Wednesday 29 October 2014

Rue Campagne-Premiere and two Parisian beauties

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

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

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

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

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Saturday 25 October 2014

Beit Bialik - a poet's house in Tel Aviv

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday 18 October 2014

Soul to Soul with Carmen Lundy at Pizza Express

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 10 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metal smoking table, Villa Alto.

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

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

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

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

Former Cinema Rex, Lasipalasti.

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