Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Joy of Vinyl

I bought my first vinyl record when I was 11. It was Cilla Black's Something Tells Me Something's Gonna Happen Tonight. I am not ashamed. If I tell the truth I probably bought it because my mam liked  it. I went on to buy many more records over the years, initially seven inch singles and a few albums which we referred to as LPs (long players) and eventually, in the 1980's, hundreds of 12 inch singles. My taste was influenced by my brother who had a huge collection of soul music records. I especially liked the Motown recordings of the 1960's and 1970's - feeing very sophisticated when I bought The Supremes' Automatically Sunshine when I was 12 - as well as almost anything that came out on Stax or Atlantic. In my later teens and throughout my twenties (and now), I loved the genre that came to be known as jazz funk.

I was brought up in a very small northern town but was fortunate enough to have access to a great record shop one hour's bus ride away in Middlesbrough - Alan Fearnley records. This was a treasure trove for me. I would visit every Saturday to browse through the racks of records including very sophisticated looking and sounding imported items form the States. Alan Fearnley stood behind the counter for many years stroking his beard and recommending some cracking tracks to me. Too many to list, but a few stick out in my memory. Phyllis Hyman's You Know How To Love Me, Bonnie Pointer's Free Me From My Freedom (on red vinyl - coloured vinyl became fashionable during the disco era), Bernard Wright's Bread Sandwiches, The Heath Brother's For The Public and Gary Bartz' Music. I was able to take these home to my bedroom and escape from the claustrophobia of growing up in a small town with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

Inevitably I became a nerd, buying special cardboard covers for the seven inch singles, special arranging my records in alphabetical order by artist (I ended up working in a library) and drawing up imaginary playlists for the edgiest dance club that never existed. Some of this must also have been my brother's influence. He ran a mobile disco and would occasionally let me accompany him on gigs and even play some of the records from time to time.

Clearly the important thing about vinyl records is the music and the hissing sound as the stylus hits the plastic, but for me, records are a bit like books. There is a physicality about them. They are good to handle. Albums especially come in nice packaging with lots of information about the singers, musicians, sleeve artist and during the late 1980's and 1990's some even included details on who did the hair and make-up for the cover photo. Even better, some  of them even included a lyric sheet so you could very discretely sing along with your favourites in the privacy of your own bedroom. Imported records were even better. Many of the US label designs were different to the UK versions with much brighter colours and eye catching graphics. You also needed a special adapter to place in the centre of US imports to be able to play them.

Over time my tastes developed and I began to expand my interest to include more jazz influenced records. I acquired several of the magnificent Ella Fitzgerald song book series - double albums of her recordings of the works of Harold Arlen, Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. I also discovered Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Richie Cole and Herbie Hancock. During my student years in Newcastle I had very little spare money but invested quite a lot of it in the legendary Callers music shop on Northumberland Street. Callers was home to rack after rack of the most wonderful collection of soul, dance and jazz funk recordings and it was here that I discovered Mile Davis's Porgy and Bess album, Japanese musician Hiroshi Fukumura and some re-issued recordings of Della Reese. Callers was terrific but like Fearnley's is sadly also gone. 

Good things often come to an end and during the 1990's the popularity of vinyl began to wane. I knew the rot had really set in back in the early 1990's when I wanted to buy a jazz compilation - Jazz on a Summer's Day from the now departed and much missed HMV store at Oxford Circus. I was affronted when told it was only available on a CD or a cassette. No vinyl. It was the beginning of the end and over time I reluctantly moved to the CD format. 

In 2001 I moved to the far east and gave away or sold many of my belongings, including my turntable (but not my records!). A change of plan meant I came back to the UK sooner than expected but somehow I never got around to replacing the turntable and my records stayed in boxes and on shelves, undisturbed for more than a decade, although I never once considered disposing of them in any way.  I became a committed CD purchaser and re-purchased many of the vinyl albums I had in CD format. Over the last decade vinyl has seen a bit of a revival and at least here in London its not so rare to see mainly young people carrying vinyl purchases on the tube presumably on their way back to their bedrooms in the same way I did. At first I was a little sniffy about this. Having had a peep at what was on offer in the music shops, the vinyl selections seemed to be extremely random and often much of what was available was second hand with all the attendant risks of being scratched or otherwise damaged. 

