.

A: But also, on several different occasions when we’ve performed that work, people have questioned if the person is real, or if she’s made of wax or something.

But you’re breathing.

Z: That’s right.

A: You’re extremely pale though…

Z: And people have tried to grab bits of food as well… Afterwards, they can eat it. But not off the body, though. In Japan, there’s a tradition of Nyotaimori- a private banquet (where) businessmen or whatever pay an awful lot of money to eat sushi off of a naked body. The women are not allowed to react or speak, they do get prodded with chopsticks sometimes, and the men will say quite lewd things. Of course, it’s their job to remain absolutely still…

A: It’s a British take on that tradition.

Talking of food got us on to supermarkets. Sure enough, they’re the types that rate Waitrose highest.

Z: The staff are so cheerful and the one in Finsbury Park employs people with mental health difficulties to do the trolleys.

A: I like the cherry bakewells – the cherries are in the middle!

Z: There was a man picking up women there.

Oh, what was his line?

Z: It was more his eyes, and his look. It wasn’t about the words. He was Moroccan.

They’re okay about Sainsburys, but reckon that the fruit n veg in Tesco is awful. And Lidl?

Z: It’s great for photogenic veg. They have strange things like pen-knives, garden shears and clogs…

What about Marks & Spencer?

Z: I like their low-fat mousse.

A: I like all their stuff.

But enough with the food already. Getting back to the theme of hiding their real selves, I asked if maybe The Secret is that really they’re both shy?

A: I think both of us probably have big elements of shyness as part of our personality when we growing up.

Z: When you put a wig on particularly, you are someone else. And there are things I wouldn’t do as me which I will when I put a wig on. I don’t think we’re shy now.

A: It’s not really about hiding something that we’re lacking, it’s more about feeling fabulous and in character.

Z: There’s something about being corseted and bewigged that feels very natural!

These Girls can be tough about The Secret, but I kept the pressure on. They whisper conspiratorially, until Zoë ventured: Andrea’s got a secret

A: I’ve got a secret phobia… and that phobia… I can barely say it…

Zoë squeaks: You must say it!

A (eventually): Hair plugs! Whole plugs of hair pushed into the scalp under the skin, I can’t stand it! They’re all plugged in at an equal measured distance, it’s like a doll’s scalp. I can’t bear looking at a photo of it, or even talking about it.

Have you ever revealed this?

A: (shuddering) No! People would want to talk about it! That would make it worse!

And if you’re talking to a man with hair plugs?

A (almost hysterical now): I wouldn’t, I just wouldn’t! If I clocked that, I’d be off! It’s a hardline with me! Sorry guys.

The Girls spill the beans © Tom Medwell

The Girls spill the beans © Tom Medwell

This year (i.e. 2009), The Girls have been featured in the highly collectable Amelia’s Magazine (issue 10), and they made the cover of provocative arts magazine Trespass (issue 7) as the Obama daughters, although they posed with a dog that looked more like a council-estate menace-machine rather than Obama’s Portuguese water dog. And they’re really proud of a video they shot on Mother’s Day in Bournemouth where The Girls were lead artists at the Cradle annual outdoor contemporary art exhibition. It’s called ‘Dearly Beloved’ and in it, the characters veer between comedy and psycho, all set to a hand clapping soundtrack.

A: It’s another self-portrait, looking at the relationship between mother-in-law and bride and the pressures. It’s a very difficult relationship and it’s one that doesn’t get much press. The mother-in-law and the husband, everyone knows about that relationship… we have mother-in-law jokes always told in a male voice. The women’s relationship can be a very difficult one.

Around about then, Tom Medwell the photographer rolled in. We all looked up- he’s a tall guy. Maybe his lens could squeeze another Secret out of them. Or maybe The Girl’s biggest Secret is that you can be anyone you want to be. Whether it’s an exploration of the soul or psyche or guilt, the reality of The Girls is that they’re a hoot. It ain’t no secret that I can’t get enough of that.

© Herbert Wright

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Open House launches in Lisbon- my amazing day

Saturday 6th October 2012 was a big day for Lisbon: the launch of the city’s first Open House. This annual weekend which throws open the doors of places of architectural interest to the public, free of charge, started in London in 1992. I brought it to the Portuguese capital as an idea to address the disconnect between the architectural community and the public. The Lisbon Architecture Triennale liked it so much, they not only ran with it, they appointed me Curatorial Consultant. Together, we built a program with 54 locations, a package of guided tours and participation by leading Portuguese architects, a terrific guide book and not least an army of heroes in the volunteers we recruited to supervise places. Our public awareness campaign went national on TV and press. All was set- all we needed now was for people to turn up!

Here’s how the Saturday went for me.

The first Open House tour gathers in the Águas Livres apartment block lobby

Just before 10am on a cloudy morning, I strode up to first Open House destination, the pioneering Águas Livres Apartment Block, a handsome 10-storey 1956 building. With me were Manuel Henriques, executive director of the Trienalle, and Victoria Thornton, Open House founder, director of Open-City and head of Open House Worldwide, which now spans about 20 cities. Although built by an insurance company, the Águas Livres block shares much of the Modernist vision of 1950s social housing seen in projects like Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, or Leslie Martin’s Roehampton Estate in London. High-density multi-storey housing design may have produced nightmare sink estates in the 60s and 70s, but in the early days design standards were strong, still driven by ideals about light, space and community. From the moment I stepped in the airy Águas Livres lobby, I could feel it – light flooding through a long wall of glass, a balcony corridor floating above a communal area, walls of wood and stone, and not least, modern art integrated into the very building. Equally wonderful, we were in the presence of its original architect-  Bartolomeu da Costra Cabral, who designed it with Nuno Teotónio Ferreira. A small crowd was gathering, including Fernando Sanchez Salvador, local Open House Curatorial Consultant, and Patricia Marques, performer of miracles as Lisbon Open House’s organiser. When Da Costa Cabral started talking, his distinguished voice spoke across six decades. I don’t mind admitting I felt quite awe-struck!

