Building a new Shanghai – in the 1930s

Shanghai Library before restoration (author’s photo)

On a visit to Shanghai a while back, I took the opportunity to visit the Yangpu District, north west of the city centre, as I’d heard about some interesting buildings there. In fact, I discovered that this area was proposed as a shiny new city centre in the Greater Shanghai Plan of 1929, when the Kuomintang government (the Chinese Nationalist Party) was in power. The buildings reflected this optimistic nationalism in their mix of new building technology and traditional Chinese look, which was heavily influenced by traditional buildings like the drum tower in Beijing’s Forbidden City, built in 1272. The hybrid combination of Chinese and western influences is echoed in the plan’s overall layout, where buildings and roads were placed according to both Beaux Arts symmetry and Chinese Imperial axes. This mix, of American planning and Chinese style, is down to the Chinese architect Dong Dayou, who was educated in America.

Former Shanghai Museum (author’s photo)

Nine buildings were planned, but the outbreak of the war with Japan prevented them from all being completed. Those that were built, between 1931 and 1935, include the Greater Shanghai Civic Centre, the library, museum, the Aviation Institute and Jingwan Stadium. All these buildings are still standing, most in good condition when I saw them, particularly the stadium, which is well used, and the former museum, now part of an institute. But I was saddened to see the state of the former Shanghai Library. It had been used as a library for a number of years, then it became a school that was part of Tongji University High School, before becoming disused and derelict. I was going to write about how sad and melancholy this building, out in the suburbs, made me feel, an historic building left to rot when so much new development was going on in the city. But I Googled it and was heartened to read in a newspaper article that it’s now been fully restored, and extended to its intended size using Dayou’s original plans and it reopened in 2018.

Doorway, Jingwan Stadium (author’s photo)

Meanwhile, the Aviation Institute and Jingwan Stadium, in a distinctive Art Deco style, still look remarkably fresh and modern today. If you get to Shanghai, do take the opportunity to visit this remarkable area.

Former Aviation Institute building (author’s photo)


Robert Indiana at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

I arrived at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park recently to find a large Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture displayed near the entrance.

Robert Indiana, LOVE (Red Blue Green) (1966-98)

LOVE (Red Blue Green) (1966-98), contrasted nicely with the park’s verdant landscape and attracted visitors waiting their turn to take the inevitable selfie.

I first saw a version of LOVE in a Philadelphia park (the so-called Philly LOVE), where its bright red surface shone out amidst the concrete on a gloomy day. The memory of that sculpture has stayed with me over the years.

Indiana’s first LOVE image in this style was a rubbed pencil drawing, made in 1964, which he used for his own Christmas cards. The following year, the printed version in red, with a blue and green background, became the Museum of Modern Art’s biggest selling Christmas card. In 1973, the image became an eight cent US Postal Service stamp that sold well over 300 million copies.

Indiana made his first LOVE sculpture, in aluminium, in 1966. It was only 12 inches tall, but many larger ones followed over the years, in various materials, including a whole series in different marbles made by Italian craftsmen. From Singapore to New York, Bogota to Taipei, there’s over fifty large metal LOVE sculptures decorating city centre plazas around the world.

LOVE, indeed, Indiana’s whole oeuvre, was influenced by the artist’s youth growing up in the Midwestern state of Indiana, a state he later named himself after. He was born Robert Clark but changed his name to distinguish himself from other artists named Clark in New York after he’d moved to the city. Indiana’s art was influenced by the advertising billboards, diner and traffic signs of the Midwest and the way they linked to his upbringing by his adopted parents. One sign held special meaning for him. His father worked for the petroleum company Phillips 66. Indiana commented that his father drove past a red and green Phillips 66 sign every day and this “shone out against an Indiana sky”, providing an influence for the red, green and blue colours of LOVE around the time his father died in 1965.

Although not an overtly religious piece, LOVE was also influenced by the words “God is Love” that Indiana saw on a Christian Science altarpiece in Indianapolis (he was brought up within the Christian Science religion). This inspired the (uncharacteristically) grey painting Love is God (1964), which he painted for a chapel converted into a gallery for art collector Larry Aldrich. In a letter to Aldrich, Indiana wrote: “The LOVE paintings sprang like a crop from that seed planted at your museum, Larry, the painting you commissioned, “Love is God”, which burst into mind when I learned that you were converting an old Christian Science Church in Ridgefield [Connecticut]”.

