Sunday, 23 November 2014

Return to Mexico City - Coyoacan, Soumaya and the Day of the Dead

I visited Mexico City for the first time last year and enjoyed it so much that I returned just a few weeks ago for a second look. Last year I was overwhelmed and delighted by the colours, sounds and tastes of Mexico and this time was no different. I had nine full days in the city and was able to cover a lot of ground but be warned - Mexico City is huge and I still have a long list of places yet to visit. A good reason to go again!

Detail from the Day of the Dead presentation at the Dolores Olmedo Museum
I timed my visit to coincide with the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos in Spanish) festival at the beginning of November and found the city to be awash with colour - especially bright orange from the ubiquitous marigolds used to decorate the altars dedicated to departed relatives and friends. The festival pre-dates the arrival of the Conquistadores and despite its links to the old religions and the continued power of the Catholic Church it remains important and hugely popular. People remember the family members who have passed away and many go to cemeteries to place the favourite food and drink of the departed on the graves in the belief that on this day the spirit of the relatives will visit. Altars are set up in homes, businesses, the street and even museums to acknowledge the dead, often displaying their photographs amongst the food and drink, skulls and skeletons, papercuts and brightly coloured items. I particularly liked the altars in the lobby of the Hotel Gran Ciudad de Mexico, at the Dolores Olmedo Museum and in the Jose Emilio Pacheco bookshop.

One of the key figures in Day of the Dead tradition is La Calavera Catrina, a character believed to be based on the Aztec goddess known as the Lady of the Dead. Normally shown as a skeleton in a  large European style hat and gown of the type fashionable in the 19th century, Catrina can be seen everywhere in the city during November. Despite the link back to Aztec tradition the modern representation of her dates back only as far as 1910 when the famous Mexican printer, cartoonist and lithographer Jose Guadaloupe Posada included her in a satirical zinc etching. 

Detail from the Day of the Dead presentation at Casa Azul
Dia de los Muertos is not seen as a sad occasion but a celebration of the life of the departed. Evidence of this was the spectacular parade staged on the night of November 1st along Calle Isabel de Catolica in the centre of the city. Starting outside a churchyard and led by a Catrina on stilts, drummers, jugglers and assorted skeletons paraded the length of the street, sometimes turning and doubling back before resuming the onwards direction. All along the Calle, hundreds of people joined the parade, danced with the skeletons and even helped out by taking a turn on the drums. Catrina stopped and posed for photographs, blew kisses and danced her way along the street - on those stilts from start to finish. A night to remember.

Altar at Jose Emilio Pacheco bookshop
Another new experience for me was to visit the Soumaya Museum in Polanco. When traveling, I usually like to walk as much as possible, to wander about and happen on unexpected delights. In keeping with this I decided to walk from Polanco metro station to the Soumaya. I probably wouldn't do that again - its a very long way, but the reward at the end of the walk was well worth it. The museum is a stunning piece of modern architecture, designed by Mexican architect Fernando Romero and engineered by Frank Gehry and Ove Arup. Completed in 2011 it houses the private collections of Carlos Slim, Mexican multi (multi) millionaire and possibly the richest man in the world. Slim had the museum built to the memory of his wife, Soumaya, who died in 1999.

The building stands 46 metres high, includes six storeys and is covered with 16,000 hexagonal aluminium tiles that change shade in response to the changing light. It soars upwards with beautiful curves, the upper floors being larger than those below, resembling a flower opening up to face the sun. The interior is also interesting with different shapes and layouts on each floor and a ramp around the perimeter of the museum that reminds me somewhat of the Guggenheim ramp in New York.  As well as displaying Slim's private collection, the museum stages temporary shows - when I visited there was a large exhibition about Sophia Lloren including some fabulous costumes, film clips, and posters, jewellery and press cuttings. The Soumaya is open to the public every day and there is no entry fee. 

Polanco is an extremely stylish and affluent area. The Soumaya is in a newly developed part of the neighbourhood and is surrounded by expensive shops, restaurants and malls. It was interesting to see that despite all of this, the office workers continue to queue for food at the street stalls that stand below the Soumaya and its neighbouring museum, the recently built Jumex Museum of Contemporary Art. Let's hope the stallholders continue to do well and that independent businesses can thrive. Speaking of small business, one of the good things about the long walk from the metro station was the number of excellent patisseries along Moliere, the boulevard leading to the museum. Did I try any? Of course, but only on the way back and only as a means of fortifying myself...

Soumaya Museum, Polanco

Detail, Casa Azul
Casa Azul - Frida Kahlo's cobalt blue painted house in Coyoacan is one of Mexico City's main tourist attractions. Unfortunately it was closed when I tried to visit last year but this time, not only was it open, I managed to get there early enough to be first in the queue. This was a good thing as a very large queue soon built up including large numbers of school children and tourist groups. Getting there first meant I was able to enjoy the house, the collections and the garden without feeling too crowded.

Frida Kahlo was born and also died in this house which contains several of her paintings as well as some of Diego Rivera's works, a large collection of Meso-American items, some of her personal effects and a number of the original furnishings. Despite the large numbers of visitors, the house and gardens are peaceful and it is easy to understand why she loved this place so much. The exterior of the house is painted a deep cobalt blue whilst there is also a riot of colour inside including the blue and yellow kitchen with its geometric patterns and tiles. The garden is equally beautiful with its lush green palms, cacti and trees as well as a number of Mayan sculptures set amongst the foliage. Kahlo and Rivera both had a particular interest in and fondness for works of art from the pre-colonial period and a special pyramid was constructed in the garden in order to display some of their pieces. It is still there today.

