Modern towns

June 24 2011

Tyler Brûlé recently.

Excessive veneration of social media by entities such as the BBC and the World Economic Forum:

“Why should it be only Facebook and Twitter that get namechecked as vehicles where people make statements or do stupid things? Why should all things digital get so much attention? What happened to people just ‘making a comment’? Do we really care where they SMS-ed it or tweeted it? If companies such as Bic, Pentel, Conqueror, FedEx and Panasonic were all more aggressive they would demand that newsreaders, copy editors and announcers stop plugging Twitter and Facebook or else ensure their brands also get a mention in relation to public statements.

“‘The politician wrote in Bic blue ink on Conqueror 100 gramme paper that he’s a confirmed family man and the name-calling must stop.’ Or ‘in a telephone conference over Deutsche Telekom landline the footballer explained …’ Anyway, you get the idea.” (FT, May 27.)

Brûlé occasionally makes serious points. This is the man who writes about Brand Nippon and Brand Beirut. (I never thought Wallpaper was the best-looking magazine ever. And why does Monocle have the fogeyish name?)

He has some stunningly superficial ideas which have a grain of truth in them. The British economy would get a boost if water-pressure was stronger and people had proper showers before going to work. But he is genuinely interested in urban planning and in public services, for old people as well as for young.

His world is essentially Canada, northern Europe, Switzerland and Japan. In his cities people lead modern lives. Monocle contains articles, never long (there are many photographs, but none full-page), about coffee-shops in Kagoshima, waste disposal in Wuhan and policemen in Porto. The first issue (in 2007) had articles on the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, Chinese investment in Africa (could that have been fresh then?), the best Portuguese-language Sunday newspapers. Monocle is staid. It is not about popular culture.

City liveability ranking in the current issue:

1) Helsinki, 2) Zürich, 3) Copenhagen, 4) Munich, 5) Melbourne, 6) Vienna, 7) Sydney, 8) Berlin, 9) Tokyo, 10) Madrid, 11) Stockholm, 12) Paris, 13) Auckland, 14) Barcelona, 15) Singapore, 16) Fukuoka, 17) Hong Kong, 18) Portland, 19) Honolulu, 20) Vancouver, 21) Kyoto, 22) Hamburg, 23) Lisbon, 24) Montréal, 25) Seattle.

A very Brûlé list. Last year the winner was Munich. BMW designer’s comment in Brûlé’s Munich podcast: (paraphasing) “If you want to attract creative people, the city must give them energy, not take it away.” That’s the difference between exciting and exhausting. It’s received wisdom in the English-speaking world that German cities are dull. They were all bombed and the architecture of their rebuilding, if it wasn’t replication, took nothing that was interesting from the German past, a past about which Germans were anyway uncertain, and much from the dullest tendencies of the mid-twentieth century. The socialist architecture of the ’20s could be depressing as well, but its best German elements could have been reused.

But the post-war buildings have mellowed. Our eyes have periodised them. They have been discovered to have their own style after all. They have been broken up and set off by newer buildings. Trees have been planted or have matured. Early and horrible Fussgängerzonen have been replaced by better ones. And a few large towns survived, such as Heidelberg.

“The English, for example, like nothing more than having a go at German cities, beating them up for being boring while failing to mention that it’s far easier and cheaper to get a good glass of wine at 2am, secure a palatial apartment and get around by bike in Berlin than it is in London.” (FT, June 10.)

Germans, on the whole, live in bigger spaces than English people do. Even if it’s a boring flat, it will have a cellar space that exceeds the total storage space of an English flat. Houses in the suburbs are big. Look at the size of German farmhouses.

“When I first travelled to South Korea seven years ago I found it grey, a little grumpy and largely unattractive. In less than a decade it’s fashioned itself into a major passenger and logistics hub, is home to some of the best hotels in the world and crackles around the clock. Korea Inc’s executives want to work and learn from the best and leaders at both the local and national level have embraced the liveability mantra to retain and attract talent.

“As I crossed Oxford Street on Saturday afternoon there was little of this sort of crackle – just a lot of crack. Up and down the street tummies were hanging out over jeans, food was being stuffed into faces, and bums were falling out of trousers. Was this a nation at rest and play on a gorgeous spring day? Perhaps. Was this also a fleeting snapshot of a nation that’s lost its dignity and sense of pride? For sure.” (FT, May 1 2010.)

