Sunday 27 July 2014

Picture Post 32 - Lawn Road Flats, Belsize Park - modernist masterpiece, artists and spies!

During the 1930's Hampstead was home to artists of all disciplines including many architects committed to the modernist agenda. As well as homegrown talent, several architects were refugees from Germany, Austria and the former Czechoslovakia as increasing restrictions were placed on Jews in particular, and more generally on those who opposed Germany's Nazi regime. 

I have already written about Erno Goldfinger's modernist home at Willow Road whilst nearby Belsize Park is home to the modernist masterpiece known as Isokon Flats. Completed in 1934, the flats were designed by Canadian born and British based architect Wells Coates. The block was commissioned by Jack and Molly Pritchard - he an entrepreneur, her a bacteriologist and psychiatrist and both of them committed modernists. The Pritchards established their own company, Isokon, which aimed to produce homes, furniture and fittings in units designed by Coates who was fond of isometric drawings, hence the name of the company, taken from the term Isometric Unit Construction.

Isokon Flats seen from Lawn Road
Wells designed a block of 34 furnished flats over four floors with two rooftop penthouses. The flats were built from reinforced concrete with a cement wash render. The main features include a five storey tower with stairwell access to each floor, lit by a narrow but extremely elegant vertical window reminding me of some of Tel Aviv's best modernist buildings. However, the highlights for me are the stunning cantilevered balconies facing Lawn Road. The glowing white exterior stops unsuspecting passers-by in their tracks, half way down a very English residential street in this part of Hampstead. Adjacent to the stair tower at ground floor level, there are garages presented at right angles to the main footprint of the flats. 

Recently, an exhibition space has been opened at ground floor level. The Isokon Gallery has an exhibition relating to the history and philosophy of the building as well as some items of furniture from the 1930's and information on some of famous (and infamous)  residents. You can buy a map showing the location of other modernist buildings in the area for just one pound (bargain) as well as browse a great selection of books on modernist architecture and some tempting merchandise.

The original interiors were designed to be minimalist with space saving furniture and fittings, fitted kitchens, bathroom, dressing room and bedroom. Echoing Soviet practice in experiments in communal living (for example the Narkomfin building), there was a communal kitchen, later converted into the Isobar restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant closed in 1969 and was converted into flats. Originally private, the building was acquired by Camden Council in 1972 before coming under the ownership of the Notting Hill Housing Trust. It was granted Grade 1 listed status in 1974 which is the highest listing possible, but was neglected over several years and began to deteriorate. A sympathetic restoration in 2003 restored it to some of its former glory and it now provides accommodation for key workers.

Not only architecturally outstanding, the flats have been home to some very famous people. Writers Agatha Christie and Nicholas Monserrat lived here in the 1930's and 1940's as did modernist icons Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and many other less well known artists, writers and architects. The flats achieved a notoriety in later years when it became known that at least a dozen residents (and probably more) had been involved in spying for the Soviet Union, including Melita Norwood who worked for the Soviets undetected for 39 years - longer than any other known spy in the UK! If walls could talk…

You might also like 2 Willow Road, Goldfinger in Hampstead and Serbian Modernism, A Forgotten Heritage

You can also visit my Facebook site - Art Deco and Modernism around the world
Point of view - Isokon Flats
Detail, balconies Isokon Flats
Main tower, Isokon Flats

Detail - stairs and balconies, Isokon Flats
The Isokon Gallery

Monday 21 July 2014

Nahum Gutman and a newspaper for children

One of my favourite Jerusalem experiences is browsing in a tiny book shop called Trionfo in Dorot Rishonim Street. Located just off the busy pedestrianised Ben Yehuda Street, Dorot Rishonim is also home to a great new hotel - the Arthur, a good new kosher humous restaurant - Abu YoYo and a small bar called Birman that has either live music or dancing every night. I discovered Birman on my most recent visit when I heard music floating up from the street to my room in the Arthur before going along to enjoy a local quartet play some very cool versions of jazz standards the next night before watching some great swing dancers the night after. All for free!

The music (and the humous) were both great but back to Trionfo. Thanks to owner Abraham Madeisker, I have become the proud possessor of works by various Bezalel artists including Zev Raban's illustrated books and playing cards and books illustrated by another early giant of the Israeli art scene - E. M. Lilien. This time was no exception and I came away with two copies of the children's supplement from the former Davar newspaper, Davar l'yeledim (דבר לילדים) - or Davar for children.