Architect Bartolomeu da Costra Cabral with your correspondent Herbert Wright

The block is well preserved and inside it exudes a cool 1950s style. Everywhere, design is efficient and enlightened. Even the service entrance had a stone relief in the wall beside it. Why not? Art is for everyone. Upstairs, we entered a flat with amazing views, the balcony angled from neighbours for privacy. Attention was drawn to details like the metal window frames, storage spaces up by the hallway ceilings, and wooden floors built on cork for sound insulation. This is real design for life. Da Costa Cabral had one more level to show us- the communal penthouse level. He’s a sprightly fellow, and shunned the lift for the external stairs! We stepped out into bright sunshine on its generous patio, high above the jumble of Lisbon around Rato and the aqueduct on one side, and level with the whimsical 1980s PoMo towers of the Amoreiras complex on the other side. What a view- and what a privilege to share it with Da Costa Cabral himself.

The Etar de Alcantara waste processing plant lies under a green roof planted with local species

The next stop could not be more different- a sewerage-processing plant called Etar de Alcantara (2011) designed by Manuel Aires Mateus. Different not only in use and location- stretched along an urban expressway beside the great Monsanto Forest Park, where road and rail flyovers arc into the sky towards the 25 Abril Bridge- but also in style. The entrance is cut into the concrete wall of a bunker set behind a brushed steel grid fence (an element perhaps to deter grafitti- a housing estate just to the south was once a notorious narco-market no-go zone). A long sloping concrete channel, like a storm drain, leads us to a glass wall on one side, and a grass slope rising opposite it. Climbing the slope, we see how the vast complex is covered by a great and varied spread of hardy plants that fill the air with herbal aromas. This green roof, by Frederico Valsassina, virtually renders the complex invisible from above. Crossing to the offices, we enter a strangely sterile world of pure white. Along an endless corridor lie blank rooms behind white doors. As if it wasn’t already ultra-clean enough, hand sterilisers are located here and there. If Stanley Kubrik’s 2001 had had an Earthbound location, this could be it.

Fernando Sanchez Salvador, local Open House Curatorial Consultant, at the Etar de Alcantara

Patricia had worked with the Aires Mateus team and doesn’t understand why I’m silent about it. As we leave, a waste truck enters, the vehicle entrance opens and a whiff of shit wafts out from the building’s interior. It’s only later, reflecting, that I get it- the synthesis of the long concrete channels and clinical-minimalist interiors is a calculated, cool and brilliant response to its function, the green roof literally topping off a conceptual tour-de-force.

We broke for lunch before the next stop, then walked across the scratchy park by the Torre de Belem to our next stop. Patricia, ever on the case, was fielding reports  from across the city- Lisboa Open House locations were busy! When we reached the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown (2010), a large biomedical research institute and treatment centre by the Tagus river, we could see that for ourselves. Despite our VIP party, we’re told we’ll have to wait hours to get a tour.

Your correspondent Herbert Wright explains the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown at a model in its main building

Hmph! Last year, I’d met Champalimaud’s great Indian architect Charles Correa in Mumbai, and then visited the centre to write a feature about it. Was I going to pass by on the place now? No way- I’ll conduct a tour myself! I gather my party and expain how Correa’s first major work was opened by India’s first prime minister, and about his twin influences of Modernism and sacred Hindu architecture. Standing around a model, we see his idea of ‘three stone ships in a granite sea’. The first is the main building we’re standing in, and we pass through a 19m-high glass wall into its spectacular open-to-sky internal garden, with great egg-shaped apertures in its wall.

A great glass screen separates the Champalimaud reception from the enclosed garden

We continue, out to walk beneath a glass bridge over the 125m-long axial path between it and the second ‘ship’, the administration building. The path echoes Louis Khan’s Salk Institute and leads to two concrete columns, an enigmatic water sculpture, and the Atlantic beyond. There is a metaphysical quality here, and it captures the ‘genius loci’ of the place- this is where Portugal’s Great Navigators sailed out into the unknown. The third ‘ship’ is the sun-drenched amphitheatre- I’m glad to see evidence of skateboarders there. Fernando comments that there is a de Chirico sense to the place- I readily concur, and I also see Dalli’s soft shapes in the great curved openings that punctuate the limestone buildings. My tour ends outside one 14m across, the auditorium’s window, which had to be glazed with acrylic by the same team that did Lisbon’s aquarium.

Cassiano Branco and Pardal Monteiro cartoons in the new Aeroporto Metro station

I’m a big fan of Art Deco, and Lisbon has a veritable feast of it. Its two greatest local practioners were Porfirio Pardal Monteiro, whose work I would explore on Sunday, and Cassiano Branco. (Cartoons at Lisbon’s new Aeroporto Metro station show them- Monteiro, on the right, and Branco, who would not work with the right-wing authoritarian Estado Novo regime, on the left). The  Hotel Vitória (1937) on the grand Avenida de Liberdade is one of Branco’s greatest masterpieces. We find the place thronged by young people holding the green Lisboa Open House guide. We have brought these people out to celebrate the city, and here they are, patient and keen!

Your correspondent Herbert Wright with the crowds waiting to enter the Hotel Vitória

The Hotel Vitória

The Hotel Vitória was a nest of Nazi spies during World War 2. Now, it’s the Communist Party HQ, who of course have everything under strict control. We edge into the entrance, where a telephone booth looks something in a Raymond Chandler novel, and we’re parked in the café, where the Party have prepared excellent displays about the building. It’s an hour’s wait for the tour led by António Olaio. He leads us out to look at the facade, which combines the clean solidity of Modernism with the lyrical playfulness of Art Deco, then at last up into the building. What a contrast to the showy exterior- faded rooms bare of detail and colour. But the roof terrace, with its wonderful pergola and top-most circular balcony, is magnificent in the warm evening sunshine.

