Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.

Arts & Culture

A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

Oxford: An Architectural Guide

Oxford: An Architectural Guide
by Geoffrey Tyack
OUP (1998), £16.99, 384 pages

Geoffrey Tyack writes with a fluid style that accesibly conveys a great amount of specific detail of people, places, materials, and more without the reader feeling the least bit overwhelmed. Even the most veteran Oxonophile will gain deeper insight into what buildings were built by (and for) whom, with what money, and how they’ve been adapted over the centuries. A model guide to the architecture of the finest university town in the world.

September 21, 2016 4:00 pm | Link | No Comments »

Norway’s New Passport

The Scandos are known for being among the few peoples who can do modernism well, as evidenced by the new design chosen for Norway’s passports and identity cards. The kingdom’s Directorate of Police called upon the services of Oslo-based multi-disciplinary design studio Neue after their ‘Norwegian Landscapes’ won the jury’s first prize in an open competition.

The final judgement argued ‘Norwegian Landscapes’ was the best concept:

“It illustrates the Norwegian identity as well as making sure the passport will be viewed as a document of high value. The concept is deeply rooted in Norwegian culture and will make the documents widely accepted among the population. It will remain relevant for many years to come and it has clear user benefits.”

“The design is attractive and stylish, the colours are subtle and the abstracted landscapes are exciting. The proposed solution seems to be designed with great emphasis on the function of passports and ID cards, and is immediately accepted as a document of high value.”

“The concept is the competition’s most subtle and stylish, and stands out from the competing entries. Aesthetically, the landscape motifs have achieved a very distinctive expression. The jury appreciates the simplicity of the solution.”

(more…)

September 20, 2016 12:40 pm | Link | No Comments »

The Spina di Borgo

The Baroque is a style of joy. It is often hailed (or derided) as the most Catholic of styles and in some sense this is true. The festivity and physicality of the Baroque reflect the God that Catholics worship — “the Love that moves the Sun and other stars” as Dante put it — but a Love made incarnate, made man, in a very real and tangible world.

The Baroque is also the style of the surprise: the corner turned to an unexpected vista or the jet of water sprinkling a king’s unsuspecting courtier.

One of the most superb examples of this was the great basilica church of Saint Peter in Rome where prince, pilgrim, and pauper alike moved in a dark warren of palaces, hovels, churches, and alleyways, perhaps catching an occasional glimpse of the great dome looming as they closed in on San Pietro, finally to emerge from the shadow into the great light of the piazza.

That warren of buildings was the Spina di Borgo (“Spine of the Borgo”) but this experience is now sadly lost to us since the 1930s when the Kingdom of Italy’s fascist premier Benito Mussolini decided to raze the neighbourhood. Instead we now have the long boulevard called the Via della Conciliazione, named in commemoration of the Lateran Treaty establishing formal relations between the Holy See and the Italian state.

While Il Duce ostentatiously took credit for this urban crime by symbolically swinging the pickaxe beginning commencing demolition the concept, though flawed, was in fact an old one. Leon Battista Alberti submitted proposals during the reign of Pope Nicholas V (mid fifteenth century), and numerous other architects — Carlo Fontana, Giovanni Battista Nolli, Cosimo Morelli — drew up similar plans. The Piazza San Pietro only took its now instantly recognisable form in the 1650s when the curved flanking collonades enclosed the space like great welcoming arms superbly framing the basilica’s façade.

Mussolini turned to Marcello Piacentini — an accomplished if sometimes uneven architect — assisted by Attilio Spaccarelli. Piacentini favoured closing off the view from the avenue with a closed collonade, echoing Bernini’s own plans for the piazza, but was overruled.

The razing of the Spina presented a problem in that the undemolished buildings left flanking the Via della Conciliazione were now mostly at odd angles to the new boulevard. Piacentini attempted to solve this by flanking the road with two rows of obelisks that doubled as streetlamps providing a line directing the viewer towards the great basilica beyond, otherwise unimpeded by any visual interruption.

