Sunday, 23 July 2017

Kaunas Modernism Part One

Kaunas has one of the largest collections of modernist buildings in any European city. I first became aware of this a couple of years ago when a friend drew my attention to Kaunas Modernism, an excellent Facebook group concentrating on the inter-war architecture of Lithuania's second city. Last week I spent thee days there, admiring some of the city's best examples of modernism and finding out how there came to be so many of them.  I also managed to find a little time to enjoy some of the city's best cakes!

Until the 1920's this was a relatively small city, characterised by wooden houses and baroque churches. A construction boom during the 1920's and 1930's changed this with many new civic and commercial buildings as well as stylish new apartment blocks. This was because from 1918-1940, Kaunas acted as a temporary capital for Lithuania. Vilnius was under Polish rule during this period and Kaunas needed to acquire the trappings of a national capital. Unfortunately, the new found confidence and period of growth was not to last as invasion by the Soviets (1940) and then German occupation (194-45) preceded incorporation into the Soviet Union. Lithuania did not regain independence until 1990. During the intervening years many outstanding buildings fell into disrepair, were significantly altered or even demolished but a lot survived and this post highlights a few of my favourites from my recent visit.

Central Post Office, 1931.
Laisves Avenue is the main thoroughfare of the New Town. Pedestrianised during Soviet times it is today a tree lined boulevard where people come to shop, stroll, sit outside the many cafes or ride along the green coloured cycle path. It is also the location of four outstanding modernist buildings, two of which were the work of architect Feliksas Vizbaras.

The Central Post Office was built in 1931 and stands at number 102 . Vizbaras combined elements of folk architecture with the principles of modernism including wide modern windows, convex glass on the facade's corners and internal murals depicting Lithuanian postage stamps. The interior also features stained glass with heraldic symbols and figurative compositions. During the Soviet period some of the original stained glass works were removed and replaced with images of zodiac signs. The tiled lobby and main hall floors are also said to make reference to Lithuanian folk art. The facade is especially striking with its mixture of curves, the flat faced clock in the central section and  the squared off towers to each side. Each of these elements rise to different heights.

This is a large building, costly to maintain and heat, which is probably the reason that it has recently been sold. I understand that the new owner is to use it as business premises, the nature of which is not yet known. Vizbaras' Post Office enjoys official protection but it is to be hoped that the new owners respect this and that the public are still able to enter and enjoy it.

Detail, Central Post Office, 1931.
Former Pazanga building, 1934.
Vizbaris' second building here is on the opposite side of the street at number 53 and was completed in 1934. Designed for the Pazanga (progress) publishing company, it was owned by the then ruling National Union Party to produce and distribute books and journals carrying the party's message. The offices of the party newspaper were also here as was a second floor snack bar and restaurant open to the public, accessed by a lift which also took visitors to the roof terrace. A large basement contained a meeting room with natural light admitted through skylights made from glass bricks. 

As with the Post Office, the facade has varying depths and heights and includes references to Lithuanian folk art. The central part features three balconies with decorative metal railings that combine folk art with Art Deco motifs. It is flanked by curved and sectioned windows leading to loggias that run to the extremes of the building. The ground floor has large shop windows reflecting its use as a retail space and mirrors the curved elements of the upper floors. Although in good physical condition, some original features were lost during the Soviet period when those glass skylights were removed and some of the interior spaces partitioned. Today the upper levels are used by the administration section of the Vytautas Magnus University whilst there is a supermarket on the ground floor.

Former Dairy Centre, 1932
Our third stop on Laisves Avenue is next door to the former Pazanga building on the corner of Daukanto Street. Now the School of Economics and Business within Kaunas University of Technology, the former Dairy Centre was the headquarters of Lithuania's milk processing companies. It was designed by Vytautas Landsbergis and built from 1931-32. Occupying a commanding corner position, the exterior is defined by its interactions between vertical and horizontal elements. Each level is marked by uninterrupted panels running the length of the building. The rounded corner has convex glazing descending to the ground floor and main entrance which in turn is shaded by a wide illuminated ledge reminiscent of Parisian department stores. This may have helped it to win the Bronze Medal at the 1937 International Exposition des Arts et des techniques in the French capital. The entire structure is built around a reinforced concrete frame intended to offer the possibility of reshaping the interior if necessary. As with the Pazanga, there was a large basement, this one equipped with an icehouse.

The ground floor originally contained the Dairy Centre shop, a cafe, milk bar and the rather fabulous sounding Muralis men's hairdressing salon which extended over two floors. A few pictures of the salon's interior have survived and show a crisp, functionalist environment with barbers' chairs, large mirrors, screens and wall mounted lighting. The salon was designed by Arnas Funkas - a prominent Lithuanian architect of this period. The administration functions were spread over two floors with apartments at the upper levels - three units to each floor. A number of prominent tenants lived here over the years including Dovas Zaunius, one time Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vince Jonusaite, his opera singer wife. The Dairy Centre was used for various purposes during there Soviet period with the University taking up residence in 1946.

Romuva Cinema, 1940.
During the 1930's, cinema design was heavily influenced by modernist principles. Examples of this can be seen all over the world including in Kaunas. The Romuva cinema is located in a small alley, recessed from Laisves, but still carrying the address of the avenue at number 54. Completed in April 1940, it was the biggest cinema in Lithuania, seating 687 people and benefitting from the most modern technology with mechanical ventilation and state of the art screening equipment. An oval shaped auditorium, special wall coverings and a vaulted reinforced concrete ceiling were included to enhance the acoustics. The decision not to include a circle in the auditorium was taken for the same reason.

