Let's all do the Congo

Le Roi des Belges: the boat that’s a house on top of a London concert hall.

Oh, you think. This is a dream, right? You’ve gone up in a lift and there, at the top, at the end of a snaking gangplank, a boat is waiting. It’s called ‘Le Roi des Belges’. Why? And it’s perched on some kind of cliff. The river is way down below. And then you look around and suddenly – there’s the National Theatre! But seen from slightly above, as if – oh, wait. This isn’t a boat at all, is it? It’s some kind of penthouse. It’s got comfy seating, a big double bed, a kitchen sink, even a Welcome mat outside its front door, which is actually at the back, because otherwise you’d fall over the cliff.

Now you’ve found an enormous ship’s logbook. You’ve opened a secret panel in the wall and found maps of the Congo. Beneath those is another panel. You open THAT one, and there’s a blurred portrait of a scary man with epaulettes. Quickly you wrench open that panel as well, only to find that you are staring at yourself, in an old mirror. You ARE the man in the epaulettes, perhaps. Is he, are you, the King of the Belgians? Is the river down below the Congo? If so, it’s merging with London again. Red buses grind to and fro. You hear the chimes of Big Ben. You wake up.

No you don’t! You are still in the boat/house. You are in the bed. And then the bed starts to split down the middle, its two halves sliding towards the sides of the boat. What weird psychosexual metaphor is this? Scrambling out, you find a rickety set of metal steps has descended from the ceiling. You climb up them, and find yourself on the bridge. There are two high chairs, for captain and first mate, perhaps, but no spoked wheel, no controls, no compass. There’s some kind of railed poop deck out the front, while in the cabin is another ladder, wooden this time. This leads to a small circular hatch in the ceiling. You squeeze through and find yourself standing on top of the ship, beneath a pyramidal mast arrangement. Way up there, propellers arewhirring. It’s all the wrong way round. The propellers should be in the water, not the air. Come to that, the entire boat should be in the water, not up in the air, poised as if to slide over the edge and plunge down, down….

And now the strange boat is merging with other recollections, like going to a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. You are now in the boat again but it’s on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, in fact right above the very auditorium where you sometimes sit. And then you wake up properly. Your phone beeps. Everything is real. You are indeed on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, on London’s South Bank. There is the boat. Everything described above is true. It exists, just as I have described it. Pay the right folk a few hundred quid and you can go there yourself.

The Roi des Belges has another name: ‘A Room for London’. It is a holiday apartment but, as you may have gathered, no ordinary one. This is a collaboration between the arts agency Artangel and the Living Architecture company, founded by philosopher and broadcaster Alain de Botton who is its creative director. Living Architecture commissions top architects to build new, often somewhat quirky, holiday homes for rent. Habitable modern follies, you might say, as appealing to a certain mindset as the habitable old follies you can rent from the likes of the Landmark Trust. But even by the somewhat outré standards of Living Architecture, the Room for London is an oddity.

Neither de Botton nor Artangel, when they set the brief, asked for a boat.They’d negotiated the South Bank site for a year, having found that the 1960s concrete-Brutalist architecture of the QEH, right on the tight curve of the Thames in Central London, was not only admirably positioned for such an urban adventure, but also strong enough to take the weight on its flat roof. The South Bank Centre is involved because the Room for London is part of the Olympics- related 2012 Festival. Indeed, there will be performances – readings, music, artists’ musings – taking place there at intervals.

They ran a competition to design it. More than 500 entered. The winning design is by young architect David Kohn, working with artist Fiona Banner. For inspiration, they turned to Joseph Conrad’s 1903 novella “Heart of Darkness” in which the story of a voyage to the Congo, the dark heart of Africa, is recounted from a yacht in the Thames Estuary. Conrad himself had commanded a riverboat in 1890 in the Congo Free State, which was then anything but free, being the private colony of Belgium’s King Leopold II. Conrad’s steamer was named Le Roi des Belges. Kohn and Banner’s design thus came with a powerful narrative that suited the surreal nature of the location and linked London with Africa. Banner’s art has always involved compressed narratives and dislocation, as evinced by her ‘Jaguar and Harrier’ installation in Tate Britain in 2010 – two real warplanes, but not as we know them.

To pile on the oddness, Kohn and Banner then visited the Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the brilliant and madly obsessive former home of Georgian architect Sir John Soane. His way of layering space and manipulating light influences the design: those opening wall panels with\ pictures beneath other pictures are a direct steal from Soane’s personal picture gallery in his house.

Despite all this, in its way, it is a very practical little place. Built in Brighton complete with riveted aluminium hull and plywood superstructure, its width determined by the maximum permitted on a standard lorry, it was lifted into position by a crane. To either side of the back of the boat are a toilet and shower room, both behind burgundy leather curtains. The galley is not lavish: a small fridge, a microwave oven, a sink. A small octagonal antique table (again Soane-ish) with two folding chairs makes for a tight dining area. The place is designed for two – either together, in which case the two halves of the bed in the main cabin roll together, or apart. Yes, the bed really does split down the middle, complete with the wooden partition wall behind it. Around the inside of the prow is a semicircle of seating, beneath which is storage for many books about London. Those propellers on top are three mini-wind turbines which provide about three-quarters of the power the place needs to run.

Those who pay to stay there are encouraged to treat it as a place of contemplation, and to record their experiences in the logbook. It has proved a big hit: when the first 6 months’ booking period went live last September, it sold out in just 12 minutes, and the place hadn’t even been built then. The next and final six months’ booking opens on January 19. After that, it can’t stay there. For the purposes of 2012, it’s an art installation. But it cost Living Architecture what they say is “several hundred thousands” and they’ll never recoup that with a year’s rentals, even at between £120 and £350 a night. So they are looking for a new location for the Roi des Belges after 2012.

I think it should move around, year by year, to places that are sometimes urban, sometimes rural. Yes, it’s more than a little mad. But it is also very ingenious and endearing. Inside, it’s not especially nautical, nor is it hotel-like or minimalist: ‘eclectic’ would describe its style. Besides, with the eyes of the world on Britain and London in 2012, how appropriate to have, prominently in the centre of town, what might also be described as a monument to English eccentricity.

Text and photos © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, on 15th January 2012.