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Stallholders at the fair

This morning I intended to get up nice and early so Ashis could teach me proper Indian yoga. He had explained it all to me the night before, but we had yet to have a physical run through. Yoga is best in the early morning, and Ashis is an earlier riser than me – it seems the country is, actually! In the UK it’s usual to sleep until a time the Indians would consider late (7.30/8am), perhaps due to the cold, grey weather making it far less attractive to get out of bed. 8am is usually considered a reasonable time to get up, but 9 or even 10 is perfectly acceptable. Over here the bustle of life outside begins permeating my windows at around 6.30am, but this morning I had to go back to sleep, a situation I blame entirely on the mosquitos who had kept me awake half the night buzzing my ear. I have been bitten alive by mosquitos since I arrived. I knew it would happen, the gnats at home cover me in bites each summer. I must have tasty blood. The mosquitos have delighted in a fresh blood bank to drink from and have taken a liking to my forehead of all places. Around 10 bites now cover my face, with more on my feet, arms etc. I’ve become paranoid about getting bitten even more, so during the night when I heard that ominous bzzzzz in my ear, I awoke ready for battle. But they are extremely crafty, and being small and almost transparent, camouflage against almost everything. I spent an hour trying to catch it, then gave up and went back to bed. As soon as I turned the light off and laid down my head – bzzzzzz in my ear. They’re trying to drive me mad, I thought – and succeeding. I imagined I could see them smirking as they teased me incessantly, knowing they had the advantage against my comparatively sluggish attempts to quash them.

Sunset light through the trees

So, tired and grumpy, I postponed yoga until tomorrow. Ashis went out and brought back breakfast from a local street stall – a thin red liquid curry sauce, with steamed white dumplings called Idli. They are fluffy and fairly bland, so you dip them in the curry sauce. The sauce (sambar) is packed with flavour and perfect with the Idli, but almost surpassed my meagre spice limit! I had to eat it very slowly in between gulps of water and hope that my stomach didn’t complain later…

After breakfast I went to get dressed, deciding to up my game a bit after visiting the slums and seeing how beautifully dressed the women are, with their jewellery and brightly coloured saris. My plain face and clothes looked drab in comparison, so on went some jewellery and a little make up to hide my spotty face.

As I went to open the window and let some of the beautiful warm Indian breeze into the room, I came face to face with a lizard. Now, not being a regular traveller, this was somewhat of a shock to my system. A mini dinosaur…in my room…with me…all night… I told Ashis, who replied oh yes, we call them Laxmi. They eat the bugs and spiders, they won’t come near you. Also, if you are saying something and you hear them make their clicking noise, it means you are speaking the truth. Hmm, OK, I replied, smiling hesitantly. After returning to my room and re-introducing myself to what appeared to be my unexpected new roommate, I decided I would call him Brian. My dad was called Brian and passed away 3 years ago. I have felt a strong sense of him with me on this trip, particularly as he was from the west indies, and many of the cultural elements cross over with his and my uncle’s colloquialisms from growing up there. So, me and Brian are now on great terms, I chat to him and say hi when I come in and he is less inclined to run away from me now he realises I’m friend not foe.

I spent my day making some paintings, editing my photos and writing the blog. I also managed to get in some meditating and reading, what bliss! I will do a post specifically on the art I have made here after the diary entries, but if you visit my Instagram page / kate.withstandley you can see most of the work on there in the meantime.

At about 5pm we ventured out in a cab to the Tribal Festival, my first visit to the city! What craziness. I cannot imagine what the bigger cities are like – Mumbai, Delhi etc. I am struggling to envisage anything crazier than Bhubaneswar, although I know this is in fact tame in comparison to cities like Mumbai, with their populations of 30million+. I was skittish as we crossed the road, hesitating, then jumping back as vehicles of all kinds rushed past. Ashis just stepped out and crossed, with the vehicles swerving round him or slowing to let him go. They beeped, but then everyone beeps, for every reason, so it’s hard to know if he was doing something wrong, or not. When I found it impossible to follow – all my instincts telling me not to walk out in front of fast-moving vehicles – he came back and took my hand to lead me over. I felt a bit silly but reminded myself this is only my 3rd day in India – I need some time to adapt!

