Red is for Luck

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Lucky Red (Photo M. Germana)

Lucky Red (Photo M. Germana)

Italian and Chinese people may have many cultural differences – not least the argument over who invented spaghetti/noodles. But they do share their preference for red to welcome the new year under good auspices: Italians have red underwear on to attract good luck, as they toast in the New Year’s Eve; the Chinese also wear red for good luck during their New Year’s Celebrations.

Red Lanterns (Photo M. Germana)

Red Lanterns (Photo M. Germana)

Bright red objects – toys, ornaments, and lanterns, of course – decorate the streets of Chinatown in the two weeks leading up to the beginning of the New Lunar Year. This year, it fell on 31 January, though the main events in London happened on Sunday 2 February.

This is the Year of the Horse. According to Feng Shui specialist Raymond Lo, this is the year when people will tend to stick more to their principles. Good news? Well, it depends, of course, entirely, on your principles!

'Chinatown Gate' (Photo M. Germana)

‘Chinatown Gate’ (Photo M. Germana)

For me, it was an opportunity to apply one of my (Western) New Year’s resolutions: get the camera out more and write more! So here we are.

London’s Chinatown is always a cornucopia of colour and scent. On the first Sunday in February it exceeded itself. The smell of sweet and sour sauces oozed out the restaurants, luring more people to queue for a table at one of the many eateries on Gerrard, Rupert and Wardour Street. We didn’t want to waste any time eating, so just grabbed a couple of sweet buns from a bakery. The streets were very crowded, and, being a small person, it was sometimes difficult for me to see what was going on. I took advantage on my travelling companion’s sturdy shoulders a couple of times to take some of the shots of the Lion Dance.

Lion Dancer (Photo M. Germana)

Lion Dancer (Photo M. Germana)

A particular variation of this performance, the cai-qing (“plucking the greens”) involving dancers or – more specifically on New Year’s Day – martial art performers – takes place on the streets of Chinatown on the day of the celebrations. Two performers under an elaborate costume danced around the streets, bouncing, jumping, and shaking their booties. The lion gets particularly frisky at the sight of green lettuce hanging from shop entrances.

Hanging Lettuce (Photo M. Germana)

Hanging Lettuce (Photo M. Germana)

It’s good luck for the business if the lion successfully plucks it. It’s good luck for the lion, too, as attached to the leafy bunch of greens is also a red envelope containing more precious kinds of leaves for the performers.

Red envelopes containing “lucky money” are also, apparently, handed out by friends and family to children, who will find them under their pillows, and single people, to wish them good luck with their romantic lives in the new year. Well, may the year of the horse be a year full of love, then, and, a little money, which never does any harm!

What I like about Chinese New Year is the way that all things Chinese seem to spread well beyond the boundaries marked by the Gates of Chinatown.

Chinese Trafalgar Square (Photo M. Germana)

Chinese Trafalgar Square (Photo M. Germana)

The major performances, in fact, took place in Trafalgar Square, where large crowds converged, throughout the day, to watch circus acrobats and traditional Chinese dances. One wonders what Lord Nelson would have made of all this; he certainly had a good vantage point to watch the festivities from.

It was a good day out and, whatever people may think of the failures of multiculturalism in Britain, it did feel like the whole world had turned up to this party.

Multicultural Chinese new Year (Photo M. Germana)

Multicultural Chinese New Year (Photo M. Germana)

Does size matter?

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The Shard I (Photo M. Germana)

The latest addition to London’s skyline, The Shard, officially opened a few weeks ago. The launch involved a laser display, which, I was lucky enough to watch from the comfortable surroundings of a rooftop terrace near St. Paul’s Cathedral. I was in the company of some Chinese visitors who kindly threw an impromptu party to watch the christening of the new iconic building from the vantage point of their roof terrace.

