Monday, January 16, 2012

France Sud - 2011

Provencale Roof TilesAigues Mortes - Chair detailAigues Mortes - KnickersAigues Mortes - Mannequin with Drain PipesAigues Mortes - WindowboxAigues Mortes - For Sale
Aigues Mortes - Constance TowerCamargue White HorseCarcassonne CemetaryVantage PointChocolat"Absente" makes the heart grow fonder
Sete - Restaurant detailLe MarseilloisMarseilles - Rubbish as an Art FormMarseilles - Fish MarketBoat for Sale - MarseillesMe Neither
Marseilles - Church of Notre Dame de-la-GardeMarseilles Football - bird's eye viewMaison Carree - NimesPont Saint-Benezet - AvignonActually, it's my dog that looks like meMontpellier Fountain

France Sud - 2011, a set on Flickr.

A set of images taken in 2011 in Montpellier, Marseilles, Nimes, Carcassonne, the Camargue and Aigues Mortes - all beautiful places to visit.

I went there in Spring 2011, and based myself in Montpellier. This is the eighth biggest city in France, and probably the one with the most progressively modern approach in the country.

It really has got everything - weather, decent food and access to the sea and some of the great sites of Roman Provence.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Day in Perugia

The obligatory Washing LineGraffiti artist's paint cansRailway Station GraffitiMore GraffitiAnd more ....And more .....
And even more .......And yet more ......People giving it all some scale ...Graffiti detailMore Graffiti detailFountain in City Centre
Flaked OutInternational FriendshipPerugia Walkway

A Day in Perugia, a set on Flickr.

Last Autumn, I took myself off to Tuscany and Umbria for a few days just wandering around and taking pictures – as well as filling up on more than a few Italian meals. A couple of days in Pisa and Lucca, followed by mooching around Siena and the beautiful hill villages of the Val d’Orcia. My last day was spent in Perugia, the capital of Umbria, right in the centre of the country. 

It’s a city of some 350,000 people, and one which in the past has clearly been a very affluent part of the world. The buildings are ornate, large and very impressive. Like so many of the important Italian towns in this part of the world, it’s built on a hill, so getting up to it is a bit of a trek. Perugia however has spent a fair amount of money building a dinky little metro system which winds its way from places like the railway station, up through sinuous tunnels bridges right into the heart of the city. Very welcoming to me after five days of trudging up from lowly positioned car-parks up into vertiginously located villages. 

I took a fair number of pictures of the city – it’s a real joy to wander around. Located where it is, a fair distance from any of the “major sights” in the country, it doesn’t immediately jump out at you as the “Must See” attraction which it is – hence a pleasant lack of tourists (hypocritical sod!). 

These pictures however are not the classic Umbrian Tourist Board views of the place. As I set off back to my base in Siena, I chanced across a young guy spray painting a graffiti painting on a wall next to the railway station, and after convincing him I was not after fingering his collar, I spent a while talking to him. Whenever I disappear off on one of these jaunts, I always write a diary, jotting down what I saw, what I felt, what impressed me and what didn’t impress me on my travels. For the five days of this holiday, the dairy ended up just over 16,000 words. Here is the extract (of 492 words) which relates to my introduction to Perugia’s new Caravaggio. 

“As I left the station, I looked along the road and saw an Underpass with a couple of interesting looking graffiti on the concrete walls leading into it. I wandered along to get a better look and take a couple of pictures, and as I neared them I could see a few more bending round the corner. I started taking a few pictures and as I got further round, Lo and Behold there was a guy painting one. He’d got his ladder and his spray cans out and was in the throes of doing the outline for a new one. It was pretty big, about 10 feet high and 40 feet wide. 

The guy saw me snapping away, stopped and came over to me. He was very suspicious at first, and we had a funny old conversation with me in very stilted Italian, and him in much better English about what I was doing. He was standing there wearing a handkerchief over his face, with the dual purpose of protecting him from the paint spray, and also making him far more difficult to recognise if the fuzz came along the road. He said he had to do it all with a very weather eye out for what he saw as “snoopers”. To start with, he suspected I might be an undercover Italian Cop trying to catch him out, but it didn’t take too long to make him realise that I really was a genuine English tourist just looking for a decent picture to take. 

We had a good half hour talking about the politics of graffiti, and he came across as a hugely dedicated young man, mad keen and committed to what he was doing. He explained that the “Old Guys” art was up in the town’s Art Galleries, whereas all he and his fellow accomplices were doing was the same thing, but down here in the city’s underpasses. I’d never thought about it like that and it was hard to argue with him.

The city seemed to have come to a tacit arrangement with him and his fellow Banksys. The underpasses were pretty dismal, being just blank slabs of minimalist, flat concrete, and the authorities seemed to be prepared to let them carry on down here as long as they left the main part of the town alone. I must say, although I can’t quite reconcile the act of defacing someone else’s property with it all, I do find some of them very inventive, clever and often impressive. Most of them have a real zest, colour and a life to them which is hard to resist.

Anyway, I agreed to take a few more pictures and to e-mail them to him when I returned to England, although I did agree not to put any of him up on the Internet, just in case the local plods were looking on the web for evidence to nab him. All in all, he was a really nice guy and it was a totally unexpected and enjoyable half hour in his company.”

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Blot on the Landscape - Theatre Severn

Look at it, I mean just look at it. This is the Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury. It has to be one of the most unattractive modern buildings you’ve ever seen.

