Saturday 25 February 2017

A Postcard From Guatemala - 1 - Art Deco In Guatemala City

Few visitors do more than just pass through Guatemala City on the way to more established tourist destinations such as Antigua, Lake Atitlan and Tikal.  

The city gets a bad press, a hangover from the dark decades of civil war that ravaged the country between 1960 and 1996. True, it lacks the glamour of better known Latin American capitals such as Buenos Aires or Mexico City and there is a definite grittiness about the place but a couple of hours spent walking around the historical centre convinced me that the city is worth a longer look, in large part because of the astonishing number of art deco buildings clustered around Avenida Sexta (6th Avenue).

Edificio La Perla
Facade, Edifico La Perla
The Avenida was long the most fashionable street in the city, with its mid nineteenth century structures and plethora of art deco buildings from the 1920's and 30's including department stores, cinemas and cafes. Unfortunately it was colonised by street traders during the 1980's to the extent that it became difficult to get into the shops or even stroll along the pavement. Many long established places closed as a result of this and the Avenida deteriorated. The decline was arrested in 2009 when the traders were cleared, trees planted and traffic banned. There is still much to do to improve things, not least removing the trashy signs that adorn the facades of many of the most beautiful deco buildings but it is easy to imagine the Avenida in the 20's and 30's when it must have matched any European boulevard.

Edificio La Perla stands at the junction of Avenida Sexte with Parque Central, the city's main square. Built in 1927 for the Asturias family it originally contained residential units on the upper levels and retail on the ground floor. La Perla was designed by a trio of German architects - Robert Hoegg, Wilhelm Krebs and Anton Holzheu and was recognized as a National Heritage building in 1970. The facade has several decorative elements including trapezoid columns, stylised lettering bearing the building's name at the top of the central tower and linear moulding showing the separation of levels.

Edifico Engel
Moving away from the main square, Edifico Engel occupies another corner spot on the Avenida. It was built for a German Jewish businessman called Enrique Engel. Engel came to Guatemala in 1892, following his father, Jacobo, who came to the country via San Francisco initially to sell costume jewelry. Things went well and the family established a shirt factory and opened the Guatemala's first department store. Enrique went on to become the leader of the German-Jewish community, established a cemetery and used his influence to enable a small number of Jews to enter the country just before the Second World War.  I have been unable to confirm the date of construction, with different sources quoting 1937 and 1950 as the date of completion. Quite a difference, although I suspect the relative simplicity of the design would place it more at the later date. I have also been unable to find details of the architect. Anyone reading this who can supply this or other information about the buildings in this post is very welcome to add them in the comments section below!

A little further along the Avenida we come to two cinemas. The Lux and the Tikal. Designed by Rodolfo Bader, Cine Lux was completed in 1936.  Since 1956 it has operated as the Centro Cultura de Espana, showcasing Spanish cultural activity in the city. The Tikal has fared less well and despite retaining its jolly lettering and beautiful blue mosaic tiles on the facade, it looks a little sad with the ground floor now occupied by cheap shops.

Centro Cultura de Espana (Cine Lux)
Cine Tikal
Imprenta Hispania is possibly the most beautiful art deco building in the Centro Historico. Originally a publishing house, it is located in Avenida 5 and visible from Avenida 6, its blue facade is a delight with its deco swirls, speed stripes and fabulous lettering which runs both vertically and horizontally. Completed in 1927 it was designed by the already mentioned Wilhelm Krebs, one of several German architects responsible for the city's collection of art deco buildings. 

Imprenta Hispania

Elsewhere in the old centre, it is hard to walk down a street without spotting at least some deco features. Look up to find beautiful balconies and stylised lettering and peep behind the cardboard signs to find exquisite deco doors. And it's not just in the centre that you can find these treasures. I stayed in Zona 10 and discovered the building pictured below, just a short step from my hotel. No details of its original function but today, almost shamefully, it is being used as a car parking space. Zone 10 is a trendy, affluent zone with many cafes, bars, restaurants and fancy shops. Surely better use could be made of this elegant building with its rotunda, curves and speed lines, than just a car park?

Building in Zona 10, now a car park
Guatemala City's art deco heritage must be one of the country's best kept secrets. It is one that needs sharing and that could help attract more visitors and more investment to the city. I am unaware of any groups or individuals working to promote this part of the built heritage but would love to hear from anyone who knows otherwise. In the meantime, some more pictures to enjoy...