The tall glazed advertising tower on the exterior of the cinema was intended to be illuminated with lighting in changing colours. The Second World War had already commenced by the time the cinema was completed and the device needed to provide this lighting feature was held up en route  and so this part of the design was not realised. The main part of the facade is divided by moulded frames and has two rows of different sized windows. The original plan had been to use the upper level for advertising but the windows were installed in order to light the office spaces behind them. A number of changes have been made over the years including moving the ticket office, increasing the slope of the hall and reducing the number of seats to 482. Brothers Antanas and Petras Steikunas, members of the Lithuanian Businessmen's Union commissioned architect Aleksandras Maciulskis  to design their cinema which is still in use today.

Detail, former Daina Cinema, 1940.
Detail, former Daina Cinema, 1940.
There are two modernist cinemas in the Zaliakalnis neighbourhood of the city. Sadly neither of them are being used for their original purpose. The Daina at number 74 Savanoriu is in very poor condition with the main entrance and some of ground floor windows bricked up and the facade covered in grime. Despite this, it is possible to imagine its original grandeur. It still bears the stylised signage carrying the cinema's name, those impressive columns above the entrance and at least a few of the Art Deco style portholes at ground floor level.

Completed in 1936, the Daina could seat 614 viewers across the stalls, balconies and circle. It was designed using the most up to date technology with a roof top ventilation system that blew in fresh heated air as well as extracting stale air. The facade was illuminated by neon tubes which was also technically advanced at the time. Engineer Antanas Breimeris, husband of one of the owners was engaged to design the cinema. When he encountered difficulties he was joined by Stasys Kudokas who was responsible for several Kaunas buildings during this period.

The Daina ceased operating as a cinema after Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, was sold  and used for a time as a carpet shop. It was sold a second time and there were plans to use it as a casino before these were blocked by the municipality. Its future now appears uncertain. A little further along Savanoriu at number 124, a use has been found for the former Pasaka cinema, completed in 1940 and boasting some delightful Art Deco fins on the facade. It is now a "gentleman's club". I suspect not many gentlemen go there.

Resurrection Church, 1933-2006.
The Resurrection  Church is one of Kaunas' most iconic buildings. It has quite a history. Building a new church to commemorate the Lutheran revival was first mooted in 1922 but it was not until 1928, following the purchase of a plot of land on Zaliakalnis Hill, that a competition was held to choose a design. Karolis Reisonas who headed the city's Construction Department was chosen to design the church despite placing only third in the competition. Not only did he not win, but his proposal for an 82 metres high spiral tower with a statue at the summit was rejected on grounds of complexity and cost and a simpler plan adopted. The plan may have been simpler but the resulting church is spectacular. An enormous white structure supported by 1,200 reinforced concrete pillars, it has two towers of differing height, a roof top chapel and can hold more than 5,000 people. For a small fee, visitors may take a lift to the roof terrace and enjoy views across the city.

Most construction took place between 1933 and 1940. Lithuania was first absorbed into the Soviet Union in June 1940 and the church was nationalised. The German occupation came soon after this and during this period it was used as a paper warehouse. The returning Soviets converted it to a radio factory in 1952 but worse was threatened with Stalin demanding demolition of the taller tower and the chapel at one point. It was not until 1990 that the church returned to its original purpose following Lithuanian independence and further construction works continued until 2006.

Resurrection Church 1933-2006.
My final choice for this first of two posts on Kaunas Modernism is the Elias Schneider apartment house on Vaidilutes Street. Designed by Stasys Kudokas, who we came across earlier, it was completed in 1938. The upper levels include two apartments per floor each with three or four rooms. There are three flats in the basement. At time of construction the apartments would have been very desirable - some have more than one bathroom, a number of pantries, balconies and even servants quarters. The asymmetrical facade is a modernist delight with Bauhaus style balconies,  a stone "ladder" on the exterior of the glazed staircase and even Art Deco portholes. The balconies are set within a recessed section of the facade but protrude from the edge of the building, further emphasising the nautical feel suggested by the portholes. The Schneider apartments may be in a poorly maintained side street and the facade could use a good clean but this is still a wonderful example of the confidence and modernity of Kaunas in the pre-war period. 

Schneider apartment building - 1938.
This must have been some city in the 1930's with its many cafes, theatres, cinemas and new sports facilities. Over the last few years, the importance of Kaunas' modernist architecture has been recognised and engaged with due in large part to the efforts of a small number of enthusiasts. This has resulted in an application for World Heritage Status for the city's interwar architecture. If successful, this will bring both opportunities and responsibilities, especially in relation to preservation. Kaunas will be European Capital of Culture in 2022. This will be a great opportunity to showcase the modernist past and to continue the good work being done to promote Kaunas.

The cakes were good too...

I must say thanks to Kkastytis Rudokas for ensuring that I saw some great modernist buildings and also for his Kaunas Modernism Facebook page.

If you wish to read more about the city's 20th and 21st century architecture, the English language version of the book Kaunas Architectural Guide is an excellent guide.

You can see more general pictures of Kaunas here.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

London Art Deco and Modernism - Five More

London is home to several hundred Art Deco and modernist buildings from the 1920's and 1930's. This post, the second in a series, highlights some of the city's best examples of the style including apartment blocks, a former factory and a Chinese/ Japanese restaurant! In addition to being diverse in their use, the buildings are spread across the city and this post includes some less well known structures as well as perhaps our best surviving modernist apartment block.

Gwynne House, Hume Victor Kerr, 1938.
I suspect few people would include Whitechapel on a list of places to look for London's best art deco or modernist buildings. Yet, the area has a number of impressive examples of the style, including Gwynne House in Turner Street just off Commercial Road and adjacent to the Royal London Hospital.

Completed in 1938, it is one of three remaining East End modernist structures that were the work of architect Hume Victor Kerr. Built on a reinforced concrete frame, its neat walkways and striking tower are reminiscent of some elements of Bauhaus architecture and provide a sharp contrast to the earlier houses that surround it. The tower was built to house a lift and stairs to each level and originally contained a telephone kiosk for the use of residents. Each flat had two bedrooms, a living room, small kitchen and a bathroom. The design also made provision for heat conservation, the walls being insulated with cork.

