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Wat Pho through my eyes

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Wat Pho is one of the most-visited temples in Bangkok and it’s one of the most photographed. So when I returned to the temple last weekend, I deliberately tried to stay clear of the crowds as far as that was possible and explored some of the quieter corners of the complex.

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Written by Thorsten

August 21, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Exploring Phnom Penh’s architecture by cyclo

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part of a former Chinese temple in Phnom PenhThere’s some interesting architecture in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. Anything from Chinese temples and French colonial buildings to the post-independence works of Vann Molyvann.

Khmer Architecture Tours offers guided tours through the city, that explore and explain some of the most fascinating architectural sights of the city.

I took part in one of these tours today. And even though I’ve been to Phnom Penh numerous times, it was actually the first time I’ve taken a cyclo. I have to say the ride was very pleasant (though probably more for me than for the cyclo driver).

The good thing about the Phnom Penh architecture tours is that you get to see some monuments that are easily overlooked: an old Christian church, for instance, that Cambodian squatters have subdivided into dozens of private dwellings. remnants of a church in Phnom PenhThey have built walls and ceilings inside and created living quarters for entire families. Only rarely do you see a pillar or an arch up above, proving that this really once was the interior of a church. Outside, the church is also hardly recognizable any more because additional houses have been pasted on to its outer walls.

The poorer people of the city desparately need living space, so they’ve built add-ons and lean-to’s just about anywhere they could find space. They’ve converted balconies and galleries to extra rooms, forever changing the facades of many buildings. And they’ve built additional rooms and houses in former courtyards and gardens.

That’s understandable from the point of view of those who desperately need a place to live. Yet on the other hand, it’s also disfigured many an architectural monument in Phnom Penh. And some of them may soon be lost forever.

If you’d like to see more of what New Khmer Architecture can look like, you may want to check out this album of architecture photos I took in Phnom Penh in recent years.

 

Written by Thorsten

October 9, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Indian Summer at Berlin’s Villa Borsig

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Through a lucky twist of fate, I’ll be spending a couple of days at Berlin’s Villa Borsig. The villa was built in the early 20th century on the banks of a lake in Berlin and is surrounded by a beautiful park.
Villa Borsig now serves as the official guest house of the German Foreign Ministry. It’s a wonderful and serene spot during these Indian summer days in Berlin.

Written by Thorsten

September 26, 2011 at 2:42 pm

Posted in art, this and that, travel

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Dressing the City

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artist performing in "Dressing the City"Bizarre, inspiring, bewildering and poetic. That’s how I’d describe a two-hour art performance that I saw and experienced in Cologne yesterday.

It was called “Dressing the City und mein Kopf ist ein Hemd” and focused on the relationship between people, clothes and urban space.

Sounds strange – and I guess that’s what it was. But in an interesting way. I mean, what do you expect: it’s performance art!

For the audience, the performance has no real starting point and no defined end. All of a sudden, you’re in the middle of it.

There are numerous actors and artists doing things simultaneously at different spots (dressing, undressing, relating with each other or with the clothes they’re wearing or the city architecture).

artist performing in "Dressing the City" http://www.angiehiesl.de/eng/index.php?page=art&artid=128And you as a spectator have to drift from one scene to the next, never knowing where the next one will take place.

Let your intuition be your guide – or just follow the crowd of people that quickly forms around the artists doing their thing.

Since different artists act out their scenes simultaneously, you’ll never be able to see everything. But that’s just like in real life: while you’re concentrating on one aspect of your life, one “story”, dressed-up mailbox in "Dressing the City" http://www.angiehiesl.de/eng/index.php?page=art&artid=128other things are happening right next to you that you’ll never know about. Maybe you’ll just hear about them later or see the remnants of these other life-stories, scenes, dramas…

The artists who thought up “Dressing the City” are Angie Hiesl and Roland Kaiser. On their website, they explain the ideas behind their art performance:

Angie Hiesl

Angie Hiesl

Clothes are our second skin, the membrane between our body and the environment. They are the link between our inner and outer worlds and make a public statement.Clothing is a non-verbal means of communication and delivers signals that relate directly to our social role.The issue of clothes and all their associations – whether social, cultural, aesthetic, historic, religious or moral – leads directly to Hiesl and Kaiser’s original form of expression: the provocation of our senses in public space.

Provocation is something that’s difficult in a city as cosmopolitan, diverse and tolerant as Cologne. The people here are pretty unfazed by what they see on the streets every day. So during yesterday’s performance, some passers-by just walked on without looking when a woman or a man were undressing down to their underwear in public.

artist participating in "Dressing the City" http://www.angiehiesl.de/eng/index.php?page=art&artid=128Yet there were a few funny and interesting reactions from unsuspecting citizens of Cologne.

When an older gentleman crossed the street and saw this lady more or less dangling from a traffic light, he worriedly asked “are you all right, Miss?” – much to the amusement of the bistanding art-lovers, who were well aware that this lady was part of an art performance.

Church procession meets "Dressing the City" http://www.angiehiesl.de/eng/index.php?page=art&artid=128In another wonderful “culture clash”, a catholic church procession entered the street where some of the artists were just stripping down to their underwear or changing clothes in public.

