Thursday, 30 August 2012

Divine Providence

Early American colonists would often turn to the Scriptures in search of high sounding names of biblical provenance to bestow upon their settlements – it has helped to sustain the happy notion that the American destiny is guided by a divine hand. The city of Providence in Rhode Island is one such community but on the evidence of Wikipedia the extent to which each and every citizen has been blessed by God’s Merciful Providence is not especially prodigious. Our postcard trip to Providence starts at the Union Station – an ambitious and impressive exterior concealing a sepulchral concourse where the great and the good promenade in pursuit of assignation. The days when downtown described a place of bustling sidewalks and entrepreneurial energy are recorded below. If the hand of providence transported me back in time, I would certainly check-in at the Dorrance Hotel before taking an evening stroll along Weybosset Street to buy a new hat and treat myself to a fine cigar with a sumptuous supper at the Chinese-American Restaurant to follow. And what better way to conclude our visit than a nocturnal contemplation of the city’s mighty industrial riverbanks gleaming by the light of a silvery moon. 

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Arcadia Works

As the most aggressive competitor to the mighty Imperial Tobacco Company in the early 20th. century, Carreras acquired a well earned reputation for innovative marketing and product development. The Black Cat brand which lent itself so readily to visually striking advertising imagery was the company’s major asset and, supported by coupon issues and lavish gift catalogues, established itself as a challenger to Imperial’s key brands. In 1921 Carreras introduced a new market leader, Craven A, the first machine-made filter cigarette, forcing the competition to follow suit. When the need for new and larger premises arose, it comes as no surprise that Carreras developed a design that would have maximum visual impact on the city streets. Like the Michelin Building in South Kensington it was conceived as a gigantic piece of advertising and located in a dominant position on Hampstead Road, on the corner of Mornington Crescent. Taking full advantage of the public obsession with all things Egyptian, the façade was designed as a highly theatrical Art Deco exercise flavoured with black cat, palm and lotus leaf decorative elements. The central colonnade consisted of papyriform columns underneath an overhanging cornice. When the Arcadia Works was completed in 1928 it offered a decorative skin beneath which lay an entirely functional building formed from pre-stressed concrete, fully equipped with air-conditioning. The opening celebrations included plein-air performances of extracts from Verdi’s Aida and chariot races along Hampstead Road. 

Modernism in diluted form found favour with British architects and developers as they noted the potential it offered for budget reduction and cost savings. The Arcadia Works was perfectly calculated to offend Modernist sensibilities and the façade was stripped off in 1962 when the building was refitted as office accommodation and renamed Greater London House. The Sixties business client in a Cecil Gee suit would have nothing but scorn for the Art Deco elements, preferring the anonymity of a glass curtain wall. Fashions changed again and new owners in 1996 saw the commercial advantage in restoring the façade to its former glory and on the evidence of these photographs it remains in resplendent condition. Craven A cigarettes are no longer available in UK but can still, according to Wikipedia, be smoked in Canada, Jamaica, Vietnam and North Korea! A selection of advertising is included as a reminder of the times when a cork-tipped smoke conferred distinction. 

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Offensive Formations

The Olympic afterglow is fading fast and in just two days time will be brutally erased by the return of the true spirit of sport in the shape of Premier League football. The great dance of greed will recommence as players, agents, coaches and managers scrabble for a slice of the enormous cash-pile donated by the Great Satan, (Keeper of the Times, Master of the Sun and Emperor of the Sky) in his mission to chain the population to his TV platform. And even the most virtuous and scrupulous, free-to-air follower of football will not escape the spreading stain of abject venality. In the interests of sporting success there’s no ethical principle that cannot be discarded and no compromise that’s too great – it’s a festival of bad faith that has us all enthralled and transfixed. I, for one, can hardly wait. The advertising images are from the days of the maximum wage, when the ball was a water-sodden overweight clod and the players could be observed traveling to the match on the top decks of trams or trolleybuses. The long association of smoking with football persisted into the 1970s when senior professionals could still be seen extinguishing a last cigarette as they emerged on to the pitch. 

Friday, 10 August 2012

Postcard of the Day No. 56, Dieringhausen

Postcard dealers are of necessity, dedicated classifiers and organisers, with every card in its rightful place. But most will offer a box or two of unsorted low value cards and these are my favourite hunting grounds. This is where images like this often turn up. If it was filed under Germany that somehow seems inadequate but nobody has a category entitled Enigmatic Images of People Climbing – thus it can be found languishing among the unloved and unsorted. This card demands an explanatory narrative but the few facts we have don’t easily resolve themselves. Is there a relationship between the two figures? The climbing man in a cap seems to be in a hurry – is he in pursuit? If so, his gaze is directed elsewhere than at his quarry. The occupant of the platform poses rigidly by the safety rail and exhibits no concern about the approaching figure. Two bonus cards show the ascent of the Great Pyramid. On the left visitors from the lands of the infidel are offered assistance by the indigenous population while on the right a group of locals show (as the caption puts it) how easy it is to ascend. Both are typical examples of the early postcard photographer placing the figures in position as if in a theatrical tableau. 