Balcony on Avenida 6
Deco neighbors in side street off Avenida 6
Deco building near central market
Hotel Fuentes
Detail, Imprenta Hispania

Wednesday 15 February 2017

Simpson of Piccadilly - a Modernist Masterpiece

Simpson of Piccadilly opened in April 1936 as the largest menswear store in the country. The company had successfully launched its luxury DAKS brand in 1934 and wanted a central London location from which to sell their entire range. The site at 203-6 Piccadilly became available in 1935 when the former Geological Museum premises were offered for sale at auction. Alexander Simpson purchased the site for £11,000 and commissioned architect Joseph Emberton to design a new store.

Simpson of Piccadilly was to be the height of modernity and Emberton did not disappoint. The ground floor concave windows at the front and rear were the first in the country and still surprise passers-by today. A steel frame supports the building and the front is clad in Portland stone, divided by windows that run the full length of the facade. Inside, a Travertine marble staircase is the star of the show, with its low 1930's bannister and glass wall running from top to bottom of the stairs. And as if this wasn't enough the original internal display and storage features - sadly long gone - were designed by none other than Bauhaus hero Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. This included three aircraft being exhibited on the fifth floor, a marketing idea designed purely to bring in more potential customers. The Simpson logo and advertising were also influenced by the Bauhaus School and were designed by Ashley Havinden. The 90 feet long chromium light fitting that still hangs in the stairwell was designed by Emberton. As well as menswear, the store had a restaurant, barbers, dog shop and other retail offers. However, clothing remained the main attraction and customers were able to see tailors at work in a bespoke section.

The high level specification and the size of the site - a total of 11,000 square feet - resulted in a very large bill for the Simpson Company and Alexander Simpson warned that it would take a number of  years before a profit would be made. Sadly he was not to enjoy the building for very long, dying of leukemia in 1937 aged just 34. Emberton had earlier designed the former Austin Reed building in Holborn. Completed in 1925, it too is a striking modernist building but Simpson's was to be his masterpiece. 

The Second World War commenced just three years after the store opened. General retail operations were suspended and replaced by production of uniforms whilst the top floor became a club for off-duty soldiers could sleep, bathe and make telephone calls. Normal service resumed at the end of the war and there are stories of queues stretching the length of Piccadilly and tailors being sent out to measure people in the street in order to have a selection of trousers to offer them once they reached the shop! That's what I call service.

The DAKS company was acquired by a Japanese firm in 1999 and the shop was sold to Waterstones Booksellers who have made to their flagship store. Alexander Simpson's vision and Joseph Emberton's design eventually resulted in their building achieving Grade l listed status - the highest possible. The Simpson store is sadly no more, but it is still possible to enjoy this beautiful building today...and to browse thousands of books at the same time. What a combination.

More London Art Deco items here.

Sunday 12 February 2017

Jewish Yangon

The Musemah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon's 26th Street is a glorious reminder of a once thriving Jewish community. Today there are no more than 20 Jews resident in the city - the remnant of a community that peaked at about 2,500 before the Second World War. The main Jewish holidays are still celebrated in the synagogue with the congregation augmented by visiting tourists and at least some of the up to 100 Jews from other countries who work for various organisations in Myanmar. 
Synagogue entrance
I was able to visit the synagogue during my recent tie in Yangon and to admire the light, airy, beautifully maintained building, on the edge of Yangon's India Town and not far away from the city's last remaining Jain Temple. The entrance is discrete but clearly signed and visitors are offered a warm welcome six days a week - the building is closed on Sunday. Completed in 1896, it has beautiful stained glass windows, ornate decorative details around the bimah and beautiful bamboo and teak seats, reflecting local traditions and tastes. Despite being tucked away in a side street, the interior is very light and airy and does not have the air of sadness of many European synagogues with communities of similar size but different history. 

Myanmar's first Jews arrived in the early 1800's - merchants and traders from Calcutta, most of them members of that city's Iraqi Jewish community, originating from Baghdad. They were involved in a range of trades including textiles, timber, ice production and bottling. Some members of the community became influential and prominent in civic life and one place was allocated to the community on the Yangon (then Rangoon) Municipal Committee. Participation in public life reached a peak in the early part of the twentieth century with the appointment of Jewish mayors to both Yangon and the smaller city of Pathein (then Bassein). 

Brothers Judah and Avraham Ezekiel came from Baghdad to Myanmar in 1840, settling in Mandalay and worked for the Burmese monarch, King Mindon, as accountants or bookkeepers. At some point the brothers quarreled, separated and Judah moved to Yangon where he became so successful that a street was named after him possibly due to his philanthropy which included paying for the metaling of the road. He ensured the care of "his" street by leaving nine rupees per month in his will for its ongoing cleaning. He appears to have been a larger than life character in all senses of the term. Almost Englishmen a short history of the Jewish community in Myanmar includes a story describing the reluctance of rickshaw drivers to carry him due to his large size which on one occasion caused him to go through the floor of a carriage.

