Monday, 18 September 2017

Darmstädter Künstlerkolonie

There’s a long tradition of princely enthusiasts of the Arts indulging their passion with a grand project – the Prince of Wales’s fantasy township at Poundbury being a more recent example. In Darmstadt the Grand Duke of Hesse, Ernst Ludwig chose some higher land in the north east of his capital (visible on the 1905 Baedeker map) for the construction of an artists’ colony. The site was already graced by the newly completed Russian Orthodox Chapel built for Tsar Nicholas II whose wife had been born in Darmstadt. Ernst Ludwig was swept up in the late 1890s enthusiasm for the fashionable Jugendstil and fancied himself as the leading patron of this Germanic version of Art Nouveau for which he obtained the services of Joseph Maria Olbrich, co-founder of the Vienna Secession as lead architect. The master plan called for a substantial centre containing multiple studios for artists and craft-workers and a modest number of individually designed houses to be occupied by the most prominent artists. There were three phases of development beginning in 1899 with completion in 1908.

A major exhibition in 1901 featured the newly opened Ernst Ludwig Haus with its shared studio facilities and the newly constructed artists’ homes, several of which had run significantly over-budget. Like many such royal vanity projects the exhibition ended in a large financial loss. A more modest exhibition followed in 1904 and the final exhibition took place in 1908 where the highlights included a new exhibition building and the dedication of the landmark Wedding Tower (Hochzeitsturm) designed by Olbrich and gifted to the Grand Duke on the occasion of his marriage by the grateful citizens of Darmstadt. Olbrich died in August 1908 at the age of 40 while his last building, the Tietz department store in Düsseldorf was still under construction.

Richly decorated entrance to the Ernst-Ludwig-Haus designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908) built for the first exhibition of the Kunstlerkolonie in 1901. Allegorical figures of Strength and Beauty carved by Ludwig Habich (1901) flank the archway.

Five of the first six artists’ houses were designed by Olbrich. The sixth was the work of Peter Behrens, better known as an artist and graphic designer. It was his first excursion into architecture and every detail inside and outside had his mark on it. All internal fixtures and fittings, including the furniture, cutlery and fabrics were designed by Behrens. Despite this personal involvement, Behrens never actually lived there and actually sold it on within a year of construction. In 1909 Behrens designed the influential and monumental AEG turbine factory in Berlin. His legacy was stained by his involvement in Albert Speer’s Prachtstrasse plan – a redesigned Berlin for a thousand year Reich. AEG commissioned an absurdly grandiose design from Behrens for a new corporate HQ. Although it never got built, the design pleased the eye of the Führer who had been a Behrens admirer since he saw the Embassy in St. Petersburg that Behrens designed in 1913.

Russische Kapelle (1899)

There was no place for Guimard’s whiplash curves or Horta’s swooning organic forms in the visual language of Jugendstil. Exuberance and extravagance gave way to a rationalist’s version of Art Nouveau in which visual rhythms were employed with restraint in surface decoration and monumental figure sculptures could still find a home they were denied elsewhere. Floral motifs were invariably anchored by a formal geometry. Ceramic decoration (tiles, mosaic and glazed bricks) was extensively used internally and externally. An especially opulent mosaic of a tender embrace can be seen high on the wall of the main entrance to the Hochzeitsturm (Wedding Tower). The tower itself seems a little problematic – not really a building, more a monument or a landmark. As a seven storey landmark it succeeds, being highly visible across the city and capped by the distinctive and imaginative five spires. Any other function it possesses is secondary. Indeed other than the site specific art works inside, it serves as a modest office space and accommodates a few family treasures and not much else. The scale is intriguing in the context of Olbrich’s work in Düsseldorf where a much larger but no taller building was taking shape. The Tietz department store marked Olbrich’s major step into the architectural mainstream – had he lived longer we might have seen more commercial buildings, perhaps a theatre or even a railway station, with an Olbrich signature.

Mosaic sundial on the Wedding Tower designed by Wilhelm Kleukens.

Hochzeitsturm (Wedding Tower) designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908) - a gift from the city of Darmstadt to Grand Duke Ludwig II in 1906.

This opulent mosaic of a tender embrace is high on the wall of the main entrance to the Hochzeitsturm (Wedding Tower). 

Decorative mosaic ceiling designed by Olbrich - part of the Hochzeitsturm (Wedding Tower) ensemble.

Alcove with bench seating and 1914 Jugendstil mosaic by Albin Müller on Olbrichweg.

The Lily Basin mosaic by Albin Müller (1914) .

The top of the Hochzeitsturm (Wedding Tower). 

