Category: Art et al

A Necessary Vanity

Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences exhibition isn’t a simple vanity, but a  . . . necessary vanity.

The Vanity of Small Differences is a take on the 18th-century painter William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1733) through a series comprised of six tapestries woven by Flanders Tapestries in Belgium. This was a tapestry project in collaboration with Factum Arte who worked with the Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry on all stages of production of the six tapestries which were woven from digital files on a Jacquard Loom in Belgium. Grayson’s drawings were translated into a computer programme that controlled the digital loom, and yarns were then dyed to match the colors in the drawings. Perry cleverly illustrates the dangers of life consumed by possessions and personal vanity. In the background of some of his tapestries, there are silhouettes of onlookers snapping images with their smartphones, beaming them across the world of social media. All in all, the visual complexity of the tapestries are a pleasure to explore and interpret.

The tapestries follow the life of Tim Rakewell a fictional character as he develops from infancy through various stages of his life, to his untimely death in a car accident. Through this progress, Perry analyses class mobility in Britain, gathers characters, places, and objects he encountered on his travels through Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells, and the Cotswolds for his documentary series All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry (Channel 4).

Grayson-Perry-Adoration of the Cage Fighters
The Adoration of the Cage Fighters

The Vanity of Small Differences is at the RHA in Dublin until March 19 2018.

Ladies at the helm of FREESPACE!

From the 26 May – 25 November 2018 the 16th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia will take place in Venice. Its curators –  Yvonne Farrell and Shelly McNamara – who constitute the practice of Grafton Architects, currently celebrating 40 years in business. The title of the event – FREESPACE!

Throughout the exhibition two of the main venues will be ARSENALE and GIARDINI. The former housed the pre-industrial shipyards, depots and workshops of the city. At the peak of its efficiency, the early sixteenth century, the Arsenale employed around 16,000 people who apparently could produce nearly one ship each day. The latter, gardens situated in the east of Venice, have been the traditional venue for the International Art Exhibition since 1895. The area combines the Central Pavilion, together with twenty nine national pavilions, whose spaces are designed by some of the world’s most famous architects.

Farrell and McNamara have defined FREESPACE as a celebration of:

1. The ability of architecture to find “additional and unexpected generosity” in each project, even when working under the most private, defensive, exclusive or commercially restricted conditions

2.  Provides the opportunity to emphasize and maximize the free elements of nature – sunlight and moonlight, air, gravity – through the use of natural and manmade resources

3. Encourages a renewal in the ways of spatial thinking, new ways of seeing the world, of inventing solutions and creating architectural structures that provide and consider the wellbeing and dignity of each citizen

4. Can be a space for opportunity, a democratic space, unprogrammed and free for uses not yet conceived. Inevitably, whether by intention or design,

buildings themselves will find ways of sharing and engaging with people over time – long after the architect has left and finally FREESPACE

5. Permits freedom to imagine within the free space of time and memory. Elements binding past, present and future together, that both further the building on “inherited cultural layers, weaving the archaic with the contemporary”

Such themes, already incorporated in previous editions of Biennale Architettura, have continued the investigation into the relationship between architecture and civil society. Unfortunately, due to the latter’s difficulty in articulating its particular needs and finding appropriate answers, a widening divide has ensued. The result, dramatic urban developments, whose main feature is the marked absence of public spaces.

The themes considered by the two curators of the Biennale are relevant to rediscovery of architecture, and lead to the renewal of a “strong desire for the quality of the spaces where we live.”    

University of Engineering and Technology Lima, Peru. Pennzer
University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) Lima, Peru.

The work of Grafton Architects, to mention but a few, includes their spatial installation at the Royal Academy under the theme Sensing Spaces, to being awarded the first-ever RIBA International Prize for designing the new Engineering University in the Peruvian capital of Lima (2016). The latter build being praised by the jury for creating an entirely new way of thinking about public buildings, and likened to a “modern day Machu Picchu” and  an exceptional example of civil architecture – a building designed with people at its heart.

Words that fully endorse the choice of Farrell and McNamara as the curators of the Venice Biennale, 2018, whose continuing ethos fully conforms to their consideration of public and private, exterior and interior spaces, created by their architectural builds.

Brutalist By Design

In describing Brutalist Architecture and Buildings there are some words that might come to mind such as ugly, hulking, concrete, monstrosities, grimy, raw, inhuman, cold intimidating and horrible but whatever your view of this form of architectural style, there has been a resurgence of interest in Brutalist Architecture in recent years. Sometimes its the people that refer to buildings that are in the brutalist style as being horrible who don’t always know about the innate aesthetics of it, who are making the decisions. It’s not hard to imagine a coterie of councillors, architects, design aficionados or critics thinking, ‘That’s a horrible grotesque building’, and yet they’re not the ones who are going to use it.  Some might want to break out the white paint and rollers and give the begrimed concrete a good going over. The results of which might ensue in protests and uproar at that notion and you could end up having your face shoved in concrete.