Did it take a big airport and expensive hotels to make Brûlé like Seoul? I first went there in 1984 and loved it then. Occasionally you have moments when you connect with a place so much that you realise you are slipping into a life there, but life pulls you out. It was a rough place, still traumatised by the Korean War. The nightly curfew in the city had only been lifted in the previous year. Nobody wore jeans. Few people knew any English (even the word hello). I haven’t been back in the last seven years, but I’m sure I’d still love it. The Korean countryside is also wonderful. I am surprised Seoul does not get into his liveable cities list.

But his point about London touches on something true, and troubling. I walked though Covent Garden and Soho yesterday evening and I have never seen it look less attractive, further removed from any sort of urban douceur de vie. This was not even one hundredth of one per cent of what city life should be like. In ordinary liveability indeces, London always scores badly, even though it has so many points in its favour. On the other hand, it is the city of pageantry, and the city of choice of the world’s rich, nearly all of whom have a stake in it.

The causes of this dichotomy could take a book to analyse. London is not the capital of a republic and doesn’t feel like one. And what people enjoy in London is not, for the most part, the achievement of this generation or the previous one or the one before that. It’s something inherited. Other cities are improving themselves now, partly through having properly-empowered mayors.

Lance Knobel (blogrolled here) wants the FT to sack Brûlé, I suppose on grounds of shallowness, although he shares many of his interests: urban planning and progressive local government and everything that they entail, and industrial design.

I share Brûlé’s scepticism about magazines on the iPad. They look wonderful, but I suspect the renewal rates will be low. And I love Kindle for books (with reservations that could fill another post).

Most Japanese love London. If you ask them what they don’t like, you will get different answers. It’s expensive: most insist it is compared to legendarily-expensive Tokyo, the myth of whose expensiveness has been generated by Americans who don’t know what to look for. The Internet is slow. Public transport is still unreliable. People don’t recycle much. The thing they will agree on is Wagamama: no Japanese person will enter it knowingly more than once. It stands for a whole class of ersatz Asian food served in places (Yo! Sushi is another) which would not survive a day in Japan.

Posts here:

China and Japan (about cities of the whole and cities of parts)

London in 1927

8 Responses to “Modern towns”

  1. Lance Knobel Says:

    The key problem with Brûlé is that he writes the same column 50 times a year. Haven’t we had enough about airports/airplanes/Swiss sanitoria by now? Awful.

    On water pressure, Brûlé gets it wrong. Britain has all the water pressure of anywhere else. The problem is British plumbing systems are “open” not “closed”. So the pressure entering your house is not maintained once it gets into your house.

    He also lies when he wrote that the problem was not solvable despite his pumps and other efforts. When I lived in London we installed a pump at our shower and we had tons of water pressure. Depending on the size of the pump, you can get as much pressure as you want.

    • davidderrick Says:

      I have to say I have wonderful water pressure without even a pump. You are right about open and closed, though “power showers” are considered so special that they get a mention in real estate specs. Ergo most people don’t have them.

      As to Mr Brûlé, I have only ever read a few of his columns and have bought Monocle once, or I suspect the line would have palled.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    His latest FT column mentions precisely planes, airports and a Swiss clinic. Not sure whether you had seen it. It arrived in my feed hours after your comment.

  3. Lance Knobel Says:

    No, I hadn’t. I would say it was a lucky guess, except I wasn’t exaggerating with my earlier comment. It’s all he writes about, unless he writes about his vacation home in the Stockholm archipelago or high-priced Italian beach resorts.

    A continuing stain on the FT’s reputation.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    I rewrote the post to make the juxtaposition of you and him less ludicrous.

  5. davidderrick Says:

    Another walk today over partly the same London ground. Summer holidays, so less than half the number of people on the streets and the city almost pleasant again. It’s a matter of numbers. Halve them once more and even poetry might return.

  6. davidderrick Says:

    Monocle’s 2012 liveable cities ranking:

    1. Zürich

    2. Helsinki

    3. Copenhagen

    4. Vienna

    5. Munich

    6. Melbourne

    7. Tokyo

    8. Sydney

    9. Auckland

    10. Stockholm

    11. Kyoto

    12. Fukuoka

    13. Hong Kong

    14. Paris

    15. Singapore

    16. Hamburg

    17. Honolulu

    18. Berlin

    19. Vancouver

    20. Madrid

    21. Barcelona

    22. Portland

    23. San Francisco

    24. Montréal

    25. Geneva

    No London, of course. Doesn’t Seoul deserve to be there?


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