Saturday 29 July 2017

Jewish Kaunas - Fragments of the Past

The Litvaks, or Jews of Lithuania once formed one of the world's most vibrant Jewish communities. According to the YIVO organisation Kaunas was home to 32,000 Jews in 1939 - 23% of the city's population. About 3,000 survived the Holocaust and the 1959 census showed 4,792 Jews living in the city.  Today at most there are a few hundred. Numbers declined during the communist period due to falling birth rates, inter-marriage and restrictions imposed by the state. Then, following the collapse of the Soviet Union a wave of immigration further reduced numbers. This tiny community is the remnant of what was once a large, diverse and accomplished Jewish presence in the city they knew as Kovne. Although there are few Jews here now there remain many reminders of the old days including former community buildings, various memorials and a growing interest in the Jewish past.

Choral synagogue
The Choral Synagogue at E. Ozeskienes street is the only remaining Jewish house of prayer in a city that was once home to more than 35 synagogues and shtiebels. Funded by local merchant Lewin Boruch Minkowski, this Baroque revival style building was completed in 1872. During my time in Kaunas, I met the caretaker who told me that in pre-war days, so many people attended Rosh Hoshanah, Yom Kippur and other holiday services that they could not all fit in to the building. Today there are still holiday services attended by local community members with numbers boosted by students from the nearby university, tourists and foreigners working in Kaunas. There are rarely enough attendees to form a minyan on shabbat.

Main prayer hall, Choral Synagogue
Hebrew book, Choral synagogue
The interior is in the eastern style with a beautiful aron kodesh as well as stained glass windows. The upper level, formerly the women's gallery, is now home to a small museum of Jewish life in Kaunas. This includes an exhibition of portraits of important rabbis and black and white photographs of community life before the Holocaust. There are also photographs of a Yiddish Theatre performance in the postwar period when the surviving Jews tried to rebuild their community. Unfortunately such expressions of Jewish cultural life were suppressed by the Soviet regime, opposed to anything outside of politically approved activity.

Stained glass window, Choral synagogue
Before the war, the community produced many famous artists, writers and musicians. These included poet and author Leah Goldberg, born in Konigsberg (today Kaliningrad) in 1911. Her mother preferred to give birth there as she believed the medical facilities were superior to those of her home town. However Goldberg referred to herself as a native of Kaunas. Educated at the Hebrew Gymnasium, she continued her studies at the Lithuanian University and then in Germany before moving to Tel-Aviv in 1935. In Israel she worked as an advisor to HaBimah (the national theatre). and later as a lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She published poetry, drama and children's literature as well as one novel - And This Is The Light - believed to be at least partly autobiographical. Goldberg was posthumously awarded the Israel Prize for Literature, the highest recognition for a writer in her adopted country.

The Jewish contribution to popular music in Kaunas was also significant. Violinist Daniel Pomeranz had studied at the Berlin Conservatoire and led a jazz ensemble that played regularly at the former Konradas Cafe at Laisves 51(now a branch of the Vero Cafe chain). His group became so well known that they were asked to record a number of shellac discs for the Columbia record label. During the German occupation, Pomeranz was imprisoned in the Kaunas ghetto where he formed an orchestra together with Moishe Hofmekler, another band leader. Hofmekler had been the leader of the orchestra at the Metropolis Restaurant and his concerts were broadcast live on the radio. Both Pomeranz and Hofmekler survived the Holocaust.

A number of famous singers accompanied Hofmekler's orchestra including Danielus Dolski, born in Vilnius in 1891 and who popularised singing in the Lithuanian language. During the 1920's he was known internationally but sadly contracted pneumonia and died at the age of 40 in 1931. There is a statue of Dolski on Laisves Avenue opposite the former Metropolis cafe. Many of his songs are available on youtube including this one.

Danielus Dolski, Laisves Avenue.
Former Jewish residents, Yard Gallery
Just around the corner from the Choral Synagogue there is a small alley with apartments that were once home to Jewish families. When artist Vytenis Jakas moved into an apartment here he became curious about the families that had lived there before the War. In order to remember these people, he established the Yard Gallery - an open air art gallery, placing photographs of former residents on the facades of the houses, some with notes and messages added. A number of artists live in the vicinity and there are also interesting installations and murals unrelated to the Jewish past.