There are other potential influences for LOVE too, including his relationship with his lover, and mentor, the painter Ellsworth Kelly. They broke up in 1964, partly due to Indiana’s insistence on using words in art, which Kelly disagreed with. Kelly’s Red Blue Green (1963), a Hard-Edge painting with clearly defined areas of flat colour, could be an influence on LOVE. Indiana certainly aligned himself more with Hard-Edge painting than the Pop Art he is often associated with.

Robert Indiana, LOVE Wall (1966-2006)

At the YSP, there’s various LOVE sculptures in this comprehensive exhibition of his work. There’s AMOR (1998), painted in red and yellow, the colours of the Spanish flag, to express America’s changing demographic. Imperial LOVE (1966-2006), has the word twice, and can be read from either side. This is made of Corten steel, the Corrosive Tensile steel so beloved by contemporary architects. LOVE Wall (1966-2006) uses the word four times and looked magnificent in the walled Bothy Gardens, with views beyond it over the landscape.

LOVE made Indiana’s name, but he said that “it was also a terrible mistake. It became too popular. And there are people who don’t like popularity. It’s much better to be exclusive and remote.” The fame of LOVE obscures Indiana’s other fine sculptures, many on display in YSP’s Underground Gallery. Some were made in Coenties Slip, New York, where Indiana lived in a cheap loft in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Other artists living in the area included Ellsworth Kelly, Chryssa, Agnes Martin and Jack Youngerman, who were attracted here by the cheap housing (replaced by high rises in an area that’s part of the Financial District). The slip was originally an artificial inlet in the East River used by sailing boats, which was filled in and built on in the 19th century. The materials Indiana chose was initially dictated as much by poverty as artistic desire (he didn’t have money for canvases). He primarily made two types of sculptures: columns and herms.

Some of Robert Indiana’s Columns at the YSP

His columns are made from ship masts that had been used to construct buildings in Coenties Slip after the 1835 fire of New York. Indiana took these from demolished buildings, sawed them up and painted words on them with an industrial brass stencil set he found in his loft. He used four words repeatedly: Eat, Err, Hug and Die. The words relate to his obsession with the American Dream, but in an ironic and tainted way. Perhaps because he considered his “father as the American dreamer who never quite got there”. Wooden columns on display include Column Die (1963-64) and Column Eat/Hug/Die (1964). The word Eat was perhaps the most meaningful for him. His mother worked in restaurants in Indiana, providing sustenance for the family and it was the last word she said before she died. Hug relates to erotic and personal relationships. Err is an ironic comment about the perception that people never make mistakes in America.

Robert Indiana, Hole (original 1960, bronze cast 1991)

In Coenties, he also found wooden beams, which became his herms. These are named after the ancient Greek statues, made of stone, with a male head, and often genitals, carved on them, which marked boundaries, gates and tombs, and were thought to protect against evil. Indiana took some unused wooden blocks when he moved from New York to Vinalhaven, an island off the coast of Maine, and continued making herms there. His herms have words and numbers on, but found materials were added, often old agricultural implements. Many have uneven tops, with sections of thinner wood sticking up, probably the beam’s original tenon joints, which were often painted by Indiana and resemble hats or crowns. Indiana had a restless upbringing, he moved 21 times before he was 17, and always felt on the move in an automobile somewhere in his youth, which is expressed in the wheels attached to many herms.

Robert Indiana, KvF (1991, bronze cast 2015-18)

As he became wealthier, Indiana had some columns and herms remade in bronze, relating his work to a long historic tradition of bronze casting. Known as his bronze “translations”, they involved reproducing not only the wooden blocks but the attachments, including wheels and animal skulls. The sculptures were painted to match the original with a high degree of verisimilitude. There is humour and playfulness in some: Hole (original 1960, cast 1991) has a hole in. The word hole is painted along with arrows pointing to the hole. But this work also references the town of Hole mentioned in Samuel Beckett’s work, who Indiana was “very, very fond” of. The bronze herm KvF (1991, cast 2015-18), is an unusual and colourful work about the German WW1 soldier, Karl von Freyburg, and includes an image of an Iron Cross and the age (24) when he died in the war. Also on display was the related bronze Mars (1990, cast 2016), which pays tribute to Freyburg’s friend, Marsden Hartley, the American artist whose art was a strong influence on Indiana (he did a whole series of paintings called the Hartley Elegies). But the title and added agricultural implements also references Mars, the Roman god of war and agricultural guardian.

