Category: Europe

L’Archiduc bar and music venue, Rue Antoine Dansaert 6, Brussels 1000, Belgium

To sum it up in a nutshell, a beautiful Art Deco streamlined interior with quirky touches.
It is described by Trip advisor as “The coolest bar in Belgium”.
The interior design scheme swirls round the room including everything within itself. The control of the design elements is superb, and the confidence of it all is breathtaking, for there is also contradiction in the handling of the doorway ironwork and the streamlined interior. It’s made to look so easy and is so well done that you simply accept the contradiction and say “Of course, why not?”
But first you have to get past the plain and rather nondescript street facade.


L’Archeduc is surrounded by larger, more impressive buildings. Although painted turquoise blue, this otherwise gives little hint of the splendours inside. It seems banal and provincial, of little consequence, giving little away to the casual passer-by. The best hints are the neat neon sign above the door and the soft ripple of the square leaded glass windows at street level.

The architectural adventure begins at the entrance. Here an extraordinary curving metal and glass affair of wonderful craftsmanship, contriving to be both modern and old, welcomes you. Subtle repeating curves in the flat wrought iron arched outer doorway are repeated in the plan of the curved inner bay. Its inner door of glass and iron is itself curved. Vertical strips of glass line the inner bay, allowing daylight to penetrate and giving glimpses of the street. While the doorway hints at rustic origins which agree with the delicately coloured leaded windows, they offer gentle contradiction to the rest of the modernist Deco interior.


The softly varied light given by the facade windows casts a mellow glow over the room and eliminates distractions from the street. This is always a room which looks in on itself, a private world.


The room has a rich bold colour scheme, where warm reds, dark purples and black feature lower down with cream and deep olive green appearing above.

bar2 At the left rear, and punctuating this sits the bar, with surfaces of richly varnished dark wood, gleaming mirrors and glass. You sit at chrome and leather bar stools; the bar counter is lit by creamy yellow porthole shaped light recesses. The lower ceiling height here give a feeling of cosiness and intimacy within the larger room space. Very rich and sophisticated!

Furnishings consist of tub seating and stools made of dark patterned cloth, are heavily worn, and compliment booths with deco style patterned cloth in red, a creamy yellow gold and blue-black and framed in glossy dark wood.


Over all this and supported by part chromed pillars which frame the grand piano, The sweeping gallery edge has rails worthy of a ship, and fit over a solid modernist balcony edge which curves back into the wall behind. Beneath this edge are square recessed ceiling lights giving illumination to the bench seating below. The overall effect of this is similar to theatre, with an audience seated in the balcony taking part in the proceedings below. The vertical space offered within the tight plan is notable and well exploited. The curving lines of the balcony emphasise this and always draws your eye upwards to explore.
Its all simply fabulous design.




The city at night



What do you see here?

A street scene somewhere.
Cars, a pedestrian, apartment buildings with shops at ground level. The road in front seems broad, the prospect might be inviting or intriguing, for this scene seems a little untidy. Parked cars seem scattered across the roadspace.
The buildings seem quite new, they have a modern, fresh feel. Above the shops are the windows of apartments. People are living in them, and the lights are on in some of windows. We can see into some rooms.

The shops are small. These businesses are small town or from the edge of the city centre. Although their lights are also on, perhaps the workers have all gone home.


The sky is an evening sky, not quite dark yet, perhaps a summer evening. There is a watcher on one of the balconies.
Across the street, and reflected in the windows is an illuminated hotel sign.
So a mixed neighbourhood, homes, shops, hotels. Parked cars and a broad road. The city at night, inhabited and full of life and promise. If we use our imagination a little, we can picture ourselves as the watcher on the balcony, perhaps enjoying the view, living in the city and enjoying its benefits.

In fact this is Brussels in early August. Its between nine and ten in the evening. The air is still warm after a dry, sunny day. I was eating in a restaurant across the street and saw this. How different to my home town of Dumfries. There, houses and shops are more separate. In the evening the town centre is mostly silent and empty.



Flagey, in Brussels

The Flagey building, Place Flagey and the nearby lake are worth a visit.


Place Flagey itself is a big irregular, informal, open public space. Many roads meet here. On two sides are apartment blocks with shops at ground level.


