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'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Category: Art

All aboard the Red Line – the Moscow Metro


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Kropotkinskaya Station A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace)


It’s easy to understand why the Moscow Metro is one of the jewels in the crown of Russian and Soviet architecture. Let’s look at some numbers to begin with: the network runs 320km and comprises 200 stations that are used by more than 2.4 billion passengers each year. Plans are under way to add 80km this year, which should tie in nicely with the centenary celebrations of the October Revolution.The spellbinding beauty of many of the metro stations is what truly boggles the mind though; their elegance captures even the most cultured eye and lingers in the imagination. These cathedrals of the underworld, ‘people’s palaces’ as they became known, were built with such regal ambitions and resources that the Moscow Metro remains unsurpassed by any other public transport system in the world. Muscovite pride in their metro is tangible too, for even today you will find no graffiti or vandalism in any of the stations. They remain pristine.
The history of the Moscow Metro is both fascinating and somewhat abstruse to outsiders, like many elements emanating from Russian or Soviet Union life. How did a public transport system develop such a distinct identity? A useful understanding of its diversity and radical heritage can be found in an impressive coffee table book Hidden Urbanism: Architecture and Design of the Moscow Metro 1935–2015 by DOM publishers, which is edited by Soviet architecture experts Philipp Meuser and Anna Martovitskaya. The publication is graced with impressive contemporary photographs by Alexander Popov and provides a rich source of archival material in terms of designs, plans and maps. In true socialist fashion, there is also a section devoted to the workers who maintain the metro. Hidden Urbanism’s writing has a straight-no-chaser quality to it, and is selective in its history of the metro, with little in the way of any contentious issues such as the forced labour used in much of its building. A good companion volume worth investing in is Landscapes of Communism by Owen Hatherley, which takes in much of the same landscape, but with the English writer’s sharp judgment and muscular prose.

The Moscow Metro project began in 1935 under Joseph Stalin’s imperative for a public symbol befitting the benefits and progressiveness of the socialist system. Stations soon took on characteristics of religiosity and propaganda though, paying homage to the cult of the leader with bombastic icons. At Komsomolyskaya Station (1952), for example, a mosaic panel depicting Vladimir Lenin finds pride of place, while the interior is based on the triumph of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War. The station surroundings are palatial all the same: with marble arches, chandelier lighting, and richly coloured stuccoed walls.

The Moscow Metro first opened with 13 stations (11.2km network) with many foreign engineers involved in its development. Stations were built on islands, their style being utilitarian to begin with. This philosophy evolved into more artistically expressive designs as time moved on: from neo-classical to avant-garde and art deco aesthetics – we can see the dramatic difference between Kropotkinskaya Station in 1935, to 1944’s Elektrozavodskaya Station, for example.

It is remarkable how the history of the Soviet Union can be tracked through the metro stations: partisans and great generals are paid tribute with statues or testaments on walls; at Avtozavodskaya Station a quote reads ‘All this is the fruit of Stalin’s wisdom’. Under Stalin’s reign there was willing sacralisation of stations, yet a marked shift can be seen in the metro building of the Nikita Khrushchev era. In 1955 the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued the snappy-sounding resolution ‘No.1871 On Elimination of Superfluity in Design Work and Construction’. No longer would the USSR pour vast resources into public transport; instead money was to be funnelled towards mass housing developments and the incipient space race. Khrushchev brought the first surface-metro station, the first elevated-metro line, and the first station made from prefabricated reinforced concrete – from this point on there was the significant disavowing of Stalinist grandeur to the functionalism of the so-called centipede stations.

Elektrozavodskaya Station

The likes of Taganskaya Station (1950) provides a looking glass on the upheaval running through Soviet society at that time: originally the station was fitted with a grandiose panel entitled ‘The People’s Gratitude to their Commander and Leader’, with Stalin placed centre stage, being lauded by citizens. By the end of the fifties however, Stalin was gone, (in every sense) and in 1966 the panel was dismantled completely to create a passageway. Soon after, the station was fitted with decorative designs of cosmonauts, as attempts were made in every aspect of public life to show a willing reinvention of Soviet society and a softening of the regime.