Yard Gallery
Yard Gallery
The images in the Yard Gallery act as a memorial to ordinary families consumed by the Holocaust. They give a glimpse into the lives of everyday people, people otherwise perhaps not commemorated. Walking the streets of the city it is possible to see more formal memorials. The facade of number  8 Kestucio Street bears a plaque with text in Hebrew and Lithuanian explaining that Doctor Elchanan Elkes lived here from 1939 to 1941. Somewhat ironically, as well as working at the Jewish hospital he had been physician to the German Ambassador for many years before the War. In 1941, he became head of the Judenrat - the organisation established by the German occupiers to implement their commands regarding the Jewish community. After reluctantly accepting this role, he is known to have been involved in supporting partisan actions against the Germans as well as refusing to participate in selections for deportation. As a result of this he was sent to a sub-camp of Dachau where he died in 1944. His wife Miriam survived the Stutthof camp and moved to Israel after the war whilst his son became a prominent researcher into schizophrenia.

Plaque for Doctor Elkes
Abraham Mapu was born in the city's Slabodka neighbourhood in 1808. He became known as the first Hebrew novelist, setting his romantic adventure stories in the biblical land of Israel. A library was established in his name in 1908 but was destroyed during the Second World War. A street in the Old Town bore his name from 1919 until the Soviet period when it was renamed before being restored to "Mapu Street" in 1980. Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of the Esperanto language met and married his wife Klara Zilbernik in Kaunas, probably in the former synagogue that stands in the street named after him. The synagogue is now a psychology institute and is not accessible to the public. 

Former synagogue, Zamenhof Street
The story of the Holocaust in Kaunas is similar to that of most other Eastern European cities. A series of pogroms were perpetrated by the German occupiers with Lithuanian assistance before the remainder of the community was enclosed in a ghetto in Slobodka. Several thousand Jews were also killed in the building known as the Ninth Fort on the outskirts of the city. The Fort can still be visited. Several thousand Jews were deported to the Riga ghetto in Latvia, to camps in Estonia and to Dachau and Stutthof in Germany. 80% of those deported did not survive the war and most that did chose not to return to Lithuania.

It is known that several Lithuanians took part in massacring their former Jewish neighbours, particularly in the earlier pogroms. However, there were also Lithuanians who tried to help Jews. Yad Vashem in Israel has recognised rescuers from Kaunas including the Blazaiciai family who hid and cared for Rosa Fin, a Jewish girl until, miraculously, her parents returned at the end of the War.  Sofia Binkiene has been similarly recognised for sheltering Jews she found wandering in the street during the final liquidation of the Kaunas ghetto. The penalties for harbouring Jews were harsh usually ending in the rescuer being shot and the bravery of these individuals should not be underestimated.

Chiune Sugihara was the Japanese Vice Consul in Lithuania at the beginning of the Second World War. In 1940, he became aware of large numbers of Polish Jews fleeing the German invasion of Poland and needing exit visas to escape before Lithuania was overrun. The policy of most governments was not to grant a visa unless the applicants had the right to enter a third country. However, by this stage in the War, no countries were willing to grant settlement visas and the Jews were trapped. Sugihara sympathised and three times requested permission to issue visas regardless of the applicants' status. Three times he was refused. He decided to take matters into his own hands and from July 18th to September 4th 1940, issued thousands of transit visas having secured agreement from Moscow to permit travel across Russia en route to Japan albeit at hugely inflated cost.

He continued writing visas until the Consulate was closed, even throwing them from the train to the waiting crowds as he left. In total he issued around 6000 visas but saved many more lives as the documents allowed heads of families to take relatives with them. As a relatively junior diplomat, Sugihara's decision to act alone was at great risk to himself. Not only that, Japan was an ally of Germany who viewed the refugees as enemies. He ended the war as the Vice Consul to Romania and when Bucharest was captured by the Soviets he and his family spent 18 months in a prison camp. Following their release and return to Japan he was removed from his post and reduced to working in menial jobs to survive. He was invited to Israel in the 1960s and in 1985 was granted status of Righteous Amongst The Nations after lobbying from some of those he had saved. The Sugihara House at 30 Vaizganto Street has a small museum about the former Vice Consul. It is currently being refurbished but is still open for visitors.

There are few Jews in Kaunas today, but there are echoes of the past everywhere and the Jewish contribution to the city's development is again beginning to be recognised.

The Choral Synagogue
Kaunastic  the Visit Kaunas team, has produced an excellent map and guide to Jewish Kaunas. The Litvak Landscape can be picked up at the Tourist Office and the Sugihara House or downloaded from the website.