At first, the onlooking art-lovers didn’t know whether this procession was part of the  performance. Or was it a group of evangelical Christians who wanted to preach against this decadent form of art? Neither one. In liberal Cologne, everyone just went their way and let the others be.

http://www.angiehiesl.de/eng/index.php?page=art&artid=128You can see another great interaction between art and real life in the film I posted above. About 4′ 20″ into the film, you’ll see a little kid who’s obviously very curious, what these two people are doing out on a park bench in their underwear. In the next scene, he and another kid are totally fascinated by one of the actors taking off his shorts in public. Hilarious.

Dressing the City und mein Kopf ist ein Hemd will be performed at least three more times in September, 2011. Go see it if you have the chance. And if you’re not in Cologne, Germany, don’t despair: Angie Hiesl and Roland Kaiser have taken some of their art performances to other cities and countries – even as far away as China.

Written by Thorsten

August 28, 2011 at 6:44 pm

Don’t demolish the Cologne theater (Schauspielhaus)

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Please support the petition against the destruction of the Cologne Theater or Schauspielhaus. http://mutzukultur.de/

Photo: SurfGuard/flickr

Granted, the Schauspielhaus isn’t spectacular post-war architecture, but it has an aesthetic of its own. And the building is part of a larger architectural ensemble by Wilhelm Riphahn that is thought through.

In a city like Cologne, which hardly has any architectural coherence, destroying such an ensemble would be a crime.

Rebuilt from the ruins of war

More than 70 percent of Cologne was reduced to rubble by the bombs of the Second World War. In the post-war years, the city was hastily rebuilt.

Interestingly, one of the first big construction projects the citizens of Cologne started after the war was building a new opera house and theater. And architect Wilhelm Riphahn was assigned with the task.

Much of the 1950’s and 1960’s architecture in Cologne is nothing but mediocre. But Wilhelm Riphahn’s buildings have a higher quality. In addition, they are integrated into a grand design, a larger post-war reconstruction plan for the whole city.

Parts of that grand design are still visible on Cologne’s Hahnenstrasse and on Offenbachplatz, where Riphahn built the Oper, Schauspielhaus and Opernterrassen.

Big plans but no money

In recent years, many of Riphahn’s buildings have been torn down or disfigured through so-called modernization. The architectural ensemble made up of the opera, the theater and the Opernterrassen restaurant on Offenbachplatz, however, could still be saved.

But city officials doomed it for destruction. The city council voted to tear down the Schauspielhaus and the Opernterrassen and to preserve only Riphahn’s opera house.

In 2008, an architectural competition for a new theater building was called. The jury awarded architects JSWD and Atelier d’architecture first prize, but very bluntly said that “architecturally, the project does not meet the expectations. … The architectural form … lacks one essential necessary property: an identity that is adequate for the purpose of the building.

Some of the features that made the jury award this design first prize  have meanwhile been scrapped due to lack of funds (e.g. the so-called “Lichtgraben”).  So it’s already obvious that what might be built in the end will be even worse than the architectural plan. And that wasn’t very inspiring to begin with.

If you ask me, I’d say the design for the new theater looks like a giant department store or like a parking garage.

In any case, one thing that’s certain is that it will be much more expensive to build a new theater than it would be to renovate Riphahn’s 1960 Schauspielhaus.

Let’s preserve this integral part of Cologne’s post-war modernist architecture.

Please sign the petition against the destruction of the Cologne Theater at:  http://mutzukultur.de/

Written by Thorsten

January 6, 2010 at 9:28 pm

A mall for young designers

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Idea Market at Kamphaeng Phaet Subway station in BangkokI was ready to head back to my hotel after having walked around Chatuchak Weekend Market for the better part of the morning.

I was tired and looking forward to my hotel swimming pool, a nice cool drink and some relaxing music from my i-pod.

But when I got to the lower level at Kamphaeng Phet subway station, I was in for a surprise. And that surprise made me forget the pool, the drink and the music for another hour.

Idea Market at Bangkok's Kamphaeng Phet subway stationHere in this subway station was the entrance to an underground shopping mall. An Idea Market that is only open on weekends.

A mall especially for young designers

Some of the designers at Kamphaeng Phet already had their own shops where they sold their own lines of fashion, gifts or perfumes.

The Idea Market at Kamphaeng Phet Others, however, were just getting started and obviously couldn’t afford renting a store yet.

They had spread out their goods on the floor in front of them – pretty much like kids selling old toys at a flea market.

Some of these vendors were selling interesting stuff that they were making themselves on the spot: designer bags , jewelery, hand-sewn teddy bears or knit sweaters.

Young designers at the Idea Market at Bangkok's Kamphaeng Phet subway stationI never studied design at school, but I thought that some of those people at the Kamphaeng Phet Idea Market were pretty talented.

And the prices were very reasonable. I bought a pair of designer shorts at one men’s fashion store, which cost me the equivalent of four dollars. Can’t really complain about that…

Written by Thorsten

December 23, 2008 at 10:55 pm

The North Korean dinner show

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The menu at the Pyongyang RestaurantI saw the most unusual dinner show the other day.