The apartments are carefully composed facades of yellow brick, as is the Flagey building itself. The south west corner of the square touches the northern tip of the lake. The square has an intermittent spouting fountain area which locals braved with nonchalance. Trees are scattered round the edge, and there are two more modern public sculptures which which challenge the ’30s atmosphere.
On our visit a truck and PSVs were scattered across the square. This casualness hides a vigorous and contested re-development made between 2002 and 2008.

Place Flagey is situated south of central Brussels and at the top end of a little lake, about 15 minutes bus ride from the city centre. You arrive at a big glass-covered bus and tram stop situated to one side at the north end of the square.

We visited on a warm sunny morning, and had the immediate feeling of being in a good place. Why is that? It’s harder to define, we were enjoying the sun after a rainy day (it rains on average 200 days a year in Brussels).
That was one thing but we were also feeling relaxed. We had planned our route, and how it might fit in to the rest of our day. We had done some checking out on- line. We thought it looked interesting, that there might be quite a lot to see, but we weren’t sure as it seemed quite low-key. We had seen the lake on the map and thought we might enjoy walking round it to see the Cascade apartments on the other side. It seems to float above the lake like some medieval castle, yet at the same time, indisputably modern Art Deco.


But when we got there, we realised that we weren’t just looking at the Flagey building, were were experiencing a living built environment- square, buildings and lake. Each part revealed something of the rest, and that invited movement through the space. In general it also offered a small glimpse into ordinary suburban life in Brussels. It hadn’t been primped for the tourists. Flaws and untidiness were allowed exist alongside things which were beautiful and interesting.

To begin with, we walked round the lake. We could see glimpses of buildings with mixed styles on the other side. Towards the far end, there was a man-made rocky grotto in the shade of trees, complete with broken classical columns.
The Cascade apartment building is a strong draw. We noticed couples from other countries drifting by, taking photos and smiling, happy to be there.



It is a large and beautiful example of Art Deco. Curving volumes, nice surfaces and simple detailing make a good mix.


But there were other interesting buildings, an apartment block and a modernist house to discover as well.
The lake appeared well cared for, with several duck houses spaced out along its length.
At the top end, swans, geese and ducks queued for breadcrumbs from local children. This activity served as a link with the public space and re-entry to the square.

In this complex space, life continued. People moved back and forth across it. Trams and buses came and went. Delivery vans blocked shop fronts. A man unloaded a trolley load of goods into a shop. A cafe couldn’t serve coffee because their machine had broken! A shop was being re-fitted.


There was even an external elevator moving furniture into an apartment building, and passers-by watching the little drama. All this in the morning sunshine while we looked and lingered.


The Flagey building, formerly the I.N.R. (Institut National de Radiodiffusion), the name previously given to Belgian radio and television, is now subdivided and re-purposed. It is not particularly beautiful, but it is striking. It’s probably the reason visitors would initially go there. Unlike a monument or museum, it has limited public access at specific times. Perhaps it’s in transition, and sometime in the future will become just another restored museum, but for now it’s still a collection of working spaces. At the time of our visit, the only part we could find our way into was the cafe on the north-west corner.

Its has a genuine ’30s interior, much used and worn but very real. It’s also a popular, busy space. We liked the cafe tables,

cafe viewcafe-table

the ceiling fans and lights, the little tubular wall lights. There was a nice bar area as well.

cafe-barThe bar staff were all young men, apart from a girl at the counter which served food. The whole atmosphere was easy, relaxed and in no way challenging. As outsiders we felt completely unnoticed, we just blended in.

That’s what was nice about it all, the way it was. It has the charm of the old, and the everyday. Explained by the small comfortable changes which we see as we pass through it.


Language in our DNA

Long before the EU came about, when I was a wee girl, my father taught me to count in German and Italian – ein, zwei, drei; uno, due, tre………

I loved it, the sound of the words and the feel of them in my mouth.

