Tag Archives: architecture

A Mad Mini Adventure – East Sussex and Kent

16 Sep

One of my closest friends texted me during my latest trip saying ‘the idea was that on this holiday you rested… Maybe next time you should go to the middle of a desolate field with no cultural sites or activities within a 20 mile radius. I would suggest a spa weekend but somehow I still don’t think you would stop working or finding things to do…’.

It’s not that I can’t relax (I enjoy beach holidays and sunbathing very very much) but I do get the urge to see everything nearby and can’t sit still properly until I feel I’ve ‘done’ an area, particularly in the UK.  And, so it was, that half way down to Sussex for a relaxing break by the sea, that I opened my National Trust handbook, looked at the English Heritage website and made one of those lists that didn’t really allow much time for R&R.

Camber Sands. Own photograph.

So, on a sunny Sunday morning with my Mini hurtling southwards, my mini break began.

The very first stop on this trip was Sissinghurst Castle – somewhat of a misnomer as the house is still a lived-in property and it is the wonderful gardens that people come to visit.  Sissinghurst has a varied history – beginning life as a Saxon pig farm, before becoming a family house.  In the late 16th century, it was transformed into a magnificent courtyard house, a far more upmarket property with a newly constructed tower.  It then became a prison (destroying most of what we know call Sissinghurst Castle), a poor house and, in the 1800s, it returned to being a family home and became what we see today.  Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicholson, moved to Sissinghurst in 1932 and brought the gardens to life, creating ‘rooms’ with planting schemes offering different colours and scents, in particular her famous ‘White Garden’.  The library and tower are all that remain open of the house and, if you’re feeling intrepid, then the 78 steep, spiral stairs are worth the climb, especially as Vita’s study can be viewed half-way up.

Sissinghurst Castle. Own photograph.

As with any garden-based property part of the enjoyment depends upon the time of year you visit.  This wasn’t the best time to appreciate the colours and floral dynamism of Vita’s garden but its craft and design was still evident.

Sissinghurst Castle and the White Garden. Own photograph.

I had studied the map carefully in the car and we headed towards Smallhythe Place.  I love the story of how Ellen Terry (‘Queen of the Theatre’) found Smallhythe Place; apparently, in the late 1890s, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving were driving around Sussex and Kent when they reached a small bridge.  On their right was an old farmhouse with dark timbers and a sloping roof.  The house was full of character and charm and Terry announced that it was here she would like to live and die.  They went inside and found an old shepherd who said he didn’t live there and wasn’t able to offer them much information.  But, not one to be deterred, Terry asked him if he would let her know if it was ever for sale.  Her charisma obviously left its mark and, in 1899, Terry received an unsigned postcard saying ‘House for Sale’ postmarked Tenterden.  That year, she bought Smallhythe Place.  The story still makes me smile – it is very easy to see why she fell in love with the 16th century house.  Smallhythe is a continuous-jetty house, meaning that the upper-storey overhangs the lower.  The original features remain with uneven floors and sloping ceilings.  When Ellen Terry died, her daughter Edy decided to make the house a shrine to her mother’s memory and created a museum where her theatrical treasures and relics could be on permanent display.

Smallhythe Place. Own photograph.

Edy did not have an easy ride in garnering interest for her project but, thanks to her perseverance, the house remains.  In 1938, a representative from the National Trust wrote ‘In Ellen Terry’s little house one feels she might walk past one at any minute, and in her bedroom that she might appear sitting before her dressing-table brushing her hair.’  I could not express it better.  The house captures Ellen Terry, her passion for it and her incredible life on the stage.  Despite its relatively small size, this was one of my favourite properties.  The costume room holds her famous beetle-wing dress, sewn all over with real green beetle wings, that she wore as Lady Macbeth in 1889 and in which she was painted by John Singer Sargent.  Also, the garden now contains the Barn Theatre, which Edy transformed after Terry’s death, that is still in use today.

John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth,1889.  Image via www.tate.org.uk

We wanted to make the most of the sun and head to the coast but couldn’t resist stopping in at the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway’s Bus Rally day – an annual event that pulls in the crowds!

Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway’s Bus Rally day

After struggling with the dodgy Camber Sands’ internet connection over breakfast the next day, it was time for me to try something new.   Apparently the best way to see the coastline is by plane.  Now I don’t like to do things by halves so it seemed to make sense to fly a little plane up for a look!  With Ivan from the Lydd Aero Club at my side, I set off in a Cessna 172.  I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t rather terrifying at first but, as I got used to it, I loved being in the air and in control of the plane – it was exhilarating and wonderful.