The thing about The Shard is its size. At 309.6m in height, it is by far the tallest building in London, dwarfing the previous record-holder, Canary Wharf, by about 75m. As Richard Godwin observed in The Evening Standard, The Shard may be the stuff of science fiction:

You have to turn to fiction to convey its true majesty, and George Orwell’s description of the Ministry of Truth from 1984 does the job better than any marketing bumf. The building is “an enormous pyramidal structure …soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air”. Admittedly, The Shard does not have slogans such as “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” and “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY” written on its gleaming carapace. However, at 309 metres, it is almost exactly the same height. It too is visible from almost everywhere in the city.

London Tallest Buildings

The new addition to the capital’s cityscape is in fact the tallest building in Europe. Impressed? Think again: when you take a less Eurocentric look at the world’s tallest buildings, our new glass tower is only the 59th tallest building in the world, almost one third shorter than the tallest, the Burj Khalifa, which stands 828 metres high in the heart of Dubai.

The Shard and the others

Contemporary urban design is still obsessed by the same ambition that drove medieval engineers and architects to defy the limits of their human world and elevate their churches as high as possible. In an act of worship that revealed also the desire to play god, the imposing designs of Gothic churches would force any worshipper to reflect on their smallness, not only in relation to the Almighty, but also, perhaps, in relation to the architect and, most importantly, the Church who funded the project.

St. Paul’s Dome (Photo M. Germana)

In the 21st Century it is banks that acquire the most majestic structures and the symbolism in relation to the power that capitalism holds over our lives doesn’t really need further analysis.

Still, I’m not convinced that size is the be all and end all of contemporary urban architecture. There is certainly something spectacularly breath-taking about height and perhaps nobody summarised this better than the eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke, who drew attention to the strange influence of pain, fear and even horror on our ability to experience pleasure:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

In the arts the sublime is frequently associated with dramatic scenery, Alpine peaks, glaciers, waterfalls. But the concept transfers well to the man-made heights of modern cityscapes. Indeed Burke focuses on the complexity of the human mind, which is moved much more strongly by an object designed to raise pain and pleasure simultaneously:

It seems, then, necessary towards moving the passions of people advanced in life to any considerable degree, that the objects designed for that purpose, besides their being in some measure new, should be capable of exciting pain or pleasure from other causes.

Perhaps we like big buildings because they remind us that, despite our relative smallness in relation to the universe’s infinity, we are able to defy our own limits and reach, higher and higher. Or perhaps it is not about size after all. Maybe we enjoy being surprised, or shocked even, by a design that challenges our expectations of what a building should look like.

What I particularly like about the City of London is the seamless continuity that characterises its architecture. More so than in other European cities, avant-garde designs rub shoulders with some of the oldest buildings in London. The proximity of the church of St. Andrew Undershaft to 30 St Mary Axe (aka ‘The Gherkin’) is a classic example.

The Gherkin and St Andrew Undershaft (Photo M. Germana)

Interestingly, the name of the church makes a reference to its diminutive size compared to a may pole structure that would have towered over it:

Like many of the City’s churches, there is the business of the strange name. The shaft that the church was under was, in medieval times, an adjacent may pole, which by all accounts was huge, possibly taller than the church tower.

(Mike Paterson, London Historians’ Blog)

Maybe size does matter after all. I remember a witty anecdote from the guide who led my very first ‘Duck Tour‘ through London a few years ago. Apparently,

Sir Norman Foster had his first inspiration for his Bishopsgate tower whilst in the bath.

Fnar fnar.  Though considerably smaller than Sir Foster’s jewel, this small church has withstood  more than any recent piece of architecture in the City; Like St. Paul’s, it remained standing after the Blitz (1940-41). But unlike the Cathedral, St. Andrew Undershaft predates the Great Fire of London (1666) and, more recently, suffered an IRA bomb attack (1992).

Do you like The Shard?

Do you have another favourite building in London? Europe? The rest of the world?

Post any comments and links to images below!

Th Shard II (Photo M. Germana)

Street Hauntings and Ghost Bikes

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Virginia Woolf

 It was hard to say when exactly winter arrived. The decline was gradual, like that of a person into old age, inconspicuous from day to day until the season became an established relentless reality.

As Alain de Botton discovers at the beginning of The Art of Travel (2002), there is something about winter which self-consciously speaks to us of ageing and, I would add, dying.