The twenty flats were designed to attract students, social workers and professionals who would not only benefit from the modern design but also from the services of a caretaker who was housed in an additional flat on the roof. Over the years a number of tenants worked at or were otherwise connected with the Royal London and for some years the hospital provided subsidised accommodation here for nurses and trainee doctors. In 2012 the block was sold to a developer who undertook renovations and then offered the flats for sale. The metal fence at ground floor level is believed to be original but the portholes doors are not and were added during the renovation, one assumes to add to the slightly nautical feel of Gwynne House. In April this year one of the flats was offered for sale at £445,000 - not cheap but well below the average property price for the area.

Gwynne House, Hume Victor Kerr, 1938.
Former Hunt Partners Factory, Sir Evan Owen Williams, 1939. 
The former Hunt Partners Factory in Theydon Road, Clapton is a short bus ride from Gwynne House.  Built in 1939 it was designed by Sir Evan Owen Williams who designed some London icons of the inter-war period, including the old Wembley Stadium, the former Empire Pool at Wembley and several buildings for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 at Wembley Park. Whilst most of these have been lost, others survive including the modernist designed former Dolis Hill synagogue (now a school) and several bridges. Williams came from humble origins, born in Tottenham to a Welsh couple who had left their farm in Wales to establish a grocers shop in North London.

Now a residential building with some business units, the exterior of the former factory has been well maintained although the original windows have been replaced. The stylised De Havilland signage is a reference to the factory having been used during the Second World War for the manufacture of aircraft for the war effort. Despite the original windows having been replaced, the glazed staircase above the Theydon Road entrance remains attractive as does the pelmet over the doorway. It is a shame that some of the adjacent glass bricks have been obscured by mail boxes.

Detail, former Hunt Partners Factory, Sir Evan Owen Williams, 1939
I doubt that there are many sushi and dim-sum restaurants located in buildings designed by Walter Gropius, father of the Bauhaus Movement, but there is at least one - at 115 Cannon Street in the City of London. Gropius fled Germany in 1934 after the previous year's election that brought Hitler to power. His time in London was relatively short as he moved on to the United States in 1936 but during his time here he worked with Maxwell Fry and was involved in the design of at least two buildings here. The first of these was a house for playwright Ben Levy in Old Church Street, Chelsea, the second also built in 1936 is now the Asian restaurant pictured below.

Just around the corner from the Monument Underground station, 115 Cannon Street was previously a branch of shirt retailers T. M. Lewin. The design echoes the nearby Daily Express offices, with its black vitrolite and lovely glass bricks some of which have been carefully restored in recent years. As well as being attractive, the bricks serve a functional purpose allowing natural light into the basement whilst maintaining privacy and perhaps acting as a "modesty" measure to protect the dignity of passing ladies. The clean, fresh look of this little beauty belies its age and is further evidence of the enduring "modernity" of this architectural style.

115 Cannon Street, Walter Gropius, 1936.
Paramount Court, Verity and Beverley, 1936.
Paramount Court in Tottenham Court Road is in the heart of the West End, close to theatre land and the major shopping, cultural and entertainment area. Imagine how exciting it must have been to live in one of these flats shortly after they were completed in 1936. The block takes its name from the former Paramount Cinema that stood adjacent to it until its closure and almost immediate demolition in 1960. The site then stood empty for an astonishing 55 years. The cinema had been the third largest in the West End which gives some idea of the value of the site. Architects Frank Verity and Sam Beverley designed both the cinema and the apartment block. 

The building has undergone restoration in recent years and the facade has been brought back to its original red brick glory, contrasting with the sharp white balconies and window detailing. The Tottenham Court Road side has a series of semi-closed balconies, the open element of which must give superb views along this main street. My favourite features are the squared off corners and the decorative detail at the upper levels, where different arrangements of the rich red bricks provide a contrast to the more regular lower floors.

When Paramount Court was completed in 1939, it included a public ballroom in the basement. The ballroom hosted Britain's first jitterbug dance competition in November 1939. During the 1940's with the arrival of American troops as well as soldiers from the then colonies, the Paramount became known as a venue where different races mixed. Not everyone welcomed this and there were scandalised responses to advertising posters showing the dancers in action.

Detail, Paramount Court, Verity and Beverley, 1938.
Detail, Paramount Court, Verity and Beverley, 1938.
And so to the grand finale. During the 1930's, Hampstead was home to artists of all disciplines including architects committed to the modernist agenda, many of whom were Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Perhaps the greatest architectural achievement of this movement is the modernist masterpiece known as Isokon Flats in Lawn Road, Belsize Park. Completed in 1934, they were designed by Canadian born and British based architect Wells Coates in response to a commission from entrepreneur Jack Pritchard and his scientist wife, Molly. Both were committed modernists and had established their own design company - Isokon.

Isokon building, Wells Coates, 1934
Wells Coates delivered a four storey block of 34 furnished flats with two rooftop penthouses. It was constructed from reinforced concrete with a cement wash render. A striking five story tower with a glazed facade stands at one end of the building giving stairwell access to each floor whilst a series of cantilevered balconies face Lawn Road. The Isokon is located half way down a very English residential street in leafy Belsize. It would be interesting to know what the locals thought of this spectacular intervention into the 1930's landscape. 

The original interiors were designed to be minimalist with space saving furniture and fittings, fitted kitchens, bathroom, dressing room and one bedroom. Echoing Soviet practice in communal living, there was a shared kitchen, later converted into the Isobar restaurant which operated until 1969 when it was closed and again converted, this time to flats. Originally private, the Isokon was acquired by Camden Council in 1972 before coming under the ownership of the Notting Hill Housing Trust. It was granted Grade I listed status in 1974, the highest status possible, but was neglected over several years and deteriorated badly. A sympathetic restoration in 2003 brought it back to its original grandeur and it now provides accommodation for key workers. 

