Some people may perceive it as arrogant to title your first book ‘The Monocle Guide to Better Living’, thinking “who are you to tell me how to improve my life.” The editors of Moncole, though, can rightly use this title as the content fully delivers to the book’s title.
It is not only the editor-in-chief of Monocle, Tyler Brûlé, who shares his globe-trotting itinerary with the readers of the Financial Times in his weekly column, that has the credentials to proffer such guidance, but also the editorial staff of the magazine who travel extensively around the world. Each of them has reported on the quality of life of cities around the world and have experienced various cultures and different life-style habits. Since February 2007, when the first edition hit the newsstand, the magazine has created a network of international Monocle correspondents, with the staff of the London headquarters comprising people from Japan, Korea, Poland and Columbia. Their collective knowledge on topics such as urbanism, transportation and manufacturing now culminates in an impressive 400-page book.
The distinct look and feel of the magazine is nicely translated into the book, mostly printed on the same matte paper as the magazine. The Monocle signature is present in the book with its sophisticated mixture of subdued photography and Satoshi Hashimoto’s playful illustrations and it is filled with information and inspiring stories, such as the chapter ‘Companies to learn from’, which showcases 21 entrepreneurs who translated a great business idea into a reality.
With its yellow linen cover and high quality printing, the book has the feel of a coffee table book. Andrew Tuck, who co-edited the book with Santiago Rodriguez Tarditi, told me, though, that he will be happy when he sees copies that are scuffed, in which people have bent corners of pages, pasted post-it notes on the pages, or written in the margins. “It should be a book that people use”.
200% spoke with Tuck in one of the new lofts of the Hotel V, Amsterdam. Tuck, who is on the verge of making more air miles as he will travel to Asia to promote the book, is wearing a stylish dark blue suit combined with designer sneakers that appear to have made some street miles. We discussed with him how different mayors run their city, which city is the best in the world for creative people to live, and the differences between editing a magazine and a book.
Andrew Tuck: Of course Monocle has its finger on the pulse in the sense that we know all about good restaurants, hotels and the kind of things to do in an evening. Since the beginning of the magazine, though, we tried to understand cities in a deeper way.
I present a programme called ‘The Urbanist’ on Monocle’s 24 hour radio station. It’s a weekly show, one hour, looking at how cities are run, what are the best cities in the world and how you can improve cities. We are interested in the building blocks of how cities are created. From the early stages, we undertook a survey to find out in which city people would like to call home. We produced a list of the Top 20 cities, which has now been expanded to twenty five. That really resonated with our audience. We realise that lots of people who are reading Monocle tend to be those that live in cities. It’s a very urban readership, with lots of people travelling or who have families living in various cities around the world. As they travel, they are actually very astute experts themselves on what makes a good city. They know why they came to settle in one city or why they feel comfortable when they, say, arrive in Stockholm, and why they don’t feel comfortable in another city.
We have tried to unpack that over the years; everything from who are the best people to run your city, why it is important to have a great mayor, and the nuts and bolt of physically creating the infrastructure of a city, whether that’s constructing a cycle lane or how to transport people. There is a huge debate, in which we’re keen to participate, about what is happening in our cities. We think the debate around how you build a great city is becoming a little bit lopsided. On the whole, people tend to talk about smart cities and tech cities, and it’s great that places such as Canary Wharf in London or Seongdong in Seoul are being created. That is fine, but they are not places that people want to call home. We’re arguing about the smaller things that make cities liveable, saying it’s great that you have architecture that cost billions but, actually, often the provision of enough park benches is what makes a city feel comfortable and a place in which people want to stay.
200%: Together with David Michon, you edited the first chapter of the book ‘Ten cities to call home’, which includes Munich and Melbourne, but also Beirut, about which you wrote, “there are bullet holes in a lot of apartment blocks and too many posters of divisive politicians with insincere smiles”. Can you explain why you included Beirut in this selection?
AT: I think it’s important for people to appreciate that we’re not saying it’s only the most efficient cities that can be good. When we undertake the city survey, the places that keep appearing in the top twenty-five, for example, are Copenhagen and Zürich – small, wealthy cities that tend to get things right. When you speak to readers, though, and to others about what makes them return to a city again and again, they’ll start telling you about Buenos Aires or Beirut, which makes you realise that some places have something magnetic about them.
Often, we forget that people need a bit of chaos, they need a bit of grit, a little dirt in the way in which a city is run. The trouble being that, when you create very efficient, wealthy cities, they tend to be boring. We have to have a balance. That is why Beirut is included. We’re not arguing for all cities to be about peace and quiet.
200%: Are citizens of a metropolis better off with a mayor from a social democrat or conservative background?
AT: Oddly, I don’t think it’s either of those things. What you need is someone who can act as a CEO for a city. You want an ambitious person who cares about the people that live in that city. There are lots of things that can go wrong for mayors.
Often, especially in this time, when there is not a huge amount of money in Western cities, there is a real compunction on mayors not to travel, not to go and see other cities – that is crazy. You need a mayor who is pro-active, who goes out and observes what is being done by other cities, someone who is connected. Then, they become ambassadors for their city and CEOs. This can also mean, though, that they allow their city to function a little bit disconnected from the rest of the country.
