Archive for the ‘Architecture’ Category

Isokon Gallery, Hampstead

September 5, 2018

Last night I attended an excellent lecture by a good friend, John Law, drawing on material from his latest book 1938: Modern Britain. His thesis is that many of the aspects of modern life that are popularly believed to be post-War phenomena, for example big screen television, were actually in use in the late 1930s. If you want to read more about his work you can go to his homepage here.

The lecture took place in a new location for me, the Isokon Gallery in Hampstead. The Gallery is part of an apartment block which dates from 1934 and therefore was a natural fit for John’s talk which in part dealt with the early career of Basil Spence and his contribution to Modernist pavilions at the Glasgow Imperial Exhibition of 1938.

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Isokon Gallery – they have much better photographs at their website

I would have liked more time to explore the bijou exhibition which the gallery is hosting on the creators of the Isokon development – a pioneering social experiment as well as being an architectural landmark in the history of London – and the many creative people who lived either in the block or very nearby. Just scanning the names reads like a who’s who of the inter-War avant garde.

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As well as panels with information on the lives and careers of the artists, writers, architects and patrons associated with the area there are also examples of their work. You can see in the photograph above items of furniture which embody how theories of rational industrial design translated into beautifully practical pieces for the home. For example, the bookcase above was specificallydesigned for that quintessential 1930s object, the Penguin paperback.

The gallery is open Saturdays and Sundays until their exhibition season ends in October and is FREE. You can also take a peek inside the apartments on Open House weekend on the 22nd and 23rd September. Well worth a visit.

A short ramble round Leicester

March 30, 2017

Coming to a brief spell of teaching at De Montfort I thought it might be of use to the casual cultured  visitor to point out some of the less well-known elements of the town that are worthy of consideration.

I’ve largely eschewed chewing in Leicester (at least on a sit down and make yourself at home basis) and so there’s only one ‘restaurant’ review from my time there. This post will have a bit of food though, plus buildings, books, art, pubs and landscape since it’s those things that to my mind are the more obvious signs of an absence or presence of civilisation in a community.

Let’s start with …

Churches

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St Martin’s (Leicester Cathedral)

Leicester is blessed with good church, although the Cathedral doesn’t really make it into the top three. Sadly most good churches are closed to casual visits so I’ve only seen the best ones from the outside. The Cathedral (which is generally open) I didn’t go into because an officious verger told me curtly that at the time I turned up there was a service on and ‘there’s no visiting.’ She didn’t seem to want to venture what time the service would end so I thought, well I can manage without it given that there’s gurt-stonking church to be had elsewhere. Such as …

St Nicholas

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No, it wasn’t misty. I’d dropped my phone in beer thus turning the camera into an analogue of my own ale-soaken mind if I happened to get into the right company after a day’s teaching.

Through the mists emerges St Nicholas, a real piece of Midlands bricolage being bits of Anglo-Saxon built on through the mediaeval period and topped off with a twentieth century tower. All juxtaposed with fragments of Roman Leicester. And on the ‘wrong side’ of the ring road. If it was in London it would be a major landmark. Here it languishes feeling rather unloved. As does …

All Saints, Highcross Street

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Get road-side if you want to see the Norman zig-zaggy door.

Also hard on the ring road but not if you approach it from the John Lewis end as shown in this photograph. The tower has elements of Anglo-Saxon and the rest to my untrained eye is a bizarre conglomeration of mediaeval and Victorian. It is crazy in its haphazardness but this somehow just lends it charm. It also has good tombstones.

As does …

St Mary-de-Castro

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Part of the castle complex and thus difficult to get a 360 degree look from close up, Pevsner goes nuts about the interior. Alas it’s shut quite a lot, or at least on Tuesdays when I’m in town. Below the castle hill there is a lovely garden with such a beautifully textured assemblage of hedgery with all kinds of bird life teeming in it. Shame they had to stick a crappy Holiday Inn above it. This is a good place to eat a sandwich. I know, I’ve been there.

Books

Like all good second hand bookshops Maynard & Bradley has an idiosyncratic style of service (read that how you will). It also has green Penguins by the yard and a good section on local history, which is what I was there for. I’ve been twice and both times bought more than necessary. A good thing.

Art

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New Walk Museum. Entrance is currently from the rear.

