Friday 22 July 2016

Film review: Nous 3 Ou Rien (All Three of Us)

Funny and moving. The best thing I've seen this year.

One of the nice things about flying long haul on Singapore Airlines is the opportunity to see excellent movies which might not always be available in one’s own country. On the way back to England from Singapore last weekend, I watched the best film I’ve seen so far this year.

Nous 3 Ou Rien (English title All Three of Us) is a French film set in Iran and Paris. It’s the true story of Hibat Tabib and his family, who were involved in the political turmoil in Iran during the time of the Shah and the early days of the Islamic Republic, from which they fled to France. It’s directed by Hibat’s son Kheiron, who is a stand-up comedian, and also plays his father in the film.

Hibat comes from a small village in Iran, and gets a place to study law at university, but gets involved in the political struggles of the day. He ends up spending years in prison, beaten up and put into solitary confinement. When the Shah falls from power, he is released. He falls in love with Fereshteh, a nurse (Leïla Bekhti). They get married. Things turn bad in the Islamic Republic, and the couple with their infant son are forced to flee overland to Turkey.

They get political asylum in France, and settle in Peyrefitte, a tough working class suburb on the outskirts of Paris with a large immigrant politician. Kheiron and Fereshteh find work in community service and in nursing. They continue their involvement in Iranian politics. They bring people together, develop the community centre, and generally make the neighbourhood a better place.

It is a great achievement to tell a story of hardship and struggle with genuine humour and warmth, and without bitterness. This is a story about love, family, hope and optimism. But it’s more than that. In the film, we see how the time of the Shah, in a country that was liberal in many respects, there was terrible repression. The revolution brought hope of better times, but things turned bad. With theocracy, the repression returned, along with compulsory headscarves for women. Women guards at the border dressed in chadors carry assault rifles, and lay into people attempting to cross with forbidden items.

In France, Hibat and Fereshteh work to bring together their diverse and multicultural community. Fereshteh the nurse gives lessons in reproductive biology to women from a conservative immigrant background, and takes them on a trip to the chateau at Fontainebleau. This is also a story of people from different cultures and backgrounds living together, of immigrants integrating into their adopted country without relinquishing their identity, of freedom, and mutual respect. The tale is told with a light touch, and without sentimentality, but does not gloss over any of the unpleasantness. I found it engrossing, funny and very moving at the same time. And the accompanying music was marvellous, by the way.

We are now in a time when intolerance and identity politics are on the rise, in Britain, France, and elsewhere. This is what Hibat (the man and not the film character) had to say on the subject, referring to France, but applicable to many other countries:
Il y a d’un côté un retour des idées assimilationnistes, qui refusent les différences. De l’autre, un repli communautaire. Or l’intégration est une rencontre, où chaque partie doit faire un pas vers l’autre.
(from Les Tabib, père et fils sur le fil de l’exil, Bernard Gorce, La Croix 28/02/2016)

Which, with my dodgy French and with the aid of Google I understand to mean:
There is on the one side a return to assimilationist ideas, which deny our differences. On the other side a retreat into communalism. But integration is an encounter, where each party must take a step towards the other.
The film was released last year, and does not appear so far to have been on general release in the UK, although it was shown recently at the Institut Français. I hope it's shown more widely. I think it deserves the widest possible audience, and I would go so far as to say that it should be shown as part of the school curriculum.

See it if you can. If you are flying long haul on Singapore Airlines, you must watch it. Meanwhile, here's the trailer:

Nous 3 Ou Rien /All Three of Us
released 4 November 2015, 1 hr 42 m
IMDb listing
DVD from Amazon UK

Friday 8 July 2016

A marvellous display of Corbusier furniture from Chandigarh and Paris

A beautifully curated display in a small Mayfair gallery

I learnt of an exhibition of furniture by Le Corbusier through a Facebook post from my friend Sally Patrick, owner of the superb Haylett’s Gallery in Maldon (which I would urge you to visit). Yesterday, I managed to get the time to visit the Galerie Patrick Seguin in London, where the exhibition was held. The display area in the gallery consists of a single room, divided into two spaces. On the right side was furniture from Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. The background and context are explained in this caption:

The various items of furniture from Chandigarh were arranged around the reception area, with a large desk used for the gallery reception and admin.

Some items had been altered during refurbishment, like these armchairs which had originally been upholstered in leather, and which were now covered in black hide.

The back wall behind the desk was covered with a large black-and white photograph of one of the buildings in Chandigarh. Set into it was an enormous aerofoil-sectioned fin, mounted on vertical hinges. This was a ventilator panel from one o the buildings in the city which also served as a brise-soleil or sunbreak, one of Le Corbusier’s innovations.

