Amsterdam Part 1: My Trip

I spent the weekend just gone in Amsterdam and I loved it. I’d heard universally positive reviews of the city. In fact, I’m going to publish two posts in quick succession; this one about my trip and a second specifically about some of the stationery encounters I had. I thought it was best to separate them for fear of writing an essay!

Amsterdam has a very compact city centre but it is unlike any other I’ve ever been in. Gone is the pollution, haste and noise of zone ones everywhere. Somehow it manages to be quiet, slow and human. There’s a beautiful symmetry to the buildings because of their heights, window style and spacing, continuity and colour palette. They frame the low canals but looking a little closer at them shows that each building has its own individuality. A red shutter here, a bell gable there, a little plaque with a sword on to identify the building before street numbers were used, a shiny green door. Not only that but people live on the canal too, whether in traditional houseboats or sturdier canal house units made of wood. Public art dotted throughout the city also marks the territory of the young and creative.

We stayed a little outside the main centre at Mercatorplein and hopped on the tram when we needed to. I always think that trams add a sense of vibrancy to a city because they are integrated amongst the people and are a visible part of its movement and sounds. You are able to see and still experience the places around you while travelling somewhere comfortably and reliably. I always think that they also have a great continental European urbanism to them. And of course, intertwined with the people and trams are swathes of upright cyclists going about their business. Looking around them, taking time and care, parking their bike on a canal rail that is already buried by three layers of resting bicycles. In London we suffer a little from cycling being seen as the realm of the Cyclist with a capital C, someone who moves quickly, has the equipment, knows where they’re going and is well acquainted with roads of all kinds (at work this has been referred to as “lycrafication”… I’m sorry.) and this isn’t the dynamic in Amsterdam in the slightest. It’s a small and pedantic point but I believe there really is a difference between a “road” and a “street”. Amsterdam is made up of streets.

Our days were spent mostly languishing around the canals. I had a great list of tips compiled before going; places to pop into should the weather not be so friendly, museums, shops etc. I found that such structure didn’t work for Amsterdam. It’s more of a stroll and see what’s around kind of place. During our couple of days we hopped on a canal boat tour which was lovely, visited the Foodhallen which is an indoor food market housed in an old cavernous tramshed, had long brunches, stopped off for half pints of witbier whenever possible, and perused several street markets full of food, flowers and crafts. Flowers are everywhere. I’ve heard before that the Netherlands are the cut flower capital of the world. It’s good to see that they’re keeping some for themselves.

Although our days were long with walking, it was such a relaxing weekend and I would love to return in the summer when all European cities seem to be at their absolute best. Next up, the stationery and bookstores that I sought out and stumbled across!

Annie Leibovitz: Women

Nestled among the wharf buildings and imitation flats in Wapping is the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station where, until 7th February, you can find Annie Leibovitz’s Women exhibition.

I’d never been to Wapping and I really enjoyed discovering it. I loved the architecture, its quietness, position right on the river, busy pubs and narrow main street. Wapping Hydraulic Power Station is a fantastic space and seems to have undergone the same sort of renaissance as many other power stations and gas holder sites across London. It is the former home of the Wapping Project which showcased several fashion photography exhibitions and a restaurant space. This Annie Leibovitz exhibition marks its first major arts use since the Wapping Project recently vacated the building.

Wapping Hydraulic Power Station is undoubtedly a London gem. I pray that this building isn’t going to go the same way as Battersea or Lots Road. It is cavernous, clad in red brick and mud-spattered white tiles with elevated, huge windows. Metal remnants and piping of the original power station usages are littered among the rooms. My good friend and I went after work on a Friday and it was pleasingly dark inside, the exhibition lit by retro-style lamps and enormous screens scrolling Leibovitz’s work.

