Sunday, 19 April 2015

Down by the sea

Planning a weekend in Cornwall in springtime is a gamble with the weather. 
The start of day one was bright enough to appreciate the rugged prettiness of the north coast and its fishing villages.

Port Isaac was all rocky cliffs, colourful fishing boats and wheeling gulls. But it seems that not much fishing is done any more, outside of the tourist season. This quaint little harbour on the beach looks more like a static film set - which it is in fact, for the TV series Doc Martin. (I confess I'm a fan and always charmed by the scenes of this place in the series).

Out of season in early spring the streets were empty here, as in most of the other Cornwall towns I saw. Thoroughly gentrified and second-homed, the crowds descend in summer, clogging the narrow lanes winding down to coastal villages and depart abruptly in the autumn. Making this a perfect time of year to visit ...

Just a little further along the coast, nestled on an estuary, is Padstow, famous for chef Rick Stein's collection of restaurants, hotels and foodie shops.

Padstow was another dying Cornish fishing village before Stein arrived and pretty much single-handedly convinced the British that the fish in their own waters was worth eating, and in so doing revived the fishing industry here. 

This is an actual working harbour now, and the seafood at Stein's restaurant is truly fabulous, as I discovered.

St Ives is a lot further down the north coast, towards the end of the pointy finger of western Cornwall. And by this time it was turning pretty wet and grey and I had to use my imagination to picture the 'brilliant' light that has attracted artists to St Ives since Turner and Whistler.

By the standards of where I come from the beach front is no great shakes, but it's easy to see how lovely it could be here on a summer's day

and the Tate St Ives is right here, its striking architecture making full use of the view over Porthmeor beach. 

From the Tate it was a short wander through wet streets and empty holiday cottages to the Barbara Hepworth museum

for a wet walk around her sculpture garden and the studio where she worked, looking exactly as if she'd just finished working for the day.

Port Isaac, Padstow & St Ives, Cornwall, April 2015

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Sailing in the clouds: Louis Vuitton, Paris

Curiosity took me recently to the suburbs of Paris to see Frank Gehry's extravagant construction for France's richest man, Louis Vuitton owner Bernard Arnault. 
The Fondation Louis Vuitton is designed as a cultural centre to house Arnault's collection of modern and contemporary art, borrowed works for exhibitions, and a concert hall.

On the edge of the Bois de Boulogne in the 16th arrondissement, it's designed as a vast sailing ship, intended to appear as if floating, suspended, above the ground.

To create the ship effect, beneath it is a sort of sunken, artificial lake, with water cascading towards it. 

Above, twelve enormous glass 'sails' are draped in curving, billowing shapes. 
It's impossible to get the whole building in camera view from the ground, but a side view gives some idea of the scale.

The effect is spectacular, certainly, and gets more so the higher you ascend to the roof top.

But the sails, and the crazy amount of timber and steel columns, beams, struts and props needed to support the illusion of weightless sails from afar, actually do rather block the views and potential connections with the surroundings.

Inside there's a ground floor restaurant with giant suspended sculpted fish, another of Gehry's favourite forms 

and impressive gallery spaces.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the place though. Critics have called it a 'crazed indulgence of over-engineering' in which the overwhelming effect is of a building with lots and lots of empty, functionless space. 

And local residents protested vigorously against its construction, on the grounds that it broke multiple laws intended to preserve the character of the Bois. But, proof that money talks, their objections were overruled when a special law was passed in the Assemblée Nationale declaring that it must go ahead as a 'major work of art for the whole world'. 

Whatever you think of it, it's worth a visit for the building alone, and now to see a major exhibition of Modernists - Les Clefs d'une Passion (here).

Monday, 30 March 2015

Antwerp and Dries van Noten

I posted about lovely Antwerp last summer (here). Going back there on an utterly miserable, rainy winter's day a couple of weeks ago I wondered if I could sustain my enthusiasm for the city.

This square in the shopping and restaurant area of Graanmarkt that was filled with outdoor diners under leafy trees in the summer was deserted in the rain, but still elegant.

Cafés and bookshops offered warm, friendly interior spaces to dry out

and at Bourla restaurant behind the Toneelhuis lunch fully lived up to Belgium's dizzying reputation for good food.

And then there was fashion: at Momu (Museum of Fashion) the Dries van Noten exhibition has recently relocated from its run in Paris, back to van Noten's hometown.

Leading into the exhibition is a passage way filled with posters - references to music, films and fashion of the 70s and 80s when van Noten emerged as one of the Antwerp Six young designers ...

... a hint that the exhibition beyond is not so much a retrospective as an glimpse into his rich and prolific creative process.

Damien Hirst's butterfly collage, Proust, Cecil Beaton, Rothko, Francis Bacon, Jimi Hendrix, military uniforms, Rajasthan and Bollywood, Cindy Wright's skull art are just some of the elements that inspired his creativity. 

Antwerp March 2015. Yes, still one of my favourite European cities.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Design dreams: Vitra Haus

In Weil am Rhein, Germany - in the triangle where Germany, Switzerland and France meet -
 is a place that is a magnet for anyone interested in modern design and architecture. It's VitraHaus, the flagship store of furniture design company Vitra. 

Vitra Haus itself is in this building - a haphazard-looking stack of classic pitched-roof houses designed by Herzog & de Meuron (currently designing the new extension to London's Tate Modern) and contains Vitra's Home Collection.

But the Vitra 'campus' includes a whole collection of contemporary buildings designed by an amazing line up of some of the world's best known contemporary architects, including Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Alvaro Siza. 

The Design Museum above is designed by Frank Gehry and the geodesic dome used for events is based on Buckminster Fuller designs. Below, an original Airstream Kiosk selling ice creams and Balancing Tools sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.  Even the bus stop outside the campus is a design classic - by Jasper Morrison,with wire Eames chairs for seating!

Inside Vitra Haus, everything from the café and reception area is a visual treat. 

Spread across ascending floors are icons of 20th century design; here a collection of Isamu Noguchi's lamps, Alvar Aalto's Stool 60 and Table 90 and Charles & Ray Eames' rocker.

I loved how the green surroundings of Weil am Rhein are visible everywhere in these light- filled interior spaces. Here a desk by Jean Prouvé and Alvar Aalto's Paimio armchair are positioned for the view.

There are office spaces to inspire ...

and even the kids get designer furniture and toys: Eames elephants and a Hang it All, and junior Panton chairs. 

A collection of chairs is stacked framed against a glass window where mirrors reflect the car park below.

Vitra Haus, Weil am Rhein, Germany, 2014

Saturday, 21 February 2015


Driving from Bolzano and Merano in the South Tyrol into Switzerland, the Flüela Pass takes you through the Swiss Alps.  
The summit (it's one of the highest in Switzerland), minus winter snow, looks barren and rocky

but soon opens out into something altogether more picture-postcard-Alps

Descending via Davos (a surprisingly unlovely town) it's late afternoon by the time you reach Luzern, where all is peace and serenity on the shores of the lake.

There's time to walk over to the KKL - Kultur- und Kongresszentrum - in Europa Platz, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel (responsible for the fabulous Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris - I posted about it here

where performers in a World Band event are chilling in front of sunset views across the river

before heading to the old town across the wooden Kapellbrücke, Europe's oldest (1333) covered bridge (arguably, since much of it was rebuilt after burning down not long ago when someone tossed a lighted cigarette at it)

for a drink on the waterside while the light fades.

Luzern, Switzerland, 2014

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