Hidden Masterpieces, John Soane Museum

“Architecture often seems something of a modern miracle: sheets and sheets of plans show buildings with every conceivable shadow mapped out by science and adjusted for time of day and season, and the existing environment is shown in high-tech images taken by drones. 

“So, when greeted by an impressively clear overhead view of Stonehenge — complete with shapes of shadows and measurements — one might be forgiven for assuming this is the work of some contemporary architectural firm. But, the large watercolour dates from 1817, and was drawn by architectural draughtsman Henry Parke for his employer Sir John Soane. 

“This drawing is on display in the exhibition Hidden Masterpieces at Sir John Soane’s Museum. Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was the most celebrated British architect of the Georgian period. He designed the Bank of England, Dulwich Picture Gallery and a number of other significant public buildings. He collected the archive material from his practice, and added drawings by other architects and artists, mainly of buildings, fittings and furnishings, which amounted to a lifetime collection of 30,000 drawings. This collection – held in the house designed by the architect himself in Lincoln’s Inn Fields – was bequeathed as a museum, which has remained virtually unchanged in almost two centuries…”

Read the full review at The Critic online here: https://thecritic.co.uk/crumbling-is-not-an-instants-act/

“The evolutions of revolutionary architecture”

“The neologism is beloved of technocracies, cults and dictatorships; the regime of the USSR had traits of all three tendencies. The lexicon of the USSR sprouted neologisms like mushrooms: Cominform, Comintern, Glavlit, Gosplan, Komsomol, Proletkult, Sovnarkom. VKhUTEMAS was an abbreviation of Higher Art and Technical Studios, a Bolshevik-founded art training school founded in Moscow in 1920. It was set up alongside the even more shortlived INKhUK Institute of Artistic Culture(Institut Khudozhestvennoy Kultury/Институт Художественной Культуры), which only existed from 1920 until 1924, by IZO-Narkompros, the Department of Fine Arts of the People’s Commissariat for Education. Despite being backed by the state, it failed to survive as long as the Bauhaus…”

Read the full 3-book review at The Brazen Head here: https://brazen-head.org/2021/06/11/the-evolutions-of-revolutionary-architecture/

Quirino De Giorgio

A recent book by Park Books explores the oeuvre of Italian architect Quirino De Giorgio (1909-1997). De Giorgio career spans the Fascist era to the 1990s. The majority of the photographs of his 90-odd buildings were taken for this book; they are complemented with photographs of the buildings in their newly completed states.

De Giorgio is associated with the Futurists in their post-war phase and counted Marinetti as his friend. While he is designated a Futurist, this cannot be detected in the plastic qualities of his realised buildings, other than their modernity. A 1931 drawing shows his ambitious fantasy of an upward thrusting vertically-orientated building, as do other included prints. He started designing buildings in 1928. His earliest constructed buildings – the first made in 1931 – were modest and facilitated by the construction boom of the Fascist regime.

The architecture of Fascism in Italy has certain common characteristics. It is assertive and does not deploy either pastiche or outright historicism. It uses colonnades, square columns, Roman arches and other forms in ways that are identifiably new. It includes modern materials (concrete, steel girders, sheet glass) and can include Modernist forms, such square windows, non-stucco brickwork, absence of architraves, column bases and column capitals and so forth. Civic buildings often had inscriptions and bas relief sculptures displaying civic virtues, martial prowess and the leadership of il Duce. Fascism has a tendency toward giganticism in architecture and town planning. De Giorgio’s projects took on these characteristics from time to time, appropriate to the setting and purpose.

De Giorgio was responsible for designing some of the 5,000 casa del fascio, mainly in his home Veneto region. His simplified style drew on the Metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. The colonnades with square columns, Roman arches and open unadorned balcony colonnades seem directly lifted from the atmospheric inventions of his compatriot. His Fascist buildings can definitely be described as both highly pictorial (memorable simplicity and starkness) and with a strong plastic presence (due to their easily comprehensible geometric morphology).

[Image: ; (left) Quirino de Giorgio, casa del fascio, Vigonza, 1936; (right) Giorgio de Chirico, The Enigma of the Hour (1911), oil on canvas]

The dramatic unimpeded verticals and horizontals, the presence of quadratic forms and the radical lack of ornamentation give De Giorgio’s casas del fascio an invigorating simplicity and purity. Later interventions have only reduced that. The addition of a handrail to the swooping staircase of Sede del gruppo rionale fascista Nicola Bonservizi (1937-8) was a necessary addition to prevent dangerous falls on to a marble-tiled floor, albeit an aesthetically detracting one. De Giorgio was commissioned to design 56 buildings during a prolific 1936-40 period.

[Image: Quirino de Giorgio, casa del fascio, (Brenta, 1939-43)]

The casas del fascio were decommissioned after World War II and the dissolving of the Fascist party and given to regional authorities. They were converted into schools, gyms, libraries and similar civic venues. This has led to the alterations to the structures we see today. Due to the relative lack of appreciation for De Giorgio, many of his buildings have fallen into disrepair, been unsympathetically altered and even demolished. The greatest loss is the Diecimila (Padua, 1938-9), an open-air theatre, demolished in the 1960s. Its simple geometry and evocation of the Roman antecedents made it a striking, though not intimidating structure.

