Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Frisson of Monocle Magazine

It’s those jaunty, perky, banal headlines that usually set me off. “Be Friendly: We all want a bit more warmth” “Smile: A small gesture transforms transactions and makes them matter.” These are the cover of Monocle magazine’s tips for “Charm, the next offensive: Why businesses, brands and nations need a new buzzword for 2012 and beyond.”  There’s a hideous moment where I stop and stand there, slackjawed, in the magazine aisle of the airport WH Smith, and think about to  which kind of smarmy preppy-wannabe creep these trite tidbits might appeal, which hyper-mobile, faux-aesthete might be the least bit interested in “Locking up your money in Milan, a Stockholm ‘hood and an Austrian culinary classic.” And somehow in that timeless moment something snaps in the reptillian quarters of my brain and I see my hand reaching out and prising the exquisitely typeset black cover off its rack between Newsweek and TIME. I place it under my arm and the next thing I know I’ve bought the damn thing and a snack size pack of pringles and I’m on my way.

So goes my ongoing relationship with Monocle magazine, Tyler Brule’s astonishingly successful foray into the world of luxury lifestyle publishing. For those unfamiliar, Monocle has recently celebrated its 5th year of monthly publication – no mean feat considering the perilous state of all things print – and has begun to extend its M-branded tentacles into television and radio (or whatever it is you call radio piped through the internet).

A quick disclaimer: Despite my previous evisceration of who I imagine to be the prototypical ‘Monocle reader,’ I, too, am also exactly the type of person you could also comfortably imagine reading the magazine. I am a 29 year old communications designer, living in London and working for a global design firm. I have quote-unquote ironic facial hair (not my quotes, btw). I have black framed spectacles. I am not unknown to wear a plaid shirt every now and then (top button done up, no tie), and I ride to work on a bicycle that although has 15 gears has often been mistaken for a fixie. I own several Apple devices. Oh, the shame of my teetering tower of lifestyle cliches. But that’s the way it is and I’m in no way apologising for my wearing the colors of my tribe.

So when Monocle makes it’s conspicuous appeals for my attention, my antenna vibrates reflexively. I am interested in politics, design, food, culture, travel. I’m a modern urban human and these are spheres that I regularly interact with. So amid the swamp of printed detritus at your airport WH Smith, which ranges from a bafflingly large number of magazines concerned exclusively with a single gadget or application (iPhone tricks and tips or 101 word processing applications for your PC! ) to gossipy pap, to the tired, culturally withered dad-like music magazines reliving every golden era except for the present one, I’m increasingly drawn to what’s broadly called the Business & World Affairs section. Here you’ll find the general interest American big names still coasting off their reputations (TIME, Newsweek), The Economist (essentially, in paper form, a drunken old Tory who talks at great length about anything that seems to cross his mind, and is by turns startlingly interesting and so dull you’d sooner impale a sherry glass through your eye). There’s the heavy breathing of the CEO-fellating triumvirate: FastCompany, Harvard Business Review and Bloomberg Businessweek, and the rather quaint, shrivelled presence of National Geographic. Wired is the occasional interloper in this heady, capital ‘I’ important section of the newsagency, but its presence seems slightly like an embarrassed teenager in a hoody turning up at his dad’s work during school holidays. Amid all this, without fail, is Monocle. And partly its the astounding greyness of it’s competitors that makes it stand out. Wow! I can read about being charming rather than how China is going to take over the world and enslave us and feed us only on our own ground-up consumer electronics – mixed with shit. I’ll take the magazine about Charm please!

There are a number of things that Monocle has going for it. It has a startling,  unique, editorial voice – a kind of suave, cocksure authority that in these relativistic times seems quaint and almost colonial. No other magazine, quite frankly, has the balls to sum up a country’s entire public transport agenda in a snarky aside. The strength and clarity of this voice is, my opinion, the magazine’s most endearing feature. It’s clean-cut, tightly gridded, neo-modern layout and design is beautiful, and has been massively influential both in the magazine industry and beyond, and its crisp, understated lines have become as much a signifier of luxury as they content that they carry. Add to that a liberal smattering of cheery (yet stylistically on point) illustrations, a hearty splash of photography and you’ve got the best looking mainstream magazine by a fair margin.

Which is handy, because beyond the aesthetic sheen, the actual written content of the magazine is … well, it troubles me. It’s vision is not my vision, and yet it’s ‘Now’ is so undeniably, totally, certifiably ‘Now’ that I tremble at the thought that the future will be more and more like the values espoused between its pages.

It is shallowness that is packaged up as an ideal, and it’s designed to appeal to our shallowness, our portentous need to feel informed, even when we aren’t.

Who is it, for instance, gives a shit about the metro system in Jakarta a small bakery in Melbourne? One of my most tiresome irks is how Monocle strains ever so hard to present local issues as having international relevance. Their rationale is, I presume, that this reveals a global sense of interconnectedness, a 21st century ‘It’s a small world after all.”  The answer of course, is no one cares about one city’s local metro system and another’s bakery. But the other answer is that we would all like to appear to be the kind of person that does care. So Monocle’s prescription for this mild quiver of cultural dissonance is to wave it’s Burberry-sheathed, Starke-designed wand, give you a sentence or two about said metro system and bakery and say, “There, there, poppet, now you know.” And the aesthetic quality of worldliness is thus bestowed.

