House of Bones (SOS)

_PW_1317In the same way as Casa Milà is better known as Le Pedrera (The Quarry), so Casa Batlló, another Gaudí masterpiece, has a number of alternative names in the local population.  Some refer to it as the Dragon House, referring to the scaly ceramic roof tiles and suggesting that the Gaudí cross and turret to the left represent the lance of St George.

Others, looking at the rounded shapes of the main windows are reminded of a fully open mouth and have called the building “The House of Yawns”.  Understandable, but entirely inappropriate for such an innovative and exciting structure.

The supporting pillars that are best examined through those yawning apertures have an organic flow similar to a femur expanding at the knee-joint when seen from below.  Closer examination shows that the influence is actually floral, but “House of Bones” is another name that has stuck.

Even the name Batlló creates variations as ignorant visitors like me struggle to imagine how the tongue should tackle it.  In fact the pronunciation is very easy when you know how, but for the non-Catalans you can listen to it here.

Between the bones and dragon scales there is another feature that adorns the exterior.  A band of coloured ceramics in Gaudí’s signature trencadis that create an effect similar to a Monet painting, and there is more of this technique deployed in a multitude of ways to different effect throughout the building.

So striking is the exterior that it overshadows the adjoining Casa Amattler which is
another masterpiece of Catalan modernism, and I wonder how _PW_9987many of the thousands of tourists who gaze upwards in wonderment outside Battló each day ever take time to consider its neighbour.  Instead they throng with selfie sticks and struggle to render the masterpiece as background to their latest timeline addition before moving onto the next photo opportunity.  If they’re really smart though they’ll take the time to venture inside.

When I was young I read Roger Dean’s Views, the book in which the celebrated artist behind so many prog rock album covers explained some of his techniques and inspiration. (One Yes album famously features a series of clouds which were incorporated to camouflage the impact of one of his cats traversing his canvas).  The final chapter of that book fascinated me the most however.  Here Dean explained his plans to create a house for him and his family that was constructed from the same organic shapes that populated his imagery.  It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.  Until I stepped inside Casa Battló.

The tour guides tell you that it’s a house without straight lines, and though this is patently untrue you can understand why they share that view.  Walls bulge, staircases meander, glass bends light to distort the views beyond.  It’s a remarkable feat of design, but one that shows a great deal of insight too.

The central light well is sheathed in blue ceramics, but blues that change in hue to become brighter and more reflective on the lower levels where light is needed, and more absorbent to cut glare nearer the sky.

The loft space, composed of Gaudí’s much-loved catenary arches, was designed to house the laundry facilities for the tenants of the apartments within, and despite it’s functionality has a tranquil beauty derived from the softness of the curves and the diffused light which creeps in through gaps in the walls without ever being harsh and direct.

Similarly a pair of pillars stand by the doorway to the roof terrace whose function is to break up the light rather than support the roof,  a charming fireplace for intimate conversation features a single seat on one side and a double to the other – providing space for a chaperone.  Nothing in a Gaudí building should ever be taken at face value!_PW_1210

Gaudí’s genius shows its different facets in different projects; the Sagrada is audacious, Le Pedrera is practical, Parc Guell is capricious.  The joy of Battló is that here you get it all in single dose.  Even if you’re only in Barcelona briefly its a must.





Contrasting Fortunes (Venezia 129)

Sunderland, where I was born, has a glass making history which can be traced back to 674 AD when the monastery in Monkwearmouth brought craftsmen in from France to create England’s first stained glass window in the small Anglo-Saxon church of St Peter.  Glass remained a key industry in the town for over 1300 years, until the Corning factory (where Pyrex was made) closed.

Glass making in Venice wasn’t documented until three hundred years later, but in response to a ban on furnaces within the city because of the fire risk they created, glassmaking was moved out to the island of Murano.  Some believe that this was actually a means of preserving the trade secrets of Venetian glass manufacture, but whatever the reasoning the move allowed the cross fertilisation of ideas and techniques that allowed the industry to flourish.

Murano glass continues to be some of the finest in the world, though for the less discerning tourist who feels they must own some Venetian glass there are plenty willing to supply wares of a lesser standard.


