Archive for October, 2015

Two Parisian modernist landmarks

October 28, 2015
Front elevation of the Maison de Verre

Front elevation of the Maison de Verre

I was very lucky recently to be taken on a guided tour of a hidden away modernist gem in the back streets of Paris. The Maison de Verre was designed by Pierre Chareau and his collaborators for the gynaecologist Dr. John Dalsace to act as both family residence and practice centre. The house is privately owned but opened up to a limited number of architecture enthusiasts for guided tours of the public spaces and garden.

The house owes its name to the fact that its walls, front and rear, are constructed almost entirely of glass bricks. Such a design is the supreme expression of a hygienic architecture that had its origins in nineteenth century theories about the importance of light and air circulation to counter the threat of disease in the home or clinic. If you’re wondering how anyone could maintain any privacy in such conditions Chareau, who had experience in  theatre design, installed projectors that flood the front and rear of the house with light so that the movements of the residents are indistinguishable to an external observer.

Pierre Chareau and his collaborators stake their claim

Pierre Chareau and his collaborators stake their claim

Family areas (understandably) are off limits on the tour, which is a shame as one of the wonders of the building is its ingenious use of sliding panels, curtains and interlinking architectural features to allow the interior of the house to be adapted for use as consulting rooms, salon or domestic residence as the occasion demands. I’m still curious as to how such imaginative use of space could be applied in a 1920s kitchen or bathroom on a miniature scale.

Maison de Verre from the garden

Maison de Verre from the garden. There’s an interesting story behind the absence of glass brick on  the top floor.

Our guide emphasised that while the house may look like a draft for of a 1920s house of the future it was in fact very much grounded in existing practice; especially in using techniques and materials appropriated from railway carriages, cruise liners, aircraft and theatres. The Maison de Verre has many similar features to the houses of Le Corbusier but rather than being a cerebral, theory-led project along Corbusian lines its emergence was rather more of a bricolage of trial and error that I think gives it a more homespun feel than the (very few) Le Corbusier projects that I’ve seen.

The house is beautiful and if you have a chance to visit, take it.

While in Paris I also took the time to visit another modernist, or quasi-modernist, project in which I’m interested as an academic. The Monument Frantz Reichel, which stands beside the Stade Jean Bouin in the west of Paris, was erected to commemorate a sportsman-journalist who died at his desk at Le Figaro in 1932. It was sculpted by Alexandre Maspoli (who was also a wrestling champion in his youth!) and designed by the modernist architect Tony Garnier, a contemporary of Chareau.

Monument Frantz Reichel in its pomp

Monument Frantz Reichel in its pomp

Reichel is something of a forgotten man in French sport – the closest figure I can compare him to in England is CB Fry, the great cricketer of the early twentieth century. Reichel, like Fry, was not just an all round sportsman. He was also an intellectual who made his living from journalism who saw sport as being central to the development of society.

Reichel competed at rugby, the 400m and the 110m hurdles at the Olympic Games in 1896 and 1900 and was also Boxing Heavyweight Champion of France in 1904. All the while he produced enormous amounts of journalism, as well as being a central figure in French and world sports administration right up to his sudden death of a heart attack. His Monument bears the simple legend, ‘Le Sport Français’. It is as if at his death he somehow embodied sport in France.

Of course the idea that someone like Reichel (or Fry for that matter), an upper-class, white man could embody something as diverse in participation as sport is something that has been broken down over the course of the twentieth and twenty first centuries as people of different genders, ethnicities and physical and mental abilities have seen their participation and excellence at sport celebrated.

However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t celebrate the career of someone like Reichel, especially in the week that the final of the Rugby Union World Cup is to be played. Reichel really was the driving force behind French rugby as both participant and organiser for some twenty years before the First World War. And he was forward looking for his time. My thesis touches on how Reichel encouraged multi-racial rugby in the 1900s, with the French team that played South Africa in January 1907 being captained by Georges Jérome, a grandson of slaves.

The history of Reichel’s memorial is a chequered one – melted down during the Occupation it was shifted to make way for the Périphérique in the 60s and now stands forlornly in a shabby corner of a barren traffic intersection. The weather staining to the stone is natural, the graffiti is not.

Shabby Monument Frantz Reichel

Shabby Monument Frantz Reichel

With the Parc des Prince just a stone’s throw away I wonder who is responsible for the neglect of this formidable statue. I’m currently finishing a paper on the history of the statue for a conference next month and hope to complete an article on Reichel by the end of the year, if anyone out there knows more information about him or his statue please get in touch.

Getting ejected from galleries

October 11, 2015

Having recently strayed from one of the purposes of this blog, which is to flag up things of interest to those in London on a limited budget, I return to the theme with two excellent exhibitions at RIBA and Ordovas Gallery. But with slight misgivings.

