Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Clough Williams-Ellis

“Cherish the Past, Adorn the Present, Construct for the Future”

Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis was born at Gayton, Northamptonshire, on 28 May, the second son of the Rev. John Clough Williams-Ellis and Hilda Greaves.

Educated at Oundle School; Trinity College, Cambridge; the Architectural Association School, London (for three months, 1902-03). In private practice, London and Merioneth 1905-1914 and 1919-1978.

He inherited Plas Brondanw, Merioneth in 1908. The Brondanw Estate lies within the Snowdonia National Park, between Snowdon and the sea. Plas Brondanw is the principal house on the estate.

"It had been at about my twenty-fifth birthday that my father unexpectedly handed over to me the control of the old (Williams) family property of Plas Brondanw which I would ultimately inherit," wrote Clough Williams-Ellis. “Gradually but surely the old house and its rehabilitation became my chief absorbing interest outside my profession”.

The estate was enlarged when Clough bought two adjoining mountainous properties threatened by mining. The Brondanw Estate has never been bought or sold and is now owned by a charitable trust for its protection.

Clough is best known for Portmeirion, built on his own private peninsula on the coast of Snowdonia, which he built to show that the development of a naturally beautiful site need not lead to its defilement and that architectural good manners could be good business. His lifelong concern was with Architecture, Landscape Design, the protection of Rural Wales and Conservation generally. At Portmeirion he gave his ideas physical and practical expression.

In 1915 he married Amabel Strachey (1894 -1984). They met at a meeting at which he took up a challenge set by her father St. Loe Strachey, editor-proprietor of The Spectator to design affordable rural housing.

"I liked this sporting offer and the engaging way in which it was made, but I liked even better the looks of a young lady whom I had seen earlier, moving about amongst the audience." His four-bedroom cottage beat the field at precisely £101.

Clough and Amabel were married at St. Martha’s Church on the Pilgrims’ Way on 31st July 1915. Clough was a volunteer Lieutenant in the Welsh Guards and later served in the Royal Tank Corps till 1918 (awarded the Military Cross).

They had two daughters, Susan, an Artist (married Euan Cooper-Willis 1945, four children), and Charlotte, a Scientist (married Lindsay Wallace 1945, five children) and one son Christopher (1923-1944), who fell in action before Monte Cassino as an ensign in the Welsh Guards. He had joined straight from King's Cambridge.

Clough did not often write about his own feelings however, among his unpublished papers is a note written in his 90s entitled Report on X: "He is narrowly un-emotional and even-tempered - only twice in his life having contrived to make a show of temper by deliberate intent. His dominating interests are visual, natural scenery, preferably dramatic, and architecture, in which latter, though academically ill-equipped, he none the less claims to have a natural instinct for responding to a site or a building’s requirements appropriately, and to have a judgment of proportions, particularly, that is unerring. He almost certainly has a weakness for splendor and display and believes that even if he were reduced to penury himself, he would still hope to be cheered by the sight of uninhibited lavishness and splendor unconfined somewhere, which is why he feels that Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens or something like them should be spread around the civilised world giving everyone a taste of lavishness, gaiety and cultivated design”.

A tireless campaigner for the environment Clough was a founder member of both the Council for the Protection of Rural England in 1926 and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales in 1928 (of which he was president for twenty years).

"How often one may see new houses that are like swaggering strangers... that have insolently plunked themselves down on the edge of a cosy little gossip-party and been properly left out in the cold. They have made no gesture of salutation, no concessions, no effort to make themselves agreeable or to respond to the architectural traditions of the place, and in return the old village just will not, cannot, know them"

He was an advocate of rural preservation, amenity planning, industrial design and colourful architecture. He was an influential advocate of the establishment of National Parks in England and Wales and was responsible for the demarcation of Snowdonia National Park’s boundary, which he presented, to King George and Queen Elizabeth in 1951. He built for clients in Wales, England and Ireland and even once in Shanghai. His contribution to architecture has been considerable, although critics excessively sympathetic to modernism tended to ignore his achievements.

Further information here, here & here.

Portmeirion, Gwynedd, Wales

"We crossed the Traeth Mawr and the Traeth Bychan. These are two arms of the sea, one large and one small. Two stone castles have been built there recently. The one called Castell Deudraeth belongs to the sons of Cynan and is situated in the Eifionydd area, facing the northern Mountains” Gerald of Wales, 1188.

