My uncle and the USSR

THE MARXIST SOCIETY of the University of East Anglia had just held a meeting around it, so we were told by someone working in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on the university campus in Norwich. The object around which the political gathering was held is a 35 feet high model of a structure that was never built full size. The Russian architect Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) had planned to build a futuristic tower in Petrograd (aka ‘Leningrad’ and ‘St Petersburgh’), an example of Constructivism. The tower, which was to have been 1300 feet high, was planned to celebrate and house The Comintern (3rd International). Hoping to rival Paris’s Eiffel Tower and to symbolise the modernity of Soviet Russia, the tower was never built.

Model of Tatlin’s tower with the Sainsbury Centre behind it

Sometime, back in the early 1970s, it was decided to construct a model of the Tatlin Tower near the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank. This was not a simple task because the structure is complex, and proper detailed blueprints were unavailable. To make a model of the Tatlin Tower that was faithful to the designer’s original idea, and which would not topple over, the services of a structural engineer were required.  My uncle Sven, who worked for the firm of Felix Samuely and Partners, proved to be the man for the job. Working with the project’s director, Jeremy Dixon, my uncle had to unravel the plans of the structure using photographs of a 17-foot model of the tower that Tatlin had created in 1920 and a few existing images of plans that Tatlin had prepared. There were inconsistencies between Tatlin’s plans and the model produced in 1920. In 1971, Dixon:

“…built small models in balsawood to get it right, and he worked with Sven Rindl of consulting engineer Felix J Samuely & Partners, who generated detailed freehand drawings as they talked” (quoted from “Blueprint”, December 2011)

Dixon wrote about this in Sven’s obituary as follows:

“I particularly remember working with him on the reconstruction of the remarkable tower that Vladimir Tatlin produced as a monument to the Third International, the communist organisation founded in 1919, for the Art in Revolution exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1971. The project required us to go back to first principles to reinvent its extraordinary geometry and structure.

Sven would sit listening and commenting during our complex voyage of discovery, and at the same time he would be drawing. These drawings would be remarkable, elegant, three-dimensional sketches straight off the sketch pad, finished and complete. They were graphic works of art as well as documentation of engineering ideas.”

(https://www.theguardian.com/news/2007/apr/30/obituaries.mainsection)

The model was built with timber inside the Hayward Gallery before being exhibited outside it in 1971 as part of an exhibition called “Art in Revolution: Soviet Art and Design since 1917”.

Forty years later in 2011, another model of the Tatlin Tower was produced, this time made of a more durable material, steel. Once again, the project was overseen by Jeremy Dixon. The completed model was first displayed in the courtyard of London’s Royal Academy. In an advance notice of the project (www.architectsjournal.co.uk/archive/ra-unveils-tatlins-tower), my uncle, who had died in 2007, was given a prominent mention:

“The 10.5m high steel structure in the Annenberg Courtyard was designed by architects Jeremy Dixon of Dixon Jones Architects, Christopher Cross, Christopher Woodward and engineer Sven Rindl. The tower will form part of the Royal Academy’s forthcoming exhibition, Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935 which opens on 29 October 2011.”

I remember going to view the model and then seeing a small exhibition about it and its construction. The exhibition, which was held inside the Royal Academy, included images of some of the beautifully drawn plans and diagrams created by my uncle.

The steel model of the Tatlin Tower, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 2011, has been lent to the Sainsbury Centre by the academy. Painted in red, this model of an experiment in futuristic architecture stands outside and close to the magnificent building that houses the Centre. The edifice, which is now over 40 years old, but looks like new, was designed by the architects Norman Foster and Wendy Cheesman.

We had no idea that there was a model of Tatlin’s tower next to the Sainsbury Centre when we visited it in September 2021. My wife and I were pleased to see this reminder of a much-missed relative whom we both loved dearly.

Shifted to Somerset from London

EVERY YEAR SINCE 2000, excepting 2020, The Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens has erected a temporary summer pavilion. Each pavilion is designed by a different architect or group of architects. What they have in common is that their pavilion is the first of their designs to be constructed in London, or maybe the UK. They stand in front of the Serpentine Gallery during the summer months and into early autumn. They are always fascinating visually and always contain a café with seating. Over the years some of them have been used as event spaces.

At the end of the season, the pavilions are dismantled and are never seen again in Kensington Gardens. Some of them might be sold and others re-erected elsewhere, but until recently I have never seen one again.