[Image: Note photographs on the left of Diecimila theatre]

Art Deco can be detected in the horizontal strips of windows, port-hole windows and the curving profile of the interior staircase of Sede del gruppo rionale fascista Evaristo Cappellozza (Padua, 1937-8). Although the building has been substantially expanded – altering its height and changing its external character – the 1930s Art Deco style is evident in De Giorgio’s remaining original design and fittings.  The cantilevered canopy of a petrol station (Rovigo, 1948) demonstrates De Giorgio’s taste for drama and high Modernism. He could have supported the end of the canopy on the curving front wall of the building but he chose not to, keeping the structures separated vertically by about two feet of space. The authors comment on De Giorgio’s keen interest in modern design of cars, trains, aeroplanes and cruise liners, indicating a potential source for his streamlined interiors and use of simple panels and metallic surfaces.

De Giorgio was commissioned to design residential buildings – villas, houses, apartment blocks. Cinemas were De Giorgio’s principal area of activity. The foyer of Cinema Altino (Padua, 1946-51) has the appearance of a cruise liner ballroom. He designed a hotel (Abano Terme, 1965), a school (Colle, 1969), offices (Camisano Vicentino, 1965-6) and a number of shops. Later designs introduced geometric shapes in windows, glazed doors and fittings. His typical cleanness benefited the highly trafficked common spaces of school corridors and cinema foyers. This playfulness is used to good effect without these aspects ever becoming flippant or obtrusive. Advances in the development of plate glass allowed De Giorgio’s buildings to become increasingly airy.

The book documents all De Giorgio’s 90 or so surviving buildings, the last built in 1988. This monograph is photograph-led and hence the text is sparing. However, explanation is largely unnecessary for us to get an understanding for the buildings and settings, with the inclusion of multiple views, interior photographs and layouts and street plans. Some architectural drawings are reproduced. The authors note that almost nothing has been published about De Giorgio’s work, despite its high standard and its historical significance. De Giorgio contributed to this situation somewhat due to his aversion to expounding a personal theory of architecture. His records have been preserved and are in chaotic state, making research difficult. Let us hope that this book, acclaimed one of the ten best architectural books of 2019 by the Deutsches Architekturmuseum, is the first of a number on this serious and inventive architect.

Michel Carlana, Luca Mezzalira, Curzio Pentimalli, Quirino de Giorgio: An Architect’s Legacy, Park Books, 2019, flexicover, 400pp, 429 col./252 mono illus., €38, ISBN 978 0 386 01760

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Paris, Hausmann and the difficulties of cultural conservatism

“Hausmann strove for everything, for everything in Paris to be “embellished… expanded… rehabilitated”. […] He expressed a wish that was for the above and below ground, for the beautiful and useful, and from overall picture down to the smallest detail.”

Here we have the paradox of the archetype of the architect and town planner: the overarching authoritarian who can bless a city with beauty, attention to detail and efficient provision of public transport, nearby facilities and access to parks, who is also the overarching authoritarian who can curse a city with ugliness, shoddy design and communities isolated by major roadways. Planners can bestow logically designed spaces for living but can also wipe out architecture and street layouts, erasing history with a strike of a pencil. It is the most tangible and common form of hubris. Urban planners created the glories of civilisation but also destroyed cultural heritage – on a scale second only to the ravages of war.

Baron Georges-Eugène Hausmann (1809-1891) was Prefect of Seine Region from 1853 to 1870, appointed by Napoleon III to modernise the centre of Paris. In a campaign of demolition and building, that included the alteration of the street plans and infrastructure, Hausmann’s boulevardisation of certain arrondissements changed the face of Paris and is still today – in central Paris – the predominant aspect of the physical structure the capital. A map showing the buildings constructed between 1840 and 1910 reveals that the majority of central Paris consists of buildings erected during this period.

Paris faced serious problems. Narrow medieval street layouts entailed lack of light and airflow, as well as absence of roadside trees to reduce noise. The irregular and narrow streets constricted traffic and made laying of water and sewage pipes difficult. Crime, overcrowding and disease were endemic, partly attributable to the physical fabric of the old quarters.

The question arises as to what ends was Hausmann’s grandiose zeal directed towards. Was Hausmann someone who was set on improving the lot of the average Parisian and razing slums or was he a tyrannical utopian bent on making Paris more governable? Famously, new boulevards laid out in radial fashion allowed the military direct lines of access and fire on demonstrators, making Paris easier to control the army and forestall potential popular uprisings.

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Paris – Hausmann is a reprint of a 2017 Venice Biennale exhibition catalogue. It presents in visual form the work of Hausmann on the rebuilding of Paris. There are plentiful street plans, morphologies, typologies and other designs. Architectural plans of typical house façades show Hausmann’s preferred styles. Hausmann wanted a degree of architectural congruency without requiring uniformity. Congruency with variation allows a pleasing sense of familiarity to his quarters without ever becoming oppressively monotonous. There are designs of benches, kiosks, streetlamps, and street profiles. Included are modifications from later periods, showing façades in beaux-arts (1882) and Art-Nouveau (1902) styles. The 1902 Art Nouveau door design of 29 Avenue Rapp is hugely extravagant. Catalogue designs of optional ornamental railings, doors, friezes, door panels, louvres, balustrades and balconies allowed investors to select their preferred stylistic touches.

