Monday, 8 August 2016

Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye

Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye is located in Poissy, 30 kilometres from Paris. Commissioned by the Savoye family as a weekend retreat, the villa was built between 1928 and 1931 and was known as "Les Heures Claires". Sometimes described as a box in the air, it was the culmination of Le Corbusier's Five Points of New Architecture, all of which are demonstrated in the villa's design.

The architect set out his manifesto in 1927 as a guide to the architectural principles of the modernist movement. Villa Savoye demonstrates these points in the following ways. The pilotis, or concrete columns support the structure and remove the need for supporting walls as well as enabling internal open planning and a free-floating facade. The horizontal windows create light and airy interiors and the flat roof acts as an accessible terrace and garden.

The Savoyes were a wealthy family who had made their fortune through selling insurance policies to industry but who due to the caution of Monsieur Pierre Savoye, did not own their own home, preferring to rent an apartment in Paris. His wife Eugenie had a desire for a weekend home, a desire to which Pierre eventually capitulated and in 1928 the couple contacted and commissioned Le Corbusier to design a villa for them. Eugenie had specific and detailed requirements including central heating, a wine cellar, space for three cars, rooms for guests and for two maids as well as accommodation for the gardner and other staff. Amongst other things she also specified a large bedroom with bathroom and toilet, a boudoir and a box room for tools!

A price was agreed and work commenced but as is often the case, the actual costs was significantly in excess of the original figure, causing tension between the Savoyes and the architect. This led to Le Corbusier feeling pressured to accept the lowest tenders with a resultant impact on quality. The situation was made worse by the economic crisis of 1929 which also impacted on the business interests of the family. Pierre Savoye engaged in detailed correspondence with Le Corbusier complaining about water ingress as well as problems with the boiler and humidity. To add to his unhappiness the final bill was double that of the original estimate. A common problem even today.

The difficult history of the villa continued throughout the Second World War when it was first requisitioned by the occupying Germans and then by the Allies following liberation. It had suffered extensive damage during the war and in 1958, the Poissy municipality purchased proposing to demolish the villa and establish a high school. Advised of this by the Savoyes, Le Corbusier organised stiff resistance to these proposals and was able to not only recruit leading French architects and personalities to the cause but was also able to provoke protest from overseas.

The protest resulted in the villa being passed to the State in 1962. Extensive and lengthy renovation commenced the following year and continued until as recently as 1997. It now has Historic Monument status and protection for future generations. 

Trees screen the villa from the main road and visitors approach along a narrow path leading to the open space around the structure. Walking around the exterior, it is possible to see the curved wall on the roof, views through the loggia to the upper level and the contrasting green concrete and glazed elements of the ground floor. My favourite internal features include the stunning spiral staircase, fabulous tiled day-bed and adjacent blue tiled bath and the angled glazing along the side of the ramp leading to the roof garden. Visitors are welcome during advertised opening hours and internal photography is permitted. 

Monday, 25 July 2016

Poplar Baths - an art deco icon reopens

Public baths began appearing in cities in the UK during the nineteenth century. The stimulus for this was primarily a piece of legislation, the Baths and Wash House Act of 1840. It was enacted in response to a growing awareness of the importance of hygiene and exercise in promoting good health and the fact that working class housing generally lacked facilities to wash oneself or ones clothes. Several public baths constructed during the Victorian period still stand today although many of them are now disused or in poor condition. On a more positive note, several local authorities have begun to restore these architectural treasures and to bring them back into use. One such example is Poplar Baths in East London.

Elegant art deco staircase
The original Poplar Baths were constructed in 1852 and included first and second class pools, slipper baths (bath tubs) and vapor baths with separate provision for men and women. The building also boasted a  public laundry with washing, drying and ironing facilities. This must have seemed very luxurious and the height of modernity to Poplar dwellers during the 1850's many of whom were amongst the poorest Londoners.