Sunday 23 July 2017

Kaunas Modernism Part One

Kaunas has one of the largest collections of modernist buildings in any European city. I first became aware of this a couple of years ago when a friend drew my attention to Kaunas Modernism, an excellent Facebook group concentrating on the inter-war architecture of Lithuania's second city. Last week I spent thee days there, admiring some of the city's best examples of modernism and finding out how there came to be so many of them.  I also managed to find a little time to enjoy some of the city's best cakes!

Until the 1920's this was a relatively small city, characterised by wooden houses and baroque churches. A construction boom during the 1920's and 1930's changed this with many new civic and commercial buildings as well as stylish new apartment blocks. This was because from 1918-1940, Kaunas acted as a temporary capital for Lithuania. Vilnius was under Polish rule during this period and Kaunas needed to acquire the trappings of a national capital. Unfortunately, the new found confidence and period of growth was not to last as invasion by the Soviets (1940) and then German occupation (194-45) preceded incorporation into the Soviet Union. Lithuania did not regain independence until 1990. During the intervening years many outstanding buildings fell into disrepair, were significantly altered or even demolished but a lot survived and this post highlights a few of my favourites from my recent visit.

Central Post Office, 1931.
Laisves Avenue is the main thoroughfare of the New Town. Pedestrianised during Soviet times it is today a tree lined boulevard where people come to shop, stroll, sit outside the many cafes or ride along the green coloured cycle path. It is also the location of four outstanding modernist buildings, two of which were the work of architect Feliksas Vizbaras.

The Central Post Office was built in 1931 and stands at number 102 . Vizbaras combined elements of folk architecture with the principles of modernism including wide modern windows, convex glass on the facade's corners and internal murals depicting Lithuanian postage stamps. The interior also features stained glass with heraldic symbols and figurative compositions. During the Soviet period some of the original stained glass works were removed and replaced with images of zodiac signs. The tiled lobby and main hall floors are also said to make reference to Lithuanian folk art. The facade is especially striking with its mixture of curves, the flat faced clock in the central section and  the squared off towers to each side. Each of these elements rise to different heights.

This is a large building, costly to maintain and heat, which is probably the reason that it has recently been sold. I understand that the new owner is to use it as business premises, the nature of which is not yet known. Vizbaras' Post Office enjoys official protection but it is to be hoped that the new owners respect this and that the public are still able to enter and enjoy it.

Detail, Central Post Office, 1931.
Former Pazanga building, 1934.
Vizbaris' second building here is on the opposite side of the street at number 53 and was completed in 1934. Designed for the Pazanga (progress) publishing company, it was owned by the then ruling National Union Party to produce and distribute books and journals carrying the party's message. The offices of the party newspaper were also here as was a second floor snack bar and restaurant open to the public, accessed by a lift which also took visitors to the roof terrace. A large basement contained a meeting room with natural light admitted through skylights made from glass bricks. 

As with the Post Office, the facade has varying depths and heights and includes references to Lithuanian folk art. The central part features three balconies with decorative metal railings that combine folk art with Art Deco motifs. It is flanked by curved and sectioned windows leading to loggias that run to the extremes of the building. The ground floor has large shop windows reflecting its use as a retail space and mirrors the curved elements of the upper floors. Although in good physical condition, some original features were lost during the Soviet period when those glass skylights were removed and some of the interior spaces partitioned. Today the upper levels are used by the administration section of the Vytautas Magnus University whilst there is a supermarket on the ground floor.

Former Dairy Centre, 1932
Our third stop on Laisves Avenue is next door to the former Pazanga building on the corner of Daukanto Street. Now the School of Economics and Business within Kaunas University of Technology, the former Dairy Centre was the headquarters of Lithuania's milk processing companies. It was designed by Vytautas Landsbergis and built from 1931-32. Occupying a commanding corner position, the exterior is defined by its interactions between vertical and horizontal elements. Each level is marked by uninterrupted panels running the length of the building. The rounded corner has convex glazing descending to the ground floor and main entrance which in turn is shaded by a wide illuminated ledge reminiscent of Parisian department stores. This may have helped it to win the Bronze Medal at the 1937 International Exposition des Arts et des techniques in the French capital. The entire structure is built around a reinforced concrete frame intended to offer the possibility of reshaping the interior if necessary. As with the Pazanga, there was a large basement, this one equipped with an icehouse.

