Letter from Tokyo

The most advanced city on Earth isn’t just shaped by earthquakes and economics – animes and architects play out dreams there too. Herbert Wright seeks the big picture from above, and the future beyond the futuristic

Two things not to do with a Tokyo taxi driver: tip, because that’s an insult, and close the door, because that could bugger the self-closing mechanism. Japan leads in automation across many sectors, and now it’s getting a handle in cabs — a door handle. Just remember, don’t touch.

Tokyo has long been a city of the future. I imagine it already felt like the 21st century in 1990, while London hadn’t pulled out of the 80s and it was still 1970 in Manchester and 1955 in Moscow. It’s not just the gizmos and sushi, it’s the scale and dazzle. Chinese megacities may look like the Neo Tokyo of manga comics, towering and superluminous, but their recent turbo-charged urbanisation is just version two of Tokyo’s v1.0. It took 20 years to 1965 for Tokyo’s population to triple to 10 million, by when the neon of Ginza, the city’s most upmarket shopping district, glowed like Vegas. Now Ginza’s shop buildings themselves glow — light shines out from Renzo Piano’s glass bricks at Hermés, or Jun Aoki’s perforated aluminium at Louis Vuitton.

Tokyo is Maximum City, a vast hyperconnected, hyperproductive urban field, now with 13 million people. You can only appreciate its sheer scale 451m up the cool, metallic 634m-high Skytree, designed by mega-practice Nikken Sekkei and curiously not painted red and white like masts always are here. At Tokyo Station, whose 1914 European-style design by Tatsuno Kingo still stands among the blocky high-rises of the Marunouchi district, long high-speed Shinkansen trains snake sinuously away to the Japan beyond, with their 15m-long noses modelled by Eiji Nakatsu on kingfishers’ beaks to prevent sonic booms.

On the ground the best place to feel the hyper-urbanity is another station, Shinjuku. Crossing the street to it, you’re in a crowd as though you were heading to the big match. Some 3.6 million people use it every day, and if you thought King’s Cross or Châtelet-Les-Halles were big and confusing, try finding your Metro line here — I was twice trapped in a long gallery of shops selling exquisite but mysterious cakes.

Nearby is Kenzo Tange’s city hall (1991), aka the Tocho. This 243m-high, twin-headed beast is like a Notre-Dame solid enough to resist Godzilla. From the observation floors at 202m, looking out at bland, boxy skyscrapers, you realise what a classy job Tange did. His surfaces (even the lift door) repeat rectangular patterns, reflecting Japanese order and complexity, and his towers have thrust, like the Japanese economy had. Across town on Odaiba island’s Fuji TV HQ (1996), with Cartesian mastery, Tange suspended a shining 32m-diameter sphere in a vast 3D frame between 25-storey towers. That sphere is another place to see the skyline, plus meet the Assassination Classroom anime characters. Their disturbing smiley-head teacher Korosensei may trash the moon any moment, and here, he has a neo-Shinto shrine. Weird.

Buildings even have their own cartoon creature. The sleek, mixed-use, 52-storey Toranomon Hills designed by Nihon Sekkei (no relation to Nikkei) has Toranomon, a cat-robot mascot designed by manga artists Fujiko Pro. He’s from the future, and the tower seems to be too.

Who says the Japanese are unoriginal? Sure, they take Western ideas and make them better — witness Asahi beer, Wagyu beef, or all those jeans from Kojima — but their animes and designers keep imagining. Nobody was more utopian and radical than the Metabolists. They were dreaming big with their models of crazy structures that surely inspired Gerry Anderson’s budget TV sci-fi sets like Thunderbirds, and Tange’s 1960 Tokyo Bay plan made le Corbusier’s urban plans look dull (which they proved to be anyway).

But is there anything metabolist to actually see? I went to pay homage to Kisho Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule Tower (1972). It looks in a sorry state. The angular service towers are rusting, the washing machine-like pods are stained and under netting… but it’s still alive. Pods are available on Airbnb, and a rank of Tokyo’s ubiquitous, colourful vending machines stands outside. Demolition, for now, is at bay. The 13-storey tower was small for metabolism, but the charm of Tokyo is in even smaller, human-scaled spaces.