Robert Indiana, Mars (1990, bronze cast 2016)

Outside the gallery, there’s a series of sculptures showing another of Indiana’s obsessions, numbers. He remarked that: “Numbers fill my life…They fill my life even more than love. We are immersed in numbers from the moment we’re born…Our very lives are structured on numbers. Birthdays, age, addresses, money – everywhere you turn, there are numbers”. ONE Through ZERO (The Ten Numbers) (1980-2001) are large painted aluminium numbers. The numbers represent stages of life, a subject seen in other artists’ work, including Caspar David Friedrich, Thomas Cole and Edvard Munch, but here these are not depicted as people but colour coded numbers.

Robert Indiana, ONE Through ZERO (The Ten Numbers) (1980-2001)

They begin with 1, birth, in vibrant red and blue, and continue through youth, 3, in brilliant orange and blue, through to 8, in purple and red, which Indiana commented “signal autumn”, followed by 9, in black and yellow, which “convey a sense of warning” of death (influenced by US traffic warning signs). Finally, there is 0, in grey, which “signal[s] the end of the life cycle”.

Barbara Hepworth, one of the nine Family of Man sculptures (1970)

I tore myself away from the exhibition for a walk around the YSP’s 18th century landscape, to become reacquainted with the park’s long-term exhibits – the Henry Moore’s, Andy Goldsworthy’s, Sean Scully’s, Damien Hirst’s and more. I soon stopped to admire Barbara Hepworth’s Family of Man (1970), an important series of nine bronze sculptures, also about the stages of life, expressed in abstract, vaguely figurative sculptures. Born in Yorkshire, Hepworth’s art was partly inspired by being driven around the county in her youth by her father. A little later, and on another continent, Indiana was being driven around the American Midwest by his parents, which provided inspiration for one of the world’s most recognizable sculptures – and many more that deserve to be better known.

On the level: Prairie School landscape and architecture in Chicago’s Humboldt Park

Humboldt Park Refectory and Boathouse, by Schmidt, Garden and Martin (1906-07)

One of the highlights of my Chicago trip was visiting some of the city’s great parks, including Humboldt Park, which has some great examples of Prairie School architecture and landscaping.

Humboldt Park Refectory and Boathouse, by Schmidt, Garden and Martin (1906-07)

Humboldt Park is on Chicago’s Northwest Side and is the name not only of the park but also the wider neighbourhood, which has a distinct identity.  The clue was in the huge metal structures  which the bus I was on drove through as it entered the area on Division Street. These structures are 59-foot high abstract Puerto Rican flagswelcoming me to the ‘Paseo Boricua’, the only officially recognised Puerto Rican neighbourhood in the USA. 

Humboldt Park itself is one of three great 19th century West Side parks (along with Douglas and Garfield) linked together by a historic tree-lined Boulevard System.  Originally designed by William Le Baron Jenney – better known as the ‘father of the skyscraper’ – in a picturesque style, Humboldt Park was developed in the early 20th century by Jens Jensen. He introduced prairie style landscaping to the park to mimic his beloved Illinois countryside, including sinuous lines of grasses along the waterways, creating naturalistic garden features way before this idea was popular.

The Humboldt Park Refectory and Boathouse (1906-07), designed by Chicago firm Schmidt, Garden and Martin, is a fine example of Prairie School architecture. The hipped roof appears to hover over the building’s arched open-air room, emphasising the horizontal design. Elsewhere in the park, lanterns in the same style echo this building.  As luck would have it, my visit coincided with a musical event. Hearing the fantastic La Excelencia playing salsa dura, Puerto Rican bomba and Columbian cumbia to an enthusiastic crowd dancing under the building’s arches only added to the atmosphere.




Some published gardening articles

I’ve written for some of the UK’s leading garden magazines, including The Garden, The English Garden, Garden News and Grow Your Own. Here’s a small selection of my published articles.