Kahlo suffered great physical pain and disability as a result of a traffic accident sustained during her youth. The museum connected to the house contains a number of the special implements she used in order to remain mobile and to live as full a life as possible including special corsets and footwear. She "customised" these items to make them beautiful. The current temporary exhibition shows how her style has influenced contemporary fashion designers. 

Meso-American sculpture, Casa Azul
The pyramid, Casa Azul
The kitchen, Casa Azul
Casa Azul may be the main tourist destination in Coyoacan, but this former village, now subsumed into the city has many other charms. The main square is a hive of activity especially at weekends when there are markets, musicians and sometimes dancing, whilst the 16th century church of San Juan Bautista, one of the three oldest in the city, is also worth a visit. I liked strolling along Calle Francisco Sosa, a long street that links Coyoacan to the neighbouring district of San Angel. It is a relatively quiet, leafy lane filled with beautiful houses from a number of periods painted in yellow, green, orange, purple and red, several with decorative geometric patterns laid over the top. Some of the paint is peeling but this only adds to the romance of the street. There are also a number of small, specialist shops including the chocolatier and confectioner, Puro Gusto at Francisco Sosa 103 which has around 20 different types of marzipan (!) and the delightful delicatessen, Barricas Don Tiburcio at number 243. This beautifully presented shop sells quality wines and food including those chocolate discs (hearts here actually!) to make real drinking chocolate with and even a few kosher snacks. If I lived here this would be a regular stop for me. As it is I came home away with a box of the chocolate hearts which I have been happily making my way through since coming home.

Happening upon little jewels like this is one of Mexico City's delights. Other unexpected treats including the almost daily gathering of Mexican Indians in the small plaza outside the National Art Museum  on Calle Tacuba, to play various types of drums and to perform traditional dances. This is not intended to be a "performance" but crowds gather and the movement and the drumming are intoxicating. The drumming is also very loud - it can be heard at the top of the Torre Latinoamerica, at 188 metres the tallest building in the Centro Historico. 

Zinco Jazz Club was another find. Tucked away behind a small metal door at Montalina 20, the club hosts some great jazz concerts. I was lucky to catch Gabriel Hernandez the Cuban pianist, playing on one night and to see him again the following night, this the supporting the veteran American trumpeter Doc Severinsen with Mexican guitarist Gil Gutierrez completing the front row of an excellent ensemble. The live music doesn't start much before 11.30 (but you can eat and drink from about 9), with a second set starting well after midnight. Its a long time since I knocked on a locked hotel door at 2 in the morning but both concerts were certainly worth it!

No trip to a major city is complete for me without searching out its art deco buildings. Mexico City is full of them. You can see pictures of them at Mexico City Art Deco - you can find it everywhere. 

Mexico City is one of the world's largest cities. There are surprises everywhere you go. It's one of my top five cities and I will be going again. More posts from marvellous Mexico still to come!

Peeling paint, Calle Francisco Sosa
Light and shade, Calle Francisco Sosa.
Tower of Church of San Juan Bautista
A peep into a restaurant/ cultural centre on Calle Francisco Sosa
Look up! Purples, yellows and decorative tiles in Calle Francisco Sosa.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Late night pizza - Aaron Goldberg at the London Jazz Festival



The Aaron Goldberg Trio played Soho's Pizza Express late last night as part of the London Jazz Festival. Not only was it an excellent set, it was also free, although as Mr Goldberg pointed out you still had to pay for the pizza!

This extremely tight trio played for just over an hour, taking us through several tracks from the new album - The Now- as well as a couple of older numbers from earlier recordings. The set opened with Trocando Em Miudos, a Chico Buarque composition. The Portuguese is difficult to translate but the story behind the song is one of a separation, a divided home and leaving with only regret. A downbeat start in terms of subject matter but an excellent introduction to the evening musically speaking.

This was followed by a very playful version of Charlie Parker's Perhaps which not only showcased Goldberg's undoubted skills but also those of rising bass star Joe Sanders. Sanders previously played bass for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and has played with Ravi Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter amongst others. Totally engaged with his instrument including "singing" to it off mic, we were treated to some unexpected vocal work from him too. Mr G also referred to him as his fashion advisor and tonight he was resplendent in a blue v-necked elbow padded sweater, white shirt, tie and wool peaked cap. Nice.

Other tracks from the new album included The Wind in the Night and YoYo. The Wind in the Night is a laid back ballad and Goldberg's own composition. Nice brush work from drummer and long time collaborator Eric Harland on this one. Harland is another stellar player and has worked with Betty Carter, Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard amongst others. I especially liked YoYo which is based on a Haitian folk song about a generous meat vendor who gives extra meat to his customers! It featured a latin/ oriental flavoured piano and a cheeky conversation between bass and drums. Those latin/ oriental flavours brought to mind other favourite jazz pianists of mine - the wonderful Omer Klein and Omri Mor as well as a hint of Maurice El Medioni! Just great and the audience loved it. Incidentally this was a much younger crowd than the regular Pizza Express/ Ronnie Scott's turnout - in part because of the free entry as Soho jazz venues ain't cheap - but good to see and hope for the future!