I chanced on a place just like a London square, called Nano Park (well, it wasn’t that small). Countless Tokyo backstreets reveal intimate eateries (a queue before opening time means it’s good) or wiring strung organically between poles. Occasional wooden houses have survived earthquake, fire and war, from a time before planning. Out in the dense but picturesque village-suburb of Jiyugaoka, I found someone to discuss houses. Locally based Dutch architect Martin van der Linden talked about the ‘anti-metabolist’ modernist Kazuo Shinohara, who taught the likes of Toyo Ito and Kazuyo Sejima. He crafted a sort of Japanese brutalism, different in each of his numerous house projects. He was more interested in the ‘machi’ (neighbourhood) than the city, and the ‘beauty in chaos’ of areas like Shibuya. That was the Sixties, and only now is small-scale urbanism in vogue. Perhaps the house typology, rooted in when carpenters built before there were any ‘architects’, is where Japanese architecture still finds its strongest inner voice.

Sadly, Japan’s inheritance tax has been killing Tokyo’s small plot size by forcing families to sell, letting developers agglomerate sites for the big stuff. But eventually the biggest hit Tokyo will take is demographic. Japan is getting old — there are country villages with the average age of 80-plus. Tokyo’s population is stable, but Japan’s is falling. One day humanity’s most intense city may empty. The last to go will not shut its door — that will be automatic.

March 2016 ©Herbert Wright

1602 Toko Lisa Anna Wilson Tokyo shots

Originally published in Blueprint magazine no.346, May 2016.

Montaged photos by Lisa Ann Wilson 2016 : 1 – Pods on Kisho Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule Tower — Like washing machines that need washing. 2 – A glimpse of one of the Tocho’s towers by Kenzo Tange. 3 – Toranomon is a ‘cat-like business robot’ that looks after Toranomon Hills

See also my article A Brief History of Big Plans for Tokyo Bay in the Global Urbanist

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Short Talk about Migrating Studios, the Future of Creative Spaces

A short introductory talk given 26th September 2015 for a panel discussion in the Design Museum‘s Super Talks, on the theme:

Migrating Studios? The Future of Creative Spaces

I’ll just throw out a few obvious thoughts and questions, and some visions you may not have seen before.

Why do studios migrate? An obvious factor is that they are pushed out by gentrification. We all know the pattern – artists colonise neglected buildings in low-rent areas, the area gets cool, the rents get hot, the developers move in, and the studios migrate. Artists and galleries started colonising this area (in London) Shoreditch/ Hoxton in the 1990s. We all know how it is now. The creative energy moved up the Kingsland Road to Dalston, the money followed, now the cool place to be is Stoke Newington. 

Where will the studios be pushed to next? Stamford Hill? Seven Sisters? Tottenham? Can we imagine hipsters in Tottenham? Are hipsters necessarily creatives anyway? Or are they the forward troops of social cleansing?

Has regeneration become synonymous with social cleansing, erasure of history and local identity, feeding developer profits, and making everywhere super-clean and anodyne?

St Modwen Properties by Laura Oldfield Ford (2010)

St Modwen Properties by Laura Oldfield Ford (2010)

If you lived or worked in one of those places, who could blame you for feeling angry? There’s something of that in the work of artist Laura Oldfield Ford, which is usually a drift through dispossessed urban landscapes, often social housing. But I chose this picture because (a) it looks like there may be some studios lurking there and (b) she literally spells out her anger as the developer approaches. I think that anger is back.

(Post-script: the evening following the talk, a Class-War demonstration converged on a Shoreditch cafe)

We see the same patterns and the same issues all around the world. In the 2000s, Manhattan creatives colonised Williamsburg, now the place is prime real estate. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stadmitte became this gritty artistic Nirvarna with a crazy 24-hour underground scene, now it’s almost Mayfair.

Street art in Savamala (photo: Herbert Wright 2014)

Street art in Savamala (photo: Herbert Wright 2014)

It’s been said that Belgrade has what Berlin had: urban cool on the cheap, hip bars and all-night partying, the lingering traces of socialist days a backdrop to booming creative activity. This (above) is a street in Savamala famous for its street art. (The scale and building typologies are similar to Laura Oldfield Ford’s picture)

Visualisation of Belgrade Waterfront © Eagle Hills

Visualisation of Belgrade Waterfront © Eagle Hills

This picture shows what United Arab Emirates developers propose for Belgrade. It’s called Belgrade Waterfront, and Savamala is at the right hand edge of the development. Savamala’s reputation as a creative hub was used in the literature promoting the scheme.

