Category: Travel

Modernist pilgrimage to Helsinki: Architecture

Studio Aalto


A quick tram ride from central Helsinki brought us to the Tiilimäki neighbourhood of Munkkiniemi. Home to both the studio and former home of one of Finland’s most famous exports, Alvar Aalto, Munkkiniemi also appeared to contain a lot of very attractive modernist housing stock: on our walk over from the tram stop to Studio Aalto, we walked past countless interestingly designed apartment blocks that I wished I could pick up and transplant into London somewhere.


Alvar Aalto designed the Studio Aalto house during 1955–56 to be the studio of his architect bureau. Though from the street it had a rather plain, unassuming-looking façade comprised of white-painted, lightly rendered brickwork, the closed-in mass of the building concealed a garden shaped like an amphitheatre in its inner courtyard and some spectacularly designed interior spaces.


The working space upstairs was broadly split into two main areas, one of which Aalto intended to be used for technical work and the other for dreaming up ideas. The technical work space was a vast hall of a room, which narrowed slightly at the end to make it look even longer and was flooded with light from windows on both sides giving views to both east and west.


The dreaming room was altogether more unusual with curved walls, double height ceilings, climbing plants and pieces of Aalto’s signature furniture dotted about. This room also overlooked the amphitheatre space outside – we were told they used to project banned films onto the wall outside, which the team could watch from the comfort of the the dreaming room.


Villa Aalto


Aalto’s house was a ten minute walk away from the Studio Aalto. Built in 1936 as a joint project with his first wife, it was Aalto’s first house in the city and his home until his death in 1976. The house was a relatively modest two-storey structure which, like the studio, didn’t look like much from the street but contained a wealth of characterful features round the back and inside.


The ground floor contained a double height brick and jute clad study featuring high windows and steps up to a library area and gallery.


Sliding doors separated the study from the warmer, wood and suede-lined living room which contained a range of original Aalto-designed furniture and a grand piano, which had a rather severe portrait of Aalto’s wife propped on it.


A wooden staircase led up to a second living room with a freestanding fireplace as a centrepiece and three bedrooms, a large terrace and the bathroom (which contained those weird round sinks that Aalto designed for a sanatorium) branching off it.


Whilst relatively modest in terms of size and scale, the house was stunning down to the last detail and had a calming, almost Japanese aesthetic.


Finlandia Hall 


One of Aalto’s later buildings, the music venue Finlandia Hall was opened in 1971 in a picturesque location overlooking Töölö bay. With its high angled roof and white Carrara marble facade, it looked a bit like a huge, jagged iceberg and was significantly more dramatic in appearance and scale than the studio and house.


Having visited in person, I would say Finlandia Hall needs to be viewed from afar to be truly appreciated – apparently the best place to see it from is Sinisen Huvilan, a café across the bay, which gives you enough distance to see all of it at once, rising out of the water. I didn’t have this vantage point which meant that it was difficult to capture its vastness in any one picture but the view of the building from Mannerheimintie (I assume that this was the main entrance) was pretty impressive.


There weren’t any concerts showing on the day that I visited but I did manage to have a wander around the main foyer areas, which were lined in a combination of birch and stone – Aalto designed the interiors down to last details from lighting fixtures and furniture to the flooring.


Temppeliaukio Church


I seem to have a habit of visiting strange-looking modernist churches when on holiday abroad. This late 1960s example, designed by architects and brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen was possibly the most unusual yet.


Excavated and built directly out of solid rock, the church’s bunker-like entrance led down into a subterranean oval space bathed in natural light entering through a glass skylight surrounding a central copper dome. A wooden staircase led to an upper tier of seating overlooking the James Bond-esque lair below.


The architects had incorporated the rough, virtually unworked  bedrock into the design of the church and adapted the colour scheme accordingly with lots of reds, purples and greys with steel rendered bluish by hammering. Apparently the church is visited more by tourists than worshippers these days and is one of the most popular sights in Helsinki – the tour buses which appeared to arrive at regular intervals outside the main entrance confirmed this to be true. 


Modernist pilgrimage to Helsinki

Though I found it to be rather small and underpopulated, I greatly enjoyed my time in Helsinki, home to stunning Alvar Aalto-designed architecture (including the house that he lived in) and various design stores from which I bought yet more tasteful Nordic tat for my flat. Blog entries on Helsinki’s architecture and shopping to follow.