Here are pictures from the gallery's own website:

The other half of the room consisted of a mock-up of a student room in the Masion du Brésil, a hostel for Brazilian students in the Cité Universitaire in Paris.

Another poster from the exhibition describes this project:

The furniture for the Maison du Brésil was designed by Corb and Charlotte Perriand. This was low-cost furniture, but elegant and beautifully proportioned. The bed is a simple platform on legs.

The free-standing wooden unit behind the bed incorporates a wardrobe with simple sliding fibreglass doors, shelving units holding trays, and a bookcase, while also serving as a room divider.

The wall-mounted reading light over the bed is made from a sheet of steel, with perforations that cast a beautiful pattern of light onto the wall above.

And here are a few other items:

As you can see from the website of the Maison du Bresil, the mock-up at the gallery is pretty similar to the way it is in the hostel today, which is heartening.

Might you be wondering how these items of furniture came to be on sale? After all, these buildings designed by Corb are still in use. I don't know about the Brazilian house, but the case of Chandigarh, the locals did not appreciate the value of the furniture, and vast quantities of them were abandoned, discarded, left in warehouses, or sold off, as described in an article from Wallpaper.

One of the early collectors was in fact Patrick Seguin, who bought up unwanted and often broken furniture from Panjab University in 2000, as reported in the Hindustan Times. The value of these works is now appreciated in India, and it has been illegal to remove furniture from the city without official permission, but the government of India is at present unable to prevent their sale abroad.

I appreciate that the market has its own logic, but I can’t help feeing that there is something unsettling and discordant about the way in which these items of furniture which were designed for a mass market have become luxury items. A competent carpenter could easily copy any of the items of wooden furniture on display, although might be protected by copyright laws in your country, in case you are tempted.

On that subject, copyright protection for furniture was recently extended in the UK from the original 25 years after the designer’s death, to 75 years, in conformity with EU legislation. As the owner of several items of replica furniture, I’m ambivalent about this. I can see both sides of the argument (and voted for Britain to remain in the EU, by the way), but I think that 25 years’ protection was perfectly adequate. I’m inclined to agree with Stephen Bayley:
“The essential, defining proposition of modern design is – or rather, was – that an idea can be limitlessly reproduced at low cost,” he says. “Clearly, the legislation may protect the auteur, but it seems to me at odds with the principles of widely available democratised luxury which make design such an interesting subject. The danger as I see it is that too costive a view of copyright protection might bring the subject into the ancient realms of rarity, preciousness, attribution, provenance and all the other antique stuff that attends fine art."
(from Why the UK replica furniture market is about to be hit by new copyright laws. Tim Willis. Monday 15 February 2016. The Independent).

Getting back to the furniture on display at the exhibition, it's beautiful, and beautifully displayed in a thoughtful manner that illustrates the context for which the items were made. Some writers have expressed unhappiness about the way in which India's heritage has been sent overseas, but all these items were bought legally, or salvaged from rubbish dumps. I'm delighted that some people from Europe saw the value of the furniture in Chandigarh and rescued it from neglect or worse. From my experiences in Singapore from the 1970s to the late 1980s, (or rather those of my father, a keen conservationist), I'm pretty certain that it would have been futile back then to convince the locals in Chandigarh of the value of their heritage. It's just the way things were back then.

May 13 - Sept. 17, 2016
45-47 Brook St
London W1K 4HN
Opening hours: Monday-Saturday 10 am-6:30 pm

Friday 1 July 2016

Villa Tugendhat in Brno: a masterpiece by Mies van der Rohe

A splendid and beautifully restored example of modern architecture from 1930 by one of the great masters, with an interesting story, in an attractive Czech city

I can’t remember how I came to book a visit to the Villa Tugendhat in Brno. I had not previously been aware of this house, designed by Mies van der Rohe. Brno is about 3 hours by train from Prague, where we were on our holiday. The villa is in fact very famous, and the only way to see the inside is on a guided tour. No more than 15 people are allowed in at any time and demand is high, so you should book at least 2 months in advance.

But anyhow, I had made the booking, and we duly caught the train to Brno, and fetched up at the appointed time on a Friday afternoon. We were a little early, so we had a look around the beautiful garden, admiring the house from below, before we commenced our visit, led by an excellent and informative guide.

The Tugendhats family who lived in the villa were very wealthy. Mrs Tugendhat had come to know about Mies from her time in Germany, and chose him as the architect. Her parents, who lived nearby, gave them the land and paid for the construction of the house. The result is a marvellous three storey villa. It is built on a slope, so that the street entrance is at the level of the top storey, or first floor, where the family had their bedrooms.