The New Walk museum has a tidy and eclectic collection of stuffed creatures. Sadly, my own taste being for the bizarreries to be found collections of this nature …

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A tragic visage from Güzelyürt Municipal Museum

… but of more interest is its tidy and eclectic collection of art. One room (while they’re renovating) is a broad survey of about 500 years of Western European art with the emphasis on the solid Victorian Frithish stuff. But there are a few gems of which the best is a de la Tour of a choirboy. De la Tour was not prolific (around 40 canvases apparently) so it was a very pleasant surprise to find his Choirboy hidden away in a corner of the stage area of the main gallery. Even poorly exhibited one can see that his handling of light is extraordinary. And the choirboy don’t look like no choirboy if you know what I mean. V sinister. Also there’s a good Orpen of an Old Bag on a Couch. Look at the Sisley too in that room and a good, solid 19thC depiction of the Thames.

Pass by Hogarth secure in the knowledge that he did far better things and go to the other room which houses twentieth century British stuff. Apparently this is just a small sample of their collection which means that it’s ideal. About twenty pieces, all high class. Some by artists you’ll know (eg Stanley Spencer) but also others who you won’t like Robert Beven (sp?) and his View of St John’s Wood. The gallery is worth a lunchtime of anyone’s time.

They also have occasional concerts – I was absolutely GUTTED to have missed Mahan Esfahani doing Goldberg.

Pubs

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The Globe. Zach pulls a mean pint.

As I pointed out in my review the Parcel Yard is better than your average station pub, on the ale side at least. But superior options are to be found (‘Don’t go to the Spoons!’ wailed my students when I asked for a recommendation). The Globe has a good range of booze and what’s more has a DMU graduate called Zach on the pumps. He’s a nice feller and so is his boozer if you’re looking for a pubby pub. Also a good find was the Brewdog pub – good music, excellent chips and tasty beer. They also do carry outs for when you’re the only person leaving Leicester when Seville are in town and you need to drown your sorrows at missing the match while you’re on your way back to London.

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Brewdog: Knowledgable bar staff, cracking ale and good, quick food.

Buildings

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De Montfort itself has a fine collection. Though the place seems to be in a permanent state of construction there’s peace to be found down by the river. Just by the university is Newarke House Museum. The museum is a typical local museum that tells the history of the city succinctly and very well with good bits of oral history about the industries that made the city what it is. They also had a good exhibition on the First World War when I was there and it seems that they turn round exhibitions quite frequently, which encourages repeat visits.

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Unmissable if you go to Leicester is the Guildhall. It’s one of a smattering of picturesque half-timbered survivals but the real glory lies within.

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That is a proper fireplace. The room it’s in ain’t bad either with 17th Century wall paintings, injunctions to clean living (the hall acted as a seat of justice back in the day) and a couple of yeomanly portraits of local dignitaries from the past.

Food

But what if you’re hungry? You could do any one of a number of chain sandwich places but I prefer to find somewhere a bit more independent.

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Samosa central

For food on the hoof Currant Affairs does the best samosas I’ve ever had outside of a restaurant. It’s all vegan/veggie friendly and their boast that’s it’s freshly made in the day is not an idle one. You can taste the freshness.

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For coffee and a sit down you can’t beat St. Martin’s coffee bar. They have excellent coffee and if you’re hungry you can get hot food made to order. A favourite of mine was an Indonesian pork stir fry with bacony slabs of pork on tangy spicy noodles and plenty of vegetables. And good value too.

Leicester is a good place and I’m looking forward to going back for a bit of cricket/football/rugby soonest.

Øve Arup at the V&A

August 6, 2016

With an hour to spare before meeting for a pre-Proms dinner I thought I’d have a look at what was on at the V&A. I wasn’t tempted by the knickers show but Øve Arup was definitely my bag and delivered an hour-sized piece of intellectual entertainment.

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The show only opened in June, as part of the V&A’s engineering season, but I don’t recall any publicity about it on my usual cultural channels. Which seems a shame as it’s a gem. Arup, despite being Danish, was a man whose history was inextricably bound up with London. Indeed the firm that he founded, which is now the leading engineering practice of its kind in the world, continues to be so after his death.

You can find out about the modern practice and its cutting edge development of the fields of crowd flow studies and acoustic engineering in a hi-tech, interactive section that works via a wifi linked app on your phone and touchscreens. Or at least you could if they all worked! The irony of the first touchscreen I tried to use not working wasn’t lost on the gallery assistant.*

But that was just a glitch – the show gives a good overview of Arup’s career from his arrival in London in the 1920s, through working in London during the Blitz to making his international reputation with high profile projects such as the Sydney Opera House and the Centre Pompidou. What is more it brings across the personality of the man with humorous sketches from his personal notebook and memorabilia from office parties and awards dos.**

I hope you’ve already decided to go and visit so I won’t describe the exhibits in detail but will pick out two titbits of particular interest to Londoners. Arup, together with Lubetkin, was the man behind the pioneering modernist masterpiece of the London Zoo penguin pool and it was a real treat to see the plans outlining the geometric and technical conception of one of the greatest sculptures in London.***

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Secondly, there is a fascinating section devoted to Arup’s work on air-raid shelter during World War 2. I’ve been guiding and teaching on the Blitz for a few years now and it was quite exciting to see the correspondence between Arup and various committees about the necessity for deep level shelters, as well as various publications that he produced for the public sphere. Perfect for someone with an interest of life during wartime in London.