That might have been the end of it, but last month, as a complete surprise I was given a turntable and since then I have been more or less glued to it, rediscovering many of my old favourites, annoying friends and relations by constantly asking them if they "remember this" including on at least one occasion calling a friend and holding my telephone to the speakers to ask him if he remembered a particular track. That track by the way was The Facts of Life by one Daniel Madden. He only made one album and this was the killer track. I had forgotten all about it but recognised the superb intro in the first three notes.

I might have settled for playing records from my existing collection for the rest of my life, goodness knows there are plenty of them. Most of my favourite music stores have now gone. The big HMV at Oxford Circus went a couple of years ago and Red Records in Brixton has gone. But Ray's Jazz in the wonderful new Foyles book shop has a small but interesting collection of jazz recordings on vinyl that I have been looking at for some time. Although much more expensive than  they used to be - between 17 and 25 quid, there are some very interesting recordings there…And I've given in. Last week I bought two re-issued jazz albums Blue Serge by Serge Cheloff and Dizzy Gillespie's Dizzy On The French Riviera. I also picked up a 12 inch single of Georgie Fame's Samba from the late 1980's via Amazon.  I never thought I'd be buying vinyl again. All three of my recent purchases have great sleeves, the albums have detailed sleeve notes and the music is well, just great. The hiss of stylus on plastic returns. The joy of vinyl.

Friday, 23 January 2015

An art deco jewel - Palais de la Porte Doree, Paris

I first visited the Palais de la Porte Doree several years ago to see an architectural exhibition. I did not have much time and I remember it was a very wet day so there was no real opportunity to look at the building itself. I put that right last weekend when I revisited Paris and had a good look at this very beautiful building originally built for the Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1931.

The Exhibition was intended to showcase the resources of the French colonies and the diversity of their people. It lasted six months and is said to have sold 33 million tickets for its programme of activities. The French government brought people from each of the colonies to demonstrate their crafts, culture and architectural styles. This also involved something referred to as a "human zoo" with Senegalese people being brought to Paris to create a "village" which shows how the times have changed. 

The Palais is the only remaining building constructed specifically for the Exhibition. It is an imposing structure overlooking the Bois de Vincennes. Designed by architects Albert Laprade,  Leon Jaussely and Leon Bazin it is now home to the Cite national de l'histoire de l'immigration, a museum that tells the stories of the many migrants that eventually came to live in France from both the former colonies and elsewhere. The front of the building on Avenue Daumesnil features a long colonnade with squared columns backing onto an intricate and visually stunning series of bas-reliefs which were the work of Alfred Auguste Janniot. The stylised images include the peoples, flora and fauna of the former colonies. The workmanship is exquisite with sharp, clear lines, depth and movement. Janniot was also responsible for the freezes on the Maison Francaise in the Rockefeller Centre in New York.

Architect Laprade had direct experience of the French colonies, having worked in Morocco as assistant to Henri Prost. Working in Casablanca's town planning service, Laprade re-designed the city's Great Central Park before going on to design colonial administration buildings, parks and sports grounds in Rabat. He was to incorporate local Moroccan motifs into other projects in future years. Laprade's colleague, Bazin also worked on a number of significant buildings including the famous but sadly demolished  garage on the Rue Marbeuf in Paris and the Echo du Nord building in Lille.

The exterior of the palais is indeed stunning, but for me the visual highlight is the grand salon with its brightly coloured murals painted by French artist Pierre-Henri de la Ducos Haille. The murals continue the colonial theme of the external freezes with representations of justice, commerce, industry and science. Again, it is unlikely that these images would be deemed acceptable in today's world but the colours and the symbolist representations of different themes are striking. The murals continue up into the galleries ranged above the salon and there is a small exhibition of promotional materials from the 1931 exhibition on one of the upper levels. The galleries are accessed by an elegant staircase with a decorative metal rail which follows the attractively curved rise. The steps also have delightful decorative details. Whilst in the grand salon visitors should look up. The riot of colour on the walls commands immediate attention but the ceiling is yet another highlight with its recessed levels and contrasting colours. 