During the 1920's and 1930's another round of building public bath houses and swimming pools took place again motivated by an awareness of the need to improve the health of Britain's poor. A number of iconic projects took place during this time including the Peckham Experiment on the opposite side of the Thames to Poplar. Poplar was again to benefit and the baths were rebuilt under the direction of Borough Engineer, Harley Heckford. Working with his Chief Assistant, H.R.W. Stanton, Heckford was to design the iconic building that dominates a particular stretch of East India Dock Road in today's London Borough of Tower Hamlets. 

The new baths were built in the art deco style from 1932 to 1934. The building included two pools, the larger of which would be covered over in the winter and used as a dance hall and cinema and for boxing and wrestling competitions. When covered, the hall could seat 1,400 people. The smaller pool remained open for swimming throughout the winter and as previously, health and hygiene facilities were provided. It is interesting that the local authority saw the equal importance of physical and cultural activity in improving the wellbeing of local people.

Lobby pillar
Staircase tiles and patterned floor
Sports hall
This part of London was heavily bombed during the Second World War and although not destroyed, the baths sustained damage that led to several years of closure before re-opening in 1947. Use appears to have reached a peak between 1954 and 1959 when over 200,000 visits to the facilities were made each year before a long decline set in, leading to closure in 1988. Apart from temporary use by a training organisation and occasional one off events, the baths stood unused for 28 years. English Heritage listed the building in 2001, awarding it Grade ll status but also placing it on the buildings at risk register.

Campaigners worked for many years to get the baths reopened and in 201 an announcement was made that the building would be brought back into use as part of a wider £multi-million development which would include a sympathetic extension to the building. Work on the restoration commenced in 2014 and was very recently completed.

Never having been inside, I was fortunate to get a tour of the building a few days ago. The brown and red brick exterior wrapped around a reinforced concrete structure hides some stunning internal art deco features. For me at least, the undisputed stars of the show are the staircases to the left and right of the main entrance. Fully tiled to shoulder height in blue, grey and black, and boasting steel balustrades, these staircases would not be out of place in a 1930's New York hotel or a Parisian department store.  The granolithic tiled floor is covered with a range of geometric patterns that begin on the lobby floor and continue to the top of the staircases. There is also one remaining deco style pillar in the lobby, examples of which can often be found in well preserved 1930's cinemas.

Decorative recessing in the sports hall
Former projection room
The former main pool area is now set out as a sports hall and although the original spectator seating has gone, the decorative stage remains with the crest of the old authority above it. The "whalebone" concrete hyperbolic ribs still stand and support the glazed roof that was revolutionary in the 1930s, admitting natural light to a public baths. In the new part of the building which houses two pools, the former "Turkish" bath has been re-created with a smaller pool and beautiful tiled, hollowed out pillars that house functioning showers. 

There are many other little features scattered through the building that show just how particular Harley Heckford and his team were back in the 1930's. These include crittal windows looking from the former office suite out over the sports hall and the openings through which films were screened from the projection room have been retained and the surrounds cleaned up. Some of the doors have beautifully angled handles, whilst gentle recessing has been used throughout as a decorative element. I also liked the not yet restored brown tiles at the upper levels, particularly where they curve at the doorways. It is clear that although Poplar was (and is) one of London's poorest neighborhoods, the architect and the authority believed that only the best design and facilities should be provided. not a bad philosophy.

The restored and extended baths reopen on Monday 25th August. Harley Heckford would be proud.

Surround of former stage
"Look up" - one of the two main stairwells.
Reconstructed "Turkish" bath
Sports hall
The new main pool

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Picture Post 56 - The Majestic Theatre Singapore

Singapore has a reputation for being ultra modern with cutting edge architecture and skyscrapers dominating the cityscape. Whilst this reputation is much deserved, there is also another side to Singapore and it is easy to find examples of earlier architectural splendour. Not least amongst these is the former Majestic Theatre on Eu Tong Sen Street in the Chinatown district. 

Once Chinatown's most significant building, the Majestic still has an imposing presence on this busy street. The exterior is an interesting mix of Chinese and art deco features. Brightly coloured ceramic tiles frame the central element of the facade which is decorated with mosaic representations of figures from Chinese operas, Chinese characters, dragons and flowers. The metalwork on the glazing is also interesting and is similar in design to traditional Chinese screens.