Isokon building, Wells Coates, 1934
The flats have been home to some very famous people. Writers Agatha Christie and Nicholas Monserrat lived here in the 1930's and 1940's as did modernist icons Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius , Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and many other artists, writers and architects. The building achieved a notoriety in later years when it became known that at least a dozen residents (and probably more) had been involved in spying for the Soviet Union. These included Melita Norwood who worked as a spy for 39 years - longer than any other known spy in the UK. All of this in highly respectable Belsize Park! It is always interesting when a wonderful building has some good stories attached to it.

In the last few years, the Isokon Gallery has been opened at ground floor level.  The exhibition includes architectural models and drawings for the flats, items of furniture from the 1930's, an explanation of modernist philosophy and details on some of the famous (and infamous) residents. The small gallery shop has a nice selection of tempting books, postcards and other items as well as a nice map showing the location of other modernist buildings in the area. The map is a real bargain at just one pound and is a great tool for architecture fans.

Isokon building, Wells Coates, 1934.
All five of the buildings in this post are easy to reach on public transport as are those in the first part of this series - London Art Deco and Modernism - Five Favourites. More London Art Deco and Modernism posts coming soon!

Saturday, 8 July 2017

London Art Deco and Modernism - Five Favourites

There are several hundred Art Deco and modernist buildings in London. Unlike Brussels with its Uccle neighbourhood and Melbourne's many suburbs, there is no single Art Deco quarter in London so in order to see our modernist treasures it is necessary to move around the city. This can be a treat in itself as many of the Underground stations were built during the 1930's at the peak of the modernist period and were designed in the style. In addition to the Underground stations, there are also factories, shops, cinemas, theatres, office buildings, banks, at least one car park and many residential Art Deco or Modernist properties in London. It is hard to pick out a single favourite, but this post details five buildings that I especially like...and might well be followed by a post about five more.

Florin Court
Florin Court is tucked away in Charterhouse Square, EC1, just a few steps from the Barbican Underground Station. Completed in 1936, it was designed by Guy Morgan and Partners and comprises 120 flats over nine floors. Morgan had previously worked for the iconic British architect Edwin Lutyens. Its most striking feature is the deliciously undulating beige brick facade which rises to recessed upper floors and a roof garden. The main entrance sports a number of deco features in glass and chrome but works carried out in the lobby included tiling over the original deco features. Perhaps the tiles could be removed at some point to reveal the original splendour. Residents have access to a deco style basement swimming pool introduced in 1980 as well as a small gym, library and, I assume, the private garden in the centre of the square. If this sounds impressive, original residents had access to a basement restaurant, cocktail bar and club room but these are now gone. The restaurant was open to the public.

If Florin Court seems familiar to you despite not having been there, it might be because it was used as the fictional Whitehaven Mansions home of Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot in the late 1980's TV series devoted to his adventures.  The building was listed with Grade II status in 2003.

Florin Court
Ibex House
Ibex House is possibly one of London's best kept architectural secrets and is one of the city's best examples of the Streamline school of modernism. Tucked away in the Minories, near Tower Hill it was built in 1937 and designed by architects Fuller, Hall and Foulsham who were also responsible for Blenstock House in the west end. Built on a steel frame, Ibex House rises to 11 storeys including a basement.

Inspired by Erich Mendelsohn's Schocken Department Store in Berlin it is clad in striking black and beige faience and has the longest strip windows in London. Like Florin Court it has beautiful curves and recessed upper levels as well as dramatic glazed "thermometer" stairwells on the Hayden and Portsoken Street sides of this huge building. There are a number of businesses housed in the building including an Italian cafe which has a wonderful curved glazed entrance.

Inside, there are 200,000 square feet of office space and this is London's largest remaining office building of the 1930's. In 1937, space was offered here for a rental of six shillings per square foot inclusive of cleaning. I suspect it is rather more than that today. And with many buildings there is a story attached to Ibex House. It is said that Hitler wanted it for his command headquarters should he have been successful in invading the UK and therefore ordered that this part of the city not be bombed. I have no idea as to the truth of this but have also heard a similar story about Senate House and the University of London. Given that the Nazis were generally disdainful of the modernist style it seems unlikely but its a good yarn. The building was listed with Grade II status in 1982, protecting it from the fate or several other older buildings in the area, demolished to make way for new office blocks.

Ibex House
Entrance to Italian cafe in Ibex House
Still with commercial properties, the former Hoover Factory in Perivale, West London is another large structure, part of which is now home to a large branch of the Tesco supermarket chain whilst other sections are being converted to flats. Built from 1931-35, it was designed by Wallis, Gilbert and Parters who were responsible for a number of London's best Art Deco and Modernist buildings. The site's proximity to the railway and to the docks made it ideal for distributing Hoover's famous vacuum cleaners. Constructed using snowcrete, a white concrete that retains its white colour in spite of the weather, the exterior is decorated with green and red detail including faience ceramic tiles inspired by ancient Egypt as well as with stylised signage.

It is difficult to photograph the entire site partly due to its size but also because of myriad obstacles including Tesco branding, a huge car park, a dual carriageway on one side of the building and scaffolding and hoardings where the conversion to residential space is being undertaken. However, the Number Seven building, added in 1938, stands proudly and  unobstructed. Formerly the Hoover staff canteen, it is now home to Royal Nawab's Indian restaurant, serving as the London branch of this famous Manchester establishment. A number of structures in this part of the complex were demolished when Hoover quite the site in the 1980's but number seven was saved due to its Grade II listed status. Apart from the addition of the restaurant name, the facade retains all the original features including a 'thermometer" stairwell, full height windows and deco details around the entrance. Curry and architecture in one place. Fantastic.