Overall the construction of the Via leaves a rather boring and clinical feeling. The charm and chaos of the Spina has been replaced by a clean and dull boulevard, useful for little more than traffic efficiency and crowd control. The loss of the Spina di Borgo is mourned.

September 14, 2016 10:10 am | Link | No Comments »

The Old Cannon Brewery

Robert Gwelo Goodman is one of my favourite South African artists whom you might recall when I introduced you to one of his paintings of the Groote Kerk in Cape Town. It’s not surprising that he lived in a unique dwelling — an old brewery in the verdant Cape Town suburb of Newlands, nestled as it is in the nape of Table Mountain.

Now Gwelo’s old brewery is up for grabs. (more…)

June 9, 2016 8:55 am | Link | 3 Comments »

Die Ou Swaai Pomp

The old water pump at the corner of Prince Street and Sir George Grey Street in the Cape Town neighbourhood of Oranjezicht was part of the system created by the Swede Jan Frederik Hurling in the 1790s for his farm, Zorgfliet. This particular structure was erected at the pump site in 1812 to a design by Louis Michel Thibault, embellished with a water-sprite gargoyle attributed (inevitably) to Anton Anreith.

It was operated by swinging the wooden handle on the side to and fro, hence why it is known as a swaai, or “swinging”, pump.

The photo above is the work of the Cape photographer Arthur Elliott whose work not only documents the early architecture of the Cape but more often than not manages to do so in an artistic and evocative manner.

Elliott is especially valuable considering how many of these structures faced the wrecking ball in the intervening century since he took his photographs, though — as you can see from a Google StreetView capture below — the Old Swaai Pump is still in its place today and is a monument protected by national and provincial law.

June 9, 2016 8:54 am | Link | No Comments »

A Baroque Church Portal

This church portal in the Oude Kerk of Amsterdam was originally in the Nieuwezijds Kapel, or Church of the Heilige Stede. That church was originally built in commemoration of the 1345 Miracle of Amsterdam, but after the ‘Alteration’ of 26 May 1578 — when Amsterdam’s Catholic city government was deposed and replaced by a Calvinist one — it and all the city’s other churches were taken over by the new Protestant administration.

In 1908 the elders of the Protestant congregation of the Nieuwezijds Kapel decided to demolish the fifteenth-century church and build a smaller one on the site, while building shops on the remainder of the site to prevent the resurgent Dutch Catholic church from building any chapel or shrine on it. This seventeenth-century baroque enclosed portal was then transferred to the Oude Kerk where it remains today.

Despite the anti-Catholicism of the Nieuwezijds Kapel elders in 1908, the Miracle of Amsterdam is still comemmorated every year on 15 March when thousands of pious Hollanders march in the evening Silent Procession (Stille Omgang). This year’s procession attracted 7,000 participants.

April 26, 2016 10:10 am | Link | No Comments »

Michael Ellis

Stumbled upon the website of a firm called Thameside Media whose architectural photographer, Michael Ellis, has done some superb work in capturing English churches on film (metaphorical film, I suppose, now that the world has gone digital). (more…)

April 14, 2016 2:44 pm | Link | No Comments »

St Pancras Town Hall

St Pancras Town Hall is an interwar classical building by the architect A.J. Thomas (of whom I know little). The façade is a little clunky but in the warmer months it’s adorned with arrangements of flowers that soften this stern civic edifice with a bit of welcome frivolity.

When the Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras was merged with the neighbouring bailiwicks of Hampstead and Holborn to form the London Borough of Camden in 1965 this was chosen as the town hall of the new entity, so it’s now referred to as Camden Town Hall.

But of course of all the buildings under the patronage of the fourteen-year-old, fourth-century martyr Pancras, the most prominent is the international railway station across the Euston Road (below) that connects this metropolis with the rest of the continent across the Channel.

