Saturday, 30 October 2010

Where Are They Now?

Today, a mystery. Where is this bronze figure of a running man from the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont? Did he simply take off on his own one night and go on running ever faster in the direction of La Villette? Or was he the victim of some other indignity, like the Henry Moore bronze, stolen in Essex and melted down for scrap? The empty plinth has a reproachful air and demands some closure. Somebody, somewhere must know.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Catch Them Young

Manufacturers of food products were swift to catch on to the notion that the surest way to attract the consumer is via their offspring. If the product is offering attractive low-value freebies the children will promote the product to their parents at no extra cost. The child of the 1930s, from whence these examples come, had simple and uncomplicated tastes – some fey illustrations of nursery rhymes, an alphabet or a painting book were enough to engage their interest. The subject matter suggests a consensus view that daughters exercised greater influence on parental buying habits than their brothers, all too busy indulging an unhealthy obsession with Meccano to take any interest in shopping.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Postcard of the Day No. 40, Porte Dauphine

Taking a break from the delights of Merseyside, we return to the familiar streetscape of Paris. To Porte Dauphine in the north-west of the 16e where the last surviving Hector Guimard édicule marks the western extremity of Métro line 2. This is Paris at the turn of the century, the city of La Revue Blanche and Les Maîtres de l’Affiche. A low wintry sun slants across the wide open space of what is now avenue Foch, the haute bourgeoisie is taking the air. Horse-drawn transport monopolises the view, motor vehicles have yet to intrude on the scene. A mother and daughter hold hands as an officer of the law, complete with obligatory moustache, passes by. Fin-de Siècle fashion victims take centre stage, skirts are raised above street level by well-practised gloved hands and the prudent carry tightly furled umbrellas at precisely the correct angle. The two couples walking towards us make an interesting contrast between confidence and pretension. The couple on the right have a prissy air about them that betrays a certain anxiety to conform but it’s the couple in the centre who compel attention. This is a gentleman whose raffish grin has escaped from the deep shadow concealing the rest of his face and exhibits the self assurance to defy convention by wearing an unbuttoned overcoat. His companion favours the camera with a pert smile with just the tiniest hint of intimacy while the miracle of modern corsetry enables her to flaunt an unfeasibly slender waistline. The transformative power of the carte postale has extended the life-span of their images and there remains something impressive in the way they stride with purpose towards a new century, happy and contented with their anonymous parts in the great human comedy.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Tunnel Visions

The Liverpool skyline is justly celebrated but something of its splendour is owed to the presence of a clutch of windowless monolithic towers constructed for the ventilation of the Mersey tunnels. The cutaway drawing above, courtesy of the indispensable 1930s part-work Wonders of World Engineering, explains all. Enormous turbo-fans scoop massive volumes of stale and polluted air from the tunnels below and allow fresh air to replace it, making it possible for motorists to complete their subterranean crossings without fear of suffocation.

George's Dock Ventilation and Control Station at the Pier Head is the most ornamented of all the towers. This was an age of big engineering statements (Bankside Power Station) to which the mass audience was broadly receptive. Technology enjoyed a much greater respect from the public for whom there remained a positive association with progress toward a better world for all. The tower (left below) was designed by Liverpool's most eminent inter-war architect, Herbert J Rowse as he left behind the classicism of India Buildings (1923-30) in favour of the Art Deco/Aztec/Streamline-inspired styling on display here. The tower was faced with Portland Stone and inscribed with stripes and repeat patterns. The surface was embellished with relief sculptures by Edmund C Thompson and an extraordinary elongated carved figure to represent Speed (by Thompson again, with assistance from George C Capstick) complete with helmet, goggles and emerging motorcycle wheel.

The Woodside Tower at Birkenhead (right above) has a ziggurat contour and a carved relief of a Machine Age column. After more than 75 years these uncompromising buildings have become accepted as part of the city’s skyline although there must have been some who found them intolerably brutal when they first appeared. Whether the recently completed Pier Head Ferry Terminal, holder of the Carbuncle Cup for 2009 will command a future place in the affections of Merseysiders remains to be seen.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Birkenhead Blues

Towns and cities whose eminence is overshadowed by larger, more illustrious neighbours nearly always have much to commend them. Their charms go unobserved while their neighbours monopolise public attention. Gateshead and Newcastle is a prime example although as Gateshead revealed an adventurous appetite for contemporary architecture the response of its larger neighbour was to assimilate it under the neologism of Newcastle-Gateshead. The Mersey is much wider than the Tyne and Liverpool has made no such advances toward Birkenhead leaving the treasures on the south-western shore relatively uncelebrated. The town has a generous supply of vintage pubs and the Pier Hotel has the added attraction of a fine ceramic facade in green tiling with period lettering and an exceptional coat of arms for the Birkenhead Brewery Co. Ltd. displayed on the corner. Although externally in good condition the pub has been closed since 2006 and its location, alongside a busy one-way traffic circulation, suggests it may remain that way.

Not far away is Hamilton Square station (1886) designed by G E Grayson, (also employed at Port Sunlight) with an Italianate campanile to house the water tanks required by the hydraulic lifts that served the platforms underground. The tower also functioned as a prominent landmark to publicise the Mersey Railway and its network of electric trains as the faded lettering testifies.