Monday, 14 April 2014

Australian Art Deco - Glenelg and Port Adelaide

Adelaide City Centre has a number of fine art deco buildings, which will be the subject of another post, but the city's many suburbs are also home to some wonderful examples of this style. I first visited Glenelg and Port Adelaide five years ago and went back last week to have another look.

Glenelg is a thriving seaside town, a short drive from Adelaide. The main thoroughfare - Jetty Road - has many bars and cafes, some good book stores and some independent shops. It also has one of Glenelg's best and most intact examples of art deco. The florist shop at number 97 was built some time between 1935 and 1940, originally as a dentist's consulting room with residential space above. It is hard to miss this lovely building as it occupies a corner space on the junction of Jetty Road and Gordon Street. Architect Alexander Henry Smerdon's clever design interacts with both streets, an advantage for the current retail use of the premises. Especially striking are the blue and white contrast details above the cantilevered awning with the "fan" showing a key deco motif to approaching pedestrians. Fantastic!

97 Jetty Road, Glenelg, built circa 1935. Architect - Alexander Henry Smerdon.
Detail, 97 Jetty Road.
I have not been able to find out much about Mr. Smerdon, except that according to the Court reports in the December 19th 1940 edition of the Advertiser newspaper, that he was successful in a claim for 60 pounds for work completed on two maisonettes for cafe owners Tom Chaouis and Con Gotjaminis. I wonder what interesting story lay behind this dispute?

Rather more scandalous than the unpaid architect's bill is the fact that since I was last here, just a few years ago, another landmark art deco building, the Ozone Cinema, which formerly stood at 119 Jetty Road has been demolished to make way for a modern shopping centre. The cinema was designed by F. Kenneth Milne and was opened by the then mayor in 1937. It had 2000 seats and its opening feature was the Janet Gaynor and Frederic March version of A Star Is Born. Facilities included a special smoking lounge for ladies, a crying room from which up to 25 mothers and babies could enjoy the film, a telephone box and an open fire! Although many of the interior features had been lost over the years I understand that the cinema had a local heritage listing but this does not seem to have been enough to protect it. The owner of one of the Jetty Road shops told me that local people had opposed the demolition. 

Former fire station, Glenelg, 1930. Architect unknown.

Detail, former fire station, Glenelg.
On a more positive note, the former fire station at 26 Gordon Road, just off Jetty Road, is still standing and is now operating as a gallery. Built in 1930, it is an attractive white painted structure with various deco features including references to the "rule of three". glass bricks, and a double recess on the building's facade. No details of the architect seem to be available as is the situation for the wonderful "Shoreham" apartment block on South Esplanade, facing directly on to the beach. The external areas of the block have been neglected and several of the beautiful balconies are crumbling. This is a building that would be at home in Tel Aviv or even Miami with its receding balconies, glazed curves and classic blue stripe against the white facade. Let's hope that restoration work takes place before this building deteriorates further.

Shoreham, Glenelg. Details unknown.
Detail, Shoreham.
Port Adelaide also boasts some art deco treasures. Whilst it is less affluent than Glenelg it has a number of attractions including national aviation and railway museums, a number of cafes and restaurants, an Aboriginal arts organisation and the riverfront area.

Port Adelaide Council Chamber and Town Hall on Vincent Street was built from 1939 to 1940. It was designed by architect Chris Smith, a prolific exponent of the deco style. Partially hidden from view by some attractive mature trees, it has several classic deco features including a beautiful curved balcony, fluted parapet, curved side windows, glass bricks and geometric patterns on the original glass doors. The town hall complex includes the former Savings Bank of South Australia which was built in 1935. The architect is not known. A more recent addition to the rear of the building has been designed sympathetically to complement the original.

Smith was an interesting character. Despite having no formal architectural training, five of his buildings are listed in the Royal Australian Institute of Architecture's list of significant twentieth century architecture in South Australia. As well as designing a number of cinemas, he was also a film fan and  at one point ran a film  distribution business with his brother. On the day I visited Glenelg, I also visited the small seaside suburb of Brighton  which is home to another Smith building - the Municipal Offices and Council Chamber, completed in 1937 amidst controversy and ratepayer protests at the expenditure  of funds. Miserable lot they must have been.

