The Lower Decile of Slices

Get one of the small, breakfast baguettes from Upper Crust at Marylebone Station and, somewhat to my surprise, it’s actually quite tasty. The bread’s reasonably crusty, the thin slice of bacon is ok, as is the anaemic sausage of indeterminate origin, but I’m not too sure about the bright yellow stuff. I think this is supposed to be scrambled egg but it’s got an odd grainy texture that makes it a little hard to believe that it’s ever seen the tail end of a chicken and I think it’s more likely to have been whisked up by some chemist working in a food technology lab. I suppose the moral is to just eat the stuff and not look at it too closely.

Anyway, it’s off to Wapping today which takes a couple of tube rides and an overground train before I’m dropped off at the High Street, although it’s unlike most of the high streets that I’ve ever wandered down. And it seems to me that Wapping shopping could be a bit tricky, at least in the bit I walk along, as there’s no Tesco, Boots, McDonald’s or Starbucks. There’s not even an M&S here, but just a succession of bijou flats interrupted by the occasional victualler, delicatessen, dry cleaner (that promises hand-laundered shirts) and a textile shop (that promises bespoke fittings). There’s also a continual stream of joggers to dodge, each one carrying a bottle of water that’s been specially flown in that morning from a mountain stream on Machu Picchu or a waterfall in Eyjafjallajokull. Ok, I made the last bit up but what I’m trying to convey is that it seems rather chichi round here and the people are rather smart, in both senses of the word. Why, the board outside the local, the Prospect of Whitby, even has a pretty good portrait of Einstein chalked up to advertise the Wednesday night pub quiz. No wonder they look at me with a mixture of pity and sympathy, confused at how I must have missed the last few season’s worth of sartorial upgrades. And I fear that it’s no good me trying to explain that I’ve just breakfasted at a place called the Upper Crust when they can so readily spot that I come from among the lower decile of slices in the great loaf of population.

So, what has drawn me to this rather trendy part of the world? Well, I’m following the crowds and getting in line for the ten minute wait outside the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station. No it’s not the distressed, but still rather picturesque, industrial locale for one of those photo shoots that contrasts lithe young androgynous bodies clad in expensive fashion clobber with the gritty, vernacular realism of a disused building. Although, if that’s what you thought, then you wouldn’t be too far off. No, for some reason, a location scout has scoured the metropolis and found this place and given it a bit of a makeover in order to act as a temporary display space for Annie Leibovitz’s exhibition of photographs entitled Women: New Portraits. Leibovitz is probably the world’s most respected female portrait photographer, made famous through her work for Rolling Stone, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. And even if you’ve never subscribed to any of those august publications, you’d almost certainly be familiar with some of the iconic images that she’s created over the years, like the twin portrait of John and Yoko, the naked and very pregnant Demi Moore or the denim-clad derriere of Bruce Springsteen on the LP sleeve for Born in the USA.

What’s the show like here today? Well, when I finally get to the front of the queue, go down the stairs and enter the main display space, I feel like I’ve entered an event rather than an exhibition. There’s one temporary wall, with lines of photos stuck up, but the other three sides of the space are bounded by large, multiple flat screen displays – two landscape and, appropriately enough, one larger, portrait configuration. In the middle of all this are dozens of viewers, some seated and some standing, and almost all, almost managing to block the view. The circumstances aren’t ideal to make a proper evaluation of the work as it’s just not possible to get up close and inspect the images. Nor is it possible to compare and contrast the pictures since, once you start to take a proper, fully focused look at any one snap, its gone, replaced by another, in a seemingly never ending display of Leibovitz’s enormous creative output. I think it’s fair to say that there are no out and out duds here but all are ever so slightly similar, featuring the kind of stylised, manicured, scrubbed up, manufactured, tweaked glossy precision that has become the Leibovitz trademark style. So, whether the women, are pilots or cowgirls, miners or showgirls, actresses or supermodels, they all look just a bit samey and one hundred percent lovely as, I’m sure, each and every single one of them is in real life.

And, speaking of real life, it’s time to return to it. So I retrace my steps back to Wapping station, head into town and get out at Oxford Circus. Stopping en route at an Eat, for what turns out to be a rather tasty chocolate croissant, I then walk on to Portland Place and the Royal Institute of British Architects. As you might expect, the RIBA building has a rather impressive façade, complete with decorative carvings, a dramatic glass window feature, ornamental pillars and even a flag pole. I suppose the effect is ever so slightly diminished as one approaches the entrance and reads the sign, sellotaped to one of the doors, indicating that it’s not working and that you need to use the other one. The amusement continues when, after descending the stairs and entering the lovely art deco wash room, before the door here swings shut it emits a somewhat startling squawk.

Next time I visit I must remember to bring along some oil or WD40. In the meantime, I’m here to have a look at Creation from Catastrophe – How Architecture Rebuilds Communities. It’s an interesting theme for a show and the only real complaint I have is that the exhibition is so disappointingly small. Anyway, the display gets off to a great start with a selection of copies of plans drawn up by, among others, the architect Sir Christopher Wren, the diarist John Evelyn, and the scientist Robert Hooke. Following the destruction caused by the Great Fire in 1666, each of these esteemed gentlemen came up with their own different suggestions as to how the City of London should be rebuilt, following what they considered to be more logical and attractive layouts of streets, buildings and amenities. You can almost sense the excitement felt by all these would-be town planners after this act of God had gifted them such a marvellous tabula rasa on which to start redesigning the capital from scratch. All envisioned different arrangements of features including beautifully straight, wide avenues, tidy grids each centered around a church, sweeping piazzas and even a special, revenue-generating regal canal. Thank goodness, all the dreams collapsed due to lack of time and funds and myriad disputes over land boundaries and, instead, London largely reverted to the unplanned, organic growth that has left us with the current happy serendipity contained within its spaghetti of roads and streets, cul de sacs and chaos. Apparently some of the utopianist ideas were taken up in other cities, like New York and Philadelphia, but even if their gridded layouts really do result in improved forms of communication and ease of movement, it would be questionable as to whether these gains in efficiency offset the losses in visual interest and attractiveness.

There are similar wonderful artistic fantasies here showing how Chicago could be rebuilt, following the great fire of 1871 that cleared a lot of the old city away. But, understandably, when the exhibition turns to more recent apocalyptic calamities, whether floods in Pakistan, earthquakes in Nepal or tsunamis in Japan, these events are far too close in time to be seen as anything so tasteless as providing exciting opportunities for replanning towns and cities. Instead, the exhibition switches focus to show how architects have reacted to these appalling tragedies by trying to come up with designs for buildings to help the survivors, in both short term – making simple but sold constructions out of local materials – and long term – shock-proofing structures to withstand future recurrences. All of this is illustrated through drawings, plans, models, photographs and videos and those with a deeper interest can also attend a series of talks, tours and workshops.

All together an interesting show exploring some interesting themes and one that might be usefully expanded – if only it could be scaled up a bit, it would make a perfect fit for somewhere like the Barbican.

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