The ground floor originally contained the Dairy Centre shop, a cafe, milk bar and the rather fabulous sounding Muralis men's hairdressing salon which extended over two floors. A few pictures of the salon's interior have survived and show a crisp, functionalist environment with barbers' chairs, large mirrors, screens and wall mounted lighting. The salon was designed by Arnas Funkas - a prominent Lithuanian architect of this period. The administration functions were spread over two floors with apartments at the upper levels - three units to each floor. A number of prominent tenants lived here over the years including Dovas Zaunius, one time Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vince Jonusaite, his opera singer wife. The Dairy Centre was used for various purposes during there Soviet period with the University taking up residence in 1946.

Romuva Cinema, 1940.
During the 1930's, cinema design was heavily influenced by modernist principles. Examples of this can be seen all over the world including in Kaunas. The Romuva cinema is located in a small alley, recessed from Laisves, but still carrying the address of the avenue at number 54. Completed in April 1940, it was the biggest cinema in Lithuania, seating 687 people and benefitting from the most modern technology with mechanical ventilation and state of the art screening equipment. An oval shaped auditorium, special wall coverings and a vaulted reinforced concrete ceiling were included to enhance the acoustics. The decision not to include a circle in the auditorium was taken for the same reason.

The tall glazed advertising tower on the exterior of the cinema was intended to be illuminated with lighting in changing colours. The Second World War had already commenced by the time the cinema was completed and the device needed to provide this lighting feature was held up en route  and so this part of the design was not realised. The main part of the facade is divided by moulded frames and has two rows of different sized windows. The original plan had been to use the upper level for advertising but the windows were installed in order to light the office spaces behind them. A number of changes have been made over the years including moving the ticket office, increasing the slope of the hall and reducing the number of seats to 482. Brothers Antanas and Petras Steikunas, members of the Lithuanian Businessmen's Union commissioned architect Aleksandras Maciulskis  to design their cinema which is still in use today.

Detail, former Daina Cinema, 1940.
Detail, former Daina Cinema, 1940.
There are two modernist cinemas in the Zaliakalnis neighbourhood of the city. Sadly neither of them are being used for their original purpose. The Daina at number 74 Savanoriu is in very poor condition with the main entrance and some of ground floor windows bricked up and the facade covered in grime. Despite this, it is possible to imagine its original grandeur. It still bears the stylised signage carrying the cinema's name, those impressive columns above the entrance and at least a few of the Art Deco style portholes at ground floor level.

Completed in 1936, the Daina could seat 614 viewers across the stalls, balconies and circle. It was designed using the most up to date technology with a roof top ventilation system that blew in fresh heated air as well as extracting stale air. The facade was illuminated by neon tubes which was also technically advanced at the time. Engineer Antanas Breimeris, husband of one of the owners was engaged to design the cinema. When he encountered difficulties he was joined by Stasys Kudokas who was responsible for several Kaunas buildings during this period.

The Daina ceased operating as a cinema after Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, was sold  and used for a time as a carpet shop. It was sold a second time and there were plans to use it as a casino before these were blocked by the municipality. Its future now appears uncertain. A little further along Savanoriu at number 124, a use has been found for the former Pasaka cinema, completed in 1940 and boasting some delightful Art Deco fins on the facade. It is now a "gentleman's club". I suspect not many gentlemen go there.

Resurrection Church, 1933-2006.
The Resurrection  Church is one of Kaunas' most iconic buildings. It has quite a history. Building a new church to commemorate the Lutheran revival was first mooted in 1922 but it was not until 1928, following the purchase of a plot of land on Zaliakalnis Hill, that a competition was held to choose a design. Karolis Reisonas who headed the city's Construction Department was chosen to design the church despite placing only third in the competition. Not only did he not win, but his proposal for an 82 metres high spiral tower with a statue at the summit was rejected on grounds of complexity and cost and a simpler plan adopted. The plan may have been simpler but the resulting church is spectacular. An enormous white structure supported by 1,200 reinforced concrete pillars, it has two towers of differing height, a roof top chapel and can hold more than 5,000 people. For a small fee, visitors may take a lift to the roof terrace and enjoy views across the city.

Most construction took place between 1933 and 1940. Lithuania was first absorbed into the Soviet Union in June 1940 and the church was nationalised. The German occupation came soon after this and during this period it was used as a paper warehouse. The returning Soviets converted it to a radio factory in 1952 but worse was threatened with Stalin demanding demolition of the taller tower and the chapel at one point. It was not until 1990 that the church returned to its original purpose following Lithuanian independence and further construction works continued until 2006.

