Friday, 30 October 2015

A few days in Montevideo

Montevideo is a city whose charms are not at first obvious but which soon reveal themselves given the chance. Often seen as a side trip of a couple of days from Buenos Aires, Montevideo is worth much more than that. The city boasts one of the best collections of art deco buildings anywhere in the world (which I will post about separately), has a lively arts scene including a great theatre and live music programme, eclectic cafes and restaurants and some interesting museums - most of which are free to visit. But perhaps the city's best assets are its 25 kilometres of promenade water front and its exceptionally friendly people.

Sunset on the water front
That friendliness is exhibited over and over again - the woman who crossed the street to explain that the restaurant I thought was closed would be opening in 15 minutes, the museum staff who allowed me to come in to the buildings to take pictures, the elderly waiter in a Pocitos cafe who put the wi-fi password into my phone for me despite us not having a language in common and the assistant at La Pasionaria who happily explained many of the design items to me without applying any obvious pressure to buy. Very refreshing after a week in beautiful but frenetic Buenos Aires.

Regular readers will know that I love to stroll in a city, happening upon its secrets and delights. Montevideo is full of unexpected treasures including the wild parakeets that gather in the park adjacent to the Decorative Arts Museum in Plaza Zabal. And the marching band in Plaza Matriz on Wednesday morning where an appreciative crowd politely applauded Cherry pink and apple blossom white and La Cumparsita.  Written by Uruguayan Matos Rodriguez, La Cumparsita is one of the most famous of tango dances and was first performed here in 1916. Tango is an important part of Uruguay's cultural heritage and there are often performances - both dance and singing at the beautiful Solis Theatre in the city centre. I attended a performance there by tango vocalist Malena Muyala during my stay.

Guard accompanying the marching band in Plaza Matriz
One of my other passions is spending time in cafes, reading and writing, observing the people coming and going and of course sampling the coffee and cake - or possibly the hot chocolate. Hot chocolate might be listed on menus here as "submarino"- hot milk with a small bar of the sweet stuff dropped into it, which gradually melts to give a chocolate drink. Montevideo has many good cafes, several of historical importance such as Cafe Brasilero at Ituzaingo 1447. Housed in an art nouveau building and once the haunt of writers and artists, including Eduardo Galeano, the cafe retains a number of original features including its beautiful bar, and attracts both locals and tourists.  Good cake, soups and sandwiches can be had here. 

Cafe Brasilero
Not too far away and also in the old city, heartier meals are on offer at Cafe Misiones. Established in 1907 and originally a pharmacy, the cafe has a beautiful green majolica front as well as a wonderful stained glass ceiling piece.  Las Misiones occupies a corner space at the junction of Misiones and 25 de Mayo streets and is very busy at lunchtime with workers from the nearby financial institutions tucking into grilled meats or sandwiches. I was very good and had a caprese salad which was very tasty. So were the chips I had with it. 

Cafe Misiones
Courtyard, La Pasionaria
La Pasionaria at Reconquista 527 is a more recent addition to Montevideo's classic cafes. Opened seven years ago, it serves high quality soups, sandwiches and light meals during the day in a light and contemporary space within a refurbished 19th century building. I enjoyed a bowl of carrot and orange soup followed by ginger and passion fruit ice cream with excellent coffee. As well as a cafe, La Pasionaria has a well stocked design shop where many of the items are made with recycled materials. Upstairs through a beautiful courtyard, there is a cutting edge boutique - mainly for women but with one or two men's items too. The staff are friendly and extremely knowledgeable about the products. A great place tucked away just a couple of minutes from the main tourist streets and one of my favourites from my visit.

The courtyard at La Pasionaria is filled with colour - the rich blue ceramic tiles of the planter, the lush green plants and the red flowers set off against the whitewashed walls. Montevideo is filled with splashes of colour including the spectacular painted pavement in Paraguay street and the occasional pieces of broken ceramic tile set into the path that you come across, set into the street by an anonymous artist. I am told that she or he wanted to fill the gaps with colour rather than leaving them empty and unattractive. A lot of the old city is being restored and no doubt the pavements will be too at some point but until then it is important to be careful. 

Paraguay Street
Pavement tiles by the anonymous artist
Floor tiles in Carpe Diem salon de te, Pocitos
There are some good, small art museums in the city. I managed to visit both the Torres Garcia Museum at Sarandi 683 and the relatively new Pedro Figari Museum at Juan Carlos Gomez 1427. Both men were important to the development of modern art in Uruguay. Figari's style is best described as naive, with simple depictions of the countryside, people at work and at social events. He is perhaps best known for being the first artist of significance in this part of world to include black people in his work, showing their influence on aspects of Uruguayan culture, especially candombe - an African music form which is very popular here. At the time of my visit, the Figari museum featured several of his paintings, sketches and illustrations on the ground floor with a small but excellent exhibition of items from the National School of Arts and Crafts featuring works produced during his period of management from 1915-17.