Flying. Own photograph.

Lydd is very close to Dungeness and the garden of Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage which, although not open to the public, is lovely to drive past and have a look at.  Dungeness itself is a tad bleak but there are some great fish and chips to be had by the sea.

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage. Own photograph.

Onwards, and Monday’s main aim was the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, a stunning example of Modernist architecture on the south coast.  It was commissioned as an ambitious cultural centre by the 9th Earl De La Warr and broke new ground in terms of architectural practice.  Welded steel frames had not previously been used in Britain and the interior played with colour in unusual ways and made use of innovative soft furnishings.  The building’s influence was immediately felt across the UK with Peter Jones in Chelsea opening in 1936, only one year later, designed with many of the same architectural techniques.  The architects of the De La Warr Pavilion sought to integrate their design with the site, practically and aesthetically; the horizontal shape and lines responding to the sea horizon.

The view from the De La Warr Pavilion. Own photograph.

The De La Warr Pavilion has, no doubt, suffered over the years particularly from severe bomb damage in World War II.  The 1980s saw a new beginning for the pavilion and, in the years since then, there has been major restoration and redevelopment that has transformed the building into what we see today.  Eighty years after its opening the pavilion is once more being recognised for its architectural beauty and ingenuity.  Much of the building isn’t really open to the public so it is hard to see the scope of available space and what has been done here.  The exhibitions I saw at the De La Warr are not showing it at its best; Everything Flows sees four artists consider the idea of being ‘in the zone’, looking at the state athletes must reach to achieve the heightened sense of performance that prepares them for battle.  These artists have each produced a new moving image artwork that, when seen together, presents a cacophony of noise celebrating sporting achievement.  For me, these were sports films, not far enough removed from watching Sky Sports at the weekend.  Upstairs is Sean Dower’s The Voyeur which has a far more invigorating concept but is still not curated in the most visually exciting presentation.  Each work in the exhibition emits, transmits or reflects sound, visualising the activity of communicating between remote places.

De La Warr Pavilion. Own photograph.

On the roof is Richard Wilson’s Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea which recalls the final scene of The Italian Job where the coach, containing  gold bullion and a gang of robbers, hovers precariously on a cliff.  Here, Wilson’s bus hovers on the edge of the pavilion with clever mechanics that means it moves to enhance the feeling of its teetering.  Wilson feels the work is a metaphor about the absolute limits of everything; the building is part of the work, playing with the idea of ‘what if’.  The spectacle is at its best when viewed from the roof.  On the floor, it loses something but it is still a splendid piece that plays with the architecture of the pavilion in a fun and vibrant way.

Richard Wilson’s Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea at the De La Warr Pavilion. Own photograph.

I adored the architectural genius of De La Warr Pavilion but felt there is some lost potential here and more that could happen.  I wanted the excitement of the design to be felt in the exhibitions mounted inside.  I wanted the opportunity to explore more of the building.  I wanted its genius to have the space to shine a little more than it is currently doing.

Moving back inland, it was time for another National Trust property.  Bateman’s was Rudyard Kipling’s home from 1902-1936 and provided him with the calm and tranquillity that let his imagination run wild and enabled him to write – ‘a real House in which to settle down for keeps’.  The volunteers in every room of his house, enthusiastically quoted Kipling at me, encouraging visitors to head to the shop to stock up on his literature!  Built c. 1634 (the date can be found over the porch), the house is preserved as it would have been during Kipling’s day.  There is no doubt it is a beautiful property but I was more struck when viewing the exterior.  The inside didn’t entrance me in quite the way Smallhythe had the previous day.

Bateman’s. Own photograph.

We were exhausted but I knew that Battle Abbey was just around the corner and that was unmissable.  Regardless of your historical knowledge or interest, everyone knows that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066.  To mark his success, King William I established a Benedictine Abbey on the northern part of the battlefield.  Although it has, of course, changed over the years, a number of the abbey buildings remain while the gorgeous main house is used by Battle School (lucky them).  One of the most remarkable features is the condition of the vaulted ground rooms that give an impression of how magnificent this site would have been in its heyday.  Battle Abbey is a stunning and emotive property.  I love walking round ruins, studying the architecture and imagining what has taken place here before.  The site could not lend itself more perfectly to this.

Battle Abbey. Own photograph.