“Brutalism” is an appropriate moniker for this artistic style of bare plain concrete architecture popularized and pioneered in post-war Europe, by Le Corbusier. This brutalist style showcases dour exterior walls that are deep-set, exude plain rough concrete, have small windows (some which are curved), a sculptural or blocky form that is often top heavy. It was a somewhat cheap way of building that emerged in the 1950s and survived into the late ’70s but the constructions were often dismissed as urban eyesores but became  an international phenomenon and the aesthetics were fairly radical and which aimed at liberating and democratizing architecture and that the architecture wasn’t brutal as such – but it was honest about it’s use of materials and was sculptural and imaginative and wanted to be different and could almost be viewed as some sort of dystopian nightmare landscape of massive gray geometrical forms. This idea of dystopian nightmare was envisioned in films such as  “A Clockwork Orange”.

There were a series of events held at Trinity College Dublin to celebrate 50 years of the Berkeley Library and which were part of the Open House Dublin weekend (October 13-15, 2017). The library was designed and created by the renowned architect Paul Koralek, who was in his mid-twenties at the time and was officially opened by the then president of Ireland, Éamon De Valera. The library was built in the Brutalist style, or perhaps a more gentle Brutalist style, which is epitomized in the Berkeley Library at Trinity College Dublin. Paul Koralek entered and won an International open competition to design the building, there were 350 entrants in the competition. A huge bulk of the library is deep-set in the ground because at the time there was a problem with putting that amount of building on the site. One of the enduring qualities of the Berkeley library is its solidity and it’s a sculpted building. It consists of three vertical zones or categories; book storage – the basement, a reading area which is held in a another box shape held up off the ground, and then the middle floors between those that consist of catalogues and making the library work, all the function and management of the library. The library also demonstrated the use of light, of which buildings are made of as well as concrete and other materials. A lot of time was spent on how the light would enter the building and how the light could be modulated so you don’t get problems with glare but get a pleasant effect of soft gentle light instead.  The Berkeley library still  remains one of the most stunning buildings in Dublin and retains the power to arouse strong reactions in all who see it.

There are many examples of Brutalist style buildings such as Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in London. which was nicknamed the ‘Terror Tower’, synonymous with violence and crime and is now its one of the most desirable and much sought-after private housing to live in London. To some, it might not be a beautiful building, it might be better described as striking, interesting, powerful.

The Trellick Tower
The Trellick Tower in London.

Brutalism really is undergoing a resurgence and the Internet has provided an unexpected companion to long suffering admirers of this style of architecture. Popular photo sharing apps like Instagram #brutalism unleash endless streams of black-and-white images of gravity-defying buildings that are stark and show the industrial beauty of concrete:a utilitarian material without context from the world over.


The Rise of the Department Store

The Rise of the Department Store

(and the female consumer)

The Great Exhibition or Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 took place in a vast pre-fabricated iron and glass structure, and six million visitors passed through the door to view the contents of what is considered to be the first modern world’s fair.

Photo of Crystal Palace circa 1851 to 1854
Crystal Palace. ca. 1851-1854

People were accosted by displays of industrial, agricultural and artistic artifacts, goods in such quantities, as had never been seen before. None however had price tags! The initial entrance was five shillings, soon to be lowered to one shilling, making it was thought, more affordable to all classes of contemporary society – a truth borne out, given the attendance figures. What the event heralded in was the evolution of the culture of consumption, with the glittering glass building itself spawning in size and materials, the huge department stores that would spring up in the urban landscapes. Eventually, these spaces would replace the small local shops heretofore frequented on a daily basis by the Victorian housewife.

Photo of Crystal Palace - the interior.
Crystal Palace – interior.

By the end of the nineteenth century, this woman, the ‘poetic’ Angel in the House’ who had willingly attended to the needs of husband, children and home felt the urge to escape the confines of the kitchen. Where to? Cathedrals of shopping like Au Bon Marché (1887) in Paris, Whiteley’s in London, Macey’s in New York – palatial emporiums, which became ‘the giants of urban retail.’ Consumer culture was here to stay!