The main living area on the ground floor is a large free-flowing space, made possible by the way the house was constructed: concrete, held up by slender steel columns. This eliminates the need for internal load-bearing walls, so that the different spaces flow into one another, with partitions that define the different areas but do not separate them completely.

The experience of walking through the house and experiencing the way the space within it was handled was extraordinary. People more eloquent than I have written about the play of space and light, and volumes, and so on. I found one by Mies: "Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space". Whatever. When you are in a well designed space, you can see and feel what they mean, and I was fortunate to find myself in such an environment . Photographs cannot replicate the experience, but I took lots of pictures, and here are some of them.

The long south-west facing wall of the living area overlooks the garden, and there is an enormous glass curtain wall, with panels that can be lowered at the flick of a switch. The windows slide down into the basement level below, the tops of the window frames flush with the floor of the living area, so that the whole space is opened to the outside. This was a real technical innovation for the time. The mechanism for raising and lowering the window is located in the basement below, and is actually rather straightforward, based on a system of counterweights to balance the enormous windows, and powered by an engine connected to a chain drive.

And this is the mechanism that raises and lowers the great panes of glass:


The house was beautifully furnished with expensive materials: marble, exotic woods, and so on. The beautiful onyx wall  in the seating area of the living room was fabulously expensive, and it is translucent. Around 4 pm in the winter, when the sun is low, and if weather conditions are right, sunlight shines directly on to it, and the wall glows on the other side: something you might want to consider if you are planning a visit. Here is another view of the onyx wall:

The story of the house and the family that lived in it is a fascinating tale. Building commenced in the 1929, and took14 months. The Tugendhat family moved in the in December 1930 after the interior had been completed. They only lived there for 8 years. In 1938, with war looming, they left for Switzerland, and then later ended up in Venezuela. The house fell into the hands of the Germans, and then into the hands of the Russians. As you might imagine in those times, there was a lot of damage. After the war, it was a dancing school for girls, then a children’s hospital. Over many years, starting from the 1960s, restoration took place in various stages, the last one taking place between 2010 and 2012. They have done a fantastic job. By good fortune, some of the original furnishings, such as the onyx wall, were undamaged through all the troubles. Other items were recovered through careful research. For example a researcher discovered that the wood panelling in the dining area had been used as wainscoting in the canteen of the law faculty of the local university, with the panels ;aid horizontally rather than in their original vertical orientation. The panels have now been returned to their original location.

It was at the Villa Tugendhat, incidentally, where the separation of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia was negotiated, and this was the table at which the final documents were signed. As it happened our visit took place on the day of the British referendum to leave the European Union. I had already voted by post to remain in the EU and was optimistic, but things have not turned out as I would have wished.

Other items in the house have had to be re-made. During the war, by sheer good fortune, one of the sliding glass windows had been fully retracted and thus survived a bomb blast. During the latest restoration, the other windows were fabricated at St Gobain in Belgium, the only place in Europe where such glass panels can be manufactured today. Almost all the furniture was designed by Mies. Some of it is from the time of the house, other items are replicas.

The place is well looked after. Before you go in, you need to wear plastic overshoes. They even have a machine to attach them to your shoes:

The Villa Tugendhat is a marvellous example of modern architecture at its best, and well worth a visit. I did wonder, though, about how this type of architecture might work when applied to housing designed for ordinary people. The rigour and simplicity of the Villa is offset by the extensive use of very beautiful and expensive materials. I'm think the same design principles, applied to a small house, using normal materials that normal people could afford, might be a bit stark for most people.

Even in this house, the bedrooms were a bit plain. We were told that the pictures that were hung on the walls were not to the taste of Mies, and were removed when the great architect came to visit, so as not to offend his "less is more" sensibilities.

Brno is an attractive town, and was an important centre of early modern architecture, so there is lots more to see. There are guides to modern architecture in Brno which you can get online, as well as in the city, and it’s well worth a visit in its own right. For those travelling from England, you can fly there direct from Stansted airport with Ryanair.

For more information about the Villa Tugendhat, visit their very informative website:

For more details abut Brno, see the Brno architcture manual, a guide to 1918-1945 architecture:

And this is the guide to Brno that we used:

Update, 11 March 2017: 
We've paid a second visit yesterday. This time it was a cold Spring day. The house was still beautiful. It was nice to see it in different weather, at a different time of the year. 





I found two articles from 2012, published when the house was reopened after its restoration. One of them is from the Guardian, and the other from De De Ce Blog. I rather liked them, so here are the links.