‘Buried treasures’, Inside Story, Spring 2019

A piece on Hampton Court Palace garden’s large scale spring bulb displays, written for Historic Royal Palace’s Members’ magazine. Read the article here.

Tomatillo GYO Dec 2016 (2)

‘Edible exotics: Tomatillo’ Grow Your Own, September 2017

A piece about growing the unusual tomatillo fruits, great for salsas. Read the article here.

Box article (2)

‘Boxing Clever’, The English Garden, March 2017

An article about how to treat box hedge problems, particularly box blight and box tree caterpillar, including interviews with leading RHS scientists and also some suggestions for using alternatives to box . Read the full article here.



‘From stumps to stars’,  The Garden, October 2016

A ‘how to’ piece on pollarding trees and shrubs for decorative effect, including using some unfamiliar examples. Read the full article here.


‘Grow like a pro: Blackberries’, Grow Your Own, December 2015

A piece about growing cultivated blackberry varieties in your garden or allotment. Read the article here.



A visit to sublime Sintra

Sintra’s ‘Open for works’ policy in action, National Palace of Pena

A visit to Sintra, taking in the Parks and Palaces of Pena and Monserrate, the Peninha Sanctuary and Guincho-Cresmina dunes

The Eurogard VIII congress I attended a while back included an exciting all day coach tour of Sintra. This UNESCO Cultural Landscape, about an hour’s drive west of Lisbon, is famed for its palaces and landscapes. It’s a huge area, which, ideally, I could have spent days exploring, but here’s the highlights from a whistle-stop tour. 

The Park and National Palace of Pena

Located in one of the highest parts of Sintra, the extravagant National Palace of Pena, was built around a former 16th century monastery, which was transformed by King Ferdinand II in the 19th century. Restoration work is ongoing and craftsman were restoring a courtyard during my visit, a good example of  Sintra’s ‘Open for Works’ policy: “every restoration that does not jeopardise visitor or worker safety … is done on display to the public”.* The Palace is surrounded by well-maintained landscapes, including display beds with towering echiums, the formal Queen Amelia’s Garden and one of Portugal’s finest arboretums.

Echiums, National Palace of Pena

The Park and Palace of Monserrate

Palace of Monserrate

Nearby is the Park and Palace of Monserrate, with medieval and oriental influences, it is, after Pena, one of the foremost Romantic Architecture sites in Portugal.  The original house, built by an English merchant in the neo-Gothic style, was visited by Lord Byron when it was already in ruins and its sublime appearance helped inspire his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. This poem encouraged other foreign visitors to visit, including wealthy English industrialist Francis Cook, who in 1863 purchased the site and developed a new house here with architect James Knowles.

Dragon tree
Dragon tree (Dracaena draco), Park of Monserrate

I ate lunch sat on grass that was said to be the first lawn in Portugal and then explored the gardens. The work of master gardener Francis Burt, landscaper William Stockdale and botanist William Neville, one of the most notable areas is the so-called ‘Mexican Garden’, chock full of agaves, aeoniums, yuccas and a superb dragon tree (Dracaena draco). So actually not all Mexican, but interesting and impressive, nonetheless.

Fern Valley, Park of Monserrate

On the walk up to Monserrate’s Fern Valley, I saw fine native trees and shrubs, including  large cork oaks (Quercus suber) with deeply-textured, spongy bark, and strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo). The latter is a Lusitanian endemic, a group of 15 plants which only grow in the Iberian Peninsula and South West Ireland. Fern Valley’s humid microclimate, protected by large plane trees, provides ideal conditions for over 40 types of fern. Also found here is a suitably romantic ruin, built around 1790, and now almost engulfed in a vigorous Australian rusty fig (Ficus rubiginosa).

.Peninha sanctuary

Peninha Sanctuary

As well as being picturesque, the huge Sintra-Cascais Natural Park (in which the Sintra Cultural Landscape sits) is full of nature conservation sites. I visited two on the trip. Peninha sanctuary, overlooking the Atlantic coast, is one of Sintra’s highest peaks and it was difficult to speak to the other tour members in the extreme wind.