One of my favourites from the earlier Worlds album, Lambada de Serpente (featured in the clip above) got a good long workout later in the set, its slow start building and building into an optimistic latin influenced piece of happiness with all three musicians shining. Continuing the latin kick, we were treated to a thumping version of Manha de Carnaval (also known as Black Orpheus), the much recorded Luiz Bonfa/ Antonio Maria penned classic and one of the best received pieces of the evening. Background Music from the new album is a musical sprint played at breakneck speed with some great work on bass and if you closed your eyes you could have been in a smokey 1960's New York jazz club listening to Bill Evans and his team.

It was all over too soon but the trio were persuaded back to the stage for a nice long version of Stevie Wonder's Isn't She Lovely from the Home album with some interesting cutting short of sentences in the main melody. And that was it - out into the cold cold Soho November night. Another great evening at Pizza Express Jazz - and the music was for free!

Oh, and I bought the new album. It's very good.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Gett: the trial of Vivian Amsalem at the UK Jewish Film Festival



Viviane Amsalem, the woman at the centre of this film says very little for the first one and half hours of this gripping film. She sits in the religious court assembled to hear her petition for divorce from a husband she can no longer bear to live with. The three judges are men. Her husband, Elisha, is represented by a man - his Rabbi brother, and Viviane's legal representative is also a man. When through frustration and despair she eventually turns on the judges she is told "woman know your place" which well describes the position of Jewish women in these situations,  where their husbands have the authority to grant or deny a divorce and their freedom.

Ronit Elkabetz plays Viviane as well as co-directing with her brother, Shlomi Elkabetz, whilst Simon Akbarian plays Elisha. We have met these two before in previous movies - To Take A Wife and then Shiva, both studies of family life in more traditional Moroccan-Israeli families with a strong patriarchal tradition. Let's be clear. Elisha is not violent, he provides for her and the family, but he is cold towards her and they have not lived together for the best part of three years. Some of this is driven by his firm religious commitment whilst Viviane has become more secular and at the same time he appears to have limited powers of empathy. 

Various witnesses are paraded through the courts - relatives, neighbours and supposed friends of the couple. All sing the praises of Elisha before having their assertions called into doubt by Menashe Noy in the role of Carmel Ben-Tovim, Viviane's Brief. Although the men have the authority and are permitted to speak at length, it is the women characters that particularly struck me. Viviane's sister, although something of a caricature, tells it like it is saying its better for a woman to stay with a husband she doesn't love rather than be single and treated like an outcast - her assertiveness being way too much for the judges. She even causes Viviane to laugh openly at the shock on the faces of the judges unused to being spoken to in this way. 

Viviane's neighbour, the slightly older Donna Abecassis appears in court with her husband trying to answer on her behalf and although clearly  fearful of him, she tries to help the woman she describes as her friend. Her performance was especially moving and her own regrets are played out during her questioning. It is interesting that these characters appear towards the end of the film as the story reaches its denouement following interminable delays by the husband and the unsympathetic judges who are more annoyed by Elisha's failure to appear at some of the hearings and by Carmel's failure to wear a kippah than by the unhappiness visited on Viviane.

The film says much about the predicament of Jewish women in Israel who can only secure a divorce (called a Gett) through this method. There are a number of cases where husbands have either disappeared or refused over a number of years to grant the Gett and so the women remain married and unable to move on, indeed they are referred to as "agunah" or "chained".

Gett is one of 95 films featured in this year's UK Jewish Film Festival which runs until 23rd November. Tonight's screening at JW3 was introduced by Festival Founder and Executive Director, Judy Ironside, who said that if anyone had told her she would sit through almost two hours of a film located entirely in a religious court she might have had trouble believing them. I might have been inclined to agree with her, but Gett is a gripping, disturbing even shocking film that held the audience as might a fast moving courtroom drama right to the very end. At the same time it was hard not to feel the claustrophobia of being in that same barren, leaking courtroom month after month, year after year - the physical condition of the room perhaps reflecting the drama being played out there. There are also some very gentle touches - I liked the short piece when Viviane notices that Carmel's shirt collar is not straight and tells him to re-arrange it. A nice touch.

As ever, Ms Elkabetz is outstanding. For me this might be her best performance so far, whilst Sasson Gabai as ever, is excellent as Rabbi Shimon Amsalam, Elisha's brother and representative in a much less sympathetic role than he might normally play.  Good performances too by Menashe Noy and Evelin Hagoel, wonderful as Donna Abecassis. Another Elkabetz triumph and a film that lives the audience thinking a long time after the credits have rolled. Let's hope for a wider release. Oh,  and go  to see some of the films in this year's Festival - its a great programme. 

Friday, 14 November 2014

Mexico City Art Deco - "you can find it everywhere"

I visited Mexico City for the first time in December last year and immediately fell in love with the place. I enjoyed my visit so much that I returned earlier this month, less than a year later. One of the highlights of my 2013 visit was seeing the art deco buildings in the Condesa district. I had a second look at Condesa this month but thanks to Eduardo of Art Deco Mx, I also discovered many art deco and modernist buildings in other parts of the city. And there are lots of them. As Eduardo says of the style, "You can find it everywhere".  

