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

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A Horror in the Hague

The old and new buildings of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts

SINCE 1682, the Hague has been home to the oldest art school in the Netherlands, the Koninklijke Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten or Royal Academy of Fine Arts. The school has its origins in the civic corporations of the late medieval period. The Guild of Saint Luke incorporated all the artists of the Hague, and later from this group emerged a self-selecting gang of painters and sculptors who founded themselves as the Pictura Brotherhood. This fraternity in turn founded an academy of art which on its 275th anniversary was granted the royal patronage and name.

Having had previous quarters in the Korenbeurs and the Boterwaag, the Academy engaged the architect Zeger Reyers (or Reijers) to design its own building in the Prinsessegracht in 1839 (above, top). This neo-classical temple to the arts was very much in keeping with the French academic tradition which the school practised at the time, but in later years this fashion faded. Just before the Second World War, the barbarians sacked the temple and erected in its place a Bauhaus-style box (below).

Like all too many changes, it was not an improvement. (more…)

April 29, 2015 3:11 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

UNHQ

United Nations Headquarters, New York

AMONG THE LEGACIES of my New York childhood is a sentimental fondness for the United Nations, and especially for the stylish swank of its headquarters at Turtle Bay in Manhattan. The name of the small neighbourhood originates (scholars tell us) not from the turtles which were once abundant upon the shores of the island and its environs but rather from a small inlet shaped, in the eyes of the old New Netherlanders, like a particular type of bent or curved blade called a deutal knife in Dutch. The woods and meadows surrounding Deutal Bay were easily rechristened as Turtle Bay once the English established their ascendancy and New Amsterdam became New York.

Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the tiny port founded at the bottom tip of Manhattan grew further and further up the island, swallowing up the old colonial villages like Greenwich, Bloemendal, and Haarlem, or farms like Turtle Bay, Inclenberg, and Kip’s Bay, until as today there is just one giant urban mass stretching from the Battery at the bottom tip of the island all the way to Spuyten Duyvil at the top.

While New Yorkers like to think that there is no possible competitor to the city’s status as capital of the world, there was of course a great debate over where the United Nations should be based. Geneva was an obvious candidate, as the beautiful art-deco Palais des Nations provided a ready-made home for an international organisation. The fathers of the UN, however, did not want to associate themselves so closely with the failure of the old League of Nations the Palais was built for, and so the Geneva option was nixed.

Given the shifting balance of world power, it was thought a New World site might be a wiser choice than a European location. Quebec, as I have written previously, was an obvious possibility as the city is a beautiful melange of Old World and New, and for Europeans was easily accessible by passenger liner. Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific states, however, were in favour of San Francisco for geographic reasons to their obvious benefit, and cited the Californian city’s hosting the 1945 Conference on International Organisation which brought forth the UN Charter.

Fears that the United States would refuse to participate fully in the UN (as with the League of Nations of old) almost guaranteed that the US permanently hosting the world body in order to solidify American resolve in the UN’s favour, but the squabble over precisely where dragged on. The Rockefeller family intervened by offering to the fledgling United Nations Organisation, at no cost whatsoever, a large riparian site at Turtle Bay on the banks of the East River, largely consisting of slaughterhouses at the time. Settled then, but what would the complex look like? (more…)

April 20, 2015 2:05 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

Kerkplein, Pretoria

Gauteng, the province which forms the highly urbanised heart of the old Transvaal, is not my area of specialty in South Africa, enamoured as I am of the Western Cape. Johannesburg, for all its financial prowess, is one of those towns that went from a collection of tents to a major city almost overnight with the Witwatersrand gold boom.

Pretoria, on the other hand — Pretoria Philadelphia to give its original name — exudes a more detached respectability perhaps enlivened by the ceremony of its century-long status as the executive capital of a unified South Africa. And sitting at the heart of the city of jacarandas is Kerkplein — Church Square.