Crown daisy (Glebionis coronaria), Peninha Sanctuary

Peninha is a biological micro reserve of high botanical value, and I saw here the endangered sea thrift (Armeria pseudarmeria), and also Pyrenean oak (Quercus pyrenaica), wild hoop petticoat daffodils (Narcissus bulbocodium subsp. bulbocodium), more familiar to me as an ornamental in UK gardens, and an unusual crown daisy (Glebionis coronaria).

The Guincho-Cresmina dunes

Boardwalk, Guincho-Cresmina dunes

Before heading back to Lisbon, we stopped at the Guincho-Cresmina dunes on the Atlantic coast. This dune system has a long circular boardwalk over the sand, so visitors can enjoy the nature reserve without causing any damage. The habitat management techniques include ‘Palisades’, natural fences made from dead plant material, which slow the movement of sand by the wind, and plantings of European marram grass (Ammophila arenaria) to help stop erosion. Here I saw verbascum, beach juniper (Juniperus turbinata) and Armeria welwitschii, an unusual Portuguese endemic commonly known here as divine-herb or divine-root.

Palisades for erosion control, Guincho-Cresmina dunes

Armeria welwitschii is an interesting plant within Portuguese botany, linking plants with history and colonialism, as it’s named after botanist Friedrich Welwitsch. An Austrian, Welwitsch collected extensively in the 19th century on behalf of the Portuguese government in Angola, then a Portuguese colony.  His most famous discovery is the strange plant known as a living fossil, Welwitschia mirabilis, but that’s another story.

* Pimentel, J, C. Marques, A. Mingote and D. Silva, 2015. Parques de Sintra Management Model: The Palace of Pena case study. Proceedings of the II Internacional Conference on Best Practices in World Heritage:, April/May, pp. 971-985.




Visit to the Estufa Fria, Lisbon

Estua Fria

An impressive but under publicised garden can be found not far from the centre of Lisbon, which I visited while attending the Eurogard VIII congress.

Amazingly, this garden was never intended to be permanent. From around 1910 an old quarry in Lisbon’s Parque de Eduardo VII was used to shelter tree species from around the world that were intended for planting on the nearby Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s premier shopping street. However, World War One slowed down the plans and the plants started putting down roots here instead. And in 1926, painter and architect Paul Carapinha initiated a plan to turn this site into a greenhouse, which was realized by the early 1930s.

Estua Fria3
Cacti in the Estufa Fria

There are four areas here, the main Estufa Fria (which means cold greenhouse), and two smaller areas, Estufa Quente (warm greenhouse) and Estufa Doce (sweet greenhouse), the latter two opened in 1975 for tropical plants. Plus there is a small outdoor garden with a lake. The main Estufa Fria is the most impressive area, consisting of a large planted landscape of around one hectare which is covered with a wooden lath (slat) roof held up on extremely tall – and I mean extremely tall, up to 280 metre – metal columns. It is said to be the “largest wooden lath house in the world”.* The slats provide shade rather than warmth for the plants here, including many tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) and rhododendrons.

Estufa Fria 4

I walked ever higher up the paths of the Estufa Fria to the top of the old quarry where I had a superb view over the planted landscape. High up, in the Estufa Quente and Estufa Doce, were a range of bromeliads, succulents and cacti. I saw particularly nice examples of bitter aloe (Aloe vera), golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) and the Eastern Cape blue cycad (Encephalartos horridus).

Estufa Fria 5

Visiting the Estufa Fria just before Eurogard VIII got me in the right frame of mind. This garden contained many themes relevant to the congress: ex-situ conservation of endangered species; garden interpretation; visitor management; and educating audiences. It is a garden that deserves to be better known and could perhaps be regarded as Portugal’s ‘Eden Project’.

*Segall, B., 1999. Gardens of Spain and Portugal. London: Mitchell Beazley, p. 118.

Lisbon’s Tropical Botanical Garden

Flame coral tree (Erythrina coralloides), Tropical Botanical Garden, Lisbon

I’m finally updating my blog with some highlights of gardens and buildings visited over the last couple of years. One of the most interesting gardens I visited was Lisbon’s Tropical Botanical Garden. I saw this and other Portuguese gardens while attending Eurogard VIII, a major botanic garden conference, which I attended thanks to an RHS bursary.