There are two sides to the story. Belgrade wants investment and employment. And who are we to say they can’t have a 21st century city?

Cities know that creatives are a fertiliser they can use to grow development. Dubai knows that. Whatever you think, Dubai (as a whole) may be the most successful contemporary urban phenomenon in the world.

Visualisation of d3 Dubai Design District by Foster+Partners, 2015

Visualisation of d3 Dubai Design District by Foster+Partners, 2015

This is the Dubai Design District (d3), as visualised by Norman Foster’s studio (who are masterplanning it). There is so much talent and vision in Foster and his practice, I’m not knocking them. But what about their visions for creative space? The PR says abut this that it will be an…

“… incubator for emerging local designers and artists, as well as bespoke environment for art galleries and studios wanting to showcase their pieces. The Creative Community is designed to evolve organically, as its unique ability to adapt to any purpose will … cater for regular changes in its occupancy”.

I wouldn’t mind being there. It looks pleasant, perhaps rather a shopping centre without the branding. Designers work and sell their output here, so it has the retail aspect. Occupancy may change- studios may migrate. (And the public-access spaces are programmed with performances and public art).

But is this a future for creative space?

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Skyscrapers: Herbert Wright interviewed by Daniel García Casillas for Metro World News July 2015

(This interview was part of an article by Daniel García Casillas for syndication within Metro’s newspapers, and it has appeared in editions from Santiago to Montreal)

What the benefits of high buildings for a city?
The denser our cities, the less their per capita carbon footprint. A spread-out city like Houston has way higher energy costs than say Hong Kong or London, starting with transport.
And dense cities create more social interaction, which is good for innovation, creation, and breaking down rural prejudices.
Plus, we don’t burn up the limited resource of countryside by building on it. High-rise is a way to increase density- but it’s not the only way. Hong Kong is super-dense, but Paris is high-density too, and skyscrapers have been banned there until recently.

What are the negative ramifications of erecting tall buildings?
We lose history and we lose community. If skyscrapers are not limited, developers maximise profits per square metre far more than with medium-rise. This increases the pressures on heritage buildings and traditional neighbourhoods. For example, many fine buildings were lost building up Manhattan, and nowadays millions are getting displaced from (for example) Chinese hutongs.
Residential high-rise is also associated with social apartheid. In the mid twentieth century, they were like concentration camps for the poor (think Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis, for example), nowadays they are exclusionist enclaves for the super-rich (think of the new 57th Street towers in New York)

What do the skyscraper represent to society? Why are they so popular?
To corporations, cities and states, they represent power and status. There is a penis-envy dynamic in the way some places (Gulf states, China) and developers (Trump, say) compete for height.
For super-rich penthouse occupants and for corporate execs in high-level boardrooms, there is the God-like feeling of looking down on everything.
But there can also be incredible beauty that makes cities exciting and for everyone to share- New York’s classic skyscrapers did that, and buildings like London’s Shard do that now.

Is it advisable to work or live in such high places?
Yes, it’s great. But skyscrapers’ fortunes can change. Some exclusive high-rise may become future slums. Some offices become obsolete.
As long as society is stable, and there is electricity to run elevators, skyscrapers will be desirable. That may not be forever, though.
Torre David in Caracas was to be a bank HQ, but until recently, it became a poor but vibrant community without electricity. Even so, I’ll bet it was exciting to be there!

What is your opinion about The Kingdom Tower in Jeddah that will rise at least 1,000 metres into the Saudi Arabian sky? Is it too high?
It’s un-necessary, the height is pure vanity. It’s a fantastic and brilliant design by Adrian Smith, but it is a sign of Saudi Arabia’s schizophrenia in simultaneously trying to be super-modern and maintaining a violent, anti-human religious regime. And it copies Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, which is a lot more fun and is in a far cooler place. In less it may well be an abandoned ruin.

How much higher can our cities’ skyscrapers will go in the future?
The best skyscraper architect in the world, Adrian Smith, reckons a mile or more (1600m+).