The Rotunda, Birmingham B2

The Rotunda, Birmingham B2
Grade II converted apartment block
Architect: James A Roberts
Year built: 1965

Completed in 1965 as a mixed-use office block as part of the James A. Roberts-designed post-war Bull Ring Shopping Centre development, the Rotunda is one of the few mid-century buildings left standing in Birmingham after years of regeneration which has seen the 1960s station, shopping centre and numerous John Marin brutalist buildings demolished to make way for glass and steel replacements.


The Rotunda almost met the same fate when it was threatened with demolition in 1993 but was saved by English Heritage and was given a Grade II listing in 2000. It sat empty for a number of years before being refurbished and partially converted for residential use by developer Urban Splash and Glenn Howells Architects. The refurbishment involved updating the façade by fitting 72 floor-to-ceiling height glass panes, each placed at 5° to the neighbouring window and carving the internal space up into 232 luxury apartments. All of the flats except those on the top floors, which are let out as serviced apartments, were bought up by eager buyers (most of them buy-to-let investors) in just three hours at the height of the market in 2005 – these buyers were to end up losing out in spectacular fashion when the credit crunch hit in 2008.


A trip to visit friends in Birmingham last weekend provided us with the perfect opportunity to stay in one of the serviced apartments on the 19th floor of the tower. The building looked almost completely contemporary in person, perhaps due in part to its new glass facade and renovated lobby area, a gently sloping stone ramp with a rather busy light display overhead.


The flat itself consisted of a large open plan living area and sleeping area separated by a sliding wall. A “jack and Jill” bathroom (i.e. with a door at each end) ran down the side of the flat, providing a direct route to the sleeping area from the front door.


This space-optimising layout together with the sparse yet tasteful furnishings (slightly naff colour scheme and artwork aside) and curved floor-to-ceiling windows made the flat seem a lot larger than it actually was. The views over Birmingham city centre were fantastic as well.


Flats in the building occasionally come up for sale. Even post financial crash, they’ve been pretty expensive for Birmingham (£350,000 for a two bedroom flat – this would buy you a sizeable semi-detached house elsewhere in the city). That said, if I were to move to Birmingham, I certainly wouldn’t mind living here.



The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, Barbican art gallery

I love a good exhibition at the Barbican. The brutalist gallery space with its unusual yet logical layout has played host to a run of excellent, sometimes outlandish shows over the years – the sex one and the Viktor and Rolf one with all of the creepy dollies spring to mind as being particularly memorable.

The current exhibition, a Japanese-themed extravaganza focusing on architecture and Life after 1945, was just as good as its predecessors and is likely to be remembered as the one with the Japanese house in the middle of it.


Said house was a fully furnished 1:1 scale replica of the Moriyama House by Pritzker-prize winning architect Ryue Nishizawa from 2005. The house consisted of ten white-coloured individual units, strikingly intertwined with the brutalist architecture of the Barbican gallery space. Where the gallery obstructed the architecture of the house, the structure was sliced open to expose the domestic interior in section.


Most of the house was fully accessible: you could amble in and out of the units and garden and the lighting of the gallery was adjusted every hour to quite convincingly mimic dawn to dusk.


As well as the house, there were loads of interesting images, smaller scale models and videos of equally striking postwar Japanese architecture and design on display. The exhibition is on until 25 June 2017 and is well worth a visit.


Modernist Pilgrimage to Las Vegas

I recently visited Las Vegas for the first time and was unsurprised to find that it wasn’t exactly overflowing with modernist architecture. That isn’t to say there was a complete absence of interesting sights. Every so often, you would see an occasional bit of fifties/sixties architecture that had somehow escaped being bulldozed in favour of yet another tacky themed hotel.


The Neon Museum featured signs from old casinos and other businesses from Las Vegas’ past in a slightly surreal outdoor “boneyard” setting and had a spectacular restored lobby shell from the former 1950s La Concha Motel as its visitor centre (what a motel that must have been!). The boneyard stays open well into the night so you can see all of the vintage signs lit up in all of their neon glory.


The El Cortez, one of the oldest casino-hotel properties in Las Vegas and one of the very few to have never changed its exterior facade since it was last modernised in 1952, had a slightly dodgy Spanish colonial theme going on. Whilst it wasn’t exactly typical mid century modern fare, the unmodernised facade and interiors made for an interestingly musty 1950s time capsule.


We also came across a smattering of other interesting fifties/sixties buildings and a surprisingly good selection of retro shops, nestled in between tawdry looking chapels (including a drive-thru option apparently popular with celebrities).