Originally called the Colonial Garden, the Tropical Botanical Garden was created in 1906 to grow species from Portugal’s colonies and teach tropical agronomy (the science of growing crops for economic means). After various institutional manifestations, it is now part of the University of Lisbon. Holding approximately 2000 plants, from 600 species and 100 botanic families, it holds around 29 species on the IUCN’s threatened plants Red List. As well as ornamental, medical and culinary reasons, the plants were originally grown to assess their worth as economic crops in the Portuguese colonies, particularly Brazil, Angola and Mozambique.

Sculpture by Manuel de Oliveira of a Guinea-Bisseau woman, 1940s

The Portuguese World Exhibition  was held in Lisbon in 1940 to mark 800 years since Portugal’s foundation and 300 years of independence from Spain. The event is described on the Visualizing Portugal website as “the first major cultural event of the Estado Novo (New State) dictatorship and marked the high-point of its ‘nationalist-imperialist’ propaganda”. Several exhibition pavilions and other features were built in the gardens so-called ‘exotic’ environment, including  the Director’s House, complete with tiled walls showing colonial scenes, and  a series of sculptural busts by sculptor Manuel de Oliveira of natives from the Portuguese colonial empire, including, for example, Guinea-Bisseau.

Tile in the Director’s House, Tropical Botanical Garden, Lisbon

.For someone more familiar with northern European garden flora, this garden’s plant collection was exciting and fascinating. There were rare cycads and palms and many unusual tropical trees, including the flame coral tree (Erythrina coralloides) from Mexico, the custard apple (Annona cherimola) with edible fruit from South America, and the jacaranda tree (Jacaranda mimosifolia), used as an ornamental and timber tree and now listed as Vulnerable on the Red List in its native Argentina and Bolivia. I managed to buy their excellent catalogue in English of the entire plant collection, which will inform my knowledge of tropical flora for years to come.

Timber reference collection, Tropical Botanical Garden

Within the gardens is the 17th Century Calheta Palace, a former aristocratic summer residence, which houses the Tropical-Agricultural Garden Museum. Here, in the colonial era, timber in its raw and processed forms acted as a reference ‘library’, to assess its suitability for timber production, such as furniture making. Just one example, from Mozambique, is the panga panga or partridge wood tree (Millettia stuhlmannii).

Panga panga (Millettia stuhlmannii) samples

This garden and timber collection raised uncomfortable questions about colonialism, seen most obviously in the sculptural heads and other features made for the Portuguese World Exhibition. Although former colonial gardens are perhaps ethically questionable today, they were created in another era – and thus serve as reminders of Europe’s colonial past. An article*, published in 2017 by academic’s Lourenço and Dias, described Portuguese science museums as “time capsules” and I think this term can equally be applied to this garden too.

Decaying structures in 2018, Tropical Botanic Garden

Although there was an interesting range of plants in this garden, sadly when I visited in 2018 some areas were very run down. I was therefore pleased to read recently that the garden and its buildings are undergoing a major restoration.

*Lourenço, M. C. and J. P. S. Dias, 2017. “Time Capsules” of science: Museums, collections, and scientific heritage in Portugal. Isis, 108(2), pp. 390-398.

Architecture in Letchworth: the world’s first garden city

Spirella Factory, Cecil Hignett, 1912-20 (all photos copyright the author)

Letchworth was the world’s first garden city. The city was the realisation of Ebenezer Howard’s ideas: an ideal city would combine the social and economic benefits of a town with the health benefits of the country. Howard never specified a physical form for the garden city, so his ideas were adaptable. By 1903, a site had been found in Hertfordshire and the winning plan drawn up by Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, which is partly based on Wren’s 1666 plan for London.  I organised a tour of Letchworth for the Twentieth Century Society and here’s a few highlights.

Spirella Factory, Cecil Hignett, 1912-20

The Spirella Factory, 1912-20, by Cecil Hignett, is one of the most impressive Arts and Crafts style factories in the UK if not Europe. It was built for Spirella, an American company that revolutionised corset design with spiral wound springs. Known locally as ‘Castle Corset’, it was a progressive factory for its day, the workrooms received maximum natural light through large metal windows and the welfare and social facilities included a choral and orchestral society, library and even a ballroom. It was refurbished in 1999 as a business centre.