April 11, 2016 11:00 am | Link | No Comments »

Master Mitsui’s Ink Garden

Daniel Mitsui is one of the most interesting artists out there, exhibiting a wide range of influences from the Celtic to the Oriental. Among his latest works is an ink drawing on a Catholic theme. As Daniel explains:

I received a commission to create a Catholic religious drawing in a Chinese style. These explorations into artistic traditions outside of European Christendom are always exciting, and China was new territory for me. When developing the concept for the project, I looked to one of the early missionaries to China, the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci.

Some time in the very early 17th century, Ricci gifted four European prints to the Chinese publisher Cheng Dayue: two engravings by Anthony Wierix from a series illustrating the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, another by the same artist reproducing the painting of the Virgin of Antigua in Seville Cathedral, and one by Crispin De Pas the Elder from a series illustrating the life of Lot.

Master Cheng copied these images into his Ink Garden, a model book of illustrations and calligraphy. The missionary saw this as a good opportunity to disseminate lessons in Christian doctrine and morality among the Chinese population.

Continue reading here.

April 4, 2016 7:05 pm | Link | No Comments »

Canalside Wanderings

The sun put its hat on this weekend, and after a delicious and vaguely German breakfast by King’s Cross on Saturday I fancied a little canalside wandering. Walking the Regent’s Canal from the new Central Saint Martins all the way to Paddington, I stumbled across the Catholic Apostolic Church in Little Venice (above). It has been over ten years since I popped in to the former Edinburgh outpost of this strange and fascinating denomination, now much reduced in numbers since its apex in the late Victorian period. (more…)

April 4, 2016 7:00 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

A Gothic Library for Christchurch

Christchurch, the oldest city in New Zealand, was known for its gothic cathedral before the February 2011 earthquake destroyed its spire. Modern architects, as voracious a species as ever existed, descended upon the city like a plague, declaring that everything traditional must be demolished and hideous glass hulks raised instead. They succeeded in convincing the city’s Anglican authorities to deconsecrate the cathedral (despite remaining mostly intact) and plans for its future remain vague.

Local architectural designer & engineer James Carr has come up with a proposal to build a central library for Christchurch on Cathedral Square. The design complements the gothic cathedral (or whats left of it) and would be a handsome addition to the city.

More whimsical perhaps is Mr Carr’s idea to build a gothic rugby stadium in Christchurch.

February 25, 2016 1:45 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Germania

I’ve been reading Golo Mann’s History of Germany Since 1789 — cracking stuff.

This depiction of Germania, the personification of the German nation, was for a stained-glass window in the Reichstag building, built between 1884 and 1894 in Berlin and since 1999 home once again to the German parliament.

February 22, 2016 9:05 am | Link | 7 Comments »

St Mary Redcliffe

The Church of St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol was famously described by Elizabeth Tudor as ‘the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England’.

February 18, 2016 9:45 am | Link | No Comments »

A thoughtful leader

As newspapers go, the Feudal Times and Reactionary Herald is devilishly difficult to obtain. Its coverage of internal squabbles within the Marxist-Lefebvrist faction of the Communist Party of Great Britain makes for compelling reading and it is likewise to be thanked for its sensitive reporting on the goings-on of various disenfranchised Indian princely families. Alas, I have never discovered whether it is possible to subscribe to this illustrious periodical, and a visit to the City of London address printed on its editorial page revealed only that the building had been bombed out during the Blitz and more recently redeveloped into a giant postmodern office block housing ‘management consultants’.

As is often the case in times of difficulty, it is not in the metropole but in the periphery one finds comfort. I am currently enjoying a few days in Wexford town (or Veisafjǫrðr as the Feudal Times & Reactionary Herald would doubtless call this old Viking settlement in Ireland). This very day I was enjoying a delicious pub lunch — stuffed chicken wrapped in bacon with peas and mash all united by a gravy of optimal viscosity accompanied by a locally brewed Schwarzbier — when I was delighted to discover next to me a copy of the illustrious title left by a previous punter. A few weeks old and already well-thumbed, it nonetheless included this thoughtful editorial regarding the recent Rhodes controversy in Oxford which our readers might, despite its pretentious prose, find interesting:

Ex Africa semper aliquid novii a Roman of old once noted. We have recently and from many quarters heard much criticism of Mr Ntokozo Qwabe — a Rhodes scholar from the late lamented Union of South Africa — concerning his call for the removal of the statue of Mr Cecil Rhodes (quondam Prime Minister of the Cape of Good Hope) from the High Street frontage of Oriel College, an institution much beloved by many of the readers of this newspaper.

