Posts Tagged ‘Architecture’

Resto 25 Pegasus, Tallinn

August 14, 2018

Tallinn has a wealth of mediaeval architecture dating from its time as a prosperous Hanseatic town but I must admit that I was more interested in getting a handle on the Soviet-era attempts to fix a modernist mask to the mercantilist frame of the city.

The Soviet-era concrete of the civic centre; crumbling faster than the Turkish economy

While the appeal of the 1970s Lenin centre was that of being able to stare, Oxymandias-like, at the mighty works of the USSR and pity the hubris it was not all crap-concreted elephantism during the rule of the Reds in Estonia.

For example, the building in which Pelican is situated is a beautiful piece of Soviet modernism with cute idiosyncratic touches like the porthole windows through which we could peek from our terrace seats into the bar.

I wanted to go to Pelican for the architecture and the history. This was a centre for political dissent during Soviet rule. In these days of the revival of the strongman in politics it does no harm to celebrate the achievements of those who were individually weak but collectively strong in the past. Would that their like may triumph again in our own age.

So the location is perfect at Pelican. Could the restaurant live up to it? You betcha. Starting with the welcome. Our waiter was cheerfulness personified and attentive to detail, giving us a couple of rugs (unprompted) in case the weather turned chill.

He also kicked things off with complimentary home cooked bread. This was warm from the oven and accompanied by a slather of creamy butter. Good thing.

The menu features seasonal Baltic ingredients but we kicked off with a mozzarella salad to have a touch of the Med in Eesti. High quality mozz, olive crumble stuff and basil juice (?!) was a good warm up for the main event.

Which was whitefish for both of us. Well cooked fish, beetroot crisps, good gherkin and a fennel foam (better than usual foam in the coherency department) which took us back to the north of Europe. Delish.

So good in fact that we ordered dessert, tempted on my side by rhubarb, which came pickled with a lot of good things alongside.

All of this was accompanied by an excellent Slovenian wine which would have cost double in London. I obviously wasn’t the only one who was enjoying the drink as when I went to the jakes a mature lady, on exiting the trap, walked straight into the full length mirror at the end of the corridor.

The whole was not cheap by Estonian standards. But quality is worth paying for. If you’re heading to Tallinn I would strongly advise you to resist the cluster of tourist traps around the main square, and anywhere where the service is wenchish, and go for the cool modernist vibe of Pelican. You won’t regret it.


#Food #Tallinn

To see where else I’ve eaten go to the GoogleMap

Voluntary work for the Poppy Appeal

November 4, 2015

Once a year (or twice if I’m feeling very energetic and can get the time off work) I volunteer to collect donations on behalf of the Poppy Appeal.* It’s something that I welcome doing as a small act of remembering a good friend (now passed away) who once organised the poppy collectors of Chelsea, and also as a way of making my own small contribution to the very necessary work of the British Legion beyond shoving a note in a tin. As something to do I’d recommend it unequivocally for the pleasure of giving time to a good cause at the temporary expense of a pair of shot knees. I’d also recommend it for giving a distinctive view of London going about its business. My beat is usually Sloane Square, one of the wealthiest parts of town and therefore not exactly the toughest gig on the poppy collecting circuit. Outside the tube or outside Peter Jones are the top spots but decent trade can be found down by the Saatchi or along the King’s Road if someone’s already bagged those.

Theoretically the poppy collector is the opposite of Baudelaire’s flâneur. The flâneur moves through the city, an anonymous observer in the crowd. The poppy seller on the other hand is usually rooted to a pitch and has to lug a collecting tin in one hand and a poppy box suspended off the shoulders. This box is a temperamental and cumbersome beast to the early-career collector, apt to tangles, spills and rain damage. And it makes you feel as though you stand out like a sore thumb.

However, the box, like any uniform, gives a certain amount of anonymity to its wearer. People tend to see the box and not the person, and poppy collectors are so ubiquitous from the end of October that they rapidly become part of the street furniture. So yes, I welcome my once a year standing in Sloane Square as an opportunity to observe, to scrutinise, to wallow in a quarter of the city that I rarely visit on any other occasion. It’s rather fun.

Of course the first to be observed are the poppy punters or poppy shunners. I like to feign indifference to the public until it’s apparent that someone is coming to buy a poppy. I’m not a hunter after donations, fixing people with a guilt-inducing beady eye to induce them to cough up some change. I also spurn naming a figure when asked how much they should give (against advice from my poppy hierarch) as it seems vulgar to begin some kind of morally tinged haggle. I know people often are unsure how much they should donate and in asking me are seeking approval for whatever amount they’ve already got in their palm. My advice is always that one should give what one can afford.

