26 Feb 2016

Blogposts with Attitude #BWA - February 2016

If you missed LBM's #BWA January feature, you need to head over and check it, as you can expect attitude in spades, with flowers and grace! #BWA is back this month - and hush! - the feature might well turn into a fixture! February explored boldness under its many guises: bold design, bold decisions, and bold reversals in fortune.

So, here we go, in chronological order, my five favourite posts this month. Enjoy the read and feel free to add on to the list: -

No.1: Reopening London's Mail Rail by The Conversation
The London Post Office Railway, a.k.a. The London Mail Rail, is one fascinating feat of engineering which - as a cog in the wheel of Britain's bold, efficient and fearless industrial legacy - operated sleek, fast, automated, driverless underground train services, over a 75-year period, facilitating business right into the core of London's sorting offices and two of its train stations, along the Paddington-Whitechapel corridor, dodging ground level delays and traffic jams, tucked out of customer sight and right at the front of the mind of the postal services. At its peak, it transited no less than 4 million letters a day! As with what happens with the idiosyncrasies of post-industrial - erm - industry, such a bold innovation would have to be scrapped eventually. Royal Mail closed the operation down in 2003, in line with its on-going streamlining of operations and year-on-year drop in mail volumes. And as with cogs in the wheels that once drove our industry, they end up either getting scrapped altogether or as a museum display - which is exactly what is to happen to London Mail Rail. Check The Postal Museum's preview on the matter. If you prefer your preview on the raw side - understand down and dirty - check the documented footage direct from the frontline by Place Hacking (back in 2011).

The iPhone S (shown in Rose Gold)

No.2: A Message to Our Customers by Apple
If there is one brand that still oozes Silicon Valley free spirit, then Apple is it. And when we thought it had met its demise with Steve Jobs' passing and the company's multi-million-dollar market share in the mobile phone industry would sell out its credibility as an edgy brand, it proved otherwise. Now Apple CEO, Tim Cook, has taken it one unprecedented step further, in reaction to the US government's request to be able to access customer data, via a master key of sorts, a 'backdoor' to the iOS (iPhone operating system). Apple boldly refused to execute the command, and clearly laid out the reasons for encrypting customer data. You can only admire a company for refusing to compromise its core values in terms of privacy laws and digital security, while still abiding to the American Constitution, yet refusing to be part of the police state that the government is building, one bit of code at a time. Apple, you stand well out there in the wake of America's founding fathers for whom liberty was a right, not an option, and I hold you in high esteem!

No.3 Dogs Run Over, Cats Thrown in the Trash: Victims of 'No-Kill' Policies by PETA
'No Kill' or not 'No Kill'? That is the question raised by this article, when shelters have ceased to be shelters and ceased to welcome every animal in need, because they no longer operate an open-door policy, for whatever reason, genuine or otherwise: over-capacity, overcrowding, long waiting lists, management difficulties, selection criteria, or simply to keep turnover low, 'make it look good' and secure further fundings. As always, the unwanted, abandonned pets are the ones left to suffer and pay the ultimate price of neglect and cruelty. PETA notes that “No-kill” policies don’t prevent animals from dying. They simply leave animals to die elsewhere—and often miserably." The solution is not in No Kill, it lays in educating people about responsible pet ownership, and adhere to a spay-and-neuter programme.

A life of tears on Necton Hall Pig Farm, Norfolk, England!

Viva! Founder and Director Juliet Gellatley braved the night and the inhospitality of her surroundings. She pushed the door of an ordinary British pig farm (Necton Hall Pig Farm, Norfolk) to show us what is really going on behind closed doors and beyond the myth of happy husbandry. She unveiled to us an ordinary tale of daily cruelty, ordinary in its commonplace, ordinary due to consumer love for meat, and a finished packaged up product that desensitises them from the reality of a once-living animal, all flesh and bones and sentience, behind that lump of meat surrendered to carnivorous appetites. And the cruelty on the farm leads on to the antechamber of the abattoir where horror awaits. The tragedy of the farm animal happens everywhere in the world where animals are traded commodities. In fact, human rapport with animals is short of humane, and may be summarised by The War against Animals by Dinesh Joseph Wadiwel, Lecturer in Human Rights and Socio-Legal Studies at The University of Sydney. The tragedy is more acutely emphasised under the industrial farming model (whereby 10 million pigs are slaughtered in the UK each year!), where an animal is a living product with a price tag on its head. Viva!'s shock tactics are sure to pull on the heartstrings of the blissfully ignorant meat eaters out there. Some of them will end up joining our vegetarian ranks, while the rest will turn a blind eye and remain complicit of the pain on their plates. Years ago, thanks to organisations like Viva! I took the decision to stop eating meat. Simple question for you: if you truly love animals, why would you want to eat them? Hone that thought before you reach out for that BLT!