As someone who occasionally works in the tourism/hospitality industry one of my key bugbears as a cultural consumer in London is the shabbiness with which many venues (often but not exclusively at the high end) treat potential punters. I got a right-left combination of snottiness on these recent visits.

First up, RIBA. I’d gone there for lunch with a friend and with the idea of dropping into the Palladio exhibition that had been mentioned in the FT over the weekend. For a London guide a refresher course on Palladio is always welcome as his revival of the classical underpins so much of London’s great architecture, not least Inigo Jones’s Queen’s House at Greenwich and Banqueting Hall in Whitehall.

So we ducked in to RIBA’s HQ on Portland Place and strolled into the gallery. It seemed a bit quiet but I didn’t really think much of it and we started to browse the (excellent) drawings, photographs, books and captions while swapping a bit of idle chit-chat. We had about 15 minutes of this before a seated lady, who I’d assumed was writing up some notes, boomed out, ‘ARE YOU MEMBERS?!’

Neither of us sporting the standard issue black turtleneck and round tortoiseshell glasses it was clear that she’d rumbled us as not being Pro-Architects. John might have slipped under the wire – he can adopt a hieratic mien when required – but we were both blind-sided by the sheer novelty of such a bewilderingly belated verbal assault in the hushed corridors of the Temple of Hestia. We retired Molesworth-like, chuntering.

By chance I had to do some research in the library at RIBA this week but wasn’t tempted to go back and finish my visit to Palladio (it’s open to the public now), the shame was still too fresh! But the exhibition is free and on the basis of seeing about a quarter of it it’s definitely worth the detour.

Froideur from the galleries of Mayfair is pretty much standard so I was less surprised by the second outburst of curmudge a few days later. It was one of those days when despite the morning sun you just know it’s going to piss down at some point of the day. Yet, being a Londoner, you look at the umbrella on your way out of the house and think, ‘Naaah, I’ll be alright.’ How wrong could I be.

It was spitting when I ducked out of the library, having checked the exhibition opening hours (see, I’d learned from my RIBA experience) and it’s only 5 minutes to Savile Row so I thought I’d be okay. It was a downpour before I’d crossed Piccadilly and I was pretty wet by the time I arrived across the road from my destination. A quick stop in a dry spot under an entrance to wipe my glasses and check that I was in the right place (I’d only walked past Ordovas before so just had a vague idea of which end of Savile Row it was on) and I strolled confidently across the road.

As someone was standing behind the closed glass door my pace got more hesitant as I reached my destination and then stalled as it was clear that it wasn’t going to be opened up. I was standing in the rain like a confused, wet muppet. I smiled at the lady through the glass door and pointed at the art through the window. She opened the door about 6 inches and with all the scrubbed clean charm of a Club Class Shitter told me the gallery was closed but would be open again tomorrow. Now I was a fuming wet muppet chuntering back down Savile Row.

But joy! Look at these sheep

Rural Savile Row

Rural Savile Row

The street had been lined with real grass and these beasts were in town to promote the use of British wool by the fashion industry. Such random interventions in the city are what make it worth living in and cut through bad weather, poor hospitality and unevenness of temper.

Not rural Savile Row

Not rural Savile Row

With a sunnier disposition and under a sunnier sky I did return the next day, giving myself and la gardienne another chance. It was worth it. Their exhibition, The Big Blue, is one of the best things in London right now and it’s free. Curated by Damien Hirst the obvious star of the show is one of

his sharks, whose tank greets you as you enter the space.

This and the other works (all of them high quality) share a connection to the sea. I was mesmerised by a large seascape by Francis Bacon. A seascape. I never even knew Bacon did seascapes! But of course being Bacon it’s much more than a seascape. At first glance it seemed quite abstract, the sense of the sea certainly comes through but then there are some characteristic geometrical figures at the bottom of the canvas that break the sense of reality. I discerned a ship at the centre, a sailing ship. But then what at first seemed spars started to transform themselves into the constituents of a gallows, a figure top right seemed an ironic Arc de Triomphe and the whole painting turned into a vanitas – something much more in line with Bacon’s usual bleak depiction of existence.

Thankfully it wasn’t all bleakness. A sunny Picasso, all rhythmic arabesques, dispelled the gloom, and each work was a gem in its own way. Unlike the FT I found the whole thing very thoughtfully arranged and Damien Hirst went up a notch in my esteem. Despite the false start I felt very happy that Ordovas, and other galleries like them, open up their doors to the non-1%-ers. I just wish they’d be a bit more hospitable about it.

