In the final season of the HBO series Girls, the character Ray Ploshansky presents to the audience his go-to question, which is: would you rather live in an ugly building with a view of a gorgeous building or in a gorgeous building with a view of an ugly building? According to him, this question is a heart-opener and really shows the true self of whoever you’re talking to. This is the story of not one, but two ugly buildings.
When I was eighteen years old, I used to live opposite a hotel called The Roundhouse, an architectural swoon built after the Panopticon model in the seventies, placed just across the roundabout in front of Old Christchurch Road. It’s a big, round building with 127 rooms and a dining facility called The Wave Café Bar. I suppose the idea was to enhance guests’ privacy through the circularity of the building: no observing tower in the middle, just people unable to look into each other’s personal space from each suite (and each window, the luckiest ones would look towards the sea, the less lucky towards me). In eight months of stay, I hadn’t seen any of the curtains move, not even one inch. Some cars passing by, someone smoking outside, children eating pastries in the outdoor area of the café, but no one in the rooms, not even a faint light at a window’s corner. But there must have been guests, I knew it for a fact: my neighbour’s parents came to visit her once and stayed right there, in room 103. They were there, but as soon as they would enter the building, they would become invisible. I wondered if that was also part of the hotel’s round-privacy arrangements, the impossibility to be seen from outside. Not that I had a specific interest in observing the guests of a run-down seaside hotel, it was just there in front of my window every single day. Me, I lived in a single studio on the seventh floor of a very new building, so new that the fire alarms hadn’t been calibrated and went off approximately every weekend when someone came home from the club fucked off their faces and tried to make toast at 5AM, which meant getting dressed, putting a coat on and waiting outside until the fire brigade would come, to be met with a remorseful “sorry, I just wanted a snack”.
So, it’s the 18th of February, I am outside and my toes are freezing, the fire alarm is still going off and everyone around me just wants to get back to bed. The Roundhouse is there, the neon sign changing colours every five seconds (pink, blue, green, yellow…). I squint my eyes until its shape is clearer: it is so ugly. So unnecessarily ugly, it makes me a bit angry. You are wrapped in a thick, fluffy blanket and come towards me dragging your slippers on the floor: “Did you know that it rotates on the hour every hour?”, you point at the hotel, your breath condensing in front of your lips. I ask you if it rotates so that everyone can look at the sea. “No”, you say, “It’s to give all residents a better view of the roundabout”; you tell me that just to make fun of me, but I laugh anyway. That’s the first night we sleep together. I wake up three minutes before 10AM, and I look out of the window waiting for The Roundhouse to rotate: I stare so intensely that I trick myself into thinking it’s moving. I shake you from your left shoulder until you wake up, and you wonder at the hotel with me, your nose squished on the glass, until it’s time to go.
From that moment onwards, I see lights appearing inside The Roundhouse’s rooms: it is almost like, after discovering its rotating secret, I have broken the enchantment that kept its guests invisible, safe from my gaze.
It’s 3PM and I am revising sitting at my desk: when the hotel rotates, a family of four is visible through one of the windows: a chubby kid is jumping on the bed while another is having her hair brushed by a woman that looks like her mother. What appears to be the dad is vaping from a big vaping machine, it almost looks prehistorical, bulbous and grey like an old portable radio. It reminds me of when you tried to explain to me the “Galápagos syndrome” of Japanese mobile phones: so technologically advanced yet so old-looking no one outside of Japan wanted to buy them, like some rare animals from the Galápagos that you wouldn’t find anywhere else outside of the island. The dad blows the smoke outside of the opened window to elude the smoking detector; he’s very lucky he’s not staying here with us and our extra-new, extra-faulty technology.
I leave my blinds up day and night now, so that I can wake up each morning with the first lights of the day. You aren’t too happy about that. One morning in the late autumn of 2016 a dear friend dies: I open my eyes to the most spectacular sunrise, with white trails of clouds stretching through the sky, as if planes had dragged the orange sun in. I turn around to look for her in one of the windows of The Roundhouse, but it’s too early. I spot her weeks later: it’s a bony boy with long blond hair and thin lips, he’s sitting down at the desk of his room and stares outside towards the Kentucky Fried Chicken across the roundabout. I observe him quietly until the hotel rotates, and I can’t see him anymore: I say goodbye to him, waving my hand, and I think about this one poem by Pindar you sent me once, during one of our observational sessions that says: “Creatures of a day; what is someone? What is no one? Man is the dream of a shadow”. You stop sleeping in my bed, it breaks my heart a little: the boy disappears, and the night comes, punctual, on the hour.
In 2015 there is an outbreak of legionella at the hotel: at every hour of the day, I see a different resident packing their things ready to leave as fast as they can. I am very scared I won’t have anyone to observe anymore and that The Roundhouse will become, again, just a very ugly building with a broken neon sign. I spy through my window the whole night, waiting for a light. The hotel rotates, and it is still dark. It occurs to me that I am not sure I will be able to go on without looking at the hotel guests.
Since you stopped staying with me, I have started seeing you sleeping in one of the rooms of the third floor – not always the same one. Sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right, depending on the hour of the day. I wondered if you left too because of the legionella: you don’t have many things to pack. You could make it out in one swift, elegant exit.
The correct answer is: gorgeous building, ugly view, by the way. To Ray Phloshansky’s question, that is. The opposite answer implies that “you don’t mind being structurally flawed as long as you don’t see your true self”. But since this is a true story, the dichotomy doesn’t apply. My new building and The Roundhouse are equal monstrosities. I am looking at them while waiting for a Domino’s small margherita and fries with garlic butter, from the corner of Holdenhurst Road.
If I am living in an ugly building and my view is an ugly building, does that make me ugly? Does that make the guests ugly? Everyone I have observed from the small hotel windows is so beautiful I almost want to cry. I go back to my studio and I munch on the tepid pizza while the building rotates on the hour: a light appears.
Elena Lo Presti is a multidisciplinary artist originally from Rome and now based in London. She prevalently works with ceramics and writing, and she is interested in creating an alternative form of visual narration where the personal and the domestic become the main vehicles for sharing. Her writings are mainly autobiographical fiction, exploring the nebulosity that surrounds memories and how those influence reality, transforming and mutating it. Her work was recently published in Una vez se ha empenzado decir lo que se quiere decir, es imposible callarse edited by Celia Dosal (Madrid, Spain) and in Papaya edited by Anita Marante and herself (London, England).