Saturday 21 July 2018

Picture Post 69 - The Former Rex Cinema, Bethnal Green.

Half way along Bethnal Green Road in East London stands a rather sad looking building, its facade partially covered in fly posted hoardings and well established weeds visible at the upper levels. This is the former Rex Cinema, one of London's many "lost" Art Deco buildings.

The site was originally occupied by Smarts Picture House which opened in 1913 and was part of a chain of several East End cinemas operated by one George Smart. The original building was the work of architect Philip Tree whose design included a large hexagonal tower, a low entrance facade and a single screen auditorium with seating for 865 patrons. Unlike many cinemas of this period there was no balcony and film goers were all seated at ground floor level. A small stage was available for other types of performance and two dressing rooms were included in the design.

The building was extensively remodelled in 1938 under the supervision of George Coles who was responsible for several cinemas in the Odeon chain of impresario Oscar Deutsch. The tower and facade were demolished and replaced with a new, streamlined design. The new look included a fabulous new tower with a fin at its centre surrounded by a semi-circular recess. Murals were added in the auditorium together with a stepped ceiling and new lighting. The cinema re-opened towards the end of the year as the Rex. The new name was displayed in neon lights at the top of the fin. St. Louis Blues starring Dorothy Lamour and Exposed with Glenda Farrell were amongst the first screenings.

The Rex operated until 1949 when it was renamed the Essoldo and became part of the chain of the same name. The chain was founded by Solomon Sheckman in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the 1930's. The company name was made up of the first two letter of the names of his wife, Esther (ES), himself (SO) and his daughter Dorothy (DO). Sheckman also owned the former Empress cinema in nearby Hackney.

The Essoldo lasted only a little longer than the Rex had and closed in 1964. Christopher Lee's Devil Ship Pirates was its final screening. Like many other cinemas that closed in the 1960's and 70's, it was converted into a bingo hall but this too closed in 1990. After this, Frankie Trimmings, a wholesale business selling soft furnishing trimmings took over the building. At some point the former large glass fronted boxes that had displayed stills from films were removed but otherwise the building was maintained in relatively good condition until 2015 when the company moved out. Since then the interior has been gutted (and possibly part demolished) and its current condition, at least what can be seen of it, is not good. 

However, there may still be a future for the former cinema as in October last year plans were announced to convert the building into a boutique hotel using the former Rex name with a single screen cinema and a rooftop bar and restaurant. Details of the proposals can be seen here and appear to retain some of the original facade design.

There are some good internal images of the former cinema here.

Friday 13 July 2018

In The Steps of Vienna's Modernists

Vienna 1900 saw a burst of artistic innovation and creativity that still influences us today. This included challenges to the established historicist architectural style in which much of the city was built, but which did not represent a growing modern metropolis. Several of the architects involved in this new movement were Jewish as were many of those who commissioned homes and commercial premises in the new styles.

This Jewish embracing of modernity may in part, have been an attempt to achieve greater acceptance and emancipation in a time of both opportunity and extreme anti-semitism. The arts presented fewer barriers to the participation of Jews than did other areas and even anti-semites had little objection to using Jewish patrons to fund them. Also during this time many Jews converted to Christianity, with varying degrees of conviction, or were completely secular and for some art and culture became a kind of religion.

The first major movement to challenge the artistic establishment, the Vienna Secession group, was established in 1897. A reaction to the conservative style of the established artists organisation, Vienna Kunstlerhaus, the  founding members included Gustav Klimt, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, in particular by Charles Rennie McIntosh, but developing the style we now know as Jugendstil or Art Nouveau.

The Secession building, Joseph Maria Olbrich, 1897.
Architect Otto Wagner, although not a founding member, became a leading light in the group. In 1896 he had published his ideas on the role of architects, advocating the use of new materials and new forms to reflect changes in society. His influence on Viennese architecture of the early 1900's cannot be over emphasised. As Professor of Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts, his students included Hoffmann, Olbrich and others who would make major contributions to the city's landscape. He was also responsible for a range of iconic art nouveau buildings including the Postal Savings Bank, the Steinhof Church, the Karlsplatz Sation and the Majolica House. In the early part of his career he was engaged to design the Rumbach synagogue in Budapest, completed in 1872 and built in the Moorish style.