The Settlement, Parker and Unwin, 1907

The Settlement by Parker and Unwin, 1907, was originally ‘The Skittles Inn’, the ‘pub with no beer’. As a temperance inn, it served only non-alcoholic drinks, including Bournville Drinking Chocolate (Cadburys contributed to the cost), Sasparilla and ‘Cydrax’, a non-alcoholic apple wine. The temperance movement had a major effect on the Quaker-influenced Garden City and, incredibly, the town did not have a licensed premises until the 1950s. This, along with other aspects of Garden City life (vegetarianism, sandals), provoked satire and ridicule in the popular press. The Settlement contained a billiard room, skittles alley, exposed beams, cosy inglenook fireplaces and a large shaded porch (or ‘stoep’) with fixed settles. It has been an adult education centre since 1923.

Parker and Unwin’s Former Offices, Barry Parker, 1907

Parker and Unwin’s former offices and studio, 1907, now houses the International Garden Cities Exhibition. Based on the medieval thatched hall, their drawing offices were in the main hall, which was lit by concrete mullioned windows. The steeply pitched roof is made from Norfolk Reed, the walls have a roughcast finish typical of the Arts and Crafts style and the gardens were designed in the cottage style of Gertrude Jekyll.

Broadway Cinema, Bennett and Bidwell, 1935

Broadway Cinema, Bennett and Bidwell, 1935

Bennett and Bidwell’s  Art Deco Broadway Cinema, 1935, contrasts nicely with the nearby  conservative Neo-Georgian buildings. The cinema has beautifully intricate traceried windows in the foyer and a concrete vaulted roof.

Howgills, the Friends Meeting House, Bennett and Bidwell, 1907

Bennett and Bidwell worked in different styles, and also designed the Arts and Crafts Howgills, Friends Meeting House, 1907. This is partly based on Briggflatts, a 17 century meeting house in North Yorkshire, particularly the stone mullioned windows. Letchworth expert Mervyn Miller describes the wood panelled interior as “sober and beautiful”.

The Cloisters, W H Cowlishaw, 1906

The Cloisters, W H Cowlishaw, 1906

The Cloisters, W H Cowlishaw, 1906, is an unusual building, which the previous Twentieth Century Society Letchworth notes* describe as “a bizarre E.S. Prior-ish confection faced in flint, Suffolk bricks and Purbeck stone facings”. Built for Miss Annie Lawrence, an enthusiast of theosophy, callisthenics and suffragism, it housed a school of psychology, but, to quote the notes again, “most people in Letchworth didn’t have a clue what it was all about and suspected that Miss Lawrence and her disciples weren’t much the wiser either”. An Art Nouveau fountain in the central hall had twin basins, the lower one divided into eight sections for ceremonial hand washing. Communal meals were taken at a marble-faced dining table raised on an altar-like dais and residents slept in hammocks in the Cloisters Garth arcade, men and women strictly separated. It is now the home of the North Herts Masonic Lodge.

*Andrew Saint and Hetty Startup, Spread the People, Twentieth Century Society Tour Notes, 1986

Modern architecture and the car: A visit to Turin’s Fiat and Mirafiori car factories

Spiral ramp in the Fiat Factory, Turin (all photographs copyright the author)

I’ve long wanted to visit Turin’s Fiat Factory, famous for its rooftop test track. But when I finally arrived there the track was closed for maintenance. No randomly tried lift or stairs would get me to the roof, only to Italian office receptionists bewildered by an Englishman asking about the roof (Renzo Piano has converted the factory into offices and a shopping mall). For now, I’ll have to settle for the magnificent views of the track seen in the Italian Job. But at least I managed to walk part way up the spiral ramp leading to the roof, which is a particularly fine early example of reinforced concrete technology.

Giacomo Matte-Trucco’s Fiat Factory, Turin

Critic Reyner Banham declared the Fiat factory “the most nearly futurist building ever built”, referring to the Italian art movement that emphasised speed, technology and cars. Built from 1916-23 in Turin’s Lingotto district, the factory was designed by engineer Giacomo Matte-Trucco. Visits by Fiat officials to Ford’s Highland Park car factory influenced the concrete framed building’s design. But there is one major difference between the two factories. Ford’s car production process moved from the top floor to the ground; at Lingotto it went from the ground floor to top, and then, in spectacular Futurist fashion, completed cars would drive around the test track and exit down the ramp.