Class in a Glass

A long weekend.

So it rains.


J and I had planned a stroll along the seaside, maybe with a spot of kite-flying too to pander to our competitive instincts, and when we were ready to go it was still bright and dry.

When we parked our car it was still bright and dry.

But then we reached the coast, and the heavens opened.  Ever optimistic we stopped for a coffee to allow the clouds to pass, which they did… to make way for larger and even more generous clouds.  Just as well I’d forgotten the kite!

But what to do?  The National Glass Centre has undergone a bit of recycling since I last visited, and Jane has never been so a solution was at hand, and a dry one at that.

Of course we couldn’t take shelter immediately; the signs on the roof request that you “Please walk on the glass”, which means a stroll on the roof to test the mettle of anyone with vertigo, for amongst the more traditionally made panels are sections of reinforced glass that offer views of the restaurant below and reflections of the sky above.

The highest point affords some shelter so we stopped to take in the river view before exploring the interior.

A new gallery offered the chance to view the work of three artists working in glass, though it was Mexican brothers Jamex and Einar de la Torre who were the most memorable, though not in a good way!  That’s not a criticism of their craft, but their subject matter is curiously disturbing; the butterflies that we spotted on entering the building were revealed to be patterned with human eyes upon their wings and bodies formed from identical Crucifixions.  Nevertheless the degree of detail was inevitably absorbing.untitled-2

Of course there was light relief at hand too; the rippling backdrop to some of the displays provide a chance for a bit of Hall of Mirrors type distortion.

Down to the ground floor and you have the inevitable shop and restaurant offering, but also the chance to see some artists at work.  The work of glass blowing and large-scale sculpture might feature here later in the year, but a craftsman producing miniatures of the Angel of the North at fairly high-speed attracted several spectators.


X-Men: First Class
X-Men: First Class (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So a worthwhile afternoon after all, but that shiny roof still had possibilities.  Having seen the latest X-Men film only days before, J’s blue outfit and red hair were always going to be reminiscent of Mystique, so here is our take on the X-Men First Class poster!


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West Once More.

It’s almost a year since my work took me to the West Country on what was a rare English summer’s day when I photographed Sam for my blog.  Yesterday was a bit of deja vu, as I was working just outside Bristol Airport at a hotel called Winford Manor.  With its beautiful tree-lined grounds it’s an obvious wedding venue (especially when the sun is shining) and the marquee alongside the hotel bore testimony to that.

The Manor’s history goes back to the 12th Century, although there is precious little evidence of any medieval history here, and at some point the property was owned by the family of Capt Mark Phillips, the first husband of Princess Anne, the Princess Royal.   More interesting is that the estate included “redding pits”, red ochre mines producing the raw material for chemical and cosmetic dyes.  I would have needed caving equipment to shoot these, and plenty of protective clothing.  The workers who mined the ore found their skin permanently pigmented by the red dye.

The gardens include a couple of unusual features; a box labyrinth which doubtless makes a great feature for wedding photography… if you can get enough height to take in the whole of the feature, and have some means of lift your bride and groom into the centre.  The labyrinth was rather overgrown, making walking through it a challenge, but not withstanding that, I couldn’t detect an opening leading to the central space.

I was bemused to also find a small stone circle in the grounds; an attempt by some former aristocrat to introduce a little mystery to the landscape?  Perhaps.

I didn’t have a bride to photograph yesterday so contented myself with some of the details and features of the property, including a stained glass window that whilst beautiful when suitably backlit by sunshine, looks rather different from the outside.  TLC required.

In the absence of a bride I persuaded Jo, who works for one of our client companies to be a portrait.  The light coming in from the conservatory was too good to miss in her eyes.


Mesopotamia to Monkwearmouth


Something we largely take for granted; a material superseded by plastic in many uses, but nevertheless an important part of our lives.  Though naturally occurring glass was believed to have been traded in neolithic societies for its ability to produce a sharp cutting edge, glass making can be traced back to the cradle of civilisation.  Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and some of the lands that border it) can be shown to have produced glass over 5,500 years ago.

