Sunday 19 July 2015

Picture Post 46 - The White House, Modernism in North West London

Downage is a quiet, tree lined residential street in Hendon, North-West London, not dissimilar to many other streets in this part of the city. However, number 72, also known as The White House stands out from its neighbours as the only modernist structure in the street and one of the best examples of 1930's style moderne. Completed in 1935, it was designed by architect Charles Evelyn Simmons for Haymills Ltd, builders and developers active in North London during the 1930's and with a reputation for providing quality homes designed by interesting architects. 

The exterior appears to have been perfectly preserved and the house is protected through its Grade ll listed status achieved in 1997. A two storey building, it is constructed of rendered brick with a flat asphalt roof. Built to a square plan it has rounded corners on the south elevation with continuous windows on the ground and first floors. There are double entrance doors set back behind fluted mouldings to either side with a sign bearing the name of the house at the foot of a balcony above. Like many buildings of this style, the White House gives off a slightly nautical or seaside feel with the sun room resembling a ship's look out post. The stairwell is glazed giving passers-by a glimpse into the life of the occupants and topped by a motif inspired by the art deco "rule of three" inspired by decorative elements of Ancient Egyptian art.

According to the listing text some of the original internal features have been lost, including a fireplace in the drawing room, but others survive including taps inside the bathroom wall and a green inset soap holder. A shame we can't see them! The house has six bedrooms and a substantial garden at the rear. It is possible to see some pictures of the interior here

Simmons was a local man, born in Hampstead in 1879 and educated at University College School before being articled to architect Horace Field between 1899 and 1903 where he completed his professional training. He commenced practice in 1905 but was not elected as a Licentiate of RIBA until 1912 with Field as one of his three proposers. He then established a professional partnership with his former tutor until 1915 when he commenced work in the Ministry of Health Architects Department, resuming private practice after the First World War. In addition to designing residential properties, he was also responsible for two churches in Scotland.

Its surprising what you can find in a quiet London street.

You might also like Metroland Modernism - Stanmore's Valencia Road and the Kerry Avenue Conservation Area and More From Metroland - Amersham's High and Over and the Sun Houses

Friday 17 July 2015

Avishai Cohen's New York Division at the Barbican

Avishai Cohen and his New York Division played the Barbican last night. They took us on a musical journey that included stops at several of his albums - from the very first to his most recent, displaying influences from be-bop and classical music and ending with a series of songs in English, Hebrew and Spanish. 

Over the years I have been to many of his concerts and every time there is something new and different. He has given us jazz quartets, jazz with strings, experimented with songs in a variety of languages and now we have the New York Division which adds three more world class musicians to his most accomplished trio. For slightly more than two hours last night our Avishai was accompanied on stage by Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar,  Steve Davis on trombone and Diego Urcola on trumpet, the line up being completed by trio members Nitai Hershkovits on piano and Daniel Dor on drums.

Entering the stage in darkness to cheers and applause it was straight into the music with songs from the current album From Darkness, including Ballad for an Unborn and Amethyst (and I think Signature as well?), a good long workout of Shuffle from the Colors album of 2000 and an even earlier piece from his very first album - Bass Suite #2 from Adama, released in 1998. I especially enjoyed this reference back to his early solo days which he played to open the second set, accompanied only by messers Davis and Urcola in a short but engaging interplay between the three instruments. Throughout the evening, there were clear references to classical music as well as middle eastern and other influences and for me there are echoes of both early music and the streets of Jewish Spain before the expulsion in 1492.

The second set/ lengthy encore (for which thanks!) included a vocal version of the old Nat King Cole classic Nature Boy (revived in the 1970's by George Benson-  also a classic). Singing in English, it was an emotional reading of a mystical song and one which Cohen has yet to record. He teased the audience by saying he would - which was responded to with a cry of "do it". I hope he does.  This was followed by my favourite track from his Aurora album - Alon Basela, sang in Hebrew and inspired by his father. The title means an oak tree in a rock and the lyrics are about staying firm through adversity. I like the tense, urgent feel of the song and the way his voice becomes an additional instrument in the performing of it. I loved the physicality of his performance of this song, with much drumming of fingers on the bass, providing his own percussion. 

