Tuesday 23 February 2016

Dutch Modernism 4 - Fabriek Van Nelle a World Heritage site

During my recent visit to Rotterdam, I was thrilled to be able to visit the Van Nelle factory on the outskirts of the city. The former factory which now houses creative businesses and is used as an events venue was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.  Built between 1925 and 1931, it is probably the modernist masterpiece of iconic Dutch architects, Johannes Brinkman and Leendert Van de Vlugt. You don't have to take my word for this, but perhaps Le Corbusier's 1932 description of it as  "the most beautiful spectacle of the modern age" might convince you! 

The company was founded in 1782 when Johannes and Hendrika van Nelle opened a store in Rotterdam selling coffee, tea and tobacco. In the 19th century the business developed into a factory operation, processing materials imported from the family's plantations in the Java which was then a Dutch colony. By the 1920's the company had outgrown its premises and co-owner Kees van de Leeuw commissioned Brinkman and van der Vlugt to build a new factory. The location for the new building was just outside the centre of the city but with easy access to roads, railways and canals. Visitors from Amsterdam arriving in Rotterdam by train get a good view of the factory, demonstrating its closeness to the railway line.

The factory is supported on a structure of reinforced concrete with facades composed of glass and steel. The preponderance of glass both externally and on the interior partitions and the use of concrete mushroom columns to facilitate this was a response to the client's brief for a modern, progressive work space maximising the use of natural light and providing a comfortable working environment. During my tour of the building it was explained that it was also felt to be beneficial to be able to be observed whilst working, showing that you were pulling your weight and not slacking. Mmm.

This is a very large building, running to 8 storeys and 300 metres in length. Coffee, tea and tobacco were processed in different areas. Raw materials were delivered to the top floors where processing commenced and moved down a floor at a time to complete each stage of the process until they were shipped out from the ground floor and taken to retailers. A series of bridges link the main building and the former stores opposite. These are sloping and were used to transport goods between the different parts of the complex, making use of gravity to do so.

In keeping with the spirit of modernism, the factory was designed with the wellbeing of the workforce in mind. Showers were provided for the workers at a time when very few, if any of them would have had such facilities at home. A cinema, library, light filled cafe and sports facilities were also provided for the workers. This approach was driven in part by van de Leeuw's interest in and commitment to Theosophy. De Leeuw was a close friend of philosopher and one time potential "messiah" of the movement, Jiddu Krishnamurti. However, the altruism only extended so far and the tennis courts in the factory grounds were only for the use of managers! At its height more than 2,000 people worked here - the equivalent of a large village or small town. 

The workforce was segregated with men and women performing different tasks and working separately. The magnificent double staircase pictured in this post was designed to accommodate this regime with one set of stairs for women and one for the men. The reasoning for this was that segregation would prevent romance budding in the workplace and distracting the workers from their labour. How effective this was I don't know but it's not hard to imagine meaningful glances being passed across the central stairwell that led to other things later on!

During my stay in Rotterdam I also visited the Chabot Museum which is housed in the former Kraaijeveld House, another modernist gem. A film was being shown there that included footage from the construction of the factory and of the staff at work. The female staff wore very business-like overalls that would not be out of place in a laboratory and almost all of them sported the fabulously glamorous Marcel wave hairstyle. As well as keeping the genders apart, other measures were taken to remind employees of their social status. Important guests and buyers from retail outlets would be received in a part of the building separate to the parts frequented by the workers. The film also covers de Leeuw's interest in Theosophy. Incidentally de Leeuw, Bertus Sonneveld and Matthijs de Bruyin, also company directs were so impressed with Van de Vlugt's work that they commissioned him to build houses for them. The Sonnenveld House still stands and can be visited today.

The factory came through the Second World War unscathed and over time, the company diversified and included cigarettes, instant puddings and rice amongst their products, continuing to produce goods until 1996. The following year Eric Gude, an expert in converting former industrial sites began working with Wessel de Jonge, a conservation expert in order to preserve the building. Conservation began in 1999 and in addition to its UNESCO World Heritage Status it is also a National Monument in the Netherlands.

