'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

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.

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.


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.


After the Fire – the Great Fire of London


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.


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



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.


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.


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

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



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


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.



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



Women building the world


Eileen Gray’s house in Cap Martin, France – E.1027

When Zaha Hadid died suddenly at the end of March a seismic jolt of sadness mixed with panegyrics on her legacy ran through the world of architecture. She was relatively young, aged 65, at the peak of her creative powers, and her legendary appetite for work was seemingly undiminished. Zaha was one of the totemic figures of modern architecture; part of the red-carpet call of ‘starchitects’, to use that awful journalistic shorthand, of Rogers, Foster, Gehry et al. Of more significance was her sex. Just by being a woman at the very pinnacle of her profession, Zaha’s role as a torch bearer held special significance to any female who wished to firstly break into the beaux arts, and secondly to smash any glass ceiling to smithereens.

Architecture remains one of the last bastions of almost pure patriarchy. Zaha’s achievements would have been considered remarkable in any light, but the fact that she was a woman gave her achievements a more burnished glow – so much so that writer Jonathan Meades, unbiddable at the best of times, called her the first great female architect (‘each of whose buildings seem unsatisfied with being just one building’, he wrote in a long profile of her a few years ago). This suggestion can hardly be disputed, for if we look at even a potted history of women in architecture, then it is easy to see that Zaha was an omnific figure. She was no half of a Mr and Mrs team. She did it on her own (with due recognition of the talented team she assembled at her London practice). 

And yet it was far from easy, thus prompting the question: if architecture was a struggle for a force of nature such as Zaha, what does it mean for the progression of other women today in such a testosterone-charged world? 

Some statistics can buttress the point: the RIAI has 646 registered practising female architects (with a further 79 registered but residing outside of Ireland), which makes up 26 per cent of their total; from their most recent surveys, in 2007, only 14 per cent of practising architects in Britain were women, according to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA); while the American Institute of Architects (AIA) listed only 16 per cent of its membership as female, as of 2012. In a recent issue of ‘The Architectural Review’, the magazine asked why so many women leave architecture after qualifying? The feedback did not throw up a single, comprehensive answer, but listed a combination of factors: women were not afforded the same pay, seniority, or respect as their male colleagues; sexual discrimination came into it as well, as did the not unreasonable idea of wanting to start a family. 

It seems the architecture profession still presents an unforgiving topography for any woman to face. And where better to start than Zaha Hadid? An architect who polarised opinion right until the very end.

The role of outsider did not seem to overly trouble Zaha Hadid. In fact she seemed to revel in it, even after she had been handsomely honoured (eventually) by the architectural establishment: the Pritzker Prize in 2004 (the Nobel of architecture) and the RIBA’s gold medal last February; she also won the Stirling Prize in 2011 for her school in London, the Evelyn Grace Academy.  

MAXXIL Museum of XXI Century Arts by Zaha Hadid

MAXXI Museum of XXI Century Arts by Zaha Hadid

Born in Baghdad in 1950, she moved to London in 1972 to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. After working with Rem Koolhaas and apparently absorbing the paintings of Kasimir Malevich as a major influence on her work, Zaha set up her own practice. But for someone considered a colossus in architecture later in life, with a plethora of big-money projects, her first actual building was not completed until the 1990s – and it was a considerably modest one at that: a fire station in Weil am Rhein in 1993. Her first building in London did not appear until 2000: a temporary pavilion attached to the Serpentine Gallery. Did this distrust in shaking of the ‘paper architect’ tag make her more determined? Probably. But  Zaha easily made up for this lack of love in her adopted home in other parts of the world – by 2013 she had 950 projects in 44 countries. The number of iconic building she designed is astonishing: the Transport Museum in Glasgow by the Clyde; London’s Olympic Aquatics Centre; The BMW plant in Leipzig, the list goes on; made all the more striking when considering the humble beginnings of women in architecture.

The first woman believed to have worked as a professional architect is Louise Blanche Bethune (1856-1913) from New York, while Julia Morgan (1872-1957) was the first woman to receive an architecture degree from the École des Beaux-Arts. The first women to be admitted to RIBA were sisters Ethel and Bessie Charles (in 1898 and 1900 respectively) but frustratingly for each of them, large-scale work was still the preserve of men, and they had to settle for work on modest designs. Small blocks, yes, but important nonetheless. Progress was finally being made.

Another important figure on the landscape was Ireland’s Eileen Gray (1878-1976). Born in Enniscorthy, she moved to Paris to study at the Academie Julian and she initially made her name from furniture design (many of which are modern classics) and interior decoration for the moneyed classes. Her pièce de résistance, however, was the house she designed for herself in Cap Martin, France – E.1027, which soon became a modernist icon, and came close to Le Corbusier’s aphorism that the house should be a machine, with its fold-out furniture and moving partitions, even if Gray disputed this notion. It made such an impression on Le Corbusier that he invited Gray to contribute to his pavilion at the Paris Expo in 1937. The title of the house was derived from her initial ‘E’, and numeric initials thereafter: the 7 for G being the seventh letter of the alphabet, and the ten and two stood as a tribute to her lover, the Romanian architect Jean Badovici, who helped with its design. Gray’s grand gesture was matched by her eye for small detail too. She designed everything inside the house: from tables that could be adjusted when you were in bed or in a chair, to the surface of the tea trolley made from cork, to prevent any rattling of china. The house has been restored and stands timelessly beautiful on the Côte d’Azur. It was Gray’s first architectural work. She was 51 years old. 