The great gatehouse is still in use by both the school and the Abbey and fulfils its original purpose of increasing security – all traffic had to pass through it and be checked by the porter.  The scale of the building and the decorative stonework reflect the power and importance of the Abbey while the crenellations and arrow slits remind of us the gatehouse’s defensive purpose.

Battle Abbey. Own photograph.

It was time to return to the deserted beaches of Camber Sands and enjoy some cocktails as a reward.

Tuesday’sfirst stop was the National Trust’s Bodiam Castle, built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dallingridge.  All of the NT sites in this area are beautifully maintained and Bodiam is no exception.  Again, we were stoic and climbed one of the towers which afforded a stunning bird’s eye view of the castle and of the surrounding weald.  Bodiam is as you expect a medieval castle to be, perched on a point, broadly symmetrical, imposing but comfortable, easily expressing rank and status.  It is not known whether Bodiam was actually built as a fortress or a status symbol but it immediately gives the impression of great strength and power, enhanced by its approach across a moat.  Whereas the exterior is fabulously preserved, the interior is in ruins – the remnants do give us a suggestion of the original layout but little remains.  As with all these properties, I could easily get carried away harping on about their history but…I won’t.

Bodiam Castle. Own photograph.

I managed to buy a guide book at every property so a small stack was building up on the back seat of the car.  Both the NT and EH produce great small books about all their properties.

One thing that I am still confused by is the National Trust entrance scheme.  Most of their properties have two prices available – standard admission and Gift Aid admission.  Gift Aid is a higher price and automatically includes a Gift Aid donation but this seems to be contradicted by the Trust saying that ‘Gift Aid donations must be supported by a valid Gift Aid declaration’.  We were never asked for the extra details that would, in theory, turn this into a declaration.  In the past I have always been offered the opportunity to fill out a form that Gift Aids my standard ticket price thereby allowing the charity to reclaim the taxable amount rather than being told to pay more (which they automatically charge unless you request a standard ticket).  They seem to be losing out with this new arrangement.  I have the utmost respect for the NT’s work and their properties, finding their schemes and work innovative and exciting but I will say this entry arrangement leaves me a tad perplexed.

Bodiam Castle. Own photograph.

Nearby is Great Dixter, the family home of the late Christopher Lloyd (not the one from Back to the Future but the gardener) which is still the most incredible garden.  The 15th century house, which is also open to the public in the afternoons, was restored and enlarged by Sir Edwin Lutyens who was responsible for revealing the splendour and enormity of the Great Hall – the largest surviving timber-framed hall in the country.  The gardens at Great Dixter surround the house and most of their design was also by Lutyens which could explain the fluidity and the seamless progression from house to garden, from garden to house.  I think that no matter what time of year you visit these gardens, they will always be a sight to behold.  The colours at Great Dixter are spell-binding.  Lloyd saw it as a challenge to combine every sort of colour and not allow himself to be constrained by conventional colour schemes.  He planted what he thought would look good and it certainly does!

Great Dixter. Own photograph.

Wednesday heralded the final day of my Mini Adventure and I still had places to tick off my list.  Importantly, one mustn’t visit the English countryside without popping into a vineyard and we were within spitting distance of Chapel Down, one of my favourite English wines.  It would have been rude not to pop in to buy a few bottles.

Nearby is also Fairfield Church.  We didn’t get the keys, which are apparently available from a neighbour, and instead just passed by on one of the surrounding country roads to admire its beauty in the middle of a desolate field.  See – there are things to be found even in the middle of a field.

Fairfield Church. Own photograph.

Scotney was quite an ambitious property to visit on the last morning, especially after a generous wine tasting (not enough to put me over the limit mind you) and with the clock ticking.  This is because Scotney is actually two properties and a rather large garden all rolled into the one estate.  The new house, for which you need a timed entrance ticket, was built in 1837 in Elizabethan style while, at the bottom of the steep valley, are the ruins of the original medieval castle and moat.  With new at the top and old at the bottom, the landscape at Scotney could not be much more picturesque.  It is an amazing combination but best viewed from the outside.  For me, the inside of the house was a hotchpotch of styles that confuse the eye – I notice that the strange pink bathroom doesn’t get a picture in the guidebook.  The library is the most fabulous interior room and book presses H to J conceal a hidden door, decorated with false spines.

Scotney Castle. Own photograph.

The new house was built for Edward Hussey III – there is probably no connection but my MA thesis was about Giles Hussey (1710-88), a little-known, eighteenth-century, English artist whose hundreds of intricately annotated drawings remain at the British Museum, demonstrating his theories of harmonic proportion.  The Hussey family tree will have to wait for another day though.