Enormously popular with Israeli children at the time, it was filled with stories, quizzes, crosswords and articles on many different subjects. The copies I purchased include pieces on the Gilboa region, summer in the desert and a regular item called "letter from the camps" with news about the activities of children living in Ma'abarot refugee camps set up to absorb Jews forced out of North Africa and the Arab Middle East in the 1950's. In some parts the text is dense and the technology at the time was very different to that available for modern magazine production but the illustrations are charming and it is easy to see why this publication would have engaged so many children.

Davar was the official newspaper of the Histadrut or Labour federation. Founded in 1925 by Berl Katznelson, it was the most important newspaper of the labour movement.  Katznelson wanted Davar (which means "word") to be informative and educational and to "quench the worker's thirst for knowledge and thought". Despite Katznelson's initial hopes that the newspaper would be free of control by any political party, it became the organ of Mapai, the ruling party throughout the 1940's, 50's and 60's whilst two of its editors rose to the very pinnacle of politics, Moshe Sharrett and Zalman Shazar eventually becoming Prime Minister and President respectively.  Despite its early popularity, it struggled from the 1970s onwards, amalgamating with a other newspaper in 1971, changing its name to Davar Rishon in 1995 and finally closing in 1996.

Most of the illustrations in Davar l'yeledim were the work of famed Israeli artist Nahum Gutman. Born in 1898 in Teleneshty, Bessarabia (in today's Moldova), his family moved to Odessa in 1903 before making aliya to Eretz Israel in 1905. Gutman's family were amongst the first residents of Tel Aviv having initially lived in the Neve Shalom neighbourhood. He studied art at the Bezalel and in the 1920's spent some time working and exhibiting in Paris and Berlin. Returning to Eretz Israel in 1931, his work was inspired by the country's landscapes and people and included mosaics, stage sets and sculpture as well as painting and book illustration. Many of his works can be seen at Beit Gutman in Tel Aviv's Neveh Tzedek which acts as a museum to his life and work.

Gutman had an affinity with young people, writing and illustrating several children's books, but it was his work for Davar l'yeledim that endeared him to more than one generation of Israeli children. In a Beit Gutman publication, his son, Hemi remembers the weekly delivery of what was referred to as "the stuff" to their home - an envelope containing manuscripts for the next edition of the newspaper and for which the artist had three days to prepare the illustrations for stories and poems. He remembers feeling privileged that he knew what happened in each serial an entire week before everyone else! He also remembers that his father would "…address each child in a genuine, friendly way, whether it was on the street, on the bus, or in a crowd of a hundred kids who regarded him as a walking wonder". He also remembers feeling jealous of this affection saying that "during those encounters, all the empathy, the jokes and the witticisms that had always been mine alone were generously and profusely handed out to all the children…"

In today's technological age where the opportunities for interaction are endless but much less personal, Gutman's approach and Davar l'yeledim may seem quaint but together they instilled many children with a love of reading, many of whom retain fond memories of the weekly episode of their favourite serials. 

Friday 11 July 2014

Architectural treasure in Haifa's Hadar HaCarmel

Tel Aviv is known for its wonderful Bauhaus architecture which won it World Heritage site status in 2003. It is also becoming more well known for its eclectic style buildings from the preceding period. Haifa, Israel's third city can also boast architectural treasure in both styles, but outside of the city, very few people realise this.

I recently spent two full days in the Hadar Hacarmel district, strolling (and sweating in the extreme humidity!) with my camera and enjoying Haifa's much undervalued built heritage. The Hadar neighbourhood was established in the 1920's as the city's first planned Jewish area. Architect Richard Kaufmann planned the district as a garden city based on Tel Aviv. It is far from being a garden city today but there are still some patches of green and many fine buildings, so here, in no particular order, are a few of my favourites from the Haifa's Hadar.

