HOBSON STREET IN the heart of Cambridge is one way and is used by traffic avoiding the pedestrianised section of Sidney Street. Hobson Street is lined with buildings of various ages. One of these, which has always attracted me, is a disused cinema whose facade has Art Deco features.
Built in about 1930 to replace an earlier cinema constructed in 1921, it was The Central Cinema. Its white tiled facade has Egyptian and Art Deco details.
In 1972, the cinema closed and was converted, as many other old cinemas have been, into a bingo hall. This establishment thrived until 2009 when the British government banned smoking in public places. Apart from three days when the building was occupied by squatters for 3 days, the old cinema has been boarded up and disused.
Various plans have been proposed for its future use, but none of them have been carried out. One of the problems is that because it is a protected edifice, any future plans have to preserve its original features. And as most of the new ideas for the old cinema involve adding windows, and adding them would infringe the protection order, all of the new plans have had to be abandoned. The protection order has saved the building but hindered its future development.
THE SWAMINARAYAN TEMPLE in Mandvi (Kutch, Gujarat) was constructed between 1991 and 1999 to replace a smaller Mandir on the site. Without going into the details of its very fine architectural and decorative features, this edifice was financed by local Kutchi followers of Swaminarayan. The Rajasthani Marble that forms the temple’s structure was hand carved by workmen, all of whom were followers of Swaminarayan. The stones that make up the building were carved in Rajasthan, transported to Mandvi where they were put together to make the edifice. This is similar to how the great temple in London’s Neasden was constructed.
The temple at Mandvi looks very similar to ancient Hindu temples I have seen elsewhere in India. As you look around it, you can see how the very old temples looked when they had just been built many centuries ago. Apart from the fact that Mandvi’s Swaminarayan Mandir looks recently built, a layman like myself, would find it difficult to age the building.
In 19th century England, many new churches were built in the gothic style. Like the newish temple at Mandvi, may of them faithfully reproduce the churches built in mediaeval times. The only thing that differentiates the 19th century Gothic Revival churches from their mediaeval predecessors is that they look too new to be as old as them.
In a book about Gothic Revival written by the art historian Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), he suggests that in England the use of gothic style in architecture never actually died out, and this suggested to me the Gothic Revival was really gothic survival. As far as I can gather, the same is the case for Hindu mandir architecture. If this is really the case, new temples such as Mandvi’s Swaminarayan Mandir is not the revival of the use of an ancient style of architecture, but an example of its survival. Put another way, the new temple at Mandvi is a reincarnation of its predecessor.
COMMERCIAL STREET IN Bangalore (Bengaluru) is one of the main arteries of a busy shopping district – a bazaar area – in the centre of the city. It is close to an area occupied by military establishments, descendants of a former British military base, to which Sir Winston Churchill (no friend of India) was attached briefly when he was a young man. Another main road, Kamaraj Road, in the area used to be known as Cavalry Road. And another reminder of the area’s military proximity is Infantry Road that runs into the Commercial Street area.
There is a network of narrow lanes that run through the bazaar district. These are lined with shops of varying sizes, tradesmen, artisans, cafés, and other businesses. Numerous motorcyclists and autorickshaws thread their way through the crowds of pedestrians thronging the streets. I suspect that only a small number of these people notice or are interested in the architecture of the buildings lining these lanes. I am one of that small minority.
Many of the buildings in the bazaar are either modern or post 1947. There are still some earlier edifices still standing. Some are gradually falling to pieces and others are in good condition.
Recently, I was taking pictures of some of the older buildings and their traditional decorative features when a man came up to me and said: “Very old. Historic buildings. Old, very old.” How old they are, I do not know, but it is likely that they were already standing when India became independent in 1947. I did not ask the man, who commented on the buildings’ age, exactly when they were built. One of my reasons for not doing so was a consequence of an instance in Junagadh (a city in Gujarat) some years ago. We were looking at an interesting mausoleum in the centre of Junagadh, wondering about its age, when we asked a bystander when it was built. He answered: “I don’t know. I wasn’t born then.”
The few intact attractive, old buildings in the Commercial Street bazaar area are lovely to behold. Given how many of them have already been replaced, I wonder how much longer those remaining will survive.
THE BOWRING INSTITUTE is a private members’ social club in central Bangalore (Bengaluru). It was established in 1868, and has been standing on its present site since 1888. The club has recently undergone a tasteful restoration and improvement. The old 19th century buildings can be seen in their full glory, looking as if they have only just been constructed.
One external wall of a club building has been adorned with a huge panel decorated with two Modulors. The Modulor is a symbol created by the great pioneer of 20th century architecture, Le Corbusier. It looks like a man with one arm raised and was designed by Le Corbusier to be “ a visual bridge between two scales: the metric and the imperial…” It was also connected with his philosophy that the proportions of structures should be related to those of the human body.
Le Corbusier had several connections with India. For example, he was intimately involved in the design of the city of Chandigarh and created a few wonderful buildings in Ahmedabad.
That said, I have yet to discover why the Modulor was placed twice on a panel at the Bowring Institute so long after its creator’s death. I would like to think that it is a fitting reminder of the considerable influence that Le Corbusier has had on 20th century Indian architects, including Balkrishna Doshi, whose studio and offices are in Ahmedabad.