Scotney Castle. Own photograph.

The final stop was Bayham Old Abbey, a 13th century Abbey that was mostly destroyed at the Reformation.  Bayham has a fairly standard monastic arrangement; the cloister and its accompanying areas are at the south of the church, the refectory ran parallel to the nave, the dormitory was on the east.  The layout has been somewhat obscured by a completely new east end that mutilated the old transepts.  The guide book has a lovely glossary at the back allowing me to test myself and see how much church architecture I remember.  Bliss – what a perfect site to finish on.

Bayham Old Abbey. Own photograph.

Somehow, we made it back to London in time for me to change and dash onto the tube to go to the opening of Scream’s new gallery on Eastcastle Street, one of the new and exciting hubs of the London art scene.  Having been checked off the guest list, I walked through a small section of rather unattractive corridor which seemed out of kilter with the highly polished perfection of this gallery.  Inside, it’s a lovely space with great frontage onto the street (my estate agent’s description here is unintended, I just can’t help it).  The inaugural exhibition is work by Beijing-based artist Ye Hongxing – using collaged mass-produced kitsch and kaleidoscopic material, his works aim to address the anthropological, technological and economical developments that are happening in China.  It was hard to have a proper look at the works but the exhibition does raise some interesting comments about society and modern life: the title recalls H.G. Wells’ 1905 novel, The Modern Utopia.

Scream on Eastcastle Street. Own photograph.

And, because I hadn’t quite squeezed enough into the day, I headed off to play Urban Golf (amazing!) but that is another story!

Ye Hongxing: The Modern Utopia is at Scream until 20 October 2012, www.screamlondon.com.

Tate’s Tanks: Did they tank or triumph?

21 Jul

The build-up for the opening of Tate’s Tanks has been immense as this is the first major stage in the opening of the new section of Tate – The Tate Modern Project.

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

The galleries will be permanently dedicated to exhibiting live art, performance, installation and film – the first spaces in the world to have these objectives as their focus.  This is a hugely important moment in the progression of the art world; one day in the not too distant future the Tanks will be part of the Survey course at the Courtauld, included in an introduction to art history and we are witnessing this at its inauguration.  It is all part of the evolution of Tate Modern, as Nick Serota cornily said the Tanks are a “new instrument in the orchestra that is Tate Modern.”  Tate wants the tanks to challenge the arts, they aren’t simply white cubes or black boxes, they are a new zone that falls somewhere in between.

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

To kick-start this space Tate has launched, Art in Action, a fifteen week programme that will allow visitors to explore these art forms.  Originally designed to hold one million gallons of oil, the tanks are found industrial spaces of a particular shape.  I must say that I expected something more spectacular, the three interlinking spaces that attach to the Turbine Hall are beautiful but not domineering.  These are not neutral spaces, there is a lot of history associated with the tanks and all artists are responding very differently.  But, the reopened Tanks, for me, don’t connect strongly enough architecturally with their antecedents.

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

The Turbine Hall has always felt as if it is the heart of the power station; the space is often compared to that of a cathedral in its proportions, the cavernous architecture lending power and majesty.  We know what this was and we know what it has become.  It perfectly gestures to its past while acting as one of London’s most well-known and best-loved public art spaces.  The Tanks are too austere to beckon to their heritage.  Whilst they use concrete and an industrial language, Herzog & de Meuron could have taken this further to better effect.  However, it’s great to see the spaces of hidden London being utilised.

The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.  Image via www.powerinspace.org

At the press preview, we were able to watch a dance performance, Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker with Ann Veronica Janssens.  The piece explores the relationship between music and dance, outlining the principles of music composition rather than just dancing to music.  As they closed the doors to this tank, the space became appropriately claustrophobic for this hugely repetitive piece of structured dance.  The audience watch from around the dance floor, enclosing the dancers and creating the walls of the room with their bodies.  Although Fase didn’t really grab me, it is a very accomplished performance linking the genres of dance and art and Tate has produced some very interesting programme notes to accompany the whole series that are well worth a read.

Fase in the Tanks. Own photograph.