Monocle doesn’t really present news: its articles read more like succession of facts, free floating, lacking sustenance and connective tissue. It presents these fact in brief. In teeny, tiny little pieces. Like tasting samples that are gone down your gullet before you’ve really gotten any sense of their actual flavour. For example:

While the rest of Europe chases austerity, oil-rich Norway has no such worries. The government can spend up to 4% of the country’s sovereign wealth “oil fund”, valued about $500 billion.

Okkaaay. Thanks Monocle for that stringy, tasteless fleck of knowledge. So there are a number of questions I’d like answered. Why only 4%? Why not 5%? What does Norway like to spend its money on? Why is this being published now? Why is this being published at all? Outside of those who keep themselves up to date with Norway’s relative riches, who would actually care? And for those who do care about Norway’s oil wealth – well, don’t they already know this? It’s just a fact. Banal. Mundane. And stripped of any meaningful context as it is, it’s a fact that is utterly useless. To me, at least, the problem with Monocle’s entire 100-odd page ‘briefing’ section is this: it’s fact after meaningless fact, and all it adds up to is an affected form of middlebrow channel surfing, a mindless skimming of random irrelevancies.

The trouble with having such a strong editorial voice is the single mindedness that it by definition requires, and the blindspots it produces. There is a vary particular bias at the heart of the Monocle Way that seems to not only revere commerce as an end in itself (not an uncommon fallacy, that one), but seeks to elevate commerce as the ultimate expression of creativity. Now I don’t want to get bogged down in some kind of anti-capitalist rant – I like stuff. I like buying stuff. I don’t have a problem with people wanting to sell stuff. Our relative worth is defined through our economic value – that’s an unpleasant fact that bombards us every day – but do we need to be so damn sycophantic about it? Shouldn’t our heroes be those who do things with the promise of no reward rather than those for whom reward is the reward? Monocle reveres stuff – and the producers of said stuff are treated with sanctity of Mother Mary’s birth canal. Monocle is a commercial entity first and foremost, which means its loyalties lie to its advertisers first, and its audience second. I get this. But it’s the near invisible line between advertising and editorial – the profiles patter with in the same taut, chipper PR-friendly language as the cleverly integrated advertorials – that leads me to the thought that in the world of Monocle, what is PR and what is news is interchangable. Worse, that they’re actually one and the same.

There’s a strange thing that you won’t find in Monocle. Every news and current affairs outlet thrives on it but you’ll hardly find a dash of it between Monocle’s 300 pages. It’s doubt. Mistrust. Cynicism. Monocle has no edge. It’s a spoon. It’s a giant ladle designed to feed. Spoon-ready, without the knife, without an edge, it’s all too easy to gorge on shoes, destinations,leatherbound notebooks, frequent flyer programs, architecture, et cetera, without stopping to ask questions, to debate, to disagree, to be heretical, to fight. This is what scares me about Monocle – its total acquiescence to the status quo. It’s utter prostration to the God of Consumerism. It’s shallowness in the face of depth. It’s beaming orthodontically-perfected smile in the face of it all.

Maybe it’s some kind of moral outrage that made me write this, or maybe it’s just what the reading of aspirational magazines is simply designed to provoke: envy.

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Letter from Kenya (two)

*Wanjiru doesn’t like to cook, but she has been cooking her whole life, she tells me bluntly as she picks through the red mung bean (a bean that I will become very accustomed to during my time here as it appears at many meals). I am surprised that she doesn’t like cooking, only because cooking to me is a joy; it’s a hobby of mine. I ask about her hobbies. She doesn’t have any. After finishing sorting the usable from the not-usable, she proceeds to the kitchen to wash and strain them.

While her English is perfect, the dialect here takes some getting used to for me. When asked her favorite meat, Wanjiru promptly responds “leaver“. I give her a confused look and wonder if she told me in Swahili, certain food is commonly known in its Swahili name rather than in English.

She proceeds to spell it, L-I-V-

– Ahhhh, I say before she can finish, Liver! I repeat, as if correcting her. Am I correcting her?

I’m immediately ashamed for having said it in that fashion, but try to disguise it by asking her, Beef or pork?

With a scornful look she says, Beef! Not pork, and she gives me a disdainful grimace while shaking her head.

After washing and straining she lets the beans soak overnight, but says that she will have to get up at 6 am in order to cook them – she doesn’t normally cook on Sundays, it’s sabbath. Curiously I ask her about her plan for Sunday.

Usually, I go to church from 10:30 am to 1pm, she explains.

It’s not that Wanjiru isn’t forthcoming with information, but she simply doesn’t tell me much unless I explicitly ask her. So, I pry further: Do you come home after church?

No, she tells me that afterwards she either goes and visits with her mother or visits a friend, who owns a salon in Kibera.

That’s enough, she says almost already exhausted, That’s enough.

*Name changed for privacy.

Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Nairobi, Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

official website • Nicole’ blog • follow her project on Facebook

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Kinfolk: a Melbourne social enterprise cafe

Kinfolk Café, Bourke St, Melbourne. Established in 2010. Social enterprise: a business which invests its value, either monetary or in kind, to reach social outcomes.

Kinfolk is based on the premise that the customer can choose where the profit from their coffee sale goes: to one of four community organisations in Melbourne, Palm Island, Ghana and Rwanda. The idea is empowerment via the ability to create change from at home.

Kinfolk is conscious of using sustainable food practices: all items from the menu are either organic, local or freerange, and always seasonal. Plates are created with the intent of giving the customers something to talk about.

Kinfolk also ‘gives back’ to those who work there: the café is run by 6 full time staff, and 30-odd volunteers at a time. Jarrod, one of Kinfolk’s founders, estimates that over the past two or so years, Kinfolk has had 200 volunteers lend their time, from age 15 to 72. People volunteer for all sorts of reasons, and Kinfolk aims to provide whatever opportunities people are reaching for.

”Some have come back from injury trying to get on the workforce, some from illness, some wanna do something fun on the side, some wanna make friends, some want an outlet to speak to people, whatever, just basically about helping that core team, and also create that atmosphere that it’s home. You know, you walk in, you’re not just walking in to any old café”.

What a perfect place to start this interview from: not just any old café. What is it that has attracted so many people to Kinfolk?

I meet Jarrod at the café for the interview. A few years ago I was involved with some of the more conceptual elements of Kinfolk, however I hadn’t been back since. It was so lovely to actually be there and see what had become of the vision and idealism that it was founded upon, and its realization into such a vibrant, warm and successful café.

I’m very interested in hearing about the reality of running a social enterprise. How do you balance the business sense with the social outcomes? Is there a compromise somewhere along the way?

Jarrod remains adamant that the good business sense needs to come first, before the social outcomes. “We’re a café first and foremost,” he says, “we want to be judged on the quality of the café” – a fact which I really respect. There’s obviously a lot of love in this café, a lot of community minded people who really do give a shit. But the business nous has not been lost amidst all this drive.

“If you think of a normal café, you’ve got a shareholder and at the end of the day he’s thinking of his pocket, his bottom line and all that. The way this place runs, there is no shareholder; if there’s any shareholder, it’s the projects [Jarrod’s referring to the community groups which receive profits from sales] but they’re not here running the place day to day. So it’s the people who are in here, running the place, it has to be run in a way that benefits them.”

Jarrod veers off talking about the business model to focus on the importance of the staff.

“If they’re not getting what they need personally out of the experience, if they don’t have the opportunities for growth, all those sort of things, it doesn’t work… If these guys have got the nurturing they need, the place does run.

“I think the volunteer aspect can be quite confusing for some people; they think, oh you know you don’t pay wages so it must be really easy to run a business like that, but it’s expensive as well because you’re investing a lot of time in the volunteers. So, more than just having a couple of staff on who know what their job is, instead you have more staff on so they can nurture the volunteers, their experience and all that, and that’s probably our biggest social outcome, really… the social outcome that we’ve actually helped influence with the volunteers that have been involved, far outweighs that $40,000 financial value, you know, that we’ve been able to distribute.”

I am really impressed: $40,00 has already been distributed, from a start up organisation, after only two years of operation! That’s a lot! I am very tempted to jump straight to talking about the logistics of that profit distribution, but I don’t want to interrupt Jarrod’s flow. So we continue to talk about the business elements of running the café.

“You might remember, back at the start when we were talking about it, we never wanted this social outcome, social cause stuff to be in your face – we wanted it to be judged as a café, first and foremost. And coz we do that, we’re able to maintain a really good level of quality, consistency, and you know that sort of stuff.

“Any social enterprise struggles to achieve that if they don’t focus on their commercial offering first, so we never compromised on that, you know, we’ve got really good people working here, we pay them the wage they need to be paid, you know, provide them the opportunities they need, and we just try to make sure that what we offer is consistent from day to day.”

Of course from this point the obvious question to ask is about that ‘commercial offering’. There was a lot of debate about the menu when I was involved with the café, so I’m interested to know what kind of decisions were reached – what does the café offer to the Melbourne CBD clientele?

“The menu changes every day here, so it’s quite challenging in that sense. We started off the café with Ravi, a really good chef with a lot of experience, worked in some of the finest restaurants in Melbourne – and I worked under Ravi for the first seven months or so as assistant chef – just to make sure I could do it if he wasn’t there. So, we designed a menu that was fresh, healthy where possible, and always seasonal, local and organic, as much as possible.

“We also try with that menu to have ingredients on there that will inspire and create conversation around the food – so we source things people haven’t heard of before. Just encouraging our customers to try different foods, and it also provides more in terms of that volunteer aspect as well… It just makes that whole training aspect of what they’re doing at a higher level, more sophisticated than just reading off menus.”

When we were starting to talk about the menu, way back in 2009, there was a lot of debate about whether to make it vegetarian, given the ethical implications. I ask Jarrod about that now, “why was the decision made in the end to have meat?”

