Sunday, 20 November 2016

W H Smith Decorative Tiles

Newsagents and booksellers for more than 200 years, W H Smith has more than 600 stores on British high streets plus another 700 at airports, train stations and motorway services. In most of these locations it is unchallenged by any competition. Despite its longevity and ubiquity it seems to command little affection on the part of its customers. The shops are fitted out to a rigid and universal formula and the range of products is severely restricted to items that can be reliably sold in large quantities. Harsh lighting, artificial fibre floor coverings and a persistent smell of cleaning products makes for an uncomfortable browsing experience. It’s common to find only a single staffed checkout with a long, slow moving queue from which shoppers can contemplate the generous provision of frequently malfunctioning self-service checkouts. Any staff savings are cancelled out by the need for attendants to sort out all the customer problems. It wasn’t always so – in the inter-war years the business had a reputation for its ornate oak shop fronts (a few of which survive) and decorative pictorial tile panels designed and manufactured by Carter & Co. of Poole. An exhaustive survey of these panels was published in the 2015 Journal of the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society by Ian M Betts who listed 60 stores where examples can still be seen. The four examples shown here come from the branch in Mostyn Street, Llandudno – the postcard shows a W H Smith store in the right foreground. The present store where these photographs were taken is some half a mile further up Mostyn Street – presumably the tiled panels migrated with the shop to its new location.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Church Island

Church Island lies in the Menai Strait, between the Menai and Britannia Bridges. A short causeway connects it with Anglesey. It is entirely occupied by the church of St. Tysilio and its surrounding graveyard. On the highest point there’s a simple memorial to the local servicemen who lost their lives in the two world wars. Without being at all remote, the quiet offshore location with its omnipresent signals of mortality is conducive to reflection. The war memorial is all the more affecting for the absence of rhetoric - the beautifully carved roll of honour with dates and places of death carries a lot of weight. Each name stands for a fractured family and the grief of relatives and friends. As the poppy emblem mutates from a message of “Peace among Nations” to a nationalistic symbol of patriotism, it’s a relief to be reminded of more dignified and restrained methods of commemorating human sacrifice than indulging in a phoney war with FIFA. 

 An English translation of the above inscription: "To the glory of God and in memory of the men who fell in the war. That their name will live forever."

Monday, 7 November 2016

Het Schip – Part 2: The Post Office

When the Dutch Post Office at Het Schip closed in 1999 it was converted into a small museum telling the story of the development and the Amsterdam School. The original fixtures and fittings, many of which were designed by architect Michel de Klerk, were mostly preserved in their original locations. The distinctive forms of the telephone kiosk and the blue tiled wall finishes with built-in wooden benches are evidence of de Klerk’s attention to detail. De Klerk designed a door to the inner offices of the Post Office complete with chevron motif and the fist and baton to reinforce the “Verboden”/"No Entry" message. The beautifully finished cabinet for the telephone switchboard (Telefoongel) is especially striking with Art Deco-type elements incorporating stylised electrical sparks to symbolise telecommunications. Equally impressive is the elegant enclosure for the public telephone – at the top left of each window is a bird motif include by de Klerk to remind callers they can easily be overheard. The museum space is an imaginative re-use that preserves the community’s communication hub in close to original condition.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Het Schip – Part 1: Workers’ Palace in Amsterdam

Visiting Holland House recently (described here) was a reminder that architecture with strong maritime associations is very much a Dutch thing. One of the attractions of Amsterdam is a visit to Het Schip – an idiosyncratic social housing development dating from 1920 that abounds in maritime references and symbols. Eigen Haard was formed by trade unionists in 1909 with the aim of providing quality housing for working class families trapped in sub-standard, high density slums. The appointed architect, Michel de Klerk (1884-1923), himself the product of a working class childhood in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam began work on the Het Schip project in 1917. De Klerk was a long time admirer of the Arts and Crafts movement from which he drew inspiration that he imaginatively combined with indigenous Dutch traditions of ornamental masonry. He shared his client’s commitment to social justice and designed an apartment building in a form that would serve as a landmark for Socialist principles.

When completed in 1920 Het Schip offered over one hundred apartments for rental and included a Post Office – a school was added later. The first tenants were employees of the city’s tramways, gas and water companies whose wages tended to be above the average. Unskilled labourers and dock workers could not have afforded the rents and were later housed nearby by the municipality in new blocks of higher density provided with sculleries rather than kitchens. These residents tended to be Communist party supporters leading to an ideological divide between them and the predominantly Social Democrats in Het Schip. Eigen Haard continues to rent out the apartments to the present day and maintains the building to the very highest standard.

Het Schip occupies a three sided site and was designed to offer different prospects from each point. A tall cylindrical tower marks the Post Office on one corner, a cigar-shaped extrusion marks a second and a centrepiece with spire on Hembrugstraat offers a third landmark. The skin of the building is a master class in the inventive deployment of brick and tile to delight the eye with infinite contrasts in tone and texture. De Klerk recognised no limits to the versatility of brick, cheerfully wrapping it round tilting, tapering and curving surfaces. Wave-forms, projecting galleries and prow-shaped bays enhanced the maritime connections. The Zaanstraat façade shows many classic Amsterdam School touches - hung tiles, vertical brick bonds, eccentric window shapes and undulating projections. Only the most accomplished craft skills were acceptable to de Klerk and the sculptor Hildo Krop was employed to provide decorative reliefs carved from bricks to embellish the structure. The idea was that nothing was too good for the workers and their families – fit for purpose and no more was not enough. The building had to have presence and send out a signal that the days of working class slums were over. In terms of commanding attention, Het Schip succeeds magnificently. What’s more, de Klerk achieved this result with a building that looked forward to the future without being avant-garde or challenging public taste.