It was also a delight to find a display on one of my favourite pieces of architecture – the King’s Walk Bridge in Durham. This elegant sliver of brutalism spanning the deep gorge of the River Wear has been a favourite since childhood and remains my top piece of concrete. The video of the two halves being swung into place and Arup himself the first stroller across is mesmerising and brought a sharp tinge of nostalgia for the most beautiful city in England.

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*Perhaps this was a sly reference to one high profile Arup project that is curiously neglected – the Millennium Bridge between St Paul’s and Tate Modern.

**This contrasts significantly to a similar show at the RA a year or two ago about Richard Rogers which was a long on on pompous hagiography and short on charm.

***I say sculpture because it was notoriously unpenguinny.

 

 

The Soane Museum

January 21, 2016

With an idle hour or two between teaching and meeting a friend at St Pancras I found myself wandering down to Somerset House, drawn by the lure of coffee at Fernandez&Wells and art at the Courtauld. Walking through Lincoln’s Inn fields I noticed that for once there was barely a queue outside the Soane Museum. Serendipity is a good thing. I had an exactly Soane-sized hole in my afternoon.

The last time I went to the Soane it was for an evening function with the whole museum lit by candlelight. This time, it being a public day, it wasn’t quite so atmospheric but nevertheless low lighting within and a gloomy afternoon without meant that the Soane’s peculiarly crepuscular feel was undiminished. The peculiar light, and the classical nature of the bits and pieces that scatter the rooms, put me in mind of the Rothko room at Tate Modern. They share a sombreness that silences even the squawkiest of visitors.

Which doesn’t sound like much fun! 

But it is. While his museum feels sombre it is clear that Soane had a sense of humour, which is particularly apparent in his Gothick Monk’s Room in the basement. Photography isn’t allowed so I can’t SHOW the uninitiated what treasures lie within but only describe a very personal selection of highlights, some of which will have universal appeal and some of which may be peculiar to me. The Soane is that kind of museum. It’s a collection that the architect himself developed over years, adapting the building to accommodate new acquisitions and to record tragic events in his own family (the death of his wife, his eldest son’s early death from TB and his younger son’s wastrel ways), as well as his friendship with some of the great figures of the Georgian age.

As I said,  the most apparent parts of the collection are the architectural features, some original and some plaster casts, that are spread throughout the building. It’s worth getting into all the nooks and crannies (and the whole house is a feast of n’s and c’s) to find your favourite. Amidst this plethora of classical works it is easy to forget that the museum is also one of the great art collections of London. Hogarth features highly (An Election Entertainment being my favourite) but on this occasion it was two works by the British Indian painter Hodges of Agra and Futtypoor that caught my eye.*

  

Of the collection of Great Man Memorabilia the two things that stood out were a maquette of Pitt’s statue in Westminster Abbey and a beautiful little miniature of a young Napoleon. Not in the same room alas but nevertheless a nice juxtaposition in the mind. And Walpole’s desk, which proves to be the desk of a midget. 

The last item that I’ll mention was a model and painting of Soane’s design for his wife’s mausoleum. She dies young and like Queen Victoria half a century later, he blamed the death on his son and failed to come to terms with her loss. The painting of the tomb showed it with that of Rousseau in the background in the idyllic setting of Ermenonville.

The reality of the tomb’s site is somewhat less Arcadian. On leaving the museum I walked up to St Pancras, where the tomb is to be found in the churchyard of the old church. The church is somewhat Soanesian in its eclectic amalgam of styles.

  

The church is out the back of St Pancras station on the way to Camden. As you walk north past the shiny new station, British Library and Crick Institute a bit of old London that I’m sure Soane would have approved of is clinging on for dear life. 

  

Then to the tomb itself. It looks a bit mournful (well, I suppose it is a tomb!), not to say neglected. At first this made me sad, that an object whose design Soane had taken so much care over should end up bedraggled in a grotty corner of North London. The contrast with the hyper curated and cared for space of the museum could hardly be greater. But then thinking over his love for Rousseau and his own sense of the Gothick I reflected that maybe he wouldn’t be so concerned that the tomb has been left in a state of nature, to decay over time and add to the melancholy romance of his wife’s early demise.


