Orientalism-on-sea: Brighton’s birdcage bandstand

12 08 2011

1. Brighton's birdcage bandstand from the King's Road

Brighton’s ‘birdcage’ bandstand (1), one of the finest surviving Victorian bandstands, was constructed in 1884 as part of a wider scheme of improvement for the town’s western seafront. The original structure (2) included toilets and changing rooms on the ground floor, accessible from the seafront, and a bandstand or shelter above linked to the King’s Road by a bridge. The entire structure was designed by Brighton Council’s surveyor, Philip Lockwood, who was also responsible for many other iron structures on the town’s seafront, including several shelters and the Madeira terrace and lift on the eastern esplanade. All of these structures, including the bandstand, were manufactured by the Phoenix Foundry in nearby Lewes, and their name can be seen on almost all of Brighton’s ironwork, from the Palace Pier to the railings and lamps that line the seafront.

The extravagant design of the bandstand has been compared to ‘oriental’ buildings such as the Alcazar in Seville or the Alhambra in Granada. Like much seaside architecture of the late-Victorian period, its ‘cake-icing’ decoration (3) reflected its seaside context, where visitors escaped the drudgery of everyday life into a more exotic, exciting and enchanted world. The overtly ‘oriental’ style of the decoration of this bandstand evoked distant lands where pleasure reigned, albeit now presented to the many rather than the few. This direct association with pleasure has given this kind of ironwork a frivolous identity, dismissed by architectural historians as a subject unworthy of serious study.

2. The complete structure showing the toilets below and bandstand above

3. View from inside the bandstand

4. Detail of the bandstand decoration

Yet, Victorian seaside resorts were operating in a cut-throat world of competition for a rapidly exanding but class-divided populations of holidaymakers. Resorts like Brighton developed distinct identities that were fiercely protected by local governments and residents alike. The design of seemingly trivial structures like bandstands came under the sway of powerful notions of place-making, class identity, and visual decorum. Thus, the inclusion of dolphins in the spandrels of the bandstand (4) is no mere decorative whimsy; on the contrary, dolphins were part of Brighton’s civic arms and a long-standing emblem of the town. In this and many other iron structures in Brighton, dolphins reinforce the visual identity of the town that distinguished the town from its many competitors on the south coast. In addition, in relation to the bandstand, nearby wealthy residents in Bedford Square initially voiced objections to the new structure, which they felt would spoil the view of the sea and possibly encourage the congregation of disreputable crowds of lower-class holidaymakers. No doubt the inclusion of toilets in the structure fuelled these anxieties. Lockwood’s design reflects the delicate sensibilities of these socially-superior onlookers – the toilets are invisible from Bedford Square and only accessible from the seafront esplanade below, while the elaborate decoration of the bandstand contributes aesthetic appeal to the sea view rather than detracting from it.

5. Underground lavatories, design no. 61 in the catalogue of the Sun Foundry, Glasgow, c.1890

This sensitivity to social context in the design of the Brighton bandstand is reflected more widely in designs for public toilets in the Victorian period. In an extraordinary series of examples illustrated in an 1890 catalogue of the Sun Foundry in Glasgow, the range of designs for public toilets (over 60) are explicitly related to their intended social contexts. In one example illustrated above (5), the functional part of the lavatory is completely concealed underground and is topped by an ornamental fountain and railings which also act as a ventilator for the toilets. The elaborate disguise of the toilet part of this structure is similar in conception to the Brighton bandstand/toilets; as the accompanying text makes clear, like its Brighton counterpart, this particular example is designed ‘for situations where the erection of ordinary Closets or Urinals might be regarded as detrimental to the amenity of the neighbourhood’.





Victorian bazaars

11 05 2011

The introduction of shopping arcades in Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century coincided with another new retail space, the bazaar. More exclusively a building type confined to early-Victorian England, the bazaar, in common with the arcade, collected a variety of traders under one roof and were controlled by a single proprietor. Unlike arcades, bazaars were defined by their spatial openness and by their multifunctional spaces: many also included winter gardens, picture galleries, tea rooms, and other spaces for other popular entertainments, such as dioramas and panoramas. In his Curiosities of London (1867), John Timbs listed nine bazaars in London, the first being the Soho bazaar (1816), but they were adopted in many other towns and cities in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. As their name suggests, bazaars were adapted from the Islamic model of a covered shopping space characterised not by luxury goods but by their variety of trades. Yet, architecturally, they had little in common with their Islamic precedents and were based on a series of courtyards and rooms with skylights, light wells, and multilevel galleries.

