Friday, 5 February 2016

Darlington Majestic - an art deco cinema restored

Apart from the national rail interchange, the last time I visit Darlington must have been more than 40 years ago when I went to the outdoor market with my mum. I bought a seven inch vinyl single of the Monkees singing A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You. I still have it. I went to Darlington again this week, this time to visit the former Majestic Cinema, which after decades of mixed fortunes is being restored to its former glory. Designed in the art deco style by Darlington born architect Joshua Clayton, it was completed in 1932. Amazingly it is unlisted.


Built for an independent operator, it opened on 26th December 1932 with Nancy Brown starring in Maid of the Mountains. British cinemas in the 1930's were built to accommodate huge numbers and the Majestic could seat 1,039 in the stalls and 541on the balcony. As well as the screen there was a cafe, five dressing rooms and a Compton 3M organ which rose up from beneath the stage. We will return to the organ.

The cinema changed hands several times over the years, going to the Union chain of cinemas in late 1935 before returning to the original owners two years later. Oscar Deutsch's Odeon chain took it over in 1943 and changed the name to the Odeon in 1945 before eventually passing to the Rank chain who owned the cinema when it finally closed on October 24th 1981. The final screening was of  Cannonball Run with Burt Reynolds. There is evidence that the cafe continued until the 1950's, whilst the organ was retained until 1968 when it was sold and removed from the building. Further changes were made in the later 1960's when metal strips were added to the front of the building in an attempt at modernisation. Yuck. After closure the building lay unused until 1986 when it was converted into a snooker club.



Those nasty metal additions have now been removed, revealing the beautiful cream facade with its art deco motifs and double height stained glass windows on the stairwells.The removal of the nasty metal strips was part of a programme of ongoing restoration which is being funded through private means. On my visit earlier this week I was able to see the beautifully restored lobby with its decorative doors, chandelier, original ticket office and the balustrade on the stairs leading to the first floor cafe. Whilst admiring the lobby I was lucky enough to meet Paul, one of the key people driving the restoration of the building. He very kindly showed me around the upstairs cafe, allowed me a look into the auditorium which is still being worked on and shared with me some of the ideas for the Majestic's future.  




The cafe has two fabulous art deco bars, furniture in the style of the 1930's and gorgeous stained glass windows looking over the main road - Bondgate. Who would have thought that such a room exists in Darlington? It could easily be in Prague, Budapest, New York or one of the other cosmopolitan centres from the art deco period. I can only imagine what the response of the locals must have been when the cinema first opened. The cafe is already popular with local people for afternoon tea and Paul told me that it has already received visitors dressed in 1930's clothes! It has an alcohol license which always helps.

The auditorium was a hive of industry with several workmen busy toiling to bring it back into use perhaps as early as April this year. Many original features appear to have survived although some are in better condition than others. There are already plans in place for a programme of events and activities once these works are finished including "Battle of the bands", stand up comedy, concerts and perhaps theatre. Much needed rehearsal space may also be offered. Some events have already taken place in the cafe. You can keep up to date with developments by following the Majestic's own Facebook group here.

I was also able to have a quick look at the former projection rooms and see the enormous original bulb that was left behind when all of the other cinema equipment was disposed of when the cinema closed. Paul told me that there are some exciting ideas for using these spaces including opening up onto a roof terrace and using the bulb as part of the lighting for another cafe space at this level. These ideas are at present unfunded and the priority is the auditorium, but how wonderful it would be to be able to realise them. 



The restoration and bringing back into use of the Majestic will be a much needed boost to Darlington's cultural scene, especially at a time when other facilities in this small unitary authority are under threat with the potential closure of its two libraries and removal of the mobile service and the closed market also being under threat . I said we'd return to the organ. After much searching, it turned up in Manchester. Not playable but it can be rescued…once the money has been found.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Soho Survivors

The first ever post on this blog was My Soho in December 2011. It covered some of my favourite Soho haunts and made reference to the loss of the unique character of the area as many of the long established businesses closed and the international chains began to move in.

That was in December 2011 and since then a number of other establishments have either gone or are under threat. The Astoria and music venues The 12 Bar and the Black Gardenia have been gone for a few years now, victims of the Crossrail development. Madame JoJo's a London institution has closed its doors for the last time in somewhat murky circumstances and the much loved Curzon cinema is also under threat - another potential victim of Crossrail. I'm all for improving transport across London but not at the expense of the city's cultural heritage and not if it means chaos in the west end for several years. Not surprisingly, a Save Soho campaign has been established.With all of this in mind, it's timely to revisit my beloved Soho and survey some of the remains of its rich cultural heritage. Here are some of my favourite Soho survivors.