Hausmann used a classic grid format for streets, with radial hubs around circuses or plazas and diagonal thoroughfares. Below ground, water, sewage and gas mains were laid. Blocks were modal in structure, with standardised layouts, materials (especially local limestone) and building methods for efficient, speedy and cost-efficient construction. Plans included open spaces and parks. Wide straight streets allowed easy cut-and-cover construction of metro lines following roadways.

Most of the buildings were six-storeys high, faced in stucco, with a ground floor area for commercial use and a tall but irregularly shaped loft – often used by servants. Floors 1 and 2 were sometimes adapted as office space. Storey heights varied, with the ground floor being 4-5m, with other floors 3-3.6m. Most buildings were financed by the investment of a single owner, who would own the house and rent premises and residences. Floor plans are illustrated for whole blocks. The designs proved strong, attractive and durable. “Designed from the outset to host diverse usages and populations, the Hausmann investment property also demonstrated considerable aptitude in terms of changing its configurations and usages, a capacity for transformation and reversibility. It is through the building and its assembling logic within the block that Hausmann’s urban fabric reveals its extraordinary resilience in spatial, climatic, structural, and technical terms.”

Despite Hausmann’s plan, Paris remained the most densely populated city in Europe (excepting suburbs). Paris employment is 70% higher than Barcelona and two and half times higher than Berlin. In age when planners are concerned about sustainability, Hausmann’s Paris is a case study in effectiveness. Paris is 66% built over, compared to Brasilia’s 16% rate of land use. Other data included measure efficiency, connectivity and walkability of Paris compared to other cities. Analyses of volumetric compactness, thermal inertia, distribution of openings and other metrics will be use to architects.

Franck Boutté and Umberto Napolitano write “The reality before our eyes today tells us that the problem lies not with the quality of each individual architecture, rather in the lack of a vision of the whole. […] What is in doubt today is not our aptitude for building and dealing with all sorts of quantitative restrictions, rather our ability to “make the city” and to “make any sense”.” This seems a central contradiction in the grand plans of architects today. It is a lament that they cannot use vast sums and compulsory purchase orders of existing buildings to enact huge schemes that will reshape cities in their image. Yet it also at odds with the prevailing view of conserving resources by maintaining and upgrading existing buildings, driven by environmentalist beliefs. The unbridled utopianism (and, dare one say, egotism) conflicts with the fetters of Malthusianism and environmental alarmism, whilst considerations of preservation and cultural heritage do not impinge.

A difficulty a traditionalist faces is answering the question “Would you rather live in a Hausmann apartment or one of the old buildings he destroyed?” While a medieval building might have more history, character and a genuine uniqueness as an authentic vernacular dwelling, how would one live with the inadequate light, gimcrack plumbing and the expense of repairing an ageing building? People do choose such old buildings but for the busy, uninformed and not-especially-well-off resident such buildings present a source of constant uncertainty and distraction. We are right to mourn the loss of pre-Modern Paris but must also admit the utility and necessity of reform – albeit not perhaps on such a large scale and not of such an imposing nature.

Photo by Matteus Silva de Oliveira on Pexels.com

There is an inherent contradiction in the traditionalist’s position. The architecture, layouts and views he wishes to conserve were once new, replacing buildings that stood there before. The Hausmann buildings, which were new and modern when they replaced medieval streets, are now celebrated as iconic and intrinsic to the character of Paris. Where does a cultural conservative draw the line? Is it at what he considers to be comfortably old, sufficiently classic or simply that to which he is used? The axiom that “Conservatism is simply progressivism driving at the speed limit” seems apply here. Surely the traditionalist – a cultural conservative with fixed reference points – is merely accepting and celebrating Modernism once that example of Modernism has acquired a dignifying patina of age.

Traditionalists and cultural conservatives sometimes use arguments about objective standards. One could argue that Hausmann’s buildings were intrinsically beautiful because they derived from Neo-classical precedents. Further, Hausmann’s architecture combined attractiveness with functionality, proving more practical, robust and healthier than the buildings it replaced. To which, the architect of today might respond by stating that radically contemporary designs can be much more resource efficient and ergonomically functional and thus objectively better than what they replace; additionally, new aesthetics follow form and require one to respond honestly and considerately to their qualities. The architect of today insists that these new buildings are design classics of the future and that fabricating historical pastiches – for pastiches these buildings would be rather than authentic recreations, as no traditionalist would return to a pre-electric and pre-indoor plumbing era – does a disservice to the architect’s integrity and discredits the spirit of our age.

Overall, this catalogue will be valuable to architects, town planners, historians and researchers studying Paris. Essays written by specialists cover the background and extent of Hausmann’s Paris project. The illustration in plans, graphics and photographs is extensive. The text is parallel original French and English translation.

Benoît Jallon et al (ed.), Paris – Hausmann, 2020, Park Books, hardback, 264pp, 143 col./345 mono illus., English/French text, 59CHF/€48, ISBN 978 3 03860 219 4  


(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Conserving Concrete

For anyone doubting the appropriateness of concrete as a subject for conservation (perhaps wishing away over a century of architecture), the introduction to Concrete: Case Studies in Conversation Practice provides a rejoinder.

Concrete is one of the most ubiquitous materials of the twentieth century; therefore, anyone involved in conserving modern heritage needs some understanding of the material, its deterioration, and its effective repair. Some 150 years of development of reinforced concrete has produced an extraordinary legacy of structures and buildings.[i]

Concrete is an ancient building material, used since ancient times, refined by the Romans and revived for the development of Portland cement in the 1820s, since when it has been used almost continually.

