Art deco in Kensington

FROM THE LATE 19th century until a few years ago, High Street Kensington was a healthily flourishing retail centre. In its heyday, it boasted of three large department stores, Pontings, Barkers, and Derry & Toms. The impressive buildings that housed the latter two still stand and are fine examples of art deco architecture located close to the Underground station, which has been in service since the late 1860s. In recent years, the advent of on-line shopping, high rents, and the proximity of the Westfield Mall at Shepherds Bush (opened 2008), which has good parking, have conspired together to make High Street Kensington less appealing to shoppers. Consequently, at any one time a large proportion of shops remain empty awaiting new tenants. Sadly, what was once (especially in the 1960s and ‘70s) a bustling high street with trendy shops like Biba and the ‘funky’ Kensington Market, both gone, has become slightly dreary.

Barkers building

Barker’s former shop, a lovely art deco edifice, which opened in 1933, was designed by Bernard George (1894-1964). Between 1928 and 1962, he was the chief architect for Barker’s of Kensington in-house design group.  It is worth examining this building closely to enjoy is many attractive details.

Cleansing the sole

BOOT SCRAPERS ARE metal objects found near the front doors of houses or on the steps leading up to them. Their purpose is to provide a sharpish metal surface on which people can rub the soles of their footwear to detach mud and other dirt from them before entering the house. An article published on the 21st of August 2011 in “The Independent” related that boot scrapers became popular in cities in the late 18th, and throughout the 19th, centuries.

Boot scrapers in Warwick

According to the article: “Though the ancient Romans built footpaths, only the poor walked Europe’s cities until the late 18th century when the bling classes of the time hopped off their carriages to amble the streets…The sudden popularity of walking the streets helped shape today’s cities, with footpaths, tree-lined boulevards, public parks and covered arcades built during the 19th century… The new taste for strolling also saw shoes morph from heavy high-heeled designs for indoors to softer, low-heeled, foot-fitting gear, as scientists engrossed themselves in the study of motor skills and local authorities turned to public hygiene, improving sewerage and offering public toilets. …In the first decades of the century, footpaths were lined with scrapers to wipe off the mud and excrement before going indoors. As more and more people adopted the walking habit, it became vital to clear a special space for the new pedestrian class, safe from the flying mud and bolting horses.”

Despite its humble and basic function, boot scrapers, like other items of street furniture, the coal hole covers and manhole covers, attracted the creative side of their manufacturer’s minds. The result is that boot scrapers can be found with an amazing variety of decorative features. The four examples illustrated were found outside four neighbouring houses in a street in Warwick (Warwickshire). The basic design of each of these is the same, but their appearances differ considerably,

People, less privileged than those who were accustomed to riding in carriages, walked the streets in Europe long before the end of the 18th century and before the advent of boot scrapers. Some of them wore pattens, which were wooden platforms held to footwear by straps, thereby raising the wearer’s soles above the mud and other disagreeable matter on the street.

Today, it is still worth glancing down when you are out walking even though many dog owners now retrieve their pets’ solid waste matter as soon as it appears. Other users of the pavement are less considerate, but, sadly, boot scrapers seem to be going out of fashion.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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.

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.

At home with Adam

IN CASE YOU ARE WONDERING, this piece is not all about me, Adam Robert Yamey. My father, a well-known economist, was all for calling me ‘Adam Smith Yamey’, in honour of the famous Scottish economist and author of “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith (1723-1790), but my mother was against this. My ‘Robert’ might have been chosen because my mother had a brother called Robert, but maybe they chose the name because they knew about a more celebrated Robert, the Scottish  architect and Adam Smith’s contemporary, Robert Adam (1728-1792). Lately, we have visited two buildings whose appearances owe much to Adam the architect. One is Osterley House, west of London, and the other Kenwood House in north London.