No Avishai Cohen concert is complete without at least one song in Spanish and or Ladino and we were treated to a salsa influenced piece with euphoric Latin influenced piano playing from Hershkovits and the sharpest trumpet playing from Diego Urcola. Urcola's playing was for me one of the highlights of the evening - I've already been on Amazon looking for his albums! Still in a Latin theme, we then had a solo from Cohen as he performed the Argentinian song, Alfionsina Y El Mar before the ensemble rejoined him for a lengthy and riotous reading of Gershon Beat from the At Home album, which I still think is one of his best. Each of the musicians were showcased in this final number including Cohen displaying little known percussion talents using drums ticks on his metal music stand to accompany drummer Daniel Dor. Dor stood out with a magnificent solo that left the audience cheering and him exhausted! 

British audiences love Avishai Cohen and received several standing ovations, calls from the auditorium for favourites to be played and murmurs of recognition of most of the numbers and he can play an audience in a small intimate like Ronnie Scotts or a large auditorium such as the Barbican to equal effect. He is currently working on fusing jazz and classical music more closely and will premiere this work in Sweden in September with his trio performing with the Malmo Symphony Orchestra. Let's hope he brings this show to London soon, oh and Avishai - don't forget about recording Nature Boy too!

Monday 13 July 2015

In the Unlikely Event - Judy Blume at London's Kings Place.

When I worked in libraries during the 1980's and 1990's, Judy Blume was the author of books for young adults, especially girls. A trail blazer, her books covered just about every subject a teenager might feel anxious about - love, sex, divorced parents, racism, loneliness, bullying and what was referred to in my day as "maturing". Judy's were the books young people read when they couldn't ask their parents or teacher about something and were too embarrassed to ask their friends. And not only were these books that could help, they were damn good stories too. She was also the inspiration for a whole generation of writers who now deal with these and other issues that are part of growing up.

I have clear memories of taking some of her books into local secondary schools as part of book week promotions and also as part of the long since (and foolishly) abandoned "wider reading" element of English GCSE that was so exciting in the 1980's. The wider reading scheme took themes of interest to and impact on young people such as bullying, friendships, family, etc. The students were encouraged to read books by different writers on these themes and several of Judy's books were used in this programme.

Last night, I had the unexpected pleasure of hearing Judy Blume speak about her new novel, In The Unlikely Event - her fourth books for adults, although as she pointed out, there is no reason why a teenager couldn't read this book too. Impossibly elegant and amazingly now aged 77 (which she doesn't look and which she told us, she doesn't feel), Judy entertained a large and enthusiastic audience at Kings Place, courtesy of Jewish Book Week which takes place each February but also arranges events throughout the year. Without giving away too much of the plot, she explained that the new book was inspired by real life events that took place in Elizabeth, New Jersey during the 1930's, where in the course of a year, three commercial planes crashed within the city's boundaries. She cleverly uses contemporary press coverage of the crashes and other non-related events to illustrate the story which revolves around the impact of the crashes on three different Elizabeth families.

She told us that the story only came back to her very recently when hearing about the 1950's more generally - a decade she had previously thought boring and now finds fascinating. Such great material for a writer and in her own home town. She admitted that her daughter asked her why she hadn't written about this sooner. Strangely, Philip Roth was from the same town and has also never written about these events, although she explained that he would have been away at college at the time. As with many of her books, In The Unlikely Event pays attention to the position of women which was very different in 1950's America with clear roles - we might even say rules - for the behaviour and expectations of men and women.

There were many questions from the audience. Inevitably there were questions about Forever, her most controversial book for young adults, first published in 1975 and which addressed the issue of teenage sex in a more direct way than had previously been seen. Teenagers, especially girls, borrowed this book from public libraries in their millions and at least in the local authority I worked for, we were only able to give it to young people aged over 13, although we knew that many younger girls borrowed it on an older sibling's library card! When asked what had driven her to write this book, she explained that previously any book that included under-age sex or sex outside of marriage ended with a terrible punishment for the girl - death in childbirth, driven out by her family, forced to have the baby adopted or in at least one case being forced into a disastrous marriage. Her daughter, a very committed reader asked her to write a book that included love and sex but where no-one dies! Forever was the result.

Other questions included, the almost inevitable request to write a book about the lead character of Are You There God? Its Me, Margaret showing the teenage girl at 50 and dealing with menopause! She told us this will never happen as she has frozen Margaret at that age and that after each book she moves on, having completed the story and looks for new subjects and characters. One of the younger audience members asked her a very mature question - how does she make sure that when writing for young people, she doesn't patronise them. A tough question but with a great answer. She avoids patronising her readers by living the part of the character, being them, talking about them to her family at dinner and being the character rather than the writer. 