A few blocks away is a building I had been particularly looking forward to- the Igreja do Sagrado Coraçao (1970), a radical Brutalist church by Nuno Teotónio Perreira (co-architect of the Áquas Livres block).

Igreja do Sagrado Coraçao (Church of the Sacred Heart)

But the light was fading, making its angles and layers in heavy concrete dark and broody. The public passage cut down and under the church felt gloomy and sinister. Furthermore, a mass was underway to a congregation depleted by urban flight and age- it seemed rude to disturb it. Patricia and I descended to the crypt, a miss-mash of concrete surfaces including breezeblocks and wooden saints that felt uncomfortable with it. I felt oppressed. Perhaps my judgement is harsh- the church interior with its spatial drama deserves a look another time.

Patricia and Jorge confer in the Aires Mateus home

It was night when we reached the Home of Sofia & Manuel Aires Mateus (2006), within an eighteenth century building between the Baixa and the Cathedral. In the darkness, a queue rose up the street as if for a cool ‘in’ club. Inside is one of the most amazing residences I have ever seen. A labyrinth of vaults and passages on different levels, all striped to stone or plastered white, it felt like a dream- a sort of underground art gallery and archive woven into baron’s castle quarters made contemporary.

Dining space

Night in the garden of the Aires Mateus’s

I sit by a wall of books and talk with volunteer Jorge, who takes me on a brilliant personal tour, down into the deep cellar that was once a cistern, into the new extension of bedrooms, out into the garden with views to the river. I am blown away. The more I see of Aires Mateus’ work, the more I realise what an extraordinary command he has with spaces in odd places, and light within them… even underground. It is almost nine, and still, people are surging in.

Hungry, tired and saturated with eye-opening architecture, we emerged. Lisbon’s first Open House had been a fantastic success. And tomorrow, there would be more.

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Expedition to the Genex Tower

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The Genex Tower, Belgrade, June 2012. Photo © Kristina Rapacki

                                                                                                 ‘Krist na biciklu! Što je to??’ you might exclaim in Serbo-Croat, as you pass one of the most bizarre high-rises ever, whizzing by on the motorway from Nikola Tesla Airport into Belgrade. Serbians, of course, will already know the Genex Tower, so are unlikely to exclaim anything, but for the rest of us, the first glimpse of the bizarre double skyscraper, with a B-movie sci-fi rotunda perched on top, is a visual gob-smacker. What on Earth is it? And is it one of the ugliest buildings in the world, or a mad masterpiece? I was in town for Belgrade Design Week and outside the conference, I had to check it out. I was not disappointed. 

Distant echoes of London and Yugoslavia

The Genex Tower is often compared to the Trellick Tower in London, designed by Erno Goldfinger. Both are examples of Brutalism, a style that, from the 1960s, revived concrete to give buildings a massive solidity and abstracted geometric form, in contrast to the lightness and rectilinearity of steel and glass in mainstream Modernism. Genex and Trellick both are essentially concrete slabs that have placed their service towers- lifts, stairs, pipes etc- outside the main blocks, and both have strange structures on top. The Trellick Tower was completed eight years earlier in 1972, so the London tower very likely inspired Serbian architect Mihjlo Mitrović. 

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Trellick Tower, London. Photo © Herbert Wright

But Mitrović went a lot further on the Genex Tower- the gap rising all the way up the structure is not between service and main tower, but two entirely separate skyscrapers- a 30 storey residential block and a shorter 26-storey office tower, each with cylindrical service towers either side, and attached rather than separated. At the Trellick, a distinctive cantilevered head at the top of its service tower contains a boiler room. The Genex tower is topped by a rotunda mounted on one of the office tower’s two service shafts, just above a bridge which connects to the residential block. This rotunda once contained a revolving restaurant, also with roots in London- the GPO (now BT) Tower opened the first high-rise revolving restaurant in 1965. Incidentally, the skyline rotunda as a skyscraper signature element became so popular in China in the 1990s, it was almost a local vernacular in cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Gemex Tower skyline © Kristina Rapacki 2012

At 115m to the top of the rotunda, the Genex Tower was Serbia’s tallest skyscraper. The architectural height is now equalled by the Ušće Tower, which was remodelled and made taller after being trashed by NATO bombing in 1999. A radio mast mounted on the Ušće takes it to 141m, higher than the Genex mobile network mast which reaches around 125m.

The Genex Tower has nothing to do with Generation X, but there is a theory that it has masonic connections. It was built for the Genex conglomerate, ex-Yugoslavia’s biggest company, dealing in petrochemicals, raw materials and construction. When Yugoslavia broke up in 1990, Genex accounted for a tenth of the entire country’s trade. By 2007 it was a ghost of its former self, and five directors were arrested on corruption charges in a confusing case steeped in the mixture of power, privatisation and politics of the time. The Genex website hasn’t been updated since 2008. (Any clarification on this would be gladly received!)

The tower is also known as the Western Gate, but the Genex name remains. Nowadays, it is covered in adverts. Zepter, a global luxury-goods conglomerate, have mounted their name in letters on the residential block’s roof, and the office block has banners for other companies hanging across its facades. Those banners don’t break the height record of 230m set in 2003 at the 2IFC tower in Hong Kong, but even at about a quarter as high, they are truly huge.

Expedition to the Genex Tower

With writer/photographer Kristina Rapacki, I set off on a baking June day on a mission to reach the Genex Tower. We approached from the east, through Novi Beograd, the new town of postwar housing set in a grid of wide avenues on the other side of the Sava river from old Belgrade. We turned off strangely sleepy Boulevar Zorana Dindica into Omladinskih Brigada street, which defines the edge of Blok 33, a zone solid with housing. Suddenly, a leafy lane cuts through it, revealing… yes, the tower in all its magnificent strangeness! 