Despite spending time in a POW camp in northern Italy and then in an internment camp in Switzerland, working on small farms in both countries, he still thought it worthwhile to teach me the basics of German and Italian.
He brought home a tiny German bible, printed in a dense black Gothic typeface; a battery powered bakelite torch with a noisy spring ratchet action that you had to squeeze repeatedly to get a glimmer of light; a pair of wire rimmed glasses with German lenses. Fascinating foreign things.
He also brought back a smattering of both languages and a love of Italian lyric opera. Alongside these “foreign” languages, I was learning Burns’ songs and poems and reciting them on demand for visitors. Burns was challenging too, with lots of words I liked getting my tongue round, but had no reference for. Chapman billies and bowsing at the nappy, or a “skellum, A bletherin, blusterin, drunken blellum”. Even if the words were unfamiliar, you could hear the disgust.

And nonsense songs like….. There was a Wee Cooper wha lived in Fife, nickety nackety noo noo noo…

As I grew older, the pull of languages grew stronger.
I was schooled in Latin and French, under the old Scottish academy system. Latin was great for unlocking the English language and the Romance ones, while learning German revealed much in common with Scots. Later on, I learned to speak Italian, its rolling r’s and rounded vowels entirely at home in my Scottish mouth.
I was able to get close to the meaning in the writings of Virgil, Dante, Moliere and Thomas Mann and even though I never became really fluent, I could feel the power of the words in a way that is mostly diluted, when translated into English.

Teenage school exchanges brought Flemish kids from Aalst, with their impressive self confidence and alien sounding conversation. I had pen pals too, Jamil, from Morocco and Dieter, from north west Germany.

Jamil looked like a young Camus and sent me photos of a warm gaggle of little brothers and sisters with his mum. It looked hot and dusty but friendly.
Dieter was pale, blond and distant and sent photos of the massive statue of his national hero, Hermann, set in green forest.
His letters were written on graph paper, and the landscape in his photos wasn’t unlike Scotland, but the scale of the monument had no counterpart here. I didn’t really understand why a boy my age would send me that; I was into pop music and boys, not William Wallace – not then!
But in retrospect, good for him and good for the education system that taught him about his country’s history and its heroes. It’s more than I was getting in Scotland.
And the same thing happened with all the Europeans I met. They were proud of their countries, proud of their towns, unashamed about their language and culture. It was normal to be an independent country and represent it. I had very little sense of my country’s identity, its history and its past, despite my knowledge of Burns.

School brought foreign language assistants in from Berlin and Rabat, in French Morocco.
Fraulein Inge loved walking in the mountains at home, so four of us took her up Ben Lomond. She sucked on slices of lemon as she climbed, while we gasped and slugged bottles of ginger. She was stereotypically Germanic too, tall, slim, blond and scarily polite in all her dealings with us, but extremely kind. She left us each a little Berlin Bear charm when she went home.

Mam’selle proudly showed us slides of her home town with its wide, scorched streets. She had dyed red hair and a foul temper but she loved the Rolling Stones and threw a farewell party for us kids in her digs and played them very loud. She was raucous and intolerant in class but otherwise treated us like adults. I first heard Edith Piaf in my French class at school.

A further two young French language assistants lodged with a friend of mine, in her parents “chalet”, on the shores of Loch Lomond. The chalet was a large wooden shed at the back of the garden, with plenty of room and even a verandah. It must have sounded idyllic when you were stifling in Paris in August, but it suffered from Scottish damp, rain, muddy paths and midges. Both girls had high octane Gallic personalities, smoked and used lots of make up, creams and lotions.
They pushed their hair up into the Bardot look.
They were always falling out with each other, rivalries were high, and frequent bouts of French screeching came from the chalet. When the Luss Games came round, it got worse, as they vied for the attentions of the strong men, the caber throwing giants. Watching them flirt with the kilties when you were 14 was an education in itself.
Organised visits to the French and German Institutes in Park Circus were rare opportunities to mix with foreign students in an easy way, watching their films and eating their biscuits.
All these encounters with Europeans taught me something valuable: that despite fascinating superficial differences, we were essentially very similar and we found a lot to like in each other.

But I have now finally got round to learning Gaelic and it seems strange to have spent a lot of my life learning other peoples’ mother tongues, having never listened properly to my own.
Gaelic has had a bad press, of course, it’s been suppressed and reduced to a fringe activity, but is now enjoying a renaissance across Scotland.
Having been out of favour for so long, it does not have its own vocabulary for the currency of the 20th C, politics, banking, technology, lifestyle etc.