Sofaer building, Merchant Street
Isaac Sofaer was another prominent member of the community. Born in Baghdad in 1867, his father brought him to Yangon at the age of nine. On completion of his education he worked for a wine and spirits company before going into business with his brother Meyer in 1893. Messes Sofaer and Co also sold wines and spirits and became involved in exporting rice. Isaac was not only a successful businessman but also took part in civic life supporting organisations such as the Agricultural Society and the Burma Pasteur Institute.

He was also responsible for the design of the elegant and imposing Sofaer building, completed in 1906 and which still stands today on the corner of Merchant Street in the city centre. The building once housed the Reuters telegram office, a Filipino hairdressers and shops selling Scotch whisky, Egyptian cigars and English sweets. The design included ceramic floor tiles, imported from Manchester and arranged in a green, gold, lapis lazuli and burnt sienna mosaic. Some of the original tiles still remain. The building today is a shadow of its original self but there are signs of recovery with Gekko, a very successful Japanese restaurant taking space on the ground floor as well as one or two shops selling tourist items. The Lokanat Gallery on the first floor is the city's longest established independent gallery.

The golden age of the community ended abruptly in 1941 when most of its members fled as a result of the Japanese invasion. Although some people returned at the end of the war, the much reduced numbers made it difficult to sustain community life. In addition to this here were various disputes about the management of the community, which did not help matters. These and other issues are detailed in Ruth Fredman Cernea's excellent book Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma which charts the history of the Jews in Myanmar. There was a second wave of departure in the 1960's following nationalisation of almost all the country's businesses. There has been no rabbi since 1969 and kosher meat is not available. Community members compromise with halal produce.

Shop sign with a Magen David "for luck".
Despite this, you could be forgiven for thinking that Yangon's Jewish community is much larger than it really is. This is because it is possible to see a Magen David (Star of David) displayed outside many businesses across the city. This is not that the businesses are Jewish owned but rather that some locals believe the symbol will bring them luck and success. However there is at least one building with a Magen David on its facade that does have strong Jewish links. The wooden building in the picture below, close to the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda complex was once Jewish owned and the location for an ice factory. Look closely and you can see the Star at the apex of the facade. The community may be very small, but its presence and achievements live on through the synagogue, the Sofaer building and through symbols such as these.  

Former Jewish owned ice factory with Magen David on facade
Visitors wishing to know more about Myanmar's Jewish history might like to contact Myanmar Shalom  which can organize visits to the synagogue and to the places connected with the community's history.

You might also like - Myanmar Journey Part One - Yangon

You can see more pictures of Myanmar here.

Wednesday 8 February 2017

Picture Post 60, Bangkok - away from the tourists

I recently spent a few days in Bangkok on my way home from Myanmar. It was my first visit to the city since spending several months there in 2002. I had mixed feelings about returning. I love Thai food. I love Wat Arun - surely one of the most beautiful structures in the world. And I love the city's markets. However, I struggle with the searing heat and humidity, the traffic and occasional harassment from tedious touts who won't take no for an answer. With this in mind I decided not to stay in one of the major hotels in the central business district, choosing instead a tiny guest house in old Bangkok not far from the Royal Palace and to spend my time exploring this neighbourhood, much of it undiscovered by tourists.

Restored buildings, Thanon Rajadamnoen
Modernist building, Thanon Dinso
The Democracy Monument
The Royal Palace and the adjoining temple Wat Phra Kaeo attract many tourists but relatively view of them follow this with a stroll along the nearby elegant boulevard, Thanon Rajdamnoen. The Thanon is lined by modernist buildings from the 1930's, arranged in a series of blocks painted either white or pale yellow. At the end of each block there is a rotunda with recessed side elements all of which have either rounded or squared-off shades above the windows, showing some wonderful lines and angles. 

The Democracy Monument stands at the mid point, constructed in 1939 as a symbol of the 1932 revolution that resulted in a new constitution and system of government. The Monument was designed by Thai architect Maeo Aphaiyawong whilst the relief sculptures around the base of the monument were the work of Italian artist Corrado Ferroci. Ferroci later took Thai nationality, changing his name to Silpa Bhirasi and contributing significantly to the modernisation of the city. The panels feature highly stylised representations of the military whilst two of the four wings have fountains in the shape of a naga - a snake-like creature from both Buddhist and Hindu belief.