Council Chamber and Town Hall, Port Adelaide, 1939-40. Architect - Chris Smith.
Detail - Council Chamber and Town Hall, Port Adelaide.
Municipal Offices and Council Chamber, Brighton, 1937. Architect - Chris Smith.
Back to Port Adelaide and the delightful former South Australian Harbors Board building. The original building was demolished in the 1930's and the current structure was completed in 1934. It is currently vacant having recently been used by Oxfam and before that it was a Coca-Cola Museum (!) and the offices of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. I like the dramatic entrance with the brightly coloured layered archway that leads to a stepped summit, topped by a flagpole. This spot would be great for a good cafe…any takers?

Former Harbors Board Building, Port Adelaide, built 1934. Architect unknown. 
The Freemasons movement underwent rapid development in South Australia in the 1920's and 1930's and this is evidenced by the large number of masonic lodges dating from this period. Port Adelaide has a particularly large Masonic Centre on Commercial Road. Designed by architect (and mason) Charles Walter Rutt, it was completed in 1928 and is striking for its "Egyptian revival" style that includes lotus bud columns, tapered windows and various decorative Egyptian motifs. It has two facades, both with faux towers at either end and a number of masonic symbols on the Commercial Road side and over the entrance in Dale Road. It appears to be in excellent physical condition. There are a number of shops beneath the lodge, including the Better World Arts, Aboriginal arts project. Rutt also designed the Adelaide Oval cricket ground and is described on the University of South Australia's architects database as a "lover of fine cars".

Dale Road entrance, Port Adelaide Masonic Centre, 1928. Architect - Walter Rutt.

Detail - Port Adelaide Masonic Centre.

Port Adelaide Masonic Centre.
There are many more examples of art deco in and around Adelaide and I hope to be able to visit these before my trip ends. More posts to come.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Picture Post 25 - The Ohel Leah Synagogue and the Jews of Hong Kong

The Ohel Leah synagogue in Hong Kong is one of the island's most beautiful heritage buildings. I managed a quick peak on a recent stopover in Hong Kong, gaining access after a searching discussion with non-Jewish guards that would have put security at Ben Gurion airport into the shade! Still, safe is good and a few minutes of questions was more than made up for by the stunning interior of this building which was completed in 1902 and funded by the great Bahgdadi Jewish family - the Sassoons who also made their mark in Shanghai.

The Ohel Leah synagogue
Jews first came to Hong Kong after the island was ceded to the British after the Opium Wars of 1839-42. The British free trade policy attracted merchants from across the world including Jewish traders from Iraq and India. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the community had developed enough to need a permanent synagogue. Most of the Hong Kong Jews were Sephardim and the Sassoons, being the equivalent of Sephardi royalty stepped forward to purchase a piece of land above the city on Robinson Road for this purpose. They presented both the land and the building to the Hong Kong Jewish community,  naming the  synagogue after Leah Gubbay, the mother of the three Sassoons who funded it.

The synagogue was designed by architects Leigh and Orange in baroque style. The original design featured a red brick exterior with white detailing and an internal layout in the Sephardi style. Just three years after the synagogue opened, in 1905, another great Baghdadi dynasty - the Kadoorie family, funded the building of a Jewish Recreation Club on the synagogue grounds. The club had a large hall, restaurant, bar, library and billiards room as well as tennis courts and a view over the harbour. It is hard to picture how idyllic this setting must have been back then due to the blocks of flats that tower over the synagogue and which restrict the views from the site. But this is still an impressive building which is loved and cherished by its community and which more than holds its own with the ubiquitous tower blocks that are now its neighbours.


During the Second World War, the island was occupied by the Japanese. Many local Jews were interned in prisoner of war camps and the recreation club was totally destroyed. The synagogue was requisitioned by the Japanese but suffered little damage and the Torah scrolls were smuggled out and safely hidden until the end of the War. In 1949, the Kadoorie family again financed the building of a new Recreation Club on the site of its predecessor. The community expanded in the following decade as many Jewish families that had formerly resided in mainland China fled to Hong Kong. This was the beginning of the island's economic transformation and the area around the synagogue became an extremely desirable location with many houses and blocks of flats being built. The scale of building in the area resulted in the weakening of the granite retaining wall between the synagogue and Robinson Road to the extent that by 1980 the Hong Kong government required the Jewish community to stabilise the entire length of the wall. This was eventually funded through the sale of part of the site and the consequent loss of the Recreation Club. Two tower blocks were built on the sold land and the developer stabilised the retaining wall, assuring the future of the synagogue.