The 1970s of Leonid Brezhnev saw Moscow Metro mixing modernism and a return to some form of monumentalism – see Pushkinskaya Station, Proletarskaya Station, or ‘The Tree of Friendship of Soviet Nations’ mural at Borovitskaya Station, for example. But from the 1980s on, through the break up of the USSR, there was a significant decline in both design and investment in comparison to what went before in the metro’s great tradition. A new programme of expansion was put in place five years ago by the city’s Mayor though, which has created new stations and added yet another tentacle to the great living organism that is the Moscow Metro. A modern perspective has taken hold to reflect to the outside world a Russian society in rude health – glass pavilions, bright colour schemes or achromatic single-vaults define the new age. The buildings may not carry the weighty social statements of those built in the pre-eminent years of 1930s-1950s, but then what does nowadays?

  • Hidden Urbanism: Architecture and Design of the Moscow Metro 1935–2015 by DOM publishers, Berlin, is out now
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Vivian Maier, photographer

I finally got around to watching the documentary film Finding Vivian Maier (2013) and found that she was just as idiosyncratic as everything I’d read about her had led me to believe. But the eye never lies… what talent.

‘Let’s Fulfil the Plan of Great Projects’

Some books have arrived by courier that look most intriguing:

Communist Posters – edited by Mary Ginsberg (Reaktion Books)

The Melnikov House – Pavel Kuznetsov (DOM Publishers)

Spying on Moscow – Denis Esakov (photos) Karina Diemer (text) (DOM Publishers)




Ian Nairn and serendipity 

There must be something to it surely: in the week when I had my essay on the inspirational, non-clubbable writer and broadcaster published in The Irish Times, I had a peruse of a second-hand bookshop only to find, side by side, original copies of Nairn’s London and Nairn’s Paris. 

For the princely sum of £4 (in the inside cover of Paris is another marking for 20p).

I’ve added pictures below, comparing them with my facsimile of London, well thumbed as you can see and with some ale markings, and the new edition of Paris, published with typical elan by Notting Hill Editions. Just look at Nairn’s face on those covers – the child-like, goofy grin is nothing but endearing; he’s like a portly John Turturro.

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I shall run Nairn’s BBC travelogues again this weekend (with some Guinness West Indies Porter, which I’m sure he would slap his lips in satisfaction with) as a small gesture to his ghost, if indeed he was tapping my shoulder to go into that bookshop. ‘Look here mate…’, I hear him saying. 

The Nairn films are infinitely watchable in spite of their low-budget, dated (happily, in this instance), and cobbled together feel. He has a strange, melancholic relationship with the camera; I find him as compelling to watch on screen as, say, Richard Burton or Marlon Brando. At times I imagine he might start riffing towards a Shakespearean soliloquy as he shuffles around Halifax.

Anyway, I shall finish with this, because I have just uncapped another porter: despite his documented drift into darkness in his personal life and an unhealthy relationship with the booze, Nairn makes me laugh hard, and often, in his writing. (Whatever people think about him looking through a glass darkly, my instinct is that he lived his life the way he wanted to, and if that meant living until 53 or 83 years of age, I imagine Nairn would have thought, ‘well, so bloody what’.)
Here he is describing a pub, one of his true passions, The King’s Arms on the Fulham Road:


Below is how they advertise the pub on its website today. Nairn, how prescient you were…

…once again I hear his ghost: ‘And nooooowwww look at it! It makes me burn!’

Fads will come and go. 

Ian Nairn will remain. Raise a glass, chin chin.

An airbrush with history – Abram Games

Abram Games with his controversial ATS poster, which was later withdrawn.

Abram Games

On one occasion when Abram Games returned to collect his portfolio from an agents’ studio in London, he was told that his work was ‘ten years ahead of the public’. At the time, the 1930s, Games was still trying to establish a foothold as a freelance artist, so he somewhat caustically replied: ‘I can’t wait ten years.’ It’s now twenty years since Games‘ death and in many senses he still seems ahead of the curve, such is the striking vitality and originality of his designs, ensuring his place as one of the greatest and most influential graphic designers of the 20th century.

Only subject matter, such as the Second World War, dates Games‘ legacy. Other designs like the first animated ident of BBC Television (1953) looks like an early prototype for a Star Wars’ TIE Fighter. Games‘ artistic sensibilities were influenced by the Bauhaus (see the 1963 cover of Swiss magazine ‘Graphis’) and constructivism (reference his designs for Post Office lines of communication or the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents). His work possessed a surreal streak too: none more so than the Financial Times’ Christmas cards (1951-55) where the ‘Manewspaper’ is carrying home presents, or dashing from the office to catch his train.