Number seven building, former Hoover Factory
The extension of the Underground in the 1930's brought many villages formerly on London's periphery within easy reach of the city and work. Better off families began to move out into what became known as Metroland, attracted by the benefits of a better environment and rapid public transport to their place of work. Stanmore Underground station opened in December 1932. Now the final station at the northern end of the Jubilee Line, it was the original terminus of the Metropolitan Line once plans to take the tube as far as Elstree had been abandoned.

The land opposite the station was the property of Sir John Fitzgerald, an Irish Baronet and Knight of Kerry. In 1931 he granted Douglas Wood architects permission for a residential development on part of his estate, just a short walk form the new station. This resulted in the properties now numbered 2,4,6 and 8 Valencia Road, a private road within Harrow Council's Kerry Avenue Conservation Area.

My favourite of these four houses is number 4 which was restored in 2014 under the supervision of English Heritage before being offered for sale at £1,795 million. A bargain. Completed in 1934, it was originally the property of Attilio Azzali who came to London in 1926, fleeing poverty in Italy. He settled in Kings Cross where he established a restaurant before opening two more elsewhere in the city. According to an Azzali family legend, he brought his wife Elvira to Stanmore for a day out in 1932 and fell in love with the area which would still have been largely rural then. This prompted him to buy number 4 which remained in the family's ownership until 2009 when it was sold and restored.

The house has five bedrooms, five bathrooms and a variety of other spaces arranged over three floors. There are also two roof terraces and a feature staircase with a brushed chrome bannister and glass panels. The exterior has some wonderful modernist features including the original crittal style windows, fully restored and now double glazed for a London winter. The beautiful tubular staircase with a glazed panel at midpoint is another striking feature of the facade. And if the residents still can't find somewhere to sit, there is a 130 foot garden at the rear. There are several other modernist houses in the conservation area making a schlep to Stanmore more than worthwhile.

4 Valencia Road, Stanmore
My final choice is another residential building in Downage, a quiet street in Hendon, North-West London. Known as The White House, it was completed in 1935 and was designed by architect Charles Evelyn Simmons for Haymills Ltd, a building and development company active in North London during the 1930's. 

The exterior appears to have been perfectly preserved, possibly thanks to its being listed with grade II status in 1997. The two storey building is constructed from rendered brick with a flat asphalt roof. Built to a square plan, it has rounded corners on the south elevation with continuous windows on both floors. The double entrance doors are set back behind fluted mouldings on either side with a sign bearing the name of the house beneath the balcony above. Another great example of the Streamline school of Modernism, the White House has a nautical feel with the sun room resembling a ship's observation post. The fabulous glazed stairwell gives passers-by a glimpse into the life of the occupants and is topped by a motif inspired by the Art Deco "rule of three". 

The listing record says that some of the internal features have been lost including a fireplace in the drawing room but others survive including taps set into the bathroom wall and a green inset soap holder. There are six bedrooms as well as a substantial rear garden.

Architect Simmons was a local man, born in Hampstead in 1879 and educated at University College School before becoming articled to Horace Field between 1899 and 1903 where he completed his professional training. He commenced practice in 1905 before going on to establish a professional partnership with his former tutor. During the First World War he worked in the Ministry of Health Architects Department but later returned to designing residential properties and even two churches in Scotland.

The White House, 72 Downage.
These are just five examples of London's glorious Art Deco and Modernist buildings. Look out for most posts in this new series.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Omer and Avi - the Avitals play Wigmore Hall

I have waited a long time to hear Omer Avital play in London. I saw him a few years ago in Paris and then again last year in Tel-Aviv where with his quartet he gave a majestic performance of most of the tracks from his Abutbul Music album, a wonderful collection of jazz pieces influenced by traditional Moroccan music. On Friday night at London's Wigmore Hall, the audience was treated to yet another stunning performance as accompanied by Avi Avital on mandolin and mandola, Itamar Doari on percussion and the ever reliable Yonatan Avishai on piano, we were treated to several tracks from the new album - Avi Avital meets Omer Avital.

Part of Wigmore's Late Night series, they played one long set set lasting in which we witnessed musical conversations between Omer and Avi, some stonking percussion solos from Itamar and flawless oriental-referenced piano from Yonatan. We also saw the Avitals move from bass to oud (Omer) and from mandolin to mandola (Avi) in a single song. From the first few notes of their opening number, Zamzama, we were transported to the Levant by music so atmospheric that you could almost see the haze coming off the desert sand. And all of this under the watchful eye of the mythological figures in the arts and crafts frieze above the stage.

Zamzama, Ana Maghrebi and Maroc particularly demonstrate the North African origins of the Avitals with constantly changing rhythms and moods. Arabic maqamat or modes are especially to the fore in Zamzamat  whilst Maroc had a more specifically Moroccan feel in large part due to Doari's expertise on the krakebs which resemble extra large metallic castanets. Ana Maghrebi, which translates to I Am Moroccan plays tribute to the Andalusian tradition and all three numbers have joyously uptempo sections. Omer's enjoyment of these was obvious as he danced and wore the widest smile in London. In addition to the lively numbers the quartet also performed a couple of ballads - Ballad for Eli dedicated to Omer's father who died ten years ago and Lonely Girl which featured a long, engaging introduction by Avi on mandolin. Both were written by Omer Avital.

The quartet also played New Yemenite Song from the previous album and chose Matti Caspi's Shalom Aleicham for an encore. Although on stage chat was kept to a minimum in favour of the music (which is good) Avi explained that the song was well known to Israelis of his generation as it was featured on the after shabbat dinner TV show that most families watched during the 1980's. He told us that they watched it because it was entertaining and because there was only one TV channel then. It was called Channel One. There were several people in the auditorium who recognised Caspi's song but this was not the usual Wigmore  crowd, it was a much younger than usual and I am almost certain it is the first time ululating has been heard in this prestigious venue.

