Monday, 23 May 2016

Vienna: More art nouveau

Wagner Pavilion, Karlsplatz

The last time we were in Vienna (October 2012) we did a "fin de siècle" walk starting from the Opera House. The intention this time was to cover as much as possible of the other art nouveau (or Jugendstil) buildings in the centre of the city. I built up a list from some research in the internet. I have of course included one or two other things that caught my eye during the walk.

We started at Karlsplatz, near our hotel, which we also covered last time. The pavilions are so stunning however that it was no hardship to see and photograph them in better weather conditions. The architect Otto Wagner was appointed design head for the new Stadtbahn, or metropolitan railway, now the metro, and the two pavilions which stand facing each other, were the entrances to the Karlsplatz station. This one is a museum to Wagner, while the facing one is a bar.

A closer view reveals the exquisite decoration including prominent sunflower motifs.

Now we Friedrichstrasse and Lothringerstrasse to reach the entrance to the Stadtpark. Here was another of Wagner's metro stations, currently being restored. The decoration is much less extravagant than at Karlsplatz. We had seen the attractive lettering on other old stations, especially outside the centre, while we were in Vienna.

You enter the park through either of a pair of portals, designed by Friedrich Ohmann and Joseph Hackhofe in 1903-7. They are on either side of the canalised Wien river, which is spanned by a bridge in the same style by the same architects.

The portal is more than a mere gateway as it houses shaded seating areas in the four corners. Here is a detail of the beautiful stone carving.

We strolled through the park noting various statues of composers and then as we skirted the lake we were startled by this terrapin, posing on a rock and showing off his delicate yellow and green colouring. Not very art nouveau, but you have to keep your eyes open for beauty wherever you find it.

Emerging from the far corner of the park onto the Parkring and then Stubenring, we turned left into Georg-Coch Platz to see Otto Wagner's extraordinary Osterreich Postsparkasse (Austrian Postal Savings Bank) building of 1904-06.

It is very surprising that Wagner designed this rather plain building, constructed in concrete and ornamented only by the statues on the cornice and by a metal studs, only a few years after his colourful, floral, art nouveau buildings. It has been hailed as one of the first modernist buildings. And this is supported by the simple, clean lines of the banking atrium.

We went round the back of Postsparkasse to reach Fleishmarkt where we were staggered by the exuberant brickwork and decoration of the Greek Orthodox cathedral, inaugurated in 1858.

A little further on was this extravagantly decorated building at number 14 Fleischmarkt. It dates from 1898-99 and the architects were Ferdinand Dehm and Franz Olbricht. I had to take this picture from an award angle to avoid the direct sun.

At the junction with Rotenturnstrasse, Fleischmarkt 1, is the Orestihof (1909-10) by Arthur Baron. This is notable for its geometric patterns.

Not far away, in Hoher Markt, is the famous Anker Clock (1911-14). This was created by the painter and sculptor Franz von Matsch and forms a bridge between the two parts of the Anker Insurance Company‘s building. In the course of 12 hours, twelve historical figures or pairs of figures move across the bridge. Every day at noon, all of the figures parade, each accompanied by music from its era. Curiously, all the figures are black or dark brown. By chance we arrived just bfore 12 noon and saw this wonderful pageant.

The reverse side is much plainer with seem now to be rather dubious carvings of naked children.

Feeling hungry we headed to the plaza by St Stephen's cathedral, a wonderful gothic structure dating from the 13th century, albeit with a baroque interior. It has been undergoing a lengthy restoration and the west end looks to have been recently completed.

We enjoyed an expensive but rather wonderful lunch in the Do and Co hotel restaurant (which had been recommended to us) and contined our walk along Graben, one of Vienna's main streets. At number 10, on the left, is a house designed by the uniquitous Otto Wagner. It is notably principally for the rooftop studio which Wagner designed for his own use.

Further along at number 13 is the Knize House (1909-13) by Adolf Loos, with fabulous mosaic figures. Loos became famous for his book Ornament and crime which argued that the demise of ornament was a sign of the advance of civilisation and for the modernist Loos Haus in Vienna, also known as the Goldman & Salatsch Building, which exemplified the lack of ornament.