Step through to the Pizzeria Tavolini. Photo © Kristina Rapacki 2012

At the end of the lane, a wall. Pizzeria Tavolino written in cheerful letters in the Italian colours lures you up a small spiral staircase in it that leads to a podium level. This is the base of the Genex Tower, paved in warm red brick like London’s Barbican, but overgrown and deserted. The pizzeria, huddling in a concrete arch below the facade of flats dotted with air-conditioning units, is shut. The gap between the towers leads to a vast big red-brick plaza. An arc of amphitheatre steps high above an empty round blue pool where children must once have splashed about. Every brick in the steps is tagged with graffiti, and at the top, someone has felt-tipped a cartoon where Jack and Yumi talk about high heels and strawberries. 

Jack and Yumi meet below the Genex Tower. Photo © Herbert Wright 2012

Amphitheatre at Genex Tower. Photo © Kristina Rapacki 2012

 

  

Residents’ arcade at the Gemex Tower © Herbert Wright 2012


                        We entered the lobby of the office tower, a space where sunlight filters through dusty tinted glass. The receptionist was friendly, but no, there was no access to the top. Below the residential tower, an arcade has been painted with folk motifs and Cyrillic lettering. The tiny Apulja Mini-market is open and stacked high with snacks and drinks. There is life in this hard concrete world.

A lost, heroic world

The Genex Tower is where the heroic socialist ideal of mass modular housing and open spaces, based on the concepts of Modernist architect master le Corbusier, combined with Yugoslavia’s economic muscle. The result was then a landmark structure fit for the people and simultaneously a symbol of the country’s commercial aspirations. No other Yugoslav structure conjured up the rush to modernity with the scale and eccentricity of the Genex Tower. That was all a long time ago, and now the place suggests a monument to a lost civilisation. Struggling contemporary Serbia has turned its back on it. But if the Genex Tower could sing, Elton John’s I’m Still Standing would surely soar triumphantly across Belgrade. It may be decrepit, but through sheer chutzpah, it stands stronger than it ever did, perhaps the most fantastic example of Brutalist high-rise anywhere in the world.


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Paris Stalingrad to the périphérique

I woke up all moody in my hotel room at Barbès — Rochechouart, Paris. It had just gone 6am, it was still dark outside. I had to step out. I started walking, determined  yet without objective, like James Dean crossing Times Square.

Low-rent Boulevard de Magenta was deserted and rubbish-strewn, the discount clothes and trainers stores and wedding boutiques still shut. No sign of my friend. It was a ghost town patrolled by occasional white vans. Nearby, the Moon hung over the Gare du Nord in the cold deep blue sky, as if in a Paul Delvaux painting, but with No Entry signs instead of the naked woman on a couch. Some early commuters were appearing. Do I head south, into Haussman’s grand boulevards, maybe towards Place de la Republique? I could see an elevated metro line to the north, past the station. Alors. 

Line 2 runs over iron bridges along boulevard de la Chapelle, Paris (March 2012)

The commuters dropped away. I was alone on gritty Boulevard de la Chapelle, heading east. A chain of iron bridges carry the Metro down the centre of the road, big stairs between weighty stone walls leading up to stations- La Chapelle, then Stalingrad. Occasional neon shone in the shadows of the sidewalk. Buildings dropped away as I crossed the wide rivers of rail that flow northwards from the Gare du Nord, then a little further on, from the Gare de l’Est. Below, trains slept under floodlights. Above, the slick modern Metro line 2 trains were already on the move on their hard grey iron bridges. They pass, silence returns, and the bridges are still again, black-and-white industrial photography materialised.

Beyond them, opposite a hostel called Peace and Love, the purple-fronted Pointe Lafayette sits above a canal on a corner. I sat there thinking, with a café creme and map, the only customer this early. I had skimmed the edge of a different Paris, one near the edge and not in the tourist guides. It was a quarter distinguished by the rivers of rail from the grand stations, and bounded by other transport corridors-a metro line, a canal, a boulevard, an urban freeway. Transport brings all sorts of people to the city- tourists, commuters, those with appointments- but it also provides niches for peripheral people to settle. Behind rail termini lie backwaters that are cheap and away from attention. The area behind the Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est must be such an area. It called for a flaneur to map its psychogeography.

Over Jaurès

Over Jaurès

Line 2 crosses after emerging at the top of Boulevard Magenta in the 18th arrondissement. It skims through the townscape eastwards, curving across the Jaurès junction at the 19th and 10th’s western edges, before diving underground again into Belleville (which itself was once Chinatown). The line was extended this was in 1903 and is Paris’ own version of a New York-style El, or elevated local railway.

The urban freeway is to the north. The Boulevard Périphérique is a cordon sanitaire around the city of Paris, a ringroad with enough lanes to be American.  Beyond it lie the banlieues- a vast ring of social housing, alienation and communal tension. In 2005 they erupted into rioting and the anarchy went national.

The Edge of Paris: Under the Boulevard Périphérique at Place de Clignancourt, March 2012

At Place de Clignancourt, on the northern edge of the 18th, I was ready to cross into the no-go lands of burnt-out cars and gangland menace. The Mayor of Paris had kindly placed an indestructible automatic concrete loo under the Périphérique flyover, perhaps for anyone shitting themselves at the border. I was disappointed- beyond the loo, Saint Ouen Ouest is a like a French village, small houses and local patisseries, and on the road out of town, used tyre businesses.

Au-dela de la barriere, la plage?

Au-dela de la barriere, la plage?

Still, social housing estates do descend into Paris proper. Look north up the banks over the grand rail lines’ embankments and you can see tower blocks behind the tenements, like boys at the back of the class. On Rue Ordener, they peep over a screen of exuberant mauve hip-hop lettering.