The Foundling Museum

October 8, 2015

The Foundling Museum, in Brunswick Square, is one of those small London museums that is easy to miss. They’ve had some publicity recently due to their new exhibition, The Fallen Woman, which discusses the issues of extra-marital sex and prostitution in the nineteenth century and the responses from social reformers and artists. I can wholeheartedly recommend the exhibition, which is a timely response to the execrably exploitative J**k the R*****r outfit in the East End.*

What I’m more concerned with here though is to point out that you don’t need the excuse of a special exhibition to visit the Foundling, the permanent collection more than justifies a visit by itself. The story of the foundation of the hospital in the 18th century through the strenuous efforts of Thomas Coram is well documented and I would urge anyone who is interested in the development of London to do a little reading in Roy Porter to get a sense of the background.**

Tommy C. Ledge.

Tommy C – Ledge.

Take a good look at the statue of Thomas Coram in the courtyard, which is based on a portrait by Hogarth that you’ll find inside. One of the pleasures of the museum is that it gives you a cross section of the greatest visual artists working in London through the early years of the Hospital’s history. So you’ll find Hogarth’s portrait of Coram, as well as one of his best satirical works, The March of the Guards to Finchley, works by Reynolds and Rysbrack, as well as a set of Rowlandson prints. These are all good fodder for 18thC buffs and count among the things one might expect from a visit. But one of the pleasures of small museums, whose collections are necessarily not comprehensive but often rely on the less-fêted gifted works to fill the walls, is coming across the things that you didn’t expect to see.

Freddy H. Dude.

Freddy H. Dude.

On this occasion the first of these, the Handel collection on the top floor, wasn’t exactly something that I hadn’t expected to see, it was rather a collection that I didn’t expect to find so fascinating. Handel was another major benefactor of the Hospital, holding benefit recitals for the foundlings of his Messiah in the great hall of the original building. The current collection houses the Gerald Coke Handel Collection which has all sorts of fascinating objects to it, as well as being an enormous collection of Handel manuscripts.

18th C Handel manuscripts

18th C Handel manuscripts

One of the things that I liked about the collection, and it’s a feeling I similarly got in Dr Johnson’s House last year, is how much these great figures of 18th century London depended on collaboration and clubbability to make their way through the cultural economy. Aristocratic patronage was still important to get publication or put on a show but it wasn’t the only means of making one’s way in the world. The growth in disposable income of the middle and working classes meant that their work could be genuinely popular and commercially viable, especially if two or more artists came together to pool their talents – as is documented by Handel’s partnership with Dryden to produce Alexander’s Feast or the Power of Musick. It feels like you’re peering in to the birth of modern London to see the documents of all these collaborative projects.

18th C Bacharach and David

The Power of Musick 

Such a collaborative approach is strikingly used in the contemporary artworks on the ground floor that respond to the history of the foundling children. The story of the foundlings is well told through documents, visuals and oral testimonies in a way that will appeal to children as well as to adults. A lot of people I’ve talked to about the museum find the tokens, items that mothers left with their baby that could be used as proof of parenthood if they later came to claim back their child, the most moving exhibits.

Ale token

Ale token

Just as touching to me on my visit was a work produced in collaboration between the artist Emma Middleton, the animator Shelly Wain and the child patients of Great Ormond Street Hospital. The museum, in my view, is worth visiting for this contemporary artwork alone. It’s tucked away around a corner so make sure that you don’t miss it!

Collaboration between the children of GOSH, Emma Middleton and Shelley Wain.

Collaboration between the children of GOSH, Emma Middleton and Shelley Wain.

And then there were all the little items in between the big stuff. Two of which were by an artist, Anne Susanna Zileri, who was entirely new to me. Her paintings of The Secretary’s Room and The Court Room are utterly fascinating in their muted mysteriousness. They put me in mind of de Hooch interiors rendered in the style of Hammershøi. Without any human figures her rooms have the feeling of having just been vacated, yet they are not without human warmth. These little discoveries are the kinds of thing that you rarely make in a major gallery or museum. Zileri might not work her magic in any other context, it might be that her rooms work because they resonate with the real rooms that you’ve just passed through but the testing out will be an unexpected pleasure. If I can find anything else of hers on public display.

One caveat I have about the Foundling is that at £8.50 for a standard ticket it is on the north side of reasonably priced. Entry is free with an Art Fund card but I wonder if the museum might take a leaf from the London Transport Museum’s book and encourage repeat visits by letting the £8.50 cover a calendar year of visiting. With such a diverse collection there’ll be treasure missed on a one off visit that are worth going back for.

* In my last post about the Salvation Army I was fully prepared to give it with both barrels to the tawdry industry around the Whitechapel Murders but didn’t really feel the need to add to the excellent work done by the many historians and guides who have piled in against it. I gave up doing tours about the subject very quickly after becoming a guide (although if I’d stuck with it I could quite easily have made a living from that alone) and if people ask me to guide that narrative I make them a counter-offer of a more contextualised history of the East End.

** Roy Porter, London: A Social History (London, 1994) Peter Ackroyd writes more wordily but Porter has better historical chops.


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