Thursday, November 24, 2011

British Art Deco Exhibition at the RIBA

The RIBA's current exhibition, 'Putting on the Glitz: the Golden Years of Art Deco Architecture in Britain', is wonderful, a third floor foyer of photographs (along with some related periodicals, telegrams and sketches) that you can spend fifteen minutes or a month on, an exhibition rich and rewarding to those interested in architecture, photography or London's past.

The RIBA can seem intimidating when seen from a passing bus, the weight of the institution suggestive of a private members' club where everybody knows everybody and knows who doesn't belong, but as you step through the doorway it reveals itself as a friendly place, accessible and welcoming, filled with light, the kind of place where you could go to drink coffee, answer your emails and read. This exhibition makes a great pretext for a visit, particularly as the building, designed by George Wornum and built in 1934, is reproduced in the show. There's also an excellent photograph displayed showing Bainbridge Copnall working on the sculpture of Architectural Aspiration that appears on the Portland Place facade, this softly lit encounter between the artist himself and the larger allegorical figure he details accentuating intimate notes in the stone relief.

The exhibition is not large, but photographs are accompanied by information on the buildings depicted, which are organised by type. There are interiors and facades, details and shots that capture the spirit of the period as much as the building itself. Many of the photos' subjects have been demolished while some, such as the Odeon in Leicester Square and Battersea Pumping Station, are now London landmarks. Some photos, such as that of the Adelphi Theatre in the Strand, show buildings that have since been altered; the diamond shaped window that is visible on the present building makes much more sense when seen in its original context.

This exhibition has been carefully researched, and so can please both those looking for an introduction to the period and those in search of buildings that don't appear in general works on British Art Deco. I was particularly intrigued by the train stations of James Robb Scott; Charles Holden's work for the underground is well-catalogued, but this railway architect from the same period is far from familiar, despite working on the facade of Waterloo Station, the only major London terminus built in the early twentieth century. One of his stations is in Surbiton, a suburb in the South West of London that I hadn't heard of, home to a number of interesting art deco buildings.

Cinemas were being built constantly during this period, and the wall dedicated to picture palaces does not disappoint. A number of these photographs are by John Maltby, who in 1935 secured a commission to document each new Odeon as it opened; by 1939 he had photographed 250 different cinemas in the United Kingdom. Of those shown in the RIBA show, my favourite was Joseph Hill's Odeon in Surbiton; I was angered to read that it had been demolished as recently as 1999.

Alongside the architectural merit of these buildings, the images in the RIBA both hint at and record stories of English life. I liked particularly the story of 'Tilly Losch's Bathroom,' an art deco room by Paul Nash given to Tilly Losch, a dancer, by her husband, Edward James, a collector of surrealist art, which hinted at the mingling of those from different disciplines: architecture, modern art and dancing join together in a luxurious bathroom. I also liked reading the telegrams exchanged as Oliver Hill was working on the Midland Hotel at Morecambe, recently restored; in one, he is advised that "the question of whether we have face towels in colours has got to be further considered as [Arthur Hill, of LMS Hotel Services, is] not satisfied that the clientele we are likely to get at Morecambe will appreciate too much of this kind of idea".

Similarly, the glimpses behind closed doors are intriguing. A number of London's fanciest hotels were built, renovated or expanded during this period, and a private dinner at the Savoy or a stay at Claridge's is out of reach for most, but a wall at the RIBA allows your eye to wander down corridors at a number of such places without arousing the suspicions of hotel porters. Similarly, I've seen the central courtyard at Dolphin Square and pondered what it would be like to live in the high-density apartment block, but I didn't know about the art deco bar that lies, or lay, somewhere behind the brown bricks.

I can't show sample images from the exhibition as the RIBA charges steep fees for reproduction, but this exhibition is free, centrally located and on until Saturday the 26th of November (open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday). It leaves you with a list of buildings you want to visit and intriguing information about those you already know. It leaves you, too, wistful for buildings that are no longer standing, but perhaps this wistfulness is what is needed to draw attention to London's often overlooked art deco heritage.

For those who can't make it to the exhibition, you can see some of the photographs online.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Lotus Eaters (London Film Festival review)

I've seen four films so far at the London Film Festival (in order, I've seen Weekend, Restless, Lotus Eaters and The Future) and am planning to see another two (Faust and Like Crazy) this week. I thought Weekend was amazing and I'm already planning to see The Future a second time when it opens in cinemas, but it was Lotus Eaters that I really loved and that's been occupying my thoughts all weekend.

In addition to being a beautiful, wonderful film, Lotus Eaters feels suitable for this blog in how the film captures life in London; at one point Alice, the central figure, walks across London Fields and runs into Orna on Broadway Market, who asks "do you live around here?" and Alice's reply that she's just moved there makes absolute sense for the character, as does the meeting between the two on the street and the later shot of Orna on her mobile at a Serpentine Gallery opening. Alice is the sort of person who would move to London Fields and Orna is exactly the sort of person you'd find on Broadway Market or at a Serpentine Opening. I felt, These locations add a sort of depth and wider context to the characters that's entirely in tune with what's shown and suggested in the film and, perhaps, for those who aren't familiar with the areas in question, the film might be insight into the personalities of these locales, and so, in keeping with this blog's focus on enhancing experiences of London, I'd recommend this film to those wanting insight into London itself.