It is still possible to see advertisements for Van Nelle products including a huge street sign I noticed whilst strolling in central Rotterdam. It is also possible to find marketing materials and product labels from the 1930's onwards in flea markets around the Netherlands and I picked some up in Amsterdam a few years ago. Visits to the factory can be arranged by contacting Archiguides.

Unfortunately the dark skies and driving sleet  on the day of my visit impacted on my pictures - low light photography is not my forte! A good reason to return in the summer.

Some more pictures...

Friday 19 February 2016

Dutch Modernism 3 - Kiefhoek, Rotterdam's modernist social housing project

There are several examples of social housing estates in Europe, constructed in the 1930's and designed to improve the living conditions of working class people. Rotterdam has one of the most famous examples of this development - the Kiefhoek Estate, originally constructed between 1925 and 1930 and designed by the iconic Dutch architect J.J.P.Oud

The Kiefhoek included 300 dwellings, a church, two shops, a hot water service and outside playground spaces to provide facilities for the many children that lived in the original development. The estate's plan is based on rows of standardised two storey homes with up to three bedrooms. Oud took an extremely functional approach to designing the dwellings, all of which have white rendered facades but adding a splash of colour with the red doors, yellow window frames and blue gates that are a clear reference to the De Stijl school of design. The only other external decoration occurs on homes at the end of streets where a small rounded balcony is positioned above the front door. 

The buildings that visitors see today are not the original structures. Over the years the buildings deteriorated, primarily due to the lack of robust foundations and between 1989 and 1995, the estate was demolished and rebuilt. The smaller dwellings were combined to adapt them to modern day living and to make more space available. Architect Wytze Patijn was responsible for the re-design which maintains the original exterior features, including the iconic and much photographed curved shop units at the end of the Kiefhoek's longest streets. The units are no longer used as shops, serving instead as spaces for community activity. They would make great gallery spaces. Today's residents have access to a large selection of shops a short walk away on the main road.

It is still possible to see how the estate's earlier residents lived as one of the buildings has been reconstructed as a single unit, true to the original design and to act as a museum. The tiny two storey dwellings, less than four metres wide accommodated a living room, small kitchen, toilet and up to three bedrooms. Dutch working class families could be large and many of the units would have been home to families with up to six children sleeping in bunk beds, some with three levels! The tiny ground floor lounge included a storage cupboard for food and crockery and it is difficult to see how the larger families could have comfortably sat down together.  However, there is no doubt that the Kiefhoek offered far superior housing to that lived in by most Dutch working families during this period, with separate kitchen space including a shallow ceramic sink which would be deemed fashionable today and even some outside space at the rear where vegetables could be grown to help make the family income go further.

The upper floor was reached by a spiral staircase. In the museum, the steps and the bannister are painted yellow, again referencing De Stijl, and the colour is set off by the natural light that floods in via the windows at the top of the stairs. This natural light is supplemented by a sliding frosted glass window that separates the stairwell from the third bedroom - an ingenious touch demonstrating the thought that went into the design process. Oud's original proposals also included a shower under the stairs, a folding ironing board and an extra sink in the hall, but these were rejected.

As well as the two shops and playgrounds, the estate had its own church. Also designed by Oud, it is a modernist box with the same white rendered facade as the homes but with some additional decorative features, including the beautiful stained glass windows and the stylised lettering on the front which includes its date of construction - 1929. The stained glass designs are echoed in the windows of one of the houses opposite - a window that also has two very alive and large parrots on display! 

The estate can be visited at any time but to see inside the museum, its necessary to make an appointment and take a guided tour from Rotterdam's UrbanGuides who can also make arrangements for tours of other architectural landmarks in the city.

You might also like Dutch Modernism 1 - Rotterdam's Cafe de Unie , another of J.J.P. Oud's works, Modernism and Elegant Swimming Pool and Red Vienna which includes the Werkbund Siedlung (where there is another Oud building), Karl Mark Hof and Raben Hof estates in Vienna and Czech Modernism 3 - Prague's Baba Estate.