A few years ago, a contemporary art gallery, Hauser and Wirth, which has a branch in London’s West End, bought a farm on the edge of Bruton in Somerset. They have used some of the farm buildings and constructed some new ones to accommodate another branch of their gallery. In addition to the exhibition spaces, there is a superb restaurant, an up-market farm shop, and a wonderful garden created by the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf (born 1944).

The garden slopes upwards from the gallery. At the top of the slope, there is something that at first sight looks like a giant hamburger patty or the profile of an oversized bagel. I recognised it immediately as being one of the former summer pavilions that once stood next to The Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. It is the 2014 Serpentine pavilion designed by Smiljan Radic (born 1965 in Santiago, Chile).

When I saw it in London in 2014, I was not overly impressed by it. However, seeing it at Hauser and Wirth in Somerset, it looks great. My description of it as an oversized bagel is not too far from the truth. It is, basically, an annular structure like a ring or a bagel, but it is far more interesting than that. Supported on rocks, the ring is not in one plane, but it undulates gradually. Irregularly shaped holes in its translucent skin provide intriguing views of Oudolf’s garden, which looks good in all seasons, and the surrounding hilly Somerset countryside.

A visit to Hauser and Wirth in Somerset makes a fine day out even if you have only a scant interest in contemporary art. The food served in the restaurant is of a high quality and not unreasonably priced. The buildings on the estate are lovely and the garden is hard to beat for its beauty.

Ideas and appearance

EVERY YEAR SINCE 2000 (except 2020), the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens has commissioned a temporary pavilion to be constructed next to it. A website (www.inexhibit.com/case-studies/serpentine-galleries-pavilions-history/) explains:

“The pavilions, which last for three months and should be realized with a limited budget, are located in the heart of the Kensington Gardens and are intended to provide a multi-purpose social space where people gather and interact with contemporary art, music, dance and film events.”

The architects chosen to design these temporary structures have not had any of their buildings erected in London prior to their pavilions. Some of the architects involved over the years included Zaha Hadid, Smiljan Radić, Sou Fujimoto, Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, Frank Gehry, Olafur Eliasson & Kjetil Thorsen, Álvaro Siza, and Eduardo Souto de Moura with Cecil Balmond, and Oscar Niemeyer.

With a very few exceptions, I have liked the pavilions and admired their often visually intriguing, original designs. My favourites were the 2007 pavilion by Olafur Eliasson & Kjetil Thorsen; 2009 by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa; 2013 by Sou Fujimoto; and 2016 by Bjarke Ingels.

This year, the pavilion was designed by an architectural practice, Counterspace, based in Johannesburg (South Africa) and led by Sumayya Vally, who is the youngest architect to have become involved in the Serpentine pavilion project. According to the Serpentine’s website (www.serpentinegalleries.org/whats-on/serpentine-pavilion-2021-designed-by-counterspace/) the 2021 pavilion is:

“… based on past and present places of meeting, organising and belonging across several London neighbourhoods significant to diasporic and cross-cultural communities, including Brixton, Hoxton, Tower Hamlets, Edgware Road, Barking and Dagenham and Peckham, among others. Responding to the historical erasure and scarcity of informal community spaces across the city, the Pavilion references and pays homage to existing and erased places that have held communities over time and continue to do so today.”

Well, maybe this was the designers’ aim, but it does not convey that concept to me. This circular, building coloured black and white, immediately conjured up in my mind images of often disused municipal structures such as bandstands and public conveniences that might have been constructed on provincial British or even South African seafronts in the 1930s to 1950s. It might have been conceived with high-minded ideas in the architects’ heads, but I felt that the structure is lacking in visual interest both in detail and in its entirety. Compared with many of the previous pavilions erected on its site, this is one of the dullest I have seen. It is a shame that the pavilion’s creators did not put more effort into its appearance than into the message(s) it is supposed to convey.   To my taste, it is a disappointment but do not let me put you off: go and see it for yourself.

Grahame Greene got married here

DURING THE COVID19 ‘lockdowns’, it is often impossible to venture within a church. On several occasions, especially when there are builders at work within a church, we have been lucky enough to be able to enter it. Otherwise, they are usually locked up. Not too long ago, I wrote about General De Gaulle’s brief period of residence in Hampstead and mentioned that he attended mass at Hampstead’s Roman Catholic St Mary’s Church (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/03/22/french-connections/). Oddly, given how often we have visited Hampstead, I had never seen St Mary’s until we visited it in late March 2021. The church is located on Holly Walk about 180 yards north of Hampstead’s Anglican Parish Church.

