Monday, 27 April 2015

Charleville Circus – a South London Street

For the admirer of unusual street configurations, Charleville Circus in Sydenham with its twin concentric rings of substantial dwellings is a spatially intriguing prospect. Homes on the inner circle have pie-slice gardens that all meet at a single point. The developers who financed the Crystal Palace’s journey from Hyde Park to Sydenham purchased substantial parcels of land adjacent to what would become Crystal Palace Park for residential development designed to fund the project. Many of these 4 and 5 storey hyper-ornate Victorian villas survive to the present in Crystal Palace Park Road and on Sydenham Hill. As the project approached completion the last site to be built on was that of the former brick works that had supplied the entire development with building materials. The plot, wedged between Crystal Palace Park Road and Westwood Hill would become Charleville Circus when completed in the mid-1880s. The architecture doesn’t quite live up to the splendour of the layout, for the most part lacking the richness of detail that distinguished earlier phases of the development. The sense of circularity is undermined on the west side where the buildings followed a linear orientation. It’s hard to escape the feeling that there was an indecent haste to bring the development to a rapid conclusion and not squeeze profit margins by providing unnecessary architectural embellishments. 

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Meet the Middletons

They came from Indiana to New York in 1939 to gaze in innocent wonder at the glorious future foreshadowed by the multiple attractions of the World’s Fair. Their ecstatic expressions in this image suggest they may be witnessing the Assumption of the Virgin – well worth the long journey from Indiana. Muncie, Indiana was well known as America’s social barometer and led by Robert and Helen Lynd, social scientists had recorded an immense amount of detail about family life and employment in a city that became known as Middletown America. By selecting Indiana as the Middleton’s home state Westinghouse Electric Corporation intended to underline the association of their project with the aims and aspirations of the statistically average American. Studies of Munsonians and Middletown continue to the present day

Westinghouse’s origins were in railroad brake and signal technology but the business expanded to include all manner of electrical engineering and in designing the Westinghouse Pavilion they planned to reveal the full extent to which their products were part of a new world of labour-saving devices and consumer goods. In addition to a dazzling display of gadgetry and electronic wizardry there was a robot (Elektro the Moto-Man) in attendance to impress the visitors, all in the shadow of the Singing Tower of Light. The budget was stretched to include a 55 minute feature film (The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair) shot in Technicolor with a cast of professional actors. Generating publicity came first but a major objective was to address popular misconceptions about capitalism and new technologies. Six years of FDR and federal intervention in the economy had put big business on the defensive, inspiring the screenwriters to prepare a scenario in which the un-American critics of capitalism were comprehensively squashed by good-old all-American common sense and optimism. It may not be the most subtle example of corporate film-making but no opportunity is wasted to communicate the ideological message. 

The Middleton family (Mother, Father and bumptious youngster, Bud) have arrived in New York for the World’s Fair. They are reunited with elder daughter Babs at the Grandmother’s home in suburban New York. Babs has been studying art in the city and come under the malign influence of her teacher (Nicholas Makaroff) who has turned her head with anti-materialist rhetoric and talk of Abstract Art. At the Westinghouse pavilion the Middletons meet up with Babs’s high school sweetheart Jim Treadway who works there as a guide. Jim is an articulate ambassador for Westinghouse and explains the wonders of Westinghouse to his captive audience and genially bats away any hints of scepticism. Battle is joined when Jim meets Nick, with Babs as the prize. Nick is a notably grumpy dissident, sneering at the “Temple of Capitalism” and complaining about the impact of automation on employment. With arms folded defensively, Jim drops the mask of affability and gives Nick a serious lesson in the facts, quoting well-rehearsed statistics to undermine his every argument.

Despite all this Nick continues to press his affections on the ever-loyal but increasingly conflicted, Babs. Later, as they relax together in contemplation of some of Nick’s abstract art, Babs is moved to request a definition of abstract form. Nick explains, “Abstract form is the essential substructure, in short the fundamental rhythm underlying our conceptions of spatial limitations. Do I make myself clear?” Nick is emboldened to offer Babs what he claims is a priceless ring that has been in his family for generations – when she hesitates he accuses her of being provincial. Under duress she accepts, but Nick’s clumsy amorous advance is firmly repelled – the writing’s on the wall. See it for yourself at the Prelinger Archive.