Edificio Viena, Calle Lopez 34
A number of art deco apartment blocks cluster in the streets behind the Reforma boulevard, close to Alameda Central. Many of them are deteriorating and in a poor state of repair, but it doesn't take much  imagination to picture how very grand these streets must have been in the 1930's and 1940's with ornate doors, soaring towers and beautiful deco details.  

Calle Lopez is home to several of these apartment blocks. One of the most striking is Edificio Viena at number 34 which stands on a corner location at the junction with Articulo 123. It is captivating with its stunning pink facade, vertical stripes filled with geometric designs and fanned details between windows. The colour is broken up by sections of buff coloured brickwork, strangely reminiscent of some of Glasgow's older buildings whilst the still elegant main door tells the story of how affluent this part of the city must once have been. Like several of the buildings I will write about here, I have been unable to trace details of the architect or the dates so all information is very, very welcome.

A little further along Calle Lopez at the junction with Calle Victoria, stands Edificio Victoria, another beauty. The building which has shops on the ground floor, is simpler in style than Edificio Viena but still has a number of decorative details including floral designs, shields and greyhounds as well as a show stopping main door. Rigorous scanning of the internet has failed to reveal details of the architect or dates for the block.

Edificio Victoria, Calle Lopez 44.
Main door, Edificio Victoria, Calle Lopez 44
Calle Revillagigedo is a five minutes walk from Edificios Viena and Victoria. The Museum of Popular Arts, designed by architect Vicente Mendiola Quezada stands at number 11. Originally built as a fire station this supremely elegant white building dominates the street, not only because of its height, but also because of its decorative elements which include geometric shapes, stepped recesses and a flagpole. I especially like the blue and yellow waves just below the tower's summit which struck me as a reference to the beautiful multi-coloured domes of Mexico City's many churches. There are also panels on the exterior walls featuring Aztec designs. 

Mendiola Quezada studied at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, going on to design a number of buildings in the art deco style. He also worked as an academic, lecturing in urban planning, architectural history, art and design. A street is named for him elsewhere in the city.

Museum of Popular Arts, Calle Revilagigedo 11.
Happy as I was to spend time in this part of the city, I couldn't resist making another visit to Condesa which must have one of the richest collections and concentrations of art deco buildings anywhere in the world. Many are located in the two main avenues of the quarter - Avenida Amsterdam and Avenida Mexico but one of my favourites is a little blue painted house in Calle Ozuluama, built in 1931 and carrying the name of the architect Daniel Lopez. The house carries a number of art deco features including the floral motifs at the upper level and geometric shapes as well as some references to the earlier "California" style especially in the swirled stone columns dividing the windows at the upper level. But, the most outstanding feature of the house is its stunning front door. Beautifully recessed with an external lobby it is flanked by external lights covered in metal detail and a "skyscraper skyline" running from the front of the building into the recess. The door itself has beautiful glass panels with metal detailing in geometric patterns. 

Entrance, Calle Ozuluama 11
Detail, Calle Ozuluama 11.
Just around the corner on Avenida Amsterdam, I discovered two new favourites. Architect Francisco J. Serrano was responsible for a number of buildings in Condesa, including the delightful deco house at 110 Avenida Amsterdam. Although in need of some urgent love and care, it retains much of its original 1931 beauty with its curved windows, external decorative features referencing Aztec art and a beautiful metal gate with relief lines, swirls and flowers. Serrano was born in Mexico City and studied at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, where he later taught civil engineering and architecture. He was also responsible for Edificio Mexico on Avenida Mexico and the Pasaje Commercial on Avenue Masaryk in Polanco.

Just over the road from the Serrano designed house is Edificio Niza, an apartment block at 73 Avenida Amsterdam. Built in 1934, it has an interesting double entrance with adjoining doors on Avenida Amsterdam and Calle Parras, giving residents a choice of entrance. The exterior is extremely well maintained and eye catching with stylised vertical lettering on the doors showing the building's name and interesting use of contrasting colours - black, blue, orange and yellow in the entrance lobby which is visible from the street. I also like the squared-off canopy that separates the upper levels from the ground floor and the green "Tel Aviv" style curves of the higher floors. Just beautiful. Any details of the building's history, including the architect's name would be very welcome!

Avenida Amsterdam 110.
Avenida Amsterdam 110
Detail, Edificio Niza, Avenida Amsterdam 73.
Double entrance, Edificio Niza, Avenida Amsterdam 73.
Condesa is worthy of several articles, if not of a book, but in conclusion I continue Eduardo's theme of art deco being present throughout the city. The pictures below are of apartment buildings in the Centro Historico and in the area around the monument to the Revolution on Reforma. There is a dearth of documentation about these and many other Mexico City buildings from this period so I include only photographs for the moment. I think Eduardo needs to write a book...

Apartment bock, Calle Edison.
Apartmentos Tissot, Calle Baranda
Apartment block, Calle de Cuba
You might also like Mexico City - art deco treasure house or Picture Post number 35 Mexico City - the abandoned Fronton.

See more pictures of Mexico City here and here.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Picture Post 35 - Mexico City, the abandoned Fronton


Mexico City boasts many fine art deco and modernist buildings. One of the largest is the Fronton, an abandoned jai-alai stadium adjacent to the city's Monument to the Revolution which dominates La Reforma one of the main thoroughfares. Built in 1929 as a home for the Basque racquet game, it struggled in later decades and in 1992 tried to diversify by establishing itself as a venue for cultural events. However, it had closed by the end of the 1990's due to economic reasons and complications involving a strike by staff who had not been paid. It stood vacant for several years until plans were made for it to re-open in 2010 as part of the celebrations to mark the centenary of the Mexican Revolution. 