What it does have in spades, is a deep and elemental bond with the ancient landscapes and weather of Scotland and with the peoples who live here.
Its placenames are both poetic and unashamedly descriptive.
It is able to carry stories, ideas and feelings that allow us to connect with our own culture again. And its music travelled the world with the emigrant Gaels.

Language is our birthright, it tells us who we are. While few Scots can speak Gaelic, most of us have a good grasp of Scots and English. We are, in varying degrees, bilingual and many of our Scots words are only a heartbeat away from their Gaelic roots. They are also quite likely to be the words we turn to in moments of strong emotion. English has a civility that disnae dae it, when yer greetin or beelin – or feelin’ smashin.

Britain is an insular place in language matters. The domination of the English language in international trade and financial systems has made us lazy. We don’t make much effort to learn the languages of other countries. But a lot of them do spend time and effort on learning to speak English, to a degree that is significantly higher than classroom level.
When Brits travel abroad, they mostly make little effort to acquire some language for the country of choice. There is an expectation that they will get by without trying.
And, mostly they will. Others are required to make the effort to communicate. In the hospitality industry, it would be rare to find accommodation abroad where there are no English speaking staff on hand.
In the UK, only the largest chain hotels trouble to hire staff with language skills.
In schools, language teaching is on the decline too. But without these skills, so much is lost. The chance to communicate and relate to other cultures is absent. The average Brit moves around the non English speaking parts of the world in a bubble of Britishness, deaf to other ways of speaking, living or thinking. That creates feelings of otherness.
Speaking another language is challenging, whenever you start. I don’t deny that, but its what we humans are good at. Our brains are hard wired for language.

And nursery rhymes, songs and ditties are a great way for little kids to get into language. Many of our fairy tales come from Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm, with their dark tales of forests, witches, magic, and stories of good versus evil.

We shouldn’t worry about not teaching them English well. Kids are like sponges for new things and they love to parrot sounds. The more wordplay and fun with language that children experience, the more their language skills develop. There are lots of online resources for them to learn from. It doesn’t demean English, it enhances it. By exploring other ideas, we begin to recognise ourselves.

Most folk are familiar with songs like Frere Jacques when they hear them. Football and rugby crowds regularly hear the French Marseillaise and other national anthems. Or a psalm like Silent Night (Stille Nacht). To hear those different words sung to a familiar tune can reveal something of the soul of the people, and their unique sensitivities.
If we understand even a little bit of our own and our European neighbours languages, then we understand a little bit about them too and suddenly we have things in common – shared experiences or beliefs, and isolation has no place any more.

Teach your children to enjoy their own and other languages and they will learn to value other cultures too. Words are currency in a global world. It worked for me!



Transports of delights D

Leipzig Hauptbanhof and “Bach im Leipziger Banhof” (the annual Bach Festival)
Leipzig itself, is an attractive place. It has been ranked as the most liveable and the most attractive city in Germany. It has a very high quality of living. It is also noted as a centre for shopping and food. The city is a thousand years old. It has a 15th Century university that is the students favourite, and since the 1490s, the city has been famous for its trade fairs. The older city centre dating from the 16th century attracts many visitors and is charming to walk through.
City reconstruction began after wartime damage as part of East Germany. After reunification it continued. The collapse of many of the city’s traditional businesses and activities led to economic decline. The population shrank, but has now stabilised at about half a million. Since then, the city’s fortunes have revived and now Leipzig is seen as something of a magnet city, attracting jobs and investment.
Today Leipzig is a growing, thriving and ambitious city of just over half a million people, noted for its lively arts scene. It is also a major transport hub, integrating air, train, tram and bus. This is interesting for a Scot, who is frequently exhorted to use public transport more and the car less. Leipzig station has 120,000 users per day, about the same as both of Glasgow’s stations combined, but twice that of Edinburgh, although the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh are roughly the same size as Leipzig. The huge city tram network is 92 miles long. This is where Leipzig stands out.
It also has a very well developed cycle network which adds to its popularity. If we are serious about growing a greener economy and increasing prosperity in Scotland, we need the attitude and commitment shown in places like Leipzig.
Among its former famous inhabitants are the philosophers Karl Wittgenstein and Gottfried Leibnitz, together with the painter Max Beckmann, the poet and philosopher Goethe and Mendelssohn, the composer. Then of course there’s Bach. JS Bach worked in Leipzig between 1723 and 1750.
Leipzig has an annual “Bachfest Leipzig” music festival. This celebrates the work of one of the world’s greatest composers and perhaps the city’s best known inhabitant. I’m sure its also very good for tourism.
The station

Leipzig Hauptbahnhof is one of the world’s largest railway stations. It has 19 platforms and a spectacular facade which is 298 metres long.
It is also a much changed place with a complicated history. It was begun in 1909 and finished in1915, but during WW2 bombing, the concourse roof collapsed and the western entrance hall was destroyed. Full restoration took until in 1965. Following German reunification, the station was modernised and a shopping mall and two basement levels were added.