Ceiling of Etruscan Room at Osterley

According to a mine of information, “Handbook to the Environs of London” by James Thorne (published in 1876), the manor of ‘Osterlee’ belonged to John de Osterlee in the reign of Edward I (lived 1239-1307). Through the years it moved through the hands of men such as John Somerseth (died 1454), Henry Marquis of Exeter (1498-1538), Edward Seymour (Protector Somerset 1500-1552), Augustin Thaier, and then Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579).

Gresham was, according to Thorne, was “… the prince of merchants”. An able financier, he worked on behalf of King Edward VI, Queen Mary I, and Queen Elizabeth I, and was also the founder of the Royal Exchange in London. In 1857, the economist Henry Dunning Macleod, used Thomas’s surname to name a law of economics, namely ‘bad money drives out good’.  By 1577, Gresham enclosed Osterley Park and constructed a magnificent mansion. Although there are no surviving images of this building, its architectural style can be imagined by looking at the Tudor stable block (c1560) that stands next to the present Osterley House.

After Gresham’s death, the building began to decline even while his widow, Anne (née Ferneley), continued to dwell in it. After her death in 1596 at the age of 75, Osterley House and its grounds were owned by a series of people until about 1713, when the banker Sir Francis Child (1642-1713) bought the property.

Sir Francis left the place to his sons Robert (1674-1721), Francis (1684-1740), and Samuel (1693- 1752). It was the latter’s son, the third Francis Child (1735-1763), who engaged the fashionable architect Robert Adam to make improvements to Osterley House. His was employed in the 1760s to modernise Gresham’s house. The most obvious of Adam’s works can be seen before you enter the house, the neo-classical portico supported by two rows of six Ionic columns that evokes memories of the Propylaeum of the Parthenon in Athens, which Adam might well have known about after his Grand Tour of Europe undertaken between 1755 and 1757, which, incidentally, included a visit to the ruins at Split (now in Croatia). The portico joins two wings of the building that Child inherited.

In addition to the magnificent portico that contrasts with the Tudor brickwork of the rest of the building,  Adam redesigned the entire interior of the building, creating a series of beautifully decorated rooms, most of which have eye-catching ornate ceilings. One room, which does not have a decorated ceiling is the Long Gallery which was used to house some of the large collection of paintings that used to hang in the Child’s London home, which they sold in 1767. Most of these artworks were removed from the house when Lord Jersey gifted the house to the National Trust in 1949, and then lost in a fire. They have been replaced by other fine paintings. Many of the chairs and sofas and other furnishings in the Long Gallery (and other rooms) were designed by Robert Adam, who took great interest in every detail of what he created. The absence of ceiling decorations, it was explained to us, was intentional; the ceiling was left unadorned so that viewers of the paintings were not distracted by decorative features above them. In the other rooms, the ceilings rival other aspects for the viewer’s attention.  From the grand entrance hall onwards, the visitor is faced with a series of rooms that compete for his or her admiration. Amongst these marvels of interior decoration, I was particularly impressed by the Drawing Room that drew inspiration from the Temple of the Sun at Palmyra (destroyed by ISIS in 2009), the Tapestry Room, and the delicately decorated Etruscan Dressing Room. I have singled out these rooms, but the others are also magnificent. Adam’s creations make a visit to Osterley Park a breath-takingly exciting visual experience.

As the crow flies, Kenwood House is ten miles northeast of Osterley House, or about 15 miles by road. Osterley House was completely remodelled by Robert Adam. Beneath his modifications, its structure is basically the Tudor mansion that the Child family purchased. The situation is different at Kenwood.

In 1755, the lawyer and politician William Murray (1705-1793), who was to become First Earl of Mansfield, bought Kenwood House. In 1764, he commissioned Robert Adam to remodel the house, giving him freedom to do it however he wished. Adam did the following (as quoted in www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/kenwood/history-stories-kenwood/history/):

“… addition of a new entrance on the north front in 1764, which created the existing full-height giant pedimented portico … modernised the existing interiors, notably the entrance hall (1773), Great Stairs and antechamber, and built a new ‘Great Room’ or library (1767–9) for entertaining. The ground-floor rooms on the south front all received Adam’s new decorative schemes. These social spaces for the family included a drawing room, parlour and ‘My Lord’s Dressing Room’ … designed the south front elevation in 1764, but changed it in 1768 in order to insert attic-storey bedrooms.”