“I think it really comes down to a business decision, and what he people of this are want. We always try to cater for something for the vegetarian, the gluten free, the vegan… but yeah I ‘spose it comes down to they way I think social enterprise should be looking at it.

“It’s a business offering that I’m gonna provide, and is it going to be sustainable or is it not. The vegetarian thing could have worked here, but not in the same format, like café-fare food… it just surprises me all the time. You know, we could have a beautiful, beautiful vegetarian toasted sandwich in the cabinet, and then have something not so fancy that’s got ham and cheese on it, and the ham and cheese one will go out the door and the vegetarian one, you know, later on in the day you sell a few… but it really comes down to business viability and all that sort of stuff.“

“So”, I say, with super excitement, “let’s talk about the projects! How’s that all been going?”

“Yeah, it’s been going great! Um, we distributed $40,000 at the end of 2010, after six months, but we didn’t get a chance to distribute last year. Any money we did have at the end of 2011 we invested back into this renovation, which has increased our capacity by about 25%, and increased our take away capacity by probably, I don’t know, 100%, 150%. So in terms of being able to provide the sort of financial support to those projects, we’re in a much better position now to offer some serious money over the next few years.“

The idea of consumer-driven charity in Kinfolk means that the customer gets to choose here the profits from their sale goes. This is done through the pictorial representation of a coffee bean in one of four jars, each allocated to a ‘project’. The customer drops a coffee bean into which ever jar that represents the charity they want to support. The team then distribute the profits according to this ration.

“Everyone’s got their own reasons why they connect with a certain project… you know, everyone’s an individual, they’ve all got their different thing that sort of pulls their heartstrings.”

The four organisations include a soup kitchen in Melbourne, called Credo Café, a project to support education for indigenous children, called the Cathy Freeman Foundation, a NGO which combats child trafficking in Ghana, and an community-developer based in Rwanda.

The café hopes to get to the stage where they can distribute the profits quarterly, but the reality is that they’ve got to make sure the café is sustainable and successful in its first few years, in order to ensure its longevity.

“So yeah, last year was a very big turning point in terms of small business, what you need to do in terms to survive, to invest your money in and all the rest of it. But sales are still growing, and they haven’t really stopped growing since day one. And I’ve learnt to think of it as well in terms of the social outcomes we achieve day by day for the people that are in here.”

“So do you feel, then, that they’ll be a deliberate shifting in focus away from just these four larger projects that were initially decided upon to fund, or is there a chance for it all to happen?” I ask.

“Um, you can’t really have one without the other. So, we’ve got a holistic approach in the way we run: we’ve got the projects that receive the profits, we’ve got the staff and volunteers and everything… I don’t think any of them’s exclusive to themselves – it’s a network, it’s a family of all these things – and I don’t think you could have one without the other. If we didn’t provide the profits to those four projects, people wouldn’t come in here and volunteer, if they didn’t volunteer you wouldn’t have all the social things that go with that, So yeah, they’re all entwined, and all support one another; it’s a good system.

“Day to day, there’s a lot of extra stuff that can go on in this space, you know, now that it’s running as a functioning café, you can support some of these community projects.”

Jarrod gives me a ton of examples of things that go on in the café, from meditation to stretching classes, to fundraisers to keynote dinners…

“It’s all around the conversations you have around food, and all the rest of it, and having inspiring people who are there. I don’t like to think of it as a keynote speakers, but sort of, someone who’s been invited, who’s got an interesting story… no one has an ordinary life, you know, so lets hear a bit about theirs.”

“You just must have such good access to really inspiring, wonderful, interesting people,” I say.

“Oh, there’s heaps of wonderful people,” Jarrod responds, “everyone’s wonderful if they’ve got the chance to show it, you know.”

It’s that line which pretty much makes the interview, and blows me away by its generosity and simplicity (that, and the delicious coffee which I’ve had over the course of the interview, and the prospect of a baguette with avocado, celeriac, poached chicken remoulade and fresh horseradish).

If you’re interested in checking out Kinfolk, head to:

673 Bourke St, Melbourne or www.kinfolk.org.au

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Looking forward to nostalgia

I like nostalgia.  I really do.
I like it so much I get nostalgic for nostalgia.  I long for the good old days in the 90s, that I spent reminiscing about the good old days in the 80s.  I spend precious moments imagining my future self, looking fondly back on the moment I’m currently experiencing.  Such is my love for dreaming about the past, that I often make important life decisions based not on logic or aspiration, but rather on the opportunity for future nostalgia.  I went backpacking for a year in Asia, not simply because I wanted to go backpacking for a year in Asia, but because I wanted to have gone backpacking for a year in Asia.  I couldn’t wait to come home and reflect nostalgically on my year abroad.

And then there are the eras I’ve never even lived through!  The roaring 20s.  The swinging 60s.  You name it, I’ve probably highly idealized it.
In a recent fit of 80s nostalgia (a decade that finished when I was merely eight, but no matter, I remember it like it was yesterday), I watched The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.  Within five minutes I was longing to live in the 80s again, but this time as a teenager, and ideally, as Molly Ringwald herself.   Then I did what anyone in my present day position would have done: I googled her to see where she had ended up.