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Milan’s Three-Billion-Euro Menu, Eat In or Take Away

Some say it’s a waste of time and money, but there may just be a message to save the planet at Milan’s Expo 2015

‘Touch the Window’, said a notice at an optician’s in Milan’s Via Carducci. On May Day, anarchists did just that. The violent fracture marks they left on the glass looked like bullet holes without the holes. A day latter, in a just-built great avenue far from the city centre, a giant deranged-looking orange stops a moment, then moves on, keeping up with the man on stilts in a green top hat.

Anarchists have struck in Via Carducci, a fruit has stopped on the Expo's Decumano

Anarchists have struck in Via Carducci, a fruit has stopped on the Expo’s Decumano

These events are linked.

Milan Expo has opened, and for both the anarchist and the orange, it’s a platform to grab attention and say something. Anarchists (quoted from their graffiti) were saying ‘FUCK EXPO’, while the fruits and unfeasibly tall show-offs parading through the Expo were saying ‘FESTIVAL’ and ‘FUN!’ The Expo itself has a message, summed up in its theme: ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’. And 145 nations are each conveying their own messages as well, as are a few organisations. So, which message is the take-away from Milan Expo?

An Expo icon: The Tree of Life by by Orgoglio Brescia stands 37m tall

An Expo icon: The Tree of Life by by Orgoglio Brescia stands 37m tall

Expos started with London’s 1851 Great Exhibition, and have included Paris (1889), Montreal (1967) and Shanghai (2010). They’ve always had an international outlook (so has the anarchist’s trans-nationalist creed). Individual nations compete, like in an Olympics or World Cup, but there are no losers. The competition boils down to who’s making the most impact with the architecture of their pavilion, and hopefully the message conveyed within it.

Expo also hosts McDonalds and Coca Cola, and China’s largest real-estate company Vanke. That will incite anti-capitalists- but what about the likes of Slow Food and Save the Children, also there? Or the 638-year old Veneranda Fabbrica, artisans who look after the structure of the Duomo, the local cathedral?

Jacques Herzog has dismissed Expos as ‘a vanity fair’ of nations and ‘huge shows designed merely to attract millions of tourists’. This man is worth listening to- as half of the Swiss starchitect practise Herzog & de Meuron, he’s designed venues that redefine cities, from London’s Tate Modern and Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium to the soon-to-come M+, Hong Kong and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. He also masterplanned this Expo. Clearly, his criticism is spot on… except for just one word. ‘Merely’. We’ll come back to that.

The pavilions mostly parade along the axis of the fish-shaped Expo site, the Decumano. It’s 1.5km long, so there’s a lot of walking (a bike-hire scheme here would have cleaned up). Architecturally, wood is in, especially beautifully and brilliantly-engineered in the French and Chilean pavilions. Wood has much less embodied energy (and environmental impact) than concrete or steel. Expo structures only need to last six months, but out in the wider world of permanent buildings, wood is also on the rebound as a structural (i.e. load-bearing) material. Expo 2015 gives that sustainable trend a boost.

DSC_3031 Russia

Mayday at Milan Expo: Rain and the Russia Pavilion designed by Speech architects

There are some extraordinary ‘iconic’ forms amongst the pavilions, like China‘s big wavy roof and Russia‘s heroic, upwardly curving mirrored entrance canopy. But not everyone is so dramatic or contemporary. Oman’s and Kuwait’s desert fortresses, for example, look externally like distinctly old-school attractions borrowed from a theme park. Like many pavilions, they spell the country out visually. A personal favourite was Turkmenistan’s post-modernist pavilion, where at the entrance, Turkmen carpet is set in stone in the ground, and in light beside the door.

The Turkmenistan Pavilion's magic carpet

The Turkmenistan Pavilion’s magic carpet

What nations do inside their pavilions ranges from big-screen national advertisements to information-heavy educational displays, to ‘experiences’ (of which more later). Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the Expo theme is food, but many pavilions have restaurants and cafés offering national cuisine.

It’s strange seeing McDonald’s and Slow Food share the same Expo stage. Slow Food dates back to 1986 when an Italian, Carlo Petrini, responded to a McDonald’s opening in Rome by offering home-made pasta outside it. Their philosophy is all about the small producer growing healthy food naturally, and preserving local tradition. McDonald’s may serve 70 million a day, but Slow Food is big too. It has 100,000 members in 150 countries, and its initiatives include 1,000 gardens in Africa. At Milan Expo, Slow Food has a village at the end of Decumano- it’s wooden and designed by Herzog & de Meuron.