Street traders outside the Tribal Fair

The Tribal Festival was fascinating – there are 63 active tribes in Odisha alone. These tribes still follow the same lifestyle and traditions which they have done for thousands of years. There are modern additions, obviously, but the generations pass down the skills and cultural structures of each tribe and these continue to be preserved in the younger generation. Some are more advanced than others, while some still subscribe to a wonderfully simple lifestyle, relying on agriculture and growing their own crops. Almost all still make their own clothes, jewellery, and various living implements, from bamboo and other materials which grow nearby. At the fair each tribe has created a mock up of their style of house and there are clearly significant differences in culture, architecture and style depending on the tribe and the region in which they are based.

Mock up of a tribal house

A large stage sat in the centre of the festival, on which groups of dancers from each tribe performed their ritual dances in stunning outfits and with delight. The dances were spectacular and hypnotic, their drums and chants causing time to slip away as you become absorbed. Watching is difficult though, as the urge to dance is infectious; the rhythm is universal and primal, speaking to something deep inside you which was lost a long time ago. A connection to the earth and to each other which we in the West abandoned generations before now.

Children from the biggest Tribal School (20,000 pupils)

We dragged ourselves away from the dancing and went to explore the stalls. I hadn’t intended on buying much, this trip was mainly about art and experience, not shopping, but with the products on offer so beautiful and handmade (and of course cheap) I just couldn’t resist. I stopped looking at the jewellery stalls after a while, or I would have bought far too much! We happened upon a stall where they were selling tribal flutes. Being a (very amateur) flautist myself, I was drawn to these and Ashis asked the man to demonstrate. The construction of the flute was at once simple and complex, a piece of wood with holes, connected to a round wooden bung at the end with a piece of string around the metal mouthpiece. It seemed as though the bung had to be wet, and the string perfectly placed in proximity to the mouth and the metal, to be able to produce a sound. The sound itself was halfway between flute and trumpet, piercing in volume and epitomising the sound of the East. Ashis tried numerous times and finally succeeded in producing a sound, but his attempts to bargain with the man on price were in vain – mainly because of my presence, but also because it was clear he really liked it and being a local, he wasn’t prepared to pay over the odds, as I would have been. Next came a stall with stunning reed mats of all types, sizes, colours and shapes.  I spotted a yoga mat with matching carry bag, but when they said 600 rupees I baulked. Until now everything had been 100/200, and I politely said no. It wasn’t until later when I got home and worked out the conversion that I realised this was about £6.50, and I kicked myself for not buying that beautiful mat.

If I had room in my case, I would have brought back one of the these lovely sweeper brushes…
So much cinnamon!

On the way back, we stopped at a kiosk to try some freshly made juice. As we waited, I became distracted by what appeared to be an Indian soap opera. At first it seemed completely over the top, similar to American soap operas, with long dramatic pauses focusing on someone’s stricken face, then as I continued to watch it became increasingly dramatic, concluding with a woman drenching herself in cold water in some sort of penance for something, while her daughter watched and sobbed. I became completely absorbed in trying to decipher what was going on and interestingly was still able to be drawn by the TV show, despite the vast gap in language and culture. Along came my pineapple juice, which was delicious, but I was then asked if I wanted ‘salt’. I instinctively said no, but Ashis thought I should try it as it is generally what Indians add to their sweet drinks such as juice and Lassi (yohgurt drink). What he added was not normal salt, but some very strange addition which did not work for me at all. Next time, no salt.

Tomorrow we are off to the Buddhist Caves…

My second day in India began with a beautiful breakfast of pasta, potato and cumin soup, with cucumber and tomato on the side. It was at once delicate and packed with flavour, and testament to Ashis’s cooking prowess. It was also exactly what I needed, having just about seen the jetlag off and suddenly very ready for some food in my belly.