The next stage in expanding Tate’s orchestra (ick!) will use the foundations embedded in the Tanks to support the creation of ten new storeys that radically reinterpret the brickwork of the original power station.  Due to the amazing pace that this project is unfolding, Tate has been fortunate enough to work again with Herzog & de Meuron for this extension.  The new part of Tate will use the same language with a literal twist.  Herzog & de Meuron have ensured that the Tanks seamlessly open from the Turbine Hall (which will remain as the building’s backbone), showing that they intend to maintain the integrity of the building with a continuous flow.  Due to these ambitious plans, the Tanks won’t yet remain open full time but they are giving us a taster of what is to come.  By 2016 we should have access to it all.

The plans for the next stage.  Image via www.hughpearman.com.

The Tanks are currently quite confusing.  We didn’t really know what was where, the labels are outside the galleries and don’t guide people satisfactorily and generally we weren’t sure what was going on.  But I imagine these are all teething problems and by the end of the fifteen weeks when over 40 artists will have performed, the Tanks will be an integral part of the London art scene and we’ll be starting the countdown to the opening of the next section of Tate.

Fifteen Weeks of Art in Action will be in Tate Modern’s Tanks until 28 October 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

Mad Mission to Manchester

29 Apr

Normally when I go out of London on an art trip I plan my day with military precision.  My companions are normally slightly scared by the colour-coded maps.  But the week had been exceptionally busy and, when I sat down on the train, I only had four galleries on my list and it was on track to be a relaxing visit.  As you may have realised though, relaxing doesn’t come easily to me and, with a two-hour train journey and  good internet connection on my side, I started having a look at what else I could be visiting.  And wow did I get a shock.  Manchester appeared to be a veritable treasure trove of museums, galleries, historic buildings and, of course, it has a cathedral.  The tourist board website lists 67 galleries – I had my work cut out.

So I picked a host of things for my to-do and see list – slightly ambitious even for me considering I didn’t know my way around Manchester.

I bounded off the train like an over-excited puppy and headed straight to the Whitworth Gallery as this was always number one on my list.

The Whitworth Art Gallery. Own photograph.

The Whitworth Art Gallery is set within Whitworth Park and is part of the University of Manchester.  Currently three exhibitions are on show – COTTON: Global Threads tells the story of the production, consumption and global trade of cotton, with exhibits showing worldwide diversity that afford particularly attention to the fashion and textiles from India.  This isn’t really my area of interest so, although I had a quick look, I didn’t spend too long studying the displays in depth but it is a very well-planned exhibition with brilliant movement-activated display cases that are triggered on approach.  The exhibition includes Yinka Shonibare’s Boy with a Globe 4 using the Dutch wax-printed cotton that has become a trademark of his work.

Yinka Shonibare, Boy with a Globe 4. Own photograph.

Upstairs is an interesting piece by Ahmed Mater, Magnetism IV, which evokes the feeling of the first day of pilgrimage to Mecca, when pilgrims walk around the Ka’ba seven times counter-clockwise, by using tens of thousands of iron filings placed between the fields of two magnets.  A couple of galleries were closed for re-hang but there is also a small Victor Pasmore exhibition upstairs showing a series of his later screenprints exploring geometrical forms, lines and colour that suggest elegant organic movement.

Ahmed Mater, Magnetism IV. Own photograph.

The main reason for my visit to the Whitworth was to see Idris Khan’s The Devil’s Wall, an installation that draws on the rituals of the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca).  As always, Khan blurs the boundaries between the secular and the spiritual.  The main elements of the exhibition are three, black, cylindrical sculptures that slope down into infinite funnels.  Khan has printed text from the Quran (in English and Arabic) on the works, radiating outwards, sometimes disappearing into the black holes.  The sculptures reference the stoning of the Jamarat where pilgrims chant and throw seven stones at three walls in three different locations to crush the devil.

Idris Khan, The Devil’s Wall. Image via www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk

The works are very contemplative; displayed in a darkened room they evoke the voyage of self-discovery that Khan took in making these works.  His parallel concepts of repetition are also seen in a series of drawings, 21 Stones, that were printed using a rubber stamp.  Again making use of a circular motion they repetitively show statements from the Quran in a chant-like format.  Also on show is Voices where Khan experiments with the repetitive nature of Philip Glass’s music in a series of spell-binding, tranquil works where the notes appear to move around the stave.

Idris Khan, Voices. Image via www.wallpaper.com

Although highly complex, Khan’s works do no alienate or intimidate.  Instead, they invite people to reflect on the messages and traditions on which they focus.  I don’t normally comment on the exhibition guides but this one deserves mention; it is really brilliant, clearly explaining the works without over-simplifying or over-complicating.

