13 October 2016

Sofia - Monument to the Soviet Army

Built in 1954, on the tenth anniversary of the 'liberation' of Bulgaria by the Soviet Army, the monument to that army features a central pedestal, 121 feet high, topped by a statue featuring a soldier and a Bulgarian family. 

This is surrounded by a large enclosed area, now somewhat ruinous, on the leading edge of which are two secondary but still monumental sculptures. The figures are secretly painted from time-to-time to indicate solidarity with various peoples and countries subjected to present-day Russian totalitarianism.

12 October 2016

Sofia - Museum of Socialist Art

Originally to be named the Museum of Totalitarian Art, but concentrated solely on communist works, the collection of the museum is hidden away in a nondescript block in the outer Iztok district of Sofia. It opened in 2011, and consists of paintings, busts and statues from 1944 to 1989, the period of the USSR's control of Bulgaria.

The collection includes a statue of Georgi Dimitrov, first General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party (more snappily Stalin's Puppet), by Lubomir Dalchev (late 1960s, above); and the statue of Lenin, by Lev Kerbel (1971), that used to dominate Nezavisimost (Independence) Square. Pride of place goes to the five-pointed star that topped Party House in the same square from 1954 to 1989.

09 October 2016

Sofia - Living at a Snail's Pace

On Boulevard Simeonovsko Shose in Sofia is a five-storey building in the form of a snail, which appears to crawl from a side road. The architect was Simeon Simeonov, who heads the Bulgarian practice Nommad.

Completed in 2009, the apartments took ten years to build. The principal material is light-weight concrete. Atop the antennae are street lamps which double as lightning conductors, and riding the snail's back are a bee (the chimney) and a ladybird.

Suspended from the drooping eyelids are spinning cowls for the ventilation systems. Beside the doorway is a mosaic duck, and the pavements are painted the same mad colours as the building, and elaborated with snail plant pots.

08 October 2016

Sofia - National Art Gallery

The National Art Gallery of Bulgaria is housed, along with the Ethnographic Museum, in Sofia Palace. This started life as the local headquarters of the Ottoman Empire. After Bulgarian independence in 1878 the building was remodelled as a palace for Prince Alexander Battenberg, the first post-independence monarch. The principal architect was Viktor Rumpelmayer, of Vienna.

Only the foundations and part of the façade were retained. The style is decidedly Second Empire. The palace was inaugurated on 26 December 1882. In 1894-96 the next monarch, Prince (later Tsar) Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg Gotha had the architect Friedrich Grünanger, also of Vienna, add the north-east wing. Neo-Baroque crept in.

The National Gallery moved into the palace in 1946, after the communists abolished the Bulgarian monarchy, and following destruction in 1944 of the gallery's original home. The exhibition space utilises the ballroom, a number of drawing and dining rooms, and one of the winter conservatories. All the rooms boast gorgeous tile or parquet flooring, and unique marble fireplaces.

28 September 2016

Wurlitzer 616

The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, of Cincinnati, OH, and later North Tonawanda, NY, started making multi-selector phonographs in 1933 - the word "jukebox" wasn't adopted until 1940. The Model 616, designed by Paul Max Fuller, was the last of Wurlitzer's all-wood models, released in 1937. It was available in two principal versions: that photographed (serial number A32237A), and with illuminated Lucite grille bars (Model 616A).

There were also numerous after-market cabinet variations - cut out and lit louvres, illuminated Catalin panels and domes, marble-effect paintwork, a heads-up selector that replaced the original selection wheel, replacement grilles, and bolt-on mirrors. The all-Wurlitzer 616 cabinet itself went through various incarnations, some sporting the coin entry point on the top right of the cabinet, usually with a coin return cup lower down. Some took only nickels, others dimes and quarters too.

This example is an early incarnation, with the coin slides, for nickels, dimes and quarters, to the face of the cabinet, and no coin return mechanism. Some early 616s featured a colour-wheel mounted inside the back of the cabinet, illuminating the plain wood interior of the upper rear door. Others, as here, instead had a coloured clam-shell pattern, formed of pressed cardboard, affixed to the inside of the rear door, and illuminated by a plain bulb. In both cases the machine could be switched for continuous illumination, or only upon insertion of a coin.