DSC_3173

Beware the Corn Man in the Slow Food Pavilion

So, what about ‘feeding the planet’? There’s a chasm between fast and slow food, between corporate and small-scale culture, between industrialised and organic farming. The latter choices may seem like trendy indulgences for the affluent, but actually our very survival may just depend on them. Mono-culture farming is not just destroying biodiversity, it’s making us rely on a tiny number of plant strains (to feed us and the animals we feed on) that are wide open to wipe-out by disease and climate change. The former is what happened with the Irish Potato Famine, the latter is happening in the Sahel now. And industrialised farming is also killing off the insects that pollinate plants at the base of our food chain.

No pavilion highlights the issue more clearly than the UK‘s, and it does it by offering experience instead of screens for film or reams of text. (Disclaimer: I have worked with the UK team, but check anything I say for yourself!) Artist Wolfgang Buttress‘ concept is about the chief pollinator, the bee, whose numbers are plummeting. An orchard precedes a lush stretch of British meadow, leading to an unforgettable solid yet ephemeral structure, the Hive, where sound and light is driven by signals from a real beehive.

The UK Pavilion's lush meadow should attract the most vital of pollinators- the bee

Wolfgang Buttress’ concept for the UK Pavilion includes a lush meadow that should attract the most vital of pollinators- the bee

DSC_2938

Behold the splendours of France in the rafters of the XTU-designed wood pavilion

The UK Pavilion does more than ‘merely’ attract tourists. It gently demands a personal re-think about food and the planet. That spirit is shared in several other pavilions, such as France with its gorgeous ceiling-suspended cornucopia of produce and video truck messages about food and the city.

Some say Expos are a waste of money, but Milan Expo actually cost Italy just €3 billion (ex-transport links)- one 700th of its GDP. It seems to be already visibly pulling Milan out of recession.

Ultimately, Expos should be a celebration of civilisation and the future. Milan Expo offers a choice about the latter. Herzog as well as the anarchists overlook its big message about rethinking food. But the message doesn’t stay there… it should be a take-away.

(all photos © Herbert Wright 2015)

A few more of my photos (obviously not taken with a proper camera!) can be seen here.

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The Amazing Earls Court Exhibition Centre and the company that wants to destroy it

Earls Court Exhibition Hall

Earls Court Exhibition Hall

Exit Earls Court station at the Warwick Road, and an unfeasibly large frontage opposite gently curves across your field of vision. Of course, this is the main entrance of Earls Court Exhibition Centre. It has welcomed somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 million people annually for decades. No other venue anywhere, ever, has accumulated anything like the diverse history it has for musical performance, popular domestic exhibitions, military display, and political showcasing. It has hosted some of the twentieth century’s greatest individuals. And what’s more, it’s unique architecture is the work of one of America’s most accomplished inter-war architects.

A developer called Capco (full name Capital & Counties, operating through EC Properties, a vehicle valued at £934 million in 2013) wants it totally obliterated for luxury housing. London does need homes badly, but schemes like this are about attracting foreign slush money. It’s insane.

Earls Court Exhibition Centre is worth saving. Here’s why:

The Biggest Big Time of All

Yuri Gagarin

Yuri Gagarin

On 11th July 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin entered Earls Court exhibition hall with a bouquet of flowers, and seduced the British public. All the papers were there, and the crowds were massive- it was almost like a foretaste of how Beatlemania gripped Britain two years later! Just three months before, Gagarin had sat in the tin can of Vostok 1 and became the first human in space. He had a lot more room at the main hall of Earls Court Exhibition Centre- it was the largest enclosed space in London.

The Soviet Exhibition 1968 (source EC&O Venue Libraries)

The Soviet Exhibition 1968 (source EC&O Venue Libraries)

The Soviets were back with showcase propoganda exhibitions in 1968 and 1979, but without the magic of Gagarin. Nevertheless, many other charismatic celebrities drew fans to Earls Court. Muhammad Ali defended his world heavyweight title against Brian London there in 1966. In 1981, Vivienne Westwood staged her first catwalk there (and the models wore cutting edge consumer tech: Sony Walkmans). Not everyone who commanded crowds at Earls Court was a hero. Oswald Mosley held a rally of British Fascists here in 1939.