Coffee, cake and jazz are three of my passions and Soho provides the very best of all three. Devotees of  patisserie are faced with the problem of choosing either Maison Bertaux in Greek Street or the original Patisserie Valerie in Old Compton Street. Both have a superb range of cakes and pastries, stunning window displays and interesting histories. Bertaux opened in 1871 and is the oldest patisserie in the city. Started by French refugees fleeing the Prussian siege of Paris, the owners lived upstairs and baked on the ground floor. Tradition has it that a lady of the night and a tailor also lived in the building so along with the tea rooms there was something for everyone. I have to confess to being a major fan of Berteaux due largely to the cakes but also because it is one of the few remaining places in the west end where you can see what were once called "characters" and where the regulars are known and recognised by the staff. My favourite place to sit is in the downstairs room where customers make their choices from the window before taking a seat either here, upstairs or in the room next door which was added a few years ago. There is occasional theatre in the upstairs room, but the whole place is dramatic, with its collection of assorted "stuff" in the downstairs room adding to the atmosphere. Those of you who have been will know what I mean!


Patisserie Valerie is a relative newcomer in comparison with Maison Bertaux. Originally in Frith Street it was founded in 1926 by one Madame Valerie from Belgium who wanted to introduce Belgian patisserie to London. The cafe was immediately successful and remained so until the Luftwaffe put a stop to things by bombing the building during the Second World War. Not deterred, Madame Valerie relocated to the current premises in Old Compton Street which retains much of its original 1950's decor. Both Bertaux and Valerie had a reputation as venues for secret assignations and each had their loyal customers who would not set foot in the other establishment. Patisserie Valerie is now a chain with several branches across London and in other parts of the country but the original Soho branch has kept its character and still has the air of an independent cafe.

The Algerian Coffee Store is a few steps from Patisserie Valerie at 52 Old Compton Street. Walking along the street you are likely to notice the aroma of freshly ground coffee several yards before reaching the red fronted shop. Founded in 1887 by one Mr Hassan, it has been under the direction of Paul Crocetta and his family for the last 40 plus years. Inside, there are more than 80 coffees from countries as diverse as Ethiopia, Bolivia, India and Papua New Guinea.  The beans are ground in front of you and you can ask for cardamoms and other spices to be added. There are also 120 types of tea, marzipan biscuits, Turkish delight, chocolates, mints and different kinds of coffee makers. The staff are extremely knowledgeable and can advise what to choose according to your preference.


Just around the corner from the Algerian Coffee Store, Bar Italia in Frith Street is another Soho survivor and a great place to drink mind blowingly strong coffee. Opened in 1949 by Italian immigrants Lou and Caterina Polledri, the cafe is still owned by the family today. The Polledris came to London in the 1920's and established a traditional Italian cafe in Long Acre, Covent Garden during the 1930's. Lou was interned as an enemy alien during the Second World War but Caterina managed to keep things going until he came home again.

When Bar Italia opened it quickly became a focal point for the Italian community, many of whom had been interned during the war years and who needed somewhere to meet, to swop news and to hear about employment opportunities. The cafe quickly gained a reputation for excellent coffee and was part of the "espresso revolution" that swept London in the late 1950's and 1960's attracting young people, especially hordes of "mods" who would park their Lambrettas outside. Bar Italia opens at 7 a.m. each day for breakfast, stays open until 5 in the morning and is always busy. The walls are covered with photographs of visiting celebrities whilst football matches are screened on a TV screen at the back of the cafe. I remember walking through Soho during the 1994 World Cup when an Italy game was being screened whilst the cafe burst at the seams with cheering football fans! Bar Italia has retain much of its glass and chrome decor as well as the original stone floor laid by family member Torino Polledri who was a terrazzo specialist.


Back onto Old Compton Street and at number 61 there is another Italian establishment, the I Camisa delicatessen. The shop has been here since 1961 but was originally at number 66 in the same street, opening in 1929 and closing ten years later when Ennio and Isidor Camsa were interned, first at Lingfield racecourse in Surrey before being sent to Warth Mills in Bury. The  Camisas then struck lucky. They were not included in a group of Italians placed on a luxury liner for deportation to Canada. They were lucky because the ship was sunk by a German torpedo and 730 lives were lost. The Camisas were released at the end of the war and returned to Soho to reopen their store. The shop is a delight with its cheeses, fresh pasta, delicious breads, wines and other Italian foodstuffs and like its near neighbour the Algerian Coffee Store, it gives off enticing aromas that help create the long queues that can often be found in the shop.



