Friday, 30 January 2015

Neuralgia and Nostalgia

For a warm dose of comforting nostalgia there are few better triggers than childhood recollections of confectionery treats. Online protestations of undying affection for long forgotten sweets and chocolate are easily found. The attendant miseries and insecurities of childhood are erased by the power of pleasures recalled – unwrapping and consuming sugary, candied and chocolate-coated concoctions. For the immediate post-war generation these memories carry extra weight due to the imposition of sweet rationing which lasted until February 1953. The resulting expansion in demand is reflected in these full colour, full page magazine ads as manufacturers fought for market share in a new climate of plenty. An armada of temptation was mobilised to get Britain munching and chomping its way to the top of the international league tables of consumption. The dark clouds of rampant tooth decay and childhood obesity lay just over the horizon. A Conservative opposition fought, and almost won the 1950 general election on the issue of ending rationing while the Labour incumbents campaigned for indefinite retention. This began the process of stigmatising egalitarianism as a joyless and pointless aspiration, a denial of consumer choice and a symbol of the horrors of a planned economy, echoes of which persist to the present day. It was an early example of Labour politicians committing to unpopular policies – another tradition that survives. 

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Villaggio Leumann, Turin

Corso Francia is the principle westbound highway out of the city of Turin. It’s the main route from Piedmont to France and has been witness to many movements of troops of both nationalities in both directions as the two nations engaged in regular hostilities. The first settlement outside the city is the comune of Collegno and in 1875 Swiss textile manufacturer, Napoleone Leumann chose to relocate his business from Switzerland to Collegno for easier access to the Italian market for his products. Leumann was a paternalistic employer and took the opportunity to build housing and social facilities alongside his factories. Over the following three decades the site was developed to include housing for up to a thousand people, a church, public baths, a gym and a school. The designer was the engineer/architect Pietro Fenoglio who employed a sober, eclectic style very different from the flamboyant Liberty-styled house he designed for himself in Turin. (The Casa Fenoglio-Lafleur is about 5 miles to the east on the same road, Corso Francia.) 

Fenoglio’s architectural contribution is difficult to quantify but the stylistic touches that pay homage to Leumann’s Swiss origins may well be his work. The pair of gatehouses are the most obvious examples with their hand carved wooden detailing and gingerbread air. Opposite the entrance is a modest timber-built rail/tramway station in a similar vernacular. The homes and factories are well proportioned and unassuming in style. The provision of gardens indicates the influence of British models designed to promote self-sufficiency and leisure time dedicated to labour and self-improvement. The textile business finally closed in 2007, after lingering on in a much reduced role since 1972 but the Villaggio Leumann has since been refurbished as a heritage site with some of the buildings converted into retail premises for the fashion industry. On a visit in October 2014 the housing stock seemed to be in very good order as were the retail units, but the major blocks, although recently repainted, still await a use. It was a Monday morning and there may well be busier times but there was very little sign of activity, economic or domestic. Other than the man who yelled from an upstairs window to tell me that photography was forbidden without a permit – an expression of resentment about being on public display. 

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Marineland Oceanarium

Florida – Perpetual State of Wonders - Alligator Farms, Rattlesnake Ranches, Mystery Houses, Ringling Brothers Circus, the Green Benches, Fountain of Youth and the Singing Tower. Marineland opened in 1938 as the world’s first Oceanarium – a visitor attraction featuring sea dwelling mammals. Giant Turtles, Sharks, Whales and Porpoises drew in the tourists and the project borrowed a little literary respectability, having among its founders, Ilya Tolstoy (grandson of the great Leo and pioneer of underwater photography). Linen postcards offer the perfect medium for recording these sub-aquatic theatricals in which a changing cast of sea creatures swim around in the company of clumsy Marineland employees encased in diving suits constructed in an age of heavy engineering. I like these cards for their slow motion compositions and persistent air of absurdity – one or two of them could easily be taken for pieces of Performance Art. Follow this link to see what Florida offers today’s visitor – it’s an impressive range of implausible curiosities from which it’s difficult to select the most compelling but I wouldn’t want to miss the Atheist Monument, the Lowest State High Point in the US and the Garbage Truck Museum. 