I HAD PASSED it often, but never entered it until recently when I attended a concert within it. I am talking about a church on Holland Road in West London not far from Shepherds Bush, St John the Baptist. This Anglican church is an exceptional example of gothic revival style. Designed by James Brooks (1825-1901) with John Standen Adkins (an assistant of Brooks), it was constructed between 1872 and 1910.
Although the façade facing Holland Road is not exceptional, the church’s interior is highly breathtakingly decorative. Unlike mediaeval churches, which took centuries to complete, St John the Baptist was constructed in much less time. Yet, its decorative details, which imitate what is best in many older churches, rival those found within the old ones. The workmanship and fine details in St John’s remind one of the best productions of craftsmen, who flourished many centuries earlier. However, unlike the earlier churches, which inspired the designers of St John’s, the interior of the church on Holland Road looks too good to be true. Completed in a relatively short period, the variety that adds to the charm of gothic churches built in earlier times and more slowly is lacking in St John’s and other fine examples of late Victorian gothic revival buildings. What we see at St John’s is the realisation of the architects’ concept of an ideal ‘mediaeval’ church. What was achieved at St John’s is probably something like the results early creators of (mediaeval) churches hoped to create, but never lived long enough to see fully realised.
The attention to detail in the better gothic revival churches, such as St John’s, is marvellous. The result is an ensemble of decorative features rich in meticulously executed intricate details. While I was listening to the concert in St John’s, my eyes took in the details of the church, and I began thinking it was amazing that the elaborate attention to fiddly ornate minutiae was carried out only a few years before architectural trends turned through 180 degrees from excessively decorative to the greater simplicity of much 20th century architecture.
I HAVE WALKED past London’s Victoria Coach Station many times without looking at it particularly carefully. Yesterday, the 28th of September 2022, I was early for a meeting at the Embassy of Albania, which is not far from Victoria Station. So, I walked slowly, stopping to look at the Coach Station. I had never noticed before that it is a fine example of Art Deco architecture.
The Coach Station, which opened for use in March 1932, was designed by Wallis, Gilbert, and Partners.
I suppose that my interest in Art Deco buildings was initiated by visits to Bombay (Mumbai), where there are many splendid examples of this style of architecture. Gradually, I am discovering that London also has a rich collection of Art Deco buildings. The Coach Station is a fine and well-maintained example.
WHEN I SET off for Venice a couple of days ago, I doubted whether I would enjoy the Biennale as much as my wife and our daughter. How wrong I was. I have been enjoying exploring the artworks housed in a number of different places around the city. Some of the shows are in pavilions specially designed for Biennale exhibitions. Others are in places adapted, mostly temporarily, for use during the art festival. For example, the Nepalese and Armenian shows are in what look like disused shop premises. Others are in far grander edifices.
Today, we visited an exhibition housed in the courtyards and rooms of a huge palace, which is home to a music conservatoire (located close to Campo S Stefano). The exhibits (sculptures, paintings, and videos) were created by members of a group of artists within the fold of the Parasol Unit art foundation. The artists in the show are: Darren Almond, Oliver Beer, Rana Begum with Hyetal, Julian Charrière, David Claerbout, Bharti Kher, Arghavan Khosravi, Teresa Margolles, Si On, Martin Puryear, and Rayyane Tabet.
The show in the conservatoire is wonderful. The building itself is a fantastic architectural sculpture with a myriad of neo-classical decorative sculptural details. The works of art, which are in total contrast to the architecture, harmonise interestingly with the environments in which they have been placed. Photographs cannot do justice to this exhibition; it has to be experienced in person.
Although this show will be amongst my favourite exhibitions in the 2022 Venice Biennale, it is not alone in being magnificent. I am glad that we have come to Venice for this artistic bonanza.
THE BIENNALE IN Venice was first held in 1895. The original international bi-annual art exhibition was contained in public gardens at the Eastern end of the city of Venice in the Castello district.
Initially, there was a Central Pavilion, opened in 1894. Later, various participating countries built national pavilions, the first being Belgium in 1907. The latest is the Australian pavilion, built only a few years ago.
The national pavilions reflect both the politics and architectural styles prevailing at the time they were built. Therefore, they are at least as interesting as the artworks that take up temporary residence within them at each exhibition.
I will discuss two of the pavilions in this short essay, and hope to write about some of the others at a later date.
The Russian pavilion bears the date 1914 and several double-headed eagles. It was constructed before the 1917 Revolution, and has some traditional Russian architectural features.
Next to the Belgian pavilion, stands the Spanish one. First constructed in 1933, its facade was replaced by a modern brick one in 1952.
Both the Spanish and the Russian pavilions appear to be empty, but for quite different reasons. For the 2022 Biennale, the artist Ignasi Aballi (born 1958 in Barcelona) has left the pavilion empty but shifted its internal walls in an attempt to correct a discrepancy between its original architectural plan and what ended up being constructed. The result is an empty pavilion with a strange internal layout. It was at first disconcerting to discover a pavilion empty of artworks, but soon it became pleasurable to see the strange vistas and connections between neighbouring rooms.