200%: Can you provide an example of a mayor who operates a city in this manner?
Michael Bloomberg of New York City. Whether you agree or disagree with some of his policies, he had a clear vision: he changed the city and he sold that city around the world as a place in which to do business, not worrying about what was going on in the rest of America. He has been outspoken in what he believed the city should do, often disagreeing with the rest of America, for example, on immigration. He is incredibly keen on more immigration into New York believing that’s how the city will thrive and it’s great you have someone who is a spokesperson in that way.
Also, he has introduced a cycle share scheme and created 500 miles of bike lanes. Zoning regulations have been changed to allow small business to come into the city centre. You need someone that is willing to make big changes as cities compete against each other to enhance their economies.
AT: Well, of course, it matters if you are an extremist, but what I’m saying is that the best mayors very quickly realise who are their constituents; that they shouldn’t be answering to the central party, but answering to their people. That’s why I feel that you gain, in many cities, from mayors who are large characters who end up running their own mini country, and not thinking all the time about the national politics, such as Boris Johnson in London. He is supposedly from the conservative wing of politics, but has done well because he disconnects himself from that, focusing on the advocacy of London. You need somebody who is pro-business, who is a CEO, whom is willing to make real fundamental changes to a city.
200%: Bloomberg’s final term expires at the end of this year. What kind of city do you think he’s leaving behind?
AT: For me, the potential negatives are that he allowed a huge amount of new buildings to be constructed. There are tens of thousands of new buildings that have been constructed during his tenure as mayor. Many of those buildings, though, were developed by property developers who were only really interested in attracting wealthy people into the city.
I think what has come out in the election, so far, from the candidates who are pushing themselves forward, is this essense that they need to represent the whole of the city. I think that Bloomberg, an extremely successful and wealthy man, is seen by some to have been an advocate for the wealthy rather than about social inclusion. I think that is the chink in his amour.
Irrespective, for me, what happened in New York is impressive. Bloomberg was good at appointing lieutenants and people around him who truly understood New York’s potential. Amanda Burden, director of the Department of City Planning, is one such lieutenant. When you speak to someone like that you see the real depth of thinking that has occurred, which has resulted in the changes in New York. She changed the zoning law to enable cafes to have outside seating. Also, she thought about the speed at which the city moves. It’s a city that moves very fast. She believed, though, that a city should work at lots of different speeds. You should have places where you can slow down and you can stop. It has become a quieter city to that from twenty years ago, which some people may miss, but I think it’s a much more vibrant city, which is much more welcoming to people who are on a bicycle or walking.
AT: Creativity is made through difference. The important thing is that you are able to attract people to industries from all around the world, with a huge amount of skill sets. One of the reasons we are based in London is that we find it very easy to attract talent from around the world. Moncole has never wanted to come across as being a British magazine. Where I sit on the editorial floor, around me there are Columbians, Bulgarians, Koreans, Japanese, which makes Monocle extraordinary.
It’s very common for me, on that floor, to tune into a conversation that is happening in Spanish, or in Japanese, and that excites me. When we come up with solutions, or how to design the magazine, it’s not all rooted in one place. That is what Monocle is about. It’s trying to be a reflection of a huge amount of things happening around the world. I think that’s why we’re in London, which is a very successful, creative city.
200%: What about other cities in the world?
When you look around the world, there are other places that have huge sources of creativity, such as Japan. When we visit Tokyo or Kyoto, we observe a different kind of creativity, often based on craft, on a meticulousness that often doesn’t exist in the West. In China, you still see a belief in product making, sometimes the creative side is still a bit stifled, but that is even beginning to change. We see companies from Denmark going there, establishing a base and re-working their products together with Chinese people to create better industries.
200%: What of Berlin, which people call an artistic haven?
For Berlin, that’s true, it’s a good, creative city, especially for people who have an interest in the arts. There is something odd, though, about some cities where the rents are cheap and the cost of living is low. When you ask anyone in Berlin what they are doing, they are all going to be a writer. It has a similar ring to that of people in LA who say that they are actors, but are actually waiting staff. Sometimes in Berlin, people talk a good talk, but I’m not always sure that they are doing what they claim.
AT: Yes, incredibly different. The first few times we did a huge master plan of what the book should be. When we began to see the first pages, though, it wasn’t quite right. First of all, you lose all the advertising that you traditionally use when you’re doing a magazine, which delivers some kind of pace, some journey through the magazine. None of that was available. Suddenly you saw all of the stories pushed up against each other.
We realised there had to be a different rhythm. In the magazine, but also in the book, it’s very dense in the way we lay out pages, but, actually, here in the book, we needed to create some space so that people could catch their breath. There is, for example, something that you would never see in the magazine, being a plain white page, and the title pages have large, minimal text, something else that we wouldn’t do in the magazine.
We had an amazing photography library and we commissioned lots of photography, but it was tough putting it all together in a way that felt like a nice family of images that all held together as you went through the pages. Whilst compilation of the book progressed, we took more and more things out and then we realised there was a need for more illustration to make it a bit more entertaining. It needed to be lighter and have some softer spots. It was an enjoyable, but complicated experience.
‘The Monocle Guide to Better Living’, published by Gestalten. Available at The American Book Center (www.abc.nl), €45
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers with a contribution by Marie Drysdale