I rarely go to pubs these days but still enjoy an occasional visit to another Soho institution - the French House at 49 Dean Street. This Soho institution opened as The Wine House in 1910 under the management of German landlord Herr Schmidt. Schmidt was deported when the First World War commenced and was replaced by French speaking Belgian Victor Berlemont. Berlemont renamed the pub The York Minster and had a reputation for dealing with "difficult" customers by saying "I'm afraid one of us will have to leave and its not going to be me". During the Second World War the pub became a gathering place for French emigres including Charles de Gaulle who used the upstairs dining room.  

After the war, the pub began to attract an artistic, theatrical and literary crowd including Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Brendan Behan and Daniel Farson. Farson had the distinction of being barred from the pub for behaviour he couldn't recall. Must have been something to do with the drink! The walls of the bar room are still decorated with photographs of London's culture elite from that period. In 1951, Victor's son, Gaston took over. A real Soho character with his flamboyant moustache (which young women would sometimes be invited to examine) and frequent hand kissing, he further emphasised the French connections of the pub. Like his father he was also able to deal effectively with drunks once famously intervening when a woman had thrown her drink in the face of a man who had been annoying her by saying "But madame, I see your glass is empty" and then refilling it.

The French House has not been without a racy side. In the early 1950's it came close to being closed down due to "goings-on" in the toilets. It was also here that Francis Bacon met model Henrietta Moraes and asked her to pose nude for him. Photographer John Deakin took pictures of Moraes for Bacon to work from before going on to offer copies for sale to visiting sailors. Very entrepreneurial. 

The French House is alive and well although it is sad that the upstairs restaurant is now under separate management and serves Italian rather than French food. I have happy memories of sitting in that tiny dining room which appeared twice its real size due to the mirrored walls, enjoying good food and from my window seat watching all human life pass by in the street below. Gaston died in 1999 but several of his rules have been retained, including selling only half pints and banning mobile phones in order to encourage conversation!

And finally, the best jazz club in the world. Ronnie Scott's originally opened in Chinatown's Gerrard Street in 1959 before moving to its Frith Street home in 1965, offering live jazz six nights per week. The club featured such giants of the jazz world as Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan as well as emerging and avant-garde musicians. Scott, himself an accomplished saxophonist ran the club until his death in 1966. I saw him just once when visiting London as a student in 1982. I visited the club with four student friends and saw Buddy de Franco perform. We were of course broke and managed to purchase only one bottle of Laski Riesling wine between us for the then enormous sum of £7 before rustling up enough change to buy a couple of unappetising burgers to share. Scott introduced the act, told a few jokes and threatened expulsion if people spoke during the performance. And he meant it. If only the same were true these days.

The club reached a peak in the early 1970's but then suffered a decline, facing potential closure at the end of the decade until Island records owner Chris Blackwell provided an injection of cash to keep it going under Scott's management. In more recent times, Ronnie's has been totally refurbished, improved somewhat its once dreadful food and formerly poor service and continues to attract the best jazz musicians in the world. Over the last few years I have seen, amongst others, Avishai Cohen, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Nicola Conte, Ramsey Lewis, Lonnie Liston Smith and Stacey Kent perform. This is probably my favourite place in all London with its great music, thrilling atmosphere and important history. 


Old Soho is gradually disappearing and there is a serious threat from that more will be lost due to increasing rents and the Crossrail development. Despite this, several of the older, cherished businesses continue to thrive and to attract new customers as well as hanging on to their loyal older clientele - like me. When Gaston Berlemont was asked what made the French House (and in my view Soho) special he said it was about the people "…they themselves create an atmosphere. Its no use putting up a couple of plastic onions and saying you're creating a French atmosphere, it doesn't work like that. Atmosphere is a human thing concerning hearts and souls". I agree with Gaston - but people need places to meet in which to create an atmosphere. It will be a sad day for London if any of these remaining Soho survivors disappear. 


Sunday, 10 January 2016

More Camden Modernism - a cinema, some offices, flats and a chip shop!

London Borough of Camden is one of our city's most fashionable areas with many clubs, bars, and restaurants as well as leading cultural institutions and the world famous Camden market. It is also home to a very large collection of modernist and art deco buildings, primarily built in the 1930's, many of which have been maintained in excellent condition. I have written before about Hampstead's share of these buildings, here and here. This post looks at some excellent examples of the style in Camden Town itself, Kentish Town and Highgate. All four can be visited on foot taking a leisurely walk of about ninety minutes from Camden Town Underground Station including a short coffee stop en route (and a cheeky tube or bus ride at one point !). 

