I’ve always had an interest in Russia, so when I visited the Design Museum recently I made sure to check out their exhibition Imagine Moscow. The exhibition, like so many this year, marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and explores Moscow as it was imagined by a new generation of architects and designers in the 1920s and early 1930s. The projects envisaged by them never materialised, but they remain testaments to the ambition and vision of the new regime.
The projects explored include aviation, communication and industrialisation, using artwork, propaganda and architectural drawings. I was particularly struck by the vision of communal living, with its strict timetables laid out for each worker of the Soviet state. I was torn between admiration for the desire to ensure every person had ample time for recreation and exercise, and horror at the tightly regulated nature of every minute of the day.
One of the most fascinating projects, for me, is the Palace of the Soviets. This, the proposed centre of Soviet administration in Moscow, was imagined as a colossal edifice in the centre of the city, with a gigantic statue of Lenin on top. The nineteenth-century Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on the proposed site was demolished in preparation for work to begin, but the building never got off the ground (literally). Eventually the site became a public swimming pool before a replacement cathedral in the original design was built.
I found the exhibition to be an interesting exploration of what might have been, and a positive introduction to the Design Museum’s new site.
I had an interesting experience yesterday evening: I took part in a tour of the Futuro House, located at Central Saint Martins near King’s Cross. The house, which is on loan to CSM for the summer, is located on a upper terrace of the Granary Building. We met at the ground floor reception and were taken upstairs to view the house; once inside, we were treated to a talk by the owner, Craig Barnes, who explained the story behind these houses, told us how he ended up with this one, and gave us a potted history of what has happened to it since he took it over.
The Futuro House was designed in the 1960s by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen. It was last seen in London sailing down the Thames on a ferry, as part of the houses’ launch at a FinnFocus trade exhibition. It was designed to be a skiing lodge or weekend retreat: personally, I feel that the oval windows that go all the way around the house make it ideal for making the most of stunning views, while the lack of curtains mean that it only really works when placed in a reasonably remote location.
Described as “the holiday home of the future”, the house was one of several prefabricated designs made in the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately, despite the initial popularity of such designs, the Futuro was not a commercial success: possibly because of the growing price of oil, which made it much more expensive to produce.
Today, only around 65 Futuro Houses are known to exist. Craig Barnes found this one in South Africa: he used to love visiting the “spaceship house” as a child, and when he grew older managed to buy it, disassemble it and ship it back to the UK. Over the course of many months he worked on it, with the assistance of friends, family and colleagues, until it once again became a viable piece of architecture. He has tried as far as possible to restore the original design, but there is much still to do.
The house is on loan to CSM for the summer, and as well as public tours, which take place every month, it is freely bookable by CSM staff and students for meetings and other activities. Barnes is glad that it is being used and enjoyed, but admits there are no firm plans for the house beyond September – it may go back into storage, at least temporarily, but he hopes that it will have a future life (and so do I).
If you would like to visit this incredible house, you can book a tour on the first Wednesday of every month, which costs £5.
I found the sheer variety of the exhibition particularly interesting – the photographs cover many different kinds of buildings in lots of different countries. These include 1930s New York, glamorous Hollywood, South American favelas and modern Chinese riverside buildings. The exhibition is definitely worth seeing, even if you don;t think you are interested in architecture.
This short exhibition at the National Gallery explores the role of architecture in the painting of the Italian Renaissance, with focus on the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. The result of a research partnership between the National Gallery and the University of York, Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting aims to show how architecture was inherently bound up with the work of many artists. The rooms of the exhibition are themselves laid out and divided by arches and columns, as if to illustrate the point.
The exhibition emphasises the multidisciplinary nature of art during the Renaissance: for instance, Michelangelo was a sculptor before designing buildings. Many paintings took architecture as a starting point. Most paintings were designed for specific spaces, such as Domenico Venziano’s “The Virgin & Child Enthroned” of 1435-43, which was designed to fit into a niche in Florence’s Carnesecchi Tabernacle.
Architecture was particularly present in annunciation scenes, in which it was common to divide Mary from Gabriel and any others present by use of walls. An example of this is Duccio’s “The Annunciation” of 1311, in which the two appear to belong in their own “frames” within the picture. This division was intended to mark Mary out as special.