The best-known work remains that associated with wartime or in the period of optimism following it: commissions for Transport for London, Guinness, The Times newspaper, the Festival of Britain, and the War Office itself were created through the genius of Games. He was 25 when he joined the British Army as an infantry private in 1940 but his talent was soon in demand for a recruitment poster, which was to become a design classic. Ten thousand copies were printed for the Auxiliary Territorial Service, but the design for ‘Join the ATS’ was banned soon after, following debates in parliament declaring the poster girl ‘too glamorous’; for the rest of his life Games was never fully reconciled with his ‘Blonde Bombshell’ design despite its stunning originality for 1941.

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Controversy did not stem the flow of work for Games –  he created posters guarding against careless talk; medical and dental hygiene; safety; education; anti-pilfering or waste, and his creative thinking was put to good use as well, with wartime shortages of ink and paper. This artistic flourishing wasn’t always guaranteed. Born in 1914 to the sound of the Bow Bells (Games always considered himself a true cockney despite emigré parents) at school he was told that his drawing skills were weak. This did not deter his ambitions to be an artist though; he wryly noted he just ‘had a larger waste-paper basket’.

‘I am a graphic thinker,’ he said later in life, ‘I am bad at drawing… I decided right at the beginning that even if I couldn’t draw, I could think and see. If you can see, you can observe, you can comment.’ And comment he did, although he disliked using words on his designs (ideally he would have had none whatsoever). It was part of his aesthetic principles that led him to his overriding philosophy of graphic design: Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means. In fact, when meeting a client Games would submit just one design, on the thinking that if he himself was unsure, how can the client be expected to make a decision?

As times changed and the medium of the message developed, television in its nascent state would soon come to rule advertising, and although it failed to press any buttons for Games artistically, he must have realised it was the future. He was an egalitarian and would surely have acknowledged how TV (eventually) got the message to the masses, for better or worse. For someone with strong socialist principles, Games must have struggled with the fact that his ideas were, in the main, used to grease the wheels of capitalism: Shell Oil, Air Travel companies, ‘G is for Guinness’ being just a few of his clients. (No doubt he would have felt conflicted like director Andrei Tarkovsky was about cinema; the Russian called it a ‘bad art’ due its dependency on money.)

In a brief spell working in the advertising world after his studies at St Martin’s School of Art, Games was stupefied and felt smothered by its artifices (he was eventually sacked for an office prank; grateful, no doubt). His antipathy to commercialism drove his output in other ways during the war and afterwards. When he set up a studio in his North London home, he committed himself to works of public service: designs for Spain’s Civil War Relief, London Underground, the ‘Your Britain, Fight For it Now’ campaign; the latter involving the infamous Finsbury Health Centre poster, which was banned by Winston Churchill for featuring a boy with rickets as it would have been bad for wartime morale. Games also volunteered with the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad, designing many items for no payment.

Today his work remains vivid in its airbrushed boldness and the effectiveness of the designs meant they could work on a one-inch surface – he created many stamps – or on a hoarding. He was also known as an inspiring teacher and an inventor (see YouTube footage of his 1950 Cona coffee brewer), but it’s his graphic designs that will fire future imaginations. Before he died in 1996, he said ‘I don’t know if I have influenced design, but I have had a few compliments, and some people have cribbed my work, so, from that point of view, people are influenced.’

For someone who was always reticent to use words in his work, we should finish by referring to an unpublished poster Games designed for the Financial Times. The pink ‘un is suspended and opened against a black background, with lower sections cut away from the newspaper to spell the letters ‘FT’. Beside this large abstract symbol, in small lower-case letters are just two words, also in pink: no comment.

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After the Fire – the Great Fire of London

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This painting shows the enormous scale of The Great Fire. Unknown artist, c.1700. (Credit London Fire Brigade)

There must have been some sense of irony in London from the fact that the replacement churches for many of those destroyed in the Great Fire were funded by a Coal Tax. Frying pans and fires bring Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s change in circumstances to mind these days. As calamitous as he was as Lord Mayor of the city, he could not top one of his predecessors Thomas Bludworth. When roused to deal with the Great Fire, which started on 2 September 1666, Bludworth dismissed it with a response not quite befitting public office: ‘a woman might piss it out’ he said, before returning to bed. No doubt he was far from gruntled, to use PG Wodehouse’s word, when he awoke.