The grand salon is the centre of the building but there are elegant smaller salons at each end of the buildings. It is not possible to enter the smaller salons, but visitors can see inside from the entrances.  The list of interior designers who worked on the salons and other parts of the building reads like a Who's Who of French design and includes Emil-Jacques Ruhlmann , Paul Reynaud, Eugene Printz and Jean Dunand.

The Palais also has a cafe which during the summer months opens up onto the terrace ( a bit cold in January for that), and a book shop which carries at leads a couple of titles on the building, albeit only in French. For many years the building was home to the Musee national des arts d'Afrique et d'Oceanie, the collections of which are now housed at the Musee de quai Branly. The Palais appears to have fund its niche with its current focus on the story of immigration, which together with the wonderful building means there are two good reasons to visit.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

End of an era on New York's Lower East Side - Streit's to close its doors

One of the highlights of my 2012 trip to New York was a walking tour of the Jewish Lower East Side in the company of Jared Goldstein, alias Jared the tour guide. The Lower East Side is a rapidly changing area and has lost much of its former Jewish flavour but Jared was able to show me the still significant remains of what was once one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. 

Amongst many other things, he explained that since many Jews have now left this part of the city, a number of the remaining long established Jewish businesses and trades are staffed and sustained by people from the Hispanic community. A particular example of this was Streit's, the matzo factory in Rivington Street that still produces 40% of matzos originating in the USA and is the only remaining family owned matzo bakery in the country.

In 1897 Aron and Nettie Streit came to New York from Austria and in partnership with one Rabbi Weinberger, began making matzos by hand in 1910 in a small bakery in Pitt Street, under strict kosher supervision. In the 1920's the Streit's two sons, Jack and Irvine came into the business, purchasing machinery with which to produce matzos and opening the bakery in its current Rivington Street location. Aron died in 1937 and his sons Jack and Irvine died in 1982 and 1998 respectively. The business remains in the hands of the Streit family and the matzos are made using a process that has changed little in the 90 years since the bakery opened.

Sadly, it seems that Streit's is to join the long list of Jewish family owned businesses to leave the Lower East Side. It was announced this week that following this year's Passover baking, the factory and adjacent store will close forever, the family having finally given in to the constant stream of developers wanting to acquire this valuable piece of Rivington Street real estate. There are plans to find a new location for the business but this will almost certainly be outside of the city. One more Lower East Side landmark will disappear and another New York story will come to an end. Not quite the same thing, but it reminds me that all big cities go through periods of major change and my own city, London is no exception as we prepare to lose the Curzon Cinema in Soho to the needs of the new Crossrail railway. Crossrail has claimed a number of much loved buildings already including the former Astoria, site of many a good night out for Londoners over several decades. Let's hope that its worth it.

Matzo being made at Streit's…but not for much longer.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Saltburn - a Victorian town rejuvenated

Saltburn is a small North Yorkshire town perched on a cliff overlooking the North Sea. Developed during Victorian times as a seaside resort, it still attracted visitors when I was a child in the 1960's and I have memories of being taken there to walk on the beach, eat ice cream and go for a ride on the miniature railway in the Valley Gardens at the bottom of the cliff. I also seem to remember biting cold winds coming off the sea, but perhaps this was in the winter.  

That was all a long time ago but I have more detailed memories of spending time in Saltburn during my late teens in the 1970's. Saltburn had a strong Methodist tradition which at least anecdotally was responsible for the dearth of pubs in the town. Locals either descended the cliff to the Ship Inn right beside the sea, or coped by drinking in the bars of the several hotels that still operated then. The two most popular were the Zetland which overlooked the sea on the cliff top and the Queens, just a few streets away in the main square. The Zetland was my favourite and the place I joined several other underage drinkers on a regular basis from the age of 16. The smooth running of the bars and the hotel was overseen by a large beaded character in a black frock coat who bore more than a passing resemblance to an ageing Orson Welles. So, of course he was referred to as Orson, not Welles, but cart. Work it out for yourself. 