Work to restore the building took place in 1997 and 1998, including restoration of the stained glass windows, shutters, doors and carved benches. New tiered seating was added to the women's gallery as well as better lighting and air conditioning, whilst the bimah was moved to improve acoustics. The success of the restoration was marked by UNESCO selecting the synagogue for the Outstanding Project Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in the Asia-Pacific region in 2000. The synagogue remains at the centre of the Hong Kong Jewish community with over 200 families registered as members. As well as religious services, community members are able to use the Jewish day school, a kosher supermarket, meat and dairy restaurants, indoor swimming pool and meeting rooms in the Community Centre built into the adjoining high rise. 


The Ohel Leah synagogue is an oasis of calm in one of the most densely populated places on earth. The   cream coloured exterior and the contrasting green of the grounds give visitors an idea of what this part of Hong Kong was like at the beginning of the twentieth century before the advent of the ubiquitous high rise blocks that dominate the landscape here. The Sassoon family left their mark on many of the world's great cities but their contribution here in Hong Kong is something very special and one which serves a still thriving community. The highlight of my short stay in Hong Kong, this is a much recommended place to visit, but remember to bring your passport for the guards or better still, call ahead to make an appointment to make sure of seeing inside.


Friday, 4 April 2014

Nate Wong - Jazz in Hong Kong


Whenever I travel I try to find some live jazz to go and enjoy. Last week, I had just one night in Hong Kong on my way to Australia and luckily it coincided with an appearance of the Nate Wong Trio at the Fringe Club in Hong Kong's Soho. 

The Hong Kong born drummer teamed up with Teriver Cheung on guitar and a keyboard player whose name I unfortunately missed. (Sorry!), to lead us through a number of jazz standards including Ellington's Take the A Train, Sunny made famous by Bobby Hebb and the Johnny Rivers' penned Bring it on Home, as well as some of his own own compositions. These classics gave Wong a chance to demonstrate his versatility on the drums with some great solos and good interplay with his colleagues. Teriver Cheung was also excellent with his understated approach on guitar.

The gig was billed as the worldwide launch of Wong's new jazz trio and was attended by a range of Hong Kong arty types, friends, fans and family and the occasional traveler - like me. The trio also performed some of Wong's own compositions which included pieces he performed on the melodica, which I can best describe as a keyboard with a  mouthpiece and which gave a bluesy feel to the evening. My own favourite of the evening was his rendition of the Nat King Cole classic - A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. Lovely. All of the pieces were well received by an enthusiastic audience.

Nate told the audience that he had only just flown in from the States, that the trio had only met each other a few hours before the gig and that there had been no chance to rehearse. If that's the case then I would advise readers to go along to his next gig at the Fringe on April 26th when he will be joined by veteran Hong Kong jazzer Ted Lo on keyboards and Ecuadorian guitarist Daniel Toledo. Hong Kong jazz fans should not miss this opportunity to see a rising star perform in his home town. 

The Fringe is a great venue where a variety of arts programmes take place. It is also a lovely heritage building dating from 1913, restored in recent years and the recipient of an important award for its sensitive restoration. Oh…and there's a good cafe too!

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Picture post 24 - Italian Modernism in Jerusalem

Jerusalem's Jaffa (Yafo) Street is the main thoroughfare in the western part of the city. Teeming with people both day and night, it is home to many shops and cafes and also to the recently completed light rail transport system. The streets and alleys running off it hold hundreds of restaurants, religious buildings, more shops and cafes and a huge amount of history. The wonderful Shuk Machane Yehuda is at the upper end, on the way to the central bus station.

The Assicurazioni Generali House, Jerusalem.
I am drawn to Jaffa Street for all of these reasons and also because it has a fascinating architectural history, with many important buildings from both the Ottoman period and from the 1930's.  It is easy to miss some of these architectural treasures if you don't look up as stroll, but some buildings stand out no matter where you are looking. One of the most striking of these is the Assicurazioni Generali House on the corner of Jaffa Street and Shlomzion HaMalka. Jerusalem has many buildings from the 1930's, most of which were designed by emigree German, Austrian and Czech Jews. The Generali House is an exception to this and was the work of the non-Jewish Italian architect, Marcello Piacentini. The original plan had been for an "International Style" building by Richard Kauffmann who drafted a proposal in 1932. This was rejected in favour of Piacentini who was not only was not Jewish, but also a member of the Novocento Italiano group of architects favoured by Mussolini's fascist regime. He also designed public buildings in Rome and in the Italian colony in Libya.

Built from 1934-36 on a triangular site, the four storey building housed the Jerusalem office of the Generali insurance company. Piacentini created a monumental effect by inscribing the company name on the facade in large Latin letters and by using Roman numerals to show its founding year. A winged lion stands on the roof looking up Jaffa Street. It must have witnessed many important moments in the history of this most disputed of cities. Made from Jerusalem stone, the ground floor has rusticated features whilst the upper floors have sanded walls. The open loggias on the front of the building are a reference to Italian classic architecture with the stepped window recesses adding an interesting touch. The loggias also have views of the length of Jaffa Street. 