Monday 15 February 2016

Dutch Modernism 2 - The Kraaijeveld House in Rotterdam's Museum Park

Rotterdam's Museum Park is home to some of the Netherlands' premier museums and cultural attractions. Amongst them are a number of villas designed and built in the modernist style in the 1930's as homes for wealthy Dutch families. Most of these villas now serve other functions. The Chabot Museum which houses the works of Dutch expressionist painter and sculptor Henk Chabot, began life as the Kraaijeveld House and was built for the family of the same name in 1938.

C.H. Kraaijeveld, director of the Volker Dredging Company commissioned a modern white villa to be built on the corner of Jongkindstraat in late 1937. His son J. Kraaijeveld developed the early plans before architect Gerrit W. Baas was employed to find a suitable plot for the house and to work up detailed proposals. Baas' skills were in-demand and already working on other projects, he secured the help of Leonard Stokla, another Rotterdam architect to assist him on this additional commission. Stokla had been involved in the design of a functionalist building on Coolsingel, the city's main shopping street and was sympathetic to Baas' modernist principles. This may explain the fantastic modernist design that resulted from their co-operation, despite Mrs. Kraaijeveld's request for a "not too modern" house!

Between them the architects produced one of the most beautiful residential buildings in the Netherlands, and probably in the whole of Europe. The first thing that visitors see when approaching the building is the delicious curved protruding balcony with its protective shelf which gives shelter in bad weather and also allows light to stream though from above through a series of small openings. When the final designs were submitted for planning permission, this wonderful feature drew objections for the nearby Bojimans Museum, but thankfully Baas refused to omit the curve or even to compromise by replacing the closed balustrade with an open railing. Good for him - and for us. Through much manoeuvring and possibly some calling in of favours by the client, the committee eventually approved the plans and construction began on 9th May 1938.

Although strictly a modernist, Baas was clearly not averse to adding some non-functional, decorative features as evidenced by the rounded bay window on the side of the building and the black tiled plinth which is in dramatic contrast to the clean white of the rest of the exterior. The architects also dealt with the interior design of the villa. This included oak panelling in the living spaces, built in furniture in colours that complemented the overall design and advising on fabrics furnishings and lighting. The furniture included tubular steel designs and Giso lamps whilst a sundial was placed in the front garden. These matters were not included in the original brief. Clearly the temptation to expand one's brief is not a recent phenomenon.

The house came through the 1940 bombing of Rotterdam without damage - although doubtless the basement bomb shelter was used during the attack. The family lived in the villa until 1969 when it was sold to the Contact Group for the Metalworking Industry (CWM). During the time that the company occupied the villa almost all of the original internal features disappeared. The new owners also extended the property, adding a sympathetically designed additional floor for more office space. The extension was designed by Ernest Groosman and was implemented in 1975. 

The building changed hands again in 1991 when a Mr and Mrs Grootveld-Paree acquired it, planning to use it as a museum for the works of Henk Chabot. Further internal modifications were made to enable the villa to fulfil its new function but these were carried out sensitively with for example, some of the plant for the necessary environmental controls being located on the roof, hidden from public view. These works also included elements of restoration, dealing with long standing issues of damp, leakage and cracks, replacing many of the glass bricks and repairing the steel window frames.  

February in Rotterdam can be cold, wet and bleak. On the day of my visit the skies were cloudy and grey but with occasional breaks of sunshine that showed the former Kraaijeveld house in all its glory. I must return to Rotterdam to see the building in the summer light.

The museum puts on temporary exhibitions as well as exhibiting Chabot's works. It has a small shop that offers a number of books, postcards and other items of memorabilia for sale. When I visited last week a short film showing the construction of another iconic modernist Rotterdam building - the Van Nelle factory - was being shown. I managed to visit the factory before eating Rotterdam and will write about it separately.  

Saturday 13 February 2016

Dutch Modernism 1 - Rotterdam's Cafe De Unie

Cafe de Unie opened in 1925 on Coolsingel, in the centre of Rotterdam. The striking facade with its bright blue, red and yellow colours is a typical De Stijl design, bringing to mind the works produced by artist Piet Mondrian in the 1920's.  Cafe de Unie was the work of J.J.P. Oud who was commissioned by Rotterdam Municipal Housing to design a temporary structure to plug a gap between two larger nineteenth century buildings. It was intended that the building would stand for ten years and then be demolished.