In slight mitigation, small fires were a common occurrence at the time. But if Bludworth had been more of a jobsworth, then history might not have recorded the devastating outbreak that spread quickly and raged for four days. The catastrophe almost destroyed the entire city: at least 13,000 houses were lost, 87 parish churches were destroyed, including St Paul’s Cathedral, although the death toll was remarkably low. Fewer than 10 people were known to have died, but the figure was probably higher as many bodies would have been cremated in the intense heat; poor Londoners’ deaths would have gone unrecorded most likely.

In ‘After The Fire’, Angelo Hornak leaves the bodies (or lack of them) aside and focuses on the Baroque. Hornak details the huge rebuilding job of the London churches in the sixty years that followed the fire. It’s a lavish book filled with his impressive photography, which is accompanied by readable and unfussy architectural text. The publication is a hefty slab though, so it is unlikely to be used as a mobile reference for ambling from church to church (perhaps the publisher will include a digital download with future purchases?).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London will no doubt see a flurry of publications attached to it. The story of how Christopher Wren and his colleagues Robert Hooke, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and James Gibbs, seized the opportunity of turning a city’s devastation into a triumph by making it more beautiful is worth retelling in the context of the homogenisation of present-day architecture. The skills of these men, and the many others involved in the buildings, meant London was presented with one of the most idiosyncratic skylines in the world, thanks to joined-up government, openness to influences from European neighbours in Rome, Paris, and the Netherlands, and a desire to build for spiritual enrichment, as much as economic necessity. An engraving by Johannes Kip from 1724 called ‘A Prospect of the City of London’ captures the scene perfectly, with the many steeples of the rebuilt churches scattered like wayward children around St Paul’s newly realised beauty: its father-figure dome.

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Things could have been very different. When Wren was handed overall charge of the church-building programme (St James’s, Piccadilly is the only one he claimed to have solely designed incidentally), his master plan proposed replacing medieval London with a new geometric grid, with grand avenues converging on the piazza at St Paul’s. Thankfully, the only elements of the plan stamped were the building of new quays along the Thames and the Fleet. Speed was of the essence: the city had to be rebuilt quickly to maintain its dominance as a centre of commerce. Yet Hornak’s book shows how God, if He didn’t quite trump Mammon in making London the attraction it is today, played a supporting role in the city’s magnetism through this rich array churches. Pull up a pew and savour it.

After the Fire – London Churches in the Age of Wren, Hooke, Hawksmoor and Gibbs by Angelo Hornak (Pimpernel Press)

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times

 

Marcel Breuer – the last modernist

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St. John’s Abbey and University, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1953-68; bell- banner and church. Picture credit: Peter Sieger

There is an arresting photograph of Marcel Breuer sitting in the upper-floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. It is 1967, a year after his building has opened and Breuer, dressed in a smart suit, and in an armchair with his back to one of the museum’s signature trapezoid windows, looks as if he is explaining something – perhaps trying to justify something.

From the picture one gets a sense that this was something he had been used to throughout his long career; even here, in his most popular (eventually) and best-known building.

If Breuer was spelling something out, then he didn’t look troubled by it: his body language has vim, even with him slouching slightly to the right in the chair, which was probably to soften his imposing frame. What would have exasperated Breuer though, and is not easily explained away, is that in the 35 years since his death, he is primarily remembered for his furniture designs, while his architectural works have been largely overshadowed. But an impressive and weighty new monograph by Robert McCarter (published by Phaidon Press) should realign Breuer’s position in the canon of modern masters, however.

When he died, Breuer was hailed as “the last modernist”. McCarter bumps him up the VIP list in a club that includes Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe (a place that always had something of a rarefied air).

McCarter calls Breuer “the last of the first moderns and the first of the last moderns” thanks to a career spanning 50 years that saw him criss-crossing many bridges of the so-called International Style, before embarking on his own artistic course in a combination of iconic private houses and public buildings in Europe and the United States.

Breuer was among the first students in the Bauhaus at the birth of modernism and, towards the latter part of his career, he readily swam against the flood of steel and glass that was defining modernism’s dull death.

Once Breuer discovered the malleability of reinforced concrete, a beautiful relationship was formed, with béton brut (raw concrete) being used to memorable effect in the building of the Unesco headquarters in Paris (1952-58), with the collaboration of Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss.

Phaidon’s tome covers 100 buildings and 24 furniture designs, and is a joy to spend time over, with its beautiful array of photographs, and McCarter’s exhaustive – but never exhausting – text on the designs (for a useful measuring stick on the depth of detail, here is McCarter on Flainé, a ski resort by Breuer built in the 1960s: “the wood is doussié, similar to teak, imported from Cameroon in French West Africa”).