In short, if you venture away from the strip, it is possible to catch glimpses of the Las Vegas of yesteryear, which in my opinion appeared to be a more interesting and glamorous place than it is today.


Modernist Pilgrimage to San Francisco

Whilst San Francisco is known for being design-oriented and architecturally characterful, it’s not a exactly a place resplendent with mid century/modernist places of interest. That said, the modernist sights that I did come across in between visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, the Painted Ladies and other decidedly un-modernist attractions were great and more than worth documenting for the purposes of this blog.

Marin County Civic Centre


Without doubt one of the strangest buildings that I’ve ever visited, the Marin County Civic Center is situated about half an hour north of San Francisco and contains the area’s government administration offices, law courts and library. Its striking, other-worldly appearance means that it has been used as a filming location for many a sci-fi film, including 90s Ethan Hawke/Uma Thurman vehicle Gattaca (one of my favourite films of all time, mostly due to its futuristic mid century aesthetic).


The building was architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s last project before his death in 1959 and bears a number of his hallmarks: an earthy colour palette punctuated with garish pops of colour (that shade of blue and gold against the terracotta was certainly a choice), arches, domes, cut-outs and lots of rounded corners (inside, the rounded corridors make you feel like you’re walking around a continuous circular space).


Slap bang in the middle of everything is a 52.4 meter gold anodised tower, separating the hall of justice and Administration wings together with what appears to be a circular plunge pool and mini waterfall. It’s definitely worth visiting in person: even on a murky, drizzly day I thought it was just magical.


St Mary’s Cathedral


St Mary’s Cathedral was conceived by Italian modernist architect Pietro Belluschi and consecrated in 1971. A little underwhelming and beige from the outside (though this may have just been the gloomy weather), it had an awe-inspiring, almost science fiction, space station-esque interior.


Inside, stained glass windows and concrete, sculptural pillars ascended on four sides and converged at the apex of the concrete textured ceiling. Like St Mary’s Church of the Angels that I visited in Singapore, the space was dramatic yet entirely fit for purpose: the setting, views and scale gave the place a feeling of serenity.


Alameda Point Antiques Fair


Simply put, this was one of the largest and best flea markets I have ever visited (and I have visited a fair few over the years). Located across the Bay Bridge in Oakland at the derelict former Alameda Point Naval Air Station, this monthly market is apparently Northern California’s largest antiques and collectibles show.


I was a bit concerned that it might be a bit too professional/expensive for my tastes (I read in advance that all items are supposed to be more than 30 years old with reproductions prohibited) but I was pleased to be greeted by endless stalls of the usual tat that I’m usually accustomed to finding at flea markets. There was plenty of fairly priced mid century furniture, including a covetable vintage eames shell on a black cat’s cradle base (which I would have bought if there would have been a way to transport it back to the UK) and various knickknacks (which I could and did buy).


Heath Ceramics


I hadn’t heard of Heath Ceramics before visiting San Francisco but the 66 year-old brand is apparently renowned for its signature mid-century-style pottery, commonly found on restaurant tabletops across California. Their recently opened factory/showroom/store, a former linen supply and laundry, in the trendy-but-still-a-bit-rough north-eastern section of the Mission District sells the brand’s wares and aspirational lifestyle associated with it very effectively: the bright and airy space houses ceramic sets arranged according to the year that they were designed, high-end yet homespun-looking textiles, a tightly curated selection of cookbooks, a wall of handmade wooden clocks by House Industries, colourful tiles and a Blue Bottle coffee lounge.


It was obviously all hideously expensive – I could only justify buying a $20 tea towel – but I thought the trip was worthwhile, if only to see a masterclass in visual merchandising (skip the branch in the Ferry Building, it’s a small kiosk in comparison). The area surrounding the store in the Mission District appeared to be a bit of a creative hub with lots of other interesting independent workshops and stores scattered about.


De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea

De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea
Grade I listed Art Deco contemporary arts centre
Architect: Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff
Year built: 1935

I certainly did not expect to come across this modernist treat during a recent visit to Bexhill on Sea. Located on the seafront of an otherwise typical British seaside town, the striking De la Warr Pavilion has a bold, decidedly international look about it, having been built by a band of immigrant architects in the 1930s. After years of neglect, it was deservedly granted a Grade I-listing in the 1980s and has been used as a contemporary arts gallery since 2005.