Strikingly modern, the building was in sharp contrast to its neighbours and was not well received by everyone. Architect, painter and designer J. Verheul was particularly offended, going so far as to say "a more outrageous disfigurement of a street front is in my view inconceivable". Fortunately this was not the opinion of all of Rotterdam's residents and the bright colours, stylised lettering, illuminated signage and vertical letterbox, the cafe attracted a loyal following.

De Unie outlived its intended ten years but was destroyed during the German bombing of May 14th 19401 that reduced much of the city to rubble. However, that was not the end for the cafe and in the 1970's, discussion started about re-creating the building. A proposal was developed to rebuild on Oude Binnenweg but in 1986 it was reconstructed at Mauritsweg 35. For a number of years the cafe also delivered a programme of cultural activity in the auditorium at the rear of the building.

Oud was one of the leading modernist architects of the 1920's and 1930's having been one of the participants at the Weissenhofsiedlung exhibition in Stuttgart in 1927 and was considered to be in the same league as Le Corbusier, van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Following the Weissenhofsiedlung exhibition which modelled a new approach to social housing, Oud was responsible for a working class housing project in Rotterdam - the Kiefhoek estate completed in 1930 and which I will write about separately. 

In later years his work attracted criticism for his use of decorative features, felt by some to be in conflict with the spirit of modernism.  It is interesting that Oud had already left the De Stijl group by the time he designed the cafe's facade, having quarrelled with Theo van Doesburg, the group's leader. He also designed another building in this style - the manager's hut at Oud Mathenesse. The hut was also intended to be temporary but still stands and although less well known than de Unie, it is considered to be a textbook example of the De Stijl movement.  

Although the original building is gone, the new de Unie gives visitors the opportunity to see something of 1920's Rotterdam. And just as important, I enjoyed my coffee and cinnamon biscuits there earlier this week...

Tuesday 9 February 2016

Picture Post 49 - Art deco on Finchley Road

The stretch of Finchley Road that runs from Swiss Cottage to the O2 shopping centre is a bleak, busy and often windswept main thoroughfare. However, St. John's Court at numbers 191-217, on the opposite corner to Finchley Road Underground Station, is a great example of art deco architecture and must surely be the most stylish supermarket building in London. 

Built in 1938 and designed by architect T. P. Bennet, the building has had a retail function from the beginning. It opened as the John Barnes department store, before being bought out by the John Lewis chain in 1940 who remained there until 1981 when due to falling receipts and competition from the Brent Cross shopping centre that had opened in 1976. Throughout these years the lower three floors were used for retail whilst the upper floors were residential. Waitrose who arrived in 1986, currently uses only the ground floor with the basement which had been the John Lewis food hall now acting as a customer car park.

Occupying a site that once accommodated 14 individual shops, it is a very large and very handsome building. The lower stories are faced with brick and imitation Portland stone. The balconies to the front and rear are beautifully rounded at the corners and rise dramatically, giving the building a European air - fitting in that many of the earlier tenants of the 96 units probably came from Europe as Finchley became home to many emigres in the years leading to the Second World War. The design has also been compared to that of an ocean liner - a classic art deco motif.

The central panel on the facade encloses the main stairwell and has laddered windows and geometric shaped bay windows looking on to the main road. I especially like the long glazed stretch at first floor level which adds a further touch of 1930's sophistication to the building and the original art deco details around the entrances to the residential sections. The stylised lettering above the doors and the wonderful lighting panels that run the full height of the exterior porch as well as the length of the soffit are also classic art deco features. The lighting is particularly effective in the winter during late afternoon as the natural light fades.

T. P Bennet's practice was also responsible for designing what is now the Covent Garden Odeon in Shaftesbury Avenue, which started life as the Saville Theatre in 1931, a BOAC air terminal, part of the Westminster Hospital and in later years, the London Mormon Temple in Surrey. Working for the Government Ministry of Works, he served as the Director of Bricks during the Second World War, receiving the CBE in 1942 and a Knighthood in 1946.