Message from 4th Kids (March 2012)

4TH KIDS DON’T DIE THEY JUST GO TO HELL TO REGROUP, proclaims a roof ledge, just above a French tricolor. The hood feels easy in the global language that French lost to. But most of the inner-city graffiti is tired. When it fades into the grey ironwork along the bridges of Line 2, it’s hard to feel the rebellion.

On Rue de Tombouctou, a corner brasserie complete with TABAC sign faces railings above the Gare du Nord’s river of rail. It feels like a timeless urban France at the edge of the world, even though you can see the tenements beyond, and the men passing slow time inside are Arab rather than Gallic.

Rue de Tombouctou, Paris, March 2012

This area is full of streets where the only sound is often the rumble of trains, but the very next street can come alive with boulangeries and phone shops, white vans and mopeds, and voices- African, Arab, Indochinese and Indian. Back towards Montmartre, the area is called Goutte d’Or, and it bussles with local life, a melting pot of peoples from distant lands that is new yet distinctly Parisian.

At Mac Ben (March 2012)

On Place de la Chapelle, the friendly Mac Ben eaterie has picture menus in lightboxes above the counter. It ain’t la gastronomie francaise, but the food is tasty- chicken, felafel, kebabs, that sort of thing. And there’s an extra as you finish eating from your tray- sweet tea is brought.

Water edges the area to the east. At Place de Stalingrad, you can climb an embankment and look across a wide, tranquil stretch of water, the Bassin de Vallette. Locks connect it to a canal, which passes beneath the roads and Metro bridges of Jaurès, to run south into central Paris along the Quai de Valmy. At night, 20-something Paris bobo (it means bohemian-bourgeois) types descend a ramp to the canal by the Pointe Lafayette bar. There’s an industrial building down there that’s now one of the Usines Éphémères- part music venue, part art centre, part hang-out bar. A DJ on a catwalk over the entrance plays stuff like Velvet Underground to a big space with pop paintings of friendly aliens on the wall.

Friendly aliens at the Usine Éphémère (March 2012)

You can sit on the floor and people-watch, or step outside to the waterside enclosure and get talking with types who like music, work in media, or have a creatve project on the go. Artists and piss-artists become indistinguishable. Every now and then, a fire engine from the fire station next door emerges and accelerates right by you along the quay, emergency horns shrieking and blue lights flashing (giving it the twos’n’blues, as les flics britaniques might say). It passes and the conversation resumes, barely paused. After midnight, some of the crowd climb to the Metro and fill the midnight trains, heading home, or to later nightspots like Pigalle, a few stops down the line.

This part of the behind-the-great-stations area, around Stalingrad, isn’t so much immigrant as emergent-alternative. It could flip into up-and-coming any day, and then developers would move in to clean up. New housing is already going up beside the railways on streets like Rue Pajol- one project, the ‘Green One’, taps into the marketing power of English. For the moment, the area lies low on the radar screens of wholefood and green tea lifestylers with careers. It hints at something more genuinely bohemian. On Rue la Fayette, a new retro clothing shop has opened that could have been beamed in from Camden Town. A few bobo coffee hang-outs would be cool, but it sure don’t need any urban ‘regeneration’ schemes.

If London is a power-dressed female chief exec who knows how to party, Paris is like her secret twin sister, but raised by another family. She is smart and cultivated and chic, and she shows off and flirts and makes you fall in love with her, but she has many secrets. Sometimes, the secrets are as enchanting as the public image. The world behind the Gares de Nord and de l’Est is just one of her many secrets.

(more photos here)

North of Gare du Nord (March 2012)

North of Gare du Nord (March 2012)

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Olympic Rings in Sporks and Sauces

 

Olympic Rings with Sporks and Sauces
© Herbert Wright 2012

With thanks to Sarah Hyndman, mistress of the excellent olympiclogoaday site!

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Touring the near and the elsewhere

On 11th February 2012, I joined Gaia Persico to give a talk about the exhibition ‘the near and elsewhere’ which she curated at the PM Gallery, Ealing, London. We had a good crowd! There’s big names in this show of photography and other artistic media, which runs until 17th March. 

This was my introduction:

In this show, contemporary artists address one of the biggest phenomena of the day: 21st century urbanism. For the first time in human history, more people live in cities than in the countryside. When we think of our planet, we think of oceans and mountains and so on, but actually the world most of us live in is now artificial- streets, buildings, transport etc- the ‘concrete jungle’.

There are familiar issues to do with city life that artists have long addressed- alienation and anonymity, for example, or the contrast between the intimacy of interior spaces and the built environment outside. Think about the paintings of say Edward Hopper, where you often become a voyeur glimpsing private moments in rooms or bars in the big city, which is out there, atmospheric but indifferent. Contrasts like that are explored here. But there are new issues. Two stand out, and they are linked- the collapse of the American suburban dream, and the rise of the Chinese megacity.

Planners and architects now understand that suburbs are unsustainable- they guzzle energy, they go hand in hand with the destructive culture of cars and motorways, they are socially exclusive rather than inclusive, and not least they eat up land. But the twentieth century ideal for living was suburban, particularly in the US. That dream crashed big-time with the US Housing Bubble. US property prices peaked in 2006, the sub-prime mortgage market collapsed in 2007, and in 2008 the US Government had to pump almost $900 billion into loans and rescues to save the banking sector. Many works here show us new American houses built in the time of easy credit that have simply been abandoned.

