What a selfie with the ‘rulers’ of Gibraltar can lead to, which item of the design exhibition in London has changed the relations between the sexes forever, and what moulds the fashion of ceiling shape in Paris in the era of polished wood and rugged concrete

 

Gibraltar

By Nadia de Angelis

There is some benefit in possessing a linguistic education: while the bus is stuck in a traffic jam, I do not feel bored, I’m trying to work out the languages used by passengers for conversation. French, Spanish, English, Arabic, Italian, Hebrew… Suddenly the din is obscured by a terrible roar. The bus starts moving at the same time, and I see the source of the noise through the window: it is an Airbus 320 which has just landed. Well, there is not much else to do: the total area of Gibraltar is just 6.5 square kilometers (to put this in perspective, London’s Heathrow airport is twice as large), so it was necessary to fudge it: a part of the landing strip is reclaimed from the sea, while its other end is intersected by a prospect I’m moving along. The road is sealed during takeoffs and landings.

From here, airplanes only go to the UK and, rarely, to Morocco, so most visitors arrive in Gibraltar like I did, from Spain. Málaga is the city of Pablo Picasso, Antonio Banderas and the followers of Bakunin, the famous Russian revolutionary anarchist, but for me its attractiveness was that it was the easiest way to get to Gibraltar: just two or three hours along a picturesque road along Costa del Sol. Gibraltar is not a member of the Schengen visa area, but to visit it, a multiple Schengen visa of C category would be enough. A British visa is also okay, because the official status of Gibraltar is that of a British Overseas Territory under Britain’s sovereignty but not being its part. This convoluted wording reflects the complex Gibraltar history: before the British, the area was at different times under the Moors, Visigoths, Conversos (Jews and Muslims converted into Christianity) and, of course, the Spanish, who are not losing the hope to reclaim this scrap of land.

Gibraltar is often simply called The Rock, because the major part of its area is, indeed, occupied by a majestic limestone rock, to the top of which the cable railway is taking me. Even on the coat of arms (coats of arms and flags are hanging everywhere, celebrating the birthday of Elizabeth II) it says Montis Insignia Calpe, something like ‘The sign of the Gibraltar mountain’. I have a feeling, though, that the rock is not ruled by the Queen, but by a pack of Berber monkeys, who somehow got here from Africa. These are naughty creatures indeed! While a (human) couple is taking pictures of the amazing views of Morocco, Spain and the ocean, a monkey unhurriedly removes a bag from their baby stroller and, ignoring the diapers, draws out a pack of biscuits. A selfie with a macaque on your neck is a part of most tourists’ plan, but I do not come anywhere near them, since my friend Mark has warned me about the consequences: best-case scenario, I’ll have to wage war against the fleas; worst-case, the monkeys would bite me. Thankfully, I carry no food and the monkeys are, as a consequence, not interested.

Mark also dissuaded me from having a snack on the mountain top, so we have lunch in a small kosher café below.

“It’s just an hour to reach Marbella’s wonderful beaches. Two to the cultured Seville, and it’s not really that far to mountain ski resorts of Sierra Nevada. What will remain, if Spain closes down the border, as had happened once already? A ferry to Morocco?”

“But you don’t want to be under Spain’s tutelage, do you?”

Of course they don’t; life is not just amusements, it’s work as well. Serving the tourists and agriculture — that’s all that is in store for the young Spanish on the other side of the border. As for Mark, his fifteen-year-old son has a right for free education at any UK university (which is quite expensive for the British themselves). Also, Gibraltar is an offshore area with preferential tax treatment, which brings many banks and finance companies, as well as opportunities for professionals, here. But the tax haven has a shadow side. There are many companies in Gibraltar which create web sites for the adults: online casinos, games, betting shops. Mark himself works in one of such companies but prefers to keep quiet about that. His motto is “Ask for more”. This is probably what should be inscribed on the Gibraltar coat of arms. While it’s possible, the locals will enjoy the sun, the sea, cash flows, the protection of Great Britain and Europe with its wide open doors. Is it possible to criticize them for that?

 

London

By Anastasia Denisova

“Art asks questions, design gives answers”, murmured my friend Tommaso on the threshold of the Design Museum. He could hardly wait for the opening of this renewed complex in the prestigious part of Western London. The three-story glass cube — a futuristic casket of sorts — does not store jewelry at all; it houses the most everyday objects, from an ice-cream spoon to a Perspex armchair. Whatever your hand touches, whatever your back is supported by, what you eat and drink from, what you sleep on — all those things were invented not simply for the eye, but also for the comfort of your hand, back or head.

The main display is called exactly that — “Designer Maker User” — and it comes clean about the process: one had an idea, someone else brought it to life, while the third person decided to use the readymade object in a completely different way than the original two had thought. Take, for example, the legendary Vespa scooter (which means ‘a wasp’ in Italian). It was created in 1946, and the engineer was inspired by military equipment. The allies were parachuting light motorcycles above Milan and Turin to provide transportation for Resistance fighters. Made with regard to aviation requirements, the Vespa was so light and comfortable (and, quite importantly, cheap), that the Apennine dwellers really loved it. It had survived many reincarnations, was produced under license in many countries of the world, and in the long run transformed from a practical means of transportation into an expensive cult object. But the design of this scooter reminds of breathing-out after a long and horrible war, of an ode to freedom of movement and the joy of summertime rides; that’s why it became a legend.