So, he added to the existing building rather than working within its original ‘footprint’. The ‘pièce de résistance’ of Adam’s work at Kenwood is without doubt the Library. It must be seen to be believed. Reluctantly, because I was really impressed by his creations at Osterley, this library exceeds the splendour of all the rooms at Osterley.  The South façade of Kenwood is also a successful modification of the building, more effective aesthetically than the portico added to the north side of the house.

Seeing Adam’s Library at Kenwood House is just one of the good reasons to visit the place. The other attractions include the wonderful gardens and the collection of masterpieces of British and European painters that are on display. Including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Bols, Turner, Guardi, Reynolds, and many more celebrated artists, the paintings are part of the collection of the Irish businessman and philanthropist, Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847-1927), which he left to the nation following his death.

Those enamoured by the works of Robert Adam must visit the two houses already described, which are open to the public. There is another place in London, Home House in Portman Square, once the home of Sir Anthony Blunt and the Courtauld Institute and now a private members’ club (Home House Club), whose Adam interiors, which I have seen, are also spectacular examples of his creative powers. If you are not fortunate enough to know a member of this club, you will have to satisfy yourself by visiting Kenwood and Osterley Houses, but you will not be disappointed.

Seduced by style

DURING VARIOUS VISITS TO AHMEDABAD, we have often driven past the Ahmed Shah Masjid, but never visited this venerable mosque. Close to the great Bhadra Fort and built in about 1414 AD by Ahmed Shah, the founder of Ahmedabad, this is the oldest extant mosque in the city. Today, we entered this exquisite mosque and its garden and discovered a perfect example of Indo-Islamic architecture.

When this mosque, and many others built in western India up to at least a century later, was constructed its creators incorporated many design features that can be seen in Hindu and Jain temples that were constructed centuries before believers of Islam entered/invaded India.

The grounds of the Ahmed Shah Masjid are entered through a small stone pavilion. The step inside it is just like the entrance steps to Hindu and Jain temples in that it includes a centrally located semicircular projection.

The patterning on the exterior stonework of the mosque and the many pillars within it would not look out of place on pre Islamic places of worship in India. However, the presence of figurative carving found in Hindu and Jain temples is completely absent in mosques. One small exception, which I saw at the Ahmed Shah Masjid and others in Ahmedabad, are carvings of trees, the Tree of Life.

The Ahmed Shah mosque and many other medieval mosques in Gujarat are topped with numerous domes. Seen from the outside of the mosques, they do not look exceptional, but viewed from within, the influence of Hindu/Jain temple architecture is obvious.

The domes are usually supported by 8 pillars arranged as a regular octagon. Neighbouring pillars support horizontal lintels, which together form an octagon. The dome rests on these lintels. The internal surfaces of the domes, when seen from below, consist of a series of concentric rings that decrease in circumference as they approach the top of the dome. The stonework of the rings can be either plain or elaborately ornamented. The design of these domes and their supporting supporting pillar systems are identical to what can be seen in Indian temples built long before Islam arrived in India.

Unlike the non-Muslim temples that inspired their design, medieval mosques contain features that are unique to mosques, such as elaborately decorated mihrabs, niches in the wall of the that worshippers face when they pray.

The Ahmed Shah mosque has an elevated internal chamber, where the king could pray separated from the rest of the congregation.

Having at last visited this fascinating mosque, I would reccomend all visitors to Ahmedabad to visit it first before exploring the other wonderful 15th and 16th century mosques that enrich the city.

