James is a photographer and writer based in Los Angeles. He is the author of "Tokyo DisneySea in Photographs".

Shopping in Milan

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Across the breach into that rarified air where fashion and shopping go from hobby to sport, from devotion to religion, from magazine fantasy to standin in front of you reality lies Milan. Combined with the romantic streets of Italy and its beautiful people, shopping in Milan can take on an overwhelming, almost religious quality. This city is one of a handful of true shopping meccas, a place where Italian loafers exiting Ferraris and impossibly long legs wear 3 inch heels while carrying thousands of dollars worth of purchases on cobblestone streets. This is a place where those scenes in cologne ads can and actually do happen. Milan is larger than life, both enchanting and intimidating. Dolce and Gabbana has a store that literally IS a city block. Armani has not just a store but a hotel. Milan is as Milan does, and Milan isn’t shy about it. Try to keep up or cheer from the sidelines.

While that Milan can be fun, that’s not the Milan I came to know when I visited this past June. Granted I was there for a research conference so Milan’s brainy side may have been more on display, but the Milan I got to know was a bit more thoughtful, a bit more rakish, a bit more rough around the edges than one might expect from conceptual Milan we all envision. While still beautiful, I discovered that Milan doesn’t always operate at full throttle fashion magazine speeds: it can and does switch gears.

If Milan switches gears, the gearbox just might be 10 Corso Como.

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10 Corso Como is more a state of mind than it is any physical place, a statement of style, purpose, and aspiration. Ostensibly a “store” it’s really more of a conceptual complex fusing different layers into a design-nerd’s wonderland. It feels like what art and fashion aspire to be, somehow manifest physically. It’s cultivated and themed to not be about fashion, but to be fashion.

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Unassuming from the outside aside from simple signage, entering and following the alley leads to a charming, open-air garden at the center of the complex, immediately demanding an altered state of mind. Broken into its components, 10 Corso Como is part art gallery, part clothing boutique, part art and design shop, part hotel, part garden, and part cafe: a microcosm of hip that is simultaneously self aware but not self obsessed. 

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It’s excessive, but in a exuberant, almost playful excess the way a good Wes Anderson film can be, not the ‘leather on the catwalk, impossibly perfect bone structure, jump on the Vespa with the model’ way. It’s as much Warhol, Bowie, and West as it is Anna Wintour or Georgio Armani. It’s assuredly aspirational, like much of Milan, but also encouraging, even supporting. Some part of you is 10 Corso Como: maybe it’s the part of you that likes Andy Warhol and Tea. Maybe the part that likes $1000 shoes but thrift store bags. Perhaps the vinyl buff who appreciates an Eames chair. At some point you will connect, and that connection is used to link you to the vibe of the rest of the complex. You belong, even if not fully, but that’s okay.

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10 Corso Como is themed design, but its much more conceptual than literal. It encourages you to bring different sensibilities to the forefront of your thoughts as it guides you to various design pleasures. A jacket that may seem to unconventional on a shop window street suddenly makes more sense after you stroll through the garden, have some tea, and explore an Warhol photographic exhibit. 10 Corso Como is fashion meeting you half way at convincing you it will make you a better person and actually getting you there without ever making a purchase.

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With 10 Corso Como as a new baseline, my next shopping experience doesn’t seem quite as unexpected. Even still, wandering Milan wasn’t exactly where I was expecting to find a great stash of comic books.

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While meandering around on a sleepy Sunday I stumbled across one nondescript storefront with a mild buzz, defined mostly by it being open while everything else was closed. I walked inside its old tobacco storefront and was greeted with a stash of graphic novels, both Italian books I didn’t recognize and some independent titles I recognized from America, translated into italian. I was greeted with smiles and an offer of Nutella, despite not speaking a lick of Italian. I felt like I had walked into somebody’s welcoming home and right into their cool basement: I had found the home of Bao Publishing.

Probably a testament to my naiviette, but obscure graphic novels were not what I was expecting to find wandering Milan on a Sunday. Being greeted with warm smiles, a funny dog, and some gratis Nutella, and a stack of comics was couldn’t have been further from my expectations, but I was damn glad it happened. This is the type of thing that’s not fashionable per se: it’s just genuinely fucking cool.