The theatre was commissioned and paid for by Eu Tong Sen, a philanthropist and owner of rubber plantations and tin mines. Originally designed as an opera house, the theatre was a gift for one of his wives, a Cantonese opera singer. Not only did he pay for the theatre, he also formed an opera troupe for her and bought the rest of the street, naming it after himself. Sen engaged Swan and McLaren, the architects responsible for the Raffles Hotel to design his theatre. Work on the 1,194 seat theatre was completed in 1928 when the building opened under the name Tien Yien Moh Toi, or the Tin Yin Dance Stage. Cantonese operas were performed there until 1938 when the building was converted to a cinema and renamed the Queen's. This lasted until 1942 when the Japanese occupiers seized the building, renamed it the Tia Hwa Opera House and used it to screen propaganda films. 

In 1945, the Majestic Film Company took over the building, gave it its name and commenced screening blockbuster Cantonese films and although ownership was to change again in later years, it continued to operate as a cinema until closure in 1998. Today the Majestic is used as a retail market but the grandeur of the facade makes it easy to imagine how it must have been for opera fans arriving at the theatre in the 1930's.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Chinese Baroque - beautiful shop houses in Singapore's Petain Road.

Shophouses can be found in most parts of the far east. Consisting of ground floor business premises with living quarters at the rear and above, they were normally built in rows or terraces. The ground floor is set back from the road with the upper story projecting forward, supported by columns to form a covered walkway. Earlier this year I was able to visit several shop houses in Singapore including a very special terrace in Petain Road, close to the Little India district.

The 18 terraced houses that form numbers 10-44 Petain Road were commissioned by businessman Mohamed bin Haji Omar and designed by British architect E.V. Miller who submitted plans to the Municipal Building Surveyor's department in May 1930. Haji Omar was also responsible for commissioning shophouses in nearby Jalan Basar whilst Miller usually worked in the completely different Bauhaus style. Until the twentieth century this area was semi-rural with many vegetable gardens. Streets were laid out after the First World War and named for people and places associated with the conflict. Haji Omar's development was realised in what became known as Petain Road, named for the French General who had been a war hero from 1914-18, but who became a notorious collaborator with Germany during the Second World War. Don't let the put you off. The terrace is one of Singapore's most beautiful and best preserved 1930's developments to survive until today. 

The terrace conforms to the usual shophouse design, including having a "five foot way" running its entire length. This is a sheltered walkway with a minimum width of five feet, designed to afford shelter from the rain and the extreme heat for residents, workers and visitors. Most of the terra cotta tiles covering the floor of the walkway are original.

The exteriors are covered in beautiful pastel coloured glazed ceramic tiles, imported from Europe and Japan and illustrated with peonies, tulips, chrysanthemums, birds and other creatures. The tiling continues to first floor level where pilasters decorated with floral motifs are complemented by the green and cream shutters. The terrace sustained some damage during the Second World War and in 1943 number 10 was the subject of an application for permission to carry out repairs. This time the plans were submitted by local architect Kwan Yow Luen and the occupying Japanese authorities granted permission to carry out the works. Luen was also responsible for designing several shophouses including in nearby Balestier Road. Over the following decades, the houses deteriorated until in 1979 there was a proposal to demolish the lot. Fortunately this did not happen and instead significant restoration was undertaken including replacing the many tiles that had been lost with replicas imported from Vietnam.

Today the terrace overlooks a pleasant green space and attracts many tourists, students and devotees of architecture who wish to see one of the best remaining examples of this style sometimes referred to as Chinese Baroque. There is an excellent book about Singapore's shop houses - Singapore Shophouse by Julia Davison, available to purchase online or from the National Museum.

You might also like - Picture Post 53 Singapore's Art Deco Gem - The Cathay Cinema and Tiong Bahru - Singapore's Modernist Housing Estate

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Picture Post 55 - London's Style Moderne Coach Station

London's Victoria Coach Station is the starting point and the terminus for journeys to and from all parts of the UK and many overseas destinations and every year ten million passengers come through the station. The station, in Buckingham Palace Road, opened in 1932 and was originally operated by a consortium of companies collectively known as London Coastal Coaches.