It was at a North Korean restaurant in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.

Before I make an attempt to put this unique dining and entertainment experience into words, please take a look at a short video I made during the show to get an idea what I’m talking about.

 

What you see in this video are the singing waitresses at the Pyongyang Restaurant in Phnom Penh. Every night at around 8 p.m., they interrupt serving dinner and hop on stage to sing, dance and play music.

Let’s just say that the Dear Leader‘s idea of a proper show and Western concepts of funky entertainment are obviously worlds apart.

Exiled North Koreans, a theme restaurant or the real thing?

Before we entered the Pyongyang Restaurant, we didn’t really know what to expect. We’d heard rumors about singing waitresses and a dinner show, but we still weren’t sure what kind of place this would be.

tasteful wall decorations at the Pyongyang RestaurantWas it a North Korean restaurants run by expats who’d fled the country and tried to recreate a little piece of Heimat in far-away Cambodia?

Was it a restaurant that just devoted itself to North Korean cuisine? For, surely, North Korea must also have food specialties and national dishes – even though the people there are suffering food shortages nowadays.

Or was it the real thing? Could this be a North Korean enclave in Phnom Penh? A place celebrating the Dear Leader and the North Korean way of life? Could such a thing exist?

Yes, it was the real thing

I have no idea how the deal worked, but this restaurant was truly showcasing North Korea in Cambodia. The waitresses were from North Korea, the food was supposed to be North Korean and the entertainment was North Korean.

Waitresses at the Pyongyang RestaurantSince I’m still kind of shell-shocked from this bizarre experience, I’ve just listed some of my observations from that evening.

Sorry, but since the experience was so absurd, so out-of-this-world, I haven’t been able to turn them into a narrative.

  • The waitresses all looked alike. Same hairstyles, same facial expressions, same dresses. Thankfully, they wore name tags.
  • The waitresses looked so pale, you’d think a vampire had just drained them of all their blood.
  • The dresses that the waitresses wore were made of the finest North Korean polyester. The design was somewhere between The Sound of Music and The Stepford Wives.
  • If they weren’t handing out menus or taking orders, they were busy telling people not to take pictures. So all the photographs and videos on this page were taken “undercover”. I wonder why photography wasn’t allowed – were the waitresses all senior officers of the North Korean secret service afraid of having their cover blown?

  • A flat-screen TV on the stage showed a contiuous video of The Wonderful World of North Korea. The film consisted mainly of nature shots. But my favorite scenes showed traffic in North Korea: in one scene, you saw a train travelling the countryside, in another you saw city streets that were absolutely deserted – except for a lone bus. Both the train and the bus looked like ca 1950. The dinner show at the Pyongyang RestaurantAlmost like the kind of miniature trains and vehicles you sometimes find on nostalgic kiddie karoussels. Unfortunately, we can safely assume that that train and that bus in the video must be cutting-edge technology and design in North Korea.
  • The group of Asians at the tabel next to ours remained absolutely stony-faced throughout the dinner show. This was in stark contrast to the waitresses’ pasted-on on smiles. Only during one of the numbers did they smile and clap. But as soon as that number was over, their faces turned to stone again. Soon after that song was over and as soon as they’d eaten up their dinner, that whole group left.
  • A group of Asian men in suits and ties at another table got a little rowdy. It almost seemed as though they were celebrating a bachelor’s party or just plain had a little too much to drink. At the Pyongyang RestaurantAnyway, during one of the songs, one of the business men got up onto the stage, and started to dance around the singer. He also started taking close-up pictures of her, which alarmed the other waitresses. No pictures! And definitely NO such outbursts of joy and emotion! Once they’d ushered him off the stage, one of the waitresses remained stationed right behind these guys’ table, keeping a watchful eye on what they were doing. She even asked to be shown the pictures on the guy’s camera. I don’t know if she made him delete any of them or if she just flipped through them disapprovingly.
  • After the waitresses had ended their dinner show, it was karaoke time. First, one of the well-dressed businessmen got up on stage and sang. Then, an Asian man in shorts and sandals made a very courageous attempt at singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” in English. He put on a pretty good show and tried to encourage us to join him on the stage, since we were the only Westerners in that restaurant and the only ones who might have really known the words to that song. We preferred to stay seated and applauded him wildly instead. When we asked him, whether he was from North Korea, he vigorously denied: “No, no, no! South Korea! I’m from South Korea!”

  • After the karaoke, the management began to turning off some lights in the restaurant. A subtle hint for the customers to pay up and leave.
  • As we got out of the place, all the waitresses lined up near the exit, bidding us adieu. I wondered how they lived in Phnom Penh: were they free to explore the city? Did they have lives of their own? Or were they holed up in some barrack-like communal living quarter and not allowed to befriend foreigners?
  • What did these waitresses think of Cambodia and the relatively carefree and colorful life in that city? How would they feel when they’d head back to Pyongyang? What would they tell their friends and families back home about the world out there? Or were they so deeply convinced by North Korean ideology that they really believed in the words of the Dear Leader?

Written by Thorsten

December 18, 2008 at 10:42 pm

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