St Mary’s is set back from the road and its tall narrow façade is wedged between two terraced Georgian houses. The white painted façade with neo-classical ornamentation and a niche containing a large sculpture of the Virgin and Child, and a belfry with a single bell, has a Mediterranean or southern European look to it. It adds an exotic touch to its otherwise British surroundings. The façade was designed by the architect William Wardell (1823-1899), many of whose creations are in Australia. Born a Protestant, he was influenced by his friend the great Victorian architect Augustus Pugin (1812-1852), who converted to Roman Catholicism. Wardell followed in Pugin’s footsteps and became a Catholic, building several Catholic churches in England, including St Mary’s in Hampstead, before he moved to Australia in about 1858 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Wardell). In the 1840s, after becoming a Catholic, he became a parishioner at St Mary’s.

Prior to the construction of St Mary’s, the Roman Catholics in Hampstead worshipped in Oriel House in Little Church Row. When this became too small to accommodate the congregation, the present church was constructed in under a year and was ready for use in August 1816. At that time, the congregation was led by a French refugee, the Abbé Jean-Jacques Morel, whom I described in the article to which I referred above. While he was still officiating at St Marys, a Papal Bull, the “Restoration of the Hierarchy to England and Wales”, was issued in 1850. Included in this document was permission for bells to be rung from Catholic churches in England for the first time since the Reformation. It was this that led to the creation of the façade, designed by Wardell, which we see today.

Fortunately for us the door to the church was open when we arrived. A couple of workmen were doing some repairs and did not mind us entering the small church. According to Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry in their “London 4: North” architectural guide, the interior was altered in 1878, and a sanctuary as well as two side chapels were added in 1907. The nave faces a baldachino supported by four pillars coloured black with gold-coloured decoration. The baldachino was designed by Adrian Gilbert Scott (1882-1963) in 1935. His family were parishioners of St Mary’s. Adrian lived in Frognal Way in a neo-Georgian house called Shepherd’s Well. Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1872), Adrian’s grandfather, also lived in Hampstead, at Admirals House close to Fenton House. There is a painting above the high altar that depicts the Assumption of the Virgin. This was painted by a student of Bartolomé Murillo (1617-1682) and presented to the church by one of its founders Mr George Armstrong.

There is a stone effigy in the northern side chapel, the Lady Chapel. It depicts a figure with hands together as in prayer, with a lion at his feet. Although Abbé Morel had requested to be buried under a simple marble slab, this effigy of him was commissioned by the architect Wardell. The lion at the feet of the cleric indicates that he died outside the country of his birth.

Although the interior of the church is not so old, it evokes the feeling of much older churches I have seen in Italy. As with the façade, the inside of St Mary’s feels as if it is in a country close to the Mediterranean. While visiting its interior, I popped a donation into a box in exchange for a copy of a booklet about the church, from which much of my information has been gleaned. The booklet includes information about some notable members of the church’s congregation, including General De Gaulle, the Duchess of Angouleme, William Wardell, the Gilbert-Scott family, the landscape artist Thomas Clarkson Stansfield (who lived on Hampstead High Street), the novelist Grahame Greene (1904-1991), and Baron Friedrich Von Hugel (1852-1925).

Greene, an agnostic, became converted to Catholicism and was baptised in February 1926, partly because of the influence of Vivien Dayrell-Browning, whom he married in October 1927 in the Church of St Mary’s in Hampstead.  

Von Hugel, who lived in Holford Road, which runs east of Heath Street, was, like Greene, a convert to Catholicism. He was born in Florence, Italy, and moved to England when he was 15 years old. He was an influential religious historian and philosopher both inside and beyond the Roman Catholic Church. He was a leading proponent of Catholic Modernism, which:

“…is neither a system, school, or doctrine, but refers to a number of individual attempts to reconcile Roman Catholicism with modern culture.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modernism_in_the_Catholic_Church).

Less cerebral than Von Hugel, but greatly skilled was Gino Masera (1915-1996), who worshipped at St Mary’s. The booklet describing the church notes that when working at London’s Savoy Hotel:

“His artistic talent was revealed when he was asked to carve a block of salt for table decoration. He regarded the commission to carve the Stations of the Cross [in St Mary’s] as a turning point in his career and went on to carve the statue of Christ the King which stands above the High Altar in St Paul’s Cathedral.”