After breakfast we sat in the studio/communal area and had an interesting discussion where we shared our thoughts on what makes an artist and the nature of art. Ashis shared with me some of his background and experience in art, he is exceptionally knowledgeable and has spent years cultivating a wide-ranging artistic background in fields ranging from animation (where he ran his own studio) to setting up the first art gallery in Hydrabad, teaching art and much more. He is currently working on developing the Bhubaneswar residency into a gallery/art centre and has big plans in the pipeline. His goal, he explained, is to make India a global leader in art. The irony being that there is so much art already being produced in India, however until now it has not yet been coherently linked to create a recognisable movement. Ashis wants to change this and believes strongly that art can create a common bond not only within India but internationally. Through art and culture, sharing and experiencing, we can all grow and build a community of artists. He is clearly a determined, passionate person with knowledge, talent and drive – if anyone can do it, I believe he can! His philosophy resonated with me, as it encompasses the same vision with which I and others set up the Dartford Arts Network (DAN). Our goal was smaller, with focus on the local area and bringing artists together to create a community which can work together to drive creativity and artistic progression, but the principle is the same. Another commonality we share is the resolve to enlighten people to the fact that everyone is an artist and has a creative soul. It is inherent in our very being, no matter who you are. One of my primary objectives for DAN is to find a way to draw the artist out of non-artistic people, particularly adults. Children have no problem being artists, they have not yet lost their self-belief, a wonderful by-product of their innocent state. Adults on the other hand, regularly claim ‘I can’t do art’. Their fear of being ‘bad’ at it overwhelming any instinct to try. This is something I feel strongly needs to change in society and is a battle I personally intend to try to fight in my own way with DAN.

Following this stimulating discussion, we were visited by a local art student, Laxminarayan, who brought some of his work to show Ashis. Beautiful watercolours depicting the local caves included some delicate figures silhouetted against the sky, and clever, gentle highlighting gave the setting sun’s rays a voice of their own in the works. There were also some evocative pencil sketches, and an intriguing abstract work, which he explained was inspired by what it must be like to be a blind person, in a life without colour. He was motivated to paint this following a visit to a local blind school, where he met with students and felt moved by their experience. His work was very interesting, and Ashis gave him some pointers on colour technique, which I found thought-provoking too. Laxminarayan explained how Ashis is very well respected in his field – he is a great artist, he said, to which I agreed.

Laxminarayan showing Ashis his work.
Laxminarayan’s artwork

After this, we headed off to a community picnic for the residents of the local area – GA Colony. We got a lift with a neighbour and friend of Ashis’s family, and I had to remind myself of the freedom in India, as I instinctively reached for my seatbelt in vain. 3km or so down the road, we arrived at a large farmhouse with beautiful grounds. I got many double takes and was clearly a local novelty, but everyone was extremely friendly and hospitable, asking where I come from and even inviting me to the city’s rotary club meeting! Sadly, as I am not a rotary member I had to decline. The ‘picnic’ was being held in the gardens, with the food being prepared in huge outdoor pots on stoves for about 40 guests. As we waited for the food to be cooked, Ashis took me around the garden and pointed out the many different types of tree growing there. A stark contrast to our gardens, of course, there were lemon, guava and cinnamon, and many more of which I have forgotten most (forgive my poor brain, it is rather in a state of information overload). A group of women arrived and formed a beautiful sight, meandering through the fruit trees in their striking, vividly coloured saris. Food was served – a variety of dishes on one plate, including daal, rice, a selection of curries, chutney, and a mutton curry in a separate pot. Being my first experience of mutton, I was intrigued and apprehensive, but after one taste, it was all I could do to give a quick thumbs up before I shovelled more into my mouth. It was genuinely one of the best dishes I have ever tasted, with the meat so tender it fell apart gracefully as it hit my tongue, while the rich sauce awoke every single one of my tastebuds. After the main meal came a small pot of sweet dessert which tasted much like rice pudding and was utterly delicious. The leftover food and paper plates were tossed in a pile for the dogs to finish off and with my stomach still being a bit unsettled after the jetlag, the dogs were delighted with my decent offerings!

Outdoor kitchen at the farmhouse
Community picnic
Ashis’ friends and family

After meeting some of Ashis’s friends and family, we set off back to the house on the scooter. I was nervous, as this was my first time on a scooter and no helmets in India, obviously (although I have seen a few signs since then saying ‘better safe than sorry, wear a helmet’ – which made me laugh as I may have seen 1 person wearing a helmet in nearly 2 weeks) but didn’t have time to worry as we were off, me riding a gracefully 19th century side-saddle style, due to wearing a dress. My worries soon faded though as we set off, the warm wind flowing over my face and head, smells of every kind ebbing and flowing as we passed street stalls, cows, groups of dogs and houses. I felt at that moment that I would probably feel I had lived more in India in 2 weeks than a lifetime in England. The whole place just feels like LIFE. It’s a cliché and a simplistic explanation, but it truly cannot be expressed in words. It is a combination of sight, smell, sound, every sense you can feel. India opens them all up, like the lotus flower, you suddenly feel as if you are awake. Oh, so this is life. While many places in the West supress the experience of living, for various socio-political reasons developed over generations, India expresses it with vivacity.