Portmeirion, wrote The Times in 1973, is ‘the last folly of the Western World’. The same piece went on to say of the man who created the village: ‘Would any novelist have dared to invent someone like Williams-Ellis, who transforms his estate on the Welsh coast into an Italianate fantasy, a kind of stage-set of the imagination?’

The castle of Aber Iau is mentioned by Edward Lhuyd in Parochalia II (1700). Aber Iâ had a foundry, small shipyard and a few cottages. In 1814 its most infamous inhabitant, yr Hwntw Mawr, was publicly hanged in Dolgellau for the murder of a local maid. However by the 1850s gentrification had set in. In 1861 Richard Richards wrote a description: "Neither man nor woman was there, only a number of foreign water-fowl on a tiny pond, and two monkeys, which by their cries evidently regarded me as an unwelcome intruder. The garden itself was a very fine one, the walls of which were netted all over with fruit trees...Aberia, then, gentle reader, is a beautiful mansion on the shore of Traeth Bach, in Merionethshire".

Clough acquired the site in 1925 for something under £5,000. It was then, as Clough wrote, "a neglected wilderness - long abandoned by those romantics who had realised the unique appeal and possibilities of this favoured promontory but who had been carried away by their grandiose landscaping...into sorrowful bankruptcy".

Clough immediately changed the name from Aber Iâ (Glacial Estuary) to Portmeirion: Port because of the coastal location and Meirion as this is Welsh for Merioneth, the county in which it lay. The first article about Portmeirion appeared in The Architects Journal (January 6 1926) with photographs of scale models (above) and preliminary designs prepared by Clough to impress potential investors. In this article John Rothenstein writes: "On the sea-coast of North Wales, quite near his own old home, Plas Brondanw, he has acquired what he believes to be an ideal site, and he is engaged upon plans and models for the laying out of an entire small township. The results of his scheme will be significant and should do much to shake the current notion that although houses must be designed with due care, towns may grow up by chance".

"I think that Beauty, The Strange Necessity - as Rebecca West once called it - is something that matters profoundly to humanity, and that unless the race of man perishes from the earth, it will increasingly value that Grace, will seek it, and will ultimately attain it" Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, On Trust for the Nation, 1947.

The concept of a tightly grouped coastal village had already formed in Clough's mind some years before he found the perfect site. Clough sometimes later suggested the development was unplanned but these drawings and models suggest otherwise. It appears that he had quite a well-defined vision for the village from the outset and that to a large extent he stuck to it.

Portmeirion was built in two stages: from 1925 to 1939 the site was ‘pegged-out’ and its most distinctive buildings were erected. From 1954-76 he filled in the details. The second period was typically classical or Palladian in style in contrast to the Arts and Crafts style of his earlier work. Several buildings were salvaged from demolition sites, giving rise to Clough’s description of the place as “a home for fallen buildings”.

“An architect has strange pleasures”, he wrote in 1924. “He will lie awake listening to the storm in the night and think how the rain is beating on his roofs, he will see the sun return and will think that it was for just such sunshine that his shadow-throwing mouldings were made”. His last building, the tollgate was built in his 93rd year. Portmeirion gave Clough pleasure during his life and he hoped that it would give pleasure to others. His motto was “Cherish the Past, Adorn the Present, Construct for the Future”. He fought for beauty, “that strange necessity”.

Further information here, here & here.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

House (ハウス, Hausu) - A film by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Search for information on Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hausu on the internet and you’ll find a few comparisons to midnight movie staples like Eraserhead, The Shining and Yellow Submarine.

But it says even more about the film that most of the descriptions take a hypothetical form, such as “what if Walt Disney decided to make a horror film based on Pee Wee’s Playhouse”; “imagine Gone with the Wind as a ’70s-era music video invaded by traditional Japanese ghosts”; “Beetlejuice as directed by Dario Argento”; or “if Michel Gondry directed his own version of a J-horror remake.” Lucky for us, we don’t need to imagine any of those disquieting what-if scenarios, because Hausu most assuredly exists, the only example in a genre of one.

So what’s so special about Hausu? A viewing of literally any scene, and almost any frame, of the movie will answer this question in short order. Obayashi’s debut feature incorporates a kitchen sink’s worth of visual and optical effects – matte paintings, chroma key, hand-drawn animation, puppetry, collage, stop-motion, slow-motion, dissolves, irising, and quite a few techniques I’m not sure they have a name for yet – in the service of one of the most bizarre and unpredictable horror movies of all time..