St Mary’s Church stands above a large burial ground that lines the east side of most of Holly Walk. Less picturesque than St Mary’s, this cemetery contains some interesting gravestones including those of the actor Anton Wohlbrueck (Walbrook) who died in Germany but whose ashes are buried in Hampstead; the cartoonist George du Maurier; and the Labour politician Hugh Gaitskell.

Once again, visiting Hampstead, a district with a rich history has proved interesting. Each time we make a trip to the area, we see things we had not noticed before and this has resulted in gradually expanding our knowledge of a place that has attracted fascinating people as residents over several centuries.

Adam in the garden

WHEN I WAS BORN, my parents wanted to call me ‘Adam’. That was in the early 1950s. However, Mom and Dad were worried that Adam was a relatively unusual first name in those far-off days and that with such a name I might have been teased at school. As it happened, I only attended schools where the pupils were addressed by their surnames and mine, Yamey, was subject of a lot of mirth amongst my schoolmates. In view of their concerns, I was named ‘Robert Adam’, but have always been called ‘Adam’. My father, an economist, was all for calling me ‘Adam Smith Yamey’ in memory of the father of economics Adam Smith (1723-1790), but my mother was not keen giving me this name. The choice of Robert was possibly influenced by the fact that one of my mother’s brothers bore this name. It is also very vaguely possible that the name ‘Robert Adam’ was chosen in memory of another man who was alive during Adam Smith’s lifetime, the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792).

Garden House by Robert Adam at Osterley Park

Maybe because I share his name, I have grown to like and appreciate the architecture and interior decors created by the 18th century Robert Adam. However, you do not need to be called Robert Adam to enjoy Adam’s great works.

Last year, we visited Osterley Park on an extremely rainy day and were able to wander around the interior of Osterley Park House (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/11/02/at-home-with-adam/). Built by the merchant and founder of London’s Royal Exchange Sir Thomas Gresham (c1519-1579) in about 1575, the house was extensively remodelled by the Child family, who owned it, during the 1760s and 1770s. The remodelling was to the detailed designs of Robert Adam.

When we visited the house on that rainy day in November 2020, we omitted walking around the house’s fine semi-formal gardens. On our recent visit, the house was not open because of covid19 prevention measures and there was no rainfall. So, we wandered around the lovely gardens. Like so many other 18th century landscaped gardens attached to stately homes, that at Osterley contains several buildings that were placed to add to the picturesqueness of the grounds.

The Doric Temple of Pan with four columns and four pilasters was built in the 18th century, probably to the design of the Scottish-Swedish architect William Chambers (1723-1796), who was born in the Swedish city of Gothenburg. Between 1740 and 1749, while in the employ of the Swedish East India Company, he made three voyages to China, where he learnt Chinese. A major rival of Robert Adam, he was an exponent of neo-classicism, of which the small Temple of Pan is a fine example. The interior of the temple, which we were unable to see because of covid19 prevention measures, contains, according to Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry:

“… mid c18 interior plasterwork with Rococo flourishes and medallions of Colen Campbell and Sir Isaac Newton.”

The front of the temple faces across a lawn towards a structure, 175 yards away, designed by Chambers’ rival Robert Adam: The Garden House.

Adam designed the Garden House in about 1780. It has a semi-circular façade with five large windows within frames topped with semi-circular arches. Pevsner and Cherry describe these windows as “five linked Venetian windows”. A balustrade tops the façade and almost hides the conical roof. Between the windows, there are roundels containing bas-relief depictions of classical scenes with bucolic themes. The building was part of Mrs Child’s Flower Garden. The National Trust, which manages Osterley Park, notes in its website (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/osterley-park-and-house/features/the-garden-house-at-osterley-park-and-house) that the Garden House’s original purpose was:

“… a display house for the collection of rare trees and shrubs that were housed here in the 18thC. The main type of plant that we always grow and display in this building is lemon trees as we have historic evidence that 45 lemon trees were on show here in the 1780’s. We choose to have a mixed display of other interesting specimens alongside the lemons so as to give a greater display and range of interest for our visitors. All of these plants are known to have been either at Osterley in the 18thC or to have been available to grow at that time.”

Although it is not as spectacular as Adam’s interiors of Osterley Park, the Garden House is both delightful and elegant, a fine feature that enhances the appearance of the formal part of the gardens. This and other buildings designed by the same architect makes me proud to have been given, maybe accidentally, the name Robert Adam Yamey.