Vaguely resembling some kind of vast ocean-liner both inside and out, the building is a strong, simple construction composed of clean straight lines, plain white surfaces and geometric shapes. The solid cube of the building’s auditorium is offset by the circle of the main stairwell, an open spiral set in a glass cylinder, and the long, horizontal strips of its balconies, oriented to make the most of view, sun and fresh air. Inside, there are touches of 1930s glamour, such as curved Aalto seating, elegant ceiling lamps and that graceful, sweeping staircase.


The building is is often used as a wedding venue (one appeared to be taking place when I visited) and I can see why: its design, scale and seafront location lend the De la Warr Pavilion a sense of understated drama and elegance. There’s also a nice cafe overlooking the sea and a decent shop which sells the usual array of pleasing design tat.


19 Limekiln Lane, Bridlington YO15

19 Limekiln Lane, Bridlington
1950s modernist house
Architect: Tim French
Year built: 1954

I stumbled across this Airbnb listing a couple of months ago and decided there and then that I’d quite like to celebrate turning 30 by staying at an amazing-looking modernist house by the seaside, choosing to ignore the fact that the house was about 7 hours away up north in Bridlington, East Yorkshire and my birthday is in freezing November.


Whilst the journey from London did prove to be a bit harrowing and Bridlington did turn out to be a ghost town in winter (it is, after all, a sleepy coastal town whose prime trade is tourism during the summer months), the experience of staying at 19 Limekiln Lane felt like being given an Open House-style architectural tour of my dream 1950s home and then actually being allowed to live in it for a couple of days (i.e. amazing and well worth the effort).


The original owner who commissioned the house apparently made no restrictions as to the design, stipulating only that it should be modern and that it should exploit the coastal views. The house, which was completed in 1954, certainly succeeded on these two fronts: its striking mid century modern design featured a double-height floor to ceiling glass panel on its front facade, which provided for dramatic views of the coastline and let a lot of natural light into the the house. Other classic mid-century modern design features included a butterfly roof, a lot of natural wood on the walls and ceilings, a striking open staircase and some great built-in furniture (the downstairs dining table speared by the steel column running from the top of the house to the bottom was a particularly appealing design feature).


Upon entering the house, you were greeted by that staircase in the double-height hallway which flowed through into an open plan dining area (containing the aforementioned dining table) and appropriately refitted kitchen. A door off the hallway led to two of the bedrooms and the bathroom featuring a vivid green three piece suite, which whilst attractive, reminded me of that terrifying bathroom scene in The Shining.


Upstairs, there was a large living area with a wood burning stove, a sunroom/studio space and a third bedroom along with a rooftop balcony, all with views across the bay to Flamborough Head and out onto the charming, mature garden which contained outbuildings and a little greenhouse.


The furnishings were mainly original vintage pieces, complemented by modern touches (a throw, armchair or artwork here and there) which meant that the house stayed on the right side of retro pastiche. Considering the fact it was freezing outside and the house was mainly single-glazed, it was pleasingly toasty with the heating on – mercifully, the original hot air heating system (bafflingly popular at time that the house was built) had been replaced with modern gas central heating.


I was surprised at how quickly I became accustomed to my beautifully designed and decorated surroundings and was sorry when the time came for me to hand back the keys. I learned from a bit of online research that the house was worth around £235k when the current owner bought the house ten years ago and the estimated current value is around £290k, which I found difficult to believe considering just how little that figure would buy you anywhere near London (I’ve just looked – it will buy you a one bedroom flat in Sutton, Zone 6). Whilst I’m not sure a move to Bridlington is on the cards for me anytime soon, I really enjoyed my stay and couldn’t think of a better or more fitting place to spend my 30th.


Modernist Pilgrimage to New York Part 2

My last visit to New York in April was a bit of a manic rush so I only had time to visit about 70% of the niche interest places I wanted to see. I made sure that I visited the remaining 30% when I went back in September.

Guggenheim Museum


Before visiting New York, I mistakenly (and rather ignorantly) believed that it would be a city full of mid century architecture, which I now know not to be the case. I blame images of the iconic, futuristic Guggenheim Museum for putting these ideas in my head. Nestled in between turn of the century apartment blocks on the Upper East Side, the Guggenheim’s modernist grey curves stick out like a (very beautiful) sore thumb.


Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1959, the cylindrical building, wider at the top than the bottom, is rightly considered a landmark work of 20th-century architecture and has been used extensively as a filming location for various films and tv shows whenever a dramatic retro/futuristic interior has been required. Inside, the gallery essentially consists of a long ramp (not unlike that of a multi-storey carpark) extending up from ground level in a long, continuous spiral along the outer edges of the building to end just under the ceiling skylight. Even though it seemed familiar (probably from those aforementioned TV shows and films), it was well worth visiting in person.


Brooklyn Flea – Fort Greene


I had high hopes for this flea market in Fort Greene, a gentrified yet still characterful Brooklyn neighbourhood that I stayed in the last time I visited New York. Unfortunately the market was a bit of a disappointment, comparing unfavourably to my favourite junk yards in Berlin and Copenhagen. Whilst there was a good variety and abundance of stands, the setup was a bit too professional (and therefore expensive) for my tastes. Stock consisted of vintage clothes, the odd bit of furniture but primarily kitschy Americana. I didn’t leave with grubby carrier bags full of toot (the only mark of a successful flea market outing in my book).


Glass House, New Canaan


The Glass House is a historic house museum located in the centre of a sprawling estate in New Canaan, Connecticut. Built in 1949, it was designed by modernist architect Philip Johnson and crudely put, consists of a glass walled cuboid.


Visiting the house as part of a meticulously organised and run architectural tour, I was struck by how impractical it must have been to live in (the architect Philip Johnson, who must have had an exhibitionist streak and hardly any possessions, apparently used it as his own residence): the kitchen, living, dining and sleeping areas were all in one open-plan room, which was divided only by low walnut cabinets and no curtains or blinds to speak of. The only concession to practicality/modesty was a brick cylinder in the middle of the room, which contained the bathroom. However, even when plastered in a (temporary) pox of ugly red dots applied by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, its elegance and timelessness as a piece of modernist architecture was undeniable.


The beautiful, wooded estate also contained other architecturally interesting buildings designed by the Philip Johnson at various points in his career. It was a bit of a trek to get to (about an hour and a half from downtown Manhattan) and surprisingly difficult to get hold of tickets but I would wholeheartedly recommend making the effort.


Modernist Pilgrimage to Singapore 

I didn’t have particularly high hopes for Singapore from an architecture and design perspective so I was pleasantly surprised by a couple of interesting places that I visited during my short time there. It turns out that there is more to Singapore than gleaming office blocks and shopping malls (though there were a lot of those as well).

St Mary Church of the Angels

Worth visiting for: the stunning prayer hall


This beautiful modernist church was definitely worth the long trek out into the wooded slopes of Butik Batok.  I found the church’s design to be dramatic yet entirely fit for purpose: the main prayer hall, with its uniform stepped rows of beechwood pews and tripod-like lamps, was a surprisingly intimate space and the light-filled underground columbarium (a room with recesses in the wall in which funeral urns were kept) was stunning yet tranquil in spite of the slightly mawkish Enya-esque music that they insisted playing in the background.


Singapore Design Centre

Worth visiting for: the odd mash-up of architectural styles, the shop


I couldn’t quite work out what was going on with the architecture of this place – the front part of the building appeared to be 1930s-era Art Deco, the back was much older (according to my guidebook, the site was an 1800s former convent) and the interiors were all brand new – but it came together into an impressive whole. The purpose of the building was equally confusing: part art gallery, part Design Council HQ, part creative office block and part retail space. The retail space housed some kind of hip eaterie and Kapok, a very good design and clothing store.

Bras Basah

Worth visiting for: the cat in Cat Socrates

I’m not sure why Timeout listed this shopping centre as one of its “must-see” places to visit in Singapore. The building was an unattractive concrete warren of shops; sort of brutalist looking but in a bad way (nondescript and dingy, with a strong resemblance to a multi-storey carpark). The shops all appeared to be art suppliers – great for artists and art students but of limited interest to everyone else – and various tat merchants. There was one store which made the trip worthwhile, however: Cat Socrates, a quirky design and gift store with a friendly ginger resident cat.


Worth visiting for: Scandinavian design items

I don’t know anything about this building but it was architecturally up my street (sixties looking, futuristic) and it housed a nice furniture and accessories store which stocked a variety of European designs and brands, some of which I recognised (Hay, String) and others I didn’t.


Worth visiting for: a haircut, a meal and a t-shirt


I only received an email today letting me know that this brand is going “online only”, which is a shame because the instore shopping experience was so pleasant. This menswear store/hairdresser/restaurant/bar formed a cluster of slightly left-field independent stores in an otherwise bland Singaporean glass and steel shopping centre on Orchard Road.