GIlbey House, Jamestown Road
Jamestown Road is a three minute walk from Camden Town Underground Station. Gilbey House stands at the junction with Oval Road. Built in 1937, it was designed by Serge Chermayeff,  one of the architects responsible for the fabulous De La Warr pavilion in Bexhill-on-sea. Far less ornate than the De La Warr, Gilbey House was originally the head office of Gilbey's wine importers and somewhat fittingly was built on the site of the former Stanhope Arms pub. It originally bore the Gilbey name, horizontally and in stylish lettering at one end of the building, just where that glorious concave element ends. The seven storey block has been renamed as Academic House.

Gilbey House at the junction with Oval Road
From Gilbey House its possible to take a short walk along the side of the Regent's Canal and pass the edge of Camden Lock where the food and craft stalls might tempt you into a short detour, before heading in the direction of Chalk Farm Underground Station. Just before reaching the station you will come to Ferdinand Street and Kent House, a great little apartment block built in 1935 for the St. Pancras Home Improvement Society. The Society was established in 1924, initially with the objective of improving the conditions of working class housing in the Somers Town area between Euston and St. Pancras. It was later renamed the St. Pamcras and Humanist Housing Association and interestingly was founded by Father Basil Jellicoe, a Church of England priest and Irene Barclay the first British woman to qualify as a chartered surveyor.

Kent House, Ferdinand Street.
Designed by Connell, Ward and Lucas, the white facade has contrasting green window frames and red metal work on the balconies. It consists of two five storey blocks with a shared courtyard between them - hidden from the street and set out nicely with planting and children's play equipment. However, the most interesting thing (for me) is the small retail unit to the side at ground floor level that originally served as a chip shop! How delightful (and very tempting) to have a chip shop built in to your block of flats! Unfortunately the chip shop is no more and instead the space is now occupied by Anise, a gourmet Chinese food outlet - indicative of the upwardly mobile nature of Kentish Town. 

Connell, Ward and Lucas were responsible for a number of modernist buildings in the UK but are most well known for their work on the High and Over in Amersham, Buckinghamshire and the nearby Sun Houses which you can read about here. Connell and Ward were both from New Zealand and related by marriage. Connell was a friend of fellow modernists Chermayeff and Berthold Lubetkin and was influenced by the work of French architects Andre Lurcat and Robert Mallet-Stevens. Less stylish than the Amersham properties which were of course for a different class of clientele, Kent House is none the less a great example of modernist architecture with its clean lines and stylised lettering over the main entrance.

Kent House, front entrance.
Kent House - the former chip shop.
Kent House balconies.
From here it's best to either take a bus or jump on the Northern Line at Chalk Farm, go one stop to Camden Town and then one stop more to Kentish Town in the opposite direction. Turn right on to Highgate Road when leaving the station and within a few minutes you will see the former Forum Cinema, a large art deco building on the opposite side of the road. Completed in 1934, it was designed by architect J. Stanley Beard, whilst W. R. Bennett was responsible for the interior. The Forum could seat 2,175 people in the stalls and on a single balcony. It was taken over by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) in 1935, eventually adopting the ABC name in 1963 before closing in 1970. It then became a bingo hall followed by an Irish dance centre and finally a concert hall which is its current function. The Forum regained its origin name in 1993 and is now listed with Grade II status.

Former Forum Cinema, Highgate Road.
Central pillars, facade, Forum.
Built in the more ornate art deco style, the facade is dominated by six central pillars at first floor level, interspersed with decorative glazing, and which link to the Roman theme of the building's name and with the original internal decoration. The Forum is only open when there are concerts and as the programme does not feature "my kind of music" I have yet to go inside but it is possible to peep through the doors and see a little of the beautiful mosaic floor in the lobby. Beard and Bennet were also responsible for the Forum cinema in Ealing, also built in 1934 and of which only the facade remains today. The doors from the Ealing Forum were moved to Kentish Town a couple of years ago to replace the lost originals.

West Hill Court, Millfield Lane.
From the Forum, it takes about 20 minutes to walk up Highgate Road until you reach Millfield Lane which branches off the main road and has a view of Hampstead Heath. The walk is uphill but there are several buses that take this route if it's a bit too far on foot, or alternatively there are several cafes to have a break. At the weekend there are often farmer's markets and other events on this side of the Heath, so you might also want to make another slight detour before reaching our final destination - West Hill Court. 