An hour in the Zetland was a Friday and Saturday night pre-cursor to walking part way down the cliffside to Philmore, a nightclub also popular with underage drinkers. From 9 until 2 it was possible to dance to slightly out of date disco music, a smattering of surprisingly left-field tracks and from time to time see live acts that included the Real Thing, Billie Ocean and Jesse Green. Not bad for a tiny provincial town. There was also a coach service at closing time to take revellers home for a small fee. 

Philmore was not always a nightclub. Built in 1884 and designed by one Alfred Waterhouse of London it started life as the Assembly Rooms and I remember being taken there to see a pantomime - Aladdin - at the age of seven or eight. During the interval, three ladies sang operetta songs. The adults seemed to like it but the kids smirked  at the soprano style singing. In the 1990's the building was extensively damaged in a fire, rebuilt and is now a hotel.

After a gap of many years, I have recently been spending more time in the north-east of England and a Saturday morning visit to Saltburn has become part of my routine when in that part of the world. I have been very pleasantly surprised at what I have found. Whilst my own home town, Redcar, has lost many of its independent shops (in fact many of its shops) and cafes, Saltburn seems to be thriving with several cafes, restaurants and an interesting selection of independent traders - avoiding to a large extent the takeover of the charity shop/ pound shop that has swept across many neighbouring towns. The main attractions are clustered around the railway station which is fitting since the town's growth was stimulated by the arrival of the train in August 1861. 

The station itself is host to a couple of galleries, one of which The Saltburn Framing Company sells contemporary art work with a vintage twist - divers, classic cars, etc and of course frames pictures. The image at the top of this post is a reproduction of a piece purchased there. Until recently there was also an excellent independent health food shop which gave off spiced and medicated smells each time the door opened. There is also a farmer's market here on the second Saturday of every month where you can buy great breads, cheeses, meat, cakes, jams, pickles and a range of other home made food items. I enjoyed the piece of flour-less orange cake I bought from the Spanish food stall!

Around the corner on Milton Street, there are several good quality food stores, cafes and one of my favourites - Lloyd-Scott and Beatty Confectionary. Housed in a small shop with a restored Victorian facade, this den of delights is filled with the sweets of yesteryear - sherbet dabs, flying saucers, gobstoppers, old fashioned sweets sold from glass jars, chocolates in vintage packaging and much more. Its one of my regular stops when in Saltburn. Real Meals is my other Milton Street favourite. A family run business, Real Meals is not only a great cafe but also an excellent delicatessen with a surprising range of products. I often eat here on Saturday lunchtime. There are some great soups and  I also like the Greek pasta with sun dried tomatoes and cheese.  You can get Fentiman's drinks here - I can't resist the dandelion and burdock - something I haven't tasted since being a child. And on the subject of drinks, if you get the chance to visit try the Grumpy Mule coffee too - thanks to my nephew for introducing me to it! The cafe's website incudes some recipes if you want to try things out for yourself.

Back in the square, there is a great little independent book shop - the Book Corner. It may be small, but the stock is well chosen with an interesting balance of well-known authors, more edgy material, local interest publications and a good selection of children's titles. The shop offers an ordering service and also has occasional author appearances and book signings. Opening an independent book shop is always a brave move and the obvious success of the Book Store is one of the most encouraging things about a rejuvenating Saltburn.  

After browsing the bookstore, I usually cross the square to Windsor Road and make a pilgrimage to Chocolini's to sample the locally produced ice cream and to buy "continental" style chocolates made in the shop's small factory unit. This is a real treat and even if you don't eat chocolate, its fascinating to look at the different items which include chocolate shoes, dolphins and even dinosaurs!

For a small town Saltburn has some great shops and cafes, but the main attraction has always been the beach. To get there from the town, you can either walk down the very steep and very twisty Saltburn Bank or in the "season" you can take the famous lift. The first lift was built in 1870 and could carry 20 people down to the pier but this was condemned as unsafe in 1883 and replaced by a funicular or "inclined tramway" which seats 10-12 people and operates between March and October. There is a small fee to use the lift which is powered by a combination of water and specific gravity. The two cars have beautiful stained glass windows which were restored in 1979 having been removed in the 1950's.

