Wednesday 25 March 2015

Picture post 40 - iconic art nouveau in Vienna

Vienna boasts many architectural treasures. The city is especially well known for its art nouveau buildings, also reffered to as the jugendstil or secessionist style. One of my favourites of this genre is the Engel Apotheke (Angel Pharmacy) at Bognerstrasse 9 in the city centre. The building itself is unremarkable, but the facade is decorated in stunning art nouveau style, featuring two glass mosaic angels that give the pharmacy its name.

The angels, dressed in vibrant purple and gold dresses, stand on stone pedestals raising healing potions with the snake of aesclepius, the ancient Greek god of medicine wound around their arms,  signifying the purpose of the store. The golden theme is repeated in the ringlets of both figures and in the sunflower freeze embedded in the wall above the large upper level windows. These windows are also decorated with a leaf freeze and wrought iron bars.  

Built between 1901 and 1902, the building, including its facade, was designed by Oskar Laske, a pupil of the great Otto Wagner. His decorative portal which spreads over the two lower levels of the pharmacy was intended to attract customers. It almost certainly did in 1901 when it would have been the height of modernity at a time when Klimt, Wagner, Hoffman and many others were at work in the city. Today it attracts art and architectural enthusiasts and historians, tourists and people needing prescriptions! 

Laske was involved in designing at least one other building of note in this style - the Nachtlicht, a cabaret where actors, dancers and musicians rubbed shoulders with the likes of architect and designer Adolf Loos and writers Karl Kraus and Peter Altenberg. I haven't been able to locate any pictures of Laske's work there and the club ran for only one year from 1906-7 before closing, upstaged by the legendary Cabaret Fledermaus. He went on to concentrate on painting rather than architecture, unsurprising given the beauty of his work at the Engel Apotheke. He worked primarily in water colours, recording his travels in Europe and North Africa, as well as being a book illustrator and graphic artist. Born in Czernowitz in 1874, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today part of the Ukraine, he served in the First World War and died in Vienna in 1951.

If you are visiting Vienna and go to view this lovely facade, I also recommend a visit to the shop next door - Zum Schwarzen Kameel,  (The Black Camel) an elegant patisserie selling delicious Viennese sweets, cakes and biscuits. Believe me, I know about these things. There has been a restaurant and shop there since the seventeenth century but the current building dates from 1901 and also has some art nouveau features.

Sunday 15 March 2015

Elizabeth Is Missing - a story of memory and loss

This is a book about memory and loss. Emma Healey's first novel tells two stories, that of Maud, an elderly woman who believes her friend Elizabeth is missing and can't get anyone to believe her and also that of Maud's sister, Suki who disappeared years earlier. It examines the meaning of memory and of loss as Maud is engulfed by dementia.

It is the second book I have read in the last year that examines this most cruel of diseases and the impact it has on the lives of sufferers and those around them. I re-read Linda Grant's Remind me Who I Am Again last year as a way of finding out more about dementia when it suddenly affected my own circle. It tells the story of her elegant and very proper mother, her struggles with the disease and how the lives of her friends and relatives were affected as they struggle to cope, to get help or in the case of some, fall away and break contact. I recognised many scenes in Grant's book from my own experience, thinking several times that I wished I had noticed the things she describes when they happened instead of realising their significance now.

Elizabeth Is Missing examines this subject from a  different angle, that of the sufferer. Maud is the narrator of this story and describes in frightening detail the terror of not being able to remember, of being overwhelmed by the noise, colours and movement in the street, of writing hundreds of little notes to "remember" things and then struggling to understand what they mean later on. She also lets the reader in on how it feels when the world seems to be at odds with you - asking you strange questions, denying your dignity and being impatient with you to the point of anger. There is one particular scene that particularly struck me. Catching the bus, Maud can't work out what she needs to do before she can sit down and the driver and the other passengers seethe with impatience before someone finally shouts out to let her on "…can't you see she's old…" Impatience and patronisation feature a lot in this book - in shops, from the doctor even from the police at one point - the causal impatience and patronisation applied to people who are 

Maud is a collector. As a young woman she collected small items that had once belonged to her sister - a comb, bits of jewellery, clothes, even a broken finger nail as a way of preserving Suki's memory following her disappearance. In the same way, as dementia strips away more and more of her memory she uses notes to herself to try to preserve what she can as well as collecting flotsam from the street or the garden, often confusing it with items she had collected as a girl.

As well as memory, dementia often destroys language and throughout the story, Maud begins to lose words from her lexicon. She loves toast and early on in the book refers to the toaster. A little way in this becomes the thing that makes the bread brown. Cigarettes become things that you light and carrier bags become orange balls. There are also moments of near comedy, not least when she tries to place an advert in the local newspaper's missing column where the woman dealing with her thinks she is referring to a cat rather than her friend Elizabeth!

The dual storyline works well and holds the reader to the very end as we worry about what will happen to Maud, wonder where Elizabeth could be and fear what may have befallen her sister. The search for the two women makes this a very unusual detective novel, episodic, well observed and rich in detail. Its also a damn good story as evidenced by its winning of the Costa Book Award in 2014. We need more stories about people like Maud and we need more books from Emma Healey. Ms. Healey has a qualification in bookbinding, which is the art of putting a book together. She does that beautifully in binding two stories together in Elizabeth Is Missing.  Recommended.

(I found out about this book by following the recommendations of the wonderful Book Corner bookshop in Saltburn-by-the-sea. You can see what is being recommended by following the Book Corner's Facebook site).

Friday 6 March 2015

Picture post 39 : Hammer House, secret art deco in Soho

Hammer Films is one of the most well known and best loved British film studios of all time. Founded in 1934, Hammer churned out niche horror movies throughout the 1950's and 1960's with the Frankenstein and Dracula series, and the 1959 classic, The Mummy, thrilling audiences of all ages. The studio was famously associated with British actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing who made chills run down the spine of many a cinema goer. As well as horror films, Hammer also produced a number of science fiction and psychological thriller movies with some great titles including Maniac, Paranoiac, Nightmare, Hysteria and Fanatic. You couldn't say you didn't know what you were getting with titles like those! The Hammer brand still exists and from time to time releases films including in 2012 a version of The Woman In Black featuring Daniel Radcliffe, best known as the screen face of Harry Potter.

Hammer House at 113-117 Wardour Street in London's Soho was once the home of the film company. Hammer's original distributor, Exclusive purchased the lease on this building in July 1937, but did not  rename it Hammer House until 1949. It remained the company's headquarters until the 1980's when the their gothic movies fell out of fashion and unable to afford the rent on their part of the building, withdrew to cheaper premises. Today the building is home Tony and Guy hairdressers and a wine store on the ground floor with a range of consulting and media companies take up office space on the upper levels.

Despite the many changes over the last decade or so, Soho is still my favourite part of London largely because of its many secret treasures and hidden gems. The outer door of Hammer House hides one of the street's prettiest features - a wonderful art deco lobby complete with a beautiful peacock feather designed stained glass inner door, patterned floor tiles, elegant staircase with torch style lighting and original lifts. I have twice managed to see inside the lobby when the door has been left open and last summer I was bold enough to ask the concierge if I could take photographs. To my surprise and delight not only did he say yes, he suggested I look inside the lifts and admire the staircase too. The light was not great and some of the pictures didn't come out well, but the best ones are featured on this post. I have been unable to find out who designed the interior or who the building's architect was so if anyone does know, please leave comments. It must at least predate 1937, the year Hammer took up residence. Although losing much of its bohemian flavour and despite the influx of the chain stores and cafes, its good to know that some of its glorious past survives and is cared for.