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Herman Hertzberger – 2012 RIBA Gold Medal Winner

February 25, 2012 1 comment

When I was doing my Architecture Degree at Leeds Poly in the late 1980’s, this big pink book of the work of the Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger was my bible…

It consists solely of black and white photos and line drawings which depict a wide selection of generally austere, and rather unassuming looking buildings, constructed almost entirely from a limited selection of basic materials, which in the illustrations all look like shades of grey… I’m not selling it to you am I?

But the main attraction for me (as for most others I suspect) were the plans and the sections… This was (and still is) a man who understands how people interact with and use the spaces around them: children, adults, office workers, teachers…

All Hertzberger’s buildings are beautifully planned; efficient, exciting often surprising. They have at their heart a simplicity that stems from his belief in Structuralism, that it was not the architects primary job to design a fully finished building, but more to provide a spatial framework into which the inhabitants: students, workers, residents etc, could fill their day to day lives.

So whilst the utilitarian aesthetics may not be to everyone’s taste, for me, as an enthusiastic young student (who if I’m honest was far better at space planning than I was at projecting elevations), Hertzberger’s work had a functional honesty both in his choice of materials and his adherence to form following function, that appealed to me very much..

Maybe it’s because his buildings are not generally considered beautiful, that Herman Hertzberger is not more widely known outside my profession. Within architectural circles however it’s rather different, and I think it is excellent news that he has won the 2012 RIBA Gold Medal, awarded annually to a person or practice whose influence on architecture is considered to be international.

Possibly Hertzberger’s most well known work is the Centraal Beheer development in Apeldoorn, an open plan headquarters building for a large Dutch insurance company that was built between 1968 and 1972. The building was envisaged as a village in which the occupants ‘would have the feeling of being part of a working community without being lost in the crowd’. Platforms separated by light wells allowed light to filter down into the centre of the plan, and the unfinished quality of the materials encouraged small groups of staff to personalise and decorate their spaces. The company actively encouraged a sense of the family to enter the office and many workers actually brought pieces of furniture and members of their family from home into work.

Hertzberger’s work for the Montessori Schools is also consistently excellent, where his use of open plan layouts and incidental sitting and meeting places, allowed the children to use and interpret the spaces available within and around the building to their maximum extent.

As usual Dezeen is a step ahead and there is a good selection of images of Hertzberger’s buildings here.

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New Architectual Stamps

February 24, 2012 2 comments

It comes to something when an article in the Metro elicits three emails from friends all asking me the same thing, in this case, did I know that there were some new stamps with Basil Spence & Coventry Cathedral on.

I’m not sure if it’s because of the Basil Spence connection or the stamp collecting, either way, it’s probably not a good thing to be known for if I’m honest…

Still here are the stamps as seen in yesterday’s Metro.. and very nice they are too…

Ten stamps of distinguished Britons, two of which are architects; the undoubted genius that was Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (a man so driven, he had worked himself to death before he was 41) and my personal favourite Sir Basil Urwin Spence (why is it that the old school architects have such great names…)

I suspect that Spence was chosen not only as he is a Briton of Distinction, but that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the consecration of his masterpiece, Coventry Cathedral…

Personally I think it’s good that architects are considered worthy of inclusion. My profession at the moment is suffering from something of an identity crisis. We generally know the value of what we do and how much benefit good design can bring to a project, but all too often it seems that a sadly decreasing number of clients agree with us. Architecture is too often considered as nothing more than a bolt on service to the main job of getting something built, rather than a fundamentally important aspect of the process.

Still like most architects I know, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do and I suspect (and I’m aware this sounds a bit pretentious) this is a key part of our problem, in that architecture is a career that we’re born to do rather than are paid to do.

And yes I will be getting a set for my collection.

Noma Bar – Graphic Designer

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Here’s a name for you… Noma Bar, a young Israeli graphic designer with an incredible knack of capturing a face, idea or character through a single image.

Everything I like about graphic design is in his work: bold colours, simple lines, sharp ideas. He’s been around for many years now, and I’m surprised that I’ve not written about him before… It was this recent Darth Vader cover for Shortlist magazine, a week or so ago that has prompted me  to do it now.

Much of his work involves ideograms or pictograms, in which a single image or symbol encapsulates a much larger concept. The images are layered and not everything is immediately as it seems: The mugs of coffee are two people’s speech bubbles, the zipper of the top defines the face of the man, the trails of missiles over the US make up the face of Kim Yong Ill….

There’s some more of his excellent work here and here, and I’ve captured some of my favourite images below..

Sophie Bray: Oceanic Swell

February 15, 2012 2 comments

You’ve probably not heard of Sophie Bray, I must admit that I hadn’t until a friend of mine sent me a link to this site. I for one think she should be more well known, as this is a woman who can draw… very well.