The Ahmed Shah Masjid is a fine example of how conquerors can be conquered by the culture of those whom they have invaded. Just as the Muslims were bewitched by the wonders of Indian culture, so were the British many years later, as well exemplified by the Brighton Pavilion.

Mini on steroids

MINIS

 

In 1973, the economist EF Schumacher coined the phrase ‘small is beautiful‘. But, is small always beautiful?

The Mini, made by the British Motor Corporation, was first available for drivers to purchase in 1959. This compact, low-priced car, designed by Alec Issigonis, remained popular until 1986 when production ceased. I was not upset by this as the original Mini was extremely uncomfortable to sit in. Small the car was, but beautiful it was not.

In 1994, the German car manufacturer, BMW, bought the right to make cars bearing the trade name ‘Mini’. Models made from the year 2000 onwards faintly resemble the old-style Mini models, but contain many more up-to-date features. However, the BMW models look like bloated versions of the original versions. The new models look like Minis on steroids. They are not so small, and definitely not so beautiful.

 

The picture of the blue, old style Mini, was sourced from Flickr via Wikipedia

Arab or Norman, Hindu or Muslim…

The Normans took over Sicily from its Arab rulers. The early mediaeval church architecture adopted by the Norman builders shows the influence of Arab design.

In Gujarat (India), the Muslim invaders began building mosques in the style of local Hindu temples, just as the Normans built in the way that they found when they arrived in Sicily.

Drama by the river: the Bridge Theatre

On Saturday the 29th September 2018, we had a wonderful evening at London’s recently opened Bridge Theatre. It is located on the south bank of the River Thames, a stone’s throw from the world famous ‘icon’ of London, Tower Bridge. From the glass front of the theatre’s foyer, there are superb views of: the new high-rise buildings in the City (including the ‘Gherkin’); the White Tower and the walls of the Tower of London; and Tower Bridge, which is beautifully illuminated at night.

BR 1

The Bridge Theatre opened for its first show in October 2017. The theatre is the brainchild of Nick Starr, of the former National Theatre, and the renowned theatre director Nicholas Hytner. Both of these two Nicks have been long involved with London’s National Theatre. Their creation, the Bridge, is an improved version of the facilities offered by the now ageing National Theatre on the Southbank. Excellent as the National Theatre is, the Bridge seems to have been designed to avoid some of the defects of the former. The newer theatre, which can seat 900 audience members, was designed by S Tompkins and R Watts of Haworth Tompkins Architects.

BR 0

Doorways in the wide glass façade give access to a vast foyer, well-illuminated by a myriad of lamps with curious shades that look like large translucent handkerchiefs. Ample tables and chairs are available for people to sit in the foyer, enjoying excellent food and drinks from the counters lining one side of the space.

BR 1a

When you order food, you are handed a small flat, square receiver that looks like a drinks mat. When your food is ready, lights on the receiver flash alarmingly. The flashing object must be taken to a counter where your freshly prepared food is waiting for you. Despite the size of the foyer and its large capacity, it never felt crowded or noisy. It is a well-designed space.

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The cloakroom and toilet facilities are easily accessible, not hidden in odd places as they are in the National Theatre.

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The auditorium is large, but not too large to be without intimacy. No seat is excessively far from the very wide stage. Sightlines are either excellent or more than satisfactory. We had ‘restricted view’ seats, which we bought at the last moment. They were as good as many ‘full view’ seats in older theatres. The acoustics are excellent. We were seated quite far from the stage, but had no difficulty hearing every word. The play we saw, “Allelujah” by Alan Bennett, was well-staged, well-acted, and well-written. In short, it was highly enjoyable. Set in an ageing National Health Service (‘NHS’) hospital facing imminent closure, most of the actors play either the roles of geriatric patients or those of hospital staff and management. The plot is about the plight of the aged and the plight of the ageing NHS system in today’s profit-oriented, economically declining Britain.

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Our visit to the Bridge Theatre was enjoyable and uplifting. I cannot wait to see another performance there.

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