The film, though, is incredible in so many more ways than this, and I'm anxious to see what the director, Alexandra McGuinness, does in the future; it's a really impressive debut feature and I was a bit shaken to discover she was born in 1987, the same year as me. Lotus Eaters centers upon Alice, a young girl seemingly positioned on the edge of her social group, more observer than participant, trying to make sense of her feelings toward ex-boyfriend Charlie, attempting to move from modeling into acting, confused about her relationship to the world more generally. The film is about the dynamics of the group surrounding Alice, a world in which nobody seems to work and everybody goes from party to party, bathing in vodka and exchanging gossip about the ever-shifting relationships between others. Lotus Eaters has the subtle shifts in character of Henry James, the whirling portrait of society in turmoil of Evelyn Waugh and the nuanced capturing of mood and place of Sofia Coppola and yet it both updates these reference points and makes them timeless.

McGuinness's youth might contribute to her ability to capture what it is to be in one's twenties in London today, though really it impresses me that somebody around my age can succeed in creating a clear picture of youth out of the confusion that most people (based on my experience) seem to feel. Lotus Eaters illustrates the chaos of all the possibilities that surround one, the seductive appeal of music and people and parties and the way in which a culture with such weighty surface can make one feel alien, both enchanted and tired, lost and yet reluctant to be elsewhere, always playing a part in something which could be made beautiful if it could be distilled, articulated, made sense of... and Lotus Eaters manages to distill this essence, capture it and take it to its conclusion, explore it and visually document it.

Lotus Eaters did more than capture this feeling, though: the story had an epic quality, was tragic without dwelling on it, without too much sentiment, and the visuals were beautiful without stripping the film of its weight. Dialogue was witty, real and psychologically incisive from the opening scene, where a group are gathered at a cafe in conversation, Alice's feeling of alienation captured in her responses, slower and more studied than her friends' sentences; while she takes their questions seriously, they move quickly on to the next remark and assume, when she mentions going to Heidelberg, that it is for an event, failing to realise it's where she's from or to engage with their friend's confusion. The clothing was beautiful, suiting personalities and occasions, building to mark crescendos; humour was present but not too overt; and the music was beyond compare (mentioned in every review, but still worth mentioning), always bringing out the mood of particular sequences, introducing me to songs I hadn't heard before and stunning me with the use of those songs I did know, as in the use of Fever Ray's 'If I Had a Heart' to follow the film through the final hours of a party to the conclusion of the relationships that shift through the film.

I've used a lot of superlatives in writing this, but I loved Lotus Eaters. The film is beautiful without sacrificing grit or scathing glances, ultimately grand in scale but still relatable and intimate, poetic and simultaneously real. It focuses on surface, is wonderfully shot, outfitted and soundtracked, and yet isn't superficial.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Loose Thoughts on Cambridge and Poplar

I had coffee with a friend of mine earlier in the week and at one point in the conversation we were speaking about architecture and, most particularly, the effect older buildings have on people as reminders of the scale of human existence compared to that of humanity or the built environment, the way buildings can act as markers of time.

This can be particularly striking in Cambridge. Entire cities, such as Auckland and Melbourne, have been built and filled with businesses and families from across the world in less than three hundred years; Australia has moved from being a continent of nomadic tribes to a penal colony to an agricultural society through a gold rush to today's country with a flag, with arguments over selling uranium to China, with opinion columns worried about immigration and urban sprawl, with airlines taking you to Asia in one flight and Europe in two... and through all this, even before Australasia was noticed by England, since 1441, my college has been arranging and rearranging buildings. While I've seen the chapel almost every day for the past five months, I continue to feel dizzy when I look at it, at plain buttresses toward the Eastern end alongside those toward the Western end, branded with roses and crowns against the posthumous wishes of Henry VI. In an architecture class a few days ago one of the academics at another college mentioned that in  discussions decisions were made on a grand scale: if something wasn't done now, it could be done instead in a hundred years.

These buildings seem to inject such urgency into everyday life; I'm constantly panicking about being unable to succeed in anything more than a temporary way and certainly many people at Cambridge seem to feel afraid they'll never match their own ambitions. But how can anyone really succeed when they're measuring themselves against buildings Turner painted? It feels somewhat depressing, in Cambridge, not to be made of stone. Nobody seems worried about their life in Cambridge, and I don't really seem to worry about my assignments; I worry instead about what comes after this, about finding a job, about the deterioration of paper and the lack of attention being paid to preserving digital files, about doing something spectacular, about not living to be eight hundred years old...

The point I was originally moving toward, though, is that I find my interest in these buildings is no greater than my interest in more recent buildings, the ones that society doesn't feel quite so intimidated by. I find it fascinating how suddenly tastes shift, that what is a Solution can be a Problem only forty years later, that places that are homes to people, buildings that shape modes of existence, are frames through which one sees the world, rooms in which one learns what life is, can mean very little to broader society, be disposable to governments.