What did I really expect?   That she would still be driving around in a pink car, sewing her own prom dresses, and applying lipstick from her cleavage?
(Yes, I did).

To my profound disappointment, I found that she was now…in 2012.  Or rather, she was no longer living in the 80s.   We were living in the same time, at the same time.  She looked normal.  She seemed to have thoroughly adapted to the new millennium.  There was not a visible trace of 80s nostalgia in her.

It made me stop and wonder: where was all my nostalgia really coming from, and why?  Was it a problem I needed to fix, or just a natural and healthy way of cherishing the past?

When I looked a little deeper, I found that up until a few centuries ago, nostalgia – that warm, bittersweet feeling we all know so well – was actually considered a form of melancholy.  It was considered a precursor to suicide, and a diagnosis for soldiers that deserted their posts.
The word “nostalgia,” based on the greek words nóstos (“homecoming”) and álgos (“ache”), was originally coined in 1688, by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss doctor working with mercenaries longing for their homeland.  At that time nostalgia was a medical condition, linked to illness, and even death.[1]

But (thankfully) more recent studies have found nostalgia to actually have psychological benefits.  Nostalgia expert Dr Krystine Bacho says that nostalgia can improve mood, increase self-esteem, and infuse our lives with a sense of meaning.
“Nostalgic reminiscence helps a person maintain a sense of continuity despite the constant flow of change over time,” she says.  It can also help us cope with loneliness, and strengthen our sense of social connectedness.[2]

So, perhaps my highly idealized view of the past is not such a concern after all.  Perhaps it actually displays how sickeningly well adjusted I am.  But can that explain my intense nostalgia for eras I’ve never even experienced?

Dr Batcho distinguishes this as a different form of nostalgia; what she calls “historical or social nostalgia.”  She says that  “individuals who feel nostalgia for a past era are more likely to feel dissatisfied with the present and/or perceive a past time period as better than the present.”  (Which, I would infer, is bad.)

Bugger.  It is true that I spent the days following my 80s movie marathon strangely longing for shoulder pads, and resenting the presence of smart phones and non- synthesised music in my life.

If I had lived back in the days when nostalgia was a medical condition, doctors might have prescribed me a variety of remedies, including purging (no thanks), leeches (no thanks) or opium (hmm..).  In 1733, a nostalgic Russian soldier was allegedly buried alive by his army officer [3] (I think I’ll stick with the nostalgia, if you don’t mind).

These days it’s a little trickier.  How do you cure something that’s no longer considered a medical ailment?  Svetlana Boym, author of The Future of Nostalgia, calls modern day nostalgia “the incurable modern condition.”
“The twentieth century began with a futuristic utopia,” Boym writes, “and ended with nostalgia.”  She hypothesizes that globalization and the accelerated pace of modern life have deepened nostalgic longings.
“Nostalgia tries to slow down time,” she says. [4]

Hmm.   Could my nostalgia be in some way connected to the recurrent impulses I feel to hurl cellphones, computers, photocopiers, and other technological paraphernalia off of tall buildings?  Could my longing for the 80s be not simply due to the outrageously fabulous fashion, music, and dance montage scenes; but also due to the fact they were so gloriously free of technology?
Pac Man was the pinnacle of computerised fun.  Cellphones were so outlandishly huge nobody could fit them in their handbags.  Life was simpler.

But hey, you can’t fight progress.  So I guess I’ll just cash in my nostalgic psychological benefits and console myself with the fact that in twenty years, I’ll look back on this decade as the prime of my life.   These will be the good old days.

Ahh, future nostalgia.  There’s so much to look forward to.

 



[1] Nostalgia (2012).  Retrieved February 9, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nostalgia

[2] ‘Tis the Season for Nostalgia: Holiday Reminiscing Can Have Psychological Benefits (2011). Retrieved February 9, 2012, from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/12/nostalgia.aspx

[3] Nostalgia (2012).  Retrieved February 9, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nostalgia

[4] The Future of Nostalgia (2002, Basic Books), as cited by Lambert, Craig; Hypochondria of the Heart (2001).  Retrieved February 9, 2012, from http://harvardmagazine.com/2001/09/hypochondria-of-the-hear.html

 

 

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Letter from Kenya (one)

From the house where I am staying *George, my guide for the day and now-coworker, and I took the #40 bus to the center and then took a Matatu. I’m a bit leery to take the Matatu, mainly because I don’t know if I will feel ready to take one on my own next time. A Matatu is a van (seats about 15) that is a mode of public transportation. All public transportation in Nairobi has fluctuating prices but the day before Morrison, my other guide/co-worker, told me that because I am white they may decide to charge me more. Maybe when I can defend myself in Swahili I will feel more confident with the idea of taking a Matatu by myself.