Photo of Au Bon Marché. ca. 1887
Au Bon Marché. ca. 1887

Improved transport systems made it easier and more socially acceptable for the middle-class housewife to be seen outside the home, women who formed the congregation of the secular cathedrals, enticed through the doors by spectacular displays and fine selections of goods, displayed to their best advantage in the welcoming interiors. Of course, shopping implied more than purchasing goods. Now away from her domestic responsibilities it became for the housewife a pleasurable occasion – a time for meeting friends, having a meal, maybe going to the theatre. Prior to making any purchase, time was taken to discuss, look at, touch or reject a specific item. It was part of the female buying strategy, especially if an item was a personal luxury rather than a household necessity.

Early location of Bon Marche dry goods store located at 15 S. Main Street ca. 1898.
Early location of Bon Marche dry goods store located at 15 S. Main Street ca. 1898. The name S. Lipinsky is on the awning.

For their part, the department stores – the halls of temptation, did their best to entice the consumer through the door, by providing extras in the form of lifts, escalators, restaurants, tea and rest rooms. While the sales men and sales women enacted a play of persuasion in which the customer was an eager and willing participant. If on the other hand, an object was priced beyond a person’s reach, there would be time to dream and save for another day when the desired prize would become obtainable.

The desire of the female consumer to buy, buy and buy was further encouraged by an upsurge in advertising in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Distinctive brand names became part of the new methods of marketing in which selling the image was an integral part of the product itself.  The rise of the advertising agencies, the department stores and the consumer were all inextricably linked…..but that is another story.

Escape the Confines of the Kitchen by the Modern Woman

A recent visit to a local Vintage Car Show to view the polished and pristine metal beauties prompted a thought about how today one takes for granted this mode of transport. However, in the 1920s the automobile was novel and regarded as a way to escape the confines of the kitchen by the modern woman, the homemaker. She was now gradually loosening the reins that tied her to the kitchen sink–the old way! After her experiences outside the home during WW1 she was loathed to become, once again, a ‘household drudge,’ and wanted to continue to experience the outside world. An independent female, a new phenomenon, now confronted men who returned from fighting. This revolution helps to explain why so few of the early 1920s advertisements, especially in France, pictured the woman alone in the public sphere. Her place was the interior whilst the exterior was the male domain. It was naturally difficult for men to accept the gradual change in gender roles, even those who worked in the advertising agencies. Therefore, in spite of a burgeoning automobile industry, whose product was becoming more affordable and within the reach of a wider public, most of the advertisements still depicted a male behind the wheel of the car. Nonetheless, the time was ripe to tap into the female market for which a new textual and visual strategy was required–though still not one prepared to acknowledge her independence. Instead, the reluctant housewife was astutely targeted via the husband with words tantamount to making him feel guilty his wife was ‘marooned all day’ indoors.

An early advertisement for Chevrolet Utility Coupe circa 1924
An early advertisement for Chevrolet Utility Coupe. circa 1924

Chevrolet asserted the company’s Utility Coupé was the ideal second automobile–price and upkeep low, quality not sacrificed. But you were doing more than just driving a car, you were arguably driving a work of art. Just as the slogan for Anderson’s touring car ‘It’s As Roomy For Five As It’s Chummy For Two’ exhorted the versatility of a convertible that with little effort transforms from a roadster into a ‘a fully-fledged, strictly correct five-passenger touring car.’ Definitely a two for one deal not to be missed! Especially, if one was a member of the expanding middle classes, who was eager to show off a new found affluence to neighbors and acquaintances.

Anderson Touring Car and Roadster circa 1920
Anderson Touring Car and Roadster. circa 1920

However, did many men succumb to the sales pitch or were alternatively prepared to allow the mistress of the house her new desired freedom from domesticity? The motor industry was acutely aware a subtle approach was necessary and ensured the status of “new woman” was never overtly flaunted. Yes, in the adverts she is well dressed (further underlining the prosperity of the family) and depicted beside the car or about to step in and sit behind the wheel, but is invariably accompanied by other people. The implication–all the time, whilst is in the company of family and friends, ‘the threatening potential of a female driving through public places’ is diffused by the presence of companions. The woman is modern! However not one who is heading to the workplace, for the ownership of her own car indicates she has a devoted husband and has no need to work outside the family home. Instead, its use is centered round the family excursion, which is acceptable to the male. The car now acts as a machine of ‘feminine duty,’ and becomes purely a vehicle to assist the wife or mother in her traditional domestic chores of shopping and childcare. The object itself may be recognized as an enticement to return to the house, an area, which the post-war spouse still considered it was her place to occupy. Most probably today’s lady car owner and driver is not aware of the early struggle her predecessor had in her attempt to find independence outside the home!!!!!!