In that time frame the introduction of glass making to Sunderland (which I described in an earlier blog) seems relatively recent although it was 1500 years ago). Nevertheless it became the most important industry on Wearside after ships and coal, particularly when the famous “Pyrex” brand of cookware was made here at the James A Jobling glassworks.

Many of our uses of glass are obvious, but some we never notice.

The skylight that illuminates an underground toilet is walked over by those oblivious to its existence. 

The bulb that lights the lighthouses, the mirrors that reflect it and the lenses that focus the light are replicated in the camera and flash unit that captures the image. 

In truth it’s very translucency adds to its anonymity – we just look right through it.

Every house, every car, even every CD in every car, relies on glass, and yet despite our continuing need for the material the industry in Sunderland is no more, like so much of this country’s manufacturing, a victim to lower labour rates in a global economy.

The National Glass Centre continues to make and display glass, though from an artistic perspective rather than commercial; it is part of the University of Sunderland now.

I met a friend for coffee in the restaurant there today; the quirkily named “Throwing Stones”, as its glass walls and roof make it a lighter and airier space on an otherwise grey and rainy day.  We were served by Zainab, whose Arabic name, according to some sources, means “a flower of the desert”.

The name brought to mind the Sudanese journalist Zeinab Badawi

GPDRR2011 - Day 1

who would certainly fit this description, but then the EastEnders character Zainab Masood (played by Nina Wadia) who might be considered more cactus like!

I’m pleased to say that this Zainab was more like the former!

It’s just a rumour that’s been spread around town*

The City of Sunderland grew out of the merger of three separate settlements of Anglo-Saxon origin, although the fishing village that originally bore the name wasn’t officially recognised until a century after the arrival of the Normans.  The name Sunderland probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon word soender, meaning to part or separate, and refers to the gorge carved by the River Wear as it reaches the sea.  (The other two settlements were Monkwearmouth, site of a monastery since 674 AD, and Bishopwearmouth, founded in 930 AD when King Athelstan donated the land to the Bishop of Durham)

The first Wear Bridge in what was then a small town, was built in 1796 and was a catalyst in the development of the community.  The present bridge is much more recent having been built in the 1920’s.  Most people who cross the bridge will do so without noticing that there is a set of steps on either side giving direct access to the riverside.  Those on the south side are gated and locked, but on the north side there is still access.  In the heyday of shipbuilding this stairway would have seen a lot of use, giving easy access to what was North Sands shipyard.  Nowadays it probably sees more graffiti artists, though I was surprised to see these lads dismount to carry bike and fishing tackle down, instead of the easier option of cycling slightly further downhill to the riverside.

Before beginning my first “real” job, I worked in the shipyards for about three months after leaving school.  I spent most of my time at Deptford further upstream, where the vessels first took shape, though I also visited North Sands, where they were moored for fitting out after the initial launching.  The SD14 cargo ships designed and built in Sunderland were produced on an almost monthly basis for 20 years.

All of that is gone now; the great concrete base of one of the cranes supports a sculpture representing the regeneration of the area.  Etched into the ground, an anamorphic projection reveals the shadow of the crane that once stood in that spot.


This area of heavy industry is now given over to education and culture;  the former being the St Peter’s Campus of Sunderland University, the latter in the modernist architecture of the National Glass Centre

This is an appropriate location for the Centre; Sunderland has a long tradition of glass- making which goes back to that monastery established in 674.  Part of the design of the building required specialist glaziers to be brought from France and this was when glass making was introduced to Britain.

Most of the visitors to the Centre probably give that little thought, being drawn primarily by the quirkily named “Throwing Stones” restaurant, and the glass roof which you are encouraged to walk upon.  Those not of a nervous disposition can look down onto the diners two stories below.

Here it was that I met the Scots trio of Sarah, Allan and Bill just as they were leaving the building.  Whilst I prefer solo shots I saw an opportunity to group them using the ramp to bring them close enough to leave no gaps in the composition. I fired a half a dozen frames as they laughed, but in one of them I caught this expression from Bill which I felt deserved to be processed as today’s main image.  I trust his friends will forgive me.

* Lyric fromShipbuilding written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer, recorded by Robert Wyatt.

Robert Wyatt – Shipbuilding