The mixture of jazz and traditional North African rhythms was enthusiastically received by the normally reserved Wigmore audience.  Avi Avital is one of the world's leading mandolin exponents and has performed with major symphony and chamber music orchestras, combining world, jazz and classical music. This fusion of musical styles is common in Israeli jazz with musicians such as Avishai Cohen, Yair Dalal and others pioneering this approach. Dalal will be appearing in London soon too!

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

People Watching In Jerusalem

People watching has to be one of the most interesting activities associated with travel. It offers the opportunity to observe the daily life of locals and the reactions of visitors and can include moments of humour, poignancy and surprise. It's a bit like going to the theatre, only for free.

Jerusalem is one of my favourite cities and is possibly one of the most interesting places in the world to people watch. It is home to many communities, important to three major religions and attracts visitors from all over the world, some of whom come for reasons of faith, others to enjoy its world class museum and galleries and yet more come to see what all the fuss is about. On my recent visit I devoted lots of time watching the city's residents and visitors and capturing some of them in the photographs featured in this post. 

There are many places to people watch in Jerusalem, some of which I am very familiar with, whilst others, although not unknown to me, are places I had not previously spent much time in. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City, falls firmly into the latter category. Of course, I had visited there before but have never lingered and had not realised just how diverse its visitors and "residents" are. During the course of a couple of hours in the church itself and in the front courtyard, I saw a group of nuns from Singapore, Muslim tourists from India, Arab Christians, enormous numbers of Russian Orthodox pilgrims, a group from Moldova, Ethiopian Christians and Israeli Jews. 

People come for many reasons - to light candles, to kneel before the spot where Jesus is believed to have been buried, to admire the beauty of the church as a piece of architecture, to hear a tour guide talk about the tensions and squabbles between the different Christian groups that jealousy guard "their" part of the church, to take selfies or just to sit quietly for a time, lost in thought. Those squabbles can occasionally turn violent if one group feels another is trying to take over its area and there have been occasions when the Israeli police force have had to be called whilst the keys to the church are held by a Muslim family in order to avoid unseemly quarrels between the denominations.

Elsewhere in the Old City the narrow alleys of the shuk teem with merchants, shoppers, tourists and the occasional religious procession. On shabbat (Saturday), the shops and cafes of the Jewish Quarter are closed but the rest of the Old City is packed as locals shop for freshly made bread, spiced ground coffee, meat, fruit, vegetables and other provisions whilst the tourists search for souvenirs. There are also quiet alleys with few shops and it was in one such street that I met Hassan, an elderly shoe repairer. His shop is not much more than a narrow cupboard with shoes and materials piled up from floor to ceiling behind his tiny work space. He told me he had worked in the shop for eighty years but I suspect he meant he was 80 years of age - I do not speak Arabic, he does not speak English and I found his Hebrew hard to understand. One of his neighbours was selling t-shirts, or at least he was waiting to sell them and whilst waiting he sat reading the newspaper. I couldn't resist photographing him.

Ben Yehuda Street is a short walk from the Old City and one of the busiest streets in Jerusalem. Lined with cafes and souvenir shops it also attracts musicians of varying styles and ability. This is especially so on Friday mornings where it is not unusual to find superb musicians playing classical music, jazz and more recently, eastern instruments such as the kamancheh player pictured below.

The street runs into Kikar Zion, a square (or more correctly a circle) where there are weekly evening craft markets, where people sit and chat and where musicians come to play and entertain.  Of course, musicians can be seen in all of the world's cities but Jerusalem is a city of surprises and one evening I was surprised to see an Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish couple entertaining a large crowd - him on the drums and singing, her magnificent on electric violin and even singing a little. This was surprising for a number of reasons. First, Haredi women do not generally sing in public and certainly not in a public square (but of course, there are varying degrees of Orthodoxy within the community), but more even more surprising was their eclectic repertoire. Beginning with Israeli folk songs they continued with Queen's "I Want To Break Free", Toto's "Hold The Line" and finished with a rousing rendition of Michael Jackson's "Black or White". Their audience was equally eclectic with a mixture of secular and religious Jews, Arab teenagers and tourists from many countries. And just when I thought I'd seen it all, another Haredi man arrived and performed the famous bottle balancing trick which involved balancing five bottles on his lip before commencing to clap in time to the music and perform a careful jig! This is Jerusalem.

Shuk Machaneh Yehuda is one of Jerusalem's best known tourist attractions but it is also the place where many of the city's residents go to buy their fruit, vegetables, spices, bread, coffee, meat, fish and household items. During the day the shuk (market) is packed wth shoppers whilst in the evening when most of the stalls have closed, it transforms into a busy social area with restaurants, cafes and bars. It's also a great place to watch and photograph people. Some of the stallholders will happily pose for pictures as they are used to the tourists, some of whom visit in specially guided "tasting" tours, but I prefer to try to get candid "street" pictures such as the three below. The first one shows customers considering bread and biscuits at one of the evening stalls - I liked the look of concentration on each of the shoppers' faces. This second shot took me ages to get. It was taken on a Friday morning when crowds of people were waiting to buy from the stall so I had to wait for a gap in the crowd and for the pancake to be in midair before shooting with a burst. It was worth waiting though. I took the third picture because I liked the style of the elderly gentleman with his snazzy purple trousers, contrasting shirt and kippah worn at a jaunty angle. He looked to be about 70 years of age but was still turning heads with his "look".

The man in purple made me think about the many different styles of dress that can be seen in Jerusalem. Some of them are dictated by the religion of the wearer and of course there are many variations of dress within each faith. The pictures below show some of the city's many styles as well as a few more favourites of mine from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - I especially liked the lady in green taking a picture with her pink covered telephone.  