Designed by William Bryce Binnie and built in 1933, this beautiful white apartment block would perhaps be more at home in the sunshine of Melbourne, Tel Aviv or Nice than north London on a grey January day. It is a large block with a roof terrace, balconies for the apartments immediately above the main entrance and what appear to be the original crittall windows. A two bedroom flat was recently offered for sale here at just short of £900,000. For that you would get 971 square feet, porter services and access to a private tennis court, squash court and a "kitchen garden". Keep buying the lottery tickets.

Scottish born architect Binnie was extremely accomplished having studied at the Glagow School of Art where he obtained a gold medal. He worked briefly in New York and was involved in the design of Grand Central Station, before returning to the UK, where his work included the West and East stands of Arsenal football stadium and Addisland Court in Shepherd's Bush. Other overseas commissions included the luxurious Hotel Phoenicia in Malta.

Main entrance, West Hill Court.
West Hill Court is our final stop but if you want to explore more of Camden's art deco and modernist buildings,  you might like these - Picture Post 32 - Lawn Road Flats, Belsize Park - modernist masterpiece, artists and spies, More Hampstead Modernism or 2 Willow Road, Goldfinger in Hampstead.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Bringing St. Hilda's back to life - more from Middlesbrough

I was born and brought up in Teesside. Redcar is my hometown and I went to secondary school in Middlesbrough. I spent many Saturday afternoons in the town centre, browsing the boxes in Alan Fearnley's record shop on Linthorpe Road, Hamilton's on Newport Road and Dean Wycherley's in the Cleveland Centre. Much time was also spent in the Wimpy Bar with my mates during my early teens before we graduated to drinking in the town centre pubs and then Mandy's and one or two other town centre clubs. It is many years since I lived in the north-east, 31 to be exact and every single one of these places is now gone. 

The River Tees - clean at last!
Despite spending lots of time wandering around the town, there was one place that we never went to - St. Hilda's. Known as "over the border" due to its being on the opposite side of the railway line from the rest of the town. It was a tough area, home to many people who worked in the ship building and steel industries or in jobs connected to the port and the river generally. There were a number of pubs and at least one club - The Bongo - that had what my friend describes as a "fearsome reputation" and people generally gave the area a wide berth. That friend and I both worked for the Council's library service and she reminded me recently that when the small local library housed in the original town hall (once painted by none other than L.S. Lowry) needed relief staffing, that male staff were usually sent because we "didn't send young girls to work there". 

The Transporter Bridge seen from the former salt works wall.
Middlesbrough has changed tremendously over the last few decades and like many northern towns has struggled to recover from the economic downturns of the 80's, 90's and recent years. It has also not been able to secure the kind of investment and regeneration that some of the larger northern cities have benefitted from. The haunts of my teen years and early twenties have disappeared but so has almost the whole of St. Hilda's - demolished in stages over a long period, in some cases to provide better housing (which was then in turn demolished) or to make way for developments that sometimes never happened. On a recent visit to Middlesbrough I decided to take  a stroll through this part of the town to see the changes and was pleasantly surprised at what I found - although there is still much to do to bring this area back to life.

In his great little book St. Hilda's, Araf Chohan sets out the history of the area and also details some of the developments that were proposed and never realised including a fantastic master plan adopted in 2004, partly the work of architect Will Alsop, which would have delivered what Araf describes as "…iconic structures, unique for this part of the world…" and which would have included offices, shops, hotels and restaurants as well as many new homes. Sadly only one set of offices and one residential block were built before the master plan stalled due to failure to secure enough investment.

The old Town Hall
The Captain Cook pub
Former port building
In 2014 another plan appeared, reinventing this part of town as "Middlehaven" and pretty much the whole area was cleared in preparation for this. Some progress has been made with Middlesbrough College and the 6th Form College now having substantial presence as well as the Riverside Stadium, home of Middlesbrough FC. This is all good but perhaps the most encouraging thing is that a number of heritage features have been retained including the once notorious (but apparently listed - hooray!) Captain Cook pub, the former Town Hall (which I am told is to be brought back into some use - although it is currently boarded up), the old Dock Clock Tower and other buildings connected with the river. I love the idea of the pub being brought back into use, which will hopefully include cultural activity as well as drinking whilst the old Town Hall would also be a great venue for music, exhibitions and other activity. Progress has already been made with the "Boho" project which has created space for business start-ups and digital business in a number of both heritage sites and new builds including the beautiful former bank close to the Albert Railway Bridge.