So I would urge a visit to the museum and then a brisk 20 minute walk to the churchyard. The museum is free but numbers are limited, so be prepared to queue. You won’t regret it.

* Hodges’ work features heavily in the Artist and Epire exhibition at Tate Britain, which I hope to blog on soon. It’s a good exhibition but has its flaws. Another highlight of the collection of paintings is Soane’s own portrait by Thomas Lawrence (who I’d commission to do my own portrait if he were still available – his depiction of Castlereagh makes a Byronic hero of someone that Byron himself loathed. A masterstroke of irony to the arch exponent of the gap yah). 

La Philharmonie and a Musical Museum for London

December 18, 2015

There was exciting news for London music lovers this week as the City of London announced plans to create a new concert venue on the present site of the Museum of London. This follows the appointment of Sir Simon Rattle (surely to be a Lord sometime soon) as leader of the London Symphony Orchestra from 2017. Rumours previously had been that the government might seek to host the new development in the Olympic Park as part of a new major cultural hub. However, it seems that City intends to replace the grubby-sounding Barbican Hall with a world class venue.

I can’t help thinking that backers of the Olympic Park move must have looked over the Channel at La Philharmonie and had second thoughts. While the acoustic of the Parisian venue has been acclaimed the years it took to get built, its various problems – spiralling cost (finally coming in at €386 million) and the continuing conflict between its architect and client (Jean Nouvel and various branches of the French state) – paint a very sorry tale.

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La Philharmonie

On a visit to Paris this weekend too I had mixed feelings about the site. The Philharmonie forms part of a musical complex (La Cité de la Musique) which combines the functions of a variety of concert venues, conservatoire and museum. It was the museum that I was there for. I haven’t yet been able to get a ticket to a concert, both times I’ve tried the venue has been sold out. This is an encouraging thing given that the Philharmonie is in La Villette on the outskirts of central Paris, in a traditionally working class area and home to many first and second generation immigrants.*

This shouldn’t discourage visitors to Paris from visiting (although it was practically empty the day we visited, which is a shame). The Musée de la Musique is a thing of wonder. Over the course of 1,000 objects and 5 floors it tells the story of Western music from the 17th Century to the present day, as well as giving an overview of the multitudinous diversity of music around the globe today. Being in Paris for just a day I only had time to explore the first three floors, which tell the story of Western classical music from the Baroque to Romanticism. What did I like?

Well, I’m now a big fan of the serpent.

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The Musée de la Musique, snake-infested.

I’d heard of the serpent but had no clue what it was or what it did. I’d assumed that it was something that died out in mediaeval times, but no! They were blowing serpents till the nineteenth century in some regiments of the French army. Now I want a serpent.

As a trumpet fan (and sporadic learner) the many exotic lumps of brass had a particular appeal. Some kind of Darwinian process is in evidence with offshoots and variants finding themselves ill-adapted to survival falling out of use to become mere echoes of what might have been in the relentless march of technical innovation.

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A whole lotta horn.

And after these tasty treats there were other delectable morsels like Chopin’s Erard piano, Stradavari by the number and a whole bunch of Lisztian memorabilia. One of my favourite details of the museum was the way in which they clumped together a group of instruments in a case to show you the orchestration of individual significant pieces in musical history, such as a Rameau opera or a Beethoven symphony. These would then play for you through earphones as you stood in front of them giving, if not a concert experience, at least an intimate glimpse into past performance practice.

So yes, I was enthused. But what has this got to do with London?

The building of a new concert hall in London is surely the opportunity to do something similar. London has excellent bijou music museums and I urge people to visit them.** As I wrote in a previous post the Royal Academy’s collection is worth an hour of any music fan’s afternoon. But London lacks a museum that tells the tradition of music-making in London, if not the whole of the United Kingdom. While our pop music is rightly celebrated (even if museums about it don’t seem to be able to take off) the classical tradition seems to be something for specialists and doesn’t have a place in the centre of our cultural landscape. London’s music scene is outstanding (as I’ve remarked previously) and the establishment of a museum at the heart of a new concert venue in the City of London would be an outstanding contribution to cultural life in the city as a whole. We should celebrate London’s past and continuing role as a vast entrepot, and nowhere is this more apparent than in its classical music scene.

 

*A bit like my home in Haringey. I urge people to go to Paris for a day, for the weekend, for however long you can. The city was distressingly un-busy. I want Paris to be full of good people, just as I wish good people to come to London.