Graben continues into Bognergasse where we found the wonderful Engel Apotheke building by Oskar Laske (1901-2).

Here is a more detailed view of the frieze over the first floor window - note the recurrence of the sunflower motif seen earlier in the Wagner Pavilion.

Further along we turned right into Tiefer Graben (the deep ditch, once a branch of the River Danube) to see the Hohe Bruche (High Bridge), where this street is crossed by Wipplingerstrasse. It was designed by Josef Hackhofer and built in 1903–04.

Passing under the bridge brought us to the end of our walk, the Orient Hotel, with its wonderful gold ornamentation. I can't find out anything about it architecturally, but it seems that it is famous for being a "love hotel.

Conditions: hot and sunny.

Distance: maybe 3 miles.

Rating: four and a half stars. Some old friends, some new gems and a few surprises.

Sunday, 22 May 2016


Zelny trh (The Cabbage Market)

Our main reason for visiting the Czech Republic's second city was to see the astonishing Villa Tugendhat, but we also allowed time for a reasonably comprehensive walk around the old town, starting from the railway station. We took inspiration from the website. You can also collect a free guide and map from the Tourist Office in the Old Town Hall.

We headed towards the Cabbage Market and first encountered the Capuchin church, completed in 1651. We did not go in to see the mummified corpses in the crypt.

Directly ahead as we entered the square was the tower of the Old Town Hall which dates back to the 13th century. The roof of the tower was added in the 16th century. Presumably because today was a Sunday, we were treated to a lovely rendition of some brass band music from the small troupe of musicians who can be seen on the viewing platform.

To the right is the Parnas Fountain, designed by the Viennese architect J B Fischer von Erlach and constructed 1690-5. It symbolises the cave in which, according to the Greek myth, Hercules tied up Cerberus, the hound of Hades.

To the is a very harmonious group of houses in a pleasing combination of colours.

We headed round to the left of the red house to find the Cathedral of St Peter and Paul. This started life as an 11th century Romanesque basilica, but was rebuilt in the gothic style in the 14th century. It is prodigiously tall and impossible to photograph from nearby. This view was taken from the Old Town Hall Tower.

The inside comes as rather a shock as it was given a Baroque makeover in the 1740s. The stained glass and vaulting in the chancel were impressive.

We left the Cathedral and returned to the square, now heading along Peroutskova and Starobrnĕnskà streets to reach Husova street and the Špilberk Park. A pleasant winding path leads up towards the castle, but the first thing of note is a memorial to Italian prisoners who died there in the early 19th century. They were being honoured as patriots fighting for Italian independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The castle was once a genuine medieval castle, but was successively rebuilt as a Renaissance palace and a prison (in 1820). Today it houses the City Museum and one wing is the result of a recent imagining of what it once might have been like. So although there are massive brick walls providing a base, the superstructure is rather different.

The park is delightful though and we enjoyed a pleasant stroll around and then back down into the town, heading this time towards the New Town Hall. The building seems to date only from the 1930s, but this rear portal is a delight.

And the interior courtyard is also calm and harmonious.

It was not far to the Old Town Hall with its wonderful gothic gateway of 1510. It is said that the town council failed to pay the sculptor what he was due and as result he made the central pinnacle wonky.

In the passageway you can just make out the hanging shape of a "dragon" which allegedly once tormented the city. It is obviously in fact a crocodile ... but this still leaves many unanswered questions.

From here we walked up the main street, Masarykova, and through the massive Republic Square to reach St James's church, completed in 1592. It is another very tall church.

The tourist guide points out one detail which we would undoubtedly have otherwise missed: this little chap baring his buttocks who can be found on the middle section of the tower.

Inside the church is light and airy with beautiful vaulting picked out in gold.

We now had to head back to the station for our train back to Vienna and so this effectively marked the end of our tour. Returning along Masarykova, we did however spot this fabulous art nouveau house with its wonderful gold decoration.

Conditions: hot (mid 20s) and sunny.

Distance: about 3 miles.

Rating: four and a half stars. Full of interest.

