Thursday, 20 November 2008

Boris Artzybasheff

Artzybasheff’s exotic and bizarre illustrations made frequent appearances in the mid-century pages of Life and Fortune and on the cover of Time. Airbrushed forms, masses of accumulated detail and bio-mechanical fantasy figures populate his images. He made a speciality of illustrating the unpleasant and unpalatable. Machines of warfare and the global spread of tropical diseases were typical subjects. Quality control was not always in evidence and some fairly feeble stuff found its way into print but at his best the scale and bravura of his magnificent cast of malevolent characters was irresistible. The visual vocabulary of medieval demonology was cheerfully combined with the Astounding Science Fiction genre.

Boris had a liking for vast, sprawling cosmologies but even by his standards this Hindu Pantheon was a tour de force. Life magazine published it as a three page gatefold in the issue dated March 7, 1955. It was a spectacular image that enabled Boris to deploy his full repertory of grotesqueries but the mood is lighter and more playful than usual despite the decapitations and disembowellings. This was a subject that surpassed even Boris’s wildest imaginings and the finished article has more than a hint of Bollywood about it. This could well have been Boris’s finest hour. For more examples of the strange workings of the Boris imagination, a visit to Chris Mullen’s Alphabet of Illustrators is essential.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Postcard of the day No. 18

Today’s postcard is a watery image of the riverside entrance to the Gare d’Austerlitz as seen in the great Paris flood of 1910. Below is a photograph of the same view taken in August 2008. A curiosity of the Gare d’Austerlitz is the Métro platforms constructed high in the station roof. This is the place where Métro line 5 emerges from the rafters of the station roof on to a bridge (centre right in these images) before crossing the Seine on the Viaduc d’Austerlitz. The Gare d’Austerlitz is a more modest structure than Gare du Nord or Gare de l’Est with their imposing facades and it lacks the association with the Impressionist painters that distinguishes Gare St-Lazare. In recent years the range of destinations has contracted and compares unfavourably with the glamorous southbound routes out of Gare de Lyon but it remains the place to go for the overnight Trenhotel service to Barcelona and Madrid. In the future all this will change when current work to double the size of the station by 2020 is complete. Current plans are for the TGV services Sud-Est and Atlantique to be transferred to the new enlarged station.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Corn Exchange

On a recent visit to Leeds I had a wander around the city’s Corn Exchange (1860-62), a building designed by Cuthbert Brodrick and described as “of national, maybe international importance.” The design, like much of Brodrick’s work owes much to French precursors, in this case, the Halle au Blé in Paris built almost a hundred years earlier. Unusually for a domed building it has an oval footprint and the central oculus is elliptical. There is an additional asymmetric wedge shaped area of glazing that admits north light and can be seen in some of these photos. Order, symmetry and repetition of forms prevail in the interior space while the absence of internal structural support greatly enhances the exhilarating sense of scale.

After a protracted but thorough renovation, involving opening up the basement to create a third level, the Corn Exchange reopened in 1992 as an indoor shopping centre. Until recently it prospered, the retail units being let out, for the most part to independent traders. In November 2007 these traders were given notice to quit by new operators, Zurich Assurance. The displaced traders make a strong case in their blogspot. In the meantime, Zurich’s programme of refurbishment is almost complete as these photos confirm and they are pressing ahead with a scheme to transform the Corn Exchange into an up-market palace of food. Behind all this lurks a corporate imperative to maximise an investment by increasing rentals to the point where only high turnover, premium business can afford them. It’s an exercise in exclusivity, the objective being to provide goods and services that only those in the highest income groups can afford to buy. A landmark building of such grace and distinction should be accessible to all especially as the ownership still resides with Leeds City Council.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A Change is Gonna Come

Out of consideration for my small but select readership I have refrained from commenting on current events but today is an exception to commend the American electorate for rejecting the warrior caste in favour of reason and decency. Two stains have been washed out of the American flag – the stain of slavery and racism and the stain of callous military aggression. Obama’s speech last night in Chicago could have been written by Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield with the assistance of Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen. The days of the ancien regime are numbered and America is reborn.

Monday, 3 November 2008

South Queensferry

The compact town of South Queensferry is the perfect place from which to observe and photograph the Forth bridges. It also provides an attractive frame through which to photograph the bridges. Like Hokusai’s Mount Fuji, the rail bridge has a habit of sneaking into the most unexpected locations as well as the more obvious. This small selection of images was made with the full co-operation of local bystanders, railings, lamp posts, masts and passing trains and cars.

The appeal of this bridge is hard to describe without resorting to a vocabulary of weight, power and mass related superlatives. If we take another direction and write about its defiance of gravity or the marriage of engineering and architecture, the air can quickly become thick with purple prose. In fact the bridge makes only the most minor concessions to the language of architecture and the Victorian master of architectural ornamentation, Alfred Waterhouse, observed, “One feature especially delights me – the absence of all ornament. As it is, the bridge is a style unto itself; the simple directness of purpose with which it does its work is splendid and invests the vast monument with a kind of beauty of its own.” It’s remarkable that Waterhouse, who applied decorative features to his own designs with such fluency, should have shown the generosity of spirit to appreciate the virtues of a structure that stood so emphatically in opposition to that practice.