We were in Sheffield a couple of weeks ago and went into the Blue Moon Cafe in the city centre to meet Bill Clark, its avuncular owner (above right) to catch up on old times. Bill has been talking about retiring for a few years but doesn’t seem to have any real intention to do so and can be seen in the cafe most days.
The Blue Moon has strong links with the community – there’s a community noticeboard and the day of our visit they were preparing a fundraising evening for refugee migrants. And in a thoughtful act of public service, they let you know the time in cities around South Yorkshire.
I saw the RIBA’s exhibition Beyond Bauhauson 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
We are travelling by bus and train in Puglia. The approach to Martina Franca, through the workaday modern streets, wasn’t promising. We’d just been to Alberobello, whose little houses with pointy roofs, the famous trulli, are all presented in pristine whiteness for tourists, with trulli models, trulli teatowels and trulli fridge magnets, and the scruffy indifference to us in this place was a refreshing contrast. Through the great arch opposite St Anthony’s church we were in the once rich 18th century town.
Every church, nobleman, banker and merchant created a very fine front to his house to make an impression appropriate to his wealth and importance, whose grandeur could only to be properly admired from the other side of the big square; only there are very few squares, big or small, and the wonderful Baroque doorways have to be squinted at from the opposite side of the narrow alleys in which they’re squashed. Here are a few.
I’m reading Michael T. Saler’s The Avant-Garde in Interwar England, about the English version of modernism that carried forward the social ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The book focuses on Frank Pick (above), the boss of London Underground, who commissioned the modernist stations of the Piccadilly, Northern and Metropolitan Lines and the posters that advertised the underground.
Pick played a leading role in the Design and Industries Association (DIA) and the Council for Art and Industry (CAI) putting him at the centre of design reform.
The CAI , which stood in a line that linked the Chamber of Horrors in the South Kensington Museum to the Design Council, was central to the art and industry debate of the 1930s, which sought to raise the standard of consumer products, ostensibly because better design would improve sales and exports. What I’ve never been able to understand about this movement is that it saw the need to raise the sights of industrialists and to improve the taste of consumers. But why, if poor design was a brake on sales, was it necessary to improve consumer taste?
Saler makes it clear that the idea of fitness for purpose that drove the modernism of the DIA, the CAI and Pick’s underground was more than the physical usefulness of objects and entailed moral ans spiritual fitness as well. As Pick put it, “Fitness for purpose must transcend the merely practical and serve a moral and spiritual order as well. There is moral and spiritual fitness to be satisfied. We know it sure enough when we see it.” Good design was not a matter of taste, understood as consumer preference, but objective standards with moral and spiritual significance. The ideas of good design that ran from the 1850s to the 1960s are hard to understand from our viewpoint, in which we see no aesthetic absolutes and see one design is as good as another. Design was associated with planning and and state direction and was not to be left to the vagaries of the market and personal preference.
The Angels of the Apocalypse sculpture on the Seventh Day Adventist European HQ in St Albans faces on to the main street of the town and its angular shapes are familiar to everyone. So familiar to me that, despite having lived there for years, I’d never bothered to find out anything about it.
It’s by Alan Collins, ARCA (1928-2016), an English religious artist who lived much of his life in the USA and who taught at Seventh Day Adventist universities. His sculptures in Guildford Cathedral, better known but less visible than his St Albans angels, won the Sir Otto Beit medal in 1964, and he made the lettering on the Kennedy memorial at Runnymede, a remarkable commission because he did not specialise in letter cutting.
The Angels of the Apocalypse were made in 1965 in fibreglass for the Adventists’ building, a rare piece of
modernist architecture in a conservation-conscious town more interested in its Roman, medieval and Victorian past than in the 20th century.