The Pantheon Bazaar in 1845

With their emphasis on spatial openness, entertainment and multifunctional spaces, it is not surprising that bazaars, rather than arcades, became the focus of architectural experimentation in early Victorian retail spaces. London’s Pantheon bazaar was built in 1834 by Sydney Smirke inside the existing Pantheon theatre, built in 1812. With its wide, sky-lit, basilica-style hall, rich papier maché ornamentation, and an iron-and-glass aviary ‘ornamented in Saracenic style’, the building evoked wonder to its first visitors. Such ornamental extravagance also characterised bazaars in provincial towns. The Norfolk and Norwich Royal bazaar, built on St Andrew’s Street in Norwich in 1831, included a gallery level that functioned as both a retail and exhibition space and which was supported by ornamental cast-iron columns in the form of palm trees, a decorative embellishment originally employed in the Brighton Pavilion (1815-16). Whilst bazaars did not follow Islamic precedents in terms of their design, the flamboyance of their decoration and inclusion of exotic spaces such as aviaries and winter gardens had direct, if generalised, oriental associations. Palm leaves were equated with distant, exotic lands; aviaries derived from an Indian building type; while ‘Saracenic’ ornament referred more specifically to Islamic motifs such as the horseshoe arch, geometric surface decoration and arabesques.

St James' Bazaar, London, c.1830

The Crystal Palace Bazaar, London, 1858

The most architecturally adventurous bazaar of the Victorian period was the Crystal Palace bazaar (1858). Designed by Owen Jones, this bazaar was conceived as a city-centre complement of the Crystal Palace building, re-erected in the south-London suburbs in 1852-54. Squeezed between buildings fronting London’s most crowded shopping streets – Oxford and Regent Street – the Crystal Palace bazaar had multiple entrances and a spacious interior with a wide hall covered with a vault 36-feet high. In common with Jones’s other retail architecture, the bazaar was characterised by a highly original treatment of iron and glass: the vault was formed from wrought-iron ribs infilled with diamond- and star-shaped coloured glass; and the vault itself was supported on two tiers of ornamental cast-iron columns. In addition, Jones paid careful attention to colour: the interior cast-iron columns were painted light blue, white, and red in their upper sections with dark maroon, light blue and white below, with the abacuses of each column and the gallery railing gilded. The effect, according to The Illustrated London News, was a ‘gem-lighted hall’ with ‘golden and silvery light’ that was even more magical at night when lit by gas lamps.





The labyrinth as sacred space

11 12 2010

Paul Dobraszczyk, Mausoleum, Meknès, 2010 (watercolour on chalk and gouache)

The mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is one of the only sacred buildings in Morocco that can be visited by non-Muslims. In the 17th century, Moulay Ismail elevated the city of Meknès to a imperial capital in his 55-year reign from 1672 and built a vast royal palace, enormous fortifications and monumental gates. He is generally considered to be one of the greatest figures in Moroccan history, despite his extreme despotism; his reign was marked by bloody campaigns of pacification, countless grisly deaths and the employment of tens of thousands of slaves to build his vast monuments in Meknès.

Dark space

Light space

By contrast, the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is a remarkably peaceful series of spaces, divided into squares. On entering the building through a tiny door, one comes into a dark square room, intricately decorated but barely lit. Ascending a small flight of stairs, you enter into an unroofed space of light, covered in coloured square tiles that one sees in almost every significant Islamic building. Up another flight of stairs, you walk through an almost identical square room, completely bare apart from the mesmerising tiles covering the floor and part of the wall. Ascending more steps into an arcaded room, seemingly lighter again, one eventually enters the mausoleum itself – a square room filled with light, with all surfaces decorated with carving or tiles and, in the centre, a fountain ceaselessly playing its soft watery music.

Lighter space

Heavenly space

This mausoleum represents a simple use of a labyrinth as the guiding spatial principle. The visitor is gently led on a single route through the spaces in an ascending path to the heavens. In contrast to the secular commercial labyrinth of the medina of Fes, this is the sacred labyrinth that directs the pilgrim on a path to enlightenment: a spatial guide from earth to heaven. Its use predates the rise of the monotheistic religions, as indicated in these carvings in Cornwall, which date from the Bronze Age, or around 1500 B.C.E. As if linking continents and cultures across space and time, the carved labyrinth in this isolated Cornish valley is accompanied by contemporary offerings to the gods: words inscribed on slate and coloured fabric and trinkets hanging from the trees.