The Generali building demands attention. There are many more architectural beauties on this street, some less obvious than others. Remember, look up when you walk!

The winged lion keeping watch over Jaffa Street.
You might also like A Saturday Walk in Jerusalem and The Ades Syrian Synagogue in Jerusalem.

You can see more photographs of Jerusalem and other parts of Israel here.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Picture Post 23 - Quiroga, a Mexican market


Quiroga is a busy market town in Michoacan province, in Mexico's colonial heartland. The town takes its name from one Vasco de Quiroga, a Spanish born Catholic priest who came to Mexico in about 1530 and unlike many of his countrymen treated the local population well and did much to improve their conditions with schools, hospitals and other facilities. Whilst visiting Mexico in December I spent three days in the province, based in Morelia but visiting some of the surrounding towns too. 

I visited Quiroga on a bright December morning and found streets of market stalls selling agricultural and handicraft products from all over Michoacan. Many of the stalls sell lacquerware items and wooden bowls and trays brightly painted with floral motifs whilst others sell pots and pans for domestic use. There are also many, many, stalls selling food. The brightest coloured fruit and vegetables I have ever seen were displayed in carefully constructed piles designed to attract Quiroga's shoppers and to dazzle  the occasional tourist. Other stalls sell meat, fish and cooked food ready to eat. As it was almost Christmas when I visited many of the stalls were also selling seasonal decorations made from paper, wood or cloth also of many different colours and helping to entice shoppers in this extremely competitive market.

Of course I wanted to sample the food and I enjoyed a couple of quesadillas (!) filled with cheese and beans washed down by a mug of coffee. The quesadillas were cooked on a metal stand like the one pictured above and were served with a selection of chillis and chilli sauce options graded, hot, very hot and even hotter! The quesadillas were great, the coffee a bit disappointing. I was asked if I wanted water or milk in my coffee which should have been a clue. I only drink black coffee so plumped for water. And that's what I got…a mug of hot water and a jar of nescafe! Well you can't win them all. Incidentally, I have eaten many quesadillas since my return to London, all of hem much more expensive than the ones in Mexico, none of them as good as the Mexican variety and many of them swimming in oil. Come on London, sort it out.

I like the picture featured at the head of the post for several reasons. Its a great reminder of a morning spent wandering Quiroga's market and street stalls, enjoying the colours and the December sunshine. But more than that it illustrates perfectly my feelings about Mexico and many of its people who work extraordinarily hard to make a living often in the most difficult conditions. Thousands of women work in markets, making and selling food from stalls or in many cases getting up before dawn to cook delicious treats before hawking them to passers by in order to earn a living.

Quiroga is not far from Patzcuaro, a larger town and also a great place to visit on a day's excursion from Morelia, but that is for another post!




You might also like Vintage travel…visit Mexico…in 1936 or Mexico City top ten

You can see more pictures of Mexico here

Friday, 7 March 2014

I Am Istanbul - a love story by Buket Uzuner



Buket Uzuner's I Am Istanbul is a love story. In fact it is two love stories - one between Belgin and Ayhan the book's main characters, but more than that it is about the love (and hate) that Istanbul's citizens have for the city herself.

Set over a few hours in Istanbul's international airport, during what might or might not be a terror alert, Uzuner introduces us to a whole range of characters each one representing different aspects of what it means to be an Istanbullu (someone from Istanbul). She demonstrates the diversity of the city and also its great and terrible history through characters such as Anna Maria Vernier, whose family has spent more than 500 years in the city but is still referred to by some as an Italian and a Christian at that; lavatory attendant Hasret Sefertas an internal migrant from an Anatolian village and Jak Safarti who comes from an old Jewish family, as well as Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, Allawis, religious and secular Muslims, expats from other countries, a taxi driver, a gold digger, an aged architect, a gay barman and numerous others each bringing their own take on what it means to be a citizen of Istanbul as well as their own personal and historical baggage.

The airport is a microcosm of Istanbul society with the petty prejudices between different groups being played out in the conversations between the characters and minor incidents in the shops and bars. Anna Maria pushes past a headscarf wearing Muslim woman to snatch away a bottle of perfume, the Muslim woman in turn looks down on Anna Maria because of her short skirt and cross, an elderly academic is contemptuous of an American expat and also of the Turkish policeman who is a villager from Anatolia, whilst the policeman despises the architect as being from old money. But when the airport's computer systems crash and panic starts to spread we see the relationships change and barriers break down as the characters offer help to each other or think about the things that really matter to them. 