Jai-alai (in case you are wondering) is a variation of Pelota, another Basque game for two players which involves bouncing a ball off a walled space at extremely high speed using a hand held implement called a cesta. The ball is extremely hard and the sport has a history of serious injuries when players have been hit. The sport is played in the United States and the Philippines as well as in Latin American countries.

Proposals for the 2010 re-opening included refurbishing the jai-alai courts and establishing spectator boxes, a restaurant, bar and cafeteria. There were plans for a roof bar, a casino, a small hotel and a pool to be ready for 2011 but there was no evidence of any of this on my visit. There is also conflicting information on the internet about the scale of the works that were undertaken, some alleging that nothing at all happened. 

The Fronton is a substantial building and although in poor condition it is easy to imagine how grand it must have been back in its heyday with its lovely towers, figures of jai-alai players and Aztec decorative features. It has suffered significant vandalism including various types of graffiti (some more artistic than others) and broken windows. The paintwork is in need of serious attention and rubbish has been dumped behind the grills around the entrance to the gallery. At the moment it is standing bereft, waiting for someone to invest in it. I only hope whoever the is respects the elegance of the building, retains its beautiful art deco features and restores rather than renovates.

More posts from Mexico coming soon.

Aztec decorative feature on the tower
Jai-alai figure over the entrance
The graffiti includes a moustachioed Freda Kahlo

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Rue Campagne-Premiere and two Parisian beauties

31 Rue Campagne-Premiere
Rue Campagne-Premiere is a pretty side street in Paris' 14th arrondissement. Close to the Cimitiere de Montparnasse, it has a number of links with the areas artistic past, not least the Hotel Istria, which according to the external plaque lists Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Moise Kiesling, Man Ray, Erik Satie, Tristan Tzara and Kiki of Montparnasse as having been patrons during the 1920's. That's quite an impressive list of Surrealists, their friends and fellow travellers. The Istria must have seen some interesting evenings!


The Istria may well have been the centre of things in Rue Campagne-Premiere during the 1920's, but there are two other buildings in the street that are far more interesting form an architectural point of view. Number 31 could be loosely described as art nouveau but in reality defies classification. Designed by Andre Arvidson and built in 1910, it was built in the centre of Montparnasse to house artists and to provide 20 studio spaces for them within the same building. An early version of live-work space no less. The studios at the upper level have immensely long windows allowing light to flood in to the artist's work spaces, but the building's outstanding feature is its facade, covered in a riot of ceramic patterns in many colours. The ceramics were the work of Andre Bigot who was also responsible for the ceramic work on the faced of 29 Avenue Rapp, the Jules Lavirotte designed building and more classically art nouveau than Arvidson's building. 

Main entrance, 31 Rue Campagne-Premiere
Detail, 31 Rue Campagne-Premiere
Detail, 31 Rue Campagne
A little further along the street at number 23, stands another building originally constructed as artists' studios. This one dates from 1931 and displays modernist features of the later art deco period including a lower facade constructed of glass bricks and  corner terraces at the upper levels. The main structural material is concrete and the slightly austere feel of the building is broken by a highly decorative glass and steel door leading to the ground floor shop. The upper levels remain artists' studios. The architect responsible was Edmond Courty, about whom I have been able to find out very little.

23 Rue Campagne-Premiere
Corner terraces, 23 Rue Campagne-Premiere
Glass brick facade, 23 Rue Campagne-Premiere
Paris is full of side streets with hidden architectural treasures, secret histories and cultural memories      
best stumbled upon when strolling in the less busy parts of the city, away from the main tourist areas. You can read more about the city's secrets at Secret Paris.

You might also like A House of Tiles in Paris

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Beit Bialik - a poet's house in Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv's Bialik is one of the city's most beautiful and interesting streets. Named for Chaim Nahman Bialik, Israel's national poet, it is home to a number of Bauhaus and Eclectic style buildings. It is also home to the Reuven Rubin Museum whilst the Felicia Blumenthal Music Centre, a small Bauhaus Museum and Tel Aviv's City Museum are located on and around the plaza at the end of the street. Topping the bill in this wonderful collection of history and culture is Beit Bialik the former home of the poet and now a museum.

View of pillars and fireplace in the reception hall
Nahman was born in 1873 in Brody, a small town near Zhitomir in the Ukraine. He lived in a number of places including Berlin and Odessa before moving to Eretz Israel in 1924 having finally been able to purchase a plot of land in Tel Aviv following the success of his republished collected works in 1923. His arrival was viewed as such an important moment in the development of the city that the Mayor, Meir Dizengoff together with members of the municipal council turned out to greet him. 

Whilst in Berlin, Bialik had commissioned architect Joseph Minor to design the house. Minor had studied under Alexander Baerwald and was one of a number of architects progressing a "Hebrew" style combining western building forms with stylistic elements drawn from middle eastern influences including from those known to have been in use in the Jewish kingdoms of Biblical times. This resulted in the spectacular house at number 22 Bialik Street with its tower, domes, outdoor terraces, extensive tile work and arched windows. The house incorporates features for dealing with the middle eastern climate including a flat roof for summer evenings and low set windows to protect against the sun. When  first built the roof terrace would have had clear views across the developing city including a view of the sea, perhaps intended to inspire Bialik's writing.