Haus Behrens (1901) designed by architect Peter Behrens as part of the Kunstlerkolonie. Behrens never occupied the house and it was sold on. Behrens (1868-1940) would trurn his back on decoration and become a pioneer of the Modern Movement. As well as an architect he was an industrial designer, furniture designer, graphic designer and typographer. 

Main entrance to the Haus Behrens - Behrens' choice of decorative motifs is restrained and mainly rectilinear.

Elevation of the Großes Haus Glückert (1901) Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung. Architect: Joseph Maria Olbrich.

Ovoid entrance to the Großes Haus Glückert (1901), Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung. Architect: Joseph Maria Olbrich.

Haus Deiters (1901), designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich.

Tietz department store in Düsseldorf.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Postcard of the Day No. 89 – Hampstead Heath

Today’s postcard jaunt takes us to the wide open spaces on the heights of North London. Hampstead Heath is a recreational space that somehow survived the threat of development as the Victorian city expanded along the trajectory of the tube lines. For working Londoners it offered a taste of the countryside within easy reach. As the 6 day working week became established, more and more workers and their families had the leisure to explore the Heath and patronise the large public houses to be found on the perimeter.

What makes this card special is the presence of another photographer in the right foreground recording a threesome posed on the left. It’s impossible to be certain that this was just a coincidence – photographers have always stage-managed their compositions. But it makes a pleasing self-referential moment. We are deep into Cockney-cliché land here – the Old Bull & Bush pub was immortalised in a music hall song by Florrie Forde. The song was fortuitously adapted from an American original, Under the Anheuser Bush of 1903 – sponsored by the St. Louis based brewers, Anheuser-Busch of Budweiser fame. When these cards were produced the pub was owned by brewers Ind Coope of Burton-upon-Trent, whose sign-painters had covered the premises in brilliant demonstrations of their expertise and command of exuberant Edwardian typefaces.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Margaretenhöhe - refuge from dystopia

Essen is the heartland of the industrial Ruhr. For 400 years it was the centre of the Krupp dynasty with its massive iron and steel producing plants, coalmines and manufacturing from armaments to locomotives. In 1887 control of the business passed to Friedrich Alfred Krupp (known to all as Fritz) who profitably refocused the company on arms production, including warships and U-boats. Leaving behind his wife, Margarethe and his two daughters he would spend several months each year in his villa on the island of Capri. There he would indulge his passions for oceanography and the company of Italian adolescent males. Following his arrest by Italian police for immoral conduct in October 1902 he returned to Germany to be utterly overwhelmed by public scandal as the news filtered back to his homeland. Meanwhile Margarethe, having received anonymous evidence of Fritz’s proclivities, appealed to the Kaiser, a close family friend for assistance in protecting the reputation of the company. Her reward was to be declared insane and confined to an institution on the orders of the Kaiser. Despite the support of the Kaiser, prosecution seemed inevitable and it was Fritz’s sudden death in November that brought matters to a conclusion. There is no agreement on whether he died by his own hand or from natural causes but Margarethe was returned to the family home and managed the business on behalf of her daughter (who inherited the controlling shares from her father) until she came of age in 1906.

After all this turbulence, Margarethe Krupp chose to embark on a personal philanthropic project in 1906 to establish Germany’s first Garden City in the southern suburbs of Essen. She donated the land plus a major sum for construction costs and established a foundation (Stiftung von Margarethe Krupp) to build and administer the new settlement. Guided by the principles of Ebenezer Howard, the first homes were occupied in 1910 and the project proceeded in phases under the supervision of architect, Georg Metzendorf (1874-1934) until completion in 1938. Until 1933 there was a small artists’ colony, prominent among them being the photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch, associated with Die Neue Sachlichkeit movement. Renger-Patzsch specialised in cool dispassionate recording of industrial landscapes and photographs of still-life and the natural world in which he expressed a strong preference for serial imagery.

Allied bombing destroyed many of the buildings in World War 2 – by 1945 less than half of homes were habitable. After a long rehabilitation it was meticulously restored to its original character by 1955. Protected status as an architectural monument was obtained in 1987. The Foundation continues to manage and allocate the letting of houses and apartments. Applications are considered in reference to the Foundation criteria and many are unsuccessful. The Foundation also takes a close interest in protecting the building fabric from unauthorised additions or modifications – tenants wishing to relay a tiled or parquet floor must have their plans approved, special permission is required for dogs or cats and gardens must be maintained to an agreed standard and formula. Satellite dishes are forbidden.