Villa Tugendhat, Brno

 Villa Tugendhat

A family visit to Vienna gave us the long-awaited opportunity to hop over the border into the Czech Republic to visit Villa Tugendhat, a Modernist masterpiece designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1928-29. In 2009 we read Simon Mawer's wonderful novel The glass room which fictionalises not only the original owners of the house, but it's life story over many years. More recently, we learned that house had been refurbished and was now open for viewing. (I should add that the Tugendhat family disapprove of Mawer's novel, presumably because the behaviour of the fictional characters could be assumed to have been that of the real ones.)

The house sits on a wonderful hillside site and was designed by Mies to make the most of its position. It is on three storeys: the top floor has the entrance and bedrooms, the middle floor is a single vast living space (Mawer's glass room) and the bottom floor contains service areas. Here is the entrance with the front door tucked away behind the curving milky glass corridor. The sleek horizontal lines and complete lack of ornament are immediately apparent.

You enter a square, sparse lobby and see the bedrooms of the people who commissioned the house, Greta and Fritz Tugendhat. This is Greta's room: cool white predominates, with original built-in furniture in rich rosewood, a mirror and just one picture.

You return along the corridor with its beautiful diffused light and then descend to the main floor.

You now emerge at the back of the glass room, to use Simon Mawer's name for it. It is a surprisingly large rectangle with curtains hanging from tracks in the ceiling which can be used to divide the space and with a fixed screen - the onyx wall - partially separating the front and back. At the side of the house is a conservatory/green house which blurs the boundary between inside and outside - some of what you see is in the conservatory, some is trees in the garden. Out of view, over to the left, is a library/study area.

Behind you as you look at the view above is an informal seating area with a sort of oriental feeling.

The front part of the room has easy chairs and the vast window to the right drops down into the wall to partially eliminate, in a different way, the separation between inside and outside.

Here is the onyx wall, quite pale in shade but apparently taking on more fiery colours when touched by the setting sun.

This is the view across the back of the glass room, illustrating the most pioneering feature of the house: its structural strength comes from a network of steel columns, chromed in the upper parts of the house but unadorned in the bottom floor. This had been used for offices and shops for many years, but it was the first time it had been used in a private house.

The final area is the dining room, partially separated by a curving wooden wall.

And this is the view of Brno from the terrace on the top floor: the castle can be seen on its hill on the right, while the cathedral occupies a promontory on the left.


We had seen drawings and pictures of Villa Tugendhat, but we were still surprised by how big it was. It was wonderful how spaces just flowed into each other in the glass room and how the whole main floor has no doors (apart from to the conservatory). The uniform pale colour scheme, with only wood and chrome to provide contrast, still seems remarkably beautiful and modern. And there is an almost complete absence of ornament - a few vases of flowers, but almost no paintings or photographs. Overall, I would have to say it is one of the most impressive buildings I have ever seen. 


You can visit the garden at any time the villa is open (Tuesday to Sunday, 1000 - 1800) but you can only see the interior by booking up to joining a guided tour. These can be booked online on the Villa Tugendhat website, which recommends booking at least two months in advance. We left it a bit late, but by emailing managed to have ourselves added on to a tour in German.

While you are there

We discovered this too late to profit from our knowledge, but the nearby house owned by Greta Tugendhat's father, Villa Löw-Beer, has recently been restored and is now open to the public as a museum. It dates from the art nouveau period, but it is not too clear what original features remain. A visit would surely enrich any visit to Villa Tugendhat however.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

London art nouveau: A Tube-walk

Michelin House

I discovered this wonderful "walk" on the London Cycling Campaign website and decided that it would make the ideal way to spend my birthday, having re-sequenced the route and worked out a combination of underground and walking to make it work. Maybe not everybody would agree. I am heading this post with Michelin House, which was planned as the end and culmination and certainly delivered.

We started however at the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill in SE23. We had a challenging time getting there, having to resort to the dreaded "rail replacement bus", but when we arrived we knew it had not all been in vain. It was founded by Frederick John Horniman, a Victorian tea trader and philanthropist, who first used his house to exhibit his vast collection of specimens and artifacts gathered on his travels and then had the house demolished to make way for a purpose-built museum.

It was the work of Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928), sometimes described as an Arts and Crafts architect, but to my mind stylistically art nouveau. The Museum was the third of his three great buildings and dates from 1898-1901. Pevsner says it is "no doubt one of the boldest public buildings of its date in Britain".

