Friday 26 August 2016

Book review: Voyage Le Corbusier: drawing on the road, by Jacob Brillhart.

The drawings that Le Corbusier made on his travels. 

Ever since I first came across my father’s copies of Le Corbusier’s books Towards a New Architecture, and The Home of Man, I have been an admirer of Le Corbusier’s drawings, and the way he managed to illustrate a point about architecture or town planning with a few simple lines.

In his youth, after graduating from high school, the young Pierre Jeanneret (as he was then known – the name Le Corbusier was adopted later) undertook a series of journeys across Europe, which he documented exhaustively with drawings and watercolours. This was a formative period in his education. He never studied architecture at a university, and when he set out on his travels he had not yet decided whether he wanted to be an artist or an architect. Towards the end, he had made up his mind.

This beautifully illustrated book charts his development through these trips through his drawings and sketches.

The author is an architect, who had previously used Le Corbusier’s journeys as a basis for his own trips, and he has assembled a chronologically arranged selection of drawings that Le Corbusier made on his travels.

The book will be of interest Corb fans of course. But it will also appeal to those who enjoy drawing buildings and the urban environment, even those who are not especially interested in Corbusier, or indeed modern architecture.

This is not a book about how to draw buildings and cityscapes, although it does discuss the materials and techniques used by Le Corbusier. But it is a book which illustrates how the process of drawing is something which we can use to help us learn to see the and understand the world around us, and in the conclusion, the author urges the reader to pick up a pencil and start drawing.  For those who enjoy such activities, or might like to, it’s an inspiring book. By showing a selection of pictures produced over time by the same artist, the author has illustrated several points.

To Le Corbusier, drawing was a means of exploring and analysing the things he saw. The pictures and the commentary illustrate how he often made several drawings of the same building or place, each one depicting a different aspect which he wanted to show.

This drawing is about the surface decoration on the capital of a column in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. The carving is shown in great detail. The rest of the building is shown, but in less detail.

These drawings of the Doge's Palace in Venice depict the characteristic Venetian gothic windows, but they are also about the relationship between ornament and structure, and show the way the stonework fits together.

This drawing shows the Baptistery at Pisa, and is about the relationship of the buildings to each other.

This earlier drawing of the Baptistery, on the other hand, is about the surface detail.

We see how Le Corbusier was able to deploy a whole range of techniques, depending on what it was he wanted to show, as illustrated by these two pictures of Notre Dame in Paris, made during the same trip.

The later drawings are less detailed, emphasising the buildings as volumes in relationship to one another, with less emphasis on surface detail. Drawings like this are generally more familiar, many of them having been used to illustrate his books.

However, behind that simplicity was a high level of technical skill, as his earlier works attest.

Voyage Le Corbusier: drawing on the road.
Jacob Brillhart

W.W. Norton, Feb 2016
ISBN 978-0-393-73356-3
7.6 × 9.6 in / 192 pages
Publisher's site
Amazon UK
Amazon US 

Thursday 18 August 2016

The Nomadic Community Garden. Revisited.

I was in the area last Sunday, and not having been since my visit last year, I decided to pop in to the Nomadic Community Gardens. 

I chanced upon this extraordinary place a year ago wrote a post about it. I kept meaning to revisit but never got round to it until now.

The Gardens were set up on a large plot of land in Shoreditch, that had been bought for development. Building work will not occur for a while. In the interim, with the permission of the developers, the area has been turned into an extraordinary amenity for local residents and visitors, a sort of pop-up park and allotment complex.

There are several parts to it. There is a recreational area with tables, seating, stalls and play areas. Then there are the allotments, based on pallets, on which boxes are mounted, in which things can be grown. These can be transported easily, so that when the site is reclaimed by the developers, they can be moved on, hence “nomadic”. It's a brilliant way to utilise a vacant plot of land, if you might have to move on.

Everything is made from donated, recycled, and upcycled materials. The results are a real eye-opener, a reminder of how much our society discards. The garden has of benefitted from the high concentration of artists in the area, many of whom have contributed to building and decorating the area.

Since last year, there have been some changes and additions, as you might expect. The place looks busier, with a few more stalls, more seating, and more art.

This is the approach, under a bridge:

This is just beyond the entrance:

One of the areas for chilling out. Note the extensive use of pallets for furniture, old tyres for planters and ornaments, the cooking area sitting on a pallet, and the charming alcove-like area beyond it to the left.

The allotments are still going strong

and they seem to be doing something with biochar, although I'm not clear what that is exactly.

(More details about biochar here)

There are various other things for the local community, like this space where old clothing can be donated.

Here's another chilling out area. Note the uprights supporting the roof, made from wood with the old tyres at the bottom.

This is the bush next to it. Do you see the faces?

More old tyres, stacked up to make a totem pole.