Whilst taking the pictures for this post, many passers-by stopped to see what I was photographing. A few even took a few moments to admire a building that they probably pass every day and just think of as a branch of Waitrose without looking up to admire and enjoy this art deco classic. It's always worth looking up in London!

Friday 5 February 2016

Darlington Majestic - an art deco cinema restored

Apart from the national rail interchange, the last time I visit Darlington must have been more than 40 years ago when I went to the outdoor market with my mum. I bought a seven inch vinyl single of the Monkees singing A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You. I still have it. I went to Darlington again this week, this time to visit the former Majestic Cinema, which after decades of mixed fortunes is being restored to its former glory. Designed in the art deco style by Darlington born architect Joshua Clayton, it was completed in 1932. Amazingly it is unlisted.

Built for an independent operator, it opened on 26th December 1932 with Nancy Brown starring in Maid of the Mountains. British cinemas in the 1930's were built to accommodate huge numbers and the Majestic could seat 1,039 in the stalls and 541on the balcony. As well as the screen there was a cafe, five dressing rooms and a Compton 3M organ which rose up from beneath the stage. We will return to the organ.

The cinema changed hands several times over the years, going to the Union chain of cinemas in late 1935 before returning to the original owners two years later. Oscar Deutsch's Odeon chain took it over in 1943 and changed the name to the Odeon in 1945 before eventually passing to the Rank chain who owned the cinema when it finally closed on October 24th 1981. The final screening was of  Cannonball Run with Burt Reynolds. There is evidence that the cafe continued until the 1950's, whilst the organ was retained until 1968 when it was sold and removed from the building. Further changes were made in the later 1960's when metal strips were added to the front of the building in an attempt at modernisation. Yuck. After closure the building lay unused until 1986 when it was converted into a snooker club.

Those nasty metal additions have now been removed, revealing the beautiful cream facade with its art deco motifs and double height stained glass windows on the stairwells.The removal of the nasty metal strips was part of a programme of ongoing restoration which is being funded through private means. On my visit earlier this week I was able to see the beautifully restored lobby with its decorative doors, chandelier, original ticket office and the balustrade on the stairs leading to the first floor cafe. Whilst admiring the lobby I was lucky enough to meet Paul, one of the key people driving the restoration of the building. He very kindly showed me around the upstairs cafe, allowed me a look into the auditorium which is still being worked on and shared with me some of the ideas for the Majestic's future.  

The cafe has two fabulous art deco bars, furniture in the style of the 1930's and gorgeous stained glass windows looking over the main road - Bondgate. Who would have thought that such a room exists in Darlington? It could easily be in Prague, Budapest, New York or one of the other cosmopolitan centres from the art deco period. I can only imagine what the response of the locals must have been when the cinema first opened. The cafe is already popular with local people for afternoon tea and Paul told me that it has already received visitors dressed in 1930's clothes! It has an alcohol license which always helps.

The auditorium was a hive of industry with several workmen busy toiling to bring it back into use perhaps as early as April this year. Many original features appear to have survived although some are in better condition than others. There are already plans in place for a programme of events and activities once these works are finished including "Battle of the bands", stand up comedy, concerts and perhaps theatre. Much needed rehearsal space may also be offered. Some events have already taken place in the cafe. You can keep up to date with developments by following the Majestic's own Facebook group here.

I was also able to have a quick look at the former projection rooms and see the enormous original bulb that was left behind when all of the other cinema equipment was disposed of when the cinema closed. Paul told me that there are some exciting ideas for using these spaces including opening up onto a roof terrace and using the bulb as part of the lighting for another cafe space at this level. These ideas are at present unfunded and the priority is the auditorium, but how wonderful it would be to be able to realise them. 

The restoration and bringing back into use of the Majestic will be a much needed boost to Darlington's cultural scene, especially at a time when other facilities in this small unitary authority are under threat with the potential closure of its two libraries and removal of the mobile service and the closed market also being under threat . I said we'd return to the organ. After much searching, it turned up in Manchester. Not playable but it can be rescued…once the money has been found.