So the big stone arches which support the roof now cover a multi-level concourse.


The modified station building was inaugurated in 1997, then two underground railway platforms were added in 2013 and a billion Euros has recently been spent on the Leipzig city tunnel.
This will integrate into the larger new rapid transit network, Berlin–Leipzig–Nuremberg–Munich, a very ambitious infrastructure project.  Link here
Today however, on the outside, the facade is once again grand, stately and rather beautiful.
A diversion-The cake
The interior is just an amazing space to explore.


As you can see, we did and we eventually found the cake shop- all it takes is a little persistence!



Our verdict?  Well yeah- OK, it’s not Mendls “Courtesan au chocolat” but it was very, very seriously good none the less.

To me this whole redevelopment is a successful hi-tec intervention which matched the scale of this grand old building.


Throughout our visit we had the feeling that this was a renovation which has “been properly done”. The ambition of the design and quality of the work speaks for itself. It was also sensitive to the feel and history of the building and the wishes of Leipzigers.
The Music- Bach im Banhof


On the left of the picture below, you can see the performance area, with the concourse above. Anyone passing by can see the players and hear the music.

Right in the heart of all these new works, down in the multi level concourse, in June 2016, was the “Bach im Leipziger Bahnhof” music programme. The station’s own programme of free events as its contribution to the city’s annual Bach festival.
Perhaps you might think it strange that a railway station would be home to a concert programme, but “Bach im Bahnhof” perfectly complemented the railway station. A well organised and free daily music programme of took place quite matter-of-factly in the very heart of one of the busiest railway stations in Germany. 120,000 users pass through each day, roughly the same as Glasgow’s two railway stations combined, (yes! imagine if you had this railway station in Glasgow). It offered travellers a brush with culture during the hustle of a journey, and so culture had a chance to engage with daily life. The programme was also good enough to attract visitors to the station.
On the day I visited, beginners classes in violin and cello were showing everyone what they could do. For the kids it was a great showcase in a huge venue.

Learning violin isn’t easy, and these kids were great! I would guess that they were only about seven or eight years old, yet they held it together really well.
Why does that matter? Because acquiring that level of skill at such an early age is empowering. Having the opportunity to successfully perform in public, in a place like that will, I’m sure, will be remembered long after the event.
Also, learning good things about what we can do as we grow up, helps us to become confident adults. Its just such a social good.
Something you notice when you’re abroad is that Europeans have a seriousness about music, about its importance and value. Casual event performances (for example the bands at a summertime Bavarian open air fête day with fireworks in the evening) often have a much higher technical skill than you can casually find here, and the range of instruments is usually broader as well.

We toured in and around Leipzig. It was a revelation to see how much infrastructure investment is flowing into German transportation links. With its airport, three motorways surrounding the city-borders and several high-speed railway links to all major cities in Germany, Leipzig is an easy-access city. The billion Euro rail tunnel is only a fragment of a much wider scheme to upgrade the Central German Regional Railway Network, and improve connectivity in Central Europe. (ERDF) is underpinning the EU Central Europe programme. Scottish infrastructure spending, so long choked off by the UK government, is just beginning to transform Scotland and some of this is contingent on ERDF funding. The Scottish Government currently has 6 billion Pounds worth of infrastructure being constructed in Scotland today. That includes our new local hospital in Dumfries (£200million), the Queensferry Crossing (£1.4billion) the Shieldhall tunnel in Glasgow (£250million), the M9 upgrade(£450million).
The Scottish Government also has future infrastructure plans which would depend in part on getting ERDF funding.
This is the sort of investment which Brexit will put at risk.
In Leipzig as in Scotland, If your government really cares about your country’s future, it shows. Actions speak louder than words.