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The Bao store is the type of place I would have went out of my way for, but instead stumbling across it as I wandered the streets of Milan was a pleasant accident. Comics are a favorite souvenir of mine as a travel. Unlike books, I can pick them up in any country I visit and still somewhat follow along with the story, a nice bridge between a foreign culture and my own. At Bao I picked up a copy of La Grande Odalisca, which is actually a French graphic Novel but one Bao had just recently brought over to Italy. The art is great and the story (as much as I can decipher) seems fun: I’ll definitely pick it up in English if/when that happens.

So that’s my Milan. Sure, Milan is still Milan, still beautiful and larger than life and fashionably intimidating. However, there are more fringes of the city than you might expect. I found fashion, but I also found art and photography and comic books. I can aspire to Milan, but there’s already a bit of me there.

Milan, Italy

Milan, Italy

Paris, France.

Paris, France.

Dream-like Beauty.
Disneyland Paris

Dream-like Beauty.

Disneyland Paris

Which way, this way
Disneyland Paris

Which way, this way

Disneyland Paris

La Place de Rémy: Ice Water in Hell

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Historically, I think July 2014 will go down as a notable mile marker in the annals of themed entertainment. Themed entertainment has far reaching implications the world over, but the front lines, and to what I’m speaking now, is what we currently think of as theme parks. In terms of bullet points, the Summer of 2014 will note that Universal opened up a themed London down in Orlando via their expanding Harry Potterification, and Disney opened a themed Paris just outside of Paris itself via Ratatouille and their continued Pixarizing. While these two events happening via disparate companies at nearly the same time is largely just logistical coincidence, there’s something very prescient about what led to such similar theme park happenings planting flags at nearly the same time. The origins of the themed areas from both real world and film backbones, the designs approaches they took, and the technology they chose to highlight are a capsule of where themed design is currently at and where it seems to be heading. London in Orlando and Paris in Paris are capturing the zeitgeist. As of right now, for both better and worse: this is theme parks.

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Out of pure coincidence I happened to be present for both the sunny soft opening and rainy grand opening (although not the Press opening) of this new Paris just outside of Paris at Disneyland Paris. These are photos and words about one half of this outbreak of simulated Europe going on in Orlando (You can go here for a summary of the other half going on in Orlando. Some great photos here).

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The charming bit of idealized Paris Disney came up with is known as La Place de Rémy (roughly: Remy Plaza), named for the star of the Ratatouille film. Disney’s new Paris is actually their second, as they previously made the France Pavilion for Epcot back in 1982. La Place de Rémy contains 3 notable features: Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy (“Remy’s totallly zany adventure”: the new ride the land is based around), Bistrot Chez Remy (the restaurant connected to the ride), and a yet to be opened gift shop, all unified around as a small Parisian street. This area is inexplicably in the middle of the thematic mess known as Walt Disney Studios. Walt Disney Studios is the “other” park across from Disneyland Park, both located in the resort known as Disneyland Paris. While Disneyland Paris has an interesting history, it is well known as a park of intense beauty and expert design: possibly Disney’s best, at least at inception. Disneyland Park in Disneyland Paris is a sweeping epic full of romantic beauty, charm, and adventure that hits core emotional touchstones just as the original Disneyland on which it is based. In contrast, Walt Disney Studios is best described as an action film with no plot on a shoestring budget: things are happening, but there’s no cohesion or purpose to it. What is there is largely utilitarian, with the attractions denoted as such only because of signs and markers on a map then on immersive areas carefully drawing you to them. While there are quality attractions to enjoy there, it’s easily Disney’s worst theme park in terms of design, planning, and aesthetics. Why Disney’s best and Disney’s worst are right across from each other is a long story for another day, but that’s where things stand as of now at Disneyland Paris.