Regardless of the building typology or construction date, the decay mechanism common to all the projects comes down to the basic issue of the steady progress of carbonation that leads to the eventual corrosion of the reinforcement. The rate of carbonation is affected by factors such as the depth of cover to reinforcement, poor workmanship, and low cement content, sometimes in combination, in each case influenced by the environmental conditions arising from the location.[ii]

The key difficulty for many béton brut buildings is that concrete is structurally integral and also the undecorated surface, thus serious deterioation of the concrete cannot be left untreated and any treatment cannot but alter the appearance of the building. It was only in the late 1980s that a programmatic, scientific approach to preservation of concrete structures was developed by the architecture profession – surprisingly late considering the considerable evidence of deterioration which had been documented before then.

Part of the Conserving Modern Heritage series from Getty Publications, Concrete: Case Studies in Conversation Practice brings together essays by conservators who have worked on projects to conserve and restore concrete buildings. Their experiences provide us with greater understanding of the problems and solutions for this issue which grows increasingly relevant and serious as some classic Modernist buildings are reaching a state of decrepitude. Strategies for corrosion protection and repair include patching, partial replacement and resurfacing. These have the obvious drawbacks of introducing ahistorical or incongruous surfaces. Corrosion inhibiting solutions and electrochemical realkalization are other approaches[iii].  

One ingenious solution which retards corrosion of rebar is remote sacrificial anode (RSA). The electro-chemical process of water corroding steel is delayed by the attachment of a section of grounded metal to the concrete. The electrical charge is thereby transferred to the RSA which corrodes instead of the steel in the concrete. However, electrical resistance of concrete means that it produces a localised effect rather than a solution for large areas. The RSA can be replaced when it is corroded, every 30 years or so. New techniques are being pioneered that involve the installation of meshes that are inside the concrete close to the rebar and connected to an RSA, effectively wiring the entire structure to stabilise corrosion but this seems to be construction application rather than a remedial system. Non-corroding anodes using direct current electricity are alternatives but require mains power or sustainable electrical generators, which are not always suitable or cost effective.

This volume provides 14 case studies of remedial action to restore and renovate concrete exposed to the elements. The first is structures from the 1920s and the last is a Donald Judd sculpture of 1988-91. The examples are free-standing objects, enclosed buildings and exposed open-air structures. They range from utilitarian structures, a church, market, warehouse, zoo, bathing station, school, university, theatre and residence.  Some of these are world-famous structures (the Marseille Unité d’Habitation of Le Corbusier), while others are lesser known. Architects include Oscar Niemeyer, Pier Luigi Nervi and Eugène Freyssinet. 

The structures featured are superb examples of their type, hence the efforts to conserve them. Some techniques could be used to extend the life of less important concrete structures. Halles du Boulingrin, the Reims covered market, features soaring thin-ribbed parabolic arches forming a curved roof – dramatic, aesthetically satisfying and practical. (Such a design had already been used by the architect for aircraft hangars at Orly, Paris.) It is a fine example of Art Deco architecture, built to replace a building destroyed during the Great War bombardment which practically erased the medieval town. It was fully restored and an acrylic-resin membrane applied to the outside to waterproof it. In this case the original building had been painted, so extensive restoration could be done, effectively resurfacing the entire roof and painting it. The installation of micro-processor controlled fans combatted the issue of condensation, which had dogged the original design.

A uniquely complex structure is Villa Girasole, Verona, which incorporated house which that revolved 360° on a circular base of concrete. Constructed between 1929 and 1935, the building was part residence, part art work, part proof of concept. The functioning of the building/machine/sculpture caused the damage to the platform. Regrettably, the essayists do not describe if the house is currently functional. In the case of Niemeyer’s Brazilian church, much of the water damage was caused by builders omitting to include the specified expansion joints. At the Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges, Yale University, one problem was steel window frame anchorages corroding within concrete walls. The famous Unité d’Habitation in Marseille suffered due to some substandard concrete in places and the thinness of certain details (especially the balcony balustrades) led to cracking and spalling due to corrosion of internal steel. The pilotti were corroded and required resurfacing.

The essays by experts in the projects provide background, assessment of the problems, the potential solutions, conservation work undertaken and the general findings. Technical information is given (including plans, models, diagrams), though not at too great a length. Even the data is understandable to the non-specialist reader. Numerous photographs give us an idea of the original appearance of the buildings, their damage and their current state. There is a glossary included.

Evidence is that building conservators adhere to the principles of minimal intervention, maintenance rather than alteration, avoiding “improvement”, making changes noticeable but not jarring, attempting to keep interventions reversible and other standards that are shared with the best practice of art conservation. This publication shows that there is much that can be done to remedy unsightly, inconvenient and dangerous degradation of concrete structures – though the cost and difficulty may be in some cases prohibitive. Traditionalists, hoping demolition should be the only just destiny for Modernist structures, will be disappointed; for the rest of us, the documented solutions seem pragmatic and acceptable ways to extend the life spans of concrete structures. 