** I wrote about one in a previous post (The Royal Academy of Music Museum) but there is also Handel House and the Foundling Museum (with its collection of Handel memorablia) that I know of off the top of my head but I’m sure that each of the major music schools has its own.

Back in the north

November 28, 2015

A couple of weeks ago I went back to the north for a conference in Middlesbrough.* Some academics complain about having to go to conferences but for me, no matter where they take place (even Holloway Road), there’s always something to be learnt by getting out of the conference and having a good wander around.

This was a particularly tough week for the people of Middlesbrough as the planned closure of the local steel plant had just been announced, an action which would result in the loss of thousands of jobs. I’ve been to a lot of conferences in random British and Irish cities over the last few years, and have visited others in the course of researching prospective universities with my eldest son and while doing my own research. This has taken me to Newcastle, Sheffield, Leeds, Belfast, Dublin, Leeds, Luton, Portsmouth, Coventry, Durham, Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool and others that I can’t remember off the top of my head right now. I have to say that of all these Middlesbrough felt the most bleak.

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The Captain Cook. Fairly bleak.

One of the themes to come out of the conference (where the majority of the papers addressed local history) was that Middlesbrough was once a town that was centred around the river, in fact was born of the river. For those not familiar with the area Middlesbrough was the original industrial boom town, even more so than its more famous contemporary Manchester. While Manchester was an established conurbation at the onset of industrialisation Middlesbrough was practically non-existent. It was built from the establishment of the iron industry in the mid-nineteenth century and grew at such a rapid rate, exporting processed iron and then steel to a global market, that it became known as the ‘infant Hercules’ or ‘Ironopolis’. The river was central to exploiting the export market for such goods, as it was for the chemical plants that also became established throughout the twentieth century.

What is less well-remembered, but was brought up by several papers at conference, was that the river was also during the boom-times absolutely central to the recreation of the townspeople with rowing, sailing and even swimming (hard to believe given the filthiness of the water in those days!) competitions being annual festive events that drew hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators. I was glad to be reminded of this because arriving in the town now (by train at least) there is little encouragement for the modern visitor to go to the river.

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Bottle of Notes by Claes Oldenburg. Getting in touch with his Teesside roots.

The University campus is centred away from the river, south beyond the town centre and mima.** There are signs of a town turning a corner around the University campus. There’s the University itself, which like the University of Bedfordshire seems to be making a good fist of bringing Higher Education to a part of the world that old fashioned élitists would like to think isn’t suitable for it.*** And there’s a smattering of businesses in Baker Street, like Sherlock’s micropub, that show an entrepreneurial culture getting established that was largely absent in my North-East town up the road when I was growing up.

But mima? Hmm … a trick has been missed. Look at the Oldenburg that they planted outside the Euroarchitect-designed purpose-built shed that houses the gallery. On his website the artist claims to have been inspired by Middlesbrough’s riverside location and its links to Captain Cook, Gulliver’s Travels, a short story by Poe about a sailor caught in a maelstrom, the local steel industry and much other guff besides.

There’s a problem with this. The local elements which would really anchor the piece in the history of Middlesbrough – the sea, Cook and the steel industry – are not within staggering distance of the gallery.**** They’re disconnected from it. Or rather the gallery is disconnected from them. It’s in the wrong place.

Look at the picture of Bottle of Notes. It’s set in a nondescript park beside a sub-Stirling lump of 80s Post-Modernism. Look the other way and you have the (magnificent) 19th C Town Hall dwarfed by some beige 70s garbage. I won’t trouble your eyes with the gallery, the building holds no interest.***** Where’s the river? Where’s the steel? Where’s the chemicals? Where’s Middlebrough?******

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Victorian town hall from ‘mima’

Inside the gallery interesting things are happening. There’s a smattering of good modern art (a lot of it prints and drawings, which is telling), a temporary exhibition by a politically radical British feminist artist (interesting but not exactly uplifting on a cold November day) and a nationally important jewellery collection (sure it’s good but not my bag).

The main exhibition, Localism, is the interesting part. Its prospectus is worth quoting in full,

‘Localism’ is an ambitious project telling the story of art in Middlesbrough from its beginnings in 1829 to now. It takes a radical approach to exhibition making, inviting the public to help write the narrative with workshops that grow the show, adding to it as we go, thus creating an encyclopaedic family tree of creativity on Teesside.
It’s also more than just an exhibition as we join up people and places across the region to celebrate and debate our own cultural history and its impact on the wider world. Topics include Christopher Dresser and the Linthorpe Pottery, bridge building, the remarkable Boosbeck Industries in the 1930s and the existence of mima itself. In a thoroughly internationalised world, Localism restates the vitally important role of the local in the development of art and society.