The book is tense and episodic with short chapters taking us from one character to another, making use of flashback to fill in the details of their pasts and what brought them to the airport on this particular day. The female characters are especially strong. Belgin is the main attraction having asserted her independence from an ex husband and from Istanbul and Turkish society to go and live in New York several years previously. She is returning to the city to start a new life with Ayhan, an internal immigrant who has established himself as an artist. We see her struggle with her past and puzzle over her future in the few hours she is stuck in the airport following the computer collapse. Her struggle  perhaps representing those of Turkey in deciding what her future is. Much reference is made to the (now fading?) Turkish ambition to join the European Union with supporters and opposers amongst our cast. Towards the end of the book, Belgin sums up its central idea that "…the real drama of Turkey was sharing a country with well-intentioned people all living together in very different areas with very different world views. She hoped that her grandchildren…would be able to live in a country where time wasn't so fragmented, where cities and towns and villages all used the same calendar and the same clock, where people would be free and equal…"

Despite the tensions between the characters and the communities they represent, they all identify strongly as Istanbullus, professing love, hate and fear for and of the city, but being unable to keep away.

Author Buket Uzuner was born in Ankara in 1955 and is the author of a number of novels, collections of short stories and travel writing. She trained as molecular biologist and environmental scientist. She has worked in the USA, Norway and Finland and has won a number of prizes for her work. I already love the writing of Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak. It looks like I have found another great Turkish writer to follow! Buket lives in Istanbul. I look forward to seeing more of her work in translation.

A weekend in Antwerp - art nouveau, cup cakes and a touch of Africa

It takes just three hours to get to Antwerp from London on the Eurostar, changing once at Brussels. I made my first ever visit to the city last month and discovered its architectural delights, some great cafes, a street full of antique shops and a fascinating modern museum that tells the story of Antwerp. 

Antwerp has a history as a great port city, with millions of immigrants having passed through on their way to America from Eastern Europe. The MAS  (Museum aan de Stroom) in the old docks area tells the story of the this port city, including the great waves of migrants that flowed through it. It also tells something about those who made Antwerp their home. When I visited there was a small but fascinating exhibition about the city's Chinese community. The building is extremely striking, a red brick tower with stepped brick blocks interspersed with floor to ceiling glazing at each level, affording differing views of the city. The collections include thousands of objects, paintings and photographs that tell the story of Antwerp. I especially enjoyed the "visible storage" gallery where visitors can catch a glimpse of some of the museum's treasures, whilst the other galleries display items under the themes of Display of Power, Metropolis, World Port and Life and Death. There is a good book shop too. The museum opened in 2011, was designed by Dutch architects, Willem Jan Neutelings and Michiel Riedjik and is a major component of the regeneration of this part of Antwerp.

The MAS
Which one is Tin Tin? Exhibit in the MAS
Antwerp has a Jewish community numbering about 15,000. The majority are Orthodox Jews, many working in or connected with the city's diamond industry located close to the Central Station. This community was immortalised in Diamonds, the story of an Orthodox diamond merchant living in the city on the eve of the First World War. His workers compete with each other to gain his favours , his wife suffers from his overbearing personalty, his son is without direction and his daughter is a spendthrift! Written in Yiddish by Esther Kreitman, the less well known sister of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the book was first published by Foyle's in 1944.

The Het Zuid district is home to a stunning synagogue completed in 1893. The Shomrei Hadass Synagogue in Bouwmeesterstraat was designed by architects Ernest Stordiau and Joseph Hertogs. Dominating this side street it is Moorish in style. Suffering bomb damage in the Second World War it was repaired in 1958 and declared a protected monument in 1976. Stordiau was responsible for a number of buildings in the city including a chapel and a number of residential properties in the art nouveau district, Zurenborg.

Shomrei Hadass synagogue, main entrance
No visit to any city is complete for me without the chance to enjoy its collection of art nouveau or art deco architecture. Antwerp offers some great examples of both of these styles. I have already posted about the city's art deco riches here and so will pick out my art nouveau favourites in this post. The majority of Antwerp's art nouveau buildings are in the Zurenborg district, a fifteen minutes walk from the Central Station. A triangle of streets including Cogels-Osylei, Waterloostraat and General van Merlenstraat include over 100 examples of the style and will be the subject of a separate post.