Arco Olimpico, Turin

From the factory, I walked across the Arco Olimpico footbridge, which spans many railway tracks, to see the former Olympic Village. The bridge became the symbol for the Turin Winter Olympics, 2006. Designed by architects HDA, the bridge’s 150m long deck is suspended from cables held up by a 70m high red steel arch. The inspiration for the bridge came from the parabolic arches of Umberto Cuzzi’s nearby former fruit and vegetable market. Described as the “only real rationalist project in Turin”, the market includes seven pairs of 100m long parabolic arches, which were incorporated into the athletes’ shopping area. Although Cuzzi’s arches look startlingly modern today, the area now lies forlorn and empty, which one critic blamed on a “lack of far sighted reconversion policies”.

Olympic Village, Turin: Umberto Cuzzi’s  parabolic arches

From here, I took the bus to the edge of the city to see Fiat’s Mirafiori factory. Even as the Lingotto factory was finished it was outdated, so in 1936 Fiat management discussed creating a new plant. They visited Ford’s massive River Rouge plant, the successor to Highland Park. River Rouge replaced multi-storey car factories with single storey buildings that consolidated the manufacturing process on one floor. This reduced unnecessary transport of materials and saved workers’ energy, refining rigid Fordist management practices. Designed in-house by Servizio Costruzioni Fiat, the Mirafiori factory was visited by Mussolini in 1939. According to John Foot, in Modern Italy, he was received by an unresponsive workforce, who were still mostly but secretly communist. The factory is on a huge 376 hectare site. At one point, this employed 50,000 workers, had 10,000 telephones, 37 entry gates and a canteen designed to accommodate 10,000 workers. It includes assembly lines, workshops, forges, a power plant, a network of underground tunnels, a surface test track and railways. The factory has had a chequered industrial relations history, with many strikes.

Mirafiori Factory 

It took forever to walk around its perimeter walls looking for photo opportunities and there seemed no way into the site through the security checkpoints. Then I discovered the Design Centre of the Polytechnic of Turin campus, which has taken over part of the site (the automobile industry crisis through the 1980s-90s has led to diminished production needs). I walked into the campus and found I could enter an adjacent abandoned factory building. Huge in size, with windows smothered outside by the rampant foliage of untamed Trees of Heaven, a melancholy feeling hangs over the place. Stripped of machinery, reminders of the workers remain – an old cat food tin (perhaps there was a factory cat?), a phone extension list to lines that no longer exist and safety signs to remind the long-gone workers to wear goggles.

Mirafiori Factory

Mirafiori Factory

Mirafiori Factory

Mirafiori Factory

Mirafiori Factory


The Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, Chicago

Alfred Caldwell’s Lily Pool, Chicago, 1937 (Author’s photo)

Chicago is surprisingly green. In fact, its motto is “Urbs in horto” – “City in a garden”. Among its 570 public parks, Humboldt and Garfield are particularly interesting for their prairie style landscapes. These naturalistic areas mimic Midwest prairies. They were designed by innovative landscaper Jens Jensen around 1906. Alfred Caldwell was Jensen’s student  and went on to design the Lily Pool in Lincoln Park. This is a masterpiece of modern landscape design.

Lily Pool  (Author’s photo)

It includes a circular stone meeting place, a feature used by Jensen, a limestone path around the pool and sumptuous native Illinois planting. The pool’s limestone cascades and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired pavilion are all horizontals, appearing to grow organically out of the landscape. Eminent Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe met Caldwell at the pool. Impressed, Mies offered Caldwell a job teaching in his architecture faculty at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Caldwell also designed the landscape at IIT, a campus famous for Mies’s influential Crown Hall.

Cascade, Lily Pool (Author’s photo)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEntrance gate to the Lily Pool (Author’s photo)

The pool became run down due to lack of maintenance, but was restored in 2000 and is now an National Historic Landmark. Other work by Caldwell in Chicago includes the rooftop park on the podium at Lake Point Tower. In a neat piece of synergy, this glass tower was designed by Schipporeit and Heinrich, two former Mies students, who based it on  Mies ‘s designs for an unrealised Berlin tower from 1921.

Schipporeit and Heinrich’s Lake Point Tower, Chicago, 1968 (Author’s photo)