Catherine Croft, Susan Macdonald (eds.), Concrete: Case Studies in Conversation Practice, Getty Publications, 2019, paperback, 236pp, fully illus., $59.95/£45, ISBN 978 1 60606 576 1

(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art


[i] Concrete, p. 11

[ii] Concrete, p. 17-8

[iii] Note François Botton’s caution: “[…] it appears the effectiveness of the realkanization procedure may depend on the level of corrosion before treatment, or it may simply not last longer than twelve to thirty months.” Concrete, p. 123

London Street Signs

Although we see them daily, we often do not notice them. Indeed, if we fail to notice the street sign (like a sports referee) then that is evidence of their effectiveness. The street signs of London are very diverse, not least because of the size of London and its varied history. If you have not already noticed how diverse London street signs then this is the book for you: Alistair Hall has noticed for you. In London Street Signs, Hall has compiled photographs of hundreds of signs, showing the full range of materials, sizes, styles, conventions and placements that can be found in London signs. Alistair Hall, who teaches at Central Saint Martins and The Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, provides informative observations, sometimes with some background research. He has limited his scope to Greater London.

The variety of street signage in London is caused by multiple factors. Firstly, there is no uniform regulation for manufacture of signs. Black lettering on a white background is standard but not mandatory; there are places (such as Hampstead) where white lettering is used on black tiles. Secondly, there has never been a concerted drive to replace old signs, some dating back to the Seventeenth Century. Happily, that preserves for us glimpses of London past. This ensures that a cross-section of signs survives. Some are lost entirely. The lamp-post signs went with the lamp posts; wooden signs of the pre-1850 era have long gone. Likewise, fragile glass signs are prone to damage. Lastly, signs are repaired or replaced by individual borough councils, each with different approaches. Periodically, boroughs rebrand themselves through street signage.

[Image: (c) 2020 Alistair Hall]

There is guidance for manufacturing new and replacement signs which imposes a degree of conformity in size, lettering, format and additional information, such as postcode and borough name. This book includes extracts of regulations guiding sign design from the last century, with samples. Luckily, this has kept signage clear and relatively standardised but tolerant care has been exercised to preserve older signage.

The book opens with some old name tablets built into houses in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Some have an elegance that reminds us of the care and pride of owners and builders, with their civic-mindedness. Other signs – such as a handsome cartouche in Fleet Street – are designed into the buildings. In the case of Savile Row W1, the letters are cast metal and applied to the wall of a police station. Painted signs have been repainted over the years and some are maintained still by residents. The designs date from the pre-Victorian era up to the sans-serif designs of the 1960s.

[Image: (c) 2020 Alistair Hall]

Fonts vary surprisingly. Not even sans-serif is a constant, with serif versions being used in some new signs. Some choices are eccentric and lack legibility as lettering to be viewed quickly and in poor light. Hall highlights quirks and even a few errors. Spacing can a significant factor in legibility and the author has some choice words for those sign writers who make poor decisions. Borough councils have attempted to distinguish themselves by adopting slightly different lettering styles: Albertus (Lambeth), Northwood (Lambeth), Kindersley (Kensington & Chelsea), Transport (Camden, Brent). Colour borders are also deployed sometimes.  

Vitreous enamel signs, with white lettering on dark blue ground, is rarely used now, though it works very well in suburban, low-rise brick-built areas. Heavy cast-metal signs can still be found but they require regular maintenance and – like painted signs – these signs suffer due to a shrinking pool of skilful craftsmen. Clumsy restoration or neglect are the result of this dearth. Uniformity – so beloved of big-thinkers and bureaucrats – has made in-roads into London street names. There was a concerted effort to remove duplication of common names and this can be seen with some old signs remaining next to signs with new names. Lost boroughs of Stepney, St Marylebone and Deptford linger on in unrevised signs.

[Image: Hampstead, (c) 2020 Alistair Hall]

Hall explains the mysterious vanished postcodes. There are a handful of old signs which include the postcodes S and NE. The NE postcode was introduced in 1856 but dropped in 1866, ostensibly because it received much less post than the other districts. NE was absorbed into E and only a few street signs now remain. Hall reproduces the only two surviving S signs, for Lark Hall Rise and The Pavement, now both SW4. (S was divided between SE and SW in 1868.)  

New signs are covered in the Greenwich Peninsula development and around the Olympic Village in Stratford. Innovations such as the QR code already look as dated as arrows and pointing hands visible on old signs.

With touches of humour and erudition, Hall guides through both typical samples and rare survivors. Hall’s acute eye for detail has espied numerous deviations and variations in lettering, pointing out instances in brief image captions. In an era of iconoclasm, when zealots erase history to impose their values upon the past, London Street Signs makes the case for retaining and celebrating our heritage.

Alistair Hall, London Street Signs, Batsford, 2020, hardback, 192pp, fully col. illus., £14.99/$19.95/C$26.95, ISBN 978 1 84994 6216

(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

“The Melancholy of Obsolete Futures”

“Brutalism has seen a surge in interest among young people keen on bold uncompromising Modernist design. Whole books of moody photographic studies of concrete buildings are snapped up by fans of urban life and retro design. A crop of new books explores the Brutalism of socialist states.

“While Constructivism and avant-gardism in fine art came to prominence during the October Revolution, it was suppressed in favour of Socialist Realism by the mid-1930s. In architecture more adventurous forms and materials persisted, although in the minority. Under Stalin there was a degree of stylistic conformity and austerity, yet adventurous architecture was not seen as “bourgeois formalism” as it was in art. Following the death of Stalin in 1953, historicism receded and a greater variety of art, design and architecture (including Modernist architecture) became possible. While supposedly for the masses, many of the showpiece constructions were moribund from the start: inverted ziggurat hotels that were barely occupied and shopping centres with few consumer goods to offer. Much of this architecture was completed less than a decade before the economic and political collapse of the Eastern Bloc….”