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Even as you try to approach one of its few design successes,  Walt Disney Studios makes sure you know it is truly a consignment of failures, lovingly thrown together as part of the swap meet of diversions we call a Studios theme park. Again, there are enjoyable diversions and attractions to experience here - you will have some fun - but by and large the park begs you not to notice itself, succeeding in idiosyncrasies but failing in overall purpose. As such, to reach Disney’s new, romanticized Paris you need to walk through Walt Disney Studios’ “Toon Studio”, which is a jumble of Pixar properties with no real sense of place or purpose. Warehouses painted blue for Finding Nemo coasters, random spinning cars in kitschy desert themed to Cars there, or an amusement park vaguely themed to Toy Story around the back. It’s a cacaphony of what I can only expertly describe as theme park “stuff”, all simultaneously assaulting, enticing, offending, and confusing.

And then, suddenly, Paris. 

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Beautiful, charming, romantic Paris.

In practice La Place de Rémy isn’t “Paris” in any grand sense, or even in the World Showcase “idealized microcosm” sense. This is a small slice of neighborhood Paris, somewhat out of time and romanticized, but not attempting any larger conceptual commentary (as Tokyo DisneySea might) or cultural contrast (as World Showcase might) or deep, emotional core (as Disneyland might). La Place de Rémy is Paris, a Paris with a bit more Fantasy to be sure, but nothing more. I think it stops short of what a Fantasyland representation of Paris might be, but Modern Fantasyland Paris probably isn’t too far off the mark. In that, we have what I think is both the area’s weakness and also its ace in the hole. The area alludes to a grander depth here and there through the usual theme park design bag of tricks (no stairways to nowhere, but plenty of other hinted liveliness), as all good theme areas should, but it’s not so much hinting at a larger world to explore as fleshing out what is already presented there. This is small-scale Paris. This is charming, quiet Paris. This is not pomp and circumstance, Eiffel tower Paris. It’s as if you have taken one of the Fantasyland dark rides and severely ramped up it’s exterior, but also isolated from the rest of Fantasyland that makes each attraction and land more than the sum of its parts. This is not a failure shared by the much larger-scale London opened by Universal as Diagon Alley, as they literally made an attraction out of connecting the area to a larger world by transporting you to the theme park equivalent of another world (another theme park). La Place de Rémy is not making any grand statements or attempting to reach that theme park rarified air where a larger reality has successfully been suggested. This smaller approach, with focused mini-lands based largely around a single ride seems to also represent the zeitgeist, with Disney applying it 3 times over in Hong Kong recently, and with Diagon Alley’s arguable 1 ride and 1 restaurant at an otherwise massive scale perhaps representing the extreme to which this approach can be taken.

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This small scale, however, is not a complete negative in La Place de Rémy’s case, as a key and  necessary ingredient in what makes the whole theme park meal work is charm. The area, the ride, the restaurant: they all give off an earnest charm, the kind you can’t pull off with overconfident grandeur and fire-breathing dragons, but with approachable scale and inviting architecture.  La Place de Rémy is more Disneyland than Magic Kingdom, inviting you more with charm more than it tries to impress you with grandeur. The area itself is much like Remy himself: confident in goal and yet uncertain in path. It all feels so very approachable, as if you were simply meant to be there. It’s an odd balance of depth of which there is not much, but approachable charm, of which there is plenty. I think this area as part of a larger exploration of Parisian themes would be amazing, but as designed the area stands on its own and does so well. Just don’t expect the be lost and engrossed in a richer exploration of themes as you might be in a land in Disneyland or a pavilion in World Showcase.

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The area is not too dissimilar from Carsland Disney California Adventure in that it is both a real place and a fantastical version of that place, simultaneously. Carsland runs on conceptual and experiential layers, the surface of which is the fantastical car-inhabited Radiator Springs, but that layer rides on a foundation based on the core themes and aesthetics of the very human Route 66. Similarly, La Place de Rémy Paris is both the one 30 minutes away and the one where rats sound like Patton Oswalt and are the cooks at a restaurant. It’s not one or the other: it’s quite literally both. Trying to be inflexible about this and mentally demanding that it be one way or the other, like with Carsland, will only drive you mad as it means the area doesn’t quite exist in any world, be it the real life inspiration or the reality of the film, as the two inevitably contradict each other. No, the Carsland model of themed lands is more of a hazy trip, representing the fringes as you slide between one reality and the other. Luckily the Ratatouille Paris and the real Paris overlap pretty well, so the only contradictions tend to stem from trying to plausibly fit the movie, area, restaurant, and ride into one coherent plot and timeline (the trick: it’s all mid-film except the ride end suddenly plops you post-film, where the restaurant then also takes place.). As far as Pixar lands go: this one is the easiest to accept.