Basically they’ve realised that the people of Middlesbrough are not especially fussed about radical feminist politics, nationally important jewellery collections or much modern art. I’m sure that quite a few people in Middlesbrough (and environs) are, just not the people of Middlesbrough. Looking at what the people of Middlesbrough ask to be displayed in the gallery through Localism they’re concerned with jobs and industry, football, crafts, education and the countryside, i.e. the things that they love about their city and of which they are proud. And they’re slowly repurposing the gallery as a museum about their town’s history, told through documents, ephemera and artworks. And it works. Localism is a perfect exhibition for the outsider to Middlesbrough. It contextualises the town. It tells you why you should visit the place and why the closure of the steelworks, while making cold economic sense, is a tragedy. The dismal walk from station to gallery past the usual signs of economic decline does not.

Walking the other way from the station, away from the town and towards the river is a bit dismal too. There are many maltreated buildings (like the Captain Cook above) which are splendid things but have no investment. They remind you that this was once one of the wealthiest towns in England and indeed the world.

 

Which one (or collection of several) of these solid Victorian buildings could have been the home for a combined museum of Middlesbrough and modern art? Buildings that would have connected the museum directly to the river, to the sea, to the world? I walked past half a dozen candidates at least on my way to the riverside. And once you’re there you arrive at a view of one of the great kinetic sculptures of the nineteenth century in a setting to make an aesthete’s heart skip.

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Transporter Bridge. The greatest sculpture in Middlesborough

Who needs Oldenburg? You can chuck that bottle in the sea and ask for your money back.

*At the University of Teesside, for their conference on sport and urban history. I talked about a French sportsman, Frantz Reichel, and the history of his statue in Paris. You can find the paper (or the bare bones of it) here.

** note The Artful Way They’ve Avoided Capital Letters? the Initials Stand For middlesbrough institute of modern art. The avoidance of capital letters stands for Nothing.

*** When people attack previous governments’ aspirations to get a greater percentage of young people into university-level education it’s places like Teesside that they’re thinking of as being a ‘waste of money’. In fact by bringing universities closer to the homes of more and more people you  make education more affordable for those from lower-income backgrounds, even if they have to pay for the course itself. Universities like these act as drivers of the local economy and points of aspiration for post-industrial communities in a function that ‘traditional’ university towns’ communities take for granted.

**** Although Cook is a bit of a stretch, the town didn’t exist when he was around and he’s more connected with Stockton-on-Tees upriver.

***** Oh, go on then – here’s a really long staircase with a fire extinguisher at the bottom. Worth it.

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****** Where’s the people too?! It was lunchtime on a Saturday.

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.

On Somerset House

August 25, 2015

In my London lifetime Somerset House has been transformed from a large office block with a beautiful gallery* nestled within to a cultural complex of public areas, gallery spaces, university, pop up cinema, music venue with a variety of shops, restaurants and cafés to suit most pockets.** This process, being gradual, has largely been unheralded compared to the flashier developments on the South Bank, at Tate or at Kings Cross. The purpose of this blog is to celebrate Somerset House and to draw attention to two exhibitions in particular that merit a visit before they close.

One the joys of the building is its nooks and crannies. I’ve never made it to any of the site specific shows that from time to time take people through the building and use its corridors and chambers as a production backdrop and take you through the belly of the beast. But if you want a structured visit to the site (bowels included) you can join one of the regular tours that are run by Blue Badge Guides each Tuesday. Highly recommended.

If you prefer to browse the site in your own time Somerset House offers a palimpsest of architectural styles, textures in stone and brick, and odd perspectives.

Gateway to the new wing

Gateway to the New Wing

The newest of these (for me at least) is the New Wing***, entered from the courtyard through a suitably forbidding gate given that it once housed the offices of the Inland Revenue. Nowadays it has a couple of restaurants (I shall try them soon I hope) and exhibition space. But what I liked about its being open to the public are the quirky views you get of familiar buildings.

Somerset House

Between blocks, Chambers to the left and Pennethorne to the right

Look to the left as you pass through the gate and you get a deliciously symmetric view of terracing closed off by a classical gateway. In the nineteenth century the older block would house Naval clerks and administrators dealing with Sick and Hurt, Navy Pay and Victualling. To the right the newer building housed the beancounters of the Revenue. Each of them staring across a terrain of slates and chimneys covering yet more warrens of offices and stores below ground. The Naval connection especially is a reminder of how something that was once fundamental to London life, the sea and the people who worked on it, is somehow now marginal.