The beautiful white exterior with its dark wooden window surrounds and doors is surpassed only by the arches, pillars and the stunning primary colours in the interior. This is enhanced by the extensive use of Bezalel ceramics on the floor, pillars and walls and in particular the fireplace which is surrounded with ceramic decoration showing the spies despatched by Moses, priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant and a Menorah, Magen Dovid and arabesques. Stylised palm trees heavy with fruit guard each  side of the fireplace. Continuing the Hebrew theme, the columns of the entrance corridor carry motifs of the twelve tribes of Israel and the signs of the Zodiac. The tiles were designed by another Israeli cultural icon - Ze'ev Raban. All of this is set off against stunning red and blue backgrounds contrasted against white ceilings and upper arches. 

Fireplace with Bezalel ceramic tiles
Dining room with ceramic tiled floor and items form Bialik's art collection
In addition to designing the building, Minor also designed the windows, door handles and furniture, taking the total work of art approach popular in Europe and exemplified by Austrian Josef Hoffmann and other artists of the Vienna Secession. The furniture designs were executed by the carpenter Avraham Krinitzky who was later to become mayor of Ramat Gan.

On completion the house soon became the focus of cultural and creative life in Tel Aviv with regular visits from writers, musicians, actors, artists and others from the creative milieu of 1920's Tel Aviv. Some of this was precipitated by Bialik being the president of the Writers Association and also of the Committee for the Hebrew Language. Bialik was viewed as one of the most important figures in the Yishuv - the pre-state Jewish community of Eretz Israel and in addition to his cultural role, was regularly sought out for advice by ordinary citizens of Tel Aviv. This could range from anything from advice on naming a new child to help with obtaining employment. Bialik did not especially welcome this and in an effort to establish some privacy had a sign placed on his door that read "Ch. N. Bialik receives requests at his residence on Mondays and Thursdays only from 5 to 7 in the evening". He even felt it necessary to publish this notice in the newspapers. It appears not to have been effective, as he moved to Ramat Gan in 1933 to find a little peace and a place where he could write without disturbance. Unfortunately he was not to benefit from the move as he died whilst recovering from a gallstones operation in July 1934, having traveled to Vienna to secure treatment.

View of the entrance lobby from the staircase
The Bilaik Street house stood empty until three years after his death, a Bialik Association was formed and assumed responsibility for the restoration of the house and the preservation of the poet's books, papers and general legacy. Restoration work undertaken in the mid 1930's although well intentioned, destroyed the original kitchen and bedroom. The house opened to the public in June 1937 with an archive, library and museum of Bialik's life and works. A number of the organisations that he had worked for or been associated with began to organise their activities from and in the house, thus maintaining its role as a cultural focus for the city. It also attracted tourists and visits from school and kindergarten classes - a tradition that continues until today.

Throughout the 1960's and 70's the house began to deteriorate. The roof began to leak, the plaster peeled, the colours dulled and in the 1960's much of the garden was lost when a new building was erected at the rear of the house. Much of the original furniture had been removed by Bialik's widow - Manya and the upholstery needed replacing on that which remained. In 1984 the municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa stepped in with a rescue plan, closed the house and undertook extensive renovation. With costs underwritten by Bank Leumi and the Tel Aviv Foundation, this included returning furniture that had been removed, remaking the wooden shutters that had rotted and restoring much of Bialik's extensive art collection including works by Litvinovsky, Reuben and Glicksberg. 

Today, after further works, the house is open for visitors and has been restored to its original glory. It has to be my favourite place in my favourite city with its memories of, and references to, the early years of Tel Aviv when the city (much like today) was at the centre of artistic, social and cultural creativity which included not only Bialik, but other great names in Israeli art and culture including painters Reuven Reubin and Nahman Gutman, actress Chana Robina, writers S. Ansky and Ahad Ha'am, many of whom will have set foot in Beit Bialik.

Exterior of the house
And some more interior pictures...






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Saturday, 18 October 2014

Soul to Soul with Carmen Lundy at Pizza Express



Earlier tonight, Carmen Lundy was magnificent in the first of four performances over two nights at Soho's Pizza Express. Taking the stage to a very warm welcome she opened proceedings with the uptempo Kindred Spirits, a story of making it despite being born on the wrong side of the tracks. Her own composition and the opening track of her new album, it set the tone for the evening with the audience captured from the beginning.

Her voice ranges from the velvety to the harsh. She can sing slow, she can sing uptempo. But best of all, Carmen Lundy can swing and sing real jazz. This was best displayed on the title track of her superb new album - Soul to Soul. Impossibly cool and atmospheric it could have been 3 in the morning rather than 8.30 in the evening. And with jazz funk legend Patrice Rushen playing the piano accompaniment(!) it couldn't possibly have been cooler. In a similar vein, Daybreak is another classy jazz number that swings and sees her voice soar upwards in a happy romantic mood.

Carmen Lundy is a real performer who gets into the mood of each song. She spoke of the courage it had taken to write (and sing) When Will They Learn, a plea to stay away from drugs and a memorial to the many great musicians and friends she has lost over the years to this scourge. It would have been possible to hear a pin drop during the song and her feeling and emotion reminded me of the similarly themed (although totally different sounding) Esther Phillips song - Home is Where the Hatred Is.

