Building bridges between cultures to promote greater understanding is an age-old dream that too often suffers from clumsy execution, resulting in the exact opposite effect.
But recently, the revolutionary German artist Carsten Höller got it right. A big name on the international art scene who exhibits at the Tate Modern in London and the Guggenheim in New York, Höller spent much of the past eight years in the Democratic Republic of Congo and developed a strong affection for the Central African nation. Building on that and his fascination with viewer reaction to artwork, he developed the concept for the Double Club, a restaurant-bar-discothèque that celebrates the richness of both Western and Congolese traditions. The venture also does good on a more material level by donating half of its profits to the City of Joy charity, which helps abused women and children in Congo.
In November, the club opened in London for a six-month run. By January, despite the economic downturn, it was a big hit and there was already talk of an extension. “Our idea,” says co-founder, Algerian-born restaurateur Mourad Mazouz, “was to get people out of the cultural ghetto, to gain a new experience. Our only awareness of the Congo in the West is often related to the wars. While it’s important to recognize the problems in the area, there is also a rich cultural aspect that is overlooked.”
It hasn’t hurt that Höller offers a seductive invitation to guests: “Let’s explore the best of both worlds, brought together in a single location, but still kept apart in both time and space without any concession to fusion, a kind of schizophrenic wonderland—if only schizophrenia could be positively used to describe the double sidedness which is at the heart of beauty.”
Located on a dark dead-end street in the gallery section of Islington, the Double Club could not be a more entertaining or illuminating experience. Inside a mammoth Victorian warehouse, one finds the spacious bar, restaurant and discothèque, all vividly decorated with art from Congo and the West and suffused with contemporary club sounds and Congolese music. It feels like entering a multicultural Oz, a mesmerizing oasis that stimulates all the senses.
To create the idiosyncratic venue took a lot of imagination and lot of people, starting with Höller’s longtime financial supporter Fondazione Prada. The foundation brought in Prada executive Jan Kennedy as project director; the hip design consultants Clemens Weisshaar and Reed Kram; Mazouz to oversee the food, beverage and music; and several other music consultants.
To begin, Höller divided the three spaces into two equally sized sections to house the Western and Congolese cultures. His goal was to produce a mix in which people moving between the two areas would experience the radical changes in ambience from one to the other. For instance, in the courtyard bar is a large tile garden with pale blue Portuguese azulejos, depicting a flying city straight out of science fiction originally drawn by Russian architect Georgi Krutikow in 1928. Underneath the mural is a fireplace and two-way mirror into the adjacent discothèque, so you can watch the dancers while sipping a drink.
Nearby is a gleaming copper bar with a pink neon sign announcing Two Riders Club, the Western drinking spot. Adjoining this area is a corrugated bar with colored plastic chairs from Congo capital Kinshasa, parasols and huge, colorful wall paintings of beer advertisements. Here Congolese beer is served, under the watchful eyes of the intriguing figure in the huge reproduction of painter Cheri Samba’s “J’aime les Couleurs.”
The sleek restaurant, which is large enough to accommodate 82 diners, serves Congolese and Western food on plastic Congolese tables or on Kram and Weisshaar’s stunning Breeding Tables that are made of granite and steel and coated in black. The walls are decorated with intriguing works by American, European and Congolese artists, including Andy Warhol, Louise Nevelson, Carla Accardi and Moke. The menus feature authentic, family-style Congolese food along with simple seasonal European dishes, with everything chosen by two Congolese chefs and two from Mazouz’ other hip London club, Momo. Guests are encouraged to mix and match from both cuisines.
This gives the diner the unusual option of starting a meal with pheasant terrine, following up with Pondu, a dish consisting of manioc leaves and smoked fish cooked in palm oil, complemented by side orders of fried plantain and braised red cabbage, and topping it all off with apple tart. This feast can be accompanied by beers imported from Congo, such as Primus and Temba, or by European wines. If the dining room strikes anyone as too formal, a Congolese oil drum barbecue is fired up every night for the preparation of goat, chicken and beef brochettes.
Given the temptations of the menu, it seems wise that Höller wanted a discothèque on the premises, which offers diners the opportunity to dance off their hearty meals. The music would inspire anyone. Under the guidance of Mazouz, who has been organizing African concerts in London, Paris and the Middle East for years, DJs alternate European club tracks and Congolese grooves as the dance floor rotates. Each continent even has a separate sound system, to emphasize the polarities. And that’s not all—live concerts are held at least twice a week.
Congolese music was a large part of the inspiration for the club. Live bands dominate Kinshasa’s nightlife, with crowds of up to 200,000 flocking to stadiums. The music is characterized by lengthy rhythmic tracks with alternating tempos and sections open to improvisation.
Höller and his partners have done themselves proud; anyone paying any attention will come away from the Double Club with a new way of looking at things. As it filled up with Londoners from every point on the globe one recent wintry night, Mazouz observed, “I’m not sure if our club is a model for other clubs, but it’s working for us.”
Valerie Gladstone specializes in the writing about the arts for The New York Times, Artnews, Time Out New York and many others. In April, she will publish a children's book with photographer Jose Ivey, A Young Dancer: A Year in the Life of an Ailey Student.