“Have you ever thought why London’s Underground has this logo — a red circle with a blue bar across it?” said Tommaso.
“Because the Thames runs through the capital?”
“Maybe so. But there are different versions. Initially, it was a circle against white background, symbolizing a wheel. It was red to attract attention. Then the blue was added, of course — think back about the British flag. Also, the names of the stations can be easily read against the blue. That’s how the bull’s eye appeared — one of the most recognizable underground symbols in the world. It is a hundred years old already.”

How did the kitchen equipment change sexual relationships? (A hint: women could spend less time cooking and thus got the opportunity to work alongside men.) Why were there 8,000 holes in the torch of the London Olympics of 2012? (This was not a mistake, but the number of torchbearers who carried the Olympic fire across the world, and also a way to avoid overheating the handle. Several layers of aluminum did not make the thing heavier — the torch weighed barely 800 grams.)

The exhibition curators are looking for an answer to the question — is a designer responsible for what they have done? Should we say thank you to those who had created a beautiful but harmful deep fryer as opposed to the svelte, space satellite-like lemon squeezer? Should we say thank you to Apple Computers who got us hooked on the gadgets we haven’t even imagined before? Is design for design’s sake necessary, the kind that does not take into account the practical use of the object?

One can go round the Design Museum in one hour — to fancy yourself a British Underground engineer, to invent a logo for your family, to marvel at clothes made from human hair. Most importantly, though: the effect remains after the visit. Suddenly you feel a deep respect for the fork that fits your hand so nicely — perhaps the designer was inspired by an ocean wave? The display, practical in a British way, teaches the visitors to see something almost majestic in simple things and to perceive human stories behind the history of everyday objects.

 

Paris

By Daria Knyazeva

Unlike other forms of art, architecture can rarely remain un-politicized. The implementation of a creative idea is, after all, connected to construction permissions and budget assets. That is why every quirk, every corner, every doorway, even if it is not full of state-sponsored symbolism as such, participates in a general idea (corrected and approved from above). Only some pastoral cottages, covered by exuberant vegetation of far-away regions, can remain relatively independent.

The first man to synchronize the architectural image of Paris with the general party line was Louis IX ‘the Saint’ — the very one who brought to the French capital the Crown of thorns, parts of the Holy Cross and the Holy Lance of Longinus. To keep the relics, he built Sainte-Chapelle, which confirmed both the Gothic canons and the king’s claim for his position among the saint protectors of France.

Later Henry IV, the Huguenot king, blessed the society with a relative freedom of conscience, combined with bridges free from hovels, and the first squares in Paris. Today, a square seems to us a senseless space for a flower bed, a monument or a meeting. But in the unhygienic 17th century it was for a city the equivalent of lungs inside a human body — there, the air got saturated with oxygen and, renewed, could flow along smelly crooked lanes. The closer one lived to the square, the higher were this person’s chances to survive the next epidemic.

The works of a glamorous trio — landscape architect André Le Nôtre, architect Louis Le Vau and painter Charles Le Brun — were supposed to help the minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert to keep Louis XIV in the capital. But the stubborn king managed to lure his team to the suburbs; and that was the origin of Versailles.

Napoleon’s Empire style, which constituted a combination of monumental Ancient Rome and bombastic Egyptian ornament, struggled with difficulty against the destructive revolutionary volleys and remained in the Parisian memory as the Western portion of Rue de Rivoli, which was supposed (but did not have enough time!) to offer the city an example of regular development: an arched passage below, three stories of apartments with windows whose size is as large as the social standing of people looking through them…

It was Napoleon III who really had a dig at Paris. His activity on the international arena was negligible, because he had concentrated all his efforts on rebuilding the capital jointly with the prefect, George-Eugène Haussmann. This unsentimental man, hated by simple Parisians and abhorred by the intelligentsia, virtually tore down the medieval Paris and built instead the one that is now attracting romantic couples from all over the world. He relieved the capital from the mold of squatter development and antique ruins and drove out lots of people making them virtually homeless. Not many people remember these days that Victor Hugo barely managed to save from the merciless Haussmann plow the ancient Roman arenas of Lutetia.

In the 1960s the city was accepting the streams of workers, who gushed in from the unemployed provinces. Those years were marked by the construction of ugly panel blocks, which baffle urban planners of today. Simply tearing them down, like it was done in Haussmann’s times, would be difficult — such aesthetic whims are not supported in a democratic society. That’s why in Paris concrete walls are decorated with graffiti. Marginal artists come out of the woodwork and become key figures in regional urban councils.

Vertical gardens — an invention of the French botanist Patrick Blanc — became an important symbol of its era, just like the symmetric perspectives of Le Nôtre were for the heyday of absolutism. In the 2000s headquarters of all major companies hurried to install those, especially power and governmental companies, and even fashion houses. A square meter of such gardens, by the way, costs about €8,000 a year.

In the 2010s the architectural political vector was reflected in minor forms — hotels for insects and urban bee yards. Those architectural mini-fancies were an alternative for green walls which could be afforded by expensive restaurants or city associations and not just by industry tycoons.

The architecture of modern France is an ode to environmentalism, economy, ergonomics and the combination of contrasting elements such as polished wood and rough concrete; such is the new Louis Vuitton center, such is the new development of the city’s 13th Arrondissement. Like in the fashion world, the designers’ crazy ideas descend from the catwalks and become transformed into Chinese-manufactured prêt-à-porter; blink, and you will see the whole world waking in canary yellow or wearing shortened trousers and square-faced boots. Two apexes of architectural thought which feed on private capitals in one case and on state subsidies in the other nowadays are distinguishable by the level of curvature of the ceiling only. But the fact that a ceiling has to be wavy — well, that’s almost common knowledge these days.

 

Published on: March 23, 2018