This six storey streamline moderne building was designed by architects Wallis, Gilbert and Partners who were also responsible for London's Hoover Factory, Daimler Hire Garage, Firestone Tyre Factory and several other art deco and modernist buildings. The central tower dominates the corner of Buckingham Palace Road and Elizabeth Street. It is flanked by two long wings punctuated by decorative detail and windows running the length of the building. Whilst the upper floors of each flank are symmetrical the lower levels have significant differences including a canopied entrance in Buckingham Palace Road and various entrances in Elizabeth Street. 

It is many years since I traveled by coach from here and I have less than happy memories of spending several hours on evil smelling vehicles with overflowing toilets and the somewhat bizarre experience of often grumpy hostesses selling vile "coffee", cold drinks, crisps and sweets. On one famous occasion, the coach having taken some time to leave the station made a quick return to wait for the police as someone refused to pay for what they considered to be a sub-standard coffee. Happy days. Conversely, the original facilities inside the station were much praised by the customers of the 1930's who described them as warm, light, cheerful and draught free. I doubt today's travelers would agree. 

Many original features have been lost, particularly inside the station, but some survive. I especially like the almost cubist style decorative work around some of the doors and windows and the rule of three panels between the windows on the central tower. The meeting of curves and angles where the wings join the main tower is .also extremely striking

The station was listed as Grade II in 2014. It is to be hoped that this affords enough protection to avoid the fate of some other Gilbert, Wallis and Partners' buildings, several of which have been demolished.

You might also like Art Deco on West London's Golden Mile or Picture Post 49 - Art Deco on Finchley Road.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

More Marvelous Melbourne Art Deco

There are many claimants to the title of city with most art deco buildings. Melbourne must surely be a contender not only in sheer numbers but also in terms of variety and quality. I recently made a fourth visit to this lovely city and  spent some time looking at more examples of the style with my friends Robin and Robyn of the Art Deco and Modernism Society Over the course of two days they very kindly took me to see many buildings in different parts of the city. I have previously written about Melbourne's art deco homes. This time I have selected five public buildings.

Sun Theatre, Yarraville
The Sun Theatre in Yarraville was built in 1938 and designed by architects Cowper, Murphy and Appleford. Originally the cinema had a single screen and could seat 1050 patrons.  It stands out due to the rooftop sunburst which gives the theatre its name. The yellow the sunburst contrasts beautifully with the white painted elements of the facade where there are also examples of the art deco rule of three. The clean brick work adds a further contrast. Extremely luxurious, the cinema featured a sweet shop (now a book store), a booking office and perhaps uniquely, a pram room where babies could be left and supervised. The parents were issued with a number on arrival and if their baby cried, the number was flashed on to the screen! 

The usual story of decline during the 1960's led to the cinema closing and being converted to a short-lived Greek theatre before standing derelict for two decades. The building was acquired by new owners in 1995 and the transformation into today's success story began. The current theatre can seat 700 people across eight screens each named after closed Melbourne cinemas. Patrons can sit on club chairs around a coffee table and enjoy lots of leg room.

The renaissance of the theatre has contributed significantly to the regeneration of what was until a few years ago, a rundown and shabby part of the city. Today there are several good quality cafes and restaurants in the surrounding streets, a handful of interesting local shops - including one described as a "lamb boutique" rather than a butcher (!), whilst there is also an art deco pub just around the corner. What more could you want?

Rivoli Cinema, Hawthorn East
We also visited the beautifully restored Rivoli Cinema on Camberwell Road in Hawthorn East. Completed in 1940 and designed by Taylor and Soilleaux the cinema could originally seat over 1,600 customers. The first screening was of French Without Tears starring Ray Milland.

Like the Sun Theatre, it is another extremely striking building with its beautiful long red brick facade and vertical stylised lettering on the central fin. The interior is equally attractive with terrazzo flooring in the lobby, original mirrors and decorative elements and a wonderfully dramatic double staircase leading customers up to the main screen. Its just a pity that the staircase is covered in a brash highly patterned carpet which covers up the original flooring.