Idris Khan, The Devil’s Wall.  Image via http://margaret-cooter.blogspot.com

Onwards, I hailed a cab to go to see the Victoria Baths, a building that has been the focus of much heritage attention over the last few years.  Opened in 1906, the Baths were then described as “the most splendid municipal bathing institution in the country” and became famous, not only for its design but for the Olympic swimmers who trained there.  In 1993 the council could no longer justify the expense of keeping the baths open and a committee was formed to try to save the building.  Over the years it’s been consistently in the public eye, winning the first series of the BBC’s Restoration in 2003 as well as having been awarded a considerable amount from the Heritage Lottery Fund which then became embroiled in complications.

The multi-coloured brick façade is stunning and many of the original features remain.  Sadly, I wasn’t around on a day when the interior was open for tours although I have seen many pictures and the potential for great arts installations in the past but it is a stunning building and I was glad to take a peek at this architectural gem.

Victoria Baths. Own photograph.

I carried on in my cab to see the UMIST building – an imposing red-brick building on Sackville Street.  I was already gaining the impression that Manchester is architecturally a very rich city.

UMIST building. Own photograph.

My next stop was Cornerhouse, Manchester’s centre for contemporary visual art and film.  Their current exhibition, Subversion, brings together 11 artists to rethink ‘modern’ and ‘Arab’ identity.  The exhibition looks at the stereotypical preoccupations that we have come to know as, or associate with, the Arab world.  I particularly liked Larissa Sansour’s striking photographs.  There are lots of video-based works and the top floor gallery is an immersive space for visitors to tamper with, that includes video games, a retro cinema and jigsaw puzzles.  The venue has a project-space, experimental vibe to it.  Cornerhouse feels like a cultural hub and I decided to stop for a late lunch and soak up the buzzy atmosphere.

Larissa Sansour, Nation Estate – Jerusalem Floor. Own photograph.

From there I was able to walk up the road to Central Library but unfortunately, in my rushed research, I had amazingly omitted to notice that it’s shut for a huge restoration project.  From the tiny sections that weren’t covered in scaffolding I could see how beautiful the neoclassical circular space must be but, alas, there wasn’t much I could do so I hopped over the tram lines down Mosley Street to the Manchester Art Gallery.

Manchester’s Central Library. Own photograph.

Downstairs is A Sleek Dry Yell, 2008 by Haroon Mirza which uses everyday sound and objects to reassemble redundant analogue technology.  Sound becomes sculpture although it echoes annoyingly around the entire building.  Again, some of the permanent galleries were shut for re-hang but they have a great 18th century collection with all the usual suspects – Highmore, a very dirty Hogarth, Gainsborough, Romney, Reynolds…   It’s a pleasant enough gallery but not too thrilling. It is, however, a comprehensive collection and a much larger space that I expected partly due to a surprising modern extension at the back where Gormley’s Filter hangs from the ceiling; a figure (of course) made of welded steel rings showing the body as a container.  The work hangs in space, open to light and the elements.  The steel rings mean that the figure’s skin becomes porous so there is a fluid transition from internal to external expressing freedom of movement and experience.

Antony Gormley, Filter. Own photograph.

What the Manchester Art Gallery does well is present a small and manageable introduction to the various periods of art history with works by a number of key artists.  I was constantly surprised by the calibre of some of the works but, equally, I was often disappointed by how they had paired them.  The top floor presents a gallery of craft and design which was a bit too cluttered for my liking as well as an interesting exhibition of Roger Ballen’s photographs.  I’m not sure why these things keep happening to me but I managed to approach this from the wrong side and was consequently surprised to find that this is his first UK exhibition and is, in fact, a huge retrospective.  Ballen lived and worked in South Africa for over 30 years, exploring small rural towns with a different world and culture.  His works have a stark black and white format which blurs the line between fantasy and reality in what he used to term ‘documentary fiction’.

Roger Ballen, Puppy between feet. Own photograph.

Rushing to avoid the impending rain, I headed to the John Rylands Library, a memorial building erected by Rylands’ third wife to house his 70,000 books and manuscripts.  The building is thought to be one of the best examples of neo-Gothic architecture in Europe.  Built as a chapel with stained glass windows rising from either end, the magnificent vaulted ceiling of the historic reading room demands awe and respect.  Although the outside of the building is filthy, the interior is beautifully preserved and this was easily the artistic highlight of my day.

The historic reading room at the John Rylands library. Own photograph.