An amazing roll-call of music’s mega-names have staged some of the greatest gigs ever at Earls Court: Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Queen, Pink Floyd, George Michael, Radiohead, Madonna, deadmau5, the Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire… there’s many more!

And of course, there have been the exhibitions. With a capacity up to 20,000, Earls Court has been the place to have it large since 1937, when it opened with the Chocolate and Confectionary Show. The Motor Show, Boat Show, Great British Beer Festival, and BRIT Awards have all been regular annual Earls Court events. The Royal Tournament returned to Earls Court as the British Military Tournament, and the Ideal Home Show ran right up to this year, 2014.

Astonishing Architecture 

Almost finished! Earls Court Exhibition Hall plus sheds

Almost finished! Earls Court Exhibition Hall plus sheds, 1937

Leveque Tower (1927)  in Columbus, Ohio was designed by C Howard Crane

Leveque Tower, Columbus, Ohio: also C Howard Crane

Earls Court’s architect was C Howard Crane of Detroit, who left a coast-to-coast string of great theatres across the US (and with others, he worked on New York’s Radio City Music Hall). For Columbus, Ohio, he designed the magnificent 169m-tall Leveque Tower (1927), the tallest Art Deco skyscraper between New York and Chicago. He moved to London in 1930 and the masterpieces kept coming. His Gaumont (now Odeon) Holloway Road (1938) is listed. Crane’s style spanned from Beaux-Arts Neo-classical to Modernist. Earls Court Exhibition Hall is his most stripped-back, clean-finished design, and his largest. 

C Howard Crane (source HistoricDetroit.org)

C Howard Crane (source HistoricDetroit.org)

The architectural style is sometimes called Art Moderne, related to Art Deco but stripped of jazzy design elements and stressing the horizontal rather than vertical. Even so, Earls Court’s five vertical window strips, which climb the curving sweep of a grooved façade, echo window strips in American skyscrapers like the Empire State Building and Rockerfeller Centre.

The vital heroic activities of Earls Court

The vital heroic activities of Earls Court

Above them, five heroic square reliefs, by sculptor David Evans, depict such vital fields as Clockwork, Music, Jousting, Sports and Horticulture, in red and white. The red neon letters EARLS COURT may be the biggest in the UK, and certainly rank with CENTRE POINT’s white neon in size and iconic status. 

Transport for London map honours Earls Court with a cool isometric schematic

Transport for London map honours Earls Court with a cool isometric schematic

A miracle of concrete and steel engineering, Earls Court Exhibition Centre was built over London Underground’s District Line in just two years. Steel trusses reach 87m clear across the auditorium.  The roof, pitched like a humungous white tent, looks like the work of giants.

A heroic, humungous form

A heroic, humungous form

In many ways it was. This whole structure is simply heroic.

 

Time to Stop Capco

Staggeringly, the local authority, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, is completely oblivious to the heritage of Earls Court. Like the developers Capco, they want no trace of Earls Court Exhibition Centre left.

This has been about the history of Earls Court Exhibition Hall, but the issue is also about the local people and businesses. Capco’s plans demonstrate contempt for the local heritage, people, and businesses of Earls Court. Maybe we can stop Capco and save Earls Court’s estimated £1 billion of annual business for London. There’s a small window of opportunity because the adjacent borough, Hammersmith and Fulham, have thrown out Capco’s wider plan which extends westwards. On 27th August 2014 demolition applications are considered. 

Check out the campaign at http://www.saveearlscourt.com

And there’s petitions to sign right here:

https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-earl-s-court

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/56270

As Gagarin said on the launch pad: Poyekhali! (Let’s Go!)

 

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Eternity evades Egyptian Deities in Kensington

This gallery contains 11 photos.

Seth, God of Chaos and the Desert, bought a powerdrill. Neith, Goddess of The Hunt and later Protector of the Dead, sits boyishly on the Fire Exit. Their eight companions, all also Egyptian deities, stand around, in peace now that … Continue reading

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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…

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 22.48.05

 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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