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Dinner Hour Swindon

Not a bare head in sight as the artisans stream out of the railway works in Swindon, filing past the company-built housing (the Railway Village) after a busy morning building copper-capped steam locomotives for the Great Western Railway (GWR). Just a fraction of the 12,000 employees. They may have no NHS or JSA or Tax Credits or Sky Sports but at least they have a dinner hour – which is often more than today’s flexible and fragmented workforce can afford. The working day that was regulated by sirens and whistles is now more subtly regulated by zero hours contracts and ever expanding workloads coupled with the constant threat of unemployment – recent surveys (of doubtful provenance) on behalf of the food industry, show workers take an average of 29 to 33 minutes for lunch. Most depressing of all, one in seven employees hope to win favour with their managers by taking shorter breaks. Mass pilgrimages like this, to and from the workplace are part of labour history. Dispersal of workplaces diminishes opportunities for employees to organise and campaign for better pay and conditions. In the absence of collective action individual resentments accumulate and fester into a generalised reservoir of discontent from which the likes of UKIP draw their support. 

At the age of 13 I once spent a Saturday afternoon on a tour of Swindon Works in the company of a like-minded group of train fanatics and social misfits whose ability to scrape through the Eleven Plus had been rewarded with a seven year sentence in the great Metroland Madrassa aka Watford Boys Grammar School. Our expedition leader was a gaunt and ascetic young man by the name of Rex who at 14 already resembled the Rural Dean and Antiquarian I fully expected him to become in adult life. It was a memorable experience – the last ever British-built main line steam locomotives were under construction on the factory floor. In one bay stood a completed example in all its resplendence, next to it was an almost complete example – in all about 12 locomotives presented a reductive display of disassembly, ending with a pair of sub-frames on which a number was chalked. The ethics of collecting numbers were called into question – could you really claim to have seen a locomotive when it was no more than a pair of metal castings resting on the floor? 

Another assembly line was producing a batch of diesel-hydraulic locomotives – the first generation of diesel power, themselves doomed to a life of little more than a decade. Elsewhere steam locomotives of all vintages and size were undergoing repairs, surrounded by gleaming stacks of replacement parts, sets of newly turned and freshly painted driving wheels and trolley-loads of bearings, levers, rods, cranks and valves. Outside the works were the weathered and corroded remains of locomotives at the end of their working lives – in their dramatic decrepitude they were every bit as fascinating as the dazzling magnificence of the newly outshopped locomotives with their polished brass and sumptuous paintwork. The most exotic sight that day was an elderly narrow-gauge locomotive (No. 9 Prince of Wales) from the Vale of Rheidol railway that had travelled from Aberystwyth to Swindon on a flat-bed truck for repairs. 

More than any of its competitors, the GWR worked hard to associate itself with the English landed gentry – the locomotives carried the names of Kings, Counties, Castles, Earls, Granges, Manors and Halls (some GWR directors were residents of homes that were honoured in this way), a constant reminder to travellers of the timeless hegemony of their superiors by birth. Although the green fields of Wessex were rudely bisected by Brunel as he pushed westwards, the knights and lords of the shires were handsomely compensated with easy access to the metropolis. Catch a cab at Paddington to a board meeting in the City, followed by a light slumber on the parliamentary benches. Lunch at a gentleman’s club might precede an adulterous assignation in Mayfair or Knightsbridge with the lubricious delights of an evening visit to a house of ill repute to look forward to. 

In design terms the policy was to wrap advanced technology inside traditional forms – high-performance locomotives were styled to look like enormous pieces of mobile vintage furniture, composites of tallboys, sideboards and mantel pieces topped off with copper and brass trim and cast iron number plates, numerals burnished with gold leaf. Railway buildings took their features from the stables, workshops, lodges and estate buildings to be seen in the grounds of West Country stately homes. Architects borrowed freely from historical styles including Tudor, French Gothic and Georgian to build stations with an air of permanence as if the trains had been passing through for centuries rather than decades. Innovation and change made respectable by drawing attention away from its novelty and rooting it in the past. In the Victorian imagination, engineering excellence was just another manifestation of the eternally unrolling pageant of English pre-eminence. 

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Postcard of the Day No. 71 – Al Mosher’s Mystery House

Eye-witnesses report that it wasn’t unknown for visitors to this unusual Florida attraction to be overcome with disequilibrium-induced nausea and exit the house vomiting copiously, although this wasn’t mentioned in the publicity. As it says on the reverse – cross the Bridge of Lions, just opposite the St. Augustine Alligator Farm on Route A1A – and you’re there. It takes a leap of the imagination to come up with an idea like this and a justly proud Al has the air of a born teacher as he explains his creation to Mr and Mrs Average and Junior. There should be one of these in every town if only for the pleasure of submitting a Planning Application and hearing what Building Regs. have to say about it. With Mr Pickles still in charge of national planning policy and prioritising economic potential, there really should be no obstacles. 