Majolica House, Otto Wagner, 1898-99
The Eighth Secession Exhibition took place in November 1900 and Hoffmann declared a desire to broaden its scope to include applied arts. He had been influenced by and wished to emulate Charles Roberts Ashbee's Guild of Handicraft workshops. By 1903, Hoffmann and Moser had managed to persuade the Jewish textile manufacturer and financier Fritz Waerndorfer and his artist wife, Lilly, to provide financial backing for such a project and the Wiener Werkstatte was established. Workshops were set up for metalwork, gold and silver work, bookbinding, leatherwork and carpentry together with architectural offices and an exhibition gallery. Hoffmann moved his office there and with Moser defined the principles of the Werkstatte as "...intimate contact between public, designer and produce good simple domestic requisites. We start from the purpose in hand and our strength has to lie in good proportions and materials well handled. We will seek to decorate but without any compulsion to do so...". The Werkstatte would go on to produce thousands of items including furniture, textiles, glass and metal objects. In 1905 a fashion department was added, producing men's and women's clothes and from 1907 until the beginning of the First World War the graphic design department produced almost 1000 postcards including several to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Many of the Werksatte's workforce were Jewish.

Hoffmann and Moser were prolific artists in their own right. Moser produced some of the most significant graphic work of the twentieth century including the much copied cover of the first edition of the Secessionist magazine, Ver Sacrum, the mosaics and stained glass windows in Wagner's Steinhof Church and countless posters, stamps, glass, textiles and ceramics. All of this was in addition to his large body of work as a painter and furniture designer.

Moser was not the only artist of the period who excelled across a range of disciplines. Hoffmann was similarly talented. Born in what is now the Czech Republic he studied under and then worked for Otto Wagner. He designed the spaces for several of the Secession exhibitions before quarrelling with its members over artistic vision and leaving in 1905. His association the Werkstatte was to last much longer, until the organisation closed in 1932. His chairs were particularly important and several are displayed in Vienna's Museum of Applied Arts.

Much of his architecture from this period appears to predict the modernist styles of the 1920's and 1930's. His Sanatorium Purkersdorf was ccommissioned by Jewish musicologist Viktor Zuckerkandl. Built in 1904 this weekend rest home with baths and physical therapy is devoid of decoration, with smooth lightly coloured walls, windows without frames or ledges and white furnishings denoting hygiene and cleanliness. Hoffmann's "total design" approach included the interior furnishings produced by Werkstatte artists. This concept was carried over into his most famous architectural work, the Palais Stoclet in Brussels. Work on the building commenced in 1906 and was not completed until 1911. Hoffmann was also responsible for the interior and designed furniture to complement the spaces. He engaged the help of the finest artists and craftsmen to work on the interior, including Gustav Klimt who designed a frieze for the dining hall. Hoffman took his concept to extremes, even designing a dress for Madame Stoclet as he felt her Paul Poiret creations  clashed with the decor.

He was later to become problematical, voting for the unification of Austria and Germany and accepting a commission to design a club for Wehrmacht officers during the Second World War. He survived the war years and died in 1956 aged 85.

Former Goldman and Salatsch store, Adolf Loos, 1909-1912 (known as the Loos Haus)
By 1907, the Secessionist style receded in favour of a less decorative, more functional approach. This movement was led by a number of architects including Adolf Loos. Born in Brno in 1870 he failed to complete his studies at Dresden University of Technology, but was to become one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century. Briefly associated with the Secession, he quickly broke with them, advocating a new approach with smooth, clear surfaces stripped of ornamentation and a utilitarian layout. In his 1913 essay "Ornament and Crime" he argued that cultural progress is dependent on the deletion of ornament from everyday objects, declaring it a crime for craftsmen to "waste time" on ornamentation as it hastens obsolescence. This did not however prevent him from designing sumptuous interiors making extensive use of stone, marble and wood, arguing that there is a distinction between organic and superfluous decoration.