I wandered past the mega shopping area by The Royal Exchange and went to Manchester Cathedral. Building commenced in 1421 but it has undergone some fairly hefty restoration in its time. Although it’s a great building it couldn’t really compare with the library I’d just come from.  I was lucky that there was organ practice while I was there so, once I’d looked around, I was able to sit and soak up the architecture while appreciating the acoustic splendour.

Manchester Cathedral. Own photograph.

Needless to say, by cocktail time I was becoming quite exhausted and my legs were suffering so The Alchemist was a perfect refuge.  Thanks to google maps and my wonderful sense of geography I had managed to see everything without getting lost.   I had only one thing on my list for the following day; I have no doubt that there is more to do and there are some gorgeous buildings on the outskirts of the city but I’ll have to save these for my next visit.  For my Manchester night out I headed over to the Lowry for Opera della Luna’s modern reworking of Don Giovanni, a comic portrayal of opera’s infamous lothario.  The perfect end to my day!

The Lowry. Own photograph.

After exploring the canals of Salford on Saturday morning I popped back to the Lowry to see their exhibition space – after all you can’t come to Manchester and not have a true Lowry indulgence.  I have always loved Lowry so obviously I have a strong bias here but his works have such character, charm and life that it’s impossible not to love them.  This is a really good collection and doesn’t just show the typical paintings for which he is popular.  Also on display are a range of his beautiful seascapes inspired by the North Sea showing infinite open spaces, loaded with meaning and emotion.  As Lowry grew older he became more and more fascinated with bizarre characters although some of his collectors found this surreal twist to his work too radical a departure.

L.S. Lowry, Going to the Match. Image via www.thelowry.com

There is also an Annie Lennox exhibition offering insights into her life and career as a singer, songwriter, campaigner and activist. I’m not quite sure it fits here as there is no distinction between the spaces except for wall colour but Lowry Favourites and this are independently two very good shows.

It was sadly time to leave Manchester and head back to the torrential rain in the South.  Most of the buildings and galleries deserve far more attention than I’ve afforded them here but, due to the amount I somehow managed to cram in, I’ve tried to keep each section brief.  I had a really relaxing and exciting trip and was fascinated to see some of Manchester that people don’t normally talk about or bother to notice.

COTTON: Global Threads, Idris Khan: The Devil’s Wall and Victor Pasmore; Transformations are all at the Whitworth Art Gallery until 13th May 2012, www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk.   Subversion is at Cornerhouse until 5th June 2012, www.cornerhouse.orgRoger Ballen: Shadowland, Photographs 1983-2011 is at Manchester Art Gallery until 13th May, www.manchestergalleries.orgLowry Favourites is at The Lowry until 6th July 2012 and The House of Annie Lennox is at The Lowry until 17th June 2012, www.thelowry.com.  For more details about any of the other places visited see: www.victoriabaths.org.uk, www.manchester.gov.uk/directory_record/3962/central_library, www.library.manchester.ac.uk/deansgate, www.royalexchange.co.uk/page.aspx, www.manchestercathedral.org, www.operadellaluna.org and www.visitsalford.info.

The Future that Faded Fast: Soviet Art and Architecture at the RA

25 Oct

Heading into the Royal Academy this morning, I didn’t really know what to expect.  I’d scrawled ‘RA Soviet’ in my diary but that wasn’t very enlightening.   I tottered up the stairs to the top floor (part of my pre-season skiing preparation although the stilettos are probably comfier than the hefty ski boots) where I found a faultless and fascinating exhibition.

Contrasting with the crowd-pleaser downstairs, the upper-level galleries have, once again, gone for a slightly edgier and, perhaps, riskier exhibition.  The risk has paid off – this show is a stunner.

Building the Revolution at the Royal Academy. Own photograph.

Building the Revolution tells the story of Soviet art and architecture from 1915-1935 looking at the intriguing dialogue and shared language of the two.  The new state of Soviet Socialism required buildings in a style free of past associations.  These were streamlined, flat-roofed and white-walled, with no excess, contrasting with the traditional low-built wooden structures that had previously dominated the landscape.  Constructivist architecture believed that function should dictate external form, employing only simple geometric shapes.  This brief period of Russian avant-garde architecture reflected the optimism and ideology of the new State.  Moscow and St Petersburg (as we now know them) were transformed.

Although still standing, many of the buildings are in desperate need of some TLC and have fallen into a dilapidated condition.  Richard Pare’s photographs, which make up a substantial body of this exhibition, document these iconic buildings, recording their condition over the past two decades, in a campaign to capture this much-neglected architecture.