Based in Sydney, Australia, Sophie has been producing these amazing pencil drawings for a number of years now, and there is obviously a consistent theme to her work… Her drawings of water (be it in the form of an ocean swell or a swimming pool) are so incredibly lifelike, that it’s almost as if you could dive into it, the feeling of depth and movement she captures in something as static as a pencil drawing is phenomenal…

I can’t imagine how long it takes to draw each one…

Three Murals… William Mitchell, Gordon Cullen & Dorothy Annan

February 13, 2012 8 comments

A trilogy of Murals today… Starting with my favourite artist, William Mitchell and his fantastic mural at the Three Tuns pub in Coventry.

Little A and I went on an explore of my home city over the Christmas holidays and as well as visiting the Herbert Art Gallery to see the very excellent George Shaw exhibition, we also took lots of photos of some lovley mid century stuff……

The mural is an incredible thing. It dates from 1966, is about 11m long by 4 m high and is full of amazingly rich textures and a truly astonishing depth of surface. The whole thing was cast in concrete with a pebble aggregate and is two sided, offering a less modelled, but equally impressive view on the inside. I actually used to go to this pub in the early 1980’s (not very often as it was a townies pub and I hung around with students). It’s an Indian restaurant now and the inside wall has been painted white.

Frustratingly and like so much of this great artist’s work, I can find little about it online, so what I obviously what I need to do as we are now in contact, is ask the man himself how he made it and then update this post once I’ve spoken to him…

Until then, here are some close ups of what the Listed Buildings website calls his “distinctive Aztec style”.

The future of this wonderful work is somewhat in doubt as I write this. As recently as last week, Coventry Council announced plans to redevelop the Bull Yard area of the precinct in which this (quite rightly and thankfully) Grade II listed mural can be found. The city’s website for the huge £300m project is here and a flickr site of images is here, but I wouldn’t bother too much. It’s all fairly standard developer stuff; bland and non location specific, promising blue skies, bright colours and smiling people, but in reality delivering the same old, same old…

Still I have it on pretty good authority that the mural will be saved and incorporated into the new scheme, maybe on an inside wall somewhere so it can avoid the worst of the Midlands weather.

Which brings me neatly onto the next mural that’s caught my eye recently, this marvellous wall of cermic colour by Gordon Cullen, which is also in Coventry. Cullen was an architect by training but was also a very gifted artist and is perhaps best remembered as one of the pioneers of Urban Design through his seminal 1961 book The Consise Townscape, in which he set out his thoughts on how the urban environment might be visually organised to achieve a better overall coherence.

This beautiful piece used to sit in a prominent position in the centre of Coventry’s main shopping precinct and I remember it well from my younger days.. So called improvements to the precinct in 2002 (i.e. squeezing more shops in) resulted in the mural being relocated to a rather austere corridor somewhere “round the back” and although I knew it had been moved and was looking for it, it was quite by chance that we actually came across it…

The mural was designed by Cullen in 1958 to illustrate the history and spirit of Coventry and its Citizens and was considered an important part of Donald Gibson’s recently completed City Centre rebuilding works. It was originally much larger than as shown above, but a sign nearby informed me that “careless workmanship in the 1970’s” (I can only imagine) lead to the destruction of panels that included medieval maps of the old city.

Still the panels that remain give a good idea of Cullens style with their bold shapes and bright colours, referencing the new city centre buildings (including Spence’s Cathedral), bicycles (which the city was famous for manufacturing) and dinosaurs (although to be honest, I’m not quite sure where they fit in)… Bizarrely, this work is currently not listed, however it appears to be safe enough for the time being in its new home.

Which brings me to the third mural, which I have known and wondered at for many, many years but which I only found out last week was finally (as recently as November of last year) given Grade II Listed status. I think we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Twentieth Century Society for its tireless work in ensuring our recent heritage has at least a fighting chance of survival…

The mural is to be found on the old telephone exchange building on Farringdon Road in Central London and comprises nine stunning, hand painted ceramic panels designed in 1960 by the little known artist Dorothy Anann.

Although the work is untitled, and there is precious little about her on the net, I gather that Annan set out to depict various aspects of the communications and telephone industry, relating the work very much to the idea of Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” in a series of wonderfully stylised and abstract panels that although rather weather worn and grubby, are still in surprisingly good condition.

Interestingly when I went to take some photos on a bitterly cold evening last week, I was stopped by two security guards in hi-viz jackets who told me in no uncertain terms that I was not allowed to take photos as it was a dangerous structure and I was on private property. Quite how this can be when both the footpath and the mural have clearly been in the public domain for more than 60 years is beyond me…

It was only later that we realised that their attitude was probably to do with the activities of the Occupy Movment, and that they assumed I was casing this huge building with a view to sleeping in it…

The building was designed incidentally by Eric Bedford, the Chief Architect of the Post Office Tower, and like so many telephone exchanges across the country has been empty for many years and is facing almost certain demoltion, as unlike the mural, it was not thought worthy of Listing.