Rotunda and recessed elements, Thanon Rajadamnoen
Thanon Dinso  crosses the main boulevard at the Democracy Monument. The area ion the right hand side of the Thanon, walking away from the Royal Palcae, is home to some of the remaining klongs - the system of canals that once criss-crossed the city, most of which have now been covered or filled-in. The klongs are lined with wooden houses and strolling along the walkway we can get some idea of what the city was once like. There are also many stalls selling snacks and other items to local workers and to the occasional tourist. There are also many shop houses in this area, less decorative than those in Singapore but still affording a glimpse of old Bangkok. Many of the shop houses have now become completely residential but others retain the ground floor retail function, usually selling food with the family living upstairs. 

Living beside the klong
A view of the klong
In the shade by the klong
My guest house, the Bhuthorn in Phreang Bhuthorn is in a lovingly restored shop house complete with teak floors and stairs, antique furniture and decorative items as well as a tiny but delightful courtyard where breakfast and afternoon tea are served. In the afternoon, the options include delicious sticky rice with coconut milk and mango. Somehow I always manage to find places that have the best desserts! Phreang Bhuthorn is a very attractive square consisting of many restored shop houses some of which operate as small bars and cafes with outside seating giving the square a lively but pleasant atmosphere in the evenings. It is also a place where young people gather to play the traditional Thai ball game - Sepak Takraw, perhaps best described as a kind of "kick volleyball". The evening games sometimes attract small groups of spectators who come to envy this super fast game.

 The Bhuthorn courtyard
Restored shop house near the Golden Mount
Shop house with ground floor bakery
Shop houses in need of restoration
In Bangkok you are never far away from a temple. There are several in this area but perhaps the most spectacular (after Wat Phra Kaeo) is the Golden Mount, also known as Phu Kao Tong. Dating back to the nineteenth century, it was commissioned by King Rama lll and constructed from the ruined walls of the old capital city, Ayuthaya. Unfortunately the building collapsed and was abandoned for some fifty years until King Rama V had a new chedi built - the one we see today. The summit is approached via a winding footpath shaded by trees and vegetation. There are excellent views across the city from the steps and from the summit which has a prayer hall and roof top stupa. More shop houses can be found in the street at the foot of the Golden Mount, most of them in poorer condition than those in Phreang Bhuthorn but still attractive and several retain some of the original decorative features.

Figure at the summit of the Golden Mount
There are cafes and food stalls on most corners as well as small markets selling fruit, vegetables and cold drinks. I treated myself to half a kilo of delicious red chompoo - a fruit resembling a pear but with a taste closer to that of an apple, very refreshing in the Bangkok heat. Of course, if you want something more substantial or feel the need to return to the more noisy areas, Khao San Road is not very far away with its shops, bars and clubs catering mainly to the backpacker crowd. If you like that sort of thing.

Friday 3 February 2017

Myanmar Journey Part Four - North to Lake Inle

Lake Inle covers about 45 square miles in the Southern Shan State in Northern Myanmar. It was the final stop of my trip before returning to Yangon for the journey home. I took a short flight from Bagan to Heho and from there was driven to the small town of Nyaungshwe which has several hotels, hostels, restaurants and cafes and is a great base from which to explore the Lake.

Early morning fishing on the lake.
Many people still live on the water in houses supported on stilts. Belonging to the Intha (sons of the lake) ethnic group, they are thought to be descendants of the Mon people from the south-east. I was lucky enough to be able to eat lunch in two private homes and was shown around the cosy interiors which included very modern facilities and of course access to satellite television which judging from the number of dishes on roofs and balconies is widespread here. As well as private homes there are also schools, temples, shops, a post office and even a library on the lake - all built on stilts and all accessed by boat. Some of the more enterprising residents run "mobile shops" - selling food, flowers and other items from small canoes. 

One of the absolute highlights of my time at Lake Inle was getting the unexpected opportunity to see inside a heritage house. And not just any heritage house - the oldest one on the lake at over 100 years old. Spotting it from the water, I asked the boatman to stop for a moment so I could admire and photograph this teak building which has beautiful decorative trellis work on the balconies and upper facade. It turned out that my guide was related to the owners and she kindly invited me to look inside. The interior has many rooms over two levels and I was able to look at old photographs of the family and surrounding area. It was a real privilege to see inside and to receive a warm welcome.