Read the full review online at The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/melancholy-of-obsolete-futures/

Hidden London: Discovering the Forgotten Underground

“When riding the Tube, passengers sometimes get flashing glimpses of lit side tunnels or abandoned stations. Before they fully register them, the sights are gone and passengers are left with a short-lived curiosity about the hidden life of their primary means of travel about London. The long complex history of the London Underground network has generated a legacy of disused stations, defunct lines and disregarded buildings. Hidden London: Discovering the Forgotten Underground (published by London Transport Museum in association with Yale University Press) presents some of those in pictorial format with extensive explanatory commentary.

“Parts of this story will be familiar to anyone who has disappeared down those rabbit holes of Wikipedia that beckon us when we are killing time. Closed stations, merged stations, tracks abandoned and service tunnels not open to the public are the inevitable by-product of a system that emerged piecemeal under multiple companies since 1863 and has had to serve a vast and changing city. Amateur historians of LU have long applied formidable scrutiny to plentiful available documentation, so there is little in this book that will be unknown to dedicated fans of LU trivia, but for general readers this is an ideal companion to lost elements of London’s underground rail system.

“There is a strange power to encountering these images of lost ages, at once melancholy and sinister. These are time capsules…”

Read the full review online at The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/hidden-london/

History of Art in Japan

Muchaku_(detail,_2)

[Image: Unkei, Asanga (1212), carved and painted wood. Source: Wikimedia]

The scope of this volume is extensive. The author intends to outline the main features, persistent ideas and developments in Japanese fine arts, crafts and architecture from pre-history to today. Tsuji outlines the development of Japan’s culture through artefacts from its early eras of Jōmon, Yayoi, Kofun, Nara, Heian and Medieval. The subsequent Edo and Modern periods are much more familiar to non-Japanese readers and these are covered in more detail because of the complexity and large amount of documentation and artefacts from this time.

The cord patterning and stippling in winding linear layouts of the pot decoration in the Jōmon period (9300-500 BCE) can be seen as forerunners of Japanese fine art of our day, such as that by Minoru Onoda. Prefigured Modernism abounds in Japanese art. “[…] another dogū [freestanding ceramic figurines], discovered in 1992 at the Nishinomae site in Yamagata prefecture and designated as a National Treasure in 2012, whose legs suggest that the figure is wearing pants; the sharp drop along the back recalls the forms of sculptor Ossip Zadkine.” Debates continue about the relative levels immigration from Korea in the Yayoi period; what is not in dispute was the importance of their visual culture.

According to tradition, in 522 Buddhism arrived in Japan from China and in 538 it began to be incorporated into the imperial court. In the following centuries, carvings of the Buddha were fusions of indigenous Japanese culture and imported Korean and Chinese statuary. These were made from stone or wood, often gilded or intricately painted with paint and lacquer. Later statues showed sophisticated manipulation of pattern, emphatic volume, simplified forms and drapery, even with the loss of polychromy. Buddhist temples became more sophisticated and the Izumo-taisha (Izumo grand shrine) was constructed on giant pillars that may have been as tall as 100 metres, reached by a long straight staircase. The use of wood and paper in architecture has meant that early structures have been lost and rebuilt. At this time shōgon (sacred ornament) became a major strand in craft production. Tsuji explains the theological basis for the statues, mandalas and narrative paintings that dominate art in the following eras.

In the Middle Heian period (894-1086), isolation from the continent led to development of a more synthesised Japanese style (wayō). By this stage the main pillars of Japanese visual culture are well established. The art and craft are all recognisably Japanese, with architecture being more closely tied to Chinese models. Zōchōten (Virudhaka) (839) (carved wood with lacquer, colour and gold leaf, 182.5 cm high) has the guardian king in an imposing martial stance, the elaborate drapery and clothing emphasising rather than concealing his stature. His fierce visage is turned in profile, powerfully framed by a halo of fire. There is nothing of such accomplishment from the same period in Europe. The author comments on similarities between this group of statues and Indian carving.

Lacquer work and inlay on furniture had an established repertoire of decorative motifs by the early C12th – waves, flowers and other plants, mountains, clouds, animals. Painting was executed on scrolls, silk, fans, plaster walls, paper-panel walls and screens. Many paintings from temples or monasteries were discoloured by soot or destroyed by fire. The survival of painted screens from 1050-1100 allows us to get a glimpse of painting from the Late Heian period. Paintings at this time were religious, narrative or decorative in character; painting qua painting did not exist as a separate approach at this time. Japanese fans of the time were prized in China. The history of calligraphy is intertwined with those of handscrolls and fans. Buddhist scripture provided opportunities for imagination in the depiction of realms of heaven and hell, some of which are used as examples. Vivid scenes of suffering, famine, degradation and torture seem to be a mixture of observation of life at the time and pure imagination. The suffering of human existence is an important teaching of the Buddha, so such scenes are common throughout the region. A notable example is a grisly scene of the C13th of putrefaction and bodily dissolution, Aspects of the Unclean Human Path. In the late C13th a wave of Ch’an monks from China fleeing the Mongol invasion brought Zen teaching to Japan. It subsequently became the predominant school of Buddhism in the Japanese islands. Much of Japanese art continued to be influenced by China. One transplanted idea that the Japanese monks perfected was the idea of the dry garden, where water features were replaced by areas of raked gravel.