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Aerial Visions – the Flight of the Mind

There’s a lot of speculation on the influence of photography from an elevated viewpoint on the way we model the world in our imagination. The proposition is that before the development of the skyscraper and powered flight it was very difficult to conceive of how the world would appear from above and that artists exploited this shift in viewpoint into new and dynamic forms. Tall structures, often in the form of fortifications or bell towers certainly existed in the past but artists made little of the opportunities they offered for taking a radically fresh viewpoint on familiar things. Kirk Varnedoe wrote in A Fine Disregard, 1990, about the fundamental shift in viewpoint in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that inspired artists and photographers from Degas and Caillebotte to Malevich and Rodchenko to reimagine conventional pictorial space and explore a new vocabulary of form. The subtitle, Flight of the Mind was his phrase to describe what happened when Rodchenko’s photographs “broke the axis of relation between the horizon and the ground”.

I suspect I’m far from alone in deriving great pleasure from examining the world below from a position of great height. It’s not the distant horizon that commands my attention but what is more or less directly below my feet. When elevation supplies a panoramic view it’s always interesting but the spatial recession of patchwork fields, human settlements, rivers, hills and valleys, whether pictorially harmonious and uplifting or darkly sinister and unsettling, is a familiar sensation. The natural topography of the planet delivers an abundance of vantage points which it could be argued we are evolutionally programmed to note for their values as defensive or offensive positions. What is least familiar to us is the space we inhabit as seen from directly above our heads – when what we normally see only in elevation is suddenly visible in plan. New and unanticipated formal relationships are revealed in which abstract qualities predominate. Physical elevation offers the reverse of the vision of the infinite and sublime that a painted ceiling by an artist like Tiepolo is intended to evoke. Instead of looking upwards and sensing our insignificance, we look downwards and indulge the fantasy of possessing mastery over our personal Lilliputian kingdom below.

These photos of Turin were taken from the observation deck of the Mole Antonelliana, an odd and over-ambitious building, planned as a Synagogue on an epic scale, that had to be rescued and repurposed when the money ran out and construction was abandoned. In form it’s a bizarre vertical stack with a pagoda-like pinnacle on top of a double-height temple on top of a duomo on top of a gallery on top of another classical temple. After 15 years of painfully slow construction the city authorities took over the completion of the building, finally achieved in 1889, and it’s currently put to use as a National Museum of Cinema. A glass-walled elevator transports the public in a vertiginous parody of the Ascension through the dead centre of the duomo and onwards to the deck above. These photographs are a record of what became visible when the city of Turin was rotated through ninety degrees. 

Friday, 5 December 2014

Postcard of the Day No. 70 – When Two Heads Collide

Even I hesitated for a moment before spending the princely sum of 10p on this postcard. Despite being good value for money, I sensed that this was an image that once seen could never be erased. Some staggeringly wretched postcards have turned up in a lifetime of collecting but in terms of content, conception and sentiment, this is desperately close to an all time low. A grim fascination compelled me to buy it – I tried to convince myself that it was a satire on the manners of the time but my heart wasn’t really in it – it must be taken as it is. 

Even her hat is wrong – distorting the shape of her head and adding prominence to her pointy chin. But far worse are the frozen parted lips and exposed vampire-like top set of dentures. Together with the eyes, that subtly aim in two directions, they don’t suggest an imminent surrender to erotic passion. If anything our Adonis is even more disturbing – his neck has been removed and his eyes appear to be watching the clock. His lips are pressed ineffectually against his beloved’s chin as he wonders just how long this torment will last. It’s an enactment of osculatory hydraulics from which the warm glow of Romance is excluded. No soft-focus lens to seduce the eye – the full horror is revealed in the harshest of light. 

 An Edwardian suitor could choose from thousands of cards of courting couples – this would have to be the last one in the shop to be selected to guide Cupid’s arrow in the direction of the object of his affections. Sending such postcards was a way of communicating amorous intent in an age when the prevailing code of conduct made it almost impossible to express in any other way. There’s a reproachful tone in the message at the top – a suggestion that the recipient may have been bestowing favours outside the relationship. Leading us even further into dark waters is the space in which the sender can nominate a location for this dishonourable behaviour. It may be much safer to send something like the example below. Birthday greetings expressed in verse (complete with misprint), a gift of flowers, curtains parted in promise, an upturned moustache, a roguish eye and an air of consummate self-satisfaction.