No.5 Oscar-Nominated Film Forces Pakistan to Confront 'Honour Killings' by The Telegraph
It is easy for a young Western woman to take for granted that general sense of freedom that comes with the territory, in terms of her choices around higher education, employment, fashion, travel, and love relationships. Our society is tolerant of our choices and orientations, and today's parents have taken it in their strides with greater ease than their elders. The permissiveness of the West stands out from the die-hard traditions and customs of patriarchal cultures from Africa, the Indian sub-continent and Southern Asia, where girls and young women have their choices taken away from them by strong family pressure for them to conform to cultural legacy, which includes forced mariages. If they do not abide, they are not only disgraced by their families, but also run the risk of losing their lives. Oscar-nominated documentary A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness by Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy relates the fate of 19-year-old Saba Qaiser, in a poignant true story of love and (t)reason. Every year, more than a thousand girls and young women are the victims of religiously-motivated honour killings in Pakistan alone!

15 Feb 2016

No Monkeying Around the Year of the Monkey!

PETA UK emailed me a bulletin last week that highlights the irony of 2016 as The Year of the Monkey in the Chinese Astrological Calendar. This is no reason for celebration because the assumption that monkeys will be more respected this year is only... an assumption.

Female macaque and her baby. Photography by Jo-Anne McArthur, from her book We Animals.

As far as honouring our primate friends, take a closer look. Irrespective of the Chinese New Year, monkeys will be disrespected every step of the way. Expect them to pay for their ultimate 'sin' of being the closest representative within the animal kingdom to our gene pool. For sure, monkeys will look fine and dandy (but will they be feeling this way?), paraded around in ceremonial attire and fancy finery in celebration of the Chinese New Year, but this is as far as lauding the monkey will go.

This year, like every year, monkeys will still end up as delicacies on the tables of the Far East, or feed the sordid domestic and commercial pet trade across the globe, or end up as tasteless trophies on some hunter's wall. But the Gallery of Shame doesn't end there. They will still be snatched off the wild in paradisiacal hotspots like Mauritius and stowed away in sinister breeding farms before being lucratively traded like mere commodities to the notorious cages of Primate Products, Inc., and on to the death labs of the National Institutes of Health (USA) and the unsuspected science departments of seemingly 'friendly' universities out there.

Injured macaque. Photography by Jo-Anne McArthur, ibid.

This year, like every year, monkeys will still be tampered with, tested upon, and submitted to the unspeakable: the immoral, unethical and utterly dispensable cruelty of vivisection: animal experimentation that gives a bad name to science and those who make a living out of it, in their despicable justification that pain to animal is gain to science, and to humanity at large, and all performed in the name of medical advancement and clinical progress and the beautification process of our made-up environments and any item thereof that demands a little animal intervention.

I could keep on painting a dark picture of monkey life in 2016. Yet by taking action - rather than turning a blind eye and looking away from these disturbing vignettes - will we be able to lift off the darkness that shrouds monkey life. There are good people out there. Individuals like you and me, ordinary folks, unsung heroes who lead decent lives and try their bit to make this crazy world a tad more sane and humane! There are high-profile defenders of the noble animal cause, and those who have specifically dedicated their lives to primates, like Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, while some like Dian Fossey tragically paid with their lives the price for their dedication! There are photographers like Jo-Anne McArthur who through her compelling project We Animals has made it her goal to document what is really going on out of sight, out of mind, behind close doors, and beyond official PR.

Scared macaque. Photography by Jo-Anne McArthur, ibid.

It is a moral duty of mine to expose the flip sides, so that you do not get yourself fooled. What you are shown and told by the (mainstream) media and the globalist political agenda, do not take at face value! Go scratch the surface, do a little dig and see for yourself and think about it and make up an opinion that is yours. Meanwhile the Year of the Monkey will truly be a cause for celebration for me the moment monkeys are restored their dignity by those who stole it from them in the first place: their cousins, We Humans.

