Janet Street-Porter: The master of funky minimalism

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The Independent Online

So, the master of funky minimalism, the emperor of architectural irony is to revamp the image of the Eurostar. I refer to M Philippe Starck, the man who now designs everything from motorbikes and chairs to log houses you can assemble yourself. Is there anything that this modern Leonardo da Vinci cannot vibe up for the 21st century?

He famously created the cult object to end them all, the lemon squeezer on three metal legs. It looked like an exotic spider or pared–down crustacean. It was a talking point, a yuppie must–have, a wedding–list essential, from day one. But it was also quite simply the most useless gadget ever to grace a kitchen. When you ground half a lemon on its ribbed dome, the juice dribbled down the legs and missed whatever container you might have placed beneath. This was a design crime that received little airing. It was as if we followers of cutting–edge living were embarrassed to admit that Mr Starck had come up with a complete turkey. In loft apartments all over prosperous cities, these objects are quietly gathering dust.

Mr Starck also came up with the brilliant concept of hotels so dimly lit that you couldn't see the sheer basicness of what you were shelling out hundreds of dollars a night for. The Paramount Hotel in New York has dark blue lifts and corridors – you feel as if you're wearing sunglasses indoors – while the bathrooms feature that other Starck speciality, the stainless steel surgical–style washbasin with a single tap high above. You turn it on and the water bounces out of the hemisphere it is meant to fill, and covers your front with a nice non–trendy wet patch. I could go on.

But please don't think I'm anti–Starck. (Why, two of his plastic goblin stools sit either side of my bed.) It's just that in Eurostar Starck will meet his match. Even a journey to York on GNER in first class is a million times more enjoyable than travelling the same way to Paris, as I found out two weeks ago.

A group of us went over for a gallery show, catching the 10.23am train. Because my ticket had not arrived, owing to the postal strike, they had to issue another. That took three operatives and half an hour, so that I nearly missed the train. Once on board, it took half an hour to get a drink, during which time I was able to savour an interior that would have seemed more appropriate adorning a clapped–out plane going to Teeside, rather than a 21st–century travel breakthrough to the Continent.

The only meal on offer was breakfast, even though we would arrive in Paris at 2.15pm. It came on nasty little trays and was unspeakable. Throughout the journey people roamed through our carriage and used our toilets. Why can't they put the first class carriages at the end of the train, as GNER do, ensuring some privacy for passengers paying first class prices? On the way back the stench from the broken toilets was disgusting.

Starck has said he wants to make the traveller "feel valued". And, it seems, some seats will be fitted with small film screens. Forget that for a start. We don't want an experience that's a replica of the grim London–to–Manchester British Airways shuttle with food on plastic trays. We want cushions, comfort, cossetting and service, service, service. TV screens on seats are for cattle class to watch third–rate movies with fourth–rate sound and fifth–rate picture quality. We want linen table cloths, heavy cutlery, a choice of food, real china and crystal glasses. We want privacy, gorgeous toilets and grovelling staff.

As for redesigning the uniforms, since when did what the hostess wore make a microwaved powdered egg omelette taste any better? It is important that luxury travel works on Eurostar in an original and desirable way, because it takes planes out of the skies, relieves congestion at Heathrow, and is far more environmentally friendly than the other business–class options. But don't let Mr Starck give us wicky–wacky lighting or those bloody stainless steel sinks, please.

Wrapping service

Once "wrap" meant a piece of fabric used to hide flab on the beach, or an order shouted by a film director. Then Pret A Manger hijacked the wrap and it became a tasteless "Mexican–style" tortilla rolled around a filling designed to appeal to Calista Flockhart–type slimmers – anaemic strips of steamed chicken breast plus a couple of leaves of designer salad.

As Editor at Large (or large editor) I am now partaking of the latest version of the wrap. Because I sat on my backside editing this paper for two years, shunning Pret wraps to stuff myself with bacon sandwiches, I now have to endure wrap mark three in order to deal with cellulite and a flabby rear end.

This 2001 wrap is called something like "ionithermie" – sounds scientific, doesn't it? Bright green mud is smeared over all offending areas of the body, and then electric pads are taped on. Finally you are "wrapped" in damp cloth to hold the whole gunky mess in place. Then electric currents pulsate through your thighs and posterior for half an hour, and you jerk about in mini–convulsions. At last the mud is removed and the beauty therapist generally says something like "Can't you see the difference?"

Of course you can. Your thighs are bright red and slightly quivering. After three of these wraps, I still have a large rear end but I am reliably informed it has been "drained of toxins". At least it was till I ate that bacon sandwich...

Don't blame the architect

This is Architecture Week (to 1 July) and I declare an interest – I am its patron. At the launch party held next to the new Lord Foster–designed Greater London Authority offices by Tower Bridge, the deputy mayor, Nicky Gavron, made a waffly speech about the desirability of London being a "sustainable" city. Instead of celebrating architecture she promoted the aims of the GLA in all their unfocused touchy–feely glory.

Tessa Jowell, our new Secretary of State for Culture, made an impressive public debut with a short contribution celebrating the positive role buildings play in people's lives. Of course, Ms Jowell knows nothing about the labyrinth that is the architecture world, but she is well prepared, having survived many years in politics. Architects are nastier and more duplicitous about each other than even top Tories. It must be lack of patronage plus the cruelty of their competitive system that does it.

But don't be deterred by the fact that architects often seem impenetrably locked into their own world. Architecture Week is a real attempt to engage with the public on many levels. You can go on special urban rambles in five cities, or participate in "Architect in the House", in which you buy the services of an architect to suggest improvements in your own home – a complete bargain for a minimum pounds 15 donation to Shelter. Find out more on www.architectureweek.org.uk

At an Arts Council lunch the other day we discussed how architecture might communicate with the public more directly. I think good architects have no trouble producing excellent buildings – but it is the space between them that lets us down. Take a walk from Waterloo station to the Thames, or from London Bridge station to Tower Bridge, and you'll see what I mean – utter urban squalor, conflicting signs, no public toilets, litter bins designed by at least 10 people.

It is at this pedestrian level that most people use our cities, and the sooner Ken Livingstone narrows his focus sufficiently to create harmony on our streets, the better. I spent last weekend walking in Vienna and I came away with the thought that if the 19th century Hapsburgs could create an inner ring road, and a traffic–free city centre, then surely our modern rulers can create a city that is less dirty and more enjoyable. Don't blame architects!

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