Cooking en mass on outdoor stoves

On our return to the house I had a little nap to indulge the jetlag before a 40minute meditation, which reached deeply enough to make me feel almost asleep, but not quite. I felt extremely relaxed afterwards and instantly made an abstract sketch, which looked very different to my previous work. Day 2 and my work is being influenced by India already, I thought.

Dinner was Chapati and vegetable curry made by Ashis’ mum. It was astounding and is so far beyond the Indian food I have had from takeaway restaurants at home, that I fear I may never enjoy UK curries again! After dinner we set my programme for the week, a packed schedule full of culture and exciting trips, before a final few days working on my art using my experiences as inspiration. Tomorrow is the Tribal Museum and my first trip into the City proper…very exciting…

Me with Ashis’ family and friends

My first experience of Asia begins with India; a place I have always felt a spiritual connection with, and for which I have harboured a desire to visit for as long as I can remember. Unsurprisingly, I have not been disappointed. I feel a slight envy of those people who travelled here in the 60s and 70s, people like my Uncle, who must have been unprepared and overwhelmed in every way, by the stark contrast in culture between India and the UK, which would also have been an even greater gap than today. For my generation, we already have an idea of what awaits us on a visit to this astounding country – social media, photography, film, books, all of these have painted a picture of the way that India impacts on the senses.

However, no book or film can ever prepare you for your first experience of India – mine was riding in a tuk tuk from the city to the suburbs. An onslaught of horns filled my ears, instinctively making me glance around to see the problem. There is no problem – every single car, bike, tuk tuk, beeps its horn as a matter of course. They use the horn in the way we would use indicators – to alert other traffic you are coming up behind, are about to overtake etc. They also use it in the same way we do, to express annoyance, to tell someone to move, to go faster, etc. The multipurpose use of the horn means that there is never a point at which someone is not beeping theirs. Add to this the Indian rules of the road… there are no rules! No seatbelts, no indicating, no hesitating. You drive and others move out of the way, this seems to be the basic concept. With what appeared to be a near miss every split second, I struggled to stop myself from incessant wincing and soon accepted my lack of control and went with it.

Freedom, said my host, you have a lot of freedom here. In the UK there are too many rules. To a degree, I agree with this – the West has almost achieved full evolution of the nanny state. You have to concentrate very hard in the UK not to break the law every 5 minutes. Rules abound: rules, rules, rules. When you come to another country such as this, you realise the joy of freedom from everyday rules. It’s intoxicating not merely because of the novelty, but also because of the simplicity, the weight of fear lifted. It is something we do not see because it is so ingrained in our society, yet I think it contributes significantly to our high levels of anxiety and depression. To live in a constant state of fear as we do, always watched, with someone waiting for us to break the rules. It’s stifling to say the least. You feel that in India, a lifting of the spirit – not merely because it is a spiritual centre (which you instantly feel to your core, too) but from the sense of freedom the society affords its people. The argument against this is obvious, with more rules comes less accidents etc. but the weight of the fear impact on our generation and the next is already beginning to show, with higher levels of depression, anxiety and suicide than ever before as young people feel trapped and overwhelmed by the burden of fear society places on them.

Anyway, I digress. But I digressed because freedom from incessant public restriction is a significantly noticeable aspect of life here. Another is cows. Cows everywhere. EVERYWHERE. You cannot walk for 100 metres without seeing at least one cow wandering around. They don’t belong to anyone, nor do they seem to get looked after by anyone in particular. They fend for themselves and no one takes any notice of them. They are as much a part of life here as rain in England. As a foreigner, this charms me no end, a fact which the Indians find hilarious. Sitting in a house, a cow walks past the door. Walking along, a cow trundles past. I turn in amazement and delight as these noble animals are treated as equals, in stark contrast to our brutal farming and consumption of them in the UK. Although they are mostly ignored here, they would never mistreat them. The Hindu cow is sacred, and it is clear that all animals are respected in this mostly vegetarian country.