Another kind of picture is “Saint Jerome in His Study”, a work from around 1510 by Vincenzo Catena. The architecture here is welcoming and open, as if inviting the viewer to step into the picture. Perhaps this represents Saint Jerome’s work of making the Bible accessible through translation.
Another series of works explores paintings that evoke the concept of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, such as Sebastiano del Piombo’s “The Judgement of Solomon”. Other images of the 5th century Saint Zenobius, Bishop and patron saint of Florence, invoke the architecture of the city to help locate his miracles in real places. Finally, a selection of Nativity paintings set in ruins showed how the setting symbolised the ruin of the old order.
This short but free exhibition is certainly worth a look if you are in central London with a bit of free time to spare.
William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain was another exhibition at the V&A which I attended on Saturday. The Georgians are in vogue at the moment, possibly because 2014 marks the 300th anniversary of Georgian rule in Britain.
William Kent was the most prominent architect and designer in early Georgian Britain. He was responsible for, for example, Chiswick House in London and Holkham Hall in Norfolk. The exhibition was an interesting look at the range and style of his work and is well worth a visit.
The Royal Academy of Arts has been doing something a little different recently – their latest exhibition, Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, has allowed architects to take over some of their galleries with innovative designs. It marks a departure from their usual kind of show, as you are able to walk around, touch and in some cases walk through the exhibits, and there were lots of children who were clearly enjoying themselves just as much as the adults.
Featuring architects from all over the globe, the exhibition is designed to show that architecture is not just a visual medium: it affects how you perceive a space in terms of scent, touch, hearing and feeling.
On entering the exhibition space you are able to go any way you like. I chose to go straight ahead and came across this installation by Eduardo Souto de Moura, a reconstruction of the wall’s archway.
The next work was pretty hard to miss, and I think it was my favourite out of the lot. Diébédo Francis Kéré has created a huge plastic tunnel that visitors can add to by using the coloured straws dotted about. Children in particular were having a lot of fun with this, but I couldn’t resist adding my own as I walked through the tunnel.
The bright colours were really uplifting.
Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s piece dominated one of the larger rooms, consisting of four spiral staircases encased in cylinders and topped with a platform (there was also a ramp for wheelchair users). I very much enjoyed climbing about in this.
One of the best parts was being able to get a closer look at the roof of the Royal Academy owing to the platform at the top of the structure.
Japanese architect Kengo Kuma appeared to have gone to the other extreme, pioneering what he calls ‘weak architecture’ which emphasises the fragility and beauty of his structures. These are shaped canes of bamboo which give off a lovely natural smell; the whole atmosphere of the space was calming and gentle.
Li Xiaodong’s work is a maze-like room made up of twig screens, with a pebble-covered space in the centre over which your feet crunch pleasantly.
Lastly. Grafton Architects have created two rooms, one light, one dark, which architect Yvonne Farrell says is meant to be like going from hot to cold in a sauna. It sounds boring but I was impressed with how the clever arrangement of these supposedly plain concrete slabs helped to alter the atmosphere and feel of the two rooms.
The exhibition ended with a video featuring the architects talking about their work and how they view the role of architecture. I normally don’t bother with videos in exhibitions but I was fascinated by this one. I really knew very little about architecture and I enjoyed the way the exhibition helped me to think differently about it.
I’ve just got back from a weekend in Luxembourg. I realised I hadn’t been abroad since I went to Portugal in summer 2011, so I decided to rectify this. I also thought it would be a good time to tick London City Airport DLR station off my tube station list. City is the only airport in central London and the only one (apart from Heathrow) to be located on a tube map. After using it, I would encourage everyone to fly from City at least once. The view over central London – taking in the Thames, the O2, the London Eye and the famous bridges – is not to be missed.
Luxembourg is the world’s only Grand Duchy. It is a tiny little state bordered by Belgium, Germany and France. The inhabitants speak Luxembourgish (yes, that is a real language), French and German and there are several temporary and permanent immigrants contributing other languages and cultures to the place – a real melting-pot.