Former bank now used as part of the Boho project
Wall of the former salt works
The Transporter Bridge
As well as having links with steel, docking and shipbuilding, St. Hilda's was also home to a salt works that closed in 1946 and was then  demolished. Part of the wall of the works has been restored in Vulcan Street. The barred windows make for great views through to the iconic and much loved Transporter Bridge - a real symbol of the town. It would be great to see the local authority take advantage of the remaining, rich heritage of St. Hilda's to attract both visitors and serious investors to really bring this part of town back to life. And on the subject of being brought back to life, I was amazed at how clean the once filthy River Tees now is at Middlesbrough. The loss of the heavy industries meant many people lost jobs but it has also meant that industrial waste no longer goes into the river. I was surprised and delighted to see a group of three swans on the river in the red coloured reflection of a visiting ship. Beautiful - and unthinkable not so many years ago. Here's hoping new life can come to the rest of the area too.


Visiting ship and installation by Anish Kapoor
Swans on the River Tees at Middlesbrough

Monday, 28 December 2015

Vanity Fair - the art deco years.

A number of magazines have been published under the name of Vanity Fair. The first of these was an American publication that ran from 1859-1863, whilst the most recent version, also American commenced in 1983 and covers fashion, culture and politics. A friend of mine recently gave me a gift of 100 postcards featuring covers from the 1913-36 version of the magazine, many of them in the art deco style and designed by such luminaries as artists Miguel Covarrubias and Eduardo Garcia Benito.

October 1927 edition, Eduardo Garcia Benito.
Edited by Conde Montrose Nast, the magazine focused on fashion and popular culture. Nast employed Frank Crowinshield as his edit who in turn put together a formidable editorial team consisting of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood. These three were original members of the fashionable set that became the Algonquin Round Table, meeting at the hotel of the same name. Their escapades can be seen in the 1994 movie Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle. Interestingly, Benchley was played by his grandson. As well as this core team, Vanity Fair also attracted writing from the likes of Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Thomas Wolfe, P. G. Wodehouse and Ferenc Molnar. By 1925 it was competing with The New Yorker for the position of top publication for America's cultural elite. 

March 1928 edition, Eduardo Garcia Benito
August 1929 edition, Eduardo Garcia Benito
June 1930 edition, Eduardo Garcia Benito
Competition between magazines was (and is) fierce and in order to win and retain followers many of the most prominent artists of the 1920's and 1930's were employed to design front covers that would stand out from the competing titles and that would be modern and stylish. Some of my favourite covers from this period were the work of the already mentioned Eduardo Garcia Benito.  Born in Spain in 1891, he studied in Paris where he mixed with Picasso, Gris, Modigliani and Gaugin, establishing himself as a portraitist, illustrator and decorative artist. He exhibited at the Antwerp Expo in 1920 before going on to illustrate a number of French newspapers and to paint portraits of the famous, including of actress Gloria Swanson. The covers I have selected here are typical of his art deco period, three of them displaying super fashionable couples - the June 1930 edition influenced one by developments in Asian deco, and the fourth showing a group of friends at the theatre - perhaps based on Mrs Parker and her followers!

Mexican artist, Miguel Covarrubias also produced covers for Vanity Fair. After studying in Mexico City, he moved to New York where his countryman, the poet Jose Juan Tablada introduced him to the city's cultural elite which led to him working for several magazines. He worked in a range of genres including caricature, book illustration and painting. Covarrubias loved the New York jazz scene, was friends with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and visited Harlem jazz clubs in the company of Eugene O'Neill. This love of jazz resulted in his producing illustrations based on the musicians and jazz club patrons, several of which appeared in the magazine. The examples of his work included here are from 1932 of a very art deco stylised female tennis player and from 1936, an image entitled Bali Beauty.
February 1936 edition, Miguel Covarrubia.
August 1932 edition, Miguel Covarrubia

Artists who worked in other styles were also employed. Italian Futurist, Fortunato Depero produced a wonderful cover for the July 1930 edition, showing a fiendish figure smoking one cigarette with another one impaled on his devilish horns. The striking image together with the bright red, green and orange colours must have encouraged many purchases. Depero also worked as a sculptor and has further claims to design fame having been responsible for the Campari Soda bottle still used today and for a famous poster for San Pellegrino's magnesia.
Many other artists worked for the magazine during this period and several of them continued to produce work for the magazine after it merged with Vogue in 1936. Those 23 short years between 1913 and the merger produced some of the most influential art deco fashion illustrations ever, many of which are still in demand either as posters or in postcard format. A few more of my favourites are included below. A big thanks to my friend Pam for a great present!