Once at the bottom of the cliff, there is a clean open beach where its not unusual to see surfers on their way to the waves, people on horseback and dogs of all sizes being exercised. The pier is much loved and won the national Piers Society best pier award in 2009. It is well maintained but one of my favourite features is the beautiful mould growing on some of the wooden structure with its different patterns and shades.

Saltburn is a very different place from the town I have memories of and although the grand old hotels have gone, converted into luxury flats or care homes for the most part, it is a more lively, vibrant place than it has been for decades. Of course, it has the advantage of some of the most beautiful coastline in the north-east with those stunning views across the bay, but the combination of niche retail and quality eating places give it that bit of edge. You can read more about old Saltburn on this very detailed website.

A former Saltburn hotel, now flats.
You might also like Memories of Middlesbrough and days long gone

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Picture post 38 - Cholula, a church on top of a pyramid

Cholula is a city of over 100,000 people on the road from Mexico City to Puebla. It is known for its many churches and large student population, but is most visited due to the presence of one of the largest pre-colonial sites in the country and the church that the Spaniards built on top of it.

At the time of the Spanish conquest, Cholula was a major city with 400 temples, an important shrine to the god Quetzalcoatl and a reputation for the finest pottery in the country. The local people, allied to the Aztecs planned to ambush Cortes and his men on their way to the city of Tenochitlan. Unfortunately, the Spaniards were tipped off by the Tlaxcalans. The Cholulans paid a terrible price with as many as 6,000 being massacred including almost all of the local leadership and the city was pillaged by the Tlaxcalans. Cortes went on to destroy many temples which resulted in the 39 churches currently found in Cholula - rather than the 365 of legend.

Despite the carnage, it is still possible to see significant remains from the pre-colonial period. The Piramide Tepanapa in the Zona Arqueologica is the main site and the location of one of the largest pyramids ever built. More accurately, it is the site of a number of pyramids one built on top of another over time. From a distance the site appears to be a grass covered mound with the yellow church domes rising above. But this hides the earlier history and it is possible to enter some of the 8 kilometres of tunnels within the pyramid and to view the results of their work as well as some partially restored elements uncovered by archaeologists. 

The Church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios sits on top of the pyramid. It is accessed by climbing a steep, winding track from the pyramid's base, populated by vendors selling wooden toys, fruits, chillies  and other local produce. I stopped to look at what was on offer and bought a small wooden flute to bring home as a memento. The elderly woman vendor was amused that she couldn't tempt me to buy any of the fiery looking chillies she offered. Even the thought of them makes me sweat! The last stretch to the summit ends with a set of very steep steps, which once negotiated bring a full view of the church's white and yellow facade.

The climb is worth the effort. As well as being able to see inside the church, there are stunning views across the city with its many churches and clear site of the volcano Popocatapetl. Its a climb that gets made by pilgrims as well as tourists due to the presence of an image of the Virgin of the Remedies, a variation on the Virgin Mary dedicated specifically to the needs of the poor. Its also possible to visit some stunningly decorate churches in the nearby villages of Tonatzintla and Acatapec. You can see pictures and read about them here. 

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Bei Mir Bistu Scheyn - a Yiddish musical classic

Before the Second World War there were as many as 13 million Yiddish speakers. About 5 million of these were murdered during the Holocaust and following emigration to and assimilation in the USA, the strong preference for Hebrew in Israel and cultural suppression in the former Soviet Union, use of the language continued to decline. More recently, this trend has begun to reverse, primarily due to its use by many Orthodox Jews and to a lesser extent through revived interest in other Jewish communities with classes being available in several major cities. 

Many English speakers will have used yiddish words in their day to day speech, possible without knowing their origin. Schmuck, schlep, nosh, nudge, schmooze all having found their word into daily use. As well as surviving as a spoken language, Yiddish also lives on through music, in particular with Klezmer festivals around the world, celebrating the music and language of the pre- war world. One of the best known songs from the Yiddish cannon is Bei mir bistu scheyn, or To me (or more literally, by meyou are beautiful. 