We take the #46 to Mathare Valley. Once we get our feet on the ground George announces it, “Mathare Valley Slum”. We walk a bit further down the road to a building. He wants to show me a view of the entire slum. I find it unsettling that he continually uses that word. Perhaps it is because I am used to it being used in a derogatory manner, when really it is simply used to described sub-standard living, to describe the place. We walk behind the building and on the steps there are three children. The older sister is putting cornrows in the younger girl’s hair. The little boy looks up at me, Hello, he says in English. Hi, I respond. Fine thank you, he replies. I’m a bit confused why he said that. Later I find out that what I have been taught as “hi/hello” in Swahili (habari) functions as a greeting and also asks “how are you?”. George thinks that behind the building will be a good spot for a comprehensive view of Mathare Valley, but then quickly realizes that where we were before was much better. We climb back up the steps and the little boy runs after us. I vaguely hear him say something, but I can’t make it out. George points and says, This is all Mathare Valley. Over there too? I ask – even though I know the answer, but it is obvious that George is proud of his home and that it is immense. Kenyans all seem to deceive their age, but it is clear that George is quite young, perhaps the same age as the other youth in the program. He is proud and happy to share his home with me. I feel very welcomed, and want to demonstrate my appreciation of his time and openess.

We return to one of the entrances to the slum, close to where we de-boarded the Matatu. George opens and goes through a wooden doorway; I follow. It opens up to an open grassy area. About ten feet after the door is a shack made with scrap metal corrugated sheeting. Inside are about seven young people – well, at this point they are all young men -two in a pair, a group of three talking quitely in Swahili, and two are sitting on their own texting. I go around to greet them. I am a bit unsure about my barely existent Swahili. I say “hi” to the first young gentleman, in English. Then tells me his name, and we shake hands. In my self-conscious state I forget to return the greeting not telling him my name but simply moving on to the next person. Though I correct my mistake with the second young man and say, I’m Nicole. By the third student, I’ve gathered my confidence and greet him with “Habari” and follow up with “I’m Nicole”.

Some of the handshakes are long, I just smile and continue shaking until they let go. George steps out for a moment and the students become more animated. Several ask my name again and where I am from – which is confusing to explain. Because I mention that I live in Chile last – after stating that I am American – they stick with Chile, maybe this is because there aren’t usually volunteers from Latin America. One young man knows Chile well – a big soccer fan – in fact he knows about Chile because he loves the Argentinean team. Later on, in confidence, he tells me that he really doesn’t like Messi, the Argentinean soccer player, but in spite of that he’s a big fan. They ask about the weather in Chile; “It’s in the south. Is it summer there?” one young man asks. I tell them that when I left it was 35 degrees Celsius – they all nod their heads, agreeing that yes indeed it is summer in Chile.

More students start trickling in, and each one greets me first, since I am strategically placed right next to the door – total accident, but it served me well. They then make their way around to all of their peers. Some receive more exciting and/or complex handshakes than others. After they have greeted everyone, they take their seats and chat with their friends in Swahili. I try to make out words, but on day 2, this is difficult. One girl sits alone, not because she doesn’t have friends, but because she is waiting for someone, a boy in particular. I realize this later – once the session is over – when everyone leaves the meeting room to socialize outside. I really want to talk to her because during the debate (more on that in a moment), she tried to participate several times, but the boys tended to drown her out. After the session, when I saw her intensely engaged in conversation with said boy, coyly digging her shoe into the ground, it became clear why she had been waiting on that bench before we started. There will be time to get to know her. I didn’t interrupt that conversation, only observed quietly from nearby.

The debate, activity for the day’s session, was lively. George asked them to think of a topic. A few sex-war topics were thrown out, then a girl said “traditional lifestyle is better than modern”. The students count off 1-2-1-2 to make the teams of pro v. con.

I was well impressed with the young adults – their knowledge of current affairs, history, the environment … There was no preparation – they separated into groups and then started with points and counter points. They discussed pollution, transportation, life expectancy, medical advances, politics … obviously there was no fact checker, but that made it that much more impressive. Additionally it was all in English – I know that Swahili is more comfortable for them: there was one lapse into Swahili.

After the session quite a few of the students came up and introduced themselves to me. So bright and expressive. I have recently been told that they have a lot of footage – documentary of the program – that they want to edit into finished videos, but no one knows how to edit.

Let’s see if I can help change that.

Currently, I am Artist-in-Residence at Maji Mazuri and also volunteering in their Youth Media Program in Mathare Valley, the second largest slum in East Africa. The goal of the program is to help the youth improve the quality of their lives by working with each other, and with counselors, to acquire skills. The program is also designed to provide a conducive environment within which youths can grow and develop into responsible adults. Within this program a “media” program is in current development, where the students (aged 16 – 27) can gain soft and hard skills related to media (i.e. blogging, website design, video production…). February 6, 2012 – my second day in Kenya – was my first visit to a program that I will be closely working with for the next few months.

Maji Mazuri was founded by Dr. Wanjuki Kironyo in1984. She still currently serves as its director. I met her on Monday, after this first visit, and shared these thoughts with her. She said, Thank you. And it was at that moment that it truly became clear to me that it is because of her and her work – additionally, everyone here on the ground, donors, past and future volunteers …, but it was her vision that started this – that I can say this about these young men and women. I feel very honored to be a part of this. I can only hope that I will be able to contribute at least as much as I will gain from this experience.