Architectural Mediocrity by the River
Every time I go there (and I go there quite a bit) I drive out of the car park mentally scribbling away at a piece for my blog, ranting about just how boring and ugly the place is. I must have written the piece in my head about a dozen times over the last year, but finally, I’m sitting down to put “pen to paper”, so to speak.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s just the outside that upsets me. What goes on inside is really good. I am a great fan of live theatre. If ever the marketeers who look at these things tried to home in on the typical potential customer for such a venture then, Yep, I’m Yer Man. Over the couple of years since the new theatre has been open, the shows they have put on have given me a serious amount of pleasure. Alan Ayckbourn plays, concerts, several Ballets, a couple of brilliant Pantomimes, singers like Elkie Brooks – even Giles Brandreth rabbiting on for an evening – all have entertained me extremely. 

But that’s on the inside. It’s when you get outside it that your (or at least my) head drops. Who on earth designed the thing? Shrewsbury is a really attractive town which sits on Britain’s longest river, the Severn, as it flows around the Town Walls in a beautiful sweep. So you’ve got a Heaven-sent, once in a lifetime site for it all, sitting alongside a lovely stretch of the Severn that most towns would give at least their eye teeth for. As a backdrop to the theatre, there is a lovely graceful bridge which elegantly arcs over the river. So what then do “they” do? They erect a showpiece building, using MY money I might point out, which looks for all the world as if their design inspiration was a dilapidated and unloved 1960s Secondary School.

Yes, Yes I know Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder and all that, but apart from the Architect’s mother (and, having thought about it, I wouldn’t even put a huge bet on that actually) and possibly the wretched individual on the Council who had responsibility for its final approval, I refuse to believe that there is a single person in the town who can look on it with anything other than varying degrees of loathing.

Go on then, find one. And when you’ve got past the sheer uninspired blandness, unconnectedness and nothingness of its shape, then look at the detailing on it. It seems to have been constructed from nasty beige Breeze Blocks, old lavatory bricks and some reclaimed bits of fencing nicked from one of the local Council’s allotments. Even the naming on it, which should proudly proclaim such an important undertaking seems to have been a total afterthought, designed to be unreadable and invisible from anywhere it might be viewed.

This is what it looks like after about 2 years - very, very depressing

This is the entrance - a structure for which the word
"unprepossessing" was coined 
Now I am absolutely and utterly NOT a “Prince Charles” Luddite as far as modern architecture is concerned. Some of it is fabulous, and, done properly, can change for ever the way a town or city is perceived.

As an example, go to Birmingham and marvel at the Selfridges building. It’s only a department store, but what a terrific looking building.

Wander around the City of London, and you will still be astonished at Richard Rogers’ incredible Lloyds Building, so fresh after 20 years.

Further afield, think how Geary’s fabulous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has completely transformed that city into a major visitor attraction.

Look with unprejudiced eyes at London’s Millenium Dome. See it at sunset from across the river, and it’s a remarkable sight.

Think about how a building like Utzon’s Opera House in Sydney, once derided for looking more like a Nun’s Scrum, became an icon for new Australia. 

Be amazed at the daring of the Pyramid outside the Louvre.

The common factor in all these buildings is Bravery. Having the vision, and the balls to do something out of the ordinary. Not taking the safe option. Yes, occasionally it goes wrong, but so often, over the years, the leap into the unknown turns into something great.

Yes, I know that Shrewsbury is not Paris or London or Birmingham, and it has far less resources at its disposal than these other large cities. But the fact is that the new Theatre Severn cost around £28 million, and, however you look at it, that’s a lot of money. Enough, you’d think, to buy you a design you can be proud of – if that’s what you want and set out to achieve. This building is going to be around for many decades, and there are enough examples around where inspirational design does not cost the earth. All you need is the person with the inspiration.

Architecture is the only art form I know where the general public are exposed to it, whether they like it or not. If you don’t want to go to a concert, or a play or visit a museum, then the answer’s simple – Don’t Go. Which fact, on its own, is a good enough reason for those responsible to try harder when they are building something new and important with public money. I don’t know whose fault it all is. Architect or Client? Or conceivably “person or persons unknown” as the police like to call it, but I can’t for the life of me think who they might be.

So on the one hand, there’s the Client, who I suppose is, or was the Shrewsbury and Atcham Council, and on the other there’s the Architect – Austin-Smith:Lord. To my simple mind, if the fault in it is the design brief from the Council, then any self-respecting architect should be prepared to decline the work, or make such a fuss that the client realises the error of his ways, and gets them to pull their socks up and improve the brief. You'd like to think of them as the conscience of the observer.

If it’s the Architect who isn’t coming up to scratch, then the Council should tap them firmly on the shoulder and get them to put someone on the job who can fulfil their (and our) expectations. No doubt, if you ever tried to get to the bottom of it, all you’d get is a gaggle of mutually pointing fingers. ‘Twas ever thus. My only wish is that someone had asked my opinion before signing it off! That would have been one fence on which I would not have sat.

If you look around it all now, it’s all a bit sad. The Architects Austin-Smith:Lord are in the process of filing for Insolvency and the Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council disappeared in 2009 as one of the consequences of this country’s permanent process of local government rearrangements, so any thought of actually finding anyone to shout at has probably disappeared as a result. The outside of the building looks in desperate need of a bit of TLC, with the recycled allotment fencing crying out for a lick of something to stop it rotting in front of us, making an unattractive building even worse.

So I will continue to be disappointed and a bit depressed whenever I look at it on my visits there. The only good thing resulting from the current financial squeeze is that the Council don’t seem to want to spend any money on lighting it at night, so for the most part, it’s shrouded in darkness whenever I go.

It’s an Ill Wind …….

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