Wednesday, 11 July 2018

New York City Landmarks No.1 – Flatiron Building

This is the first in a series of postcard collections of well known New York City landmarks. Completed in 1902 as the Fuller Building with 20 floors and a steel frame. Developed on a triangular site, its distinctive wedge shaped profile soon acquired the name Flatiron. Chicago architect Daniel Burnham was responsible for the design and specified the finish on the façade, limestone at the bottom rising to glazed terra-cotta on the upper floors. Corner buildings always demand attention and the Flatiron quickly entered the public consciousness and over the succeeding century has become regarded as one of the city’s essential emblems. Its arrival at the junction of Fifth Avenue and Broadway coincided with the golden age of the postcard. Thus postcard images of the building are abundant and almost all feature the same head-on view. By way of variety, there are some nocturnal views as well. The present owner is an Italian property investment fund with a plan to convert the building into a hotel. The scheme has the approval of city authorities but awaits the conclusion of existing tenancies over the next few years. It will be interesting to see what happens next but the most likely outcome is yet another citadel for the seclusion of high net worth individuals.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Rendsburg Hochbrücke

This rather nondescript postcard was acquired more than 40 years ago at a time when I was looking for cards of bridges. I can even recall where I found it – in a box of cards at the back of an antique shop on Kensington Church Street. The card fails to do justice to the engineering splendour of the subject. Although I found out for myself when I visited last month just how difficult it is to reveal its wonders in a single photograph. Rendsburg is in Schleswig-Holstein on the Nord-Ostsee Kanal (what we would call the Kiel Canal), in territory that was for centuries contested by Denmark and Germany – it was finally incorporated into Prussia in 1866. Arriving on a train from Hamburg, I consulted a map and satisfied myself that a left and left again would soon bring me to the bridge I’d come to see. I couldn’t have been more wrong as I strode into the suburbs – but when I looked left while crossing at traffic lights I observed an extraordinary sight in the distance. The vast superstructure of a cruise ship was inching along, its upper decks towering over a Lidl store, offering a valuable clue to the location of the Canal. My route took me through the working port of Rendsburg via an avenue of warehouses and grain elevators, to the bridge itself.

The reason this bridge is special is that in addition to carrying a busy railway line over the canal at a height that permits ocean-going vessels to pass underneath, it is also a Transporter Bridge enabling a handful of vehicles and pedestrians to traverse in a suspended gondola (Schwebefähre). It was built in just 2 years between 1911 and 1913 to carry the Neumünster to Flensburg railway across the canal. Regrettably, since January 2016 when a myopic navigator allowed his ship to collide with the gondola the transporter function has been inactive. The gondola has been removed and remains in store while its future is debated. Given the very small number of surviving Transporter Bridges, it would be a great loss if it wasn’t restored to use.

Another feature to admire is the engineering solution to the problem of how to route trains to the deck of a bridge that stands 42 metres above the water level. The southern approach involved constructing a 5.5km inclined ramp at a gradient of 1/150. Space on the northern bank was more limited and had to be found by building what has become known as the Rendsburg Loop – a 360 degree circuit (5.5km in length) over the eastern suburbs that crosses over itself before finally returning to ground level on the approach to Rendsburg Bahnhof. It makes for an exhilarating, if occasionally vertigo-inducing, train ride. In a short-lived spirit of optimism I set out on foot to trace the Loop but had to admit defeat as it swooped off into the distance over a hundred gardens before suddenly turning up again in a place that made no sense. I found a place where a public footpath ran underneath, between the towering bridge supports but hopeless confusion soon set in and it was a relief to find the station more or less by accident.