Of course, the biggest source of credit to the US is China. Ever since 1980, when Deng Xao-ping unleashed the dragon of capitalism, China has been industrialising and exporting goods to the West and building up mountains of money as a result. That rapid industrialisation has driven the biggest exodus in human history, from the Chinese countryside to the city. In 2010, there were 171 Chinese  cities of over a million people, most of them we’ve never heard of. In December, I visited Shenzhen- in 1980, it was fishing villages, now it’s a bright metropolis bigger than London. Planners and architects now understand that density is what makes cities work and become sustainable. The Chinese take density to extreme, and we see that here in the photos of say Michael Wolf, who addresses that dichotomy of internal and external space in Hong Kong. We also see how rapid urbanisation is steam-rollering the built environment of the past, for example in Shanghai, brilliantly captured by Greg Girard. Pictures like this are snapshots from the start of a story that will run this whole century and increasingly define cities everywhere- the story of the Chinese urban experience.

There are other urban issues that artists address here, such as the gap between the real and representation- Thomas Demand has long played with that ambiguity, and so here do others. There is also the eternal issue of urban poverty, something Francis Alys touches here. So let’s go look….

We started by looking at a photo from Gregor Graf’s Hidden Town series, this one called Situation 2. Graf stripped away all signage, advertisements, words and any human presence from the streetscape, in this case at a petrol station in Linz, a major town in his native Austria (in China, it might qualify as a village!). The result is unreal, as if the city had been silenced and suspended in a sort of urban limbo. Elsewhere in the series he tackled London, which does look different to Linz, but is similarly de-localised. His Oxford Street (not in the show) looks banal and mundane, highlighting how architecture often plays less of a role in giving a sense of identity to the modern built environment than the superficial lights and branding we dress it up with. It also introduces us to another issue running through the show- the manipulation of images.

Michael Wolf- a57 from the series ‘Architecture of Density’, 2008 Credit: Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

Michael Wolf‘s shot of cliffs of housing blocks in Hong Kong, filling the whole of the huge a57 from his Architecture of Density series, really brings home the mind-numbing scale of Chinese urbanisation. One of the things that German photographer Wolf is interested in is repetition, and this shot overwhelms you with the repetition of flats stretched right across it. I counted the storeys on the right-hand edge: 63. It looks like social housing, and Hong Kong has lots of that, but the world’s tallest social housing is actually in Singapore, at the 50-storey Pinnacle@Duxton estate. That had me wondering if Wolf hadn’t Photoshopped the repetition. Gaia’s opinion is that it must be private housing- and she may be right, there’s plenty of that sort of scale in places like West Kowloon or climbing up The Peak- but I’m not sure!

Canadian photographer Greg Girard shows another side to Chinese urbanisation in his series Phantom Shanghai, and several photos are included in the show. The Independent newspaper rated the book of this project as one of the top ten photographic books ever. Two photos here show old, decrepit houses against a backdrop of modern development. Look closely, and you see lights are burning in them. They could well be what the Chinese call ‘nail houses’- properties where the owners hold on even as every single other neighbouring property has been cleared by the developer. If the occupiers don’t accept buy-out offers, developers have been known to cut the utilities and send in thugs.

Greg Girard- House on Huashan Lu, North View, Lane 322, Huashan Lu, 2005 Credit: Courtesy the artist and Monte Clark Gallery, Toronto/Vancouver

Just as the new Chinese urban landscape is erupting, the American suburban dream has been evaporating. Countless new ‘McMansions’ across the US sit abandoned, often uncompleted.

Noel Jabbour- Sand Dollar, Galveston 2006 from the series ‘One million $ houses’, 2006. Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Palestinian photographer Noel Jabbour‘s One Million $ Houses show properties with neo-colonial style wooden porches and balconies, in a mist, as if in a dream that underlines the unattainability of owning them. Portuguese photographer Edgar Martins was commissioned to document it by the New York Times in a series originally called Ruins of a Second Gilded Age, which became This is not a House (and currently on show at the Wapping Project). The newspaper pulled the images from their website after accusations that they were digitally manipulated- raising the issue of authenticity. Gaia and I stood by his picture of an Atlanta, Georgia house and talked about the artist’s freedom to create a work as they see it. What’s wrong with an artist using the tools at his disposal? The brooding sky behind the house reminds me of the pitch-black skies in my favourite Edgar Martins series, A Metaphysical Survey of British Dwellings, works that created an even deeper other-worldliness as well as showing Martins’ mastery of manipulating the image.

Your correspondent talks about Edgar Martins’ Untitled (Atlanta, Georgia) from ‘This is not a House’ 2009

Gaia and I talked about the twin installations from Rome’s new Zaha Hadid-designed MAXXI Museum. Cino Zucchi Architetti’s Nel Corpo della Citta (In the Body of the City), with its beating heart at the position of the Pantheon in the dense, ancient streetplan of Rome, and Francis Alÿs‘ Sleepers- homeless and dogs in Mexico City- are streetlife. The scale of ancient town plans provides a stage for human activity that is now, again, seen as an ideal, but that activity simultaneously includes and excludes the homeless. Unfortunately, getting our crowd inside the installations’ small space was impractical. (Some may know Alÿs’ Railings, a London video work, is currently on show at Tate Britain’s Migrations).

James Casebere- Landscape with Houses (Dutchess County NY) #7, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery

So, onto another work exploring the broken American suburban dream- James Casebere‘s Landscape with houses (Dutchess County, NY) #7 (2010). It’s another huge photograph, this time of remarkably bland houses in a rural setting. They may look a bit like Port Stanley, but they feel unreal- in fact, they’re models and the entire landscape was constructed by Casebere on a tabletop (including the fire). As Gaia says, ‘the disquieting truth emerges: the utopian model and the American dream are as fictitious as the photographs themselves’. Everything he shoots is a model, even interiors which he sometimes floods. Interesting to know that Casabere actually worked (and still works?) in a Brooklyn studio designed by one of the UK’s most thoughtful contemporary architects, David Adjaye- what a contrast to the extreme banality of his fake rural houses.