Resurrection Church 1933-2006.
My final choice for this first of two posts on Kaunas Modernism is the Elias Schneider apartment house on Vaidilutes Street. Designed by Stasys Kudokas, who we came across earlier, it was completed in 1938. The upper levels include two apartments per floor each with three or four rooms. There are three flats in the basement. At time of construction the apartments would have been very desirable - some have more than one bathroom, a number of pantries, balconies and even servants quarters. The asymmetrical facade is a modernist delight with Bauhaus style balconies,  a stone "ladder" on the exterior of the glazed staircase and even Art Deco portholes. The balconies are set within a recessed section of the facade but protrude from the edge of the building, further emphasising the nautical feel suggested by the portholes. The Schneider apartments may be in a poorly maintained side street and the facade could use a good clean but this is still a wonderful example of the confidence and modernity of Kaunas in the pre-war period. 

Schneider apartment building - 1938.
This must have been some city in the 1930's with its many cafes, theatres, cinemas and new sports facilities. Over the last few years, the importance of Kaunas' modernist architecture has been recognised and engaged with due in large part to the efforts of a small number of enthusiasts. This has resulted in an application for World Heritage Status for the city's interwar architecture. If successful, this will bring both opportunities and responsibilities, especially in relation to preservation. Kaunas will be European Capital of Culture in 2022. This will be a great opportunity to showcase the modernist past and to continue the good work being done to promote Kaunas.

The cakes were good too...

I must say thanks to Kkastytis Rudokas for ensuring that I saw some great modernist buildings and also for his Kaunas Modernism Facebook page.

If you wish to read more about the city's 20th and 21st century architecture, the English language version of the book Kaunas Architectural Guide is an excellent guide.

You can see more general pictures of Kaunas here.

Sunday 16 July 2017

London Art Deco and Modernism - Five More

London is home to several hundred Art Deco and modernist buildings from the 1920's and 1930's. This post, the second in a series, highlights some of the city's best examples of the style including apartment blocks, a former factory and a Chinese/ Japanese restaurant! In addition to being diverse in their use, the buildings are spread across the city and this post includes some less well known structures as well as perhaps our best surviving modernist apartment block.

Gwynne House, Hume Victor Kerr, 1938.
I suspect few people would include Whitechapel on a list of places to look for London's best art deco or modernist buildings. Yet, the area has a number of impressive examples of the style, including Gwynne House in Turner Street just off Commercial Road and adjacent to the Royal London Hospital.

Completed in 1938, it is one of three remaining East End modernist structures that were the work of architect Hume Victor Kerr. Built on a reinforced concrete frame, its neat walkways and striking tower are reminiscent of some elements of Bauhaus architecture and provide a sharp contrast to the earlier houses that surround it. The tower was built to house a lift and stairs to each level and originally contained a telephone kiosk for the use of residents. Each flat had two bedrooms, a living room, small kitchen and a bathroom. The design also made provision for heat conservation, the walls being insulated with cork.

The twenty flats were designed to attract students, social workers and professionals who would not only benefit from the modern design but also from the services of a caretaker who was housed in an additional flat on the roof. Over the years a number of tenants worked at or were otherwise connected with the Royal London and for some years the hospital provided subsidised accommodation here for nurses and trainee doctors. In 2012 the block was sold to a developer who undertook renovations and then offered the flats for sale. The metal fence at ground floor level is believed to be original but the portholes doors are not and were added during the renovation, one assumes to add to the slightly nautical feel of Gwynne House. In April this year one of the flats was offered for sale at £445,000 - not cheap but well below the average property price for the area.

Gwynne House, Hume Victor Kerr, 1938.
Former Hunt Partners Factory, Sir Evan Owen Williams, 1939. 
The former Hunt Partners Factory in Theydon Road, Clapton is a short bus ride from Gwynne House.  Built in 1939 it was designed by Sir Evan Owen Williams who designed some London icons of the inter-war period, including the old Wembley Stadium, the former Empire Pool at Wembley and several buildings for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 at Wembley Park. Whilst most of these have been lost, others survive including the modernist designed former Dolis Hill synagogue (now a school) and several bridges. Williams came from humble origins, born in Tottenham to a Welsh couple who had left their farm in Wales to establish a grocers shop in North London.

Now a residential building with some business units, the exterior of the former factory has been well maintained although the original windows have been replaced. The stylised De Havilland signage is a reference to the factory having been used during the Second World War for the manufacture of aircraft for the war effort. Despite the original windows having been replaced, the glazed staircase above the Theydon Road entrance remains attractive as does the pelmet over the doorway. It is a shame that some of the adjacent glass bricks have been obscured by mail boxes.