Despite his views being unpopular with many of his contemporaries he won a number of commissions from 1904 onwards including for shops and cafes. He is perhaps best known for what is now called the "Loos House" originally designed as a store for the Jewish tailoring company Goldman and Salatsch. The building drew severe criticism from many quarters including Emperor Franz Joseph I due to the absence of decoration on the facade leading to it being called "the house without eyebrows". This was despite Loos having placed four richly veined green Cipollino marble columns at the entrance as a response to the Michael Church portico opposite.

Knife Men's Outfitters, Adolf Loos, 1913
The interior is less austere and includes mahogany walls, mirrored panelling, brass wall lamps and staircase railings and a marble panelled stairway. Damaged during the Second World War the building  has twice undergone restoration and since 1989 it has been the main branch of the Raiffeissenbank. Loos was assisted in this project by a young Jewish civil engineer called Ernst Epstein who was to later design a number of buildings in the city. He committed suicide in 1938 following the Anchluss. Many of Loos' other buildings have survived until today. Three of them are within easy reach of the Loos Haus - the Knize menswear store (1909-1913), the famous American Bar on Karnterstrasse (1907-8) and the earlier Cafe Museum which dates from 1899.

Loos was not Jewish but many of his clients and associates were including philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, composer Arnold Schonberg and writers Peter Altenberg and Karl Kraus. In addition to this, two of his three marriages were to Jewish women. He believed strongly that modern design could act as a vehicle for Jewish emancipation and referred to this as being part of his opposition to the Secessionist style which was heavily embraced by Jewish clients. He described secessionist interior furnishings as "nothing but disguised caftans" . The caftan would immediately identify an Orthodox Jew, steeped in tradition and at least in the minds of others, someone opposed to modernity hence his comparison of the garment to the Secessionist style. This despite the fact that the Secessionists themselves had rebelled against historicism.

In later life he suffered from a range of ailments including cancer, deafness, strokes and possibly dementia. He was also at the centre of a child sex scandal from which he was only partly exonerated. He died in 1933.

Josef Frank was perhaps Vienna's most accomplished Jewish architect of the period. He graduated from the relatively conservative Technical University of Vienna and by 1913 was drawing up plans for town houses including at 3 Wilbrandtgasse. Working with two other Jewish architects, Oskar Wlach and Oskar Strnad he designed the house for Doctor Emil and Agnes Scholl. It exemplifies Frank's ideas on architecture, with a simple facade, devoid of ornamentation but given character by the asymmetrical arrangement of portholes on the middle floor and windows at the upper level. It would be easy to take the building for a 1930's construction as similar to Hoffmann and Loos, Frank's approach predicts later modernist developments.

Werkbundseidlung, this building by Andre Lurcat, 1930-32
Werkbundseidlung, this building by Joseph Hoffman, 1930-32
Frank was critical to the modernist movement that developed more fully in the 1930's. He was the driving force behind the Werkbundsiedlung estate in Vienna's thirteenth district which he saw as a reaction to the monolithic housing estates built elsewhere during the period. His project included single and multi-family houses in a healthy environment, exploring different spatial and functional approaches. As well as designing one of the buildings himself he managed to recruit Loos, Hoffmann, Richard Neutra and the Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld to work on the Werkbundsiedlung. Like Hoffmann, Frank was an accomplished interior designer, setting up the Haus and Garten company in 1925. He was to leave Austria for Stockholm in 1933, becoming a Swedish citizen in 1939. He spent the next three decades working for the Svensk Tenn company where his work remains in demand today.

Another Jewish architect Arthur Gruenberger designed two of the houses on the Werkbundsiedlung estate. He was also responsible for the Eitelbergrasse synagogue in the city's thirteenth district. Completed in 1926, it was a rare example of a modernist religious building. Photographs show an imposing rectangular form relieved with substantial glazing and discrete references to a more Levantine style on the entrance with arches on each flank. The synagogue was one of 93 destroyed on Kristalnacht in November 1938 leaving only the Stadttempel standing in the centre of the city and this only due to its being surrounded by non-Jewish owned properties. Dating from 1826, the Stadttempel is still active today. Gruenberger left for the United States in 1935 and went on to work as a Hollywood set designer.