*I’ve changed all names except my own for their privacy.

Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Nairobi, Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

official website • Nicole’ blog • follow her project on Facebook

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Freerange Vol.4: Almost Home

In this issue, our contributors explore home – as a place and a sense –  by literally climbing their local landmarks, by poking around the concept of shelter as a human right, by questioning our cultural interpretations, and more. Some of these enquiries seem timeless, stretching back to before humans were even humans, others are very much topical, predicaments of the 21st Century.

Ultimately home is the whole planet, the universe and beyond. We share our home with billions of other humans, and billions upon billions of other species. As we “make ourselves at home” here, let’s not forget we’re not the only ones. Maybe it is best for everyone if we remain always and evermore “almost home.”

Freerange Vol.4: Almost Home main page. 

 

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Architects and their childhoods

The constructive influence of childhood on an architect’s design philosophy.

Is it possible to understand the relevance of childhood experience in relation to the development of an architect’s design and professional philosophy? The creation of Architecture is often attributed to a set of skills learnt during a formal program of education and the philosophy of an architect is often attributed to their schooling or apprenticeship; whether it is with another architect or within a particular architectural environment.  However, the development of an architect’s professional philosophy potentially begins much earlier with an image, an emotion or an experience from childhood. The accumulation of these experiences, be they architectural, social or environmental, forms the basis of what Malcolm Quantrill calls a person’s “environmental memory”.

The experiences of architecture that occur during childhood are often associated with the way in which a person senses a place and, as a result of this, much has been written about phenomenology and memory in relation to the formation of design theory. It is phenomenological experience that first starts to educate, shape and inform a designer while they are a child. Scholars argue that these childhood memories and images heavily influence the architectural direction taken in later life and will often inform the basis of a person’s professional philosophy: an architect may recall them to try to recreate a place that evoked an emotion or sense of place.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger writes that phenomenology reveals our experience in a context and our more basic way of relating to some things is in a practical manner.   The experience of architecture as a child is phenomenological as our knowledge of the world is limited and so we experience a building or an environment in isolation. The experiences of childhood are stored as images, memories and atmospheres. Steven Holl, American architect and theorist, states that the experiences of childhood are the beginning point of the development of a pre-theoretical ground for architectural knowledge, inferring that the images and experiences the architect is exposed to as a child become the basis for an architect’s professional philosophy.

British architect and theorist Malcolm Quantrill, in his 1987 text The Environmental Memory, discusses the significance of these images a person stores and suggests that childhood is the starting point for the development of what he terms an “environmental memory”.  The significance of childhood manifests itself in the formation of an architect’s “environmental memory”; memory begins in our first room, we climb into it on our first stair, we nourish it with views from our first window. Images of these beginnings of consciousness are the basis for our dreams and aspirations…environmental memory begins in our first house, our first field, our first street and library. [i]

Individual architects have been discussed with regard to the way in which their childhood experiences have shaped their architecture in a way which recalls Quantrill’s ‘environmental memory’. Australian architectural critic and author Philip Drew records that for architect Glenn Murcutt, it was the similarities between the landscape of the Upper Watut and the Maria River at Crescent Head which awakened slumbering memories from his childhood and thereby contributed a powerful tropical character to the Marie Short house.

Glenn Murcutt is an Australian architect who is internationally renowned for his environmentally sensitive designs which have a distinctively Australian character. Immediately after his birth to the age of five, Murcutt lived in the coastal area of the Morobe district of Papua New Guinea, which in the 1930’s was both primitive and somewhat dangerous. Murcutt talks of the environment of his childhood:

[I] grew up in the highlands of New Guinea on the Upper Watut River. The lower end of the highlands, a very wild place with huge grasslands of Kuni grass, huge rainforests. […] We lived amongst the Kuka Kuka people, now known as the Manyamia people. […] at that time, fearsome people. And they actually attacked – now, at the time, we thought this was just terrible – and they killed”[ii]

This environment of his childhood is depicted in Arthur Murcutt’s photograph of Murcutt’s childhood home in Papua New Guinea, Figure 1.

Figure 1: Arthur Murcutt’s house on the Upper Watut, N.G., January 1936

Murcutt attributes his approach to architecture and his association with nature to his childhood in Papua New Guinea and Australia.[iii] Murcutt often refers to ideas similar to Quantrill’s concept of the “environmental memory” throughout his design processes, attributing his sensitivity towards the site and environment to his childhood education of place. Murcutt talks about the experiences, observations and lessons taken from the environment during his childhood as being with him for the rest of his life, and how this understanding of place has guided him in the design of his architecture.[iv]

The significance of Papua New Guinea is explained by American architect and academic Steven Holl as he explores the idea that sense perception is the basis for knowledge.[v] The degree of influence Papua New Guinea has had on Murcutt can not be measured in numerical terms, however it must be thought of as part of his basic understanding of space and architecture.