The focus of this exhibition feels like the screen images. There’s a fair amount of seating for people to linger and watch the scrolls of Leibovitz’s most famous and not-so-famous images. One of the most striking was of a young and stripped back Venus and Serena Williams in black and white. The seating is contained by three sets of screens and one wall of prints where you can spot Aung San Suu Kyi, Meryl Streep, Malala’s autograph and probably Leibovitz’s most well-known recent piece: Caitlyn Jenner. This exhibition reads like a “who’s who” of unbelievably famous women. But it also seemed clear to me why these women allow themselves to be photographed by Leibovitz. Not having seen much of her work before, I felt like she really gets the best out of her subject. They all look so confident, but vulnerable, and real.

The second room in the exhibition is in a smaller chamber with a long wooden table on top of which are many, many Annie Leibovitz coffee table books and other art compilations. Spindly chairs are scattered around to take a seat and flick through these publications under the glow of minimalist lamps. There’s also a couple of copies of ridiculously large photography books featuring Leibovitz’s fashion shoots. This room feels like it’s more about Leibovitz’s full spectrum of work including fashion photography and Rolling Stone work. One of the most obvious examples of this are that there are lots of accessible pictures of men rather than just women as the “Women” title of exhibition would seem to indicate. I didn’t much enjoy this room because it was very crowded with people rifling through books quite frantically. I’m not sure anyone I observed was really taking in any of the work, which felt like a shame.

Yes, for me, the best part of the exhibition is in the main room. I enjoyed the lull of watching the scrolling photographs and the opportunity to see Leibovitz’s work outside of portraiture. I also loved the airiness and expanse of the main room juxtaposed against the omnipresent photographs. At the back of the room is Leibovitz’s famous portrait of the Queen which is the only digital static image. It’s like she’s watching over us all as we admire the many other great and good women that Leibovitz has been lucky enough to work with.

I would really recommend that you spend an hour at this exhibition if you can. It’s difficult not to be impressed by the sheer power that Leibovitz clearly commands in this field and to appreciate the common thread that connects these immensely famous women. I didn’t find it informative, but I enjoyed seeing first-hand the images I’ve subconsciously drunk in through my exposure to the media and thinking about them in a new way, without the burden of surrounding words colouring my perception of the person in the photograph.

You can find more information about the exhibition here.

Rome

I have had a short hiatus from London and recently spent a few days in Rome. I had never been to Rome before, and found that whenever I mentioned it to other people, they responded with adoring but vague comments such as “I love Rome” or “Ohhhhh Rome”. On questioning why they love Rome, so I could do similar things and hopefully come away with a similar appreciation, I found that very few people could articulate any particular reasons. Categories were spoken about wistfully – “the food… the buildings… the squares…”. So I decided that there was some kind of Rome bug that I would catch there and which would presumably render me babbling whenever anyone asks why I loved Rome in the future.

For the record, I really did love Rome. I found it incredibly relaxed, civilised, full of beauty and history. We stayed in the Trastevere neighbourhood, which I would highly recommend for its winding streets, ochre coloured buildings, hidden piazzas and lively atmosphere. Although I love to walk in London and definitely believe it is a city where you come across hidden gems, I feel that London is also an easy place to nip from place to place in a very nodal fashion, rather than taking the time to discover the “in-between” places and spaces. Rome is a highly walkable city and I felt that every journey on foot was more than just a journey, that everywhere seemed to be a destination in itself. It would be a shame to hide yourself underground travelling between sites with all these Roman treasures everywhere. We did hop on a couple of buses purely for practicality (one day upon deciding to go to the Colosseum we walked quite a long way in the wrong direction) which weren’t too crowded, were welcomingly cool and inexpensive.

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Here was my whistlestop itinerary:

Day 1) Trastevere walk, Passeggiata del Giancolo park, walk along the Tiber, inadvertent walking into a Greece austerity protest, Aperol Spritzes and dinner in Trastevere.

Day 2) Out by 6.30am, Vatican Museums, walk and lunch in Centro Storico, Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain (under restoration!), Spanish Steps, Villa Borghese, dinner at Campo di Fiori, walk around Trastevere at night with caramel cream gelato.

Day 3) Lie in, Porto Portese flea market, walk around Testaccio neighbourhood, Victor Emmanuel Monument, walk around the Colosseum (outside only), Aventine Hill for sunset, late dinner in Trastevere.