Surrounded by woodland and entered via an archway in the sprawling gateway complex (seen in the vintage postcard above) gives a sense of enclosure and separation from the clamour of the world outside. This quality must have been much more apparent in the days when Essen was an industrial metropolis with 291 collieries and thousands of chimneys and cooling towers venting dark, toxic fumes into the atmosphere. Since the 1990s and the advent of globalisation, Essen has massively de-industrialised while the relics of heavy industry have been transformed into heritage attractions and public amenities. In this context, while the Margaretenhöhe has lost none of its foliage-sheltered charm, it is no longer such a precious refuge from industrial dystopia. The architecture has echoes of Arts & Crafts and German vernacular traditions in its proliferation of quirky features and contrasting rooflines designed to refute any accusation of dull uniformity. Streets were expressly kinked to compose a scene that constantly changes and intersections offset to offer the greatest variety of views. Generous tree planting and amenity space, a central square for markets and community events, a hotel and retail premises and places of worship complete the picture.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Imberbus 2017

Last Saturday (August 26th.) the military training ground on Salisbury Plain was invaded by a fleet of London buses, old and new in what has become an annual event to operate a service from the Wiltshire garrison town of Warminster deep into what is normally forbidden territory. Buses venture to the village of Imber – depopulated by the army in 1943 for use as target practice. From Imber buses run on to a quartet of Wiltshire villages that lie on the perimeter of the military land – Market Lavington, West Lavington, Tilshead and Chitterne.

Two Routemasters are manoeuvring after picking up passengers in the village of Imber.
Among the places passed en route are New Zealand Farm Camp and the splendidly named Brazen Bottom. The latter, no more than a rural crossroads, I suspect is included for its comedic value. Along the way there’s a distant view of Copehill Down where a Bavarian styled village was constructed in the 1980s to replicate the topography that might be contested in the event of a Soviet land invasion. In Imber, the 14th. and 15th. century church of St. Giles is the only significant building or structure that remains intact – prudently Grade I listed. Elsewhere in Imber the army has constructed a couple of residential cul-de-sacs that superficially resemble the sort of development that the likes of Bovis Homes might throw up. Tin roofs and empty spaces where doors and windows should be give the game away. Allegedly the aim was to prepare troops for street fighting in Belfast.

St, Giles's church at Imber - almost the last surviving structure in the village - the rest being destroyed by the army in training exercises. Imber has been unpopulated since 1943 when the residents were ordered out, never to return.
In the 15 years or so that I lived in London, the Routemaster bus dominated the services although a dwindling number of earlier models still hung around. Routes 14, 19, 22, 31 and 49 had most of my custom and while bus travel had its compensations in terms of people-watching and observing the city from above, I learned to resent the hours of wasted time that would accumulate each and every week at bus stops. The extended gaps between buses that could often to stretch to 30 minutes or more despite an advertised frequency of 4 – 8 minutes were bad enough but there were additional cruelties to endure. When a bus pulls up and the destination is some way short of the full journey, a wager must be struck. Logic might persuade you to take the bus as far as it goes and catch another one, even though in those days you could easily end up paying more for taking your journey in instalments. The drawback here is that your bus may well be overtaken en route by one that’s going the full distance leaving you watching its diminishing form with mounting fury as you face the prospect of yet another spell of waiting at an interim stop. Another great frustration was the tendency for convoys to form. What often happened then was the arrival of an almost full bus causing a mighty scramble to get aboard while an almost empty one would sail past without pausing, leaving in its wake a group of disgruntled passengers for whom there was no space on the first bus and the pleasure of another long wait stretching ahead of them. This is by no means an exhaustive account of potential frustrations and it must be said, many buses arrived in reasonable time and many journeys were untroubled, though never swift, other than very late at night or before 7am.

Growing up surrounded by the bucolic delights of Metroland in the Sixties, the sight of these short wheelbase London Country buses pootering through the lanes around Heronsgate, Loudwater, Chenies and Chorleywood was familiar and comforting - offering a modest connection to the world outside. Known as Guy Specials (GS) they were introduced in 1953 for use on low density routes. This example on display at Imber is from the collection of London Transport Museum. 
Riding on a Routemaster after so many years was an evocative experience – the roof contours on the upper deck, the relationship of seats to windows, the preference for an uninterrupted view and the distinctive engine note all recovered buried recollections of crawling along Putney High Street, racing south on Redcliffe Gardens when the lights were green, dog legging through Notting Hill Gate from Westbourne Grove into Kensington Church Street and others too many to mention. I’ve always admired London Transport as a pioneer in corporate identity and a committed supporter of excellence in design. The Frank Pick tradition is one that even outsourcing and privatisation has failed to obliterate and it was a pleasure to note how the Imberbus organisers followed the LT house style in their publicity. The map especially so – a perfect pastiche of the folded maps that used to be available to all.