So, I arrived – my host Ashis took me by tuk tuk back to his home and art residence in Bharatpur on the outskirts of the city of Bhubaneswar. The traffic and the cows were my first major introduction to the contrast of life in India to that of where I had arrived from, just outside London. The residency, at Kalanirvana, is held at a beautiful house in a fairly rural area, quiet except for the ongoing sounds of building during the day. Construction here is in full swing, every other house is being built and workers (men, and women in full sari) trek up and down stairs all day long carrying 8 bricks on their heads at a time, or bags full of sand in 28-degree heat. I am in awe. They grin at me as they pass, and I grin back. Namaste I say, and they nod with a grin. I am a novelty here; being particularly fair skinned I stick out like a sore thumb and have had a taste of celebrity status as I am often asked to pose for photos with locals, or encounter those who ask me to take photos of them, and who beam in delight at me as if I am an alien species. I have had very little animosity, perhaps a handful of looks, but these could probably be construed more as a confused frown than hostility. Interestingly, more than a few children, particularly the very young, toddlers, have squirmed away from me in fear. The fear of the other, which they do not yet understand, being too young to have learnt of other cultures by TV and schooling. I found this fascinating, as in the UK, with our now very multicultural society, the vast majority of children will come across other skin colours and facial types regularly from a young age. I do not remember my son ever reacting like that, as he has seen a variety of faces since he could first make out a face at all.  

The day I arrived, the previous resident artist Paula, a musical performance artist from New York, was leaving. Luckily, I got to meet her, and even more fortunately, was able to join them on a visit to the local ‘slum’ village to distribute solar lamps she had been given by a company as part of her project whilst here. Before we left, she gifted me a number of beautiful treasures from her trip – a red dupatta, for which she gave me a lesson on the many ways to wear, a pile of collected local handmade paper and a US sci-fi book of short stories to help if the jetlag kept me awake. I was bowled over by this show of generosity for someone she had met only moments before. Her husband Richard, another New Yorker and a high-profile pianist, joined us, despite being rather seriously unwell after some suspect food in Calcutta.

The four of us walked to the village, guided by Ashis, who, being a local, is well known in the area. His father was the first person to build a house in this community and, employed at the time in the power department of the government, had the connections to ensure that roads were built, and electricity installed. More people in turn followed, and the neighbourhood is now busy and thriving. The high-profile nature and longevity of his father in the area means he knows the local people well, which makes for useful security and access to all areas in the local vicinity. On arriving at the ‘slum’, we were greeted by children playing with monkeys in the street. Monkeys which took off sharply when we arrived, aware perhaps of our foreignness, as they took to the high walls to observe us from above. Monkeys in the wild is a sight I have never seen, and a thrill which infuses the soul with happiness.

We were invited into the house of Laxmi and took off our shoes to enter – this is standard practice here, in houses always, and often in shops too, shoes off and left outside. It is a seemingly small thing, but yet another practice which stops me short in my own automatic behaviour, to challenge my views of how society works. Although a respectful and cordial social norm, an equivalent in England is not at all practical due to the weather – in minus 5-degrees who wants to be removing shoes and socks outside every time they go in and out of somewhere?!

Entering Laxmi’s house, we were greeted with delighted smiles from the adults and suspicious frowns from the beautiful wide-eyed children, which made me grin at them even more. Paula presented them with her gift of the solar lamp and explained to me that when the electricity goes off in the area (which is a regular occurrence) the slum is without power. When it is dark, that means the teenagers cannot study their schoolwork, no one can cook or do work around the house, and any job which needs to be seen to be completed, is unachievable. The solar lamp will make a huge difference to the practicality of their household. We were offered beautifully small, delicate cups of delicious sweet tea, which I managed to drink despite feeling rather sick from jetlag, having only arrived that morning. We then visited a neighbouring house and were offered more tea and snacks. I ate as much as I could, so as not to offend, and enjoyed the exquisite tastiness of a local banana – a third of the size of the ones we get in the UK, packed with ten times the flavour.

As we left, the sound of drums and chanting filled the air. That’s the Bajan, Ashis said, come, I’ll show you. We walked through the streets to a small temple, where a machinated drum played a fast, repetitive beat as offerings were made to Shiva. Ashis pointed out that every house has a small altar at the front, no matter the status of its owner, where a candle is lit at dusk each night and communal thanks and prayers are given to Shiva and other Hindu gods. The beat of the drum was intoxicating and hypnotic, and I learnt that the Bajan is a daily occurrence, a form of public call to prayer.