Day 4) Out by 7am for St Peter’s Basilica, Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, late lunch in Trastevere of panini and arancini.

I’m going to make some of the most memorable parts of my trip the subject of their own posts in the near future. Particularly a review of a restaurant we tried in Trastevere, discovering my love of Aperol Spritzes (I’ve since made these since returning to Greenwich and I have officially adopted these as my Summer Drink 2015), my Rome menus, and my top few experiences.

Clerkenwell, Sunshine and Stationery

What a day. Every so often the sun throws her English expectations out of the window and comes out in full force. Today was one of those days: blue skies, no clouds, warm breeze, people everywhere. It’s impossible not to be enamoured by a day like this in London. I spent the opportunity being outside as much as possible. Unfortunately a good part of this outdoor pursuit involved visiting a site I’m working on in Hammersmith, right on the Broadway. Heat and exhaust fumes don’t make for the most charming summer memories. But this afternoon when I skipped out of work I took a long walk to Clerkenwell.

One of life’s great pleasures for me is stumbling upon a new place. Luckily there are endless possibilities for this to happen in London. I found a green space called Spa Fields, just south of the wonderful Exmouth Market. It’s not the largest park in the world, and probably took me about 5 minutes to stroll through in its entirety. I thought it was incredibly characterful though, with some interesting landscape architecture elements including a rolling set of mounds comparable to a mini BMX track, a lavender plantation, vine covered arches and a pyramidal centre building. The yellow grass shows quite how warm it’s been recently.

 

What was noticeable about this park was the range of people using and enjoying it. There were locals and young people, office workers with their trousers rolled up and families. There are many playful elements wrapped up in this green space that make it seem a bit quirky.

Coming out of the park I headed towards Arlington Way, just past Sadlers Wells theatre on the way to Angel. I was intentionally heading here to visit the fabulous Present & Correct shop. Clerkenwell is so full of fantastic architecture. The street layout, other than the trunk-like Farringdon Road, is fine, organic and dense lending itself to a range of functions; churches and old school buildings are found in the centre of small neighbourhoods that are definable because of their common architectural features. One standout building for me was this residential complex on Rosebery Avenue called The Laboratory Building. Predictably it was an old laboratory. I loved the art deco features on this building, the curvature of the frontage and its floor-to-ceiling windows. If you look around the building these windows delineate the height of three floors, and all the floors have their own window type.

Arlington Way itself is a typical Islington street in many ways. On one side there is a 60s style fabricated estate development, with traditional two-up two-down town houses opposite. A number of these town houses have ground-level retail functions with beautifully decorated frontages. There are also some vintage features that have remained such as a traditional painted wall advertising funeral services.

Present & Correct was really the highlight of my day. It’s a beautiful and tiny shop devoted to stationery and products associated with everyday artistry. It’s full of unique designs with a quality and bespoke feel. The shop is also immaculately presented. I would like to devote a whole post to this shop soon. If you are a fan of the genuinely written word as I am, check this shop out for yourself. It’s probably my favourite shop in London at the moment.

My purchases. Detail is everything. My shopping bag from Present & Correct comes complete with a record card a la 1950s library. And yes I continued to Angel and stopped off at the Hummingbird Bakery for my favourite pick, the black bottom cupcake.

Here is today’s haul. It consists of a Palomino Blackwing 602 graphite pencil, a “from the desk of” stamp and Lion ink pad and a vintage telegram. I’m going to save the telegram to write a letter to someone that I know will appreciate this as much as I would! Honestly, if I received a letter like this from a friend, it would be in a frame and up on the wall. I’m intending to do a review of the Blackwing soon.

I hope you are enjoying this beautiful London evening!

Oh and also, while I was loitering in Spa Fields, I read an interesting Guardian article which is essentially a dummy’s guide to building a city. I’ll probably write a response to this article in more depth but as an urbanist I think there are some good points here, but also some critical considerations missing. Disaster-proofing for example. Thoughts welcome.