If Eileen Gray died a somewhat obscure figure before a revival of her art in the 1960s, then Ray Eames (1912-1988) has always been a fixed point of inspiration in the creative world, having been one half of one of the world’s most renowned design offices. Alongside her husband, Charles, the Eameses blazed a trail in many fields: film, furniture design, and in 1979 they were awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. Born in Sacramento, California, Ray was a painter when she met Charles (they married in 1941) and it did not take long for their synergy to create some of the most iconic images in the world: their lounge chair and ottoman made of leather and plywood, for example, and which is still produced today. They also played an important role of bringing science into the mainstream in the 1960s with their wonderful films commissioned by companies like IBM (watch ‘The Powers of Ten’ on YouTube; it’s still captivating). It’s their very own house that the Eameses are best known for though. Built in Los Angeles, the house combined functionalism with aesthetic minimalism. The local climate enabled it to be made from glass and standard steel elements, which made it a very low-cost build; it’s is all straight lines, sleek, and filled with light. The Eameses filled it with books, keepsakes, and furniture of their own design and moved in on Christmas Eve when it was completed in 1949. They lived there for the rest of their lives. 

  • Article originally appeared in The Irish Times
Eames house

The Eames House in Los Angeles


The future, unfinished


Railway Station


This year sees the centenary of the death of Antonio Sant’Elia, who is considered one of the finest draftsmen in the history of architecture.

Yet few of his plans were ever built, which is quite an anomaly considering the influence and quality of the drawings made by the Italian. A similar comparison would be if the songs of George Gershwin or Cole Porter had never been performed; Sant’Elia’s sketchbook is like the Great American Songbook, unsung.

Born in Como and a builder by trade, Sant’Elia became an integral part of the Futurist movement in Italy.

Italian writer and poet Filippo Marinetti was the ideological founder of Futurism, publishing his manifesto for the movement in Paris newspaper Le Figaro in 1909: “For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards”. The artistic movement rejected traditional forms and embraced the revolutionary possibility that technology could bring to culture, cities, and modern living.

Marinetti’s words were bricks for a modernism that he wished others would build and the ideas quickly took hold in his homeland, with painters, sculptors, musicians and architects such as Mario Chiattone and Sant’ Elia soon adapting them into their work.

(Futurist ideas travelled as far as Russia, influencing Mayakovsky and Malevich, among others. But through time the movement lost all credibility when Marinetti began to couple Fascism with the movement. He became a vocal supporter of Mussolini, and continued to glorify the idea of war, releasing a collection of poems in 1915 called ‘War the Only Hygiene of the World’.)

Sant’Elia opened a design office with Chiattone in Milan in 1912, where he created his bold and vivid sketches that would have a profound influence on Modernism. In the heart of a bustling metropolis that was undergoing major industrial and population growth, Sant’Elia worked on his grand design for a futurist city, Citta Nuova (New City), made up of monolithic and monumental skyscrapers with bridges and walkways that cut across the sky. He wanted the modern city to be a living, functioning organism; built with dynamism, speed, straight lines, and with the man and machine at its heart. His urban vision was pure cinematic projection. Although people do not feature in his drawings to give a sense of scale or society (“Futurist architecture . . . is not an arid combination of practicality and utility, but remains art, that is, synthesis and expression”, he wrote), many of the designs give a feeling of activity and existence. We can imagine the commotion among the calm construction.


Stepped House

In fact when one looks closely at the drawings, they appear almost too beautiful, (itals) too perfect. And if they are too perfect for the eye to behold, then what do the designs mean to the engineer, who has to move the imagination of the page towards the reality of the physical rule? Nevertheless, the modern world has come close, or at least tried to, in replicating Sant’Elia’s ideas – see Helmut Jahn’s James R. Thompson Centre in Chicago and the Marriott Marquis hotel by John Portman (both built in the 1980s), for example.

In 1914 a manifesto titled Futurist Architecture was published and attributed to Sant’Elia – it detailed an architecture of fantastic possibilities. The short credo has its share of abstract, jargonistic writing, but for its time it was an important document outlining a new world of architecture, where the city is dynamic, modern and, consequently, huge. Streets and squares were to be done away with; our space was to be lifted skywards instead.

To get a flavour of its radicalism, it is worth quoting some of the declarations in full.

‘We must invent and rebuild our Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, active, mobile, and everywhere dynamic, and the Futurist house like a gigantic machine.’

‘We feel that we are no longer the men of the cathedrals and ancient moot halls, but men of the Grand Hotels, railroad stations, giant roads, colossal harbors, covered markets, glittering arcades, reconstruction areas, and salutary slum clearances’.

In this context, it is easy to understand how Sant’Elia’s drawings, penned on small surfaces but with layers of detail, influenced the future cinematic worlds of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; both directors dreamed of future cities in the sky too.

Hundreds of Sant’Elia’s drawings survive and many can be viewed at Pinacoteca, Como’s art gallery. In historical terms, he was the legitimate father of Futurism, however he did not live long enough to see the movement become bastardised in its sordid relationship with Fascism. With a strong sense of patriotism (fighting for one’s coutry was still viewed with naive romanticism in Sant’Elia’s day), he joined the army as Italy entered the First World War in 1915, and was killed in battle in October the following year.

A hundred years on since his death, our buildings have yet to catch up with him.


Antonio Sant’Elia

  • Article originally appeared in The Irish Times

Wildly Inventive Sigmar Polke

Sigmar Polke: Mao [1972]


Excellent article from the New York Review of Books:


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