Breuer’s ideas on architecture were made manifest in his practice, not in polemics, so the written documentation McCarter has to work on by his subject is limited. The author does a satisfying excavation job nonetheless, and we learn a little more about what made Breuer tick: he was sceptical of dogma; he was to have been a much-loved teacher; and he managed to both build his commissions and run a successful practice at the same time – a rare feat. (He also employed an unusual number of women in those old-fashioned days).

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UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France, 1952-8; lobby and promenade of Secretariat. Picture credit: Fonds Zehrfuss.

Before writing this book McCarter was already an admirer of Breuer (as was I), and I’m happily in agreement with him on what he regards as Breuer’s greatest architectural work: St John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota (1953-68). That said, the tone is objective and the author does not spare the critical rod when it is warranted: many of Breuer’s houses went over budget, while some of the large public buildings had serious overheating problems inside, for example.

But, all things considered, it is time to rightfully rank Breuer alongside Mies, Wright and Le Corbusier, and this publication should aid that cause. Many believe his position of architectural greatness would have already been secured but for the remoteness of his best work (that fact that it is sited on the rolling plains of Minnesota means few people get to see St John’s). Breuer’s reticence to pronounce from upon high, or put forward jargonistic soundbites – unlike some others – did not help his case for future recognition either.

If Breuer were alive he would likely have been diffident at the thought of any fuss being made over his legacy. But that would only be true to form. Those who worked with him or knew him well said he was always both self-deprecating and self-effacing. As he once stated in a letter to a friend: “All my life I have been wondering how somebody can be a genius from morning to evening.”

Breuer by Robert McCarter is published by Phaidon Press.

  • Article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement

 

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Resort Town of Flaine, Haute-Savoie, France, 1960-9; view from below of Grand Hotel (Le Flaine). Picture credit: Yves Guillernaut

The émigrés who built modernism

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Glasgow School of Art (Charles Rennie Mackintosh) Credit – John Peter Photography/Alamy

Finsbury Health Centre in London, De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, and the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank were important urban developments during inter-war 20th century Britain. Now rightly categorised as landmarks, each of them has a commonality worth pondering in the context of the social narrative dominating political discourse in modern-day Britain and Ireland (England, especially). Each building was designed, wholly or in part, by refugees or émigrés.

Reading Alan Powers’ excellent 100 Years of Architecture, which begins in 1914, it is striking to see the positive role played by immigrants in their new communities in an age defined by upheaval and mass movement of people. The book traces the path modernism beat through the 20th century; it is well written, smartly defined and put together, and a pleasure to leaf through (Powers disputes categorising all the building selections under the modernism label, but that’s a moot point).

The residual positivity and original thinking one finds in early- to mid-century modernism is remarkable, and its legacy remains in the buildings that are still relevant and used today. This era saw an England that welcomed Erich Mendelsohn as a refugee in 1933, when he began working with the Russian-born Serge Chermayeff.

A year later they had won the competition to build De La Warr Pavilion in East Sussex, which created a space for the public to enjoy a seaside setting; a simple, but nourishing pleasure. The sweeping, cantilevered, glazed staircase inside is a modernist icon and thankfully the pavilion remains a concert and arts space, or simply somewhere you can rest your limbs in an Aalto chair.

Polish-born Mendelsohn served in the first World War and soon made his name in designing what became known as the Einstein Tower – a 1924 commission for an observatory to prove the scientist’s theory that gravity changed the colour of light. Mendelsohn also designed an exemplary shop style with the Schocken Department Store in Chemnitz five years later and after his time in England, he worked in Palestine (under British Mandate) where he produced the impressive Hadassah Hospital and Medical School at Mount Scopus in 1939, before eventually settling in the United States.

Work on Finsbury Health Centre began the same year De La Warr Pavilion opened in 1935, and was based on plans by Berthold Lubetkin. An émigré from Georgia, Lubetkin arrived in England in 1932 and was soon creating waves in architecture with his newly-established partnership Tecton.

The health centre was ambitious for its time: doctors’ consultation rooms, a dental surgery, lecture hall, solarium and antenatal facilities were some of the features inside a markedly modern-looking building.