Former Orah Cinema, Herzl Street
Herzl Street is one of the main thoroughfares on the Hadar. It is also home to the former Orah Cinema, built from 1935-1937 and designed by Oskar Kaufmann who also designed the original Habima, the national theatre in Tel Aviv. Long abandoned as a cinema it had 1092 seats and was one of several elegant and much loved picture houses in this part of the city. The foyer was unusually located beneath the balcony whilst there was also a small bar the walls of which were covered in multi-coloured tiles. The cinema suffered fire damage in 1946 and underwent part reconstruction by architect Eugen Stolzer, a former partner of Kaufmann. Stolzer added a new marquee running the length of the building and whilst the original was almost certainly not painted the pink we see today, there are still some nice features that give passers-by a glimpse of its former glory. The ground floor now houses shops whilst the remainder of the building appears to be vacant. 

The Central Synagogue stands a little further along Herzl Street. Building work commenced in 1926 and although the dedication was made in 1927, construction was not completed until 1935. The work was completed in phases due to a lack of finance and was dependant on levies from local residents. A stellar cast of architects are associated with this building. The original plans were drawn up by Alexander Baerwald whilst the later stages were the work of Al Mansfeld and Munio Weintraub (Gitai).  The facade of the synagogue includes an image of Elijah the prophet, signs of the twelve tribes of Israel and a menorah. The land was donated by the PICA company, a charitable organisation established by  Baron Maurice de Hirsch in 1891 with the intention of supporting the development of Jewish communities in Eretz Israel and the Americas as well as a small community in Turkey. 
The Great Synagogue, Herzl Street 
The Technion building (originally known as the Technikum) is one of the city's iconic buildings. Designed by our friend Alexander Baerwald at the request of the Ezra organisation, it was the first university in the country where it was intended to teach technology through the medium of German. What became known as the language war ensued with supporters of German and Hebrew competing with each other - Hebrew finally winning out as the language of instruction. Einstein was one of the supporters of the project and when visiting Haifa in 1923, he planted a palm tree in front of the Technion. The tree is still there today. Einstein has an unusual link with Baerwald - they once played together in a string quartet.

The cornerstone was laid in 1912 and the building served not only as an educational establishment, being used by the German army in 1917-18 and later as a hospital for the Turkish army. Studies were held in the building until 1924 when the Technion moved to its Neve Sha'anan campus and since 1985 it has served as the National Science, Technology and Space Museum. The building is imposing with an elongated facade, featuring local, European and wider Middle Eastern styles. The main entrance with its huge archway, decorative Magen David and clean brick construction is especially impressive, especially against the clear blue sky of a Haifa summer's day and the deep green of the adjacent trees.

The new Technion is one of the most important scientific and technological academic institutions in the world, having produced a number of Nobel Prize winners, originated a new anti-Parkinson's disease drug and produced a web programming language installed on 80% of web servers worldwide.

The original Technion, now the National Science, Technology and Space Museum
Nordau Street, just across the road from the Technion was once a busy shopping street and a magnet for Haifa's middle classes. Citizens were drawn by its many cafes including the Nordau, Ritz, Sternheim and Jordan as well as the high quality shops selling jewellery and fabrics and travel agents. It was also home to the legendary Maskit store established by Ruth Dayan, wife of Moshe. Maskit sold the traditional crafts of Israel's many ethnic groups, as well as ready to wear clothing, from the 1950's until closure in 1994. 

Nordau is today a shadow of its former self, badly affected by the opening of out of town malls in the 1990's, the flight of middle class residents to the Carmel quarter and pedestrianisation which was not popular with local businesses. An article in Haaretz in 2013 gave some grounds for hope, identifying a campaign to bring life back to Nordau Street, but resources are scarce, the challenge is great and progress slow. Strolling along its length, it is best to look up to be able to appreciate how grand this street  once was. There are a significant amount of Bauhaus buildings, with balconies, glazed stairwells and the occasion curve, a style so valued in Tel Aviv but unacknowledged here. I hope the movement to rescue Nordau is successful as so much is in danger of being lost.

Bauhaus on Nordau Street
Bauhaus on Nordau Street
Glass stairwell on Nordau Street
A little further up the Hadar on Arlozoroff Street there is an example of what can be achieved with Haifa's built heritage when benefactors can be found. The Herman Struck Museum, the latest branch of Haifa's excellent collection of city museums opened last year in the artist's former home. The museum displays a selection of Struck's works - primarily etchings depicting his beloved Haifa and Eretz Israel, whilst the building itself is a jewel. Yet another work of Baerwald, the three storey house was built between 1924 and 1926, combining European and Middle Eastern styles with arched windows, painted floors and stone exterior. Renovated and restored in 2013, the museum integrates Struck's furniture, books and other personal items into the exhibition. The restoration was funded by benefactors and members of the Struck family and must now be one of Haifa's star attractions. Struck would have approved. A member of the HaMizrahi movement, he served on the Hadar committee and welcomed many artists, writers and other visitors to his home.