There are many beautiful examples of the nouveau style in those streets but my two favourite nouveau buildings here are in the Het Zuid district. Het Bootje (the boat),  at Schilderstraat 2 takes its name from the corner balcony which is shaped like a ship's prow and is a tribute to the city's seafaring links. Commissioned by wealthy ship builder P. Rouis and built in 1901 it was designed by architect Frans Smet-Verhas. It is a riot of colours, curves, swirls and floral motifs that make it stand out from its neighbours. Today the house is divided into several separate units, including one which is home to the Chilean consulate.

Het Bootje.
It is a short walk from Het Bootje, to Volkstraat 40, where you can see my favourite Antwerp art nouveau building - the former Maison du Peuple (People's House). Built from 1899-1903 and designed by architect Emil van Averbeke it was built for the Socialist party and is now a Steiner School. Flamboyant in the extreme, it has fabulous glazed arches, elaborate ironwork and is topped by carved figures. Most striking of all are the freezes on the facade, showing the heroic labour of agricultural workers. There is a smaller freeze above the tiny side door, the shape of which reminds me of the national romantic architecture of Helsinki and Stockholm. 

Steiner School, detail
Steiner School, side entrance
Another favourite is Mercatorstraat 102-106 in the Jewish Quarter, also designed by van Averbeke. Dating from 1901, it faces the railway viaduct and has lovely yellow brick facades and wrought iron balconies. As with the Steiner School, I was particularly taken with its door, which also resembles the national romantic architecture found in Scandinavia from around 1900. On the day I visited this part of the city, there was heavy rain and Antwerp's Orthodox citizens looked at me with astonishment as I took photographs from underneath my umbrella and from the middle of the road!

Mercatorstraat, 102-106.
Brussels has long been famous for its cartoonists and for its street cartoons decorating the exterior walls of shops and other buildings. Antwerp also has many street cartoons, including a wonderful series of tableaux by Jan van der Veken, painted on to a blank wall at the back of the KBC Bank at Eiermarkt 8. Born in Ghent, van der Veken has been featured on the cover of the New Yorker. His Eiermarkt murals show a series of glamorous urban dwellers with romantic undertones! 


Other highlights of my visit included shopping and cakes! Kloosterstraat is a long street filled with antique shops of varying price and quality, all of them interesting and browsing them is a great way of spending an afternoon in the city. I even picked up a small tin once used to store "electroplated pins". I don't own any electroplated pins - it was the constructivist design on the lid that attracted me! Antwerp also has many bookshops. I loved Erik Tonen's shop at Kloosterstraat 48 which sells both new and antiquarian books and where you can see and buy original copies of the Dutch avant-grade magazine Wendingen that ran in the 1920's and 1930's.

This is a city that loves coffee …and cakes. Clearly it was my duty to sample the local produce. I loved my creme brûlée cupcake and very strong coffee at Momade Cupcakes, a tiny six seater cafe in the historic centre. There are more than 30 kinds of cupcake on offer and the service is extremely friendly. The lady serving when I visited on Sunday morning told me she had studied at the Steiner School mentioned earlier. Coffee and Vinyl is another good place at Volkstraat 45. There are racks and racks of vinyl records for sale at the rear of the shop, with coffee being served in the front area. Nice.

I also found a great place to stay. De Witte Nijl (the White Nile) is an excellent bed and breakfast hotel in the Het Zuid area, just a short walk from Nationalstraat and the main shopping and cultural areas. The owners are extremely friendly, welcoming and knowledgeable about their city. The hotel is furnished in colonial style with many antiques, pictures, maps and other items originating from or paying tribute to the former Belgian Congo. There are two suites which, continuing the African theme, are named after Stanley and Livingstone. I stayed in the Livingstone which was spacious, comfortable and had a great free standing bath. A big breakfast is available too!

Speaking of big breakfasts, I couldn't resist photographing the tiger enjoying his breakfast outside the Antwerp Zoo. The mosaic is one if a pair of panels on the exterior of the zoo which I didn't visit but the
entrance is well worth a look. For more pictures of Antwerp click here.

Mosaic at the entrance to Antwerp Zoo
Coffee and Vinyl
My kind of holiday photo!
You might also like Art Deco in Antwerp

The 500 Hidden Secrets of Antwerp by Derek Blyth is a new indispensable guide book for the weekend visitor.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Bitter sweet - A Taste of Honey at the National Theatre


The 1961 film version of this play is one of the classics of British cinema. Dora Bryan as Helen and Rita Tushingham as Jo made these characters their own and any later version on stage or screen would have to be very very good to match the Tony Richardson directed film. The current production at the National comes very close.

