A 'porn' party? I'm all tied up

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I just met the next Philip Johnson or Zaha Hadid. True, the circumstances of our encounter - a "porn and chocolate party" in a grotty apartment building in a dodgy area of Harlem - was barely promising. Yet I have a hunch that somewhere in this group of revellers lurked at least one great architect of tomorrow.

My partner and I were invited by our friend Pilar, who moved into the building after coming from Paris to pursue a Masters in architecture at Columbia University. Frankly, we were a bit worried about her choice of address. Once upon a time, the building may have had pretensions of aristocracy. But the marble in its lobby has long since cracked into jagged shapes, and the chandeliers that once hung from its ceilings are gone. The apartments are large. But, like so many in New York, they are all higgledy-piggledy, painted in uniform white, with bathrooms and kitchens about as appealing as the public facilities in Central Park.

Of its 40-odd tenants, perhaps half are old-timers who have been here long enough to know each of the building's cockroaches by name. But then there is everyone else, the newbies. They are young and fun and many are at Columbia with Pilar. The place is quivering with friendships and love affairs, happy and disastrous, forged on its landings and in the claustrophobic confines of its lift. Desperate liaisons have even been consummated after dark on the steps of the rusty fire escape outside.

Before she came, we warned Pilar about the perils of life in New York. It is easy to be lonely here, we told her. But Paris, she says, has nothing on Harlem. She has found more amusement than she can handle without even leaving the apartment. "Honestly," she explained to me in a quiet moment at the porn party, "this whole building is like the set of a Pedro Almodovar movie." If you are a fan of the Spanish director - think Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! or Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown - you will know what she means.

The porn bash was not at Pilar's but downstairs on the fourth floor, in a poky apartment consisting only of two smallish rooms, bathroom, kitchen and a narrow hallway. The hostess's name escapes me, but apparently she is involved with Frank, Pilar's German room-mate. How did she end up in the building, I asked? "Oh, because my mother lives upstairs," she replied, to which I said, glancing at the X-rated flick playing on a monitor on top of the kitchen fridge, "Well, I hope she's not coming tonight." "I did invite her," the hostess went on, "but I don't think she's coming. She must have a better porn party to go to."

That television screen, and the carnal scene unfolding on it, was our first hint that we should have taken the "porn and chocolate" invitation more seriously. We were not dressed - or, rather, sufficiently undressed - for the occasion. Most of the other guests, many of them postgraduate architecture students from around the world, had gone to proper lengths to do justice to the theme. There were men posing as porn stars; and one girl, celebrating her birthday, was topless except for the cling film tightly wrapped around her breasts. The cocoa part of the proceedings involved grabbing bottles of sticky chocolate syrup and squirting it at your fellow party-goers - another reason to be semi-clad (or less).

We might almost have been shocked. Inside, there were other monitors playing saucy blue-movie moments, including a flat-screen set above the lavatory. More naughtiness was being projected onto the living room ceiling. A bed in the second room was lit by theatre lights; a camera relayed close-circuit pictures of whatever was going on in there to yet another monitor back in the main room.

But this was no scene of drunken sleaze. In fact, that was not the atmosphere at all. The evening, meticulously planned down to every last detail, was about cheerful - albeit grown-up - fun. There was no fumbling for CDs when the music stopped - it never did - and not much guest-to-guest fumbling, either. And when four in the morning arrived, the hostess flipped the lights on and off once, and everyone understood that it was time to go. Five minutes later, the place was empty.

These Columbia postgrads built something wonderful, even if it was only a tongue-in-cheek red-light fiesta that was all over by the coming of dawn. And they pulled it off in a tiny little flat on an uninviting corridor in an over-the-hill apartment building in Harlem. If architecture is about the use of space - however unpromising it may be - they each get a Masters with distinction from me.

Vanity briefly bites the dust

Last Tuesday, I briefly regretted being in New York. It was neither Shrove Tuesday here - not a pancake in sight - nor was it Mardi Gras. But come Ash Wednesday, there was no mistaking that Lent had arrived, because there were so many commuters on my morning subway train wearing grey smudges on their foreheads.

The smudge, administered by a priest, is meant to remind the Christian faithful that it is their deeds and their consciences that matter, not the bodies that they occupy. Their physical being is, in fact, really irrelevant. "Remember," they are told at the altar, "that you are dust and to dust you shall return."

Ash Wednesday happened to fall in the midst of New York's fashion week, where the body, not the soul, is the object of worship. And in this town it is the Botox needle that most often finds its way to our foreheads, not a piece of charcoal. But for some, for one day at least, vanity was refreshingly set aside.

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