Herman Struck Museum on Arlozoroff Street
Eliyahu and Sarah Mizrahi House on Jerusalem Street
Haifa has a a great collection of buildings in the Bauhaus, Eclectic and other styles. The condition of much of it is heartbreaking but there is hope. There are some signs of revival in the port area and like Struck's former home some buildings appear to be being rescued. The Eliyahu and Sarah Mizrahi house in Jerusalem Street is currently being restored. One of the first houses in the Hadar in 1922, it was built in the eclectic style. As well as being home to the Mizrahis (Eliyahu was an agriculturalist, teacher and builder), artist Tzvi Meirowitz and Israel prize winning writer Judith Hendel also lived there. The opening of a new boutique hotel - The Bay Club on Hassan Shukri in an adapted Turkish period building is another sign of renewal for the Hadar. I stayed there during my trip, enjoyed my stay and felt much more comfortable than in some of the more expensive but less personal hotels on the Carmel.

In addition to this, the City Museum will be launching a series of guided walks focusing on Haifa's built heritage. I am also told that there are some very early plans for a new book about Haifa's Bauhaus and modernist architecture later this year - something I am very much looking forward to. Perhaps there is hope yet. In the meantime forgive my indulgence in including some more pictures!

Wonderful scooped building at the junction of Lev Shabtai and Herzl streets
Unusual combination of styles in Jerusalem Street
Renovated Bauhaus building on Arlozoroff Street

Bauhaus apartment building on Arlozoroff Street

The Clock House office building, built 1934-36. Architect - Gideon Kaminka.

You might also like A postcard from Haifa and Change in Haifa

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Picture Post 31 - former Alhambra Cinema, Jerusalem Boulevard, Tel-Aviv-Yafo

Sderot (Boulevard) Jerusalem is the main road running through Jaffa (Yafo) in Tel-Aviv. The boulevard has seen better days but one outstanding building gives passers-by some idea of its former glory. The former Alhambra Cinema stands in its restored art deco glory, white from head to foot and featuring a fin, stepped towers and the legend "Alhambra" in both English and Hebrew giving a much needed lift to this busy thoroughfare. Other deco features include the side entrances having representations of film strip as ladders on the doors and several examples of the "rule of three". 

The cinema was designed by Lebanese architect Elias Al-Mor and built by Arab entrepreneur Faik Shukri Cna'aan. It opened in 1937 with 1,100 seats and was one of a number of cinemas on the boulevard that included the Nabil, the Apollo and the Rashid. Its strong deco features gave it an exciting touch of modernity that helped to attract audiences whilst in addition to screenings, the Alhambra became a focus for Arab cultural activity in the 1930's and performers such as Umm Kulthum and Farid Al-Atrash appeared there. During the 1930's the boulevard was extremely grand and as well as the cinemas, there were religious and government buildings, residential properties and of course, many coffee houses. These ranged from the sumptuous Bristol Abu Shakush coffee house which served the affluent residents to El Mau'wani's frequented by workers on their way to the orange groves in the early hours of the morning. 

The Alhambra continued as a cinema until 1963 when it was converted to a theatre and later came to be used as a bank. It was acquired by the Church of Scientology in 2010 and after two years of renovation it reopened as a major Middle East centre for the church. Architect Eyal Ziv and interior designer Yair Matalon were commissioned to restore the building's exterior and to make changes to the interior that would accommodate the needs of the scientologists. Ziv has a good track record in Jaffa having worked with Tel-Aviv's city government to restore the Clock Tower square. He also has his office in Jaffa's flea market which is the heart of this part of the city.

Whilst the Alhambra may no longer be showing films or bringing entertainment to Jaffa's residents it perhaps brings some hope that the boulevard may begin to return to something like its former glory.  The revitalisation of the nearby Fleamarket which will have a boutique hotel within in the next few months - also in a restored building - could bode well for the rest of Jaffa. There are still several beautiful buildings along its length although many of them are in poor condition, it would be good to see more of them restored and life to come back to this part of the city.