About 23,500 Model 616s were manufactured, plus a further 13,600 or so Model 616As. Given the various cabinet adaptations, it is unlikely that any two of the few survivors are exactly the same. All though used the Simplex mechanism, designed in 1932 by Homer Capehart, the rights bought in 1933 by Wurlitzer. The mechanism used in the Model 616 allows for selection from 16 ten-inch 78rpm discs. The chosen disc is swung out on a ring platter and the turntable rises to lift it to the tone-arm. Accordingly, only the 'top' side of each record can be played.

The amplifier used in the 616 was Wurlitzer's Wide Range Sound System, Model 771. Of a robust 155 watts, this was also used in the 316, 416 and 716 Wurlitzers. The amplifier (serial number A15588A) of this example  has been overhauled. The motor for the Simplex mechanism has been rewound, and the speaker re-coned.

This survivor is largely unadulterated, the cabinet in fine condition, although the clam-shell decoration has been sprayed silver at some point. A mains transformer and a cycle converter have been fitted to enable use in the UK without re-gearing. The original Model 61 bear's claw tone-arm has been fitted with a light pick-up to protect the 78s. Without end-weight, the tone-arm is instead lifted at the end of a record by an automatic switch-operated solenoid added to the manual lift-off mechanism.

31 August 2016

Ekco - Round Five

Ekco released its first round radio, the AD65, in 1934. Four further circular designs followed, both the AD36 and the AD76 in 1935, the AD75 in 1940, and the A22 (pictured) in 1945. This was the last word in development of Wells Coates' original design, with the tuning dial turning a complete circuit, making the A22 the most elegant of the round Ekcos. It was the only one that included the shortwave band. The cursor is in the form of a light box that circles the dial, illuminating it from behind.

Two standard versions were available: walnut-toned Bakelite with a Florentine bronze ring, which cost £17.17s.3d; and more expensive black Bakelite with a chromed ring, as in this example. There are also known to be three genuine special order A22s, made of urea formaldehyde, two in red, and one (made for the 1946 Britain Can Make It exhibition) in marbled green. All other coloured A22s are fakes or copies.

16 August 2016

Llandrindod Garages I - Automobile Palace

Commenced in 1906 and completed in 1911, what was originally known as The Palace of Sport, trading as Tom Norton Ltd from 1908, was founded by Tom Norton. Norton started in 1906 one of the earliest public bus services in Wales, between Llandrindod Wells and Newtown, held the first Wales-wide Ford agency, and was also a major agent for Austin and Ferguson.

The architect was Richard Wellings Thomas, and the building a very early example of steel construction. It was enlarged in 1919 to about three times its original size, providing nine bays along its curved frontage. Although built to the same Art Deco design, with faience facing throughout, the extension was constructed using reinforced concrete.

22 lions sejant-rampant, each with a shield, guard the building, which faces onto three streets. The elevation to Princes Avenue includes a pedimented entrance to No. 2 Garage. The ground floor fascia boasts faience tiles with raised lettering, including the word Aircraft. Circa 1913 Norton had invited pioneer aviator Gustav Hamel to give flying demonstrations from the nearby old race-course, in an effort to introduce aviation to mid-Wales.

The facility was renamed The Automobile Palace in 1925. It operated as a garage into the 1980s, and was Grade II* listed in 1985. Regrettably, much of the building is unoccupied, but it is home to the National Cycle Museum, a collection of over 250 bicycles that brilliantly charts their history. Apt given that Norton's first business was selling and repairing bicycles.

Llandrindod Garages II - Pritchard's

Also known as Central Garage, Pritchard's Garage was at one time a Rootes dealership, as evidenced by the aged signs for Commer, Hillman, Humber and Sunbeam. 11 lions sejant-rampant upon the parapet hold shields that give a completion date of 1929 for this fine concrete building, now largely unoccupied. The lions and the curved façade echo those of the nearby Automobile Palace.