Both Michael Wolf and Greg Girard take us inside the buildings they show us in Homg Kong and Shanghai respectively. Setting up the exhibition, Gaia and gallery director Carol Swords mounted Wolf’s array of rooms in 100×100 in a vertical column reaching right up to the ceiling, stacked just like living spaces revealed in the Shek Kip Mei project, Hong Kong’s first public housing estate built in 1954. The numbers refer to the 100 rooms, each 100 square feet- nine square metres- that everyone gets. We gain intimate glimpses into just 56 rooms. In each, occupants sit in their super-crammed spaces that are nevertheless somehow neat and tidy, perhaps for the benefit of the photographer. Girard’s Apartment Interior, #33, Lane 42, Liling Lu (2005) contrasts the grotty flat with it’s newspaper-lined wall below a window looking out onto Shanghai’s floodlit Oriental Pearl Tower, a 468m-high icon finished in 1994 as a symbol of the city’s renaissance. It’s the perfect crystalisation of the contrast between the old and new Chinese urbanism. It’s also an example of an Edward Hopper-like aspect often found in Girard’s work- the link between interior and the big city outside, the exploitation of colour and contrast.

Artist Thomas Demand, one of Germany’s big names, calls himself a photographer, ever since 1993 when he started photographing his sculptures and destroying them. Like Casebere, he makes models, but Demand’s are painstakingly accurate cardboard copies of buildings or furniture, which explore the gap between reality and representation. At the near and elsewhere, we see Black Label, made during a 2008 residency at the CCA gallery in Kitakyushu, Japan. It shows different angles on an odd local building containing the Black label bar, which is tiny, with just a handful of seats. The original building was demolished and rebuilt 100 metres away, so what we see here is a like a replica of a replica of a replica. Gaia also sees a personal aspect in it, commenting that ‘the work brings to the fore the very personal aspect of being displaced…’

That disconnect between reality and representation of buildings has long fascinated me. Architect’s CGIs (computer-generate images) have become more and more realistic as computer processing power has escalated (just as, in parallel, video games have), to the extent that it is often difficult to tell whether an image of a new building is real or not. Nevertheless, in Demand’s work shows, a structure is usually cleaner and more idealised in representation. Gaia’s drawing-based work A Tuesday morning in Long Beach also explores that issue. It’s mounted on a lightbox, as if to invoke the light of computer screens.

Gaia Persico- A Tuesday Morning in Long Beach, 2011/ Courtesy the artist

Look at the surfaces of her building, however, and they are not the super-clean planes of Demand. As she says, ‘there is an atmosphere of solitude and isolation, of emptiness and abandonment’. The lonely building with its columns made me ask her if there was a connection with another Italian artist, the great surrealist de Chirico, whose dreamscapes often contained buildings with elements like classical columns. Not particularly, she said, but she was flattered with the comparison!

Well, we were out of time, and there was a lot of other things in the show I would like to have talked about, such as Ferit Kuyas’ photographs of Chongqing from his City of Ambition series, showing a brighter Chinese vision than Girard’s. Or Rachel Whiteread’s untitled photo of the cosy village of doll’s houses, from Place, exhibited in the Hayward Gallery’s Psycho Buildings show in 2008-  almost like Casebere houses but huddled together in a fairytale urban density!

My take on the near and the elsewhere, apart from recommending the excellent urban photography in particular, is that the show underlines issues of association and disassociation- between China’s rise and America’s malaise, the new and the old, the built environment and human experience, and between reality and image. It is also a visual journey that should leave you thinking, and give something to talk about..

Gaia Persico and Herbert Wright talk the near and elsewhere, February 2012

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Long Live Chungking Mansions!

Entering the City within the City (Dec 2012)

The even-floors Block-A lift in Chungking Mansions wasn’t going to stop bleeping, let alone move. Not until the unfeasibly tall man in a suit stepped out. He knew the score and obliged. ‘That was a big guy’ I commented to the African ladies squashed up against me in the tiny space, as we began to ascend.

Waiting for Block A lifts- odd on right, even on left

‘Tall man’ one nodded.

‘Where are you from?’ I asked.

‘Zambia’ said the other.

‘How’s Lusaka?’

‘Raining’

They stepped out around floor 12, you lose track of these things when you seem to stop just about everywhere on the way. My stop was 16, and then the stairs to 17, the top. The odd-floor elevator didn’t go there, which is why I’d told the Chinese security man controlling the queues for them: ‘The even lift is the best’. He’d laughed. It was 2am and he wasn’t knocking off till 7. A sunny temperament helps working a beat in Chungking Mansions.

The City within the City

Local anthropologist Gordon Matthews once estimated that a fifth of mobile phones in black Africa pass through Chungking Mansions, just down from Tsim Sha Tsui metro station on Nathan Road, Kowloon. Maybe that’s how the Zambian ladies knew about the weather back home. It’s a crazy place, a whole city of up to 10,000 according to some, in a decrepit 1961 mega-block with all the architectural flair of a second-hand filing cabinet. At Chungking Mansions, you can sleep, eat, change money, get a shirt ironed or hair cut, buy pretty well anything you need and a lot you don’t, and meet half the world, maybe even trade with them, all without leaving the building. After two nights in the swish Carlton in Hong Kong Central on the other side of Victoria Harbour, it was quite a change of scene.

A room with a view in Chungking Mansions- not all have it

My next room was three metres square, half of it the bed and a quarter the bathroom. The plumbing worked most of the time. A single roach popped up every now and then, but mainly kept to itself. That way, things worked out fine. I had my nook in Chungking Mansions and I was snug as a bug in it.