Mas Pus Verso bookshop
Torres Garcia worked in Spain with Gaudi no less to produce the stained glass windows in Palma Cathedral and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. He also spent time in New York where he produced a number of expressionistic works depicting life in the city. These, and some of the wooden toys he designed, form the heart of the exhibition in the museum. It also has a good gift shop.  There is a beautiful book shop - Mas Puro Verso - in an art nouveau building next door to the museum. The star of the show here is the dramatic staircase at the rear of the shop and the huge stained glass window on the rear wall. There are some books in English as well as a range of CDs and a cafe on the upper level. I had a third museum on my list - the Jose Gurvich Museum. Unfortunately it was closed during my visit as it is relocating and will be open again later this year. Another reason to come back.

The majority of Uruguayans are descended from Spanish and Italian immigrants, but people came here from many other countries and communities during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of them arrived through the port which as in many cities can be a little bit edgy at night but which during the day attracts many visitors to the indoor mercado with its several meat focused restaurants and the surrounding streets which have filled up with bars, cafes, design and fashion shops alongside the more traditional corner stores and residential streets. The Mercado de los Artesanos at San Jose 1312  has a good selection of items made from wood, leather and wool including toys, ornaments and clothing.  El Tungue Le is a quirky little shop selling vinyl records, CDs, musical instruments and objects for the home. There is even a vintage box-style record player used for playing the vinyl on. More stylish than Shoreditch.

El Tungue Le
View down Perez Castellano looking towards the port.
The old city, known here as the Ciudad Vieja can be a little quiet after the shops close but there are several good places to eat and drink. I especially enjoyed Dueto at Bartolome Mitre 1386 and Jacinto at  Sarandi 349. Dueto is a cozy restaurant run by a young couple - Pablo the chef and Mercedes who does front of house. Very friendly service and high quality food made me visit here twice during my short stay. Like most Uruguayan restaurants meat features prominently on the menu but Pablo is very happy to modify the menu to accommodate vegetarians - hence my excellent mushroom risotto. Jacinto is larger and more contemporary in its presentation. Good soups, salads and "modern cuisine" feature on the menu. A big eggplant salad followed by affogato made with dulche de leche for me here. Very nice. 

Something to note - most Uruguayan restaurants list something called cubierto on the bill - a cover charge per person. It can range from 50 to 200 pesos depending on the restaurant and sometimes can be more in the evening than during the day. Its not a tip, but part of the bill so you must pay it. Convert it back to sterling, dollars or Euros and you'll see its really a very small amount and the overall cost will almost certainly be less than you would pay at home for a good quality meal. Also, if you are not staying at an hotel where breakfast is part of the deal you might struggle to find something that you would know as breakfast at home. Urbani in Plaza Zabala serves eggs as you want them as well as coffee and fruit juice. Again, the service is friendly and if you manage to get a seat by the window there's a nice view too. 

I stayed at the Casa Sarandi guesthouse, a great little place in the old city, one short block away from the main pedestrian shopping street and in walking distance of most of the major sites.  Located in an art deco apartment, each of the three rooms has an en suite bathroom and there's access to a kitchen too. Owners Karen and Sergio welcome visitors and provide lots of information including a printed sheet listing places to eat, drink and shop, places to visit and lots of useful practical information about the city and beyond. Karen is also the author of the excellent website guruguay. This is a great tool for visitors to a city that does not yet have a single volume guide in English. Even better, Karen will be putting out the Guru'GUAY Guide To Montevideo in December this year with a lot more information and detail, so look out for that.

Finally, returning to my opening remarks, one of the best things about this city is its long long waterfront and an evening stroll along it is a great way to end any day.  

Look out for posts coming soon on Montevideo's great art deco heritage and also an exploration of the city's surprising Jewish history. A few more pictures to enjoy until then...

Decorated doorway, Perez Castellano
Stairway, Museum of Romance
Stairway, decorative arts museum
Plaza Independencia

Friday, 9 October 2015

The de la Warr Pavilion - modernist seaside masterpiece



The de la Warr pavilion is surely the most iconic modernist building in Britain. Built in 1935 to the competition winning designs of Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, this steel, glass and cement beauty overlooks the English Channel at Bexhill-on-sea, a small Sussex seaside town.