Much of the music on this new album has a message, a story. Ms. Lundy wrote Grace together with the South African artist, Simphiwe Dana who she met whilst performing in that part of the world before working together in the States and producing this story of overcoming prejudice, breaking down barriers and "stepping into the light". Grace is confident, uplifting and hopeful and once again, we had great piano from Patrice Rushen  whilst Jamieson Ross on drums and percussion and Darryl Hall on bass were outstanding throughout.  

I am a sucker for a great bossa nova number and Everything I Need is just that with its insistent Brazilian rhythm, laid back vocal and again, ultra cool feel. Ba-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da, ba-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da… 

One long set of a little more than an hour flashed by and it was time to go but not before an encore and a story from one of the audience about how Carmen deliberately sang off-key in the early days of Camden's Jazz Cafe to get the attention of a non-jazz audience who were annoyingly chatting through her first two numbers. Well there was no need for such tactics tonight and she left the stage to a second standing ovation. It is hard to understand why she is relatively overlooked despite having a voice that matches the likes of Diane Reeves,  Dee Dee Bridgewater and other stellar contemporary female jazz vocalists. Her distinctive style combines a contemporary feel with references to some of the all time greats including another Carmen - the  late, great Carmen McRae and the also underrated Nancy Wilson

She told us tonight that she is very proud of her new album and feels that it is her best work so far. She has written or co-written 11 of the 13 tracks in addition to playing several instruments, doing the string arrangements and co-producing the album. She is right, its a classic. If you haven't got the album get it, and if there are any tickets left for the Saturday night shows (and there probably aren't), get one. Tonight was one of Pizza Express Jazz's finest hours.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Helsinki Modernism - A glass palace, an Olympic stadium and Alvar Aalto.

From 1809 to 1918, Finland was part of the Tsarist Russian empire. Before that, the Swedes had been in charge. The 1918 Russian Revolution presented an opportunity for Finland to declare independence and the next few decades saw strenuous efforts in a number of creative areas to develop a distinct Finnish identity. This included architecture, where modernism was adopted as a means of expressing optimism about the future of the newly independent state.

Main tower, 1952 Olympic Stadium, Yrjo Lindgren and Toivo Jantti. Completed 1938.
Helsinki is home to many of Finland's most iconic modernist buildings constructed from the 1920's until the 1950's and beyond, with elements of the style being visible on some of the more recent landmark buildings including Finlandia Hall and the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. I was in Helsinki last weekend for the first time since 2009 and was able to visit a number of the city's modernist buildings. 

Finland has a long tradition of providing world class athletes, especially long distance runners and javelin throwers. This was acknowledged when the city was awarded the Olympic Games for 1940. Unfortunately, the Second World War commenced in 1939 and the Games were postponed. All was not lost as the 1952 Games came to Helsinki and the beautiful stadium designed for 1940 was used for the opening and closing ceremonies, athletics competitions, major football games and equestrian events. The stadium has a 13 storey main tower with curved Bauhaus style balconies which has fantastic views over the city. The tower is 72.71 metres high which was the distance the Finnish javelin thrower, Matti Jarvinen had thrown to win the 1932 Olympic gold medal. Built between 1934 and 1938 it was designed by architects Yrjo Lindegren and Toivo Jantti. An interesting side story to this is that Lindegren competed in the 1948 London Olympics in the now defunct arts competitions, winning a gold medal in the town planning category.

Detail, main tower, 1952 Olympic Stadium.
The city also boasts a number of residential modernist buildings. These include the housing prepared in advance of the 1952 Olympics in the Taka-Toolo neighbourhood, but my favourite is a stunning apartment block at Bulevardi 15, Helsinki's most elegant street. Sandwiched between art nouveau style apartment block from the 1910's, the building has retail at ground floor level and apartments above. There are square towers at each side of the block with large portholes at the uppermost level, but the real stars of the show are the long central balconies. Exquisitely curved and each one serving two apartments, the balconies are reminiscent of much warmer climes - Tel Aviv or Haifa. The block was built in 1936 to the designs of architect Karl Malmstrom.


Bulevardi 15,  Karl Malmstrom, 1936.
One of the earliest modernist buildings in Helsinki was the Stockmann department store. This huge store opened its doors in 1930 to sell clothes, household goods, food, drink and luxury brands from home and abroad. It remains the largest and busiest department store in northern Europe with 17 million customers every year. There are many art deco/ modernist interior features including the lift doors and the clock by the lifts at ground floor level, the squared off galleries above the ground floor parfumerie and a most spectacular, narrow spiral staircase. It is worth a visit to the store for the staircase alone. Looking up from the ground floor visitors can see a pencil thin spiral ascending far into the building. Looking down from the top floor is also a treat with a wider, snail like spiral drawing you back to the ground floor.  Architect Sigurd Frosterus won a competition for the honour of designing Stockmann. As well as being a successful architect, he was also an art critic and collector. His collection was donated to the Amos Anderson Art Museum and included a number of works by Alfred William Finch.