July 1930 edition, Fortuanto Depero
June 1929 edition, Marion Wildman
March 1930 edition, Constantin Alajalov.
June 1931 edition, Wadsworth.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Buenos Aires Art Deco and Modernism

Prior to visiting Buenos Aires I managed to get hold of a copy of Mimi Bohm's excellent book - Buenos Aires Art Deco Y Racionalismo. Beautifully illustrated, it is a spectacular survey of art deco and modernist architecture in Argentina's capital and although most of the text is in Spanish, there is a short section in English at the back. The book was very useful in planning my daily itinerary but be warned, some of the buildings have been lost, some of the theatres are covered in enormous billboards so it's difficult to see them and in some cases the addresses are not accurate. A further complication was that my map showed one of the streets to be in a place some distance from where it really is but more of that later!
Dramatic balconies, apartment building, Calle Julian Alvarez
Art deco and modernist architecture can be found right across the city. Its important to note that Buenos Aires is huge so careful planning might be needed if you want to see a lot of buildings. However you will see many examples of the style by simply wandering through the central areas in particular and also in the outer districts. There are hundreds if not thousands of buildings dating from the 1930's and sporting those beautiful rounded modernist balconies, usually in white cement and on the facade of apartment buildings. Buenos Aires acquired many apartment blocks during this decade as the better off citizens wanted to take advantage of modern conveniences and technology. On my first morning in the city I saw a block of flats on Calle Julian Alvarez in Palermo, almost certainly dating from the 1930's and with the most dramatic run of balconies I have ever seen. A double fronted building with two sets of balconies on the facade - one recessed. I have been unable to find further details so if anyone recognises the photograph above or the description please let me have them!

Casa Victoria Ocampo
Casa Victoria Ocampo is also located in Palermo at Rufino de Elizalde 2831. Ocampo was a wealthy Argentinian writer and intellectual, once described by Jorge Luis Borges as La mujer mas Argentina, which more or less means the quintessential Argentine woman. The house was completed in 1929 in stark modernist style without external decoration and with clean lines and white walls in complete contrast to the surrounding mansions that today house a number of embassies. Architect Alejandro Bustillo is said to have been distressed by the finished product (I can't imagine why - it's a wonderful building) and refused to put his name to it. The design was inspired by Le Corbusier who praised it for its purity of design during a trip to Buenos Aires.

Unlike the architect, Ocampo is said to have revelled in the scandal that the house caused. This is easy to believe given that she carried on a 13 year affair with her husband's cousin and entertained the likes of Stravinsky, Tagore, Malraux, de Saint Exupery and even Indira Gandhi at the villa. Graham Greene dedicated his book The Honorary Consul to her whilst her involvement in the anti-Peron movement earned her a spell in prison. She was the only Argentine to attend and observe the Nuremburg trials, having taken a anti-fascist stance during the Second World War and regularly included the work of Jewish writers in her literary magazine Sur. Quite a life. The house now serves as home to El Fondo Nacional de las Artes which stages exhibitions and other cultural activities.

Fundacio Bigatti Forner, Bethlem 443
The Ocampo house is well sign posted and easy to find. The same cannot be said of the wonderful modernist building at Bethlem 443, built in 1937 as the atelier of avant-garde artist Raquel Forner and sculptor Alfredo Bigatti. This is the place that I struggled to find on my map which shows Bethlem in a different place to its real location -  tucked away in San Telmo close to the famous Mercado. Designed by architect Alejo Martinez it today houses the Fundacion Bigatti Forner. It has large windows and a glazed facade that runs the height of the staircase, allowing light to flood into this former workplace. There is also a small balcony overlooking the plaza which the artists must have used as a place to relax. I suspect the plaza was rather less busy in the late 1930's than it is now and that there would have been far fewer cars parked there making it difficult to photograph the building! There are occasional exhibitions here including of Forner and Bugatti's work.

Edificio Kavanagh is a landmark building in Buenos Aires. At time of completion in 1936 it was not only Argentina's first skyscraper but also the tallest building in Latin America. Designed by architects Gregorio Sanchez, Ernesto Lagos and Luis Maria de la Torre, it was commissioned by Corina Kavanagh, an extremely wealthy woman of Irish descent. Kavanagh had money but was viewed as nouveau riche by Buenos Aires society and to add to her troubles, matriarch Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena put a stop to her romance with her son and heir. There is a story that Kavanagh chose the location for the building to spite Signora de Anchorena and to spoil her view of the Basilica of the Blessed Sacrament where the Anchorenas buried their dead. There are differing views on the veracity of this story, but its a good one if its true!