You might also like Jaffa - The People in the Shuk

You can see more pictures from Israel here.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Tel Aviv - Five Favourite Bauhaus Buildings

There are approximately 4000 Bauhaus buildings in Tel-Aviv. Most of them were built during the 1930's and many were the work of Jewish architects forced from Europe due to the rise of fascism in Germany and Austria and growing anti-semitism across the continent. These white concrete structures led to Tel-Aviv becoming known as the White City and to its securing UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2003.

Over several decades many of the buildings have fallen into a poor state of repair but in recent years a significant amount of restoration has taken place, precipitated to a large extent by the UNESCO award but also by the commitment of architects and activists and the growing interest of the city's inhabitants. It was this built heritage that first drew me to Tel-Aviv and although I have been visiting for many years now, my fascination with the architecture (and the city generally) has not diminished. I have photographed hundreds of Bauhaus buildings over the years and have written about several of them previously. This is the first in a series of posts highlighting some of my favourites. 

Shimon Levi House, 56 Lavandah
Lavandah Street is in the extreme east of the city, some distance from the commercial heart and close to the run down area around the main bus station. It is not the most obvious place to look for architectural treasures but it is where you will find the Shimon Levi House sometimes known as the ship due to its nautical appearance. Designed by Arieh Cohen and built from 1934-35 it is today somewhat stranded, surrounded by extremely busy roads. It is a long, narrow apartment block which originally stood on a sandstone hill that had to be excavated when an approach to the central bus station became necessary. This left the building on a podium supported by retaining walls.

Despite having seen better days, the house retains a striking presence on this extremely busy corner. There are several other Bauhaus buildings in the neighbourhood, one or two of which have recently been restored. It is to be hoped that the Shimon Levi house can benefit from similar help before much longer.

Former Ha'aretz Print Works, 56 Mazeh
56 Mazeh Street was built in 1934 as the print works of the Ha'aretz newspaper. Father and son architects Joseph and Ze'ev Berlin designed the building which stands in an otherwise residential street. The newspaper ceased use of the premises many years ago but the current commercial users have retained the beautiful facade with its glazed stairwell, narrow open railed balcony and steel framed windows. Originally the facade also featured the newspaper's name in stylised Hebrew lettering but this was almost certainly removed when ownership changed. A modern block, sympathetically designed, now sits behind the old print works. The Berlins designed many of Tel-Aviv's Bauhaus buildings either together or working separately. Joseph Berlin, Ze'ev's father also worked in the earlier eclectic style and examples of his work in this genre can still be seen around the city.

Poliashuk House, 1 Nahalat Binyamin
The Poliashuk House at 1 Nahalat Binyamin stands on one of Tel-Aviv's most prominent corners at the junction of Allenby and King George streets and adjacent to the Shuk HaCarmel. Built in 1934 and designed by Salomon Liakowsky and Jacob Ornstein, it was allowed to deteriorate for many years but has recently been restored, the graffiti removed and a boutique hotel opened in the upper levels. Yehuda Poliashuk, the orignal owner filled the building with 50 offices and 15 shops including the famous Naalei Pil (Elephant shoe shop) which was particularly popular with children as it gave balloons and yo-yos to its young customers. During the period of the British Mandate, it also housed the clandestine printing shop of the Etzel, which produced newspapers and flyers agitating for independence from Britain.

Following the restoration it is possible to get some idea of the original grandeur as it retains  its art deco portholes, roof top terrace and pergola and streamline design including that beautiful curved corner. The exterior is covered in beige ceramic tiles rather than the more usual concrete and there is a plaque on the Nahalat Binyamin facade, bearing the date of construction ad the architects' names. If you want to see inside you can book into the Poli House boutique hotel or perhaps just have a drink in the hotel bar. Other buildings further along Nahalat Binyamin are now being restored although the street is still a long way from its original splendour.

Jacobson's Buildings, 28 Levontin
Jacobson's Building at 28 Levontin has also been recently restored. Originally designed as an office block with shops on the ground floor, in practice it has always included residential units. Occupying a large corner site, it comprises three sections in a horseshoe shape. The southern facade has both protruding and recessed balconies whilst the corner stairwell has a fabulous semi-glazed "ladder" to admit light and complements the narrow windows on the adjacent curved wing. The doorway and the lobby have several art deco features although I have only ever been able to peep at these from the street! Designed by Emanuel Halbrecht and completed in 1937, the restoration and extension took place in 2012 under the supervision of Nitza Smuk architects. The works included increasing the number of apartments and changing their arrangement, installation of security rooms and lifts as well as the authentic restoration of the commercial elements on the ground floor.

Levontin Street lies in the once forgotten but now rediscovered and edgy, artsy Florentin neighbourhood. On my recent visit I noticed that a couple of Bauhaus buildings on the adjoining Mikveh Israel street are now being restored and that works on a Yehuda Magidovitch designed eclectic style building on Levontin itself are almost complete. Perhaps these works were stimulated by the success of Jacobson's Building.

94-96 Dizengoff
And speaking of Yehuda Magidovitch, my final choice for this post is one of his works - 94-96 Dizengoff. It is one of several structures surrounding Kikar (circle) Dizengoff - a spectacular, properly planned circle, which was constructed in the 1930's and which lies at the heart of the city. The original design proposed commercial units on the ground floor of all buildings in the circle with public functions on the first floor. The overall design displays some of Le Corbusier's principles including horizontal ribbon openings, pilotis, a smooth facade and roof gardens. Extensive works are currently being carried out to restore the original centre of the circle with grassed areas replacing a very hard and not much loved raised concrete walkway constructed in 1978.

The preservation and extension works were carried out by Bar Orian architects in 2014 and included reconstruction of the apron balconies, horizontal windows and white plaster. Two new floors were added following the original design together with a further floor, set back from the facade and not visible from the street. Several new shops have opened on the ground floor including my favourite Tel-Aviv cafe - Nahat which is small but beautiful, with great coffee, friendly staff and the best cheesecake in the city. Great architecture, coffee and cake - what else could you want?