Let’s hope the developers honour the Grade II listing status of Dorothy Annan’s fabulous work however, and find it a new home that is both appropriate and publicly accessible.

The Artist

February 11, 2012 Leave a comment

We went to see The Artist last weekend and I enjoyed it so much I thought I’d put some lovely black and white photos up on my site….

Wonderfully shot, beautifully acted and cleverly “scripted” it’s a feast for both the eyes and the head.

As I’m sure you know, it’s a silent film (with a couple of clever exceptions, most notably the dream sequence) but with a really excellent soundtrack, which was the subject of some minor controversy when Kim Novak complained that she felt she had been violated (“I want to report a rape” was the rather misguided headline of her full page advert in Variety Magazine). This supposed violation occurred when the director Michel Hazanavicius chose to use music that was also used in one of her films, namely Hitchcock’s masterful Vertigo… Hmm I wonder if she really thought that one through….

Anyway an excellent film and for once I think the hype is well deserved…

The still below is from a very clever scene early on in the story where the very beautiful Bérénice Bejo sneaks into The Artist’s (the very dashing Jean Dujardin) room at the studio and has an intimate moment with his jacket…

And then there’s the little dog… Uggie (apparently there were actually three, with their fur coloured so they all looked the same) but it’s Uggie that is in the large majority of scenes… I’m not really one for cute animals, but he’s pretty special and almost as good an actor as his human co stars…

Sir Basil & the Unknown Print… Part II

February 6, 2012 2 comments

I wrote recently about my very good fortune in acquiring this fantastic print of a watercolour and chalk drawing of Coventry Cathedral by Sir Basil Spence. Well I’ve been busy finding out more about it, and have the following to report…

When Spence died in 1976, his archive was bequeathed to the Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) and when I spoke to them they advised that this drawing did not form part of their collection. They had an original copy of the London Midland Train poster, but suggested that I should contact the RIBA Collection at the V&A, as they had the original drawing.

So we duly made an appointment, and last week little A & I went to see the collections Curator and his assistant, who were both very helpful and told us the following:

Spence presented the original drawing to the RIBA after his two year term as President sometime in 1963. The RIBA have a record of the drawing being exhibited at the Royal Academy but no record of any prints being made since it has been in their ownership.

The Curator also thought, that from the photo on my blog page, the frame looked contemporary with the print and suggested that in light of my story about the organist being the previous owner, it was possible that Spence had privately had a limited number of presentation prints produced to give to key people in the project and as neither the RCAHMS nor the RIBA had any prior knowledge of such prints, the number of them was probably quite small.

All very intriguing, but the icing on the cake was when the Curator said that the RIBA might be interested in buying our print as they didn’t have one (weren’t aware of any in fact) and it would be useful to have for exhibitions etc…. I said it wasn’t for sale, but that’s a nice thing to know.. maybe I’ll bequeath it to them when I’m in my dotage…

It goes without saying of course that it was a real treat to see the original work: the colours are still incredibly vibrant and the textures of the chalk, watercolour and oil on the paper give the whole piece an amazing depth especially as it is over 60 years old…

The bust above of the great man himself that was in the reading room at the V&A is by none other than Jacob Epstein (no surprise maybe when you consider the St Michael & the Devil connection at Coventry Cathedral). The Curator told us that there were two of these cast in honour of Spence’s Presidency of the RIBA from 1958 to 1960. This one was at the RIBA for many years before finding it’s new home at the V&A. The second one was presented to Spence, and I’m told he placed it in an alcove in the entrance hall to his Cannonbury offices adorned with a laurel leaf crown. I’ll have to ask Bill Mitchell about this, I’m sure he’ll know if there’s any truth in it…

So an excellent hour or so at the V&A, and thanks very much to Charles and Katherine for taking the time to talk to us.

One final aspect to this story is that BBC Radio Coventry have been in touch after seeing my original post. 2012 sees the 60th anniversary of the consecration of Sir Basil’s Masterpiece, Coventry Cathedral and the BBC are looking for stories relating to its construction. Vanessa, the journalist who contacted me, was keen to speak to Bill Mitchell about his dealings with the Cathedral’s architect, and she was also interested in the story about my print and the possible connection to the organist. Vanessa and I haven’t managed to meet up as yet, but I know she has recently met Bill and Joy Mitchell and recorded Bill’s stories for possible transmission in the not too distant, which I for one can’t wait to hear… as I’ve said before, Bill is a man who is very good at telling a story….

So all in all our decision to buy the picture has created a string of events that have been both rewarding and interesting, and it’s very likely that we are not yet at the end of the tale…

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