(more…)

January 19, 2015 10:58 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Shedding light on the Cape Baroque

Nuwe lig op die Kaapse barok deur Dr Hans Fransen

A NEW BOOK BY Dr Hans Fransen, the leading authority on Cape Dutch architecture, intends to shed new light on the Cape Baroque style through an examination of the work of the sculptor Anton Anreith. Cape Baroque and the contribution of Anton Anreith offers us the hefty subtitle of ‘A stylistic survey of architectural decoration and the applied arts at the Cape of Good Hope 1652-1800’, covering the period of the Dutch East India Company’s rule at the Cape.

The author investigates (says the publisher’s note) whether, and to what extent, the surprisingly rich body of Cape material culture can be seen as part and parcel of the international Baroque: that ebullient style of painting, architecture, and design that swept across Europe and some of its spheres of influence. After a highly interesting account of the origins of the Baroque in Italy and of its development in other parts of the world, the author concludes that ‘Cape Baroque’ does indeed form part of this. But he also points out that it has a very distinctive character of its own.

The book of 180 pages contains over 200 illustrations, mostly from the author himself, whose other works include The Old Towns and Villages of the Cape, The Old Buildings of the Cape, Drie Eeue Kuns in Suid-Afrika, and the introduction to A Cape Camera, the book illustrating the photography of early Cape photographer Arthur Elliott.

The sculptor Anreith, born in Germany at Riegel between the Rhine and the foothills of the Black Forest, was the finest and most florid artist of the Baroque in the Cape of Good Hope. His exceptional work on the pulpit of the Lutheran Church in Cape Town provoked the envy of the more prominent Dutch Reformed congregation, who quickly commissioned Anreith to carve an even more ornate pulpit for the Groote Kerk.

Cape Baroque and the contribution of Anton Anreith: a stylistic survey of architectural decoration and the applied arts at the Cape of Good Hope 1652-1800
by Dr Hans Fransen, 160 pages, R250
Kaapse barok en die bydrae van Anton Anreith: ’n stilistiese oorsig van argitektoniese versiering en toegepaste kuns op die Kaap die Goeie Hoop 1652-1800
deur Dr Hans Fransen, 160 bladsye, R250
January 19, 2015 10:56 pm | Link | No Comments »

Russia’s Classical Future

Design chosen for St Petersburg’s new judicial quarter

While a vast and multifacted state, the Soviet Union was nonetheless one in which power was highly centralised, not just within one city — Moscow — but even within one complex of buildings, the Kremlin. For the past fourteen years, however, a St Petersburg boy — Vladimir Putin — has been the man at the helm of the ship of state, and while Moscow is still the top dog St Petersburg is increasingly stealing the limelight. The number of commercial bodies (several subsidiaries of Gazprom, for example) moving from Moscow to St Petersburg is growing, and even a few government departments and other entities have moved back to the old imperial capital.

Among these is the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, which transferred to the old Senate and Synod buildings in St Petersburg in 2008. The Supreme Court and Higher Arbitration Courts have yet to make the move, however, and a scheme by architect Maxim Atayants has been chosen as the winner of the design competition for the new judicial quarter on the banks of the Neva. (more…)

September 30, 2014 12:24 pm | Link | 10 Comments »

Evolution of a Napoleonic Parliament

The Salle des états in the Palais du Louvre

Among the numerous rituals of the ordinary visitor’s pilgrimage to Paris — trip up the Eiffel Tower, lunch at a tourist-trap café — braving the teeming hordes in the Louvre to view da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ ranks near the top. What very few of the camera-toting hordes realise is that they are shuffling through the room that once housed France’s parliament. The history of the Palais du Louvre is long, exceptional, and varied.

Originally built as a stern castle in the 1190s, the Louvre’s secure reputation led Louis IX to house the royal treasury there from the mid-thirteenth century. Charles V enlarged it in the fifteenth century to become a royal residence, while François Ier brought the grandeur of the Renaissance to the Louvre — as well as acquiring ‘La Gioconda’. In 1793, amidst the revolutionary tumult, part of the palace was opened to the public as the Musée du Louvre, but the Louvre has always housed a variety of institutions — the Ministry of Finance didn’t move out until 1983.