There’s a handily placed waterside bar/restaurant (Brückenterrassen Rendsburg), more or less underneath the bridge where the overhead rumble of passing trains adds to the atmosphere. When a big ship passes the rooms overlooking the canal go dark. They also serve a monumental plate of Bratkartoffeln mit Ei und Schinken. Recommended.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Cadbury Century

When this commemorative brochure was published in 1931, chocolate manufacturers, Cadbury, had a very different relationship with their consumers than exists today. Successive generations of the Cadbury family had presided over the rapidly expanding business, exercising paternalistic control over an army of employees. As Victorians and Quakers they felt a sense of responsibility for the welfare of their workforce for whom they built homes and leisure facilities whilst encouraging a culture of sobriety and self-improvement. The second century was rather different and the family incrementally lost control and eventually, ownership of the business. Global capital took over and the connections with its Quaker origins evaporated.

Not sure how these prestigious brochures were distributed or whether copies went to members of the public or if they were confined to retailers or wholesalers but no expense was spared in the production values. Full colour illustrations throughout, many of them specially commissioned illustrations, and a textured card cover with embossing. The aim was very much to emphasise the continuity of the business and celebrate past achievements – with the onset of the Great Depression, there was little of substance about future plans. The power of our collective serotonin addiction ensures that the industry remains profitable. Cadbury battled for market share and absorbed several of its competitors to the point where further expansion became dependent on moving into other activities. From 1969 to 2008 it traded as Cadbury Schweppes before falling into the clutches of Mondelez in 2010. For Mondelez, Cadbury is just one of a vast portfolio of brands and as long as its performance targets are met, it will survive. If it loses its grip on the market, Mondelez has plenty of ammunition to fall back on – from its corporate HQ in the suburbs of Chicago it controls Toblerone, Suchard, Côte d’Or and Marabou, as well as Fry’s and Terry’s.

The brochure provides a fascinating review of the evolution of graphic styles in packaging and publicity – confectionery manufacturers competed for public attention with eye-catching wrappers and sustained campaigns across a wide range of media. This was the period when railway stations, football stadiums, public houses and High Street shops displayed an enormous gallery of enamel signs. This was followed by the rise of the poster – in the interwar years purpose built poster sites proliferated in town and city centres and suburbs along bus, tram and train routes. Chocolate makers made full use of these opportunities to get their message across. Some idyllic, fanciful views of the factory premises are included – a little steam engine, smartly turned out in company colours, puffs past with a trainload of company wagons on a perfect summer day. It’s the largest cocoa factory in the world, we are assured. The workers themselves are largely absent save for a picture of some white-coated female employees relaxing in a conspicuously sober and responsible fashion.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Past and Present No. 12: Hamburg Hochbahn

The postcard is captioned – Hamburg, Hafen mit Hochbahn. It dates from 1905-10 and shows a train departing from Landungsbrücken station. Over a century later the details have changed but the topography is easily recognisable. I took the contemporary photo on June 6th. and got as close as possible to the viewpoint of the postcard. To enable a closer comparison, the photo had to be cropped, which all but eliminated the latest addition to Hamburg’s river frontage. The uncropped original shows the elevated railway follows the same path but the skyline is now dominated by the Elbphilharmonie, designed by Herzog and De Meuron and completed in 2017. It’s a remarkable building – the glass walled wedge with pointy roof has been constructed on top of a brick built warehouse dating from 1963. There’s a public observation deck at the point where the two elements meet – as well as fascinating views over the port, it offers the visitor a chance to wander through some of the strange interiors where rippling curtains of curving glass confuse the eye.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Lübeck Signage

Lübeck is a port city with an illustrious past as the capital of the Hanseatic League for over 200 years. Today’s city is about the size of Plymouth, although, unlike Plymouth, the city opted to rebuild and restore its architectural treasures destroyed or damaged in the Second World War. The result is a rich heritage of beautifully restored buildings in streets that offer superb perspectives. Although easy on the eye there is a lingering flavour of a museum piece about much of the city. It’s somehow reassuring to look upward and observe that many of the celebrated Brick Gothic stepped gables are one-dimensional stage sets, held in place by all too visible ties. I always look for shop signs – as a place where a business can assert its individuality – and Lübeck was better supplied than average. The selection displayed here is a mix of the traditional and the generic with an occasional eccentricity.