After an overwhelming first day, my first impressions of India are nothing but positive. As I always expected, this place speaks to my soul and feels as natural to me as if it were home. It is a place of acceptance, of freedom; of simplicity but enthusiasm and drive, of overpowering colour and sound and smell. It’s everything you think it will be and much, much, more. I can’t wait for tomorrow….


Camera at the ready, eyeballs on the lookout – yet my first day in the city of Vienna yielded no palpably exciting images, despite an abundance of beauty and grandeur of aesthetic spectacle on every corner thanks to the legacy of the dominating Habsburg Empire.

There was plenty there for everyone, with unending streams of tourists lining up to snap the top tourist attractions, and photographers such as my sister (whose speciality is in photographing people) lapping up the melee of crowds surrounding said tourist spots.

As for me, I felt somewhat at sea photography-wise. My mood wasn’t brilliant, my stress levels were high, and I struggled to find that sweet spot when you just know a shot is working.

Until, that is, me and the family embarked upon an unexpected post-dinner walk down to the beautiful Danube (well, a tributary – a damn big tributary actually). The riverbank hit my sweet spot. Street art and graffiti as far as the eye could see lit by low, coloured lights and punctuated by stark streetlamps in places. This was a bit of me.

I’m finally going to visit the place I have felt instinctively drawn to since a child. A country with more vast chasms of inequality than I have ever experienced in my life. Where many children live in slums, collecting rubbish from landfill sites in order to earn enough to eat and survive. A place of extremes, where around the corner from these heartbreaking scenes bustling cities thrive and a country on its way to commanding immense international power drives forward technologically and financially. A place with a deep cultural and spiritual history comparable with nowhere else on earth. A country where colour and light and life assault the senses in the most intense and beautiful ways.

So I’ve heard.

I’ve never actually been to India, but after being accepted onto an artist residency with the Kalanirvana International Art Centre, I’m due to fly out on 1st Feb 2019 for two weeks in their shared studio/artist accommodation in Bhubaneswar. The setting looks more perfect than I could have imagined. Bhubaneswar is said to be the birthplace of Bhuddism, a belief structure I have come closer to being able to accept than any other throughout my life. The area looks inherently ‘local’, not untouched by tourism, but not its captive either. A place so steeped in history, culture and spirituality I can’t imagine I’ll want to leave at the end of it.

Aside from the amazing location, I will be allowed access to a 24hr shared studio in which to create and to explore the responses my journey illicits in me. The organisation will introduce me to local residents and guide me around the most pertinent spots to visit while I’m there. I couldn’t be more excited!

Even better is the chance to work alongside and to meet, other international artists who will be staying in the residence. Almost all of my art production until now, and particularly recently, has been very much a private practice. Undertaken in my bedroom at home, in familiar surroundings. A literal comfort blanket. I’m excited to see what effect such an extreme change in circumstances and setting has on my artwork.

I have ideas already, thinking of sketching from life when on tour and then extending delicate pencil drawings of sculptures and temples into abstract designs in pen back at the studio, perhaps adding washes of watercolour too. I will almost certainly combine my photography with my pen work, in collage styles I am already beginning to experiment with now in anticipation of the trip.

I’ve only just booked my flights and the trip is 3 months away, but I’m already feeling my imagination and creative urges bolstered by this amazing life experience. Watch this space for daily updates while I’m away…

http://www.kalanirvana.com/one-world-residency/

Les  Chateu

Les Chateu

Ok it’s been a while since I last shared my musings with you. A long while. Cue tearful streams of apology and remorse etc. Actually, no, none of that. It’s true I wish I’d managed to write sooner, I have missed it. But I’m sure you’ll forgive me when you hear my reason; for I am with sprog. Yes indeed, I can almost no longer see my feet and am starting to have major panics about pathetically inane things such as storage boxes. So when the opportunity came up to go on one final travelling adventure before it all kicks right off, it took me about hmm, a sip of decaf coffee to decide.