Napoleon III took as his official residence the Tuileries Palace which the Louvre was slowly enlarged towards over the centuries to incorporate. The Emperor needed a parliament chamber close at hand so he could easily address joint sittings of the Senate and the Corps législatif (as the lower house was called during the Second Empire) which opened the parliamentary year. By doing so at his residence, the Bonaparte emperor was following the example left by his kingly Bourbon predecessor Louis XVIII. (more…)

March 4, 2014 9:05 am | Link | 4 Comments »

Football at S. Maria Maggiore

The enormous church of S. Maria Maggiore stands on one of Rome’s seven famous hills. Originally the site was very unkempt, as can be seen in an old fresco painting in the Vatican. Later, the slopes were smoothed and articulated with a flight of steps up to the apse of the basilica. The many tourists who are brought to the church on sight-seeing tours hardly notice the unique character of the surroundings. They simply check off one of the starred numbers in their guide-books and hasten on to the next one. But they do not experience the place in the way some boys I saw there a few years ago did. I imagine they were pupils from a nearby monastery school. They had a recess at eleven o’clock and employed the time playing a very special kind of ball game on the broad terrace at the top of the stairs. It was apparently a kind of football but they also utilised the wall in the game, as in squash — a curved wall, which they played against with great virtuousity. When the ball was out, it was most decidedly out, bouncing down all the steps and rolling several hundred feet further on with an eager boy rushing after it, in and out among motor cars and Vespas down near the great obelisk.

I do not claim that these Italian youngsters learned more about architecture than the tourists did. But quite unconsciously they experienced certain basic elements of architecture: the horizontal planes and the vertical walls above the slopes. And they learned to play on these elements. As I sat in the shade watching them, I sensed the whole three-dimensional composition as never before. At a quarter past eleven the boys dashed off, shouting and laughing. The great basilica stood once more in silent grandeur.

— Steen Eiler Rasmussen, Experiencing Architecture (1962)

December 12, 2013 11:20 am | Link | 1 Comment »

St Paul’s Gothicised

Victorian England went mad for the medieval, often neglecting or destroying buildings and structures of classical design along the way. Wren’s classical rood screen for Westminster Abbey is probably no great loss, but just imagine if his masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral, had been gothicised.

Just such was imagined by the architectural sketch artist C.A. Nicholson in two drawings he sent to the Architectural Record (albeit in the 1910s, not the Victorian era). Nicholson was inspired by an image printed in a previous issue of the Record showing the front of Peterborough Cathedral transformed into a classic design.

Of course before the Great Fire, Old St Paul’s was a Gothic cathedral.

September 25, 2013 6:30 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

The Dome of the Custom House, Dublin

THE MOST RECENT series of the ITV detective drama “Foyle’s War”, though set in London, was filmed entirely in Dublin. (Ah, those Bord Scannán incentives!). I’ve noticed a phenomenon in which something set in England but filmed in Ireland suffers from English stereotype overcompensation. What this entails is unnecessarily sticking noticeably English ‘things’ (double-decker bus, red pillarbox) into the frame when, if filmed in England, the directors might otherwise be satisfied without these subconscious emblems reassuring the viewer that they are not in fact in the country the programme was actually filmed in.

So two characters meeting on a street of Georgian houses will have a red post box shoved into some arbitrary place on the street to remind us we’re in jolly old England. Despite this, any devotées of the Georgian style will recognise the Irishness of the houses because of the subtle yet noticeable difference between the Georgian styles of, say, London, Edinburgh, Bath, and Dublin.