When looking at Murcutt’s varying projects it is not uncommon to wonder about the similarities between a Murcutt house and the Australian vernacular, however Murcutt rejects that this “provides any sort of formal model for his homes” which opens the discussion of the inspiration and design of many of his buildings.[vi] It is Philip Drew who draws the parallel between the Papua New Guinean long houses and Murcutt’s designs.[vii] He suggests that Murcutt has inherited the “striking combination of primitive and cultivated or refined qualities in the same building” from the buildings of his childhood. These similarities are obvious in the depiction of the long houses in Figure 2 and the Marie Short house, Figure 3.[viii]

Figure 2: PNG Long Houses

This project, the Marie Short House in Crescent Head, NSW clearly articulates Murcutt’s design philosophy and high regard for the Australian environment. The Marie Short  is considered a turning point of Murcutt’s architecture and the beginning of an identity for Australian architecture.[ix] Drew suggests that the Marie Short House “initiated a primitive treatment of form, a Miesian hut” of Australian architecture, this is echoed by Francoise Fromonot who describes the Marie Short House as “cross fertilization between an essentially modernist architecture […] borrowing from vernacular building”.[x]

Figure 3: Marie Short House

The influence of Murcutt’s childhood “environmental memory” can be traced through the site and climate specific building solutions of the Marie Short House. This building responds to the site through the simple use of limited and practical materials in a way that accommodates the natural environment. This attitude towards practicality and minimal decoration is similar to the vernacular long houses of Papua New Guinea, Drew discusses the “new conception of the house, […] a lightweight pavilion lifted off the ground and open along the sides [being …] closely related to a Pacific Island hut or tent”.[xi] These long houses are elevated simple long rectangular huts with steeply pitched saddle back roofs. The roofing and walls are traditionally made from thatched Kunai grasses and more recently corrugated iron. (see Figure 2)

One of the most interesting aspects of the building is its location on the crest of the land far away from the protection of any trees or other natural elements. The building sits exposed and visible to all aspects of the site. It can be argued that Murcutt’s fear of the dark and residual fear of attack lead him to place the building in the location of the site which had the best vantage point. Murcutt describes the Kuka Kuka people of Papua New Guinea snaking through the Kunai grasses, signaling trouble for his family, “it gave me a sense of fear, all my childhood, the evening, the darkness was when it would strike. And that fear lasted a long time”.[xii] Murcutt says it was only recently, when he returned to Papua New Guinea, that his fear was overcome.

Murcutt’s fear is explained by Heidegger who writes about the phenomenology of place and environment being attributed to the experience of a ‘thing’, in this case the feeling of insecurity and fear, exposing itself to a person.[xiii] He suggests that the phenomenological experience of childhood is powerful enough to carry itself throughout life despite the length of time exposure. Pallasmaa writes that there is a central theme in architecture, “the unconscious fear of death, or the fear of the insignificance of life”; this fear is evident in Murcutt’s design as he deliberately places the Marie Short house on the part of the site with the best vantage point.[xiv] These two views rationalize the significance of Murcutt’s childhood fear on his design philosophy.

Murcutt’s childhood is a significant influence on his design Pallasmaa and Heidegger make clear how the events of one’s childhood can have an unconscious impact on a person. One thing to note about Murcutt, the Marie Short house and his design philosophy, is that he does not consciously look to his childhood for inspiration; it is embedded in his being.

The influence of his life in Papua New Guinea, although short in duration, has clearly had a significant impact on Murcutt, partially rejecting Quantrill’s proposition that “[a]n environmental framework is not only one of space and form, it is also one of time: […] the environmental memory depends upon a “time exposure”.[xv] The siting of the Marie Short house is an emotional response to an experience from childhood which has manifested itself in his design philosophy. Murcutt’s use of “environmental memory” does support Quantrill’s theory in respect of the idea that a single “environmental memory” holds something that appeals to emotion, the fear of being attacked; and something that appeals to reason, the siting of the Marie Short house in the position where the chance for survival is highest.[xvi]

For Murcutt there is a strong and direct connection with his childhood, it is an unconscious knowledge of place and architecture which comes through in his design. For Murcutt there is some conscious knowledge of the influence his childhood is having on a specific design project, Pallasmaa concurs with this idea stating that “our actions are neither accidental nor arbitrary; they contain both conscious and subconscious motives”.[xvii]


[i][xv][xvi] Quantrill, 1987. The Environmental Memory

[ii] Murcutt, Glenn 2008. Transcript: Talking Heads, (Australian Broadcasting Company, Aired June 2nd)

[iii][viii][xi] Drew, 1985. Leaves of Iron

[iv][xii] Murcutt, 2008. Transcript: Talking Heads

[v] Holl, 1996. “Pre-theoretical Ground”

[vi] Farrelly, E. M. 1993. Three Houses: Glenn Murcutt

[vii] Of interest is the fact that Murcutt threatened to sue Drew over the misrepresentation of facts in Drew’s Leaves of Iron publication, however as Murcutt had approved the copy nothing eventuated.

[ix][x] Fromonot, 2003. Glenn Murcutt: Buildings and Projects

[xiii] Heidegger, 1993. Building, Dwelling, Thinking

[xiv][xvi] Pallasmaa, 2001. “The Mind of the Environment”

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