Our annual architect’s office outing is usually an atypical field trip combination of concentrated architectural appreciation and Christmas party debauchery. This year turned out a bit more restrained than usual (nothing to do with me being sober, I’m sure). The destination was Nantes, West France, about 2 hours outside of Paris and as it turned out, a very pleasant city with a good vibe. We arrived into Nantes station a tad frazzled around the edges, after relying pretty much solely on a hand fan for air on the Paris – Nantes connection. At least it wasn’t raining. No, it was actually around 26c, the fact that we’d travelled slightly southwards into France as well as West suddenly making itself blindingly apparent. After a brief wash and brush up, we headed across the beautiful Loire river toward our first appointment; the Ecole d’architecture (school of architecture) by Lacaton & Vassal. An impressive building built on a laudable concept, it has but few flaws, although these flaws do surround some fundamentals such as sufficient winter heating. But hey, the upsides outweigh all that, especially if you’re a visitor and not a student shivering in a parka in mid-Jan. The original design opportunity was put out to competition, an approach which has many negative aspects for designers (not least the generally outrageous amount of work required for free) but also has the potential to shoot a practice into the limelight and often results in a standout design for the client as competitors wring every last creative drop from their architects in order to stand out from the crowd. Lacaton & Vassal clearly did just that, submitting a response to the brief which fulfilled the criteria in 600m2 less area than allowed, leaving significant spaces free for them to propose the solution which makes this clever building what it is; an ambiguous play between public/private, inside/outside. The frame consists of a concrete shell held up by 10m spaced columns. Inserted into this is the steel inner, a simple construction technique allowing the building to be inherently adaptable to meet its requirements which may well change throughout its life; for example, new floors can be slotted in to create extra teaching space or more studios. In the meantime, the ‘spare’ floor area serves an important function, crafting external, public space which can be open to the street or closed off, using polycarbonate moveable walls on every level which unwrap the building and when open provide (on a summer’s day) what feels like exceptional outdoor workspaces, many with fabulous views across the river. The staff are clearly delighted with the results, judging by the impassioned tour given by the school’s comms manager. On the walk back, general agreement was shared about an innovative design with its heart in entirely the right place (despite a few technical hiccups); good design doesn’t always need the ‘frilly bits’, and giving a building the ‘wow’ factor often diverts essential budget from the basic premise of creating enlivening spaces.

Ecole d'architecture by Lacaton & Vassal

Ecole d’architecture by Lacaton & Vassal

As the sun set, we topped our day off with a lift to the top of the Tour Bretagne, a 37 storey office skyscraper with a bar and observation deck at the top. The tower has been unpopular with locals due to it’s seeming blight on the traditional city landscape, kept generally low by the French building control system which is set by province and almost impossible to get around. It does, however, allow stunning views across the city, of which we managed to get a glimpse on Friday evening.

View from Tour Bretagne

View from Tour Bretagne

Day 2 began with my first ever blissfully hangover-free second morning on an office trip. Last time involved a necessary 10am vodka red bull to coax me back from the land of the dead (don’t ask), but this time I was up bright and early and ready to make the most of the hotel breakfasts I usually drunkenly snore through.

Ever heard of Les Machine? Or remember a huge mechanical elephant roaming the streets of London a few years ago? If not, get your Google on and check them out. Les machines are a collective of mechanics, engineers and artists who create fantastical creatures and structures from disused pieces of wood and metal. But far from tickling the aesthetic spot alone (although they are stunning), their creations move, make noise, carry passengers and in the case of the elephant, soak people like me with water, mid-selfie. Their technical ability and creative genius combines in a glorious perfect storm to produce pieces swathed in 19th century circus ambience; a productive and proactive use of the modern Steampunk style which amazes children and adults alike; genuine cross-generational entertainment through design. In one word, fabulous.

Les Machines - The Mechanical Elephant

Les Machines – The Mechanical Elephant

Aside from a quick lunch and the return wander to the station, thus ended our visit to the city of Nantes, a  simulating, vibrant, and beautiful city which I wholly recommend you visit. We did stop at Paris on the way back, which although gorgeous and gay as expected, has somehow lost its mystery and so that glorious sense of secret discovery which comes from an unexpected find. There’s undoubtedly so much I didn’t see in two short days, and things at which I only managed to snatch glances as we passed whilst on our way to somewhere else. Another visit to Nantes calls I think, next time with baby in tow!