As with many cinemas, the Rivoli went through some very lean years from the sixties onwards but at the end of the 1990's, was subject to both extensive restoration and extension, increasing the number of screens to eight. The  multi-million dollar works were completed in 2000 and although the modern part is obvious it is at least reasonably sympathetic to the original,  streamline moderne exterior.  The restoration was carried out with extensive advice from the Art Deco and Modernism Society and from Heritage Victoria who added it to the state heritage register in 2005.

Rivoli Cinema, Hawthorn East
Detail, main staircase, Rivoli Cinema, Hawthorn East
McRobertson Girls' High School, South Melbourne
As well as cinemas and theatres, Melbourne has a number of other art deco public buildings. The MacRobertson Girls' High School on Kings Way, South Melbourne was designed by architect Norman H. Seabrook of Seabrook and Fildes and was completed in 1934. The architect had recently returned from the UK where he had been influenced by developments in European architecture, particularly the work of Willem Marinus Dudok in the Netherlands. Seabrook and his wife cycled 2000 miles (yes, two thousand) through the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany to see the new architecture for themselves. No internet in the 1930s. The school's design has references to the work of another great Dutch architect, H. P. Berlage particularly the lovely cream brickwork, similar to that of the Gemeentmuseum in Den Haag (although the school preceded it by one year).

The facade consists of interlocking forms of differing heights clad in those smooth cream bricks. The vermillion steel framed windows surrounded by glazed blue bricks bring colour and depth whilst the many discrete design features such as the clock tower, flagpole, a canopy over the entrance and deco motifs on the fall pipe add further character. The internal areas were designed to separate different functions - science, art and home economics as well as to enable smooth movement between different parts of the building. 

Although much more built up today, the school's location was originally open scrubland. Seabrook incorporated the open space into his plans, making use of native plants. Unlike other schools of its time, the McRobertson is not surrounded by a high wall to prevent views in and out and the students would have been able to benefit from direct access to these open spaces.

McRobertson Girls' High School, South Melbourne
Detail, McRobertson Girls' High School, South Melbourne
Former Mercy Hospital, East Melbourne
Melbourne can also boast a number of art deco hospitals.  The former Mercy Hospital in Grey Street, East Melbourne (now St. Vincent's Private Hospital) was designed by Arthur Stephenson of Stephenson and Meldrum. He had also spent time in Europe where he had been particularly influenced by the work of Finnish genius Alvar Alto having visited his Paimo Sanatorium. Completed in 1934 and sympathetically extended in 1939, the hospital has a ship-like appearance, one of the hallmarks of the art deco buildings of this period. It is believed that Stephenson took a modernist approach to designing the hospital in order to reflect the institution's scientific and medical principles. I love the front facing balconies with their  lovely white curves topped by red railings. In the early days of the hospital the balconies were used as part of the treatment regime, exposing patients to fresh air and sunlight. The more cynical might also say that they were a good place to have a sly cigarette too!

Beautiful balconies, former Mercy Hospital, East Melbourne
Former United Kingdom Hotel, Clifton Hill
Former United Kingdom Hotel, stained glass windows
And finally, from health and hospitals to diet. The former United Kingdom Hotel at Queen's Parade, Clifton Hill is now home to a branch of the worldwide burger chain McDonalds. The hotel sits on a triangular site which might partly explain its classic deco ocean liner appearance.  The exterior also features terra-cotta tiles, elegant balconies and stained glass windows. I really like those stained glass windows - pity about the net curtains behind them though! Of course, the exterior now bears a huge letter M as part of the Mcdonald's branding but this is preferable to losing the building completely which I understand was at one time a possibility. The United Kingdom Hotel was completed in 1937 and was the work of James Wardrop who was also responsible for the Shrine of Remembrance in St. Kilda Road. I have to confess I took a peek inside the former hotel and was surprised to notice salads and macaroons on offer as well as the usual burgers and fries. I resisted it all and had a cheese toastie and a hot chocolate. My toastie was tasty and the chocolate fine.

You can read more about Melbourne's art deco heritage in the revised edition of Robin Grow's book Melbourne Art Deco - a real bargain and full of great photographs too.

You might also like Sydney Art Deco

You can see more photographs of Australian art deco architecture here.