The Edificio has 33 floors and is 120 metres tall and differs significantly from its neoclassical and beaux arts neighbours. It also differed from its neighbours by providing modern conveniences - it was the first building to have air conditioning in the city. For me at least its charms are not immediately obvious but I do like the rocket ship summit and the starkness of the off grey colour. It was declared a national historic monument in 1999.

Edificio Kavanagh
Avenida Corrientes is Buenos Aires' Broadway with many theatres and cinemas, many of which were built in the 1930's in art deco style and still fulfil their original function although a growing number have been acquired by evangelical churches. The Gran Rex opened in July 1937 having taken just seven months to build (!) and 78 years later it is still a working cinema. It was the largest film auditorium in South America and looked directly across the street at the Cine Teatro Opera which had opened just one year earlier. Architect Alberto Prebisch, who was also responsible for the city's iconic Obelisk designed the cinema. Prebisch preferred the modernist style to art deco. As well as seating for an astounding 3,800 people, the cinema included a sweetshop (good man) and underground parking, all served by a series of ramps, stairs and lifts. Constructed almost entirely from concrete, the acoustic requirements of the cinema were met by using techniques similar to those employed in the design of the Radio City Music Hall in New York. The cinema was not open at the time I visited, but I managed to get a quick look in the foyer which is large and impressive with its metal, glass and pod details. Avenida Corrientes is clogged with traffic for much of the time and the streets would benefit from more regular sweeping but it is easy to imagine the excitement of the smartly dressed 1930's crowds arriving here for premieres and special screenings.

Gran Rex Cinema, Avenida Corrientes
Lobby, Gran Rex Cinema
Facade, former Cine Roca, Rivadavia
Sadly, the Cine Roca at Rivadavia 3755 no longer shows films and has instead been acquired by a religious organisation that has covered part of the facade with advertising. Built in 1938, it was designed by Alberto Bourdon and replaced an earlier theatre on the same site. The Roca had a seating capacity of 1800, 950 in the orchestra (or stalls) and 850 in the balcony. Its opening night sounds impossibly glamorous and featured screenings of Victoria - woman and queen, starring Anna Neagle and Hurricane featuring Dorothy Lamour and John Hall. The audience were also treated to live jazz courtesy of the Harry Roy big band who accompanied vocalist Pearl of Sarawak! Roy was born Harry Lipman in London's Stamford Hill whilst Pearl was really one Elizabeth Brooke Vidmer, daughter of an aristocrat. Well, movies are all about fantasy aren't they? All this for just over one US dollar.  Those were the days. The Roca may no longer show films but it still has a beautiful facade with those three long, seven sectioned windows above the canopy and classic symmetrical deco features at the summit. Belgian born Bourdon was responsible for a number of theatres in Buenos Aires including the iconic Opera Theatre also on Avenida Corrientes.

Former Cine Roca, Rivadavia
I have already mentioned that Buenos Aires is full of beautiful modernist apartment blocks. One of my favourites is on Calle Paraguay at number 1520. Built in 1936, it was the work of the Comini and Sasasola construction company. Made of reinforced concrete, it differs from the usual straight line of balconies with its more laddered approach and nautical feel as the rounded balconies give way to angular designs at the top of the building. I also liked Edificio Calmer on the San Telmo stretch of Avenida Belgrano. Built in 1940 and designed by Leopold Schwarz, it also features beautiful balconies as well as stylised entering over the two entrances. It was also home to Spanish writer Francisco Ayala from 1939 - 1942 during his exile following the victory of the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. 

The modernist style lasted well into the 1950's in Argentina and I saw several examples of this during my recent visit. Examples of this include the apartment block at Avenida Libertador 2286 built in 1949 and designed by Luis Migone and the building of the General Confederation of Work (CGT) at Calle Azopardo 802. 

Calle Paraguay 1520
Edificio Calmer, Avenida Belgrano
Apartment block, Avenida Libertador 2286
CGT building, Calle Azopardo 802.
I understand that the 2019 World Congress on Art Deco may be held in Buenos Aires. That would certainly tempt me back to the city which can easily be combined with a visit to Montevideo, just across the water in Uruguay and home to many great art deco buildings. It will also, hopefully prompt the city to better document its wonderful art deco and modernist heritage and possibly even to clean up some of those facades and remove the advertising boards!

You might also like Montevideo - art deco capital of South America and Cafes, tango and a marvellous market - Buenos AIres for beginners part one

You can see more pictures from Buenos Aires here.