COUNTY COUNCIL BAUHAUS

charles aslin
Charles Aslin (1893-1959)

I saw the RIBA’s exhibition Beyond Bauhaus on Saturday, which charts the influence of Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Walter Breuer during and after the years when they lived in England.

As I live in Hertfordshire, I was intrigued to discover that the rapid school-building programme in the county after the Second World War was implemented by by a team of architects under Charles Aslin (above), whose debt to Gropius was explicit. The population was growing fast and there was great demand for schools. The county architects, backed by the director of education, John Newsom, who was reputed to be good at sourcing materials in a time of scarcity, devised a standard prefabricated model, mainly used for single-storey buildings and making great use of natural light, colour and art.

carpenders park
Designs for interior colour schemes for the entrance hall at Carpenders Park School, Oxhey by Oliver Cox, HCC Architects.
Image from RIBApix

I’d noticed the criss-cross ceiling girders in nearly every Hertfordshire school I visited (below)- round the corner from me is Margaret Wix Primary School built on such a model. My daughter went to St Albans Girls School, also built like that, with a Barbara Hepworth sculpture in the foyer. The Hertfordshire achievement was quickly recognised and it influenced school building elsewhere – by 1970 about 40 per cent of British schools had used it.

green lanes croxley
Green Lanes School, Croxley Green, 1949

The exhibition made me curious about the primary school I’d attended, Pinner Park, then part of Middlesex County Council. When we’re children we accept the world as it presents itself and have little sense of context or history, but looking back I remember a modernist building with flat roofs and metal-framed windows. I discovered it was of the many modernist buildings constructed before the war by Middlesex County architects  William Thomas Curtis and his assistant Howard William Burchett. They created dozens of public buildings in Metroland , including the now-listed Kenton Public Library (below), recognisable from their brick construction, strong horizontal emphasis, flat roofs and prominent staircase tower. They used innovative methods and materials such as the concrete slab floors supported by pillars at Pinner Park School.

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Historic England’s description of Kenton Public Library gives an idea of Curtis and Burchett’s style and influences:

The square tower has two small, latter projections on the south-east corner, one of brick and one glazed. Both wings lit by tall metal windows. Entrance hall lit by east wall of glass bricks. Interior: original staircase, issuing desk and screen, and original bookcases. The main reading room is both side-lit and top-lit by means of circular perforated openings. Included as a good example of the Middlesex County Architect’s Department’s style adopted after 1933, owing much to the work of Wittem Dudok in Hilversum, yet giving a distinctive architectural form of calibre and panache to the London suburbs. This example is especially notable for its boldly geometric composition and the survival of internal fittings.

SHEFFIELD


During our weekend in Sheffield we visited the Graves Gallery, who have recently added Grayson Perry’s Comfort Blanket (2014) to their collection.

He describes his tapestry as “A portrait of Britain to wrap yourself up in, a giant banknote of things we live, and love to hate.”

The makers of the tapestry are not acknowledged in the museum’s notes, an annoying habit of artists and galleries who depend so much on craftsmen

MAY MORRIS

may morris

A picture of this 1910 women’s suffrage banner, juxtaposing Arts and Crafts irises and the hammers and horseshoes that the Suffragettes used to break shop windows with, was tweeted by @womensart1

My first thought was, “Did it have anything to do with May Morris?” considering that she was an important Arts and Crafts embroiderer and had been an active socialist since she joined the Hammersmith Socialist League, which was run by her father William Morris. She was largely responsible for the revival of free hand embroidery and taught it at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. 

I found Elizabeth Crawford’s blog about a Suffrage Procession organised by the Womens’ Union of Suffrage Societies in 1908, featuring banners designed by the Artists’ League for Women’s Suffrage, including some made by May Morris. Anna Mason writes of Morris’s political engagement that she was not militant and that during her father’s period of political activity in the 1880s she did not like the idea that he might be arrested. So it may be that she was not associated with the window-breaking Suffragettes; and in 1910 she had long departed from Hammersmith and was living in Oxfordshire.

PUGLIESE BAROQUE 5: MONOPOLI

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After our ill-fated attempt to reach Ostuni by bus, we saw it, white and high, from the train that took us from Brindisi to Monopoli. Perhaps it was just as well that we didn’t reach it because the heavy rain the other night made rivers in the streets of Ostuni and came half way up the cars in the car parks.