As Mr Qwabe is one of those currently enjoying the fruits of Mr Rhodes’s rather typical largesse, he has doubtless left himself open to accusations of hypocrisy and ingratitude. Nonetheless, we believe a certain lassitude and forgiveness is called for in this case as recent utterances pouring forth from his loquacious tongue have proved more amenable hearing to ear-trumpets both feudal and reactionary. For we are informed the young scholar has a new target in his sights: the tricolour flag of the dreaded French Republic. Mr Qwabe has called for it to be banished from the streets and quadrangles of both town and university, deriding this “violent symbol” of a republican regime that has “terrorised innocent lives”. Such a forceful allusion to the regicides of 1793 is to be welcomed firmly.

True to their typical form, the tweeded, begowned, and enscarfed undergraduates of Oxford’s colleges have taken up Mr Qwabe’s plea. Already the blue-white-and-red flag which until recently hung from the Pierre Victoire restaurant in Little Clarendon St has been replaced by a lily banner. It is regrettable, though, that a screening of ‘Le roi danse’ at the School of Modern Languages resulted in intermittent street violence between roving bands of rival Legitimiste and Orleaniste students, egged on by Bonapartist townsfolk from working-class enclaves in Jericho and Cowley. (The biretta of an innocent Oratorian is believed to have been knocked off in the ensuing melee.)

Mr Qwabe may have arrived on these shores with plans for revolt and ‘transformation’ but it is clear that Oxford is having its usual desired effect on this bright young man. Tumult is giving way to torpor, and doubtless this Rhodes scholar will return to the happy land of the assegai and the rondavel a good deal more broad-minded and reactionary. We wish him well.

February 17, 2016 6:30 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Frankfurter Hefte

German typography and print design in the 1950s combined elegance and simplicity, as shown here in the front cover of Frankfurter Hefte, the political monthly founded by Eugen Kogon and others in 1946. (more…)

February 16, 2016 6:00 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Haus Altmark

While the remarkable rebuilding and rehabilitation of Dresden is of a much more recent vintage, the historicist design of Haus Altmark (Herbert Schneider, 1953-1956) in that city is another good example of the Socialist Classicism of the DDR.

(c.f. Leipzig Opera House)

February 15, 2016 11:00 am | Link | 1 Comment »

‘Five Finger Exercise’

The Print Room, Notting Hill (until 13 Feb 2016)

I remember as a child being confused when some people said they hated the holidays because it was awful having all the family together. The gatherings of our extended family were always occasions of mirth and merriment and not a few jibes — not to mention a long-term dispute over the precise location of Watertown, New York. The theatre of disfunctional families never hugely appealed to me, then, but over a few bottles of Erdinger in Kennington t’other night a friend dropped word of ‘Five Finger Exercise’ at the Print Room in Notting Hill (the old Coronet) and I thought I’d give it a go.