Detail, former Hunt Partners Factory, Sir Evan Owen Williams, 1939
I doubt that there are many sushi and dim-sum restaurants located in buildings designed by Walter Gropius, father of the Bauhaus Movement, but there is at least one - at 115 Cannon Street in the City of London. Gropius fled Germany in 1934 after the previous year's election that brought Hitler to power. His time in London was relatively short as he moved on to the United States in 1936 but during his time here he worked with Maxwell Fry and was involved in the design of at least two buildings here. The first of these was a house for playwright Ben Levy in Old Church Street, Chelsea, the second also built in 1936 is now the Asian restaurant pictured below.

Just around the corner from the Monument Underground station, 115 Cannon Street was previously a branch of shirt retailers T. M. Lewin. The design echoes the nearby Daily Express offices, with its black vitrolite and lovely glass bricks some of which have been carefully restored in recent years. As well as being attractive, the bricks serve a functional purpose allowing natural light into the basement whilst maintaining privacy and perhaps acting as a "modesty" measure to protect the dignity of passing ladies. The clean, fresh look of this little beauty belies its age and is further evidence of the enduring "modernity" of this architectural style.

115 Cannon Street, Walter Gropius, 1936.
Paramount Court, Verity and Beverley, 1936.
Paramount Court in Tottenham Court Road is in the heart of the West End, close to theatre land and the major shopping, cultural and entertainment area. Imagine how exciting it must have been to live in one of these flats shortly after they were completed in 1936. The block takes its name from the former Paramount Cinema that stood adjacent to it until its closure and almost immediate demolition in 1960. The site then stood empty for an astonishing 55 years. The cinema had been the third largest in the West End which gives some idea of the value of the site. Architects Frank Verity and Sam Beverley designed both the cinema and the apartment block. 

The building has undergone restoration in recent years and the facade has been brought back to its original red brick glory, contrasting with the sharp white balconies and window detailing. The Tottenham Court Road side has a series of semi-closed balconies, the open element of which must give superb views along this main street. My favourite features are the squared off corners and the decorative detail at the upper levels, where different arrangements of the rich red bricks provide a contrast to the more regular lower floors.

When Paramount Court was completed in 1939, it included a public ballroom in the basement. The ballroom hosted Britain's first jitterbug dance competition in November 1939. During the 1940's with the arrival of American troops as well as soldiers from the then colonies, the Paramount became known as a venue where different races mixed. Not everyone welcomed this and there were scandalised responses to advertising posters showing the dancers in action.

Detail, Paramount Court, Verity and Beverley, 1938.
Detail, Paramount Court, Verity and Beverley, 1938.
And so to the grand finale. During the 1930's, Hampstead was home to artists of all disciplines including architects committed to the modernist agenda, many of whom were Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Perhaps the greatest architectural achievement of this movement is the modernist masterpiece known as Isokon Flats in Lawn Road, Belsize Park. Completed in 1934, they were designed by Canadian born and British based architect Wells Coates in response to a commission from entrepreneur Jack Pritchard and his scientist wife, Molly. Both were committed modernists and had established their own design company - Isokon.

Isokon building, Wells Coates, 1934
Wells Coates delivered a four storey block of 34 furnished flats with two rooftop penthouses. It was constructed from reinforced concrete with a cement wash render. A striking five story tower with a glazed facade stands at one end of the building giving stairwell access to each floor whilst a series of cantilevered balconies face Lawn Road. The Isokon is located half way down a very English residential street in leafy Belsize. It would be interesting to know what the locals thought of this spectacular intervention into the 1930's landscape. 

The original interiors were designed to be minimalist with space saving furniture and fittings, fitted kitchens, bathroom, dressing room and one bedroom. Echoing Soviet practice in communal living, there was a shared kitchen, later converted into the Isobar restaurant which operated until 1969 when it was closed and again converted, this time to flats. Originally private, the Isokon was acquired by Camden Council in 1972 before coming under the ownership of the Notting Hill Housing Trust. It was granted Grade I listed status in 1974, the highest status possible, but was neglected over several years and deteriorated badly. A sympathetic restoration in 2003 brought it back to its original grandeur and it now provides accommodation for key workers. 