The session lasted for ninety minutes and about half of that was taken up with questions. She was extremely comfortable with her audience as were they with her and she happily shared several personal stories with us. I liked her relaxed style as she took a range of questions, all of which she treated seriously and to which she gave considered answers. It was easy to feel that you knew here and also to understand the impact she has had on the lives of million s of young people. Returning to work today and telling colleagues about the event, several of them recalled having read her books as teenagers - and not just Forever - Blubber, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself and Fudge also got mentioned. And that's another thing - she always has great titles for her books.

What a treat of an evening, and now for another treat as I settle down with the new book. Thanks Judy Blume!

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Milano 2015 - a day at the Expo

I recently visited Milan for the first time and whilst there had the chance to spend a day at Expo Milano 2015, which has chosen Feeding the planet, energy for life as its theme. 145 countries are represented at the Expo, many with their own stand alone pavilion whilst others have grouped together in regional clusters or under particular themes - including coffee and chocolate - each of which have several countries exhibiting on the same theme but showing different approaches to production. What a treat!

Waiting to get into Ecuador's pavilion
The pavilions are set out in a temporary boulevard, 1.5 kilometres long and the whole site covers 1.1 million square metres of exhibition space. 20 million visitors are expected before the Expo ends and there were many thousands of visitors on the day I attended. The gates open at 10 am and I made a point of arriving very early in order not to have to wait. This was a good decision as there were already lengthy queues at the ticket desks half an hour before opening - I bought my ticket in advance!

One of my main reasons to visit was to enjoy the architecture of the pavilions. I was not disappointed. There is an extremely eclectic mix of styles and approaches ranging from the austere modernity of the Sudanese pavilion, to the inventiveness of the Polish structure, and lets be honest, the crassness of some that shall remain nameless!!! It is hard to pick out favourites to feature so what follows are just a few of my the highlights. 

Entering the Expo site one of the very first pavilions visitors come to is that of Brazil. A long queue had already developed here within half an hour of the gates opening. Designed by Arthur Casas and Marko Brajovic, the structure included a netting walkway suspended above the floor of the pavilion, from where visitors can look down at the plants growing below. The accompanying exhibition illustrates Brazil's approach to research in models of consumption and production, combining technology, culture and society. 

Brazil's pavilion
A little further along the boulevard, the Israeli pavilion explored similar themes. The presentation covered Israel's significant contribution to developing sustainable methods of agriculture, particularly in relation to efficient use of scarce water resources which have helped turn many of its dessert areas green. These methods have been shared with other countries as have developments in desalination. The theme of the Israeli pavilion Fields of tomorrow is further demonstrated by the exterior of the building which features a green wall, divided into rectangles and growing different varieties of grasses and crops. The pavilion is the work of accomplished Israeli architect David Knafo who has built a reputation in the field of sustainable architecture having won the Agro Housing competition in Wuhan, China.

Israel's pavilion
I enjoyed the fun approach of Brazil's pavilion and the inventiveness of Israel's, but I have to admit that the Polish pavilion combined both of these elements with a really well thought out response to the theme of the Expo with its apple crate wooden structure, magnificent secret garden, contextual film,  shop and restaurant both of which showcased Polish cuisine and food production.

The pavilion is entered through a narrow alley leading to a staircase which in turn leads visitors to the secret garden with its winding path between the flowers and herbs, reflective walls and gentle music. The peaceful ambience of this very hidden space is a welcome respite from the huge crowds on the boulevard and I enjoyed the very delicate and interesting version version of  Theme from a summer place that was being played as I strolled through. The pavilion was designed by Piotr Musialowski of the 2PM architectural firm. I loved the simplicity of the overall design, the surprise of the garden and yes, even the colours of goods shelved in the shop, Polish pickles, preserves and alcohol. Well done Poland.

The entrance to the Polish pavilion
Poland's secret garden
I had to visit the British pavilion twice before I could get in. On my first attempt the queue for entry was discouragingly long and so I retreated to the coffee cluster - more of which very soon. I am very happy that I returned and managed to get inside on the second attempt. Accessed by a maze, the pavilion is visually stunning - a metal construction that from the distance resembles a huge swarm of bees and which was inspired by the unique role of hives in our ecosystem. The design, which is the work of Wolfgang Buttress combines excellent designs with strong environmental credentials. The accompanying explanations include references to the UK as a hive of industry and standing underneath the pavilion and looking up into the mesh of the "hive" the movement of visitors at the upper level really does resemble bees at work. 

The British pavilion was so popular that stewards were employed to manage the flow of traffic through the heart of the hive, extolling us to keep moving so that more people could enter. As with many of the pavilions, efforts were made to display national cuisine. The Pimms may have been a cliche but the availability of chips was a very nice touch! 