Imber War Memorial.
It’s unusual to find an event that caters to two specialist audiences but here was one that offered public transport enthusiasts the chance to travel on much loved vintage vehicles plus providing access to forbidden places for the inquisitive and curious. The organisers coped with a high level of demand with commendable cheerfulness and the only occasional sour note came from a minority of the more fanatical photographers and their vocal intolerance of members of the public with the temerity to be visible in their viewfinders as they compose the perfect shot.

This photo opportunity at New Zealand Farm Camp to the north of Imber was too good to miss. An even better photo was available to the RM driver of the assembled multitude of bus fanatics. 

MoD Brutalism.

Tanks for target practice.

Two more Routemasters at Gore Cross - the Imberbus hub deep into the military land. Almost all journeys intersect here.

Preparations for the evacuation of Chitterne - a busy scene outside Chitterne Church as the 16.05 departures for Warminster are marshalled.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Too Big To Fail

Britain can take pride in its contribution to the Global Financial Crisis. The first signs of contagion were detected here when Northern Rock subsided under the weight of unsecured debt. British bankers introduced us to such new concepts as Libor Rate Manipulation, Coercive Insolvency, Quantitative Easing and Too Big To Fail while the UK taxpayer saved them from total collapse with funds amounting to £19,900 for every child, woman and man. Banks are the best friends we could possibly have – one look at their aspirational life-affirming TV advertising is enough to convince. Images of happy healthy children, active and sporty adolescents, high achieving students, fun-loving mums and dads sharing chores while doting grandparents busy themselves setting up trust funds for the little ones roll endlessly across our screens, numbing the senses as they do so. Positioning themselves as agents of human happiness and gateways to all the pleasures of a consumer society serves to conceal their desperation to turn a profit on every transaction. Money laundering for drug lords and totalitarian regimes is yet to feature in any publicity.

Today’s postcards are views of the Bank of England from the early decades of the last century – a popular landmark for postcard photographers, in part due to the endemic traffic chaos that expressed the excitement of new technology. It was the Bank that brought us Quantitative Easing (QE) – priming the economy with money conjured up out of a vacuum, a form of fiscal alchemy. Freshly created cash was handed over to banks in return for financial assets such as bonds – all the online guides to this process omit to explain just how the parties to these deals agree a price. If somebody approached you offering ‘free’ cash for unspecified assets it would only be natural to give up as little as possible for the maximum amount of that cash. The plan was that the additional money in the system would enable banks to lend more to business which in turn would expand their activities and hire more staff whose wages and salaries would boost consumer spending and before you know it our problems are over. There is no agreement among economists on whether QE has done any good for the wider economy beyond a generally stabilising effect. The only known beneficiaries are the banks for whom it presented an opportunity to rebuild their balance sheets and strengthen their depleted reserves.

Monday, 21 August 2017

The Banks are Made of Marble

The tenth anniversary of the first signs of the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08 is being marked, rather than celebrated, by much media commentary – platitudinous hindsight for the most part. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Messrs. Osborne, Cameron and Clegg (aided and abetted by a supine opposition) we now know that that the world economy crashed due to the incompetence of Gordon Brown and the profligacy of the Labour government’s reckless public spending. Anyway, enough of fake narratives – we pay homage here to the spiritual home of casino banking, the USA. Birthplace of the Collateralised Debt Obligation, Credit Default Swaps and the Subprime Mortgage. After 30 years of assiduous creation of their legendary status as brutal and callous deal-makers, the banking community had finally over-reached.

The Los Angeles bank vault is a tribute in gleaming metal to the efforts of the rich to defend their property and the corresponding efforts of the criminal class to get their hands on them without the inconvenience of earning them. All cool reflective surfaces and empty spaces. Most of these cards pre-date the crash of 1929 and include some small town retail banks of the type that failed in the thousands as well as large faceless operations concealed within skyscraper towers and lesser buildings of varying degrees of architectural pomposity.

A New York State farmer named Les Rice wrote the song, The Banks are made of Marble in the late 1940s and Pete Seeger, who was a near neighbour and acquaintance, included it in his repertoire for the rest of his career. In the 2012 clip below, Pete’s accompanied by the Rivertown Kids, a notorious bunch of brain-washed, alt-left, merchants of hate. Watch and shudder. The most stirring version is the one performed by Leo Kottke and Iris DeMent on Prairie Home Companion. Sadly, only the corpse remains visible on YouTube.