Isokon building, Wells Coates, 1934
The flats have been home to some very famous people. Writers Agatha Christie and Nicholas Monserrat lived here in the 1930's and 1940's as did modernist icons Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius , Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and many other artists, writers and architects. The building achieved a notoriety in later years when it became known that at least a dozen residents (and probably more) had been involved in spying for the Soviet Union. These included Melita Norwood who worked as a spy for 39 years - longer than any other known spy in the UK. All of this in highly respectable Belsize Park! It is always interesting when a wonderful building has some good stories attached to it.

In the last few years, the Isokon Gallery has been opened at ground floor level.  The exhibition includes architectural models and drawings for the flats, items of furniture from the 1930's, an explanation of modernist philosophy and details on some of the famous (and infamous) residents. The small gallery shop has a nice selection of tempting books, postcards and other items as well as a nice map showing the location of other modernist buildings in the area. The map is a real bargain at just one pound and is a great tool for architecture fans.

Isokon building, Wells Coates, 1934.
All five of the buildings in this post are easy to reach on public transport as are those in the first part of this series - London Art Deco and Modernism - Five Favourites. More London Art Deco and Modernism posts coming soon!

Saturday 8 July 2017

London Art Deco and Modernism - Five Favourites

There are several hundred Art Deco and modernist buildings in London. Unlike Brussels with its Uccle neighbourhood and Melbourne's many suburbs, there is no single Art Deco quarter in London so in order to see our modernist treasures it is necessary to move around the city. This can be a treat in itself as many of the Underground stations were built during the 1930's at the peak of the modernist period and were designed in the style. In addition to the Underground stations, there are also factories, shops, cinemas, theatres, office buildings, banks, at least one car park and many residential Art Deco or Modernist properties in London. It is hard to pick out a single favourite, but this post details five buildings that I especially like...and might well be followed by a post about five more.

Florin Court
Florin Court is tucked away in Charterhouse Square, EC1, just a few steps from the Barbican Underground Station. Completed in 1936, it was designed by Guy Morgan and Partners and comprises 120 flats over nine floors. Morgan had previously worked for the iconic British architect Edwin Lutyens. Its most striking feature is the deliciously undulating beige brick facade which rises to recessed upper floors and a roof garden. The main entrance sports a number of deco features in glass and chrome but works carried out in the lobby included tiling over the original deco features. Perhaps the tiles could be removed at some point to reveal the original splendour. Residents have access to a deco style basement swimming pool introduced in 1980 as well as a small gym, library and, I assume, the private garden in the centre of the square. If this sounds impressive, original residents had access to a basement restaurant, cocktail bar and club room but these are now gone. The restaurant was open to the public.

If Florin Court seems familiar to you despite not having been there, it might be because it was used as the fictional Whitehaven Mansions home of Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot in the late 1980's TV series devoted to his adventures.  The building was listed with Grade II status in 2003.

Florin Court
Ibex House
Ibex House is possibly one of London's best kept architectural secrets and is one of the city's best examples of the Streamline school of modernism. Tucked away in the Minories, near Tower Hill it was built in 1937 and designed by architects Fuller, Hall and Foulsham who were also responsible for Blenstock House in the west end. Built on a steel frame, Ibex House rises to 11 storeys including a basement.

Inspired by Erich Mendelsohn's Schocken Department Store in Berlin it is clad in striking black and beige faience and has the longest strip windows in London. Like Florin Court it has beautiful curves and recessed upper levels as well as dramatic glazed "thermometer" stairwells on the Hayden and Portsoken Street sides of this huge building. There are a number of businesses housed in the building including an Italian cafe which has a wonderful curved glazed entrance.

Inside, there are 200,000 square feet of office space and this is London's largest remaining office building of the 1930's. In 1937, space was offered here for a rental of six shillings per square foot inclusive of cleaning. I suspect it is rather more than that today. And with many buildings there is a story attached to Ibex House. It is said that Hitler wanted it for his command headquarters should he have been successful in invading the UK and therefore ordered that this part of the city not be bombed. I have no idea as to the truth of this but have also heard a similar story about Senate House and the University of London. Given that the Nazis were generally disdainful of the modernist style it seems unlikely but its a good yarn. The building was listed with Grade II status in 1982, protecting it from the fate or several other older buildings in the area, demolished to make way for new office blocks.