It’s not that I never left the building. Walk up Nathan Road and the Tsim Sha Tsui quarter is as exciting a cityscape as they come- vast flows of humanity channelled in canyons of shopping below a floating matrix of neon-signage, all loomed over by skyscrapers and ads playing on giant LED video screens. Just up the road, at the start of an incongruously tranquil stretch of shady banyan trees, is the Kowloon Mosque, established 1984, which is probably why Chungking Mansions is the way it is. It’s the focal point for Moslems from the Indian sub-continent, and along with the Hindus and Sikhs, that community trades. The sidewalks of Nathan Road are full of men schlapping up business for bespoke tailoring or Rolex watches. The price of a Hong Kong suit may not be as competitive as it was, which maybe explains why the sales pitches are quick and desperate. As for the Rolexes, fake or real, I never got that- why carry an ad for muggers on your wrist?

Hustlers and Samosas

Chungking Mansions- market, ground floor (Dec 2011)

The hustlers are in full strength outside Chungking Mansions, with offers that get a lot more salubrious than just watches or suits. Get through them, pass under the glitzy entrance and you’re in a bustling, seedy double-level bazaar of Indian and African traders. You can wander the vast warren for hours. Electronics and luggage seem to dominate, but there are zones of Indian food stalls, many with seating behind the counters. Halal Foods’ biriani offerings seem to have been lamp-heated all day. I preferred the vegetarian snack outlets, like the Smrat stall (is it connected to Smrat Pure Veg up on level five, one of several tiny boutique restaurants with waiter service? I’ll report next time). On the ground floor, if the view to the market passageways is open enough, you can watch the world pass by- if it’s narrow, there’s always conversation with other diners. Once, a guy leaned over conspiratorially to whisper ‘your food is shit’. It was a strange way to introduce an offer for dope, which I declined, and stranger still since my aloo tikka chaat was the best this side of Southall. The Indians themselves are more likely to be chatting one floor up, where cafés cluster at the top of a staircase and a small barbers pole spins outside Gujurat International Hair.

Something for the Weekend?

It’s on the ground that you find the miniscule lifts up to floor after floor of tight-packed hostel accommodation above. Two lifts serve each of the five blocks. Some of the lift lobbies that merge into the market have been marbled but Block A’s is still chaotic and easily the busiest. Still, there’s a Chinese stall selling fruit next to them, and if the monitors with the feed from inside the lifts aren’t enough, the big looped video of bungee-jumping in Macau may help some with the wait.

Sheets drying in Chungking Mansions

Upstairs, several hostels fill a floor, and their sheets hang in the central hall space they branch off from. Your view is likely to be the adjacent Chunking Mansions block, up real close, but the piles of rubbish that travellers used to report below are gone. Open the window and the air is Hong Kong fresh- which ain’t necessarily that fresh, but breathable enough. To see rubbish, check out the stairwells, which are the quickest way down, even from 17. Ancient electrical wiring bursting out of open boxes, dodgy plumbing, rat poison warnings and a gallery of multi-lingual graffiti embellish these vertical passages of grot, and there’s usually some theatre as you pass, maybe someone lugging a surrealistically massive case or negotiating a shady deal. Who needs the television perched above the end of your bed?

Rubbish, Rat Poison... and Flamenco Confusion? Chungking Mansions A stairs (Dec 2011)

Block A’s staircase breaks on the second floor, and you need to pass the management offices and Chinese Visa place to descend the final leg to the ground. That comes out in an alleyway that runs all the way out to the backstreet by the Peninsula Apartments, where Indian porters sit and smoke on the sidewalk between wheeling deliveries into Chungking.

Get liquor in the alley- Indian Super Store, Chungking Mansions

The alley has its own convenience shop, the Indian Super Store, which I’m told has been there since 1983. Towards the Nathan Road end, the market spills out into the alley. Over the road is a glass behemoth that crystallises a different Tsim Sha Tsui- the iSquare Mall.

Chunking Mansions vs iSquare

The designer iSquare development is floor after floor of Japanese-looking super-shiney but chic shopping linked by long escalators that climb across its huge glass façade. From its Starbucks, you can look down on the thronging crowds outside Chungking Mansions, and up across the cliff-like front of its surprisingly bland window strips. The whole area is getting trendy as well as expensive.

Browsing in the Cke Mall

Chungking is trying to stay in the game, with its own Cke Mall, a floor of glass-partitioned clothes and bags merchants accessed by escalators next to the main entrance. The units are tiny, there’s something a bit tacky and plastic about the place, but it’s very different from the gritty hive of the bazaar below it. At night, LED strips glow across Chungking’s façade.

Jazzing up the night-time face of Chungking Mansions

Night can be when loneliness decides to be company, and in a crowd, it can be hard company to shake off. A brilliant photo shoot by Nana Chen portrays a loneliness in the Pakistanis and Indians of Chungking Mansions, as if they were in a exile, sad and dreaming of home. They may be, but more likely they’re too busy most of the time to get sentimental. Life in Chungking Mansions is compressed, colourful and chaotic. The Indian sub-continent flavours the place, and bemused backpackers, stolid Africans and even the odd Chinese all contribute and rub along fine. The question is, how long before the chemistry is lost? The place has changed before. In British times, it was reportedly beyond the law, part of the dark hive of Kowloon’s mysterious Chinese world.  Now, Hong Kong cops patrol the market. A lethal fire in 1988 tightened up safety, and now it’s a no-smoking zone, though you can find cigarette butts on the stairways. Nowadays, the threat is commercial.

Increasingly hemmed in by not just designer shops but location-oblivious hotel chains like Holiday Inn, InterContinental and Hyatt Regency, Chungking Mansions looks like an easy target for developers. The sheer intensity with which it exploits its plot makes it a rent-cow… for now. If that ever changes, part of Kowloon dies.

Chungking Mansions, December 2011

Sure, there may be other places as up Nathan Road, maybe as far as Jordon Road, where you get a little of the same cultural mash-up, but nothing as immense, immersive or intoxicating as Chunking Mansions.

Here’s hoping it stays just that way.

(all photos © Herbert Wright 2012)

Your correspondent Herbert Wright battles with a biriani in Chungking Mansions (Dec 2011)

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