Bricks and stone

Bricks and stone

Look to the right and you have a little play of textures, of nineteenth century stone and brick sandwiching a twentieth century interloper. Down the alley between red and yellow brick there’s an owl. Go through the door to the other side of the building on Lancaster Place and you see a fresh perspective of Brettenham House, one of my favourite buildings in London. Not because it’s spectacular (far from it) but just because it occupies a slither at the north end of Waterloo Bridge in a very dignified way. I especially like the neo-classical lettering above the main entrance.

IMG_3460

Brettenham House, better seen in the flesh.

If you like it as much as I do you can take a coffee on the terrace and watch the buses pass by in front of it. The terrace on the river side of Somerset House is rather disappointing as a viewpoint owing the plane trees blocking the way. Lancaster Place terrace offers the opportunity to lounge around while hassled commuters, harum-scarum cyclists and wide-eyed tourists tootle along in front of you.

I’d earned my coffee through having visited not one but two exhibitions beforehand. The second of these was Unseen Waterloo: The Conflict Revisited

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This was a peculiarly fascinating show. The photographer Sam Faulkner has 80 life-size portraits of men who re-enact the Battle of Waterloo of a variety of ranks, regiments and nationalities. This against a backcloth of the same fabric used to make British redcoats. At first I was struck by the beautiful construction of the uniforms; the sheer volume and intricacy of tailoring; the elaborate practicality of pockets and appendages; the decorations at once obscure and familiar; the cap badges and carefully delineated ranks; the equipment profuse and murderous (including an axe).

Then I saw that the diversity of paraphernalia mirrored the diversity of the people (although I saw no women, it would have been good to have had some camp followers among the militaria). All ages, including boys, from all over Europe, reflecting the fact that the battle itself two hundred years ago was fought not between Englishmen and French but between all the territories of Europe. And also that within the British Army there was a great agglomeration of men from around the Empire (as it then was), the former colonies in North America and subjects of the King in Europe as well as those of his allies. Such too would have been the case in the Royal Navy, in whose former rooms the exhibition is situated.

The exhibition is free and it is a stunner.

I came to Waterloo from the West Wing, passing by The Jam: About the Young Idea, currently occupying the Rock Nostalgia slot in the Somerset House programme. I like The Jam but do I like to spend to spend nine pounds on a trip down memory lane when I could just put a record on or watch their debut on TOTP on youtube? Not bloody likely.****

IMG_3455

I’d come from a tremendous (and free) exhibition, Out of the Chaos, by an organisation of whose existence I was completely unaware, Ben Uri. The exhibition has a dual purpose. The first is to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of Ben Uri, an organisation founded to promote the work of Jewish artists living and working in London following the wave of emigration from Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century.

The Spong Dancers in the Arab Hall. Who wouldn't want to see that?

The Spong Dancers in the Arab Hall. Who wouldn’t want to see that?

If you have any familiarity with the history of the East End names like Israel Zangwill, David Bomberg and Jacob Epstein will leap out. What I liked about the exhibition was that it weaved together artwork and documents to tell the story of the Jewish community in London through the twentieth century and into the present day. From a community of outsiders, with separate language and culture very quickly (and not without challenges and opposition of course) Jewish artists and intellectuals soon came to be central to the cultural life of the capital and by extension, the nation. In the room dealing with World War 2 exhibits on the consequences of the Holocaust underlined the evil effects of racist ideology. Britain itself took the ruthless decision to intern a large number of Jews of German origin and this is covered in documentation and artwork of camps on the Isle of Man. But there is also a small, dignified illustration by Barnett Freedman of D-Day Preparations showing a group of men being addressed in a hall in the run up to Operation Overlord that illustrates how the Jewish community was shoulder to shoulder with the rest of Britain in the battle for a democratic way of life.

My own favourite picture was Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach. It is intense, joyful and London in sticky bright abstraction.

Here is the lesson.

Here is the lesson.

The exhibition’s second purpose is to campaign. Ben Uri is now looking for a permanent home for its collection which grows as the organisation continues to sponsor contemporary artists. You can read about the campaign here at their blog. I really want them to succeed and plant a museum in a space in the centre of the city that will act as a beacon of tolerance in these often intolerant times.

The basement where the exhibition takes place is the only downside to an extraordinary must-see show. These works need room to breathe. However, it does afford a glimpse of another immigrant success story, whose leadership saw this country through the trials of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars brought to mind in Waterloo above and in the history of the Navy Board, for whom Somerset House was built.