But while I feign disengagement with the public at large really I’m thoroughly scrutacious. Very few people don’t see the poppy collector at all and people’s reactions once they have seen you are to an extent categorisable. There are foreigners who have no idea what you’re doing and are not interested. There are a lot of these in Sloane Square, a magnet for tourists and with a significant residential population of non-British origin. There is the occasional foreigner, usually a tourist (or actually, more often a tourist child) who is curious and will ask you in great depth about the poppy and what it is. I like these people, it’s good to chat with them and talk about British culture and history.

So what of the British? You have people who already have a poppy but whose hand goes to where their poppy is just to check that it’s there and can be seen. Sometimes it’s missing (they do fall off if not secured properly with a pin (I put mine through the petal – it looks ugly but it’s very effective)) and you can see them considering how annoying it is to have to get another one. But they usually do. Or their poppy is on their other coat, the one they left at home, and they’re thinking about whether they should get another one for this coat when they could just transfer the one from the other coat when they get home. But they usually buy another one too. Good souls.

Of course there are people who don’t donate out of conviction. Arrogantly they look at you sometimes (I don’t like that) but more often obviously not wishing to be judged. I wouldn’t judge them – there are cogent arguments (I don’t subscribe to them) as to why the poppy appeal should be rejected by pacifists, or by those who feel coerced into a national act of mourning and remembrance with which they have no sympathy. Freedom of opinion is a good thing.

But the majority of British people that I see (and I would include people of the ‘British World’ in that) either have a poppy already or when they see you are already putting their hand in their pocket or their purse to find a donation. The most heart-warming of donators are the ones who already have a poppy but who give you a donation anyway. Often these people are (ex-) service personnel or people closely related to them. They’ll often ask me if I’m in the armed forces myself (I think they usually know that I’m not! I don’t quite have a military bearing) and will chat about their motivation for giving (I like that too).

So for a thing to do I would heartily recommend getting out on the streets for the Poppy Appeal, if I’ve sold you on it there’ll be an organising committee near you I’m sure.

Sloane Square - my patch for the morning

Sloane Square – my patch for the morning

If the charitable angle isn’t enough for you then let me add another motivation, an aesthetic one. Over the last few years I’ve been trying to visit one or two of the big galleries in London solely to look at one painting at a time. One of the frustrations in going abroad to look at art is gallery fatigue.** Canvas blindness is another way of putting it. You get it in blockbusters here too so every now and then I try and do my art viewing in smaller chunks of focussed time.

Standing in the street for a few hours forces you to look at the cityscape in the same way as you would study a great painting. I’ve looked at the fixtures of Sloane Square (the theatre, the war memorial, the buildings) until they’ve become old friends visited once a year. Sometimes they change but essentially they remain the same. Then there are the medium variable things that shift but keep a rhythm – the sky, buses and traffic gridlock – unfolding in predictable but erratic ways over the course of a morning. And then there are the variable variable things – the people. Over time you observe a whole society in operation, from the people with the wealth*** down through those who service them. Wealthy people (hedge fund managers, art collectors, trophy wives and husbands, gilded offspring, mistresses, little kids dressed like Ralphy models, minor royalty, oligarchs) wealth professionals (lawyers, financial advisers, art buyers), lifestyle facilitators (designers, restauranteurs, personal trainers), doers (builders, windowcleaners, personal shoppers, delivery men), providers (shopworkers, newsagents, guides, drivers) and askers (Big Issue salespeople, charity collectors, beggars).

Of the cavalcade of local humanity that passes before one’s eyes in Chelsea the one group that doesn’t fit into this scheme are the Chelsea Pensioners. They’ve earned their independence through serving the nation, rich and poor. That’s the motivation.

* British people (forgivably) assume that this time of the year is as well known outside the UK as it is within. Having had a regular group of Belgians in November for the last few years I now realise that this isn’t the case, even among people from those nations who were directly affected by the First World War.

So for those who have no idea what the Poppy Appeal is, it is a charity that collects money from the public in return for distinctive decorative poppies and other paraphernalia (badges, wristbands, stickers etc). It began as a way of raising money for the casualties of World War One and rapidly developed into a national tradition (with some dissenting voices) for remembering the sacrifice of those who have served in conflicts around the world. The money raised now goes towards supporting supporting ex-servicemen and women and their families in manifold ways.

** Last suffered in the Künsthistorische Museum in Vienna where there are TOO MANY BREUGHELS. I’ll probably never go back and aggh!! Ugh, want to see those Breughels properly.

*** Contrary to radical perception the 1% and their circle are not a faceless, hidden away group. They’re fascinating and they’re out there. The display of expensive lifestyle is a joy, a technicolour cavalcade of skin, teeth, hair, clothes and accessories. Although occasionally it’s ostentatiously monochrome.

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.

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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