A Taste of Honey was revolutionary when first performed in 1958. With its cast of a single mother, a pregnant teenager, a black sailor and a gay art student it covered issues which still divide today but were incendiary in the 1950's and 60's. Some doubt has been cast on the continuing relevance of Shelagh Delaney's play, that it no longer has the immediacy it had when first written. At the time, single motherhood was deeply shameful, interracial relationships taboo and male homosexuality illegal. Things have changed since then but single mothers are still blamed for many of society's problems, teenage pregnancies increase and recent anti-gay legislation in Uganda, Nigeria and Russia as well as less than liberal attitudes amongst some communities here at home show that things may not have changed that much.

A Taste of Honey is not only about these issues. It is also about loneliness and the need for love and friendship. Helen is not the world's greatest mother but she wants to be loved. Jo does not feel loved by her mother and seeks it with Jimmy, a black sailor. Geoff, the gay student is forbidden to find love and seeks instead a kind of love with Jo. This search for love leads to trouble - Helen may or may not know who Jo's father is and has a string of unsuitable relationships, Jo becomes pregnant to a man she will never see again and Geoff lives in fear of being discovered. Helen may be feckless. She is certainly selfish and manipulative but she does show some feeling for her daughter summed up in a word of warning "Oh Jo, why can't you learn from my mistakes… It takes half your lifetime to learn from your own". Jo chooses not to listen.

Loneliness drives the relationships in the play. Jo ends up pregnant because she doesn't want to spend another Christmas alone whilst Helen goes off with her boyfriend. Helen goes off with a younger, abusive man because she wants security. Geoff pursues the friendship with Jo so as not to be alone. Jo  makes reference to the fear of loneliness saying "I'm not afraid of the darkness outside. It's the darkness inside houses I don't like".

Set in Salford in the 1950's, the play also affords a glimpse of working class life in that period and is one of a number of plays and films of the time that focused on this subject, some of which are amongst the best British drama ever written. Witness Stan Barstow's A Kind of Loving, Allan Sillitoe's Saturday Night Sunday Morning, Nell Dunn's Up the Junction and another of my favourites Stephen Lewis' Sparrers Can't Sing. This was the period of the angry young men - not all of whom were from working class backgrounds. Women writers were far and few between and Delaney was very much on her own, not fitting in with the male crowd, very young, poorly educated and northern. She objected to the description "angry" preferring to describe herself as "restless"!

The current production at the National has Lesley Sharp as Helen and Kate O'Flynn as Jo. Lesley Sharp is positively regal as the still glamorous, still hopeful and aggressively domineering Helen, all poise and pout. O'Flynn is equally convincing as the long suffering daughter, completely believable as a vulnerable but knowing teenager whilst Harry Hepple is extremely moving as Geoff, too scared to stand up to Helen, desperate for love and security but too weak to hold on to it. There is also a great jazz soundtrack. A Taste of Honey runs at Lyttelton Theatre at the National until 11th May. See it.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Art deco in Antwerp


99 Meir, Joseph Selis, 1933
Antwerp is known for its historic centre which dates back to the middle ages, for its connection with Rubens and Flemish painting and for its famous port through which millions of immigrants left Europe seeking a new life in the Americas. Antwerp should also be known for its 20th century architecture, including its rich collection of art deco buildings. 

I recently visited the city for the first time, armed with a google map and tips from an excellent Facebook page called  Art Deco Antwerpen , which is a must for all visitors interested in architecture. This is not a large city and many of the deco highlights are within walking distance of each other. Unfortunately I chose a grey and wet weekend to visit but a warm coat, big scarf, umbrella, camera and regular coffee stops ensured that I thoroughly enjoyed my visit.

Meir, Antwerp's main shopping street, is home to my favourite deco building in the city. 99 Meir is currently home to Italian fashion designer Massimo Dutti's store. Originally a second Meir branch of Maison Tilquin, manufacturers and purveyors of high quality silver cutlery, it was designed by architect Joseph Selis, and completed in 1933. It is a slim, striking building with numerous deco features making it stand out from its larger neighbours. Constructed from reinforced concrete, the facade features slightly rounded windows and a central pillar topped by a flag pole. The pillar divides the floors in half and has examples of the classic "rule of three" displayed at the top and bottom of the pillar as well as on the flagpole. The door has a striking handle resembling two number threes facing each other.