Female macaque with her young. Photography by Jo-Anne McArthur, ibid.

P.S: All photography in this article by Jo-Anne McArthur, taken at a Macaque Breeding Farm in Laos. Her awesome book We Animals - which I recommend you purchase - features arresting text and photography that will shake you to the core!

P.P.S: Act your bit now by signing those two important petitions: (1) Cruelty Free International's petition to urge Mauritius to stop exporting its monkeys to the USA and Europe for lab experiments! (2) Dr Ruth A. Decker's petition to University of Wisconsin against the unethical torture and killing of baby monkeys!

7 Feb 2016

Inspire Aspire - Morning Defrag

Morning Defrag - as I call it - might sound like Morning Decaf but don't get yourselves deluded! Morning Defrag is a highly-energised caffeinated powerhouse that sets you on your working day focused and ready. It is all about self-organisation. All these years in England, I used it instinctively and it grounded me. Then I recognised the pattern and channelled it and understood how it took me from a state of morning haggard hazard to morning calm. This is a routine you need to incorporate into your life if your bed-to-work journey is hectic and chaotic.

A Date with Fate 2 by Jack Vettriano

I will state emphatically that I am NO morning person. The thought of getting up early frazzles me. So imagine how difficult and painful it was for me to get up at the crack of dawn for a work start at 6:30am or 7:00am! I had to get myself organised. Apart from those specific work assignments, my working day usually started later, some time between 8:00am and 9:00am, depending on the workplace.

There was nothing left for improvisation in my morning. I got up an hour before due to leave, so everything had to be timed, and divided into half an hour for getting ready and half an hour for breakfast. That gave me manageable time and this was a great help to me! Be warned that skipping breakfast in order to have extra time in bed is a false economy; it will burn you out come mid-morning because you will be running on empty!

It all started off with a good night's sleep. Then as soon as the alarm went off, I got up. No snooze buttons! Straight to shower, then dressed up. Down for a good hearty breakfast of hot chocolate and muesli (mixed together, yep!), followed by a glass of fruit juice, sat down at the table, to set me off for the long day ahead. I'd then prepare my lunchbox. If I wasn't running late, I took my doggie out for a quick walk round the block, or popped a few items in the washer, or whatever quick household task I could handle. The make-up routine, I have to say, was stripped down to the bare minimum. So forget the Kardashian contouring!

'Reade St Shadows', oil on linen by Stephen Magsig (2015)

Then I would leave, always aiming for that 5-10 minutes leeway prior to my absolute cut-off time of leaving the house. Because commuting is the biggest chance you're taking every single day, timewise. You have a rough idea of how long it is supposed to take, but then traffic jams, roadworks, accidents and other delays will set you back big time and aggravate your day!

I would take no chances on the road. That side street that looks like a shortcut is a bad idea to investigate impromptu on one's way to work! Investigate the feasibility of those alternative travel routes on a day off.

Depending on how I was feeling that day, I would either have the radio on (BBC Radio 1 in my case), or some pre-recorded music tracks that I liked, just to keep my mind off the stress of driving. Sometimes I was just content with the sound off. While stuck in traffic (inevitable in North West England!), I would - while paying attention to the road - get myself mentally prepared for the whole day ahead.

'47 Greene St', oil on linen by Stephen Magsig (2015)

I'd approach that quite methodically, yet without forcing my thoughts out. Usually I would start off with thinking about personal/ housekeeping/ family matters that I needed to address or deal with that very day or later in the week, and often I would find myself in a propitious frame of mind: clear-headed, sharp, spot on and business-like efficient at that particular time of day, and solutions would present themselves to me without trying too hard.

And from there my thoughts would drift towards work, important things to do that day, and I would prioritise them in my head. I would break the tasks down, and by doing so and approaching them from outside the workplace, I would have the focus, the perspective, the insight, the light bulb moment that might not have been that clear-cut at work - even if it were staring me in the face!

It became clear to me that my brain was reorganising jumbled up information and making sense of it into its next stage as follow-ups, conclusions, solutions and calls to action. My brain was like a computer being defragmented, rearranging data in a more workable way.

By the time I got to work, after my one hour commute or so, I would be raring for action, my ideas organised, solutions to the ready, new avenues to explore, reminders flashing in my head, and there was no stopping me. And as much as my long daily commute never was a piece of enjoyment in itself, I wonder whether I would have felt that prepared for work, should my commute had been short! Think this one over and praise the long journeys to work that take you to the roads less travelled... of the mind!