The Luxembourg Gardens, stress free Paris D

Our first visit had been in late September. It was a warm, dry day and began with a challenging morning, navigating across Paris to see Le Corbusier’s studio. The tourist directions were imprecise. Several streets and half an hour later, we were climbing the seven flights of stone stairs to see the apartment on 24 Rue Nungesser et Coli, near the western edge of the Peripherique.

It was worth the climb, as we and about 40 Chinese architecture students, discovered. Not much was being said, but everyone was looking really hard, judging, evaluating, admiring and remembering it all.

We remembered features like that little grey spiral staircase that leads to the roof terrace or the huge asymmetric pivoting room dividers. A very special place.

Back in the centre of Paris, we had had a quick lunch. Then, for the first time, we went into the Luxembourg gardens by the gate on the Boulevard Saint-Michel.

The gardens sit close to the Sorbonne on one side and Montparnasse on the other.We walked, surrounded by people both coming and going, down a broad avenue under a canopy of tall trees whose leaves were beginning to go brown. You could have been in a painting by Renoirpark-cafe

Originally built for Marie de Medici in the 16th century, and in Italian style, what was once only for royalty is now free for everyone. People have made this space their own, for this park has been much altered, changed, and added to.

It is a place with a great sense of space, elegance and style. People go there to take a break from shopping, business or study and to relax and to enjoy the company of others. Its a great place to people watch.

It is very much a planned park with an axial layout from the pond and Senate building to the north down to the Observatory gate to the south. It has many individual, even quirky features including an “English Garden” with broad, curved gravel paths and glimpsed vistas in the South-West corner.

There are touches of formality which mingle with informality, for groups can sit on patches of grass on the long axis to south, near the children’s play area. Otherwise there is no walking or sitting on grass here.

Instead, this Paris garden has something better to offer, chairs! Chairs in profusion, of different shapes for sitting up, for reclining and even for putting your feet upon. Sturdy, hefty metal chairs which you can arrange in any number or way you want, so if there’s three of you or eight of you, you can suit yourselves as to how you fix the arrangement. None of your British style fixed park benches here. Citizens and visitors alike get to choose where they sit. The garden’s most enviable feature is the ease with which ordinary people relax and luxuriate in such splendid surroundings.


At what I like to think is the centre of the gardens, there is a large octagonal pond with a central fountain, surrounded by a broad circular walkway. Here there are fancy and beautiful flower borders of great variety which are close to the paths.

On both sides there are broad flights of steps leading up to balustraded terraces, topped with big floral urns. The walkways round the pond have good sized palms and oleanders growing in very large Versailles tubs, punctuating the space and offering small pools of shade. These broad, very grand terraces also have a number of sculptures, some of which are very beautiful. A natural arena is formed, and this is a very popular place, with plenty of people coming and going. Amongst this, the gardeners go about their work, pruning and tending the trees and borders.

To the north of this is the Palais du Medici, the home of the French Senate and a seat of Government business. From its northern entrance, on the Rue de Vaugirard, black government cars come and go.

We were sitting below the terrace under a palm, when we faintly heard the sound of a band playing in the distance. So, along with various others, we moved towards the sound, found seats, brought them over and sat to listen. Again we were positioned comfortably, this time under dappled shade, a little distance from the bandstand. The music combined with the setting to give a feeling of perfect contentment. People would walk by, hesitate, then pull up a seat and listen. Just as freely, some rose to leave.

Every time the band stopped, the bandmaster stood up and solemnly and at some length addressed the crowd, but we couldn’t hear a thing as he had no microphone. Then he would sit down and the band in their dark blue uniforms with silver buttons, would start up again. It was very funny, and the audience were quietly amused.

view from the Pavillon de la Fontaine cafe
view from the Pavillon de la Fontaine cafe

After a while we felt thirsty, and spotted the Pavillon de la Fontaine Café where you can eat or drink. Its very popular, quite costly, but very good and fairly close to the bandstand. It has outdoor seating, with umbrellas, and its another great place for people watching. As the long, hot afternoon wore on towards evening, like many others, we had found the perfect spot, the temperature was just right. We were sitting in a little crowd in open shade under tall trees while one of us had a glass of beer and the other a glass of wine. We were talking about the morning’s visit, comparing notes and photographs. It was so comfortable that seven o’clock came round before we knew it. The conversation turned to dinner. Where to eat, and would it be necessary to book a table?