Written in 1932 for a Yiddish musical comedy, I wish I could, with lyrics by Jacob Jacobs (Born Yakov Yakubovitsch in Hungary in 1904) and music by Sholom Secunda (born in the Russian empire in 1894), the lyrics are a paean to the charms of the singer's beloved who is described as lovely, charming, the only one in the world and more precious than money! It has become one of the most enduring songs of its time with at least 100 known recorded versions. The musical itself was less successful, closing after just one season, perhaps reflecting the original Yiddish version of the show's title which translated to You could live but they won't let you.

That might have been the end of it, if, at least according to legend, one Jennie Grossinger, owner of a hotel in the Catskills had not taught the song to Johnnie and George, two African American performers who had worked at her Grossingers Catskill Resort Hotel. Grossingers was one of many well-knwon hotels in this part of New York State that catered almost exclusively to Jewish guests taking summer and other holiday vacations, providing kosher food, organised activities and entertainment at a time when many hotels in the USA were off limits to Jews. A little later, in 1937, lyricist, songwriter and musician Sammy Cahn heard Johnnie and George perform the song at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, got his boss to purchase the rights to it and with partner Saul Chaplin re-wrote the song with English lyrics, adding a swing rhythm. Secunda is said to have sold the rights for just $30 which he shared with Jacobs.

The rest as they say is history. Cahn persuaded the Andrews Sisters to record the re-worked song in November 1937. It became a worldwide hit and earned them a gold record. Since then it has continued to be a recording favourite with some very big names having put their stamp on it, including Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, June Christy, Glenn Miller, Eydie Gorme and more recently Joss Stone and Bette Midler on her 1914 album, Its The Girls. I love Ella's version (which you can listen to here), with that silky voice and great arrangement and of course the Andrews Sisters version is a classic and widely known. However, my favourite is that of the Barry Sisters, Minnie and Clara, born in the United States to Jewish immigrant parents and popular from the 1940's until the 1970's. Click on the link at the top of this post to hear it. There has also been a Swedish version and a number of Russian songs were put to the musical score in the old Soviet Union whilst it has also been featured in films, TV shows and used as the sound track for various advertisements. I especially like the Shasta root beer advert - It's root beer Mr. Sheyn...

Over the years the song grossed several million dollars in royalties making Secunda and Jacobs' $30 look like a bad deal. However, in 1961, copyright expired and ownership reverted to the songwriters, allowing them to secure proper recompense. Secunda was an interesting character having fled Russia's pogroms, traveled in steerage to the United States and been held briefly at Ellis Island before becoming a noted child chazan. He later studied music and worked in several capacities, included conducting, in New Yorks' Yiddish theatre world, continuing to write songs but never producing work of such popularity as Bei mir bistu scheyn

Friday, 5 December 2014

Picture Post 37 - Trinity Court, Modernism in London's Kings Cross

Grays Inn Road in December can be a bit, well, grey. Earlier this year on one of London's sunny summer days I went there to photograph Trinity Court, a beautiful modernist block completed in 1935. On arrival I found the building to be covered in scaffolding with a sign informing residents, passers-by and would be photographers that the works being carried out would not be completed until November. November can sometimes mean December or even January here so I left it until today to chance returning. No sunshine today but the recently revealed, repainted, repaired and restored Trinity Court was looking very beautiful with its white exterior and light blue details.

Architects F. Taperell and Haase designed an eight storey rectangular building with the shorter sides parallel to the street. The facade has a magnificent entrance with double glazed doors bearing decorative tracery, whilst a stepped pediment above carries the block name in clear blue letters. I especially likes the black and white checkered details on the external steps. Above the pediment there are seven metal framed windows, separated by attractive vertical ridges that culminate in a second pediment which hides the housing for the lift shaft at roof level. There are balconies on each side of the building, accessed through a door adjoining bay windows with uniform blue metal frames. The balconies also have blue balustrades with some decorative detail.