Anyhow, not to reveal too much of the plot of this latest series, but Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle is recruited into a post-war British intelligence gathering organisation. The exterior shots of the building used as this group’s headquarters is the Custom House on River Liffey in Dublin, only the show’s producers have digitally removed the building’s prominent dome, presumably in order to make it less distinctive and identifiable. (more…)

July 30, 2013 6:20 pm | Link | 6 Comments »

No. 6, Burlington Gardens

Sir James Pennethorne’s University of London

German university buildings are an (admittedly unusual) obsession of mine, and I’ve often thought that No. 6 Burlington Gardens is London’s closest answer to your typical nineteenth-century Teutonic academy’s Hauptgebäude. And the connection is appropriate enough, as No. 6 was built in 1867-1870 for the University of London in what had once been the back garden of Burlington House (which at the same time became home to the Royal Academy of Arts). Despite the building’s Germanic form, the architect Sir James Pennethorne decorated the structure in Italianate detail, providing the University with a lecture theatre, examination halls, and a head office. Pennethorne died just a year after drafting this design, and his fellow architects described it as his “most complete and most successful design”.

The University of London was founded as a federal entity in 1836 to grant degrees to the students of the secularist, free-thinking University College and its rival, the Anglican royalist King’s College. It now is composed of eighteen colleges, ten institutes, and a number of other ‘central bodies’, with over 135,000 students.

Since its founding, the University had been dependent upon the government’s purse for funding, as well as for housing. Accomodation was provided in Somerset House, then Marlborough House, before evacuating to temporary quarters in Burlington House and elsewhere. It was not until the 1860s that Parliament approved the appropriate grant for a purpose-built home for the University to be erected in the rear garden of Burlington House. (more…)

May 29, 2013 4:30 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

Two More from Andrew Gould

In addition to my post on Charles Street & Tully Alley, here are another two houses designed by Andrew Gould. Like the other project, they are an urban infill project, built at the back of a lot on Ashley Avenue in Charleston, and the first house shown here is the architect’s own house. (more…)

April 26, 2013 2:15 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

An Eclectic Vernacular in Charleston

Two new alleyways designed by George Holt & Andrew Gould

Charleston, the finest city of the American South, boasts two new alleyways designed by the architectural-urbanist partnership of George Holt and Andrew Gould. Holt began buying and restoring old Charleston houses two decades ago, and later expanded his work to building new houses in the traditional style of the town. Recently he’s combined with Andrew Gould, a specialist in the design of Orthodox churches, to craft an “urban infill project” plotting two short alleyways of modern houses built in an eclectic traditional vernacular: Charles Street and Tully Alley. (more…)

April 26, 2013 2:14 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

The Palace of Holyroodhouse

HOLYROOD IS SUCH a pleasant spot, despite the recent intrusion of an ostentatiously ugly government building designed by a Spanish architect. The other day, while visiting Edinburgh, I heeded the recommendation of the Prettiest Schoolteacher in Clackmannanshire to sample the burger at the Holyrood 9a. It was quite delicious, though not perfect, and was splendidly washed with a pint of Kozel (most un-Caledonian, I concede, but you can get Deuchars in London, you know).

Afterwards, our little party decided to have a little wander down Holyrood Road towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the epicentre of the Scottish monarchy.

Nestled between Calton Hill and Salisbury Crags, the Palace sits at the end of the Royal Mile that runs between it and Edinburgh Castle. With the Old Town to its west, the expanse of Holyrood Park flows off to the south and east of it. (more…)

April 21, 2013 9:44 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

The Lady Altar

The Oratory Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
Brompton Road, London

In the south transept of the Brompton Oratory is the altar dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, perhaps the finest altar in the entire church. It is a favourite place for getting in a few prayers and offering a candle or two or three or four. At the end of Solemn Vespers & Benediction on Sunday afternoon (above) it is where the Prayer for England is said and the Marian antiphon sung.

The Lady Altar was designed and built in 1693 by Francesco Corbarelli of Florence and his sons Domenico and Antonio and for nearly two centuries stood in the Chapel of the Rosary in the Church of St Dominic in Brescia. That church was demolished in 1883, and the London Congregation of the Oratory purchased the altar two years beforehand for £1,550.

