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


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

The Wyndham Monument, Silton

The charmingly haphazard Church of St Nicholas in Silton is home to what is arguably the finest funerary monument in Dorset not in a major church.

Sir Hugh Wyndham (1602–1684) lived through the difficult time of the Civil War and was first advanced in the law under Cromwell’s military dictatorship. It was the worst of both worlds for Wyndham, as the republican authorities never trusted him while after the Restoration his comfort with Cromwell meant he was deprived of office. Still, Charles II was no small-minded man, and after a royal pardon was granted Wyndham was appointed a Baron of the Exchequer and knighted.

The monument he left behind at Silton is is believed to be the earliest work of the Flemish sculptor Jan van Nost (also known as John Nost the elder). Sir Hugh is depicted in his judge’s robes, flanked by two mourning figures believed to represent his first and second wives. (The third wife is at least represented by having her arms impaled with Wyndham’s in one of the three heraldic sheilds gracing the monument’s surrounds.)

Nost’s sculpture was unveiled in the chancel of the parish church in 1692 but the Victorians thought it rather dominated the small sancutary. In 1869 a small recess was constructed in the north wall of the nave and the Wyndham monument was carefully moved there. The sculptor was also responsible for the monument to John Digby, 3rd Earl of Bristol, in Sherborne Abbey not far away, and one can see the parallels. The Earl, as it happened, married Rachel Wyndham, the younger daughter of Sir Hugh Wyndham.

October 6, 2016 12:05 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Zeist’s Zest for Traditional Architecture

The Daniel Marotplein, a residential square in the town of Zeist, provides a fine recent example of traditional architecture in the Netherlands. Designed by the TU-Delft-trained architect Diederik Six, the twenty houses surround a green square named after the Huguenot craftsman and artist Daniel Marot some of whose handiwork is in the nearby Slot Zeist.

The slot (schloss/castle/house) is associated with the Protestant Moravian brotherhood who were invited to live nearby by Cornelis Schellinger in the mid-eighteenth century, and the Daniel Marotplein takes inspiration from the two squares of houses they lived in flanking the castle. (more…)

October 5, 2016 11:30 am | Link | 1 Comment »

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 | 1 Comment »

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 »

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 »


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 »

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 »

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 »

Sieg für die Schönheit

Sieg für die Schönheit

January 29, 2016 9:25 pm | Link | No Comments »

The Rova of Antananarivo

The Rova of Antananarivo

The Tranovola (left) and Manjakamiadana (right) in the Rova of Antananarivo.

The Manjakamiadana (“Where It is Pleasant to Rule”) was the royal residence, later pretentiously clad in stone by Protestant missionaries, while the Tranovola (“Silver House”) was where the nefarious Rainivoninahitriniony received foreign diplomats after the nobles’ coup of 1863.

His complicity in the supposed regicide of that year — no one’s really quite sure what happened to Radama II — eventually led to his downfall two years later. His younger brother Rainilaiarivony proved a more skilful political operator, succeding Rainivoninahitriniony as prime minister and arranging his own marriage to the last three queens of the Merina kingdom of Madagascar.

January 19, 2016 9:00 am | Link | 2 Comments »

Open-minded Stellenbosch

Paul Moorcraft is a Cardiff-born journalist and academic who spent many years in southern Africa, lecturing, researching, and working. I stumbled across this passage about Stellenbosch from his 2011 book Inside the Danger Zones: Travels to Arresting Places and found it interesting (though not surprising):

I found many of my all-white students at the University of Cape Town tediously dogmatic in their supposed progressiveness. I also lectured at the Afrikaans-language university of ‘Maties’ at Stellenbosch, established in 1918 [sic, f. 1866; accorded university status in 1918] as the Afrikaner Oxbridge, where I found the students much more open-minded. Simon van der Stel, a stiff Dutch bureaucrat, founded a frontier town on the banks of the Eerste River in 1679. Van der Stel loved oaks, and the graceful boulevards he planted still adorned picturesque Stellenbosch. I spent as much time as possible in the area because of the architecture. The Cape Dutch style contains elements from Dutch architecture but is also influenced by colonial Indonesian traditions and the local environment. The most characteristic feature is the graceful gabled section built around the front door, which is flanked by symmetrical wings, thatched and whitewashed, extending on either side.

I was supposed to be using my visiting lectureship to finish my doctoral research, so I became friendly with Retha, a librarian at Maties. She was a fund of knowledge on Afrikaner culture and offered herself as an intellectual guide. My scholarly investigations soon degenerated into a three-month tour of the local wine farms, for which I am eternally grateful. We drove through the old, beautiful vineyards of the valleys around Paarl, Franschoek, and Tulbagh; then returned to eat in splendid eighteenth-century farmhouses converted to hotels.

October 14, 2015 11:03 am | Link | 2 Comments »

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 »


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 »
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