It’s impossible to overstate how unusual Hausu is, but also easy to condescend to it as a product of Japan’s famously outré postwar consumer culture (“those crazy Japanese!”). So let it be stated clearly that Obayashi definitely knew what he was doing. Loopy as it is, the film does deal with some serious themes, the historical memory of the war being the most prominent, though no doubt it could also be saying something about the sexualization of schoolchildren in Japanese society. And many of the more mind-bending effects he employs are directly traceable to his previous work in the cinematic avant-garde.2 Few fine artists have sold out so extravagantly and entertainingly, and if Hausu doesn’t quite deliver the familiar thrills of the horror genre, it’s far too schlocky and crowd-pleasing to rate as an art film, even by postmodernist standards.

Obayashi doesn’t so much subvert or deconstruct horror tropes as cycle through them at such high speed that some of the elements break off the chassis and burst into flame. The movie feels a little too fast and too dense for human viewing, like a state-of-the-art product that hasn’t undergone enough safety testing yet. But that doesn’t keep it from being a dangerous amount of fun, best experienced with a crowd of unsuspecting but open-minded cinéastes.

Get ready to be bewildered...

Actors: Kimiko Ikegami, Kumiko Ohba, Yôko Minamida, Ai Matsubara, Miki Jinbo, Masayo Miyako, Mieko Satoh & Eriko Tanaka. Written By: Chiho Katsura, Nobuhiko Obayashi. Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi. Distributor: Toho International Company Inc, 1977. Running Time: 1 hr. 50 min.

Further information here, here & here.

Video content here, here & here.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

A Brief History of Taxidermy

“What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector? The taxidermist takes only your skin” - Mark Twain/Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

Ancient techniques for preserving entire or parts of animals and humans were secret arts, frequently associated with religious ceremonies and mystical rites. Protecting the dead from decay was variously understood as a means of easing the transition of the spirit between this world and the next, harnessing supernatural forces, or accessing knowledge of the natural and supernatural worlds. Preserved body parts were links to the after world and were appropriately revered as symbols of strength and worldly representations of unworldly powers. In an effort to ensure abundant harvests, the Maori sometimes placed the skull, bones, and dried heads of ancestors around cultivated lands to recruit symbolically ancestral aid.

Some North American First Nations peoples were known to use the preserved heads of porcupines, foxes, raccoons, and eagles to decorate their clothing and equipment. In the Ecuadorian and neighboring Peruvian Amazon, members of the Jivaro Tribe wore the shrunken head, or tsanta, of their enemy as trophies to harness the powers of the victim's spirit and to enhance the wearer's prestige and. If the head of a slain warrior was not obtainable, the Jivaro substituted the head of a tree sloth, which many of the tribes in the region believed to be a direct ancestor of humans and endowed with human qualities.

The Western Christian tradition also revered relics of the deceased. Bodily fragments of saints displayed in early Christian churches were venerated by pilgrims for their power to heal and alleviate suffering and physical pain.

Medieval Christian also frequently hung preserved exotic items from the rafters of churches to evoke awe at the wondrous variety of God’s creations.

In 1260 a crocodile was given to King Alfonso X by the Sultan of Egypt. When the animal died, its body was dried and hung in the Portal of the Lizard (named for the reptile) which leads from the cloister to the Cathedral of Seville. The crocodile eventually decayed, however, and was replaced by a wooden replica.

Even early natural history collections, the precursors to modern day scientific institutions, had religious overtones. Nature was God’s creation, and as such reading the book of Nature was a means of knowing His works and ways.

Collections of body parts were used a moral exemplum. Fredrick Ruysch (1638-1731), for example, sculpted pieces of human bodies – kidney stones, gallstones, dried organs – as landscapes on which tiny skeletons enacted various emotional scenes of piety, despair, and tribulation... The ancient Egyptians developed perhaps the most sophisticated methods of bodily preservation, which was used on humans and well as animals. Cats, dogs, bulls, mice, hawks, ibises, crocodiles, and other pets of rulers or sacred animals were also carefully preserved and entombed.

After removing the internal organs, the body was washed inside and out with astringent palm wine and then filled with pounded aromatics such as myrrh, cassia, and cinnamon. The body was then kept covered in natron, a type of salt mined from dry lake beds near the Nile River which accelerated the dehydration of the body. After a period of several months, the body was washed again and wrapped with bands of fine linen smeared on their inside with gum, which the Egyptians used instead of glue. Essentially, mummification prevents decay by allowing the body to slowly release moisture; the skin and muscles become rigid and the tissues shrink, adhering to the skeleton... Read more here.

Taxidermist Jeremy Adams works at the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton. Here he talks about his life in a short film shot for The Guardian, by Moving Picture TV.