Thursday, 30 June 2011

Particles in Transit

A busy railway station is a wonderful place for a disengaged observer of human activity. I visit to experience the architectural spaces but the human element cannot be ignored and I find my photographs incidentally record the transient presence of a minor multitude of human types. In the random flow of human particles, patterns emerge and disperse, compositions are formed and dissolved. This is the raw material for these much processed images. The initial photographs were taken in the dramatic internal spaces of Milano Centrale where the grandiose scale diminishes the human presence to sub-molecular proportions. The building resembles a stage set for a totalitarian operatic production in which the travellers form the chorus as they transmigrate across the arena.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Postcard of the Day No. 49, Rotterdam Lusthofstraat

This is a joy to behold – a postcard view of a group of gasholders. The installation looks rather new - young saplings tethered to supports growing alongside the street and a pristine roadway suggest that novelty may have played a part in selecting this sublimely banal subject. A century ago, a new gas storage facility may well have been cause for celebration, a symbol of an emerging technology and the promise of hot water supplies on demand. Artists have generally resisted the charms of the gas works with the honourable exception of Paul Signac whose painting Les Gazomètres, Clichy (1886, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) bravely confronted the subject in the Parisian banlieue. The same gasholders appeared on the extreme left of Van Gogh’s Bridge at Asnières (1887, Menil Collection, Houston) but the greatest enthusiast for the subject was Carl Grossberg, a minor master of die Neue Sachlichkeit, who could always find space for a gas works in his unsparing explorations of the industrial margins of the modern city. Grossberg’s vision of hydraulic lifting bridges, overhead pipelines, furnaces, boilers, lifting gear, storage tanks and loading bays took him to a place that most avoid and revealed a world of Machine Age forms and profoundly unsettling atmosphere. This postcard has something of the faintly sinister emptiness that’s typical of Grossberg’s paintings. Below is a card featuring the much celebrated triplet gasholders located at the entrance to St. Pancras Station as a Midland Railway red liveried train departs for the north.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Window Shopping in Brussels

Every city reveals its character in its shop window displays. In Brussels, gluttonous mountains of chocolate and multiple replicas of an incontinent manneken pis keep the tourism economy afloat and the unwary visitor can amass an unrivalled collection of kitsch in return for their hard earned euros. The national obsession with Tintin translates into a range of models of every vehicle to appear in a Tintin story, offered at a price most of us would find easy to resist. It may just be conceivable that a hat could be a holiday souvenir but the price range here (57–410€) makes it unlikely. A comprehensive selection of sharpened blades for every occasion would be a specialist purchase. Which would equally apply to the tempting range of female leisure-wear designed with the latex-fetishist in mind. An unusual gift for that special person in your life.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Avenue Louise

Avenue Louise is a super-wide boulevard that leads south-east from the centre of Brussels. Wide enough to accommodate four lanes of traffic, two reserved tram tracks and two service roads, it was established by Léopold II and named for his unfortunate eldest daughter. Appropriately, given Louise’s reputation for compulsive shopping, the avenue that bears her name became home to the haute bourgeoisie and associated luxury retail business. By the end of the 19th. century developers were building substantial three or four storey residences for the mercantile class to the west of avenue Louise and north of rue du Bailli. The tram service could deliver the hard-pressed businessman along the leafy avenue to the city centre office with all due speed. Most residents were content with pattern-book designs that provided large double doorways, spacious rooms with high ceilings, big bay windows and Classical details but a discriminating minority purchased the services of a new generation of architects to produce individual designs that would stand out from the common herd. These clients became patrons of an emerging and challenging artistic style (Art Nouveau) while the flamboyant façades of their new homes spoke to the world about their daring taste for aesthetic innovation. Internally their new homes had a unique ornamental grandeur and spatial flow.

The most prominent Art Nouveau architect was Victor Horta and his network of friends and clients revolved around his links with the Freemasons (whom he joined in 1888) and the Socialists. Masonic contacts produced commissions from industrialists such as Solvay and Tassell and Socialism brought commissions from Max Hallet and for the Maison du Peuple (demolished in 1965). Modern industrial building techniques were employed and ironwork was revealed and treated to decorative effect. The decorative linear qualities of contemporary graphics and illustration were adapted in three dimensions. Wrought iron forms were persuaded to twist and turn in space with an intensity bordering on the neurotic. Where stone and metal met the transition was marked by some lively metallic gymnastics and curvilinear ferrous forms would strap themselves around stone staircases, arches and plinths with limpet-like pressure. Mosaics on the floor, stained glass, painted walls, light fittings and custom-built furniture echo and repeat the ornamental forms and motifs. New forms and new materials were the mark of the discriminating client.

One of Horta’s clients was the Minister for the Congo, Baron van Eetveldte, a man who could hardly be more implicated in Léopold II’s murderous exploitation of his colonial territory. Some of the ill-gotten spoils would find their way into the Art Nouveau home in the form of exotic African hardwoods, much prized for the beauty of their colour and grain. Several Art Nouveau architects were offered Congo-related commissions for the 1900 Paris Exhibition and for the Congolese section of the 1897 Brussels Exhibition. Léopold’s colonial monstrosity would cast a shadow over Belgian public life that, to this day, has not entirely dispersed.