The statue of Our Lady of Victories holding the Holy Child had previously stood in the old Oratory church in King William Street, and the central space of the reredos was slightly modified to house it. The Old and New Worlds are represented in the flanking statues, which are of St Pius V and St Rose of Lima — both by the Venetian late-baroque sculptor Orazio Marinali. The statues of St Dominic and St Catherine of Siena which now rest in niches facing the altar were previously united to it, and are by the Tyrolean Thomas Ruer.

April 7, 2013 11:00 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

A Decade of Driehaus

A Carl Laubin capriccio pays tribute to the first decade of Driehaus laureates

THIS YEAR MARKED the tenth anniversary of the Driehaus Prize, the annual award honouring a living architect who has contributed to the field of traditional and classical architecture. To commemorate the first decade of the Prize, the architectural painter Carl Laubin was commissioned to produce a splendid capriccio depicting the works of the first ten Driehaus laureates.

As Witold Rybczynski, a member of the Driehaus panel of jurors, writes:

In the foreground is the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, a bronze miniature of which is presented to each laureate. It’s fun to try and identify the individual works in this large (5½ by over 8 feet long) painting. But what is more striking is that Laubin has created a convincing urban landscape solely out of landmark buildings.

That, of course, is the advantage of classicism: however it is interpreted, it is a tradition that manages to produce a more or less coherent whole. Even Abdel-Wahed El Wakil’s mosque, standing next to a Seaside beach house by Robert A. M. Stern, doesn’t look too out of place.

The Driehaus Prize was founded in part as a rival to the more publicised Pritzker Prize awarded to modernist architects. But, Mr Rybczynski points out, the fundamental nature of modernist structures is that they thrive only as a visual contrast to buildings constructed in a traditional style.

Can one imagine a similar townscape of Pritzker Prize winners? Well, maybe with the work of some of the early laureates—Pei, Bunshaft, Tange, Siza—but modern buildings need a background of nineteenth and early twentieth century urbanism to shine. A town made up of only signature buildings by our current generation of stars would resemble a carnival or a theme park—Pritzkerland.

I’ve often thought this of the United Nations headquarters in New York, which, when it was first built, must have stood out brilliantly as a bright and fresh harbinger of a better future, but which has been rendered altogether rather boring by the construction of neighbouring buildings of third-rate plate-glass modernist designs.

The UN headquarters on the East River and Lever House on Park Avenue were breakthrough buildings, but the increasing replacement of their traditional stone-clad or brick neighbours by cheap, tawdry modernist structures has exposed how reliant this type of architecture — even when well-conceived and properly executed — is on being surrounded by a contrasting style. (more…)

April 7, 2013 10:00 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

The Cathedral of the Bronx

The Augustinian Church of St Nicholas of Tolentine

The Church of St Nicholas of Tolentine dominates the busy intersection of University Avenue and West Fordham Road in the Bronx. The parish was erected by the archdiocese in 1906 and has been served by Augustinians ever since then. The present church is a modern gothic creation from 1927, and probably one of the most handsome Catholic churches in the borough — it is often nicknamed “the cathedral of the Bronx”. (Though that style is sometimes also ascribed to St Jerome’s in Mott Haven).

The church is of suitably grand proportions, but the effect is somewhat diminished by the unfortunate use of bulky wooden pews. They are ill-suited to such a large church, and detract from the spaciousness of the interior. This is unfortunately a very frequent problem in the United States, where clumsy pews crowd even great cathedral churches like St Patrick’s in Manhattan or the glorious Cathedral Basilica in St Louis. Regardless, St Nicholas of Tolentine is a splendid ornament in this borough of many churches. (more…)

March 28, 2013 2:00 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Scipione Perosini’s Imperial Palace

An ambitious Italian’s mad plan to bulldoze the Roman Forum, destroy Michaelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio, and build a Napoleonic palace atop the Capitoline Hill.

Some architectural projects are just so completely mental and insane that you actually have to doff your cap to the creativity of their inventors. Scipione Perosini’s ‘Projet d’un palais impérial à Rome’ is one such plan.

