In Portugal: Requiem for O Manel

Manuel Simões is being forced to close his 70-year-old family business, a restaurant on the outskirts of Lisbon. Since VAT rose for businesses like his, 75,000 jobs has disappeared from the industry.

Manuel Simões, 64, stands behind the steel and glass counter of his restaurant, O Manel, looking tired under the dim lights. “Everything has a beginning and an end,” he says, trying to hide how emotional he can get when talking about closing his 70-year-old business.

Simões has been serving meals and pouring drinks since the early 1970s, when he inherited this business from his father, who established it in the 1940s. Running the restaurant has never made Simões rich but it provided him with enough to keep the business profitable while employing four members of staff.

Located in Vale da Amoreira, a troubled, working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lisbon, O Manel is a place where you can enjoy the rare sight of an amiable conversation between African immigrants, gypsies and Portuguese. 
 
“Even those kids who are involved in all sorts of things – you know, drugs and what not – when they come here they never cause any trouble,” says Fatima Simões, Manuel’s wife and the restaurant’s cook. 
 
O Manel was founded back when Vale da Amoreira’s landscape was all pine trees and wild nature, not sevenstorey grey buildings enveloped in an aura of crime and poverty. Seven decades later, the restaurant is the only institution left that has seen it all.
 
But this month marks the end of O Manel. Although Portugal’s financial crisis is partly responsible, Simões was driven over the edge by the VAT rise from 13 to 23 per cent for restaurants and cafés – an austerity measure implemented in 2012 as part of Portugal’s bailout programme. This has slashed most businesses’ profit margins, at a time when eating out has become more of a luxury than a habit.
 
According to the association of Portuguese restaurants and hotels, since VAT for restaurants has risen, 75,000 jobs have disappeared in an industry that employs 300,000 people, 6 per cent of Portugal’s workforce. The association predicts that by the end of 2013 the number of jobless food-service workers will rise to 120,000. 
 
Simões reacted to the VAT hike in the way he thought most fair to his blue-collar, crisis-affected clientele: instead of raising his prices, he reduced them in order to keep the customers coming. 
 
His hope was proved wrong – or rather, insignificant, as Portugal’s economic crisis spread like wildfire, bringing the country to a record overall unemployment rate of 17.8 per cent. Although the customers stuck with O Manel, spending €6 (£5.20) for a meal gave way to paying just €1 (90p) for a beer. 
 
“When we shut the restaurant down, people won’t know what to do,” Simões told me when I met him. “We’ve always been here. We’ve seen so many people grow up. It’ll be like losing family.”

 

A "Pastel de nata" - Lisbon's most popular pastry. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.