The competition was the idea of the Herbrand Sackville, the 9th Earl of de la Warr, Mayor of the town and despite being an aristocrat, a committed socialist. He persuaded the town council to develop the seaside site as a place for social and cultural activity and the design competition was announced in the Architects' Journal of February 1934. The brief for the building included a performance hall to seat 1500 people, a 200 seat restaurant (also to be used for dancing), a reading room and a lounge. The budget was set at £50,000 but like many building projects it increased to £80,000. Overseen by RIBA, the competition attracted more than 230 entrants. 

The Earl took keen interest in the design and was clearly a fan of the modernist style saying "It is the intention of the promoters that the building should be simple in style and suitable for a holiday resort in the south of England. Character in design can be obtained by the use of large window spaces, terraces and canopies. No restriction as to style of architecture will be imposed but buildings must be simple, light in appearance and suitable for a holiday resort. Heavy stonework is not desirable. Modern steel-framed or ferro-cement construction may be adopted ". Clever chap that 9th Earl. This brief must have excited architects who worked in the modernist style, especially Mendelsohn and Chermayeff with their welded steel frame construction and extensive use of glass and cement.


The Earl may have been pleased with the outcome of the competition but not everyone was. Both architects were Jews and Mendelsohn had fled Nazi Germany in 1933, whilst Chermayeff, born in Grozny (then part of the Russian Empire, today in Chechnaya) had moved to the UK at a young age and become naturalised. Following the announcement of the winners, the Architects Journal printed the following letter from a group of British architects "The Royal Institute of British Architects, whose primary duty is presumably to protect the interest of British Architects, betrays them by encouraging professional activities in this country of those aliens who have found it advisable to flee from their own lands…" 

There was also concern about the spiralling costs of the building which was initially to be funded by the Council levying an extra 2d (pre decimal currency) on the rates (read Council Tax for today). Spiralling costs meant this would need to rise to 5d, causing serious indigestion on the part of the ratepayers association. The Council secured a loan from the Ministry of Health to cover the increase, the Ministry believing that Mendelsohn's proposals, which included a swimming pool, could contribute to the health of local people, reflecting social policy in other parts of the UK including the Peckham Experiment. An enquiry took place before the money could be approved and eventually due to legislative limits on rates increases, only £70,000 could be loaned. A further problem arose when it became known that the cost of the pool was not included in the original financial estimates. Another loan was applied for and would have been granted but was scuppered by the incensed and aforementioned ratepayers association and the pool was dropped.

Despite this and several other setbacks, construction began in January 1935 and on 12th December of the same year King George VI came to open it. The pavilion attracted world class performers including actress Sybil Thorndike, singer Paul Robeson and violinist Fritz Kreisler. But again there was controversy with a division of opinion over what the artistic direction of the facility should be - "high brow" or "low-brow"- and the relative costs of running an extensive programme. This culminated in a meeting of over 800 residents in March 1936 where significant support was displayed for sustaining a high quality programme but the local politicians were not keen and the council's subsidy was reduced.  A few years later, during the Second World War, this became academic when the building was requisitioned by the military, anxious that there might be an attempt at an invasion of the south coast.  

The pavilion suffered some minor bombing damage during the war but perhaps greater damage was done by the Council itself which took the building back after the war and made a number of inappropriate and damaging changes. Thankfully, it was listed in 1986, with Grade I status, preventing further damage and in 1989 the Pavilion Trust was established to protect and restore the building. £6 million of Lottery funding in 2002 made restoration possible and today the pavilion has an extensive programme of activity with some excellent exhibitions, concerts and theatre, fulfilling the role of a contemporary arts centre.



One of the de la Warr's most striking features is the glass encased spiral staircase on the south terrace with its anodised steel handrails and fabulous suspended steel and chrome lamp. The lamp runs the full length of the staircase and was modelled on a design Mendelsohn had produced for the German Metalworkers Union building in Berlin. The handrail spirals to a tight curl at ground floor level whilst the light flowing through the windows makes changing shapes and shadows on the stairs and the lamp's discs. The glass case is itself enclosed by two beautifully curved terraces that on a warm, sunny day can give the south coast of England the illusion of a Mediterranean scene, especially with the brilliant white cement of the rest of the building set off against the blue sky. Beautiful.

Despite having lost some of its original features and having gone through long periods of neglect, the de la Warr is today much loved and in good condition. I visited the pavilion yesterday for the first time in a few years and found it buzzing with visitors to the current exhibition, people enjoying the autumnal sunshine on the cafe's terraces and of course, architectural tourists like me enjoying this modernist masterpiece of the south coast. There is also a small shop on the ground floor where you can buy gifts, postcards and books including the excellent de la Warr Pavilion - the modernist masterpiece by Alastair Fairley which includes many photographs and drawings.

There is much to thank the former Mayor for - few towns of this size have a facility of this quality and scale - despite the financial challenges of running arts venues and it is fitting that the building was given his name.