Two other architects are represented here – Albert Roosenboom (83 rue Faider) and Octave van Rysselberghe (Hôtel Otlet, rue de Florence). Rooseboom’s design included a prominent central bay and sgraffito decoration in a Symbolist idiom by Armand Van Waesberghe. Hôtel Otlet sits on a corner site and displays a more sculptural sensibility with alternating bays and recesses. It is defiantly assymetric with conventional dormers and external decoration limited to a single line of floral tiling at the top of the building. The economics of owning an Art Nouveau house in contemporary Brussels are explored in a Financial Times article that makes some interesting points about their price, availability and desirability. Despite their exclusivity it’s not always easy to find a buyer among the ranks of the super-rich who are generally deterred by the conservation issues and prefer homes that can be adapted to display their wealth and soi-disant good taste.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Giants of the Rails

These images of all-American railroads come from a 1944 picture book, Giants of the Rails, illustrated with spirit by Glen Thomas (a name that seems to have evaded the historical record). Images of steam, diesel and electric power from an era when all three were to be seen hard at work in the war effort. Similar trains could often be seen thundering across the pages of National Geographic and the Saturday Evening Post. The passenger trains seem to be all distant relatives of the jukebox in both colour and form while the freight locomotives are designed to convey muscularity and brute force.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Postcard of the Night No. 7, Keith’s Theatre, Boston

This luminous façade, glowing in the darkness of the city by night is the B F Keith Theatre in Boston. No living presence intrudes on the scene except the ominous silhouette of a carnivore to be seen at a window. Keith’s background was in the circus and variety programmes but in 1896 he opened the Union Square Theatre in New York and began showing moving pictures licensed from the Lumière Brothers. The business expanded rapidly with theatres in Philadelphia and this one in Boston. Fourteen years after his death in 1914 his name would live on as the K in RKO pictures.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Edward Bawden

A tiny selection from the compendious output of Edward Bawden – a superbly versatile English illustrator with the lightest of touches. Curiously weightless but never superficial, Bawden’s drawings revealed his delight in the visual world and his immense skill in reducing scenes of great complexity into just a few well chosen lines. A delicate hint of gentle malice and a quality of linear bite were just enough to immunise him from the fatal English affliction of whimsy. For my money he is, by some distance, the greatest of a very talented generation that includes Barnett Freedman, Eric Fraser, Harold Jones, Clifford Webb, Gwen Raverat, Clarke Hutton, Clare Leighton, John Farleigh and John Nash.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Bridges of France

Postcards with their horizontal format might have been invented for images of bridges. Today’s offering is a selection of Bridges of France in postcard form. There are viaducts, footbridges, turning bridges, lifting bridges, bridges of stone and bridges of iron and steel. Hardcore postcard collectors take bridges very seriously. Geoffrey Goldberg has over 6,000 examples of which a few can be seen here. And, if you want even more then over on flickr, bridgepix is displaying a fine collection.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Union Pacific Overland Route

This is a fold-out card of the type dismissed by postcard collectors as beyond the pale. But, when they’re good, like this one, they are little packets of visual delight. The ones to avoid are devoted to the dubious pleasures of such places as the Bunga-Bunga Apple Blossom Parkway or the Coypu National Memorial. Until 1963 the Overland Route ran from Omaha to San Francisco and the folder offers portraits of some of the stations encountered en route and some rather dull generic views of outdoor activities, not shown here. Union Pacific is a monster among railroads. Passenger trains ceased in 1971 but as a carrier of freight it remains the largest railroad in the US. Alone among major railroads it has employed the same colour scheme for locomotives since 1934. The favoured colour is known as Armour Yellow having been pioneered by the Armour Meat Company on refrigerated cars. Finally we have two examples of corporate advertising showing some confusion about the demographic.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Paul Hankar (1859-1901)

This house is best seen in afternoon sunshine when it looks truly resplendent with its imposing height and breadth, enormous twin horseshoe-arched first floor windows and, above all, its startling colour imagery on the façade. It was built on a double plot in 1897 for the artist, Albert Ciamberlani, at 48 rue Defacqz off avenue Louise. Ciamberlani designed the spectacular Symbolist imagery and it was executed in sgraffito (a technique of incising designs in coloured plaster) by artist and poster designer, Adolphe Crespin. The medallions on the entablature represent the Labours of Hercules, set in a frame of decorative urns and sunflower blooms. The circular floral motif is repeated for a third time in the cast-iron balcony rail. The architect was Paul Hankar, a close friend and associate of the better known Victor Horta. Four years later, Hankar’s premature death in 1901 would end his promising career his and only a few examples from his relatively small output survive.