4 Feb 2016

French Design Thrift in the Fabulous Fifties

LBM had been looking pretty until this came along. And I'm afraid we're going to have our noses smeared in it for the good cause, for the beauty-pain paradigm. I had been putting this post off for some reason, and the 60th anniversary of the Grand Ensemble has come and gone, and I am still perusing the topic like I'm meant to be doing something with it - which I am. So here we are now, facing that concrete wall.

In this article, we will explore how the 60th anniversary of the Grand Ensemble last year in France was more a case for commiseration than celebration for its residents and - to a more muted extent - to public authorities and governmental bodies trying to save face and play the political game.

Grand Ensemble de Sarcelles (1955-75)

The failings of the Grand Ensemble are rooted in design and beyond it. If the word 'Design' is supposed to conjure up a divine ratio of style, balance and elegance, seamless execution, quality materials, ground-breaking novelty physique, and is supposed to elevate the collective psyche into a consensus of taste to an idea of grandeur that transcends the physical, then may Grand Ensemble be a slap in the face of design.

First off, what is Design? I shall define it as a piece of Creation that goes to bed with our Emotions. A piece of creation is the alliance of Form and Function - heart and reason if you may - that hits an exact point - the Equilibrium. The equilibrium defines Style. 

The humble clothes peg is a piece of design. So is Taj Mahal. And the guillotine. Design exists regardless of what is considered good or bad, or pretty or unpretty. Because when we start going personal on design, we are putting into play matters of taste. And since you're asking...

Résidence du Parc, Meudon-la-Forêt (1957-62) - (Pict source)

What is taste? Some see the Golden Gate Bridge as metal scrappers delight, while others enjoy how it enriches the landscape, and couldn't imagine San Francisco without it. Taste is personal and subjective, and that makes it complex. It is about Like vs. Dislike. Taste happens, and then it gets influenced, refined, cultivated, sharpened. It evolves, changes even. It gets skewed by peer pressure and the media and the fashion police. There is however a consensus that defines what is deemed tasteful, i.e. acceptable in terms of layout, proportions and overall look - and what is not.

There are different occurences of taste, starting off with what I refer to as 'pure taste' in terms of strict aesthetic merit, which is often applied to Fine Arts. Some collectable and covetable pieces of high-ticket retail finery will be relegated to the design equivalent of Fine Arts status; think a limited edition Aston Martin. But we find that pure taste is hardly practical in everyday existence. So we model taste according to parameters: function, usability, practicability, affordability, etc.

Quartier du Luth, Gennevilliers (1971-73)

Now back to our Grand Ensemble. It was an ambitious post-WWII land planning concept that spanned three decades and revolutionised habitat and lifestyle. It started en-masse in the 1950s* and was conducted on a large scale across France, bringing to the fore mixed-use developments, involving public/ private partnerships for housing, education, retail, office and leisure infrastructures. Architects got on board, ready to embrace a project of a lifetime, caressed to the core by Le Corbusier vanities. The brief was clear: to focus on fast turnover of industrial proportions. Thousands of flats had to be churned out fast (not to say in record time!) and design to be modernist, practical, functional and cost-effective, by all means to the point. It had to be utilitarian, i.e. stripped off the superfluous; understand no adornment. Prefabricated, system-built and modular housing units were the building technique of choice. Quality was secondary to quantity, and matters of personal taste and individuality were off the equation.

Set in its green open space, the Grand Ensemble was part of a bigger picture that took years to roll out fully: transport links (metro stations, wide roads, motorways, and parking amenities). Plus office space, schools, sports centres, youth clubs, retail precincts, libraries, churches and other components of the modern townscape. This would constitute a new town in the country(side), or a new town within the old town, or a satellite town built from the ground up and most likely to be a dormitory town.

Quartier de la Grande Borne, Grigny (1967-71)

The Grand Ensemble was a post-war vision come true - under the auspices of social welfare, sanitation, and city rebuilding programmes - of the luxury of comfort within an affordable life, where each household could enjoy the mod cons that we are taking for granted nowadays: hot water, central heating, modern kitchen, family bathroom, trash chute, and a balcony with a view over a stretch of lawn and maybe even a private garage. The programme was rolled out to working-class and middle-class families, taking them into the Consumer Age in capital letters!