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Quarr Abbey, Isle of Wight, England, Dom. Paul Bellot (1876–1944) Credit – John Henshall/Alamy

German-born Peter Moro was also an émigré, and a former assistant to Lubetkin. As interior designer, Moro became one of the visionaries behind the Royal Festival Hall (alongside Robert Matthews and Leslie Martin as part of the London County Council). The opening of the new festival hall coincided with the Festival of Britain in 1951. As Powers notes, it came from the “pent-up ideas of 15 years of wartime austerity and its aftermath burst forth in a collaborative team effort”.

The building helped transform the Southbank area on the Thames into one of the main public arteries in the heart of London. Here, in one space, we find the openness and internationalism the city embraced, and which defines it today; the place pulses with energy.

The bestowal of buildings built by ‘foreigners’ is acknowledged long after the fact, although it can be lost in a present climate dominated by thoughts of getting rid of émigrés; preventing them coming in to our countries; building walls to keep them out.

A dominant right-wing political establishment and media in both Britain and Ireland has forced this shameful agenda. The debate on the Brexit referendum, for example, became a debate on immigration after it was hijacked and distorted with misinformation from the Leave campaign.

In Ireland a similar agenda was set during the boom and bust years, when the arbiters of power initially attempted to deflect blame towards foreigners for the country’s economic woes.

Context is everything. The ruling elites and hypocritical media moguls tell us that ‘Johnny Foreigner’ is to blame for problems in society or any strains on infrastructure.

In the context of the last century we can say the left has won the argument. Gone are the slums, diseases, and impoverishment of the working classes; gained are universal education and healthcare, workers’ rights and a standard of living that means we are all living longer than any generation before. But the left has been shouted down by the bullying, contemptible, vested-interests of the rich and privileged.

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AN866F Leicester University Faculty of Engineering, England, 1959 – 1963. Exterior of workshops and office and laboratory tower.

Going back to Finsbury Health Centre, there is a pertinent poster designed by the talented Abram Games in 1942 that features in Powers’ book. The image shows a sleek new health centre being positioned in a grim bombed-out site that has a headstone and the word ‘disease’ scrawled on a wall. Above the building it says ‘Your Britain’ and beside it ‘Fight For It Now’. In the shadows lurks a child suffering from rickets. The poster was withdrawn though, after Winston Churchill deemed it would be bad for public morale during wartime. Context is everything.

Modernist architecture was winning the argument of the last century (on points at least), until it was stiffed by the moneyed classes. As Powers notes, it ‘converges through this 100-year period towards a greater sameness in line with globalisation’.

Years of property speculation, government deference to neo-liberal capitalism, and a dulling of public engagement by the infliction upon us of mass consumption means we no longer look to architecture for the betterment of society. We no longer think of architecture as something for us. Many new buildings have little impact on our communities; do not create spaces for public enjoyment. Instead we have cloistered office blocks, silly garden bridges, or hubristic high rises that offer little but a blot on the skyline, or ostentatious symbols of corporate greed.

Powers remains impartial and admirably restrained throughout his book; it is certainly not polemical. One has no sense that he feels deflated by modernism, or that the movement is defeated, despite being tarnished by all the -isms of the 20th century. There is no inkling that he has a pining for a return to classical forms either.

It is telling that the buildings selected in the last quarter century of the book are mainly cultural centres: galleries, opera houses, museums etc. All worthy ventures of course, but again they are buildings that are usually monetised – enjoyment of them is linked to cash – and it’s unlikely they will draw in people outside of the middle- or upper-classes.

Modernism now means that for every conscientious project such as the Student Centre Building at Cork Institute of Technology or FAT’s New Islington Houses in Manchester, we must suffer a Shard or Cheesegrater (The Leadenhall Building) in London. This is the pay-off. We know which of these types of buildings shouts the loudest. We also know, and must not forget, which buildings give people a say.

100 Years of Architecture by Alan Powers (Laurence King Publishing) is out now

  • Article first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement http://www.the-tls.co.uk/

Industrial relations – Hilla and Bernd Becher

Blast Furnaces, 1980-88

Blast Furnaces

When probed by critics to contextualise their vast collection of photographs of industrial architecture, Hilla and Bernd Becher stated that, “just as the medieval thought is manifest in a Gothic cathedral”, then “so too is the industrial age captured in the machinery once scattered across our lands”.

For more than 40 years the Bechers, husband and wife, documented a world made up of water towers, gas tanks, blast furnaces, grain elevators, collieries, and mine heads: a world of machinery that was no longer used, obsolete; a world that was being swiftly and ruthlessly dismantled.

The epoch of the Industrial Revolution was vanishing without trace, so the Bechers decided to watch, camera at hand, capturing its memento mori.