Bronze Age labyrinth in Rocky Valley, Cornwall

Offerings in the trees near the Bronze Age labyrinth





The city as labyrinth: the medina of Fez

2 12 2010

The old city of Fez from above

Fes-el-Bali – the old city or medina of Fez in Morocco – is believed to be the world’s largest car-free urban area. Founded in the early 9th century, the medina covers only around a square mile, but contains over 9000 streets and around 150,000 residents. Virtually unchanged since the gigantic ramparts and seven monumental gates were built around it in the 16th century, the old city is a self-enclosed world, working to its own internal rhythms. Each small district within the city has its own public utilities – water fountains, mosques, baths – and the city’s streets are sharply delineated between the busy public shopping streets and the almost silent private streets of housing leading off to dead ends. Sandwiched between the endless lines of shops selling everything imaginable – from fabulous ornaments and sparkling textiles to fruit and vegetables and tourist tat – are oases of peace: richly decorated medersas built by the Merinids in the 14th century; mosque courtyards; elaborate medieval funduqs (inns for itinerant traders); and tree-filled courtyards of opulent Riyads – the traditional Moroccan home.

A private street in the medina

One of the medina's many public streets lined with shops

Not surprisingly, the medina of Fez presents problems to the first-time visitor, especially in navigating its tortuous geography. Here, the standard way of getting hold of new cities – seeing them from a high viewpoint – only serves to confuse, the streets disappearing in the extraordinary density of low-rise housing that only becomes apparent when above the city. On the ground, maps are virtually useless for the tourist as most of the streets are either unnamed or only given in Arabic script. At the very centre of the old city, conventional geography seems to stand on its head: covered streets lead around the enormous central mosque in a whirl of dense crowds and heavilly-laden donkeys, and the connecting side streets are so narrow and dark they seem to be underground.

Courtyard of a medersa in the medina

Narrow street passing from dark to light in the medina

In this place, one navigates initially by trial and error as if in a maze (getting lost, retracing one’s steps, discovering dead ends); then by remembering certain features that remind you to turn left or right; then by the gradients (down towards the centre of the city, up to get out). After a few days, certain streets begin to link up in the mind and a skeletal outline of the city is mentally constructed. Only with many weeks – even months – of exploration would the rest of the labyrinth slowly unfold itself and connect together.

For the tourist, navigating the medina of Fez inevitably brings you into contact with that peculiarly Moroccan character: the faux guide (false guide). Usually male youths, they lay in wait for tourists at strategic points in the old city (each seemingly having their own patch) and approach whenever there is a pause, hesitation or misdirected glance. After leading you to where you want to go they demand payment, usually much more than you wish to give. Most will try and divert you into a shop, presumably owned by a relative or even their employer. The only way to avoid being ensnared is to always know where you are going and thus Fes is ideal picking ground for these would-be-guides, preying on tourists’ most vulnerable weakness – their lack of environmental awareness. And so, in Fez, the tourist becomes like any other commodity being peddled in the souks, stripped of that special status that so characterises Islamic attitudes towards the ‘guest’.

Night in the medina

At night, when the shops close down and the touts go home, the medina quietens and takes on a new charm, one defined by private lives – boys kicking around a football, young girls walking with their mothers, groups of men gossiping in doorways, animals heard behind thick walls. This sharp disjunction between the public world of commerce – aggressive and male – and the private world of the family, is common to all cities, but particularly intense in a city like Fez, where the regular pulsations between these realms have been continuing unchanged for centuries.





Alcazar

20 05 2010

Alcazar, 2009, watercolour on chalk and ink

Seville’s Alcazar, although smaller and less coherent than the Alhambra in Granada, is a fascinating synthesis of Christian and Islamic architecture. Constructed from the tenth century onwards, the Alcazar has been expanded or reconstructed many times over the centuries and, today, it still functions as a royal palace. As with many buildings in Andalusia, the decoration is lavish and all-encompassing. Key to the Alcazar’s decorative impact is a constant play between surface and depth: in the tiles that adorn almost every surface making flat space seem deep; and in the interlocking geometric patterns in domes and ceilings that make depth seem flat. The result is a dynamic architecture that plays on the viewers’ perception, one that tells stories through space. Extraordinary to think that such an architecture was only ever meant to be have been experienced by a tiny elite. Its democratization through mass tourism has transformed – perhaps even redeemed – its basis in an extreme concentration of power.

Decorative tiles in the gardens of the Alcazar, Seville

Dome in the Palacio de Don Pedro, Alcazar, Seville








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