Britain's hive of industry
Which leads me back to coffee. In addition to the stand alone national pavilions,there are also a number of "clusters" based on particular themes. Friends and regular readers will know that my shoes were magnetised to this group of small pavilions which included contributions from Burundi, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Kenya, Rwanda, Timor-Leste, Uganda and Yemen. I managed to get a look in just about all of them but lingered in the Ethiopian pavilion where a coffee ceremony was taking place and where it was possible to get a free sip of richly flavoured East African coffee. I spent even more time in the Yemen pavilion where a variety of pieces of "jewellery" were on sale as well as much more interestingly, different types of ground coffee. The aroma of the different blends not only drew me to the pavilion but also resulted in my purchase of half a kilo of Mocha. Happy to pay 15 Euros for my purchase, the salesman attempted to engage me in some good old fashioned middle eastern bartering, assuring me that I wanted to buy three bags for 40 Euros. A kind offer, but I was on Easy Jet with only hand luggage so it was a non-starter. And just so you know I would never fly with them again. Late leaving London and late leaving Milan. No explanations and no apologies. And not even that cheap. There is nothing easy about Easy Jet. The Mocha is delicious in case you are interested and there is also a Lavazza stall in the coffee cluster so it was only polite to enjoy a cup there and a couple of Italian pastries.

Coffee salesmen in Yemen's pavilion
The architecture may have been the main attraction for me but I also enjoyed the surprise and delight of encountering the unexpected. I have already mentioned Poland's secret garden, but add to this some delightful Vietnamese musicians (and the tiny characters on display in the pool outside the Vietnamese pavilion), the floating discs suspended from the ceiling of Brunei's building and the Slovenian swing dancers (and the people in animal costumes who tried to join in, causing some consternation to the dance group). I loved the spectacle of colour that is the exterior of Ecuador's entry, the strange racquet like discs outside the Korean pavilion and the stylish lettering and decorative features of Angola's. I enjoyed the graceful curve of the Uruguayan pavilion and was struck by the huge reflective canopy of Russia's - Big Brother may still be watching us. Oh, and I also liked the Malaysian curry, Israeli ice-cream, Belgian chips, Ethiopian coffee and Italian pastry that helped sustain me throughout the day. 

The Expo runs until October 31st. Is best to buy tickets online in advance to avoid long queues. I managed to combine my visit with two extra days in the city which holds many delights. 

You might also like A Few Days In Milan.

Russia's reflective canopy
Uruguay's pavilion
Korean racquets
Vietnamese figures
Floating discs from Brunei
Stylish lettering from Angola

Friday 3 July 2015

Picture Post 45 - A drawing by Josef Budko

I bought this drawing of a young Maghrebi Jew in one of my favourite Jerusalem shops - Trionfo in Dorot Rishonim that runs off the very busy Ben Yehuda pedestrian street. I have found many little treasures there over the years including books, postcards and posters, many of them related to the Bezalel School of Art and its golden era in the first few decades of the twentieth century. This simple pencil drawing on tissue paper is my latest acquisition, its delicate pencil lines capturing beautifully the expression of a child in contemplation.

Budko was born in Plonsk, Poland in 1888 and studied at the Vilnius School of Art (now in Lithuania), before moving on to Berlin in 1909. In the following year he began to study engraving at the educational wing of the Berlin Arts and Crafts Museum under the direction of another great artist - Hermann Struck. In the 1920's he began to shift his focus from crafts to painting. He emigrated to Eretz Israel in 1934 and spent his first few months at Kibbutz Ein Harod where he produced a number of prints focusing on the theme of Halutzim (the pioneers). There is a significant museum at Ein Harod which holds some of his work.

Moving on to Jerusalem he found the time to experiment with colour to capture the strong light and mood of the landscapes surrounding the city as well as working as the director of the Bezalel School for Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem. He held this post until his death in 1940. Budko also produced a significant portfolio of graphic material including woodcuts, etchings and drypoint works and illustrated the work of several stellar writers. Examples of this include Heinrich Heine's Psalms of 1919, Bialik's Babylonian Talmud (1924) and works of Sholem Asch, David Frischmann and Sholem Aleichem. He often integrated Jewish symbolism into his work and made use of Hebrew letters in his illustrations,  recalling his early life Eastern Europe, drawing on his experiences of that world to depict figures from the shtetl.  

Josef Budko does not have the profile that some of his Bezalel colleagues and contemporaries enjoy today but it is possible to see some of his work in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Jewish Museum in Berlin is home to one of my favourite works of his - Two Women.