This zeitgeist, the themed lands hyper-specific to one property and attraction, highlight a theme park industry less concerned with putting out “albums” like Fantasyland but one with an increased focused putting out hit singles. Studios Parks make sense for this as they never pretended to have a theme (“movies” is a category, not a theme). Studios parks are built for singles. They’re top 40 radio. I say this with both reverence and disdain, but there’s not denying it to be a popular approach, by definition. This isn’t an absolute sea change as Disneyland’s success and very name necessitates larger lands and thus themes, and the currently under construction Shanghai Disneyland shows this approach is not going extinct. But make no mistake, one-offs and franchise-centric areas are very much on the table in themed design as of 2014. The “land” is no longer absolute king and the “franchise” (likely film, but really about many instantiations including toys, books, TV series, and films) has proven the de facto design catalyst. Place de Rémy is a summary of how themed design has been rethought, how it can still work, how it can outdo the past, and what it still needs to learn from it.

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Make no mistake: La Place de Rémy is beautiful and charming like no place else in Walt Disney Studios, but this only highlights its place as an outlier. It has no thematic connection to anything other than itself, really, which is a plus in the thematically misguided and aesthetically confused Walt Disney Studios park, but gives it less weight and emotional impact compared to similarly surface-beautiful areas in theme parks that attempt to do and be something more. As it stands the area is a lighthouse in the dark. This is a flower in the weeds. This is a glass of ice water in hell. You’re happy to get it, but you worry about what happens when you take the last sip. 

Walt Disney Studios has a long way to go to be anything more than a “theme park” in the most limited sense of the word. I’m not sure it can ever get to that transcendent, dare I say significant point of a Disneyland or a DisneySea or an Epcot when it had more focus, but then again I don’t think every theme park necessarily needs to as long as some of them do. As it stands, if Walt Disney Studios isn’t going to ask big questions and is instead going to be Top 40 radio, let’s at least fill it with more charming and enjoyable singles like La Place de Rémy. Even the most  simple and guilty of pleasures can still be beautiful. 

NEXT TIME: 

A review of L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy 

OR

“Fantasyland for Hobos”

 If you’d like to comment, you can find the author at http://www.twitter.com/photojames

Sutro Baths - San Francisco, CA

Sutro Baths - San Francisco, CA

San Francisco: Cliff House and Sutro Baths

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I’ve lived in San Francisco for a bit under a year now, but I still haven’t shaken the feeling of just having shown up in town, suitcase in hand. My time here has slowly dripped like coffee, although this town has taught me that coffee is more about the pour-over these days. Following an exhausting exit from LA, life seems to be taking a deep and well deserved breath. With this inhalation I’ve been absorbing as much as I can of my new locale, trying to get a handle on just where, exactly, I have ended up. There’s been a lot of exploring of spots both expected and obscure, with Cliff House and Sutro Baths being the former for long-time residents, but the latter for a newbie like me.

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The San Francisco I’m most familiar with is a dense city, but to the west lies the more open San Francisco with a different character. The area is sort of the northwest most corner of SF, Ocean Beach being the finish line of Golden Gate Park’s west side.

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Climbing up the hill to Cliff House, housing a few restaurants, excellent views, and one giant camera.

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From above the former baths become visible, resembling some forgotten ruins, except the ruins were some fancy pools and they were around as late at the 1960s, lost to both fire and demolition.

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A pooled gateway to the ocean, the rocky cliffs and bathhouse foundation combine into a precarious but beautiful beachside exploration area. Surfers litter the area, with the rocks certainly adding to both the thrill and the danger.

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The contrast of the jagged rocks, the open sea, and fallen opulence. In some ways this aptly describes the San Francisco I’m getting to know, a city of undeniable beauty, but a city worried about what it might become. 

DOUBLE-DATE NIGHT.

DOUBLE-DATE NIGHT.

Bow tie.

Bow tie.