Hilla and Bernd met in 1957 while working at an advertising agency in Dusseldorf and discovered they had a mutual love of industrial architecture, especially that of the Ruhr region. Bernd had grown up in the area and initially planned to draw and paint these huge structures. But he soon realised that they were being demolished before he was finished with either pen or brush. Hilla, who was an experienced photographer by then, thought it more effective to use this medium instead, and instructed Bernd in technique and printing. A beautiful relationship was formed, and they married in 1961.

Pitheads 1974 by Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher 1931-2007, 1934-2015

Pitheads

 

During this decade the Bechers, with their son Max in tow, travelled around in a VW camper pulling an old caravan customised as a darkroom. Their itinerary included Germany, Holland and France, while in 1966 they embarked on a six-month journey through England and Wales taking pictures of the coal industry. A love of collieries also took them to North America in 1974, Pennsylvania, where they recorded the coal mine tipples.

The objects of their affection might seem cursory upon first impression, but the Bechers’ working methods were anything but. Hilla described their style as “direct, descriptive photography”. This usually meant using ladders and scaffolding to shoot on their large-format plate cameras, with overcast conditions to minimise shadows and allow a neutral backdrop. The same standard was applied to each photograph to give complete objectivity. Photos were published in gelatin silver prints, and no monolith was considered too humdrum to be reverently and painstakingly recorded by them as one of their “anonymous sculptures”.

What transformed the Bechers’ work from documentary to art (although critics remain divided on this categorisation) was their use of typologies, which saw structures being exhibited in grid formations made up of six to fifteen photographs. “By placing several cooling towers side by side something happened, something like tonal music”, Hilla said: “You don’t see what makes the objects different until you bring them together, so subtle are their differences”.

Individually the pictures are impressive, but collectively they take on a rippling power that pulses right out across the grids: a series of gas tanks that morph into displaced industrialised glitter balls; framework houses that variegate across the page like real-time mosaics; winding towers that could be desolate fun parks.

“When you look at something”, they explained, “you look at first one detail and then another until your memory builds up a complete picture. You never see anything in detail at once but the camera can”.

Contemporary critics found the Bechers’ exhibitions workaday, detached and indifferent: sets of stark black-and-white pictures of water towers and gas tanks will not engage everyone’s sensibility, understandably. But this did not deter them or their vision. The Bechers were awed by the ambition of design invested in objects that were functional tools of the industrial landscape; they were enraptured by the imagination and effort invested in composing the perfunctory.

Hilla and Bernd Becher also sensed the cultural value of the likes of the collieries in Wales, while other watched them fall. They understood how these structures were markers on the maps of our age, soon to be erased. “Someone who concerns himself with scorpions must love them to a certain extent. And photography is there precisely to portray what is, not to sort and reproduce only the good and the beautiful”, stated Hilla.

I often wonder what the Bechers would document of our digital age if they were alive: sadly Hilla passed away near the end of last year, Bern in 2007, aged 81 and 75 respectively.

An empty office space, sprinkled with sleek computers slumbering atop linear desks at the break of dawn maybe; scrubby Chinese warehouses stacked with smart devices, just off the production line and freshly boxed for shipping; or perhaps the tools fuelling our vast electrical appetites now: static wind turbines, enervated energy grids, or thundering power plants. All of them fixed, purposely static.Who knows. What is for certain though is that the Bechers marvelled where others might only have overlooked as mundane. With clarity and objectivity, they rendered beauty in places where it should have few expectations. And in the end, criticism of their work did not concern either of them – they were as detached in their reactions to commentary, as they were in their working methods. Their legacy is assured, and their influence lives on in the work of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, and Candida Hoffer. “The question if this is a work of art or not is not very important for us”, they said. “Probably it is situated in between the established categories. Anyway the audience which is interested in art would be the most open-minded and willing to think about it”.

  • Article first appeared in Village magazine

Pen-and-inkery – the magical drawings of Osbert Lancaster

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Osbert Lancaster did not have to look far for caricature. Sporting a walrus moustache, and always dressed in true dapper dandy style with tweeds or pinstripes, he possessed all the natural self-awareness he and other members of the ‘Brideshead Revisted’ brigade brought to any luncheon.

A rambunctious figure, Lancaster could have easily bounded out of a PG Wodehouse novel – in many photographs he looks like Larry Olivier with a few extra potatoes.