Interior, Stadttempel, Joseph Kornhausel, 1824-26 
The First World War interrupted Vienna's golden years and then in 1918 a world wide flu epidemic claimed the lives of several of its leading artists including Gustav Klimt. The 1920's and 1930's were politically unstable decades that saw street battles between left and right wing groups and of course, in 1938, Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss. Many Jews and other opponents of the regime fled, some of them, such as Frank, establishing successful careers elsewhere. Others were less fortunate such as Frank's client Agnes Scholl who was murdered in Auschwitz whilst others also did not survive the war.

An edited version of this post appeared in Jewish Renaissance magazine in July 2018. 

Thursday 12 July 2018

London - Modernist Magnet and Art Deco Destination

London has many Art Deco and modernist buildings. The cinemas, theatres and tube stations are well known but represent only a small proportion of the city's inter-war architecture, examples of which can be found right across London, often in unexpected places. Many of these buildings deserve to be better known, including those featured in this article. 

Ibex House is possibly one of London's best kept architectural secrets and a superb example of  streamline modernism. Tucked away in the East End, near Tower Hill, it was built in 1937 and was designed by architects Fuller, Hall and Foulsham who also designed Blenstock House, the famous Bonham's art auctioneers' showrooms in the more fashionable West End.

Ibex House, Fuller, Hall and Houlsham, 1937.
Inspired by Erich Mendelsohn's Schocken Department Store in Berlin, Ibex House was built on a steel frame and rises to 11 storeys including a basement. It is clad in striking black and beige faience and has the longest strip windows in London. It also has some beautifully curved elements, recessed upper levels and dramatic glazed "thermometer" stairwells on one side of the building. The original stylised lettering displaying the building's name has been retained as have the wonderful curved glass windows of the ground floor Italian cafe. 

It is a huge building and with 200,000 square feet of office space it is London's largest remaining office block of the 1930's. In 1937, space was offered here for a rental of six shillings per square foot, inclusive of cleaning. I am sure that today's rate is significantly more! As with many buildings in this city, Ibex House has a story attached to it. 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 area not be bombed. I am unable to verify the truth of this but have heard a similar story about Senate House and the University of London. Given that the Nazis were generally disdainful of all things modernist it seems unlikely, but nonetheless is a good yarn. The building received Grade II  listed status in 1982, protecting it from the fate of several of its former neighbours, demolished to make way for new office blocks. 

4 Valencia Road, Douglas Wood, 1934.
Stanmore in North-West London is one of several places that were developed due to the extension of the Underground system in the 1930's. The extended network brought many former villages on London's periphery within easy reach of the city and work. Many more affluent families chose to move out into what became known as Metroland, attracted by the benefits of a better environment as well as rapid transport to their place of work. 

Stanmore Underground Station opened in December 1932 and the previous year permission was given for a residential development on the land around it. As part of this development, architect Douglas Wood designed numbers 2, 4, 6 and 8 in Valencia Road, all of them in art deco style. Now a private road, it has been included in one of the local authority's conservation areas. In 2015 number 4 was restored under the supervision of English Heritage before being offered for sale at a cool £1.75 million. It has five bedrooms, five bathrooms and a variety of other spaces designed over three floors. There are two roof terraces and a spectacular staircase with a brushed chrome bannister and glass panels. The original Crittal windows have survived but have been double glazed to cope with the English winter. 

The house was completed in 1934 and was originally the property of Attilio Azzali who came to London in 1926, fleeing poverty in Italy. He settled in the Kings Cross area where he established a restaurant and then two more in other parts of the city. According to the Azzali family legend he brought his wife Elvira to Stanmore for a day out in 1932. He fell in love with the area which would still have been rural then and so purchased one of the four houses being built by the Douglas Wood Partnership. The family retained the house until 2009 when it was sold and restored.