The flight from City took an hour and twenty minutes. It left at eight so I had to get up ridiculously early in the morning – I actually caught the first Tube train of the day out of Ealing Broadway, which made me feel oddly thrilled. I was surprised at how many people were actually around at that time of the morning. Luxembourg is an hour ahead of the UK, so by the time I arrived and caught the bus into the centre of town it was getting on for eleven – which still left me with practically a full day ahead of me.
One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the temperature. It is mid-March after all, and I had assumed that the weather would have been vaguely spring like. This was not the case. It was colder than in Britain (although the temperature did improve over the next couple of days), and there was snow on the ground, though it didn’t actually snow while I was there.
I walked into the centre and picked up a Luxembourg Card from the tourist information office. This card is amazing and I recommend it to anyone who visits. For 27 Euros (for three days; one-day and two-day cards are cheaper) you get unlimited travel on public transport, plus free admission to most of the museums in the country, and discounts on the rest. I used mine constantly and, with the exception of the 2 Euros I paid to take the bus from the airport, didn’t spend another penny on sightseeing or transport throughout my trip.
This first day, I spent some time wandering around town and getting a feel for the place. There seemed to be a lot of scaffolding, so I suspect they are jazzing the place up in preparation for the summer. The Old Town – which is UNESCO-listed – reminded me of Bruge, although I didn’t think it was quite as nice.
The first thing I did was visit the Bock Casemates, down towards the eastern edge of the Old Town. These are fortifications built into the rock several hundred years ago which were designed for defence at a time when the castle on the hill was chosen for its suitability in this respect. I found them interesting to explore but got rather spooked at some points and had to make a hasty exit – or would have, if I hadn’t had trouble finding it.
After a quick stop off for a Panini and a cup of coffee, I headed to the Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art (National Museum of History and Art). This huge museum was well laid-out and fascinating, with five floors below telling the story of Luxembourg from prehistoric times to the present day, and five above, displaying the fine art collection and temporary exhibitions. There was an English guide available for the information boards on the lower floors, which came in handy, and I particularly liked the impressive Roman mosaic on display.
Unfortunately the medieval galleries were closed, but I enjoyed the others, including an in-depth prehistoric section with details of archaeological discoveries. The fine art collection was wide-ranging and varied: there were even a couple of Turner watercolours there, as well as a sculpture by Rodin and an artwork by Picasso. One temporary exhibition was about Japanese art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and was fascinating, and the other was concerned with the Dutch landscape painter Barend Cornelis Koekkoek.
After my visit I walked through the town and came across an amazing café that I just had to go into. You choose a flavour of chocolate, select a block with a wooden spoon embedded into it, and dip it into a cup of hot milk. They should definitely get something like that over here. I had chilli chocolate flavour and it was delicious.
Afterwards I headed towards the station and checked into my hotel. Once I’d unpacked and had a rest, I headed out to find something to eat. I managed to find a nice Italian restaurant, not too busy but not to quiet either, and with other solo diners, so I didn’t feel too self-conscious. I am afraid I took the easy option and went for the mushroom pizza – as much as I would like to sample the local cuisine, I understand that Luxembourgish specialities tend to include meat, so they’re off the menu for me.
Whenever I go abroad, I always like to check out the supermarkets to find out what the locals like to eat. I love looking at all the weird and wonderful foods that are so like, and yet so unlike, the stuff you get in the UK. I saw one lady carrying a Dr Oetker frozen pizza with what looked like salmon on top – it looked lovely and I am disappointed you can’t get that variety here!
I always make a point of trying some local alcohol and chocolate. At least, I try – I don’t think the chocolate I managed to find was from Luxembourg, but I’d never seen it before, so I thought it would do. The wine was local, though.
Not wanting to hang out in a bar full of drunken individuals, I sat in my room with a book, some chocolate and wine, and had a perfectly lovely evening.
The following day, I dragged myself down to breakfast and demolished some rolls with chocolate spread and jam. I also had some waffles, but since the toaster didn’t work these weren’t as nice as they might have been! Sufficiently full-up, I wandered over to the rather impressive station. I had plans to go to Vianden for the day, and knew that I had to catch the train to Ettelbruck and then a bus to the town of Vianden.
