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It was drizzling in East London, a typical long, dark winter and quite empty. The rain was sharply cold, so I bowed my head to shield my face like anyone without an umbrella. Like everyone else, I walked, looking downwards with the freezing rain hitting the back of my head and shoulders, only lifting my eyes to see the way towards the Bethnal Green station.


As I quickened my pace, the sight of the deep stairway leading to the station's entrance brought a sense of relief. I was about to escape the cold, wet world above for the dry, warm, albeit stuffy, underground. But my relief was short-lived. Standing in the rain, right in my path towards the stairs, was a beggar. Unprotected from the rain, he appeared unwilling to give up his position.


My usual internal self starts to debate: Shall I give him some money? Does he need to be there? He is going to use the money for booze or drugs. - Alice, don't be a softie again. The most unsensible questions always dawned on me in this situation. I shamefully judge homeless people by the way they look and dress. No matter my decision, I hate myself when guilt speaks louder than shame.


Can you spare any change, please? 

I shook my head as I walked past him.


My longest journey to the underground station started there. I walked down the stairs, and yellow signs of WET FLOOR appeared around me, telling me it would be my fault if I slipped on the wet steps while my mind returned to my inner dialogue. Whether to search my bag for coins or continue my journey, I also knew I had to make a decision before passing through the barriers, or it would be too late. Just before I slid my ticket in the ticket gate, I turned and headed back towards the beggar.


I placed some coins into his hand. To my surprise, he said something that struck me: Thank you for walking all the way back in the rain for me. His words filled me with gratitude and sorrow as I realised he recognised my face from my earlier passage when I shook my head in response to his request.


I believed I was like anyone else, just another face, another person in the street who looked down while walking. But he remembered me from that fleeting moment, and his unexpected gratitude pierced through my anonymity. In that moment, I felt seen. I was no longer just a passerby. I was someone.



Alice Hsieh


 


I feel privileged to have some of my artworks featured in the Spring Art Fair organised by StudioMorey. The event aims to raise funds for Shelter, the charity facing huge demand due to the increased homelessness in London. This initiative helps the charity and provides a platform for new artists like myself alongside established ones. If you're interested in purchasing artwork from the fair, please request the catalogue or book an appointment by emailing Moreysmith@moreystudo.co.uk by May 2nd, 2024.


Special thanks to



 





Updated: Feb 17


Many architects, like myself, say that architectural beauty is an expression of art. While beauty may be subjective, there is a collective appreciation for the beauty of nature. Can I dare to state that the beauty of nature is absolute? Not sure, but finding someone who finds nature ugly is rare. Nature inspires people from all walks of life (fact). Whether it's the mesmerising waves of the sea, the sublimity of mountains, or even a modest cascade of waterfalls, its beauty cannot be denied. And I am here to announce that I have embarked on a new journey to explore this beauty. It has just begun with art.


Indeed, I have shifted my focus, transitioning from architecture to art, from being an architect to being an artist. Now, when completing an online form to select my job title, I will scroll a few lines down to select 'artist'. This change has been a long time coming, as I had to overcome financial concerns and my stubborn pride. If you are studying architecture and have already dedicated more than 7 seven years to the profession, you understand me. However, through personal growth* and introspection, I have embraced a more relaxed way of life and proudly identify myself as an artist.


The journey began with the project Cut Flowers, recently showcased at the Pink Tardis, a community space in the local shopping mall. Living in a deprived area of London, I was surprised to find an exhibition space in my borough, specifically in a shopping centre. But the opportunity arose from a kind person and the good spirit of my hood.


The Pink Tardis, once a tiny flower shop that closed down, now serves as a community art window. We often see a pattern on our high streets: independent stores struggle because of gentrification or their inability to compete with cheap megastores or online retailers. The history of this shop presents an opportunity to reflect on small businesses' challenges in today's ruthless market. I visited my local florists and captured images of their flowers to incorporate into my artwork in the Tardis. It symbolises the revival of the Pink Tardis as a flower shop, albeit in a different form - through art. It also represents my quest for beauty.


I hope my art resonates with you and encourages my new audience to appreciate the intricate structure of flowers in the Cut Flowers series. It is a late-career change for a lonely (sole trader) architect, and I hope it is worth it.