As the main shopping streets in London are gift-wrapped in the frantically festive mood of the weeks running up to Christmas, we witness the apparent paradox of the Christian calendar. We are invited to drink, eat, (shop) and be merry, but, in fact, as we approach the last two bank holidays of the year we feel closer to the end, in more than one way. It seems natural to follow this dark strand of inspiration of think about death.

Too morbid? Read on and decide.

As some of you will have spotted, the title of this post pays homage to  ‘Street Haunting’  (1930), one of Virginia Woolf’s most evocative essays,  which brings to life fragments of stories tucked away where we don’t look for them. Here is in an excerpt of Woolf’s response to the West End of London, one winter afternoon:

How beautiful a street is in winter! It is at once revealed and obscured. Here vaguely one can trace symmetrical straight avenues of doors and windows; here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived of her prey, blunders on without them. But, after all, we are only gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.

Haunting, Woolf’s piece implies, is invigorating to a writer’s stalled imagination. Haunting the streets of London, having set herself the futile task of buying a lead pencil from her stationery shop on the Strand, the writer joins the urban banquet, her senses feeding on the bountiful feast. Such exuberant richness stands out in stark contrast against the ‘desolation’ experienced on her way home, after hours:

Walking home through the desolation one could tell oneself the story of the dwarf, of the blind men, of the party in the Mayfair mansion, of the quarrel in the stationer’s shop.

But it is the act of haunting, and not the function of being haunted that concerns Woolf in this brief episode. The writer haunts London, and the reader, ends up haunting it, too; we become the ghosts, we possess the space  with our own lives, walking our ways through the city, unknowingly creating patterns, tracing new ways of mapping the city, and making its stories.

But I promised death, at the beginning, not life. Recently I have come across one of the latest additions to the catalogue of cyclist deaths in London. Min Joo Lee’s untimely death at the age of 24, is commemorated by a white bicycle chained to the railings of the fatal junction that took her life this Autumn.

Ghost Bikes are small and somber memorials for bicyclists who are killed or hit on the street.

'Min Joo Lee's Ghost Bike', King's Cross (Photo M. Germana)

So we read on the official ghost bike website, where we learn that the first ghost bike ‘appeared’ in St. Louis (Missouri) in 2003. Another site claims that the ghost bike made its debut in San Francisco, in 2002. In London, you can currently view 14 memorials, scattered around the city from Dalston to Camden. Reactions to such unofficial memorials are varied. As we read in an article on Dan Cox’s memorial bike,  building a ghost bike, setting it up to honour the memory of a lost friend may be a cathartic experience. To others, the white bike may just look ‘odd’, as I heard a passer-by say, walking past Min-Joo-Lee’s own spectral monument.

When I saw it, it had been standing for several weeks. Fresh flowers, mainly pink lilies, were still threaded through the frame, whose white coat of paint was covered in a thin layer of soot. This is London. Nothing stays white for very long. Not even ghosts. As well as flowers, decorating the bicycle frame was a chain of paper origami, and a pair of brown boots. Those limp leather shells were perhaps the most tangible reminders of the cyclist’s absence. With the councils and the Mayor still unsure about the removal policy of these spectral features of London’s cityscape, ghost bikes remain the most evocative way of commemorating the loss of a life, and (hopefully) a visible warning for both cyclists and drivers.

'The bike and the boots' (Photo M. Germana)

'The bike and the boots' (Photo M. Germana)

But there is more to the ghost bike, too. Behind Min Joo Lee’s bike is also a story of community spirit, the absence of which we often lament in London (and any big city). It was James, a local cyclist, and Beth, a designer, who arranged the bike and the memorial sign. Neither knew the Korean cyclist before she was hit on her way to start her fashion course at Central St. Martin’s, and sadly it was her death that brought them – and anyone who took part in the memorial ceremony in October – together.

In a place as crowded as London has always been, the reminders of death are not few. But ghost bikes are not just haunting mementos of our vulnerability, though certainly they are that. Repossessing the place that claimed a cyclist’s life, their ephemeral whiteness celebrates our transient lives, too, and maps out invisible links among strangers in the city.

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