The Russian pavilion, unlike the Spanish, is closed. But it is also devoid of exhibits. Russia was not invited to the Biennale this year. The reason for this was Mr Putin’s unwise decision to invade his neibour, Ukraine.
MY FRIEND MICHAEL Jacobs (1952-2014) studied history of art at A Level (university entrance examinations) and then later at university. Later, he became a prolific author. When we were in our late teens, we used to visit Hampstead’s second-hand bookshops together. A few days ago (early September 2022), I was walking along Marylebone’s New Cavendish Street when I spotted something that reminded me of one of our bookshop visits in the late 1960s.
There is a building on the northeast corner of New Cavendish Street and Wimpole Street, which caught my eye. As I passed it, I spotted a small plaque giving the architect’s details. It reads: “BANISTER FLETCHER & SONS ARCHITECTS AD 1912” Sir Banister Flight Fletcher (1866-1953) trained at London’s Kings College, University College, the Royal College of Art, the Architectural Association, and Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts. In 1889, he became a partner in the architectural firm founded by his father: Banister Fletcher & Sons. In addition to designing buildings, Banister Fletcher (and his father) wrote a book of great importance.
The book, “A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method”, which was first published in 1896, was republished several times during the 20th century. It was the standard reference work in English on the history of architecture.
Seeing the name Banister Fletcher on the building in Marylebone reminded me of an afternoon in Hampstead during the late 1960s. We were rummaging around the somewhat disorderly collection of books in Francis Norman’s bookshop in Perrins Lane when Michael discovered a copy of Banister Fletcher’s history of architecture, a book that was well-suited for the bookshelf of a student of the history of art. Michael bought it at an extremely reasonable price.
Until I spotted the building on New Cavendish, I had always associated the name Banister Fletcher with that afternoon with Michael in Hampstead. The building I saw is the first example of a structure that I have been able to associate with the author of the history purchased by my late friend.
HAMPSTEAD GARDEN SUBURB (‘HGS’) in north London, where I spent my childhood and early adulthood, is a conservation area containing residential buildings designed in a wide variety of architectural styles. It first buildings were finished in about 1904/5. Despite this, many of the suburb’s houses and blocks of flats were designed to evoke traditional village architecture. Much of HGS contains buildings that do not reflect the modern trends being developed during the early 20th century, However, there are a few exceptions. These include some houses built in the ‘moderne’ form of the Art Deco style, which had its heyday between the two World Wars.
A few Art Deco houses can be found in Kingsley Close near the Market Place (see https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2022/02/07/art-deco-in-a-north-london-suburb/), and there is a larger number of them in the area through which the following roads run: Neville Drive, Spencer Drive, Carlyle Close, Holne Chase, Rowan Walk, and Lytton Close. The part of HGS in which these roads run was developed from about 1927 onwards, mainly between 1935 and 1938. So, it is unsurprising that examples of what was then fashionable in architecture can be found in this part of the suburb. According to an informative document (www.hgstrust.org/documents/area-13-holne-chase-norrice-lea.pdf) about this part of HGS:
“… A relatively restricted group of established architects undertook much development such as M. De Metz, G. B. Drury and F. Reekie, Welch, Cachemaille-Day and Lander, and J. Oliphant. H. Meckhonik was a developer/builder and architects in his office may have designed houses attributed to him.”
Most of the Art Deco houses on Spencer Drive and Carlyle Close leading off from it are unexceptional buildings, whose principal Art Deco features are the metal framed windows (made by the Crittall company) with some curved panes of glass. Fitted with any other design of windows, these houses would lose their Art Deco appearances. Number 1, Neville Drive displays more features of the style than the houses in Spencer Drive and Carlyle Close. There is, however, one house on Spencer Drive that is unmistakably ‘moderne’: it is number 28 built in 1934 without reference to tradition. It is an adventurous design compared with the other buildings in the street.
Numbers 13 and 24 Rowan Walk, a pair of almost identical buildings which stand on either side of the northern end of the street, where it meets Linden Lea, stand out from the crowd. They have flat roofs and ‘moderne’ style Crittall Windows. Built in the 1930s, they are cubic in form: unusual rather than elegant.
I have saved the best for last: Lytton Close. This short cul-de-sac is a wonderful ensemble of Art Deco houses with balconies that resemble the deck railings of oceanic liners, flat roofs that serve as sun decks, curved Crittall windows, and glazed towers housing staircases. Built in 1935, they were designed by CG Winburne. I have to admit that although I lived for almost three decades in HGS, and used to walk around it a great deal, somehow I missed seeing Lytton Close (until August 2022) and what is surely one of London’s finer examples of modern domestic architecture constructed between the two world wars. Although most of the Art Deco buildings in HGS are not as spectacular as edifices made in this style in Lytton Close and further afield in, say, Bombay, the employment of this distinctive style injects a little modernity in an area populated with 20th century buildings that attempt to create a village atmosphere typical of earlier times. The architects, who adopted backward-looking styles, did this to create the illusion that dwellers in the HGS would not be living on the doorstep of a big city but instead far away in a rural arcadia.