Richard Pare, Tsentrosoyuz Building, 1995. Own photograph.

Rather than a normal chronological study, the exhibition is arranged into building types be they residential, industrial, health, recreational and so on.  It is stunning, leading you on a veritable journey through Russia’s architectural treasures.  Juxtaposed with the contemporary photographs of Pare is a series of never-before exhibited vintage photographs, showing the buildings either under construction or just completed.  The vintage works are presented on a different plane offering a contrast, but not distracting, from the saturated colourful works shown on the wall.

Works on different levels in Building the Revolution at the Royal Academy. Own photograph.

Pare’s photographs capture the beauty in these often near-Brutalist forms.  As a schoolboy, listening to lectures on art and architecture, Pare noticed they weren’t shown work by Russians.  The images were unavailable.  In 1993, after a trip to Moscow with a friend, his interest peaked and he began what is now an unquestionably brilliant series of work.  And, he’s nowhere near finished.  There are many cities he hasn’t yet visited and, he says, even in Moscow there are closed and inaccessible buildings that he has yet to record.  The project is a race against time, against the authorities who wish to see these buildings and this part of history erased.

Building the Revolution at the Royal Academy. Own photograph.

One gorgeous example is Melnikov House, a building constructed as a home for the architect and his studio.  Melnikov explained that the building consisted of two cylinders intersecting across one third of their diameters, covered with multiple hexagonal windows that fill the interior with light.  Inside, three practically circular spaces were allocated for sleeping, living and working.  It was innovative, radical and dynamic.  Its future is now uncertain.

Melnikov House photographs in the exhibition. Own photograph.

Running parallel to this intriguing photographic display is a series of works from the Costakis Collection showing the experimental nature of visual artists and the key relationships between their work and that of the architects.  Many of these pieces were new to me and indeed, for many, this is their first showing in the UK.  They show the introduction of a new visual language in Russia, rejecting the bourgeois associations of more figurative art forms instead using a ‘constructed’ form of composition.

Liubov Popova’s Spatial Force Composition embraces the three governing principles of Constructivism, using her work to guide viewers towards socialist aims while strongly referencing the Revolution through the use of the colour red.  Despite the period of social imprisonment in which she was working, she manages to capture a sense of freedom and dynamism.  Her forms come together to suggest structurally unified components.

Liubov Popova, Spatial Force Composition, 1920-21. Own photograph.

The show is beautifully put together and the structure and curation even seem to have an architectural influence with curving walls and different levels.  The last room focusing on the Lenin mausoleum is a shocking contrast with the red walls recalling the highly polished, dark red granite marble.

The courtyard has also been taken over for this exhibition with a reconstruction of Tatlin’s Tower proudly in place.  Regardless of your knowledge of the period, you will recognise this structure, now regarded as the epitome of the bold new styles of the period.  Designed to be the tallest man-made structure in the world, it was intended to rise to the height of 400 metres and to act as the headquarters of the Third International.  The Tower was unbuildable due to steel shortages and its huge technological demands but the model acted as a stimulus for great debate and further experimentation within the fusions of art and architecture.  Tatlin aimed to combine “artistic forms with utilitarian intentions”; he was a painter turned sculptor who truly expressed the synthesis of the two art forms.

The Royal Academy Courtyard with a reconstructed version of Tatlin’s Tower. Own photograph.

Allow time for this exhibition – it deserves it.  It is also accompanied by a fabulous catalogue in which I have been engrossed all evening (although everything needs a counter-balance and after a day of such serious study, I think it’s time for a good old rom-com).  The catalogue too deserves time and study.  Great thought has gone into producing it and even the use of different papers is perfect.

Constructivist art and architecture was never much admired, illustrated by the condition in which many of the buildings now find themselves.  These photos and, indeed, this exhibition aim to bring these buildings back into the spotlight.  Whether or not you admire the forms, the very fact that these buildings exist against all adversity is incredible and surely their architects should be heralded.  Many, regardless of whether or not they are protected by conservation laws, are ruthlessly being torn down, not due to a lack of space or money but a fear of what they represent.

Skip the queues and head upstairs at the Royal Academy to see this real gem.  It is an exhibition that fuels a desire to know more.  I am notoriously critical (in a positive and constructive way, of course) but this show presents a body of wonderful, wide-ranging artworks from a narrow period in a perfect format.

Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935 opens this Saturday 29th October in the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy until 22nd January 2012, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

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