You might also like Bauhaus Revival on Rothschild

Friday, 2 June 2017

Jaffa - the people in the Shuk

Jaffa's Shuk HaPishpishim (fleamarket) is one of Tel-Aviv-Yafo's most popular attractions. It is also one of my favourite places in Israel. Full of shops and stalls selling antiques, carpets, clothes, bric-a-brac, food and drink, it's a great place for strolling and browsing. I love looking at the items for sale, occasionally picking up a bargain and regularly stopping for a drink or a snack. But the thing I enjoy most of all is watching the people that make this place so special - the merchants, the shoppers and on Friday, the musicians and entertainers. I recently spent a week in Jaffa, visiting the shuk every day and getting to know some of the people who work there. Several of them agreed to pose for photographs whilst I captured others in more candid shots. This post features just a few of my favourites.

The merchants

Along Oleh Zion Street, there are several shops selling carpets, rugs and other handmade floor and furniture coverings. These are not just any old carpets but beautifully crafted pieces from Turkey, Persia (Iran), Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Many of them are antique and were made up to 100 years ago. The merchants are happy to show their wares to visitors and serious shoppers will be treated to Turkish coffee and long discussions before coming to a decision to purchase. The shop owners are not only merchants - they are also craftsmen who can be seen sitting outside their shops repairing carpets whilst waiting for customers. 

Many of these craftsmen were born in Iran, learning their skills there at a young age and coming to Israel after the Khomeini regime was established in 1979. There were once 100,000 Jews in Iran, with major communities in Isfahan, Shiraz and Teheran with a history going back to the sixth century BCE. Today there are probably no more than 10,000 Jews living there. The two men pictured at work were both born in Iran and have shops on Oleh Zion Street. I was struck by Shalomo's expression, clearly delighting in his work and by Reuven's chic style with his hat and scarf. Both continued to work as they told me their stories.

The shuk has changed significantly in recent years with fewer of the older merchants and more and more modern boutique shops selling a range of products including soaps, candles, furnishings and food items. I like both styles. The mix is very appealing and attracts a most eclectic audience but it will be a terrible shame if the older more serendipitous concerns disappear all together.

I met Mikhail in the Greek Market, just north of Oleh Zion. He has a small shop there selling antiques and vintage items. His collection includes hanukkiot, siddurim (prayer books) with silvered Bezalel School of Art designed covers, small sculptures and a range of old household items. We got talking when I asked him about a tiny, blackened metal item that turned out to be a small cooker, more than 80 years old.  Mikhail told me he was born in Afghanistan and came to Israel as a child about 60 years ago. He was very happy for me to take his picture and reminded me several times to come and see him again when I next visit the shuk. I liked his kind, open face and those bright eyes that remain the eyes of a much younger person. I asked him about his beautiful kippah with it's bright colours and decorative detail. He told me it came from Afghanistan along with the family.

The shoppers

The shuk attracts many kinds of people. Some come to buy expensive items from the modern shops. Others come to the real "flea" section at the back of the market. This is a browser's paradise with goods spread haphazardly over stalls or on sheets on the floor. In this part of the shuk you can find just about anything - vinyl records, Russian military pin badges, books, second (third, fourth, fifth) hand clothing in great heaps, shoes, hats, electrical goods and glass or metal items. The stall holders here are diverse as are the shoppers who include religious Jews, Arabs, Africans, Chinese, Filipinos and tourists from all over the world. You might even see one of the more established stall holders in here searching for items that they will later sell from their own shop.

One of the things I enjoy most here is watching the faces of the serious browsers as they hunt, pounce or consider whether they will make a purchase or not. Then of course comes the discussion about price. The man looking at the books and discs is deep in thought, having a "buy or not to buy moment". I wonder if he went ahead with a purchase.

On first site, I thought that the man with the guitar was one of the many musicians and entertainers who sometimes turn up in the shuk. Then I realised that he was trying the instrument out before deciding whether or not to buy it. As with our other pensive shopper, he appears deep in thought and somehow aloof from all around him. I really like his very cool shirt. Speaking of fashion, I also spotted a rather fabulous lady wearing leopard skin print, leafing through a book.  She had picked it up from a chaotic pile of "stuff" that includes bags, clothes, more books, an old radio and one of those revolving electric fans. A veritable department store.

The entertainers 

Friday is my favourite day at the shuk. As well as the regular shops, traders and cafes, there are extra street stalls in the Greek Market where local artists and artisans sell their work. It is also the day when singers, musicians and other entertainers come along to perform. One of my favourites is a musician who plays the kamancheh, an Iranian stringed instrument, sometimes accompanied by two other players. Their traditional Persian music is hauntingly beautiful, always attracts a crowd and on at least one occasion provoked loud ululation  from a female passerby!

Others include the wonderful mime artist who puts on an amusing, witty and sometimes sad performance to a variety of songs ranging from French chansons to modern pop music. Elegantly dressed in trousers with braces (called suspenders in North America but definitely not in the UK!) he fits in very nicely to the surroundings of the Greek market and could easily have come directly from Saloniki. Just a few steps away from him you can see another kind of street theatre as a young woman produces enormous bubbles by soaking a hoop in detergent and then letting the wind catch it. As a child I loved those small bottles of bubbles we would be given from time to time so this is a real throwback for me. And clearly not just for me as she gathers quite a crowd of adults (and children) taking pictures or trying to catch or burst the bubbles.

Then there are the people passing through, stopping to chat with friends or just enjoying the atmosphere like those in the pictures below. Watching people must be the best free entertainment there is. I can't wait to return before the end of the year...

Shuk HaPishpishim is open from Sunday - Friday. Most of the shops and stalls are closed on Saturday for shabbat although several of the restaurants are open.

Read more about the Fleamarket here.