Selis also designed the original interior including the knife shop, counters and cupboards, some of which remain today due to the protected status of the building. Whilst I was in Antwerp, the store was closed, apparently for refurbishment so I was unable to go inside but it was possible to see the counters and lighting from outside. Clearly, I will have to come again! The building has been the Massimo Dutti store since 2003 and underwent extensive refurbishment from 2002-4 under the supervision of the Department of Monuments and Sites.

Doors, 99 Meir, Joseph Selis, 1933

KBC Tower, 35 Schoenmarkt, Jan van Hoenacker, 1932.
Europe's first skyscraper stands at 35 Schoenmarkt,  a short walk from 99 Meir. Built between 1929 and 1932 and originally the Torengebouw van Antwerpen, the KBC Tower stands 87.5 metres tall, second only in the city to the Cathedral of Our Lady. Reflecting the period architecture of Chicago and New York, it was one of Europe's first buildings with a structural carrying frame, also reflecting practice in the USA. The tower dominates the city centre skyline with its deco-featured soaring facade. Unfortunately, many of the original internal features have been lost. The tenth floor tearoom and beer hall were ripped out in the 1970's and the roof terrace cafe was closed. Things could have been worse. In the 1960's there were plans for complete demolition. A "restoration" took place in the 1970's which included removing the apartments on the upper floors and converting them to offices. Today the tower has retail space on the ground floor and offices at all other levels. 

Despite the losses, the facade can still stop visitors in their tracks with window after window, floor after floor and the stylised figures at the lower levels. The central tower is flanked by two wings, one curved, accentuating the height and narrow waist of the tower. It is known to Antwerp's residents as the Boerentoren or farmers' tower, as at the time of building the most important shareholder was a farmers' co-operative. The architect was Jan Van Hoenacker who designed a number of buildings across Belgium including a theatre, bank office and brewery.

Deco figures on the faced of the KBC building
Many of the buildings featured in this post were constructed close to the time of the 1930 Exposition that took place in both Antwerp and Liege. The Antwerp fair concentrated on maritime and colonial themes whilst Liege focused on industry and science. The Exposition also marked the centenary of Belgium as a sovereign state. Few buildings remain from the Exposition but on the outskirts of the city, the Kristus Koningskirk stands in the middle of the residential area of Kiel. The church was built from 1928-30 and was designed by architect Jos Smolderen. During the exposition the church was used to display Flemish art to visitors from around the world. 

The church has elements from a variety of styles but clearly fits into the modernist/ art deco genre with a particularly striking main clock tower and brickwork reminiscent of the Amsterdam School. Smolderen spent time in the Netherlands during the First World War, seeking refuge in Belgium's neutral neighbour. During this time he had contact with Dutch architectural genius H.P. Berlage. There are other examples of the influence of the Amsterdam School amongst the buildings surrounding the church - a school dating from 1934 as well as a number of residential properties. Kiel is another part of Antwerp to visit again.   

Kristus Koningskirk, Kiel, Antwerp. Jos Smolderen, 1930.
Kristus Koningskirk, Kiel, Antwerp. Jos Smolderen, 1930.

Detail of school in the Kiel district, 1934.
Few cities can boast an art deco style church. Antwerp also has an art deco tunnel! The Saint Anna Tunnel is a pedestrian and cycle route under the Scheldt river. The entrance buildings on both sides of the river were designed by Emiel van Averbeke who also completed the early drawings for the KBC tower. These imposing structures are constructed of yellow brick and have partially glazed pillars on each flank. There are decorative canopies above the entrance and at the top of each building.

The interior of the tunnel is charming. Visitors descend a wooden escalator reminiscent of some of the old London Underground stations and then pass through a 572 metres of white tiled walkway. There is also a colourful tiled information panel in the tunnel, giving details of its dimensions and dates of construction. The tunnel was completed in just 22 months and cost the equivalent of one million Euros. Seems like a bargain to me. The grand opening took place on September 10th 1933 with Antwerp Mayor Camille Huysmans officiating and walking through the tunnel, bizarrely followed by 20,000 students!

Detail, entrance Saint. Anna tunnel. Emiel van Averbeke, 1933.

Entrance, Saint Anna tunnel.
Ceramic information panel, Saint Anna tunnel.

Antwerp has many other art deco and modernist buildings to explore and discover. The city is conveniently placed to allow a visit to be combined with Brussels, Amsterdam or even Paris thanks to Eurostar. Below are a few more examples of Antwerp's version of deco.

Retail and office building off Meir

Curved detail of building above
Door to the Tropeninstitut, Nationalstraat
Modern house (I think!) in modernist style in Cogels Osylei.
You might also like Brussels art deco - Uccle and Ixelles
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