A vulture, perhaps. A scavenger bird, made from scavenged materials.

The Gardens are often used for concerts and other events. And soon they will have a theatre. This domed wooden building was a bit of a surprise. It wasn't there when I had visited last year, and unlike the other structures, which were attractive but had a makeshift quality, this was a finely crafted construction, a wooden rotunda with a domed roof.

The theatre is the work of a talented chap called Selim, and he is building it all on his own. Here he is, working inside. He does this sort of thing for a living as well, and describes himself as a man with OCD, "obsessive construction disorder".

All the material for the construction was salvaged. Nothing was bought. The building is made entirely of wood, which makes for good acoustics. I thought the acoustics were pretty good, but I was assured that they would be even better after the oculus at the top of the dome had been covered with perspex.

The theatre should be completed in a few weeks’ time, I was told. The plan is to have an inaugural concert of operatic works. That sounds like a terrific idea. I don't like the way classical music gets poshed-up, and I think that the Nomadic Community Garden would be an excellent setting for a bit of opera. I hope I'll be able to attend.

My previous post about the Nomadic Community Gardens.
Another pop-up garden: The King's Cross Skip Garden

Nomadic Community Gardens
Fleet Street Hill
London E2 6EE
Usually open daily until about 11 pm.
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Friday 5 August 2016

Villa Rothmayer in Prague. Modest, elegant, enchanting and complex

The beautiful home of a talented but obscure early modern Czech architect

Have you ever heard of the Czech architect Otto Rothmayer? If you haven’t it’s not surprising. When I tried to look for background information for this post, everything I found on Google was in Czech. On our recent trip to Prague, we learnt about the house he built, and managed to book a visit. It was amazing.

What follows is based on what I remember from the guided visit, supplemented by a few bits and pieces I found online.

Otto Rothmayer (1892 - 1966) began his working life as a carpenter, but then decided to go into architecture. I didn’t realise you could do that sort of thing in those days, but there you are. He studied in Prague under Jože Plečník, the architect responsible for renovations at Prague Castle. Rothmayer later became Plečník’s assistant at the castle, where he continued to work or many years.

The Villa Rothmayer was built between 1928 and 1929, and is located in the suburbs of Prague, and is modest in scale. From the street, you see a well-proportioned, symmetrical façade. It's not particularly striking, and easily overlooked.

The entrance is the to side, underneath a covered courtyard that looks out into the garden. The plan is symmetrical, with a central circular staircase. The house is smaller than it looks from the outside, as the building is not very deep.

This is the elegant spiral staircase, within a concrete cylinder. It reminded me of the one in Goldfinger's house at 2 Willow Road in Hampstead, which I had visited quite recently.

The interior was charming. The furnishings were predominantly of varnished wood, much of it made by the architect himself, who, as you recall, had started off as a carpenter. He and his wife had separate bedrooms, which were also their workspaces.

Otto's wife, Božena (1899 - 1984), was a well-known fabric designer, and a thoroughly modern woman, who cut her hair short and wore trousers. Their son Jan (1932 - 2010) was an electrical engineer and photographer, who installed all manner of gadgets and monitoring systems around the house.

To make the best use of the limited space, there were clever devices like concealed cabinets, and space-saving furniture with panels that slid or swung in or out so that their use could be modified.  Rothmayer was a great collector of stuff, some of which was on display. The rest was in a room in the basement where the curators are sorting it out. There were many things I would have liked to have photographed but this was not permitted inside the house.

The garden was magical. Instead of formal sculpture, various bricks, tiles, pots and other simple objects were arranged in beautiful assemblies.

Photography was allowed outside, where I did take some pictures.

Here, with the house in the background, you can see the cylindrical element which houses the staircase

And here are some details:

It certainly gave me food for thought with regard to my own garden.

The famous one-armed photographer Josef Sudek was a good friend of the family, and he took many photographs of the house and its garden. Here are a few of them:

The Rothmayer family survived the second world war unscathed (they were not Jewish, as I thought they might have been), and managed to stay on in their house through the communist period. After the death of their son, the house was was given to the city as a museum.

The Villa Tugendhat in Brno, which I visited during the same trip, was magnificent, the house of a tycoon. The nearby Villa Müller, deigned by Adolf Loos, is another grand house (which I also visited, and might write about later). The Villa Rothmayer, in contrast, was the modest home of a professional couple and their son, but equally fascinating, and really worth a visit.

For another visitor's account of a visit (which I used to jog my memory), see
Tracy's Travels: Rothmayer Villa Diary

Villa Rothmayer
U Páté baterie 896
162 00 Prague 6 ‒ Břevnov
Open on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday
Tours start: 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m. .
"Visit of the villa is only possible by prior reservation!" ... and only 7 people are allowed in at any one time. See website

(Combined ticket available for the Villa Rothmayer and Villa Müller. Highly recommended)