Four years earlier in 1893, Hankar designed and built his own house and studio at 71 rue Defacqz. At the same time, on the next street, the Hôtel Tassel was being constructed to a design by Victor Horta and these two events are often described as the birth of the Art Nouveau house. Hankar’s plan prefigured Horta’s design for his home by dividing the building vertically into a studio and working area on the left and living accommodation on the right. The studio section was formed from rustic stonework on the ground floor with mostly ironwork and glass above. The accommodation section was mainly brick with polychrome window surrounds. Sgraffito decoration, again by Crespin, is present on both sections and the two are unified by sharing common brickwork. Art Nouveau was notable for its brevity but Hankar was spared the painful task of adjusting to a post-Art Nouveau world and never experienced the critical odium that would descend upon the style.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Face in the Crowd

Chris Mullen has written at Visual Telling of Stories of the travelling band of assorted players and extras that seem to accompany the itinerant postcard photographer. Right on cue they assemble a facsimile of street life in front of the photographer’s tripod, carrying ladders, pushing handcarts, engaging total strangers in animated conversation, admiring their reflections in shop windows, addressing remarks to a wayward child. The contrived effect is often ruined by a passing bonehead who insists on staring directly into the camera lens with feet planted apart and rooted to the spot. This small selection of cards come from occasions when the photographer had no need of this repertory company and feature crowds, posed and unposed – the vastness of the crowd is, in effect, the subject of the picture.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Great Railway Stations Number 5 (Part 2): Antwerpen-Centraal

The reconstruction of Antwerpen-Centraal station began in 1998 and the extended and enhanced station opened at the end of 2007. The central platforms were removed (leaving six platforms at ground level) and deep excavation left a void large enough to accommodate two new levels of underground platforms, each level having four platforms. The lowest platforms enabled through trains to continue their journey via a newly constructed 2.36 mile rail tunnel under the city from Berchem to the south and Luchtbal to the north where it regains the surface. This epic remodelling of the station has created some thrilling and vertiginous spatial sensations. The subterranean levels are supported by uncluttered geometry that rests comfortably with the Baroque extravagance of the original station. More about the project can be read at the Railway Technology website.

Comparisons with the transformation of St. Pancras are interesting. Both projects involved creating new levels but while Antwerp has preserved clear sightlines of its architectural magnificence, this did not happen at St. Pancras where security and passenger segregation priorities were placed much higher and resulted in more enclosed spaces. The carefully preserved symmetry and open aspect of Antwerp allows a spectator on the concourse to stare down to the very depths of the station. Likewise, even at the lowest level, the concourse façade can be glimpsed in its distant and dizzying splendour. No such experience is available at St. Pancras where an asymmetrical plan was imposed with the Eurostar platforms pushed to the east. Spatial clarity and integration were also sacrificed at St. Pancras by banishing the Midland Mainline services to a basic box bolted on to the north west of the station. The result is that St. Pancras is a fragmented and discontinuous experience that will always lack the brilliant sense of coherence that Antwerp offers.

Cultural contrasts are also on display. St. Pancras reflects two British obsessions – retail and national security. Entering the station, the initial sensation is one of emerging into a glitzy shopping mall, overshadowed by the gruesome Champagne Bar. Locating the Ticket Sales is a serious challenge in an environment of colossal visual confusion. In Antwerp, a city where trading runs as deep in the collective DNA as anywhere, almost all the retail activity is confined to the arcades that run down the flanks of the station. This sort of discretion would once have been typically British – now we must travel abroad to escape the insolent vulgarity of commercial triumphalism.

Each station offers something unique. Extreme Gothic Revival at St. Pancras and the cavernous space of the foyer in Antwerp are rich and unique experiences. But Antwerp would be my preference, not least because it offers easy ground-level access to the city of which it is part via many exits and entrances while St. Pancras seems to exist in a bubble with hideously constrained access via unnecessarily mean spirited entranceways. A new feature length semi-documentary film Antwerpen-Centraal (2011), directed by Belgian film-maker Peter Krüger celebrates the station taking W G Sebald’s book, Austerlitz as a starting point. Follow this link to read more and to view a fascinating piece of time-lapse photography based on the station.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Monkey Brand Redux

It would be a wonderful thing if Monkey Brand were to reappear on the supermarket shelves if only for the pleasure of watching our mighty brand character shoulder aside today’s feeble examples. When times were good for Monkey Brand our simian friend missed no opportunity to remind the public of his extraordinary powers – full page magazine advertisements and inserts were accompanied by trade cards, of which these are typical examples. He’s a jester, a juggler and the Ancient of Days, all in the service of The World’s Most Marvellous Cleanser and Polisher. Victorian advertisers were notorious for embracing bizarre concepts and one of the most troubling to the present day observer is the use of the unclothed infant form. In this instance the child, in all its chubby innocence, is surrounded by an admiring flock of winged and disembodied monkey heads, introducing us to another singular peculiarity – the hairy angel. The Monkey Brand soap opera has been extensively explored in these pages, most recently, here.