Loire River

Loire River

Local church interior

Local church interior

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Local church interior

Local church interior

Detail of the Law Courts

Detail of the Law Courts

Les Machines Headquarters

Les Machines Headquarters

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Workshop in Ecole d'architecture

Workshop in Ecole d’architecture

Front of Law Courts

Front of Law Courts

View from the roof at Ecole d'architecture

View from the roof at Ecole d’architecture

DSC_1512Like me, you have probably never, or perhaps only recently, heard of Lens; a little provincial pocket of France thrust recently and violently into the tourist consciousness, yet still beautifully unaccustomed to its latest role as the home of the newest Louvre outpost designed by SANAA (a recession-respecting snip at a mere €140m), and the main reason for us arriving into nearby Lille last Friday morning for our annual office trip.

Working for an architectural firm means that thankfully office trips don’t mean cheap, vacuous weekend benders to Newcastle, but generally are programmed around an initial visit to a building/site/area of architectural interest. This is of course supplanted by an obligatory messy Euro-trash evening in a sweaty disco, before back to the cultural appreciation the following day, it taking a little more time to focus on exhibition guide text at that point.

Lille struck me instantly as far less industrial than I had probably unjustly and certainly unfoundedly, imagined it would be. Although an established eurostar terminal, it may be that it is more regularly used as I have used it in the past, as a changeover point to get to Brussels or Germany. It was certainly sans the mountains of tat which swarm over the streets of most tourist areas, threatening to engulf guided tours under lethal tsunamis of flag-emblazoned crockery. As I was served a beer at 11am with extreme nonchalance and without even a disapproving glint sweeping across the eye, I decided I liked it already.

The journey to the Louvre-Lens consisted of a 40 min train ride, during which a large number of grown adults (myself included) repeatedly exclaimed our amazement and happiness that the train was double-decker, a situation which I’m sure endeared us to our fellow French passengers and was undoubtedly compounded by the intermittent squeals of excitement and roars of laughter about the newly invented and utterly fabulous ‘shouty shouty tradey card game’ (patent pending). We enjoyed it, anyway.

Lens itself is a pretty little town, the insertion into its outskirts of an internationally important museum collection reminding me of the recent Tate Turner Contemporary constructed at Margate. Indeed an applaudable attempt to drive valuable visitor traffic to a place which currently has little. Would we have gone there otherwise? We arrived at the building after a very European 7 min walk (more like 15) and a touching welcome to France shouted from a window consisting of ‘fuck you bitch’ in redeemingly good English. A long, low and understated metal shed rose suddenly from behind some strange landscaped mounds in the immediate vicinity which were reminiscent of tellytubby land. They must’ve spent €120m on the inside, then. Well, yes and no. Aside from my facetiousness, you can see from the plans that the basement occupies the same long, low space as the building itself, providing extensive (and expensive) archive space for the Louvre’s immeasurable collection. It has also been carefully designed and specified (apart from the roof, which I’m told, in terms that a non-architect can understand is, well, not very good). We were not able to see the touring exhibition space as the Rubens show had finished only days before, much to my joy, viewing one of his waxy grimacing spectacles in the permanent collection was quite enough.

The main exhibition hall is beautiful and distinct, its vast expanse clearly influenced by Tate Modern’s momentous and celebrated Turbine Hall with a rather new take on museum curation; pieces displayed on individual floor panels and plinths, in chronological order and measurable by the timeline etched into the metal of the right hand wall.

DSC_1549 The attached pod area, or ‘garden pavilion’ is tacked onto the back of the main hall with the intention, I imagine, of bringing the visitor back into the here and now after the artificial lighting and whistlestop history tour of the shed. It achieves this effect sharply, vast floor to ceiling windows sucking in light greedily, scattering light-saber beams around the space through translucent floor to ceiling blinds. Shadows of light and dark pierce the (generally unpopular) scuffed floor surface like swords of good and evil, in the kind of detail drama that makes a photographer’s dream.

DSC_1573 After a thorough exploration the general verdict was positive; although perhaps a little too ‘in vogue’ for my taste, the brushed metal shed vibe starting to feel slightly nauseatingly trendy, it did feel coherent, well-designed and was a pleasure to experience. But it was Lille and Lens which ended up being the real winners, both turning out to be places I would visit again after initially being places I would never have chosen to go. We still haven’t managed to discover why a town so far inland appears to have seafood as its staple restaurant offering, but a quest to find out gives me a good excuse to go back!

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