Haase and Taperell were responsible for designing buildings elsewhere in London, including in Soho Square and the Heath View block of flats in Kentish Town. Herbert Haase turns up in the 13th May 1931 edition of the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advisor, as the victim of a robbery from his house in Marylebone. Apparently thieves made off with several valuable paintings (including a Van Dyck), several Persian rugs, 22 Chinese ivory figures, a vase and four boxes of cigars - each containing fifty. He must have liked a smoke.

Trinity Court backs on to the former St. Andrews Holborn burial ground which is now a public park. There are a number of aged, mold covered gravestones remaining. In the summer the park attracts workers from the many nearby office blocks who bring their lunch there. This is very different from the first time I visited Trinity Court - perhaps 20 years ago when the park was inhabited by drunks and homeless people and drugs detritus was clearly visible. It was much nicer today despite the damp weather, although I wasn't keen on the bull terriers being walked there! The rear of the building mirrors the street facing facade with the exception of having a smaller entrance and an odd modern lobby.

It is great to see one of London's remaining modernist gems restored and cared for, especially in a part of the city that has seen so much change in recent years. If anyone from Open House ever reads this, Trinity Court would make a great addition to the programme if residents could be persuaded - even if just to get a proper look at what might be the original lift. I've only been able to squint through the main doors but it looks very elegant. Open House might be the only way I ever get inside. I looked the building up on Zoopla today to be advised that a one bedroom flat will cost me about 750,000 pounds. Of course there's always the lottery...

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Picture post 36 - A riot of colour, Santa Maria Tonatzintla and San Francisco Acatapec

Church of Santa Maria Tonatzintla
The journey from Mexico City to Puebla takes a couple of hours dependant on traffic. However, there are many delights en route that tempt travellers to lengthen the journey by enjoying short stops to look at the volcanoes Popocatapetl and Iztaccihuatl (at least on a clear day) and the historic city of Cholula, which will be the subject of another post. There are also two stunningly beautiful churches in small settlements near to Cholula and I was lucky enough to be able to visit them on my recent Mexico trip.

Tonatzintla is a small, very ordinary village but its pride and joy is the Church of Santa Maria of Tonatzintla in the main square. Accessed through a yellow painted archway and across a paved patio, the talavera and brick facade is a glorious red with blue, yellow and white details and naive figures sheltered in a series of small recesses. I love the crisp, clean combination of colours and the way they fit perfectly with the bright Mexican light. 

Archway, Santa Maria Tonatzintla
Work began on the church in the 16th century and the style is described as folk baroque, mixing elements of Christianity with indigenous beliefs and practices. Interestingly, even the name of the church (and the village) reflects this. Tonanzin was a goddess of fertility popular amongst the indigenous Nahua speaking peoples, whilst the village name means "place of our little mother". This is mirrored in the choice of Mary for the church's dedication.

The exterior of the church is beautiful but the interior is overwhelming. Over the last several hundred years, craftsmen have covered almost every inch of the church with stucco ornament including birds, plants, fruits and indigenous figures interspersed with biblical characters. Everywhere you look there is something different to see and it is hard to know where to look first. It is fascinating to see that many of the figures have the facial features of the original Mexicans rather than the Spanish colonialists, suggesting perhaps that the vast majority of the craftsmen were also indigenous people. This style of decoration is known as churrigueresque and originated in Spain in the late 17th century. Unfortunately photographs are not allowed inside but it is relatively easy to find pictures of the interior on the internet.

Acatapec is another small village just a short distance form Tonatzintla. It is home to the riot of colour that is the church of San Francisco. The baroque exterior is covered in glazed bricks and locally produced talavera tiles in blue, green, yellow, red and white. Set back from a busy main road, it is a complete surprise in a village that is otherwise unremarkable. Built at the end of the 18th century it is a other example of the churrigueresque style of stucco decoration on the internal walls and ceiling with the rear of the main altar being particularly impressive. But for me the facade was the main reason for visiting. The uniquely Mexican combination of bright colours, brilliant sunlight and ceramic beauty is truly spectacular, whilst the main lines, angles, edges, curves and patterns are a photographer's delight. 