Ibex House
Entrance to Italian cafe in Ibex House
Still with commercial properties, the former Hoover Factory in Perivale, West London is another large structure, part of which is now home to a large branch of the Tesco supermarket chain whilst other sections are being converted to flats. Built from 1931-35, it was designed by Wallis, Gilbert and Parters who were responsible for a number of London's best Art Deco and Modernist buildings. The site's proximity to the railway and to the docks made it ideal for distributing Hoover's famous vacuum cleaners. Constructed using snowcrete, a white concrete that retains its white colour in spite of the weather, the exterior is decorated with green and red detail including faience ceramic tiles inspired by ancient Egypt as well as with stylised signage.

It is difficult to photograph the entire site partly due to its size but also because of myriad obstacles including Tesco branding, a huge car park, a dual carriageway on one side of the building and scaffolding and hoardings where the conversion to residential space is being undertaken. However, the Number Seven building, added in 1938, stands proudly and  unobstructed. Formerly the Hoover staff canteen, it is now home to Royal Nawab's Indian restaurant, serving as the London branch of this famous Manchester establishment. A number of structures in this part of the complex were demolished when Hoover quite the site in the 1980's but number seven was saved due to its Grade II listed status. Apart from the addition of the restaurant name, the facade retains all the original features including a 'thermometer" stairwell, full height windows and deco details around the entrance. Curry and architecture in one place. Fantastic.

Number seven building, former Hoover Factory
The extension of the Underground in the 1930's brought many villages formerly on London's periphery within easy reach of the city and work. Better off families began to move out into what became known as Metroland, attracted by the benefits of a better environment and rapid public transport to their place of work. Stanmore Underground station opened in December 1932. Now the final station at the northern end of the Jubilee Line, it was the original terminus of the Metropolitan Line once plans to take the tube as far as Elstree had been abandoned.

The land opposite the station was the property of Sir John Fitzgerald, an Irish Baronet and Knight of Kerry. In 1931 he granted Douglas Wood architects permission for a residential development on part of his estate, just a short walk form the new station. This resulted in the properties now numbered 2,4,6 and 8 Valencia Road, a private road within Harrow Council's Kerry Avenue Conservation Area.

My favourite of these four houses is number 4 which was restored in 2014 under the supervision of English Heritage before being offered for sale at £1,795 million. A bargain. Completed in 1934, it was originally the property of Attilio Azzali who came to London in 1926, fleeing poverty in Italy. He settled in Kings Cross where he established a restaurant before opening two more elsewhere in the city. According to an Azzali family legend, he brought his wife Elvira to Stanmore for a day out in 1932 and fell in love with the area which would still have been largely rural then. This prompted him to buy number 4 which remained in the family's ownership until 2009 when it was sold and restored.

The house has five bedrooms, five bathrooms and a variety of other spaces arranged over three floors. There are also two roof terraces and a feature staircase with a brushed chrome bannister and glass panels. The exterior has some wonderful modernist features including the original crittal style windows, fully restored and now double glazed for a London winter. The beautiful tubular staircase with a glazed panel at midpoint is another striking feature of the facade. And if the residents still can't find somewhere to sit, there is a 130 foot garden at the rear. There are several other modernist houses in the conservation area making a schlep to Stanmore more than worthwhile.

4 Valencia Road, Stanmore
My final choice is another residential building in Downage, a quiet street in Hendon, North-West London. Known as The White House, it was completed in 1935 and was designed by architect Charles Evelyn Simmons for Haymills Ltd, a building and development company active in North London during the 1930's. 

The exterior appears to have been perfectly preserved, possibly thanks to its being listed with grade II status in 1997. The two storey building is constructed from rendered brick with a flat asphalt roof. Built to a square plan, it has rounded corners on the south elevation with continuous windows on both floors. The double entrance doors are set back behind fluted mouldings on either side with a sign bearing the name of the house beneath the balcony above. Another great example of the Streamline school of Modernism, the White House has a nautical feel with the sun room resembling a ship's observation post. The fabulous glazed stairwell gives passers-by a glimpse into the life of the occupants and is topped by a motif inspired by the Art Deco "rule of three". 

The listing record says that some of the internal features have been lost including a fireplace in the drawing room but others survive including taps set into the bathroom wall and a green inset soap holder. There are six bedrooms as well as a substantial rear garden.

Architect Simmons was a local man, born in Hampstead in 1879 and educated at University College School before becoming articled to Horace Field between 1899 and 1903 where he completed his professional training. He commenced practice in 1905 before going on to establish a professional partnership with his former tutor. During the First World War he worked in the Ministry of Health Architects Department but later returned to designing residential properties and even two churches in Scotland.

The White House, 72 Downage.
These are just five examples of London's glorious Art Deco and Modernist buildings. Look out for most posts in this new series.