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[Image: Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara. Source: Wikimedia: By 663highland – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4369910%5D

The key architectural masterpiece in Japan is the Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara featuring the classic double-roof, top roof steeply pitched, lower roof shallow, both with lifted corners. It houses two brilliantly expressive statues (1203) carved in wood by Unkei and Kaikei. For an analogue of great art that fuses realism and emotional hyper-expression we in the west could think of Grünewald’s Colmar Altarpiece (1512-6). Unkei’s other works display a forceful, reserved realism, including a masterful portrait of the monk Asanga (1212). Kaikei was more indebted to Song-style religious statuary. Wood carving at this time reached remarkable heights of competence and expressiveness without compromising the need to convey dignity and restraint. In contrast, painted portraits attributed to Fujiwara no Takanobu (d. 1204/5) situate the stylistic but realistic heads on bodies that are rendered geometric by their costumes.

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[Image: Fujiwara no Takanobu (attr.), Portrait of Yoritomo (1179), ink on silk scroll, 29 x 236 cm. Source: Wikimedia]

The Nanbokuchō (1333-92) and Muromachi (1392-1573) periods brought advances in landscape painting and genre scenes of everyday life. Detached from historical and religious content, these areas allowed greater freedom for artists and patrons. (This coincides with the emergence of secular subjects in art in Renaissance Europe.) In the late C16th Christian missionaries made a few converts in Japan and some Japanese painters began to mimic Western-style painting. Most of this was later destroyed in anti-Christian riots but what survives seems to have been of more historical curiosity than aesthetic value. Likewise, periodic fires destroyed temples and cities built using wood and paper, depriving us of a clear picture of early phases of Japanese architecture.

The modern period of Japan is the Edo period, lasting from 1615 to 1867. At this time, art became increasingly realistic and secular. The spectacular sliding-door decoration of Kanō Sanraku (1559-1635) and son Kanō Sansetsu (1590-1651), incorporating exquisite depiction of natural elements against a gold-leaf ground shows the sophistication of the period and the effortless application of fine-art technique to architectural use.

In the 1680s the ukiyo-e (floating world style) was established by Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694). These were genre scenes of everyday life in the pleasure quarters of Edo, featuring musicians, actors, geishas, courtesans and street life. Although best known in the prints of the time, the genre encompasses art in all forms. It is during the Edo period that the classic art of the colour woodblock print was developed (in 1765, by Suzuki Harunobu (1725?-1770)) and became for Westerners the epitome of Japanese visual culture. The economic sophistication of the system combined the skills of designer (eshi/gakō), cutter (horishi), printer (surishi) and publisher (hanmoto) (not neglecting the sellers) to produce an intricate system for the mass-production of great art.

In 1854 Japan was forcibly opened up to international trade and the 1867 appearance of a Japanese pavilion at the Paris international exposition marked the end of Japan’s isolation. This would mark the boom in japonisme in Europe and North America, which came to dominate the decorative arts and influenced the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. For better and worse, the art of the West also came to Japan, to very mixed results. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was the most successful artist to adopt elements of Western style while remaining wedded to the advantages and traditions of Japan, working in prints. The adoption of copperplate engraving and oil paint used in conjunction with half-understood Western use of shading, perspective and so forth led to art that ranged from the beguiling to the deeply deficient. Many potentially competent Japanese artists ended up as makers of failed hybrids that seem ugly, ungainly and crude. Oil paint seems to have been disastrous for Japanese art, robbing it of its crispness, clarity, concision and planar qualities.

In 1867 Japanese society impressed Westerners as uniquely “Western” in its highly stratified social structure and very advanced literature and art, though lacking the widespread literacy and high average income that was beginning to begin standard in the West following the Industrial Revolution. Beyond less advanced societies in Asia, the Japanese were considered honorary Westerners in some respects. Even the tendency for women to paint their faces white was seen as a link to pale-skinned Westerners.

Japanese art of the Meiji and later periods is so wildly heterogeneous and mixed in character that it is hard for the author to describe or evaluate it. Making any general comments about Japanese art at this time is almost impossible and this is the weakest section of the book. Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) stands out among the printmakers, making the most of Japanese subject matter and Western style in his colour prints. It is among the artists of nihonga (Japanese style) that we find the best of C20th art in Japan. The story reaches present day with some frames of anime and manga drawings, as well as fine-art paintings.

Tsuji explains the significance of the waves of different Buddhist teaching which directed cultural production, as well as how the art of Japan relates to the social, military, economic and imperial history of the nation. The use of proper terms will allow non-Japanese readers to acquire some familiarity – as they are defined as they are introduced – but the use does not seem excessive to this reviewer. The book has numerous illustrations of key works and typical examples. Even at 631 pages (of which 150 are reference), this book does seem long or overly detailed. Readers will likely close this book satisfied and inspired to search out monographs on certain artists and periods. As a guide History of Art in Japan meets its author’s intentions handsomely.