It took me some time to decipher all the signs, but eventually I got myself on the right train and enjoyed a relaxing journey to Ettelbruck. I didn’t have to wait too long for the bus when I got there – it was a relatively short journey to my destination.
Vianden is gorgeous. It is a small compact village full of quaint little houses, with a river flowing through the centre and a curved bridge crossing it. Above it all, the castle overlooks the town high on a hill. I decided to visit the castle first, in order to get the climb out of the way. This was a good decision, as it was exhausting, and I don’t know if I’d have been able to manage it later!
Looking over the castle didn’t take ages, as there were few information boards or other things to see, but it was definitely worth it. The castle was apparently sold by its nineteenth-century owner and dismantled, leaving it in a state of disrepair not rectified until the twentieth century when it was rebuilt. It still looks pretty good, considering. The place is just how I would have imagined a fairytale castle to be, with round towers and a stunning hillside location.
After a crepe vegetarienne in a local café I popped into the Victor Hugo Museum for a quick look around. The great writer stayed in the town on several occasions, and some of the letters he wrote here are on display. His study has been recreated in the room facing the castle. Unfortunately the displays were all in French so I couldn’t understand them, but it was still exciting just to be in a place connected with the man.
I caught the bus back to the town of Diekirch, which my guidebook said was full of museums. The major attraction was the Museum of Military History, covering the Battle of the Ardennes (better known perhaps as the Battle of the Bulge) of 1944-45. I knew my mam, who is really interested in the war, would have been fascinated by the museum. I had a good look round, but the place went into a lot of depth (it is used by military historians as well as the general public) and I skimmed a lot of it. The personal testimonies and modelled recreations of real-life scenes (taken from photographs) were moving and really brought home what life would have been like during the battle.
I popped into the town’s own museum too, but the boards were in French and German so I couldn’t actually understand anything. However, the museum is next to the church and you can actually get into the crypt via the museum, which I thought was quite exciting. I then visited a bizarre museum, home to a selection of classic cars and a selection of Diekirch beer glasses. I had planned to sample a beer in the little café, but there seemed to be some sort of event on, with lots of people arranged in chairs and sandwiches wrapped in cling film, so I made a hasty exit.
Though there was no castle, there were several quaint little streets and I grew to quite like Diekirch. Apparently the town’s mascot is a donkey, which explains the fun statue which lets you move the limbs of the donkeys into whichever position you choose.
I had planned to eat in the Old Town when I returned to Luxembourg City, but I couldn’t find anywhere that was both quiet and cheap. On the way back to my hotel I stopped at a decent-looking place and had – you’ve guessed it – another mushroom pizza. Well, it was either that or a cheese omelette.
My evening passed much as the previous one did, with wine and chocolate and books. I had debated trying to get tickets to a concert or a theatre performance, but I couldn’t decipher the leaflets, and thought it would probably be really expensive anyway.
The next day – my last – it was raining. I walked through the Old Town for the last time, taking in the view, and visited the Musée d’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg (Luxembourg History Museum). This has been cleverly built within a number of buildings from different periods of the city’s history, with stone from the old defences forming part of the basement. I loved the video installation exploring the landscape and nature of the city. I could have sat looking at it for hours.
After a couple of floors exploring the city’s past, the museum began to look at different themes relating to Luxembourg, including its role in industry, within Europe and the natural world. Finally, the temporary exhibition was ‘The ABC of Luxembourg’ – exploring the national identity of the Grand Duchy through an irreverent and entertaining alphabet. I thoroughly enjoyed this excellent museum and I’m glad I made the effort to look for it, tucked away on a back street.
I debated whether to catch the bus, but I ended up walking to the next museum, which I’d passed en route to the centre from the airport. The Musée Dräi Eechelen tells the story of this fort overlooking the city, with armour, swords and a frightening-looking guillotine all displayed. I popped into the MUDAM (Museum of Modern Art) next door, too, but the exhibitions were in the process of changing over. The building itself was very impressive, though.
I could have caught the bus back into the centre, but frankly I couldn’t be bothered, so I just went straight to the airport. I spent a couple of hours there recharging and writing up my holiday diary (which I keep religiously every time I go abroad) before going through security and spending far too much on chocolate and liqueur to bring back with me.