The concept looked good and ambitious on paper, efficient in the book-keeping department - and utopic. Utopic in that it played down the complexities of the human psyche, especially once the mod con honeymoon would start wearing off, and the golden age of consumerism would get dented. Residents and other stakeholders got to write the history of that brand new place, without guidance or support, bringing with them emotional intelligence and complexity (hopes, fears, expectations, etc.), and family customs, and still trying to make sense of that new way of doing things, of making their mark, of living the space, of moving on up within it, of creating a future for themselves, of establishing a community in a forced communal living rolled out on a grand scale.

Cité des 4000, La Courneuve (1957-1966+)

I doubt grand was ever meant to be great. It was meant to be good and do good to a point. It gave mixed results and became a cause for concern. Little by little, insidiously first, the Grand Ensemble lost points; it turned shoddy quickly, it got told off, landed a red mark, got sent away and then assigned to residence into itself. The Grand Ensemble became unloved, uncouth, unkempt. It ended up sliding down that cul-de-sac that got it to skid into ghetto land. It got featured in music videos but not under a good light. It crossed the line and became a buddy to gangsta culture. Some of the architects came out of the woodwork to explain their oeuvre, their expectations of how lifestyle should have been conducted in those unnatural, unorganically-expanded environments.

The Grand Ensemble was an artificial environment: soul-less, with no heritage, no history and nowhere to go. It had been an expedient social experiment, a means to an end meant to immediately solve housing problems and hope for the best. The ensemble had sprung out of paper, out of nowhere, and families from different walks of life and life stages, and with different expectations had got thrown in together at the deep end to make it happen. Residents, now all boxed in together in 'cages' where taste and design had been leveraged to an absolute minimum, if not abstracted altogether. What we got was minimalist as in utilitarian and brutalist, where individuality had no place.

The very first Grand Ensemble ever built harks back to the 1930s: Cité de la Muette, Drancy.

After all, ensemble alludes to a togetherness of collectivism and mass, and that moulding in of the human race, that cookie-cutter approach to life as a singular unit is a failing all to itself. What fails design is when the human factor in all its complexity has been taken out of it, and when design has become clumsy and cumbersome rather than user-friendly.

P.S: All the above-pictured towns are located in the vicinity of Paris.

(*) P.S: A mass-housing scheme had been set up by the French government under a public-private partnership, prior to WWII. Under the Loi Loucheur of 1928, the French government incentivised households to become home-owners, having the house of their choice built with the help of loans at preferential rates. State-appointed architects were tasked to monitor the quality of the builds. Besides, provisions had been made for the (state-subsidised) mass-construction of 260,000 council housing units over five years, under the expertise of Le Corbusier, but WWII shelved the project.

Further Resources:
  • A fascinating case in point in the Grand Ensemble study is Les Espaces d'Abraxas (Noisy-le-Grand, near Paris), a late-bloomer on the Grand Ensemble era. Built between 1978 and 1983 under architect Ricardo Bofill, it has the particularity of being a design-led scheme, which makes it stand out from earlier housing schemes. However life in a design-led ensemble has not been kind to its residents, and soon enough the concrete and glass infrastructure has turned into a carbuncle of dislike. Design is partly to blame as the architect put an emphasis on design for design's sake to the point of making it impractical to live in the buildings, and feel safe in them! A victim of its own lack of success thereof, Les Espaces d'Abraxas (otherwise known as 'Gotham City' and 'Alcatraz') have become a film set of choice for dystopian science fiction superproductions like Brazil and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, as an eery echo to dystopian living on the estate. Who said reality was stranger than fiction?
  • A chillier and more sinister particularity of Grand Ensemble relates to Cité de la Muette, in Drancy (pictured above), the very first Grand Ensemble ever built in France, in the 1930s. However it was used as the Drancy internment camp during WWII, confining Jews who were later deported to the German extermination camps. 
  • 'Souvenir d'un Futur' (Memory of a Future) by French photographer Laurent Kronental is an award-winning ongoing project that captures life as a senior citizen in the Grands Ensembles of the Paris region. A must-see! More from ArchDaily.
  • Rétro-Géographie, a visual log of mid-century French architecture. 
  • The Age of Instant Architecture by The Independent.
  • LBM's musings on style and lack thereof.