So a slow journey then, past the children still in the sandpit at the Observatory end, past the office workers hurrying home, and back up over gently rising ground towards the sound of Paris traffic, towards Montparnasse and our hotel.   


evening in montparnasse
evening in montparnasse


D the Sonneveld house

      An article about something exquisitely beautiful, but with a sting in the tail.

“If you decide to visit it, remember to bring your suitcases, as you’ll want to move in straight away!”

Sonneveld house

The Sonneveld house


The Sonneveld house – by Brinkman and Van der Vlugt, Rotterdam, 1933
The building has stylistic links with Le Corbusier, De Stijl and German modernism. It is also has an industrial link. Sonneveld was a director of the Van Nelle factory which was used to produce metal components for the building.

A compact, private detached town house for the family of a wealthy industrialist which includes living space for servants.

Perhaps not so well known here, but a real gem of European modernism.
The fabric of the building and the contents have recently been restored and appear as they did in 1933. Throughout the building there is evidence of great thought as to the suitability and provision of each convenience. Extraordinary care has also been taken during the sensitive and painstaking restoration

The Sonneveld house is essentially a rectangular box shape with additions. It is over three floors and it also has a small basement and roof terrace. It has a flat off-white exterior surface with silver coloured metal detailing, black exposed steelwork and extensive tiling to ground floor. Those facades facing the streets nearby are mainly blank and offer privacy while those facing the garden have generous windows. sonneveld-front-corner-2There are separate service and owner entries. There is a lovely exterior spiral staircase which leads down into the garden.
Metal detailing is prominent in the rear elevation. rear-view-of-sonneveldWindow and door modules are carefully fitted almost flush with their facades. Each window module has an external blind cassette incorporated for shade. Most noteworthy is how the parapet rail to the first floor terrace becomes the spiral stair handrail.

The simple exterior hides a fairly rich and complex interior subdivision. There are an entry, office, service areas and a garage on the ground floor. Living and bedroom spaces are on the floors above. These spaces are beautifully detailed.


corner of office and window to garden
corner of office and window to garden
office desk
office desk

More on-line images of the Sonneveld house can be seen here.

Here are a few more of our own photographs.
Colour is a an important feature of this house. Rooms are colour themed. This is the the yellow dining room. It has red accents.

the dining room viewed from the first floor terrace
the dining room viewed from the first floor terrace

There are individual architect-designed room colour schemes throughout. Most of the furnishings are also original.
So most unusually, one can see the entire original colour scheme, and one can see how extensively the architect used of colour as part of a modernist design scheme.

red dining room trolly
red dining room trolly

The glasswear included in the dining room display cabinet was also locally produced. Examples of similar wares by these manufacturers appear occasionally on the present day Netherlands second hand market for modest prices.

dining room glasswear
dining room glassware

Here is a servant’s bedroom

servant's bedroom
servant’s bedroom

Notice how the same bed, table and chair type is used by all the house inhabitants.

Work areas are red Here is a kitchen detail.

the dining area used by the servants
the dining area used by the servants
master bedroom furniture
master bedroom furniture

Gispen manufactured much of the furniture in the building including these beds in the background .  A similar version of this chair is still in production. Today the Delft factory still produces furniture and it is possible to buy examples of the some models shown in the Sonneveld house.

The garden is as was established in the early 30’s. It is simple with quite a lot of lawn and bushes used for perimeter screening to the rear, and as a lower boundary definition to the front.

rear garden view
rear garden view
office window to rear garden
office window to rear garden


Because the construction methods and materials date to the 1930’s, a great deal of renovation has been done. In the book produced by the Netherlands Architecture Institute a telling detail is the nationality of enormous number of firms involved in restoring and refurbishing Sonneveld house, These include Project management, Supervision, Providing public information, Advising on Restoring, Advising on Refurbishing, Restoration work Main Contractors, Restoration work Sub Contractors and Suppliers, Refurbishment work and Suppliers and finally Lenders and Donors. All of these, with one exception, are Netherlands firms or organisations with Netherlands addresses.