 

Tsuji Nobuo, Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (trans.), History of Art in Japan, Columbia University Press, October 2019, paperback, 664pp, fully illus., $34.95/£27, ISBN 978 0 23119 341 2 (hardback available)

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Le Corbusier: 5 x Unités d’habitation

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Unité d’habitation was a concept of integrated housing developed by Le Corbusier in collaboration with Nadir Afonso. The concept was intended to provide a unified solution to the challenges of modern life by providing for inhabitants by making a single building for vertical living. It was intended as an advance in urban planning by centralising various services and facilities within the residential area, creating a mixed function building. Although initially conceived in 1920, the Unités d’habitation, as they came to be called, were designed over the period 1945 to 1965. Five blocks were constructed in Marseille (1947-52), Nantes-Rezé (1955), Berlin (1957), Briey-en-Forêt (1963) and Firminy-Vert (1965). Although the plan was intended to have universal application, the Berlin block was the only one built outside France.

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski, Unité d’habitation Marseille, 2018]

The creation of different zones (including private living spaces, hotel, common passages, a shopping area and a roof with kindergarten, gymnasium, running track, paddling pool, open space and amphitheatre) was intended to provide inhabitants with a wide range of facilities within a single building, making it a convenient and efficient location within which to live. The independence of the design meant that this building could be reproduced in multiple locations, theoretically obviating the need to the costs and time of producing unique architectural plans. The Marseille building was the first. It was the most complex and expensive. Later buildings were cheaper and had lower specifications. It is the Marseille building which has become iconic, with the other Unités overshadowed by the ground-breaking pioneer project. The Berlin iteration was noticeably different, partly due to climatic reasons. There was no open roof space and the shopping area was omitted. The relative isolation of the Berlin Unité – which is twice the size of the Marseille one, and therefore the largest of the Unités – and the absence of shops has made it a somewhat inconvenient and unappealing place to live, apparently. Briey-en-Forêt is on the periphery of a suburban area and residents rely on public transport and private cars to travel outside of the grounds. This seems to be a fault of the situation rather than of the building.  

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski, Unité d’habitation Briey, 2018]

The apartments are appealing. The balconies have grand views (particularly in the upper storeys), sense of privacy and good soundproofing gave residents a living experience previously enjoyed by only a few. Unlike other high-rise designs, the Unités tended to foster frequent contact with neighbours in communal areas and did not (automatically) engender alienation. For everyday needs, the buildings (with the exception of the Berlin one) are relatively convenient and self-contained.

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski, Unité d’habitation Berlin, 2018]

There is a case to be made that the Marseille Unité d’habitation was perhaps the single most influential Modernist residential structure. The ideas, appearance and materials of the Unités d’habitation influenced the nascent Brutalist movement. The buildings are largely unadorned, much of the structure of shutter-cast unpainted concrete (béton brut). The roofs are flat and the apartments are modular in nature. The internal designs, fittings and even furniture was designed specifically for the buildings. There were no architectural references to past styles and no concessions to local materials. Every part of the building displayed its function in its appearance. The architect attempted to shun the limitations of its surroundings; there was a refusal to compromise to existing architecture. The buildings are not orientated to align with the streets around them. This is in part to permit the buildings to be placed to the maximum advance to residents in terms of views and light, but it is also an act of defiant independence on the part of Le Corbusier.

Artist and photographer Arthur Zalewski has visited all of the buildings multiple times in recent years and photographed them as they are, with inhabitants and current conditions included. The photographs, curated by Peter Ottmann, are currently being exhibited at C834, Corbusierhaus, Berlin (April-November 2019). The photographs in five changing displays will be of each Unité in turn: Marseille, April-June 2019; Revé, June-July; Berlin, July-August; Briey-en-Forêt, August-October; Firminy, October-November.

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski,  Unité d’habitation Firminy, 2018]

Zalewski eschewed photographing portraits of the residents, realising that this would make the body of photographs very distinct in character. Instead we get medium-distance shots of figures within the spaces, giving us atmosphere and showing everyday functioning of the buildings. The photographs are distant views of the building, the situation of the Unités within the streets and the landscape more broadly, close views, interiors of different parts of the building and certain sample apartment interiors. The photographs are a mixture of black and white and colour. The shots show the conditions of the buildings today. Compared to many Modernist buildings by less prominent architects, the Unités are in an adequate state of preservation and maintenance, with few alterations and no apparent graffiti. The materials have aged in a largely sympathetic manner, with lichen spotting the stairwell walls in Nantes-Rezé (a block built partially over water, which in these shots is algae covered). The climatic conditions are distinct and contribute to the impressions of the buildings and how they have aged. The sheltered parapets of Briey-en-Forêt have acquired a rich patina of lichens and moss on the untreated concrete. The Firminy’s mountainous wooded location is in contrast with the situation of the Marseille’s Cité radieuse in its arid sunny setting. Briey-en-Forêt’s foggy climate and tree surrounding give the large building an incongruous impression of being hidden and protected.

The only substantial text in this large-format book is the transcript of a three-person discussion between Arthur Zalewski, architect Peter Ottmann and author Anne König. This is published in French, German and English versions. The interview is very enlightening about the varying histories and characters of the five Unités, including information about how the residents view their buildings. This book is suitable for any fan of Modernist architecture, Brutalism and Le Corbusier; it would also appeal to anyone studying social history.

 

Arthur Zalewski, Peter Ottmann (ed.), Le Corbusier: 5 x Unité. Marseille, Nantes-Rezé, Berlin, Briey, Firminy, Spector Books, 2019, paperback, 384pp, 300 illus., English/French/German text, €34, ISBN 978 39 59 05301 3

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art