In the 1800s, with Napoleon the master of Europe, prominent citizens of various Italian cities submitted plans for the architectural aggrandisement of their communities under the beneficent patronage of the revolutionary monarch. In Rome, the architect and hydraulic engineer Scipione Perosini drafted his project for a imperial Napoleonic megapalace.

Atop the Capitoline, Michaelangelo’s Piazza del Campidolgio would be destroyed except for the Palazzo dei Senatori, which would be the central focus of a massive neo-classical palace encompassing the entire Capitoline Hill. From the Hill, a series of terraces would cascade down to the Roman Forum, which would be demolished and paved over to form a new ‘Foro di Napoleone’ celebrating the emperor. Across the Forum, on the Palatine, a new imperial residence circled by gardens would house Napoleon, who proclaimed himself King of Italy, during his prospective stays in the second capital of his empire. (more…)

March 25, 2013 10:45 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

The Malteserkirche, Vienna

I happened to stumble upon the Order of Malta church in Vienna while meandering down the Kärntner Straße in the middle of a snowy day. It’s a small and relatively simple church consisting of a Gothic nave with an organ gallery. The Order has occupied the site since 1217, though the bulk of the current church dates from the fifteenth century. In 1806, Commander Fra’ Franz von Colloredo had the façade remodelled in the Empire style fashionable at the time. The altarpiece, a painting by Johann Georg Schmidt depicting the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, is from a few decades earlier in 1730, and there is a splendid Neoclassical monument to Jean de la Valette including telamonic Saracens. The church is also decorated with forty coats of arms: five of grand priors, one cardinal, a grand commander, twenty-nine commanders, and one bailiff.

(more…)

March 3, 2013 8:48 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

The Kaiserforum

The Unrealised Vision of an Imperial Forum for Vienna

The Michaelerplatz façade of the Hofburg, Vienna.

SIDLING UP THE KOHLMARKT and entering the Hofburg through the Michaelerplatz is a glorious architectural experience, but viewing Vienna’s imperial palace from the Ringstraße end, one is left with a certain awkwardness. This is because what is now the Heldenplatz, open to the neighbouring Volksgarten, was conceived as part of a great imperial forum, the Kaiserforum, but the scheme has been left incomplete.

The original impetus for this forum was the plan to build the identical Kunsthistoriches Museum and Natural History Museum across from the Hofburg next to the former imperial stables. Emperor Franz Joseph held a closed competition for four invited architects — Carl Hasenauer, Theophil von Hansen, Heinrich Ferstel, and Moritz Löhr — to conceive of an overall scheme to expand the Hofburg in order to provide an architectural connection to the two new museums. (more…)

March 3, 2013 8:30 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

The most beautiful city never built

Ernest Gimson’s Canberra

Whenever I’m in in Westminster Cathedral, I feel obliged to nip in to and say a prayer in the chapel dedicated to St Andrew. The apostle is my patron many times over: in addition to being my name-saint, he is the patron of the university, the town, and the country in which I spent four luxurious years. His is one of the most finely decorated chapels in the cathedral, and boasts a beautiful mosaic depiction of the ‘Auld Grey Toon’ above the arms of the donor, the 4th Marquess of Bute. (His father, the eccentric 3rd Marquess, had been Lord Rector of the University of St Andrews.)

Stumbling upon the genial Cathedral Historian, Patrick Rogers, the other day, he shared with me that the stalls and kneelers in St Andrew’s Chapel are widely considered the finest works of arts-and-crafts furniture design in all of Great Britain. They are the creation of a man I had never heard of: the craftsman, designer, and architect Ernest Gimson.

An unfamiliar name is always a potential new avenue of knowledge down which to saunter, and so it proved with Ernest Gimson. His talent at furniture is undoubted but, given my obsession with architecture, it was instead that field of his expertise which particularly drew me in. It was then that I discovered his submission for the 1911-1912 Australian Federal Capital Competition. (more…)

February 10, 2013 10:00 pm | Link | 7 Comments »
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