To the thoughtful person, this building is an example of many things. Foremost, is an example of true modernism at work, linking ownership, manufacturing, design and utility.

This building also reveals the Netherlands in microcosm.
The entire project from its origin in the 1930s through to its renovation is an example of Dutch confidence and competence. In it’s own way this building shows how the people of the Netherlands think about themselves and their place in the world. It’s clear that they are quite capable doing these things themselves, that they have the resources, skills and training to manage and complete such a project with little, if any assistance from other nationals.

It also shows how successful people in European cities may be able think differently to their British or Scottish counterparts.

This may seem like the country house in the town, but couldn’t be more different from the British Imperial Model of a country house. There are no Classical porticos, no fake grandeur. It’s beautiful, practical, modern and usable. It was the first house in Rotterdam with a fully equipped, built in garage. So this is no-fuss high quality private domestic architecture in the city, right there on the street, with easy public access. The building’s position included the owner in society rather than excluding him from it and hiding him away in a private estate in the countryside. A statement of belief in the city, the individual, aspiration, success; an example of the successful citizen in society- engaged in and part of the modern world. Of course this quality of private architecture in the heart of a great city enhances the standing and the status of both.

It is also an example to we Scots as to how how we could do better. How we could contribute to revival of run down Scottish towns centres and the attractiveness of Scotland’s cities. Where are the projects in the pipeline or recently constructed which do just that?
Then there’s the house’s furniture and manufactures.
Are our education systems, designers and architects and the Scottish business world able to produce to this quality without reaching beyond Scotland’s borders to do so?
When can we expect reasonably priced home-designed and mass-produced examples made in Scotland, which we can accept and be proud of, made by present day Scots and which will astonish and delight the world? Where and how will these people receive the craft and organisational training to enable them? And if you said to me that in various forms, these things exist in Scotland, how do we pull them together to make it all happen?
After all, if you like the look of a Gispen side-chair in the Sonneveld house, you can nip along to the nearby factory and buy one for yourself to take home today.

This building can cause me to think about many things. What can our response be to a proposition like this? Should we just move in because its so agreeable?

Can a different response be made? One which looks towards a better Scottish future?


D What does it mean to be Scottish and European?

An introduction to this occasional blog

For me as a schoolboy studying higher Art in the 60’s, Europe was about the architecture of classical Greece and Rome.

For me as an Art teacher in a Scottish Secondary School it meant Art Nouveau in Scotland Vienna, Belgium, the Netherlands and France.
It also meant two trips with school kids to Venice to see some of the best of European art and architecture from the late Gothic and the Renaissance.

But Modernism and the International style were the things which I found more relevant to the way we live, to making Art and to Designing. Of course as a teacher, there was always also the influence of the Bauhaus, with the magnetic pull of it’s teaching methods and its achievements.
As I studied Modernism and read more deeply about it, I realised it was much more than just a “cool” look. It was in fact underpinned by great ideas, a way thinking and a philosophy, and that these ideas were European ideas, not British. For Modernism and its ideas found little comfort in the Britain of the Empire.
Instead, these ideas about architecture and design popped up in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Czechoslovakia the 1920’s and 30’s before the Nazis came to power. These same ideas then found their way to America and flourished there.

Now today in Europe and America some exceptional buildings in this style survive. Some have been painstakingly restored and can now be visited.
And these visits are a revelation, for they showcase the best that can be done – we can see genius at work.
Nor is it just about the buildings themselves, but about wider the communities in which they are located. It’s also about the complex social organisation and daily life of European towns and cities today.
This then, is quite a different European experience to two weeks on a beach in the sun. But there’s something else. For knowledge of these buildings also poses questions for us, such as “How do we in Scotland ensure our cultural connections with such beautiful and desirable European ideas?” “How can we show people what’s out there?” “How can we share our appreciation of this fantastic stuff?”. And, of course how can we continue to do this in the midst of British political indifference, even hostility?
And also, why should we put this connection at risk? This thought coupled with the feeling that having the right European connection may also depend on moving towards Scottish Independence.
So I do declare my preferences. Brexit is not for me!

The posts and videos on this site, record something of my reaction to what I found In Europe, whether about Art, Music, Performance, Film or Design. Occasional blogs are added from time to time.
As for travelling there and having a look for yourself?
I would recommend it to anyone!