In a tortuous conclusion, Nick’s dishonesty is exposed when the ring is shown to be a $2 piece of costume jewellery purchased in a novelty emporium. The Middletons celebrate Nick’s humiliation and the triumph of capitalism by returning to the Westinghouse pavilion, where Jim and Babs embrace and collectively direct their gaze toward the Singing Tower of Light, overawed by the scale of transformation promised by Westinghouse technology. Aside from the ideological conflict the best entertainment is provided by the dishwashing contest between Mrs Modern (with her Westinghouse Dish Washer) and Mrs Drudge (chained to her sink, exhausted and vanquished) and the performance of Elektro the automatom who can count to five and smoke a cigarette. Babs is unimpressed, “All he lacks is a heart.” Jim glowers in the direction of Nick, “He’s not the only one.” Unsurprisingly it all takes place in a universally white world with African-American characters confined to positions of service.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Paris Métro Line 6

Métro Line 6 starts and finishes north of the Seine but for most of its length loops through the outer southern arrondissements flying high above the boulevards with intermittent subterranean descents. From east to west it begins underground at L’Etoile, emerging into the daylight at Passy before launching itself across the river on the Pont Bir-Hakeim. It follows a green corridor on a viaduct through the 15th. and 14th. until descending to tunnel beneath the Montparnasse district after which a second elevated section extends to Place d’Italie where it dips below ground again. Another rooftop glide leads via Quai de la Gare, recrossing the river at Pont de Bercy whence the line runs underground to Nation with only a brief burst of daylight at Bel-Air. 

Westbound train entering Bir Hakeim station

Line 6 as seen from the top of Tour Montparnasse

Aerial view of Sèvres Lecourbe station

Platforms at Quai de la Gare

Bel-Air where the train briefly surfaces

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Postcard of the Day No. 73 – Sand bathing in Japan

For anyone in search of geo-thermal excitement, the city of Beppu in the southernmost Japanese region of Kyushu is the place to visit. Hot springs bubble out of the earth in multiple locations while hydrothermal vents emit plumes of super-heated water. On the beach this heated water seeps into the volcanic sands in which the locals are happy to be all but interred in order to enjoy the therapeutic benefits on offer. If these postcards are any guide this also offers an opportunity for some serious posing – bathers display an impressive nonchalance towards the rising tide outside their field of vision. Western participants describe the agonies to be endured when arms and hands are buried and bodily itching breaks out. None of the Japanese bathers visible here have been silly enough to place themselves in that position. 

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Advertising Cutaways

Cutaway drawings were valuable advertising tools in an age where dazzling the consumer with engineering complexity was an effective strategy. This glamorous Art Deco tableau from General Motors is publicising the Chicago Century of Progress exhibition in 1933-34. The GM pavilion included a functioning production line turning out Chevrolet saloons, a fact that apparently enraged Henry Ford when he heard about it – especially as Ford had chosen not to exhibit until year two (1934). By this time the two major car-makers had seen off or absorbed most of the minor players in the industry and the exhibition would become virtually a private battle-ground between GM and Ford. Below is a selection of advertising cutaways from the pages of mid-century magazines of varying degrees of complexity and ingenuity. Some of them are especially extreme in their disruption of topographical integrity and offer the diverting spectacle of human beings striding purposefully to the edge of a precipice or descending a disassembled staircase, oblivious to the hideous fates that await them. 

Friday, 6 March 2015

Lion de Belfort

The world population of carved lions must rival that of the living and breathing variety. An association with nature at its most powerful and ruthless is universally desired by princes and tyrants. Despite occupying the summit of the food chain, the lion is routinely identified with superhuman courage and stamina unlimited. When the French nation was absorbing the humiliation sustained during the comprehensive military defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1870-71, the heroic resistance of the French troops and local volunteers at the Siege of Belfort was a rare instance of successful defiance and quickly became an essential national story. In the interest of salvaging some vestige of national pride the event was celebrated by commissioning a massive carved lion to adorn the rock-face outside the town of Belfort. The work was carried out by Frédéric Bartholdi and completed in 1880. Bartholdi was the foremost monumental sculptor of his age and would become world famous for his carving of the Statue of Liberty. A more modest version of the Lion of Belfort was installed in a major street intersection to the south of Montparnasse that takes its present name (Place Denfert-Rochereau) from the name of the French commanding officer at Belfort. As the access point for the Parisian Catacombs, Place Denfert-Rochereau was formerly known as Place d’Enfer. Thus it could be renamed with minimal disruption. 

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Postcard of the Night No. 9, Spartanburg SC

The huge water tank is an outstanding structure of Camp Croft, SC. It can be seen many miles away and is a guide to aviators, military and commercial, whose route takes them through the Piedmont section of South Carolina. It stands 106 ft. high, 90 ft. in diameter, and when full holds nearly 2½ million gallons, and is the largest water tank in the state. 

I can never see these tanks without being reminded of the lurid sequence of events that Donna Tartt orchestrated in the climax to “The Little Friend”.