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Zurenborg, an Antwerp Suburb

A 15 minute tram-ride from the city centre past the wondrous Central Station and on for another two miles via a long, narrow street of small, struggling and deceased businesses leads to the Draakplaats intersection, then under the railway bridge and into the heart of the strange fin-de-siécle suburb of Zurenborg. These photos come from the Cogels-Osylei district that takes its name from those of the agricultural landowners who spotted an economic opportunity as the city encroached upon their farmland in the 1890s. Although the suburb was developed according to a carefully considered master-plan, the plan did not extend to imposing conformity of architectural style. Instead, local architects and builders created a show-ground offering examples of the newest of contemporary styles alongside every conceivable historical revival to attract a professional and prosperous clientele. Mansion blocks and large townhouses line the silent streets and compete for attention with a spectacular variety of façades applied over mostly conventional interiors. Some developments conformed to a theme – examples include the Four Seasons (described in a post last October), the group of five houses themed according to times of the day, known collectively as Den Tijd (time) and the houses in Waterloostraat that commemorate the Napoleonic wars. A sense that the stylistic eclecticism was driven by commercial considerations has divided architectural critics with many tending to dismiss it as a theatrical exercise of no great merit. This seems to me to miss the point – which is that a happy accident of time, place and motivation has produced a unique, three-dimensional architectural pattern-book for our enjoyment and a perfect illustration of the way that architects simultaneously attempt to look both forward and backwards and achieve some sort of balance. Two brief visits is not enough to put together a comprehensive study – these images are no more than a partial glimpse and to get a better feeling for the innate incongruity, present for the most part a sequence of window surrounds offering a dazzling range of forms and finishes. 

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Yellow Door

Two photographs of the same subject taken 5 years apart. The first was taken by my wife Liz in December 2003 in the West Dorset coastal village of Seatown on our very first expedition with a digital camera (late adopters). Liz has a far better eye for a potential picture than I do and she was quick to see this freshly painted door shaped like an arrowhead launching into a stunning blue sky. My photo came 5 years later in December 2008 and illustrates how half a decade’s exposure to sunshine and sea-spray has faded the pigment and attacked the paint surface. 

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Britain grabs Olympic Gold in Whingeing

Britain’s whingers put a smile back on the nation’s face after a sensational triumph in last night’s whingeing finals in the face of strong opposition from, of all countries, the United States. Team GB walks tall this morning having surged to position 48 in the Medals Table. The US challenge was masterminded by Head Coach Mutt Romney, who cast aside his compatriots’ habitual manic optimism and in an audacious move, outsourced the team effort to the Tea Party cult. They came up with some epic whingeing on the subjects of immigration, welfare, taxation, abortion, gay marriage and the great American surrender to Socialism and looked to have established a winning position. But the British fight-back was awesome – the Dream Team (Baroness Warsi, Eric Pickles and “Wee” Danny Alexander) showed their class with some wonderful whingeing directed at disability claimants, welfare scroungers, public sector parasites and the last Labour government’s appalling financial legacy, concluding in a high-risk strategy with a whinge about their fellow atherletes’ frailty in the field of combat and their miserable haul of medals. Romney’s team responded instantly with a spectacular whinge about the innate British capacity for whingeing, an unfair advantage achieved by generations of unchallenged supremacy. Spirits sank in the British team and all seemed lost until sprint-whingeing specialist (and Team Captain), Michael Gove came to the crease and unleashed a volley of whingeing on the subject of education. Spectators were stunned when he reminded them that not a single British school-leaver was capable of building a Large Hadron Collider without assistance or counting to a million in Roman Numerals. Skipper Gove took whingeing to a new level with a bitter complaint about the national cult of educational mediocrity which had brought this once-proud nation to financial ruin. Judges were unanimous – Gove had inspired Britain to an unassailable position and Gold was, at last, within our grasp. On a sad note, Romney was less than gracious in defeat and questioned the entire basis of the British triumph claiming, “Yeh, the Brits were good, but they got some questions to answer. What we saw tonight was whingeing at the limits of human endurance. I’m not saying these guys were on anti-euphorics and depressants but someone needs to find out the truth.” 

 A Phil Space exclusive from our man in the empty seat.