*getting old

 

Cutting bromeliad plants in B&W photo
The Pink Cut, 2023

Dark stain on chrysanthemums in B&W photo
The Pink Stain, 2023


Flowers in the shape of atomic bomb
The Pink Bomb, 2023

Pink tardis as a community art space and window.
The Pink Tardis at Heathway Shopping Centre

 

I am Alice Hsieh, and you are reading my blog post.

'kind person' is Katja Rosenberg from www.artcatcher.co.uk

Updated: May 1


To impress my friend and his mates, who were visiting the UK for the first time from Brazil, I took them to Soho, central London. But, in truth, I didn't know where to stop for food and drink, and the sightseeing had already become tiring. We soon fell into a tourist trap - I led them to an Irish-themed pub chain.


The music was loud, so we had to shout at each other in an attempt to catch up on all those years since we left university. My friend insisted on saying 'London has favelas* too' as was his very clever finding. He swore he saw some shanty constructions and said that the UK sells the image as a developed country, but it is just a façade.


- But where did you see the favelas?


I was offended. Even as a Brazilian, the more I live in this country, the more I feel I should defend it. But surely, my friend was mistaken. Through my architect's eye, I've never seen any settlement which could be classified as a slum.


- João, maybe you just saw some garden sheds.


He shook his head; he looked sure. I explained that a simple timber favela-like construction wouldn't protect people from the harsh British winter. Nobody would survive here living in enclosures made up of single wooden or metal panels, different from the Brazilian tropical climate where people enjoy mild temperatures all year round. Therefore, favelas do not exist here.


I am still unsure what he saw today that made up his mind. I regret not explaining to him what an allotment is. That could be what he spotted on the train rides – something not unusual in London's suburban landscape. When Brazilians have never been to this country before, they can easily confuse sheds' agglomeration with slums – something common in South American cityscapes.


Despite planning authority** in England being inconsistently stringent, it will never allow illegal shanty constructions to extend to the point that tourists can see. There are unlawful house extensions in London, but they are generally hidden at the rear of the house and never as alone standing. What sprung to my mind was that London is full of people living in 'bad' housing, which is similar to the favelas' intent. Many people occupy such substandard accommodation in overcrowded households that living in a place with, as we called, a 'Living Room' is considered lucky. According to the Guardian (30 Sep 2020 - link), 'Nine out of 10 shared houses don't have a living room'. The slum is out there but inside of the houses and flats.


Considering that poverty is relative and not absolute, poverty in advanced economies can also be highly penalised. Housing is expensive:

  • The average rent in London for new tenancies is £1,665 a month (Homelet 2019).

  • The average London salary is 36K or £2,321.74 per month after tax (Payscale.com).

An average person like myself will use up to 70% of the salary towards the accommodation. The reality is that you earn more than most people or live badly. And the solution most Londoners have been adopting is house-sharing.


More people in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s are house-sharers. Flat/house-sharing is good if the purpose is saving money, but not if it isn't a choice—not if you work to pay for your living. The modern favelas are here, hidden in overcrowded housing, sometimes in beautiful Victorian houses or modern apartment flats. The façade, the building shell, does not reveal the relative poverty of London.


Before the pandemic, the overcrowded houses might work just OK. Say not all flatmates were using the same communal room simultaneously. Say most of them are using a so-called home as a dorm. However, house-sharing problems have started to exacerbate since the first lockdown. All architectural failures of our accommodation have begun to affect us:


  1. Deficiency of acoustic insulation.

  2. Lack of daylighting.

  3. Access to garden or balconies.

  4. Absence of adequate natural ventilation.

  5. Lack of views out (viewing natural scenes, external open space)


We might think that the minimal construction requirements should be set by building legislation, but in reality, this is not what we experience with the building we live in. These elements - acoustic, daylight, access to green, and natural ventilation - seem crucial to our mental health, yet the word 'mental health' is rarely part of building design's vocabulary.


There are favelas within the housing system in London. Not only have the buildings (new builds or conversions) failed us with poor construction, but their rents are expensive. It is time to recognise this and officially reveal the precarity of room renters' living standards so that good architectural design will, once in practice, apply to all.


Was my friend right? London has favelas, too.




Residential building façade

Image by coombesy from Pixabay




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