But beneath this surface of seeming superciliousness lay depths of talent and discernment. Lancaster was a designer, cartoonist, writer on architecture and travel, and a humorist. He enjoyed nothing more than poking fun at the very establishment he belonged to – and fortunately his work is in print again thanks to Pimpernel Press, which has published a beautiful three-volume slipcase edition of his books: ‘Osbert Lancaster’s Cartoons, Columns and Curlicues’.

The books are made up of Lancaster’s architectural drawings published across the period of the Second World War, tracing the line between the pre-war ideas of preservation, and the post-1945 movement towards renewal and reinvention. In the introduction to the first of these books, ‘Pillar to Post’, Lancaster threw his jocular saddle over a po-faced subject: ‘All the architecture in this book is completely imaginary, and no reference is intended to any actual building living or dead.’

The drawings that follow are satirical, funny, and extremely accurate – so much so that his descriptions were added to the design lexicon: ‘Banker’s Georgian’, ‘Pont Street Dutch’, ‘Pseudish’, ‘Stockbroker’s Tudor’ are all used today. Looking at his drawing ‘Twentieth Century Functional’, it’s fair to say he flagged part of the embryonic modernist movement: a cubist house, and a touch of the ‘Mad Men’ lifestyle thrown in as the hip couple sunbathe on a rooftop, waiting for cocktail o’clock no doubt.

The other volumes, ‘Home Sweet Homes’ and ‘Drayneflete Revealed’, cast an irreverent eye towards matters of domesticity, and presaged some of the conflicts found within the good intentions of the New Town planners (‘The Drayneflete of Tomorrow’ perfectly encapsulates the new city ideology of grids, boulevards, airports and high rises). Lancaster coined more new terms for suburban living in these volumes – ‘By-Pass Variegated’, ‘Aldwych Farcical’ – and always made sure to include the one thing that seems almost sacrilegious to architectural design and drawing: people.

Lancaster’s visions contained such a sharp satirical edge that his long-time friend John Betjeman noted: ‘My only fear… is that some town councils may get hold of (these books) and take it literally.’ His drawings poked some sacred political cows as well. At a time when many people on the left were apologising for or turning a blind eye to Stalin’s Soviet Union, while condemning the actions of Hitler and the Third Reich, Lancaster made two drawings side-by-side in ‘Pillar to Post’. Titled ‘Third Empire’ and ‘Marxist Non-Aryan’, it showed identical structures and designs, bar the easily adjusted window-dressing of Stalinist and Nazism military insignia.

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Osbert Lancaster was born in Notting Hill, London in 1908, and after leaving Oxford with a fourth-class degree and failing his exams to enter the legal world, he found himself somewhat adrift. Art school did not work out for him either, so he started out as a freelance illustrator, designing posters for London Transport and other companies. Betjeman was working on the ‘Architectural Review’ by the 1930s, and soon got his old pal involved. This led to a job with the ‘Daily Express’, when it was still a newspaper of note, and it was here that Lancaster pioneered the pocket cartoon that we are all familiar with now (a single panel, single column drawing). He became part of the Fleet Street furniture during this golden age of newspaper journalism, contributing an estimated 10,000 cartoons over a period of forty years. “He was a bastard”, Lancaster later recalled of Express proprietor Lord Beaverbrook, “but by God he knew his journalism.”

The books on architecture are what Lancaster should be best remembered for though – they are humorous first and foremost, but they also helped disseminate knowledge of architectural styles to many people. The drawings and designs allowed people have the confidence to critique new fads, while at the same time they gave welcome voice to the conservation calls in the urban planning debate. It could be argued that ‘Drayneflete Revealed’ was a much greater force on the issue of urban renewal compared to a 5,000-word polemic, for the simple reason that more people would read it, and, just as importantly, turn the pages joyfully to watch the argument played out.

‘The object of this book,’ Lancaster wrote of ‘Pillar to Post’, ‘is to induce an attitude to architecture less reverent and of greater awareness.’ The books are of their time, of course, but their legacy is part of the strong heritage culture that we rightly fight for today.

When Osbert Lancaster died in 1986, ‘The Times’ observed that ‘with his poached-egg eyes, martial moustaches, tweedily dandified clothes and bufferish-pose as the last of the great clubmen, he seemed to have stepped out of the magically preposterous world of his own drawings.’

Not a bad epitaph for a boy with a fourth-class degree.

 

‘Osbert Lancaster’s Cartoons, Columns and Curlicues’ (2015), Pimpernel Press, £40

  • Article originally appeared in The Irish Times

 

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