George III - wartime leader; patron of the arts; sion of a successful immigrant family.

George III – wartime leader; patron of the arts; sion of a successful immigrant family.

* The Courtauld – also an art college. They have an excellent exhibition on at the moment concerned with unfinished art. The thesis of the exhibition didn’t really interest me very much (concerning how the concept of ‘finish’ has changed since the Renaissance) but as usual with the Courtauld the quality of the work is worth the fee alone whatever the intellectual underpinning of the show. Standouts were Manet and Degas but I’m sure you’ll have your own favourites if you visit.

** There are few better places in London to sit and contemplate the world than the courtyard of Somerset House. With a stumpy from Fernandez and Wells to hand and the noise of the Strand left behind one can sit and read in an unusually peaceful al fresco setting.

*** The New Wing actually dates to the 1850s, which made it new compared to the rest of Somerset House, which is of the 18th Century.

**** Especially with the threat of text by Gary Crowley lurking in the shadows.

On Faversham

July 29, 2015

Church and beer. These are the things I now associate with Faversham, a place I’d never particularly thought about before a friend took me there to mark his moving from Kent back to north London. To my regret the only acquaintance I made with the church during our visit was this glimpse up a side-street as we walked down the road to make our appointment for a brewery tour at Shepherd Neame.

St Mary of Charity with brewery chimney in the foreground.

St Mary of Charity with brewery chimney in the foreground.

So to satisfy my predilection for churches (and St. Mary’s looks a stunner*) I’ll have to return, something I’d like to do very soon.

But the subject of the day (and of this blog) was beer not god. The photograph is a metaphor for the way that beer still dominates Faversham even if the range of breweries in the town had declined in the twentieth century from several to just one. The chimney belongs I think to the now defunct Rigden’s Brewery and is located opposite the entrance to Shepherd Neame’s still thriving site.

I’m always slightly wary of going on guided tours, since I find it difficult to switch off my critical faculties as a fellow pro guide and just listen to the stuff. Fortunately our guide on this occasion proved to be very engaging and competent on the technical side of things, even if the use of headphones was a bit of an irritant.

I’ve always avoided using headphones with a group, where the guide has a microphone and the group have the commentary direct into their ears. It feels like you’re breaking down the solidarity of the tour party by making it into a one to one relationship. On the receiving end it makes it more difficult to tune your brain out of what the guide is saying and allow their commentary to mingle with your own thoughts, your visual impressions and the sounds of the environment that you’re in. But of course a brewery is first and foremost a factory, and an often noisy one at that.

The tour, rightly, focused on the historic aspects of the brewery (‘England’s Oldest Brewer’), the process of making beer and Shepherd Neame’s position in the modern market. I was less enamoured of the World War Two-themed marketing, and the stories associated with it, which seemed less in tune with a forward-thinking operation.

What struck me, and has struck me on similar tours in the past in Meaux (for Brie cheese) and Bushmill’s (for Irish whiskey) is that the more fascinating aspect is the way that these places operate as factories and the architecture associated with that. The marketing of the products themselves often depends on their evocation of an imagined past that ties the commodity to a nostalgia for locality or ingredient. The waters of the river in Bushmill’s, the milk of the cows in Meaux and Kentish hops in Faversham.

Inside a cathedral of beer at Shepherd Neame

Inside a cathedral of beer at Shepherd Neame

More interesting to me is the industrial plant now required to produce a ‘traditional’ product for a mass market. These great tanks for fermenting the beer have an honest grandeur that requires no dressing up as an underdog taking on the fizzy pop brigade of Heineken and their like. The thriving microbrew scene in Kent is where it’s at for that narrative. I could have looked at the crusty texture of the tanks for a lot longer.

Lost Joy Division album cover

Lost Joy Division album cover

But the thought of all that beer did make me thirsty. And the pubs of Faversham were calling. I’ll return for the church soon.

Pevsner describes a church much buggered about with over the years since its founding in the 14th Century. The steeple is compared favourably with that of St Dunstan-in-the-East in the City of London as being an improvement on Wren’s prototype. I beg to differ. It also promises mediaeval wall paintings, things I’ve been mildly obsessed with since reading J. L. Carr’s, A Month in the Country, a must-read book for those who wish to understand a certain kind of Englishness, and certainly my favourite book dealing with the First World War.

Faversham feels very English.

John Newman, The Buildings of England: North East and East Kent (Penguin, 1969), pp. 300-309

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country. I recommend the Penguin Classics edition of 2000 which has an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald, although one really ought to get it direct from Carr’s own Quince Tree Press. The process will give you a flavour of the man.


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