Peter Shaffer’s (‘Amadeus, ‘Equus’, etc.) play was first put on in 1958 under the direction of John Gielgud. The harmony of the Harrington family is not particularly upset by the arrival of a young German tutor Walter at the outset. Father Stanley — self-made man and head of a successful furniture company — is unbothered by his arrival at the instigation of the upwardly mobile mother Louise — imagine Mrs Bucket from ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ but half-French and with a cut-glass 1950s voice — who thinks it quite the done thing to have a live-in tutor teaching French to her daughter Pamela. The son Clive is just off to Cambridge so he’s all done and dusted and nothing to worry about. But then…

The remarkable thing about ‘Five Finger Exercise’ which makes it particularly close to life is how every character is effectively innocent and yet each character is to blame. Stanley has pursued work and the golf club while abdicating the rearing of children to his overbearing and pretentious wife, who is fixated into making sure they are just so. Clive has all the weaknesses of the typical self-obsessed teenager, but genuinely wants to love the father he feels only questions him. And Walter, so fixated with the mere fact of being in England and away from Germany and the past (and family) that he cannot see how his presence has upset a delicate balance. Little Pamela is mostly blameless, though.

Lucy Cohu as mother Louise is superb in voice, deportment, tone — everything. At first Jason Merrels (Stanley) fools the audience into thinking he is a settled old uncaring simpleton. But when push comes to shove Merrels displays the real emotion of the father who just doesn’t understand but wishes he could. Terenia Edwards is simply a delight — charming, sweet, and innocent, and perfectly conveying the hint that she may be on the cusp of something else. And I am surprised that the actor playing Walter (Lorne MacFadyen) is not German. (But then he was acting, I suppose.) Tom Morley, however, carried the weight of the play as Clive, taking a difficult role and giving us a convincing and credible performance. A brilliant actor.

The Director Jamie Glover deserves accolades for crafting a production that is fun, true to life, and, in the end, haunting.

February 4, 2016 9:15 am | Link | 1 Comment »

The Umbrella

The Umbrella
Paul Henni

[Photo by and copyright of Paul Henni]

February 3, 2016 10:37 am | Link | 3 Comments »

Keeromstraat 14

Keeromstraat 14, Kaapstad

This Cape Town house was built in 1751 for Hermanus Smuts who sold it on to Johan Jacobus Graaff, the woodworker who collaborated with South Africa’s greatest architectural duo, the sculptor Anton Anreith and the architect Louis Michel Thibault.

Thibault is believed to be responsible for the addition of the upper story and the current façade, seen above through an archway of the High Court.

The building next door was designed by the pioneering Afrikaner architect Wynand Hendrik Louw (1883-1967) for De Nederlandsche Club te Kaapstad, the city’s club for Dutch businessmen and expatriates. Louw was also the architect of the Dutch Reformed Church at Napier in the beautiful Overberg.

February 2, 2016 8:45 am | Link | 3 Comments »

Leipzig Opera House

The Leipzig Opera House is the swansong of Socialist Classicism as an architectural style. The 1954 plans of the architect Kunz Nierade had to be toned down mid-construction, with some of the sculptural adornment simplified, as the official aesthetics of the German Democratic Republic shifted towards a more aggressive modernism.

While the Soviet Union provided the more well-known examples of Socialist Classicism, the Germans rather typically (but sparsely) excelled their Russian overlords. Admittedly, the quality was inconsistent: the Karl-Marx-Allee has some fine details but the overall plan leaves me cold, though postmodernists Philip Johnson and Aldo Rossi have praised it.

I enjoy the restrained classicism of this building, though the flatness of the façade leans a little towards the dull, with only the projecting portico providing a bit of comforting depth. Critics have pointed out the lack of light-and-shadow contrast during the daytime, and have tended to prefer the building’s nighttime appearance. It’s worth mentioning that the snowflake-like hanging lamps in the building’s foyer have a significant place in the design history of East German lighting fixtures (a subject about which I know now more than I ever expected).

The finality of Socialist Classicism’s end cannot more clearly be emphasised when comparing the Leipzig Opera House with the assaulting brutality of the Neues Gewandhaus concert hall (1977) across the Augustusplatz in a style we associate more closely with the DDR period. That the similarly styled Palast der Republik in Berlin — possibly the building most readily associated with East Germany’s socialist regime — has been completely demolished to be replaced by a reconstruction of the old city palace is a reminder of the hopeful possibilities we have at hand.

February 1, 2016 9:10 am | Link | 2 Comments »
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