Monopoli got its name as the “one city” of refuge from the Ostrogoths. It has been ruled by Byzantines, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese, Venetians and Hohenstaufens. Now its small historic centre has smart tourist shops and restaurants with a breezy, seaside air. Towering over it is the magnificent Cathedral of Maria Santissima della Madia (above). It’s an 11th-century foundation but the present structure, said by some with good reason to be the most beautiful baroque church in Puglia, was built between 1742 and 1772 to the design of Michele Colangiuli and Pietro Magarelli. Slap bang next to it is another Baroque church, Santa Maria del Suffragio, separated only by a narrow passage (below), S. Maria on the left, the Cathedral on the right.

s maria monopoli

St Anthony of Padua (below) , on the edge of the old city, is a discordant but fascinating building with shades of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons. It comprises a single vast order, a two-storey entrance arch pierced by a disproportionately small door and windows in a facade of much earlier date, with pilasters on huge pedestals leading up to a broken pediment. Who designed this strange church? The parish website concentrates on the inside and doesn’t tell you.

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PUGLIESE BAROQUE 4: BRINDISI


I had to visit the little town of Grottaglie, which has fifty traditional pottery workshops making a mixture of ornamental ceramics and tableware. It amazes me that these artisan businesses survive in Italy’s prosperous modern economy and that so much tableware is still made by hand, thrown on the wheel.

From Grottaglie we intended to travel by bus to Ostuni. It took two hours to find out where the bus departed from (the hotel receptionist apologised that “Everything is complicated in Italy”) and when we found the place, the bus didn’t come after a two-hour wait. So we opted for the easier trip by train to Brindisi, air conditioned as well – my British readers need to be informed that in late September it is 30 degrees in Puglia.

Brindisi had been almost written off by our guide book, which warned us that parts of it were “seedy”, and I expected little from a major seaport. But it has considerable interest and history in its pleasant waterfront, with the naval base and warships that you can watch through the security barrier, the fine Duomo, the little ancient basilica of St John, and the two ancient columns that marked the end of the Appian way (only one remains in the city, the other was donated to Lecce). It was also reputedly the place of Virgil’s death (below).


The inside of the Duomo has a refreshing simplicity after the extreme richness of the churches of Lecce, but the outside was beautifully lit at night (top). And we liked the frontage of Santa Teresa, glimpsed through olive trees as the cloud bubbled up before a thunderstorm (below).

PUGLIESE BAROQUE 3: GALLIPOLI

Not the Gallipoili in the Dardanelles, but Gallipoli in Puglia, though both were in Magna Grecia and both names are of Greek origin.

The centre of the small, cramped old town on a promontory is like the Southend-on-Sea of Puglia, nothing but tourist shops, tourist restaurants and a tourist information bureau that doesn’t want to give you any information. In most cities, the smart districts are in the centre and the periphery is either tatty or commercial, but in Gallipoli, it’s the historic centre that’s tatty and the smarter streets are around the marina and the sparkling sea and the Corso Roma, which was deserted when we arrived during the siesta on Saturday afternoon and packed during the passiagata, which continued till well after midnight.

But plonk in the middle of the fritto misto shops and souvenir joints is the grand duomo in the Baroque style of Lecce. Typical of Pugliese cities, the street is too narrow for you to see the facade, which extends over the roof line of the church in a high, ostentatious parapet, and I’ve had to use the image from Wikipedia because I couldn’t get into position for a decent photo. It’s also hard to find out much about the history of the cathedral, but the architect is said to be Giovan Bernardino Genuino, known as Vaspasiano.

PUGLIESE BAROQUE 2: LECCE

We came to Lecce, the major town in the heel of Italy, on a slow train from Martina Franca and found a room in the Palazzo Bernadini, presided over by Isabella Oztasciyan Bernardini d’Arnesano, professor of Greek studies at the university.

Lecce developed so rapidly in the late 17th century that it has a unity of design and its streets of honey-coloured churches and palazzi would make it a good film location. But that’s not surprising because the streets and squares of Lecce were conceived as a location for performance and display.

The large Duomo square, almost completely enclosed, had a defensive function but it is also a stage, with an elaborate set finished by Guiseppe Zimbalo, architect of many Lecce churches, and is made for ecclesiastical and civic performance. Each high Baroque church in the city competes with the next to make the best impression with its extravagance, splendour and the degree of elaboration of its façades and altars.

In art, whatever can be done will be done. If the artist has the soft Lecce limestone to work in, he can carve it any way so that it writhes, boils and bubbles. Columns are twisted and the twists are decorated with animal and plant forms and putti and the decorations gilded. The intention of this art, to surprise and overawe, is still achieved as the visitors gasp and Wow! before snapping the preposterous façades of Zimbalo’s Santa Croce and Duomo.