Stockmann department store. Sigured Frosterus, 1930.
Upward view, Stockmann staircase
Downward view, Stockmann staircase
Stockmann spreads into a second building facing Pohjoisesplanadi, one of the city's glitziest streets. This building houses the Academic Bookshop designed by modernist hero Alvar Aalto. More recent than the other buildings in this post, designed for and winning a competition in 1962, it was not completed until 1969. The exterior is austere and functionalist, but the interior is a modernist palace with a light filled atrium and books being sold over four floors including a basement. The balconies are reminiscent of the Bauhaus style and again remind me of my most favourite city, Tel Aviv. The bookshop has a cafe on the first floor - Cafe Aalto which still has the original light fittings and is my favourite coffee and cake spot in the city. Unlike many of Helsinki's cafes, it offers table service and visitors can sit and read, watch the other customers or admire this most stylish space.

Much earlier, Aalto had been responsible for the interior of the Kosmos restaurant in Kalevankatu, just across the road from Stockmann. Opened in 1924 it quickly became a haunt of students, artists, musicians and other bohemian types. Aalto designed the furnishings whilst Einari Kyostila and Eino Rasanen carved Hellenic motifs into the wooden booths. Several of the original fittings remain and there are some great 1930's paintings by Finnish artists on display. It can be very difficult to get a table, especially at weekends - so book in advance.

Interior view of the Academic Bookshop, Pohjoisesplanadi. Alvar Aalto, completed 1969
Entrance to Kosmos restaurant, Kalevankatu, opened in 1924. Exterior remodelled in 2001.
 Interior details by Alvar Aalto.
Aalto's works can be seen all over Helsinki and across Finland. During my weekend in the city I visited his former home, now a museum at Riihitie 20 in the Munkkiniemi neighbourhood. Guided tours are available at weekends. Times and other details about visiting can be found here.

Villa Aalto was built between 1935 and 1936 and includes office and studio rooms in addition to living quarters. It is divided into three sector. A two storey volume where the work rooms are located is separated by a roof terrace from the bedrooms and a hall and a living room, dining room and kitchen on the ground floor where there is also a patio for eating al fresco. Work rooms and living areas can be combined by means of a sliding wall.

Villa Alto, Alvar Aalto, 1935-36.
The house was constructed of brick, reinforced concrete and steel columns with external timber walls. As well as being visually striking, the house had to be designed to take account of the Finnish climate, especially the fiercely cold winters. This involved detailed research into forms of insulation against the cold weather supplemented by a range of internal wall finishings including non-woven fibrous rugs and wood to add further warmth to the house. The flat roof is waterproofed with lead bitumen sheets covered with uncrushed seashore gravel. The flat roof necessitated sweeping away the snow during the winter. 

Extensive efforts were also made to maximise the use of natural lighting through the orientation of the terraces. The ground floor living room has a beautiful view of the terrace garden which at the time of my visit included a spectacular contrast of green and red autumn leaves against the white building exterior. The views must have been even more attractive when the house was first built and the area was less settled. In 1935 there would still have been views of the sea from the rooftop terrace.

Ground floor living room, Villa Aalto.
The contents of the house are also interesting. Much of the furniture were designed by Aalto including a spiral metal smoking table which I especially liked but which was never taken into mass production, deemed too expensive to make on a large scale. Not all of the furnishings are his work. He was a keen traveller and the four dining table chairs were purchased and transported back from Italy when he was on honeymoon with his second wife. I also liked the seating in the ground floor living room - the zebra striped rug in particular adding a touch of pizzaz. The soft lighting and the autumnal day made it easy to imagine the cosiness of living here with the warmly insulated interior, comfortable furnishings and views of the cold, colourful autumn garden.

There is a small shop in the house selling books, postcards and a few Aalto design items. It is possible to combine a visit to Villa Aalto with a visit to his studio just a few streets away.

Metal smoking table, Villa Alto.

Zebra print chair, Villa Aalto.
Work studio, Villa Aalto
The tram back to the city centre from Villa Aalto takes you directly to my favourite Helsinki modernist building - the Lasipalasti, or Glass Palace at Mannerheimintie 22. Built in 1936 to the designs of student architects Niilo Kokko, Viljo Revell and Heimo Riihimaki all of whom were in their twenties at the time. Revell later went on to design Toronto City Hall. The u-shaped Glass Palace was originally intended to be a temporary structure for the ill-fated 1940 Olympic Games. The upper floor stands on concrete pillars whilst the white plaster surface is only relieved by the colourful awnings and signs of the shops, cafes and restaurants that make up the complex.

The Lasipalasti is also home to the former Rex Cinema, the interior of which has a number of modernist and art deco features. Unfortunately the cinema, now an events venue is only accessible when performances or activities are taking place. For a number of years the building was neglected and demolition was considered. Luckily it became listed in 1991 and restoration work was undertaken by Pia Ilonen and Minna Lukander who brought the signs, lamps, walls and curved glass features back to their former glory. The building is now home to a number of shops and cafes including a good ground coffee and chocolate shop and the excellent Cafe Lasipalasti which retains some of the original furnishings and has a real 1930's feel to it.

Helsinki is a compact city with an excellent public transport system and much to see. You can see more pictures of the city here.


First floor restaurant, Lasipalasti, Mannerheimintie 22, Helsinki. Kokko, Revell and Riihimaki,  1936.
Restaurant entrance, Lasipalasti.

Former Cinema Rex, Lasipalasti.


Da Vinci cafe and restaurant, Lasipalasti.
Neon sign, Lasipalasti.
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