Heritage house, Lake Inle
Library on stilts, Lake Inle
A street on the water.
With mum and grandma.
Unfortunately the Lake is suffering from modern problems, decreasing in size and becoming more polluted with more litter, more motorised vessels and chemicals from the huge "floating gardens" where tomatoes and other plants are grown on the water but anchored to prevent them floating away. Despite this, the Lake was perhaps my favourite stop in Myanmar. I won't forget the early morning on the boat, seeing the silvery waters and the sun fighting its way through the mist casting just enough light to see the fisherman with their conical hats. These are no ordinary fishermen as they propel and steer their boats using their unique leg rowing technique, performing an amazing act of skill and grace. Used to the tourists, some of them will approach your boat and pose for photographs if you are lucky.  It is important to note that it can be very very cold on the lake early in the morning and also in the evening. A jacket and hat are essential and for the colder mornings most boats transporting visitors will have blankets.

Fishing on the lake.
As well as fishing, the locals make their living in a variety of ways. Some of them are involved in the traditional crafts practiced on the lake such as boat building, textile production and design (including items made from lotus), lacquer making, making items made from gold and bronze, jewelry and even cheroots made for the local market. Most visitors to the Lake will find themselves taken to several workshops to see the production of these items and where there will be an opportunity to make purchases. Unlike in some of the neighboring countries, there was absolutely no pressure to buy. Long may that continue.

On my second day at the Lake I got up early - very early - and left the hotel by small boat on a journey of just over one hour, to reach the market at Nan Pan. I had already enjoyed several markets in Myanmar with their spectacular colours and lively atmospheres but nothing had quite prepared me for this. Organised in different places on a five day rota and therefore known as the Five Day Market, huge numbers of traders arrive very early in the morning coming from far and wide to sell their goods. 

Pa-O women selling fruit and vegetables ate the Five Day Market
Pa-O woman at the Five Day Market
Traders and visitors come to the market by boat.
You really can buy just about anything here. There are the usual vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices, fish, meat and dried foodstuffs but this is only a small part of what the market has to offer. You can buy a new boat. You can get measured up for new false teeth and collect them the next time you come to the market. You can buy clothes for all ages and in all sizes. You can buy craft items, antiques real and fake, religious paraphernalia, electrical goods, books, magazines and stock up on betel. You can even get the latest pop tunes downloaded onto your telephone if you aren't able to do this yourself. And you can take time out from shopping and bargaining in one of the many (many) tea shops and cafes. I enjoyed two "Chinese donuts" - the non-sweet slightly oily ones that you can get in most Chinatowns around the world.

Fresh fish at the market
Alternative medicine at the market
Like Myanmar's other markets, everywhere you look there is colour.  It comes from the goods such as the bright yellow turmeric,  dazzlingly orange fruit and vegetables and deep green leaves of vegetables that you have never seen before. It also comes from the people with representatives from many of Myanmar's 135 ethnic groups attending the market either as traders or shoppers, most of them dressed in the clothes of their cultural group often including brightly coloured headscarves. The traders are friendly people and most will happily explain their goods to you without expecting a purchase. I couldn't resist some tiny ceramic figures representing some of the different ethnic groups - the Shan and Pa-O in particular. 

Our young stall holder!
Dyeing lotus cloth
At one of the many betel stalls, a very small girl was cutting up leaves in which to wrap the areca nuts, tobacco and lime before selling them to the many keen shoppers. She saw us approaching, waved at us and when my guide, May, asked her how old she was, not only did she tell us that she was three years old, but also what her name was and that she was in charge of the stall! Such ambition for one so young. At another stall run by an elderly Pa-O woman whilst looking at the herbs, spices and vegetables, I noticed that she also sold peanuts. I must have said "peanuts" out loud because she said "yes peanuts, you are doing well!" and laughed and waved as I moved on.

I also visited a number of sites in the vicinity of the Lake. The Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery and Temple lies between Heho airport and the lake. The teak monastery was built in the nineteenth century and today provides education both Buddhist and secular for boys from poor families. The interior is beautiful with its teak floors and coloured glass decorative features. The adjoining temple has a red painted interior and again makes use of coloured glass in freezes depicting scenes form the life of Buddha and from traditional beliefs. The interior walls include many small Buddha statues, displayed in niches and named for people from around the world who have made donations to the monastery and temple. 

Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery
Buddha niches at the Shwe Yan Pyay Temple
The village of Inthein is a busy stop along a canal leading off from the main body of the lake. There are many ruined and partially overgrown stupas just behind the village, some dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and many with carvings of Buddha, elephants, peacocks and figures from Buddhist beliefs. Most of the stupas are in very poor shape and visitors must note and comply with signs provided for their safety. Some of the structures are in the process of being reclaimed by nature as trees and plants wind their way around them and in some cases even grow from inside. 

Crumbling stupas at Inthein
Carvings at Inthein
Two days at the Lake passed very quickly as did my two weeks in Myanmar. I am already planning to return next year to see more of this most beautiful and welcoming of countries.

You can see more pictures of Myanmar here.