The building is distinguished by the lovely mosaic designed by Robert Anning Bell, telling the story of humanity, no less. The exterior is embellished with swirling flower and tree forms, like any art nouveau building in Paris. These are at their most expressive on the tower. (The building on the left in the picture above is an extension of 1911, also by Townsend but entirely devoid of decoration.)

Round the back is this wonderful conservatory. It came originally from the Horniman family home at Coombe Cliffe in Croydon, and dates from the 1890s. It's definitely not art nouveau, but it deserves inclusion for its elegance.

We now headed to Whitechapel where we found the Whitechapel Art Gallery. This dates from 1895-99 and was also opened in 1901. Pevsner describes it as "quite an epoch-making building" and "as original as any Art Nouveau on the continent". In 2009 it was extended to incorporate the former public library next door.

At first I thought that the gold decoration on the upper third of the facade was a return to something original which had been lost, but it turns out to be the Tree of Life by Rachel Whiteread, one of the major commissions of the London 2012 Festival. This area of the facade was apparently intended to house a frieze, but the money ran out. I think it is a wonderful addition to the building and, for me, the use of gold evokes the almost exactly contemporary Vienna Secession Building.

A short walk took us to Bishopsgate to see Townsend's third celebrated building, the earliest of the three (1892-4): the Bishopsgate Institute. The same foliage patterns which were so evident in the Horniman Museum are immediately apparent. Pevsner has similar words for this one too: "one of the most original buildings of the date in London". It is not, however, as dramatic as the other two.

A tube ride to St Pauls and a short walk through old streets with modern buildings brought us to the Black Friar pub at 174 Queen Victoria Street, near Blackfriars station. It built in 1905 on the site of a Dominican friary and was designed by architect H. Fuller-Clark and decorated by the artist Henry Poole. From the outside it is a fairly typical street corner Edwardian pub - but you do wonder what happened to the street that it was on the corner of. It was of course redeveloped and it seems that the Black Friar only survived demolition after a campaign led by Sir John Betjeman.

Inside, however, there is a feast of decoration, nowhere more so than in the back bar, now table service only, where there is a simply wonderful barrel vaulted ceiling covered with mosaics and Black Friars.

Over a door in the main bar I spotted this exquisite butterfly.

From Blackfriars we took the Tube to Sloane Square and as we were heading towards Hans Road, we spotted this rather lovely tower on the right - the tower of Cadogan Hall. Surely this was about the same vintage as the art nouveau buildings on our walk? It turns out that it was built as a Christian Scientist church in 1907 to the design of Robert Fellowes Chisholm in the Byzantine Revival style. It has relatively recently become London's newest concert hall.

When we reached Hans Road we found our target, this pair of houses by Charles Francis Annesley Voysey. They are pleasing proto-modern houses, but plainly have nothing to do with art nouveau. I can't now remember how they made their way onto our route - but I am glad to have seen them nonetheless.

Certainly on the list was Harrods Food Hall across the road. The shop was built between 1894 and 1905 and the food hall was the work of W J Neatby, who was chief designer for Royal Doulton before working independently. Neatby was also responsible for the extraordinary art nouveau facade of the Edward Everard Printing works in Bristol and the Fox and Anchor in Charterhouse St, Clerkenwell. (The Fox and Anchor belongs in this walk, but we saw it last year.)

The Food Hall is pretty extraordinary - these ovals with birds caught my eye - but overall I was strangely disappointed.

We now headed along Walton Place and Walton St towards Michelin House. We were struck by the unusual facade of this church, St Saviours. Not art nouveau, but it couldn't be ignored. It turns out to be by George Basevi and dates from 1838-40.

Here is Michelin House again, now Bibendum restaurant and oyster bar. It was opened in 1909, so a bit later than most of what we have seen today, and was designed by a Michelin employee, François Espinasse. It is, too say the least, very eye-catching and no doubt this was what was intended.

It is a wonderful building and some of the tiles and ceramic details are stunning.

We naturally completed an excellent day with a meal in the Oyster Bar.

Conditions: quite bright and warm.

Distance: hard to judge.

Rating: 5 stars. A truly memorable experience.