Both San Francisco and Santa Maria Tonatzintla are unmissable sites on the road to Puebla or Cholula, but a word of warning. Get there early because both churches attract large numbers of visitors including coach parties and school groups. Its great that so many people want to visit, but these are treats best enjoyed quietly. 

Church of San Francisco, Acatapec

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Calle Justo Sierra 71 - a synagogue comes back to life

One of the highlights of my first trip to Mexico City last year was a guided tour of the old city with Monica Unikel-Fasja, who pointed out places of Jewish interest and told me many stories from  the community's fascinating and sometimes difficult history. But Monica is much more than a excellent tour guide. She was responsible for ensuring the restoration of the beautiful Ashkenazi synagogue at Justo Sierra 71 in the heart of the city's Centro Historico.

Ceiling detail of the restored synagogue
She explained to me how this once thriving synagogue had gradually fallen into disuse as when members began to prosper they would move away to more affluent areas such as Condesa and Polanco. For some years, those who maintained businesses in the area continued to attend services but eventually this too ceased and for a long time the building was neglected, falling into disrepair. Monica, who understood the importance of building not just to the history of the community, but also to the Centro Historico told me about her having been part of a team that worked hard to restore the synagogue, by securing funds and appropriate expertise. After much hard work they succeeded in bringing it back into the beautiful condition it is in today.

No longer a place of worship, it operates as cultural centre, making a range of Jewish themed events and activities available to Mexicans (and visitors) of all religions and none, with a programme of music, talks, book launches and readings. This would be enough of an achievement for most people but Monica still has ambitions for the part of the building that formerly acted as the base of the organised Ashkenazi community. On my more recent visit, I caught up with her and she showed me around the large hall and office rooms that were once alive with the affairs of the community as well as for a time being home to a kosher restaurant. Her idea for the space was to have it used as an arts venue. This was quite an ambition - not only was the paint peeling and in some places the floor in poor condition but there was no electrical supply to the building. Sorting all of this out was going to be expensive and possibly more difficult to raise funds for than for the synagogue restoration. 

Hall in the former community building
Detail, the former community building
Left, Monica Unikel-Fasja, right Berta Kolteniuk
Giving more thought to it, Monica decided to bring the space back into use by inviting emerging artists to work there, reasoning that the peeling paint and some of the other aesthetic challenges might not be so important to the artists. She was right. A number of artists have displayed their work in the space, primarily installations. The space is currently occupied by Estudio 71, a contemporary art project led by artist and curator Berta Kolteniuk who suggested that contemporary art would fit well here. Berta also works for the Universidad de Claustro de Sor Juana, as curator of Celda Contemporanea. But this is jumping ahead a little. Concerts have always been a success in the restored synagogue and Monica used music as a vehicle for bringing the old community building back into use. She approached maestro flautist Horacio Franco, asking him to give a concert in the building and to give the box office takings to cover the cost of restoring electricity to the building. Not only did he agree to do it, he did it in style, taking the audience on a journey through the building as he led them pied piper-like through its many rooms. The takings were enough to restore the electricity supply and the artists were able to move in.

Walking through the building during my visit I imagined the many people who must have passed through this place over the years - important figures in the community, new immigrants seeking help with work and housing and people looking for advice on all kinds of matters both secular and religious.  In its day it must have been quite grand, evidence of which includes the ornate metalwork on the staircase, the beautiful floor tiles (many of which remain) and some beautiful glass paned wooden doors. And in case anyone forgot that although the requirements of daily life were looked after in these rooms, a view of the synagogue from the landing windows was available to remind visitors that this was also a religious community.

The synagogue from the community building
So what's next? Monica would like to establish a museum about the Mexican Jewish community. Mexico City has a holocaust museum and memorial but lacks a museum of  Mexican Jewish life and achievement. Her ideas are in the early stage of development and she has no illusions about the size of the task but having restored the synagogue, brought the community hall back into use and written a couple of books, my money is on her to succeed. Perhaps on my next visit to Mexico City this new project will be beginning to take shape. I hope so. 

You might also like Jewish Mexico City - a step back in time and Return to Mexico City

And I can't resist including some more photographs of the restored synagogue.