Thursday, 26 May 2016

Five star gossip

I had forgotten, because I had not done it for quite a while, just how entertaining it is to sit in the lounge area of a five star hotel and to listen to the various conversations going on around you. Today, overlooking the Thames, I'm in the middle of three different American business conversations, each of which conform to different cliches of that type. To my right, a grouchy gentleman is complaining, either to the people sitting around him, or to somebody on his hand-free phone - it is hard to tell which - about a business deal of some sort, the details of which he appears angrily not to understand.

To my left, more excitingly, another American gentleman is telling numerous stories of his dealings with the Russians, a group of people he likes, but apparently treats with caution. "In the broker business..." he continues, in what, looking back over it, appears to be an almost uninterrupted monologue directed at his younger female companion, whose level of interest in his yarns it is hard to judge. I gather that his dealings with the Russians date back to the very end of the Cold War, and he confirms my suspicions, when he talks about having been advised that some of his dealings might lead to a knock at the door by men in dark coats.

I'm sitting here to take advantage of the comfortable seats, the complimentary wi-fi and the coffee which, whilst it might be fractionally more expensive than that in Starbucks, comes with all of the above, and an almost unbeatable view out over the Thames. From time to time, the riverboats pass in front of me, which suggests that it must be high tide. It feels very different, in here, from the hot day outside, and I savour my coffee and velvet sofa, on which I am making myself very much at home.

I remember when this hotel, the Mondrian London at Sea Containers, was a beautifully appointed, yet somewhat unapproachable set of offices. When it was built, it had been planned as a hotel, but the financial situation in the seventies meant that started its life as offices and had to wait over thirty years before being open to the public as originally intended. It remains, to me, one of the most New York-like hotels in London, with its "Dandelyan" bar beside the river serving a range of cocktails. Its restaurant also serves one of the best breakfasts in London, although it is worth aiming for brunch time, and allowing for enough refills from the buffet to see you through most of the rest of the day.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Lion around

Sometimes, cities and towns want to stop cars driving along certain roads. They can do this in several ways, such as by erecting fences, bollards, signs and barriers, but in Stockholm, Sweden, a decision appears to have been taken that the best way to do this is to use beautiful, smiley, concrete lions. From what I can tell, they are almost purely functional, but the fact that they have been endowed with such pleasing countenances, entirely fits with my impression of the Swedes as having a tendency towards almost casual beauty, when it comes to design.

You notice it even on the motorway from the airport to the City, where bridges and fly-overs are artfully lit or architecturally elegant, and a little extra care seems to have been taken to make something fundamentally necessary into something that is pleasing, too. Even a massive advertising sign is crafted so that, from behind, it resembles the stylised silhouette of a tree.

Quite why more places do not seem to follow this principle, I don't know. Clearly, some civil engineering adornments come with significant added cost, and one could be forgiven for arguing that they may not be essential. The problem is that we have to live with these things - bridges, and barriers and streetlights and advertising hoardings - and making them the most basic versions of the things they have to be is not always the most pleasing.

I think that we should be careful not always to opt for the purely functional. That is not to say that the purely decorative is necessarily the only desirable outcome (although, naturally, great art is uplifting, too). I suppose what I am saying is that, where we need to have, for example, a street light, the outcome could be achieved with, essentially, a lightbulb on a stick. That should not, however, mean that that is all we get. Some effort should be expended, and we should encourage that it is expended, to make the mundane and the functionally necessary beautiful as well. This is something the Swedes and the Danish appear to believe, and it is an attitude that other could learn from.