Kingsley House, Peter Caspari, 1934.
Still in North London, Willesden Green is home to another magnificent modernist building. Kingsley Court is surrounded by large, slightly forbidding Victorian houses common across this part of London. Architect Peter Caspari designed the building for Davis Estates. Construction commenced in 1933 and was completed the following year. There are 54 flats over six storeys designed on a z-shaped plan in part due to the very narrow site at the junction of two roads and adjacent to railway tracks. Caspari worked creatively within these restrictions, producing a design with undulating and recessed features, a tower on the curved corner and a white banded facade on the main road. The main entrance is set in a curved protruding lobby, topped with fenestration and leading to a recessed central stairwell. The glazing is divided by four white bands echoing the thicker rendering on the main facade. Kingsley Court was granted Grade ll listed status in 2000.

The architect was a German Jewish refugee who had been an active member of an anti-Nazi organisation. He fled Germany in 1933 after being tipped off by his chauffeur that he was to be arrested, first going to Switzerland before coming to London. He quickly learned English in order to secure work and Kingsley Court was one of his first commissions. It has been described as the first Expressionist building in the UK which should come as no surprise since Caspari had previously worked with Erich Mendelsohn as well as having had contact with Walter Gropius and Mies van Der Rohe. He would design one more apartment block in London before emigrating to Canada after the War, where he was responsible for several buildings in Toronto and Calgary.

Cholmley Lodge, Guy Morgan, 1935.
Cholmley Lodge in Highgate was built in 1935 and was the work of Guy Morgan. Morgan also designed the more well known Florin Court in the City of London which has featured in a number of episodes of the TV series "Poirot". The Lodge has about 50 flats and has an unusual and striking facade with a deep scooped recess. It was constructed with yellow bricks and cast stone with steel horizontal bar casement windows. There are four entrances with fluted surrounds and a curved canopy, each bearing the name of the block in stylised lettering. Boldly projecting, squared off balconies on every floor enhance the overall impact. Each section has a staircase tower leading to a flat roof designed as a sun deck and which must offer spectacular views across the city. Reflecting both the modernity and class divisions of the 1930's, the design included a series of lifts for residents and separate staircases for tradesmen - the latter at the rear of the building. It received Grade ll listed status in 2003 for both architectural and historical interest.

If things had gone as planned, Cholmeley Lodge would never have been built in London. It was originally intended for Bournemouth but was rejected by the local planners as they found the ultra-modern design too stark and demanded that the elevation be softened with Tudor style timber work. Thankfully, the architect refused to comply and Bournemouth's loss became Highgate's gain. The apartments are considered to be very desirable and in 2016 one sold for £1.3 million.

I suspect few people would put Whitechapel on a list of places to look for London's best Art Deco or modernist buildings. However the area has a number of impressive examples of the style, including Gwynne House which is tucked away in a side street behind the Royal London Hospital. Completed in 1938 it is one of three remaining modernist buildings in the East End that were designed by 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 older 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, a small kitchen and a bathroom. The design also made provision for heat conservation and the walls were insulated with cork.

Gwynne House, Hume Victor Kerr, 1938
The twenty flats were intended 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 which for some years provided subsidised accommodation here for nurses and trainee doctors. In 2012 the building was sold to developers who undertook renovation and then offered the flats for sale. The metal fence at ground floor level is thought to be original but the porthole doors are not and were added during the renovation, presumably to enhance the nautical references. Although Whitechapel remains one of the cheaper areas of London in which to buy property, a flat in Gwynne House could set you back about £0.5 million.

These are just a few examples of London's large and impressive collection of Art Deco and modernist buildings which as well as apartment blocks and offices include a recently restored swimming pool, a former laundry and even a car park. The city should be on the list of must visit places for all deco devotees.

This article will appear in a forthcoming edition of Spirit of Progress, the quarterly magazine of the Art Deco and Modernism Society of Australia. The Society organises walks, talks and other events across Australia but the membership is drawn from all over the world. You can see their Facebook page here.