27 June 2016

UK Weapons of Mass Destruction

One of the normally inaccessible features of the Rhydymwyn Valley Works, developed by ICI in 1939 to manufacture and store mustard gas, is the tunnel system. Three tunnels (central one in bottom photo) were driven about 600 feet into the side of the valley, through limestone, and connected by four cross-tunnels, the stores (below). The system was designed to enable the storage of 3,120 tons of mustard gas, both Runcol and Pyro.

The site's production facilities were closed at the end of the war, when most of the UK's chemical weapons stocks were simply dumped at sea. But the country's then 'strategic reserve' of mustard gas remained stored in the Rhydymwyn tunnel facility until its destruction in 1958-60.

The store was ventilated by means of two huge extractor fans, at the top of the chimneys at the ends of each of the north and south tunnels. Air was drawn into the tunnels, deflected into a void above a mild steel ceiling throughout the storage areas, down through vents in this, and drawn out through grille-covered floor ducts, and up the chimneys. The steel ceiling was carried on concrete corbels.

19 June 2016

Borderlands Rare Vintage Tin

The Clwyd Veteran and Vintage Machinery Show, held annually, throws up some real rarities amongst its shows of cars, commercial vehicles, bicycles and motorbikes, steam and stationary engines, tractors and horticultural machinery. The Lotus Europa (above) was a mid-engined GT, built in Hethel, Norfolk, between 1966 and 1975.

Karrier, part of Clayton and Co. of Huddersfield, started making small commercial vehicles in about 1907, and later moved into manufacturing buses and trolley-buses. It was bought by Commer, part of the Rootes Group, in 1934, itself acquired by Chrysler in 1967, who dropped the brand. This Karrier Bantam was a coal lorry.

NSU, an abbreviation of the company's home town of Neckarsulm, was founded in 1873. It was acquired by Volkswagen in 1969, and merged with Auto Union, who owned the Audi brand - the company name changed to Audi in 1985. The last NSU-badged car was the Ro80, with a twin-rotor Wankel engine and a semi-automatic vacuum transmission, built from 1967 to 1977.

Clan was formed in Washington, Co. Durham, in 1971, by a team of ex-Lotus engineers; and closed in 1973. It re-emerged as Clan Cars in the early 1980s, based in Newtownards, Northern Ireland. In 1985 it released the Clan Clover, with an Alfa Romeo powertrain. The company failed anew in 1987, having built only 26 Clovers.

31 May 2016

Blackpool Tower - Highs and Lows

Blackpool Tower is Lancashire's answer to, and was inspired by, the Eiffel Tower. It was designed by Lancashire architects James Maxwell and Charles Tuke. Heenan and Froude of Worcester, structural engineers, both supplied and built the tower proper. Architects draw, engineers build.

Unlike its Parisian cousin, Blackpool Tower is not free-standing. Its base is surrounded by a monumental building that occupies 54,400 square feet, constructed from more than five million Accrington bricks. The tower proper is formed of 2,493 tons of steel and 93 tons of cast iron, hydraulically riveted together.

The foundation stone was laid in September 1891, and the tower opened in May 1894. 518 feet tall, the tower was inadequately painted during its early years. As a consequence between 1921 and 1924 all the steel-work had to be replaced.

The tower closed during WWII, and the crow's-nest was removed in 1940 to allow for the installation of a radar array, the station known as RAF Tower. Normal service resumed in 1946. The two hydraulic lifts were replaced in 1956-57 by electrically-driven ones. They were replaced again in 1991, and carry one up 315 feet.

A walk-on glass floor to the sea-facing side of the enclosed observation deck, over 380 feet up, was installed in 1998. Two open decks above this are accessible by means of stairways. Not accessible to the public are the 563 steps from the top of the brick building to the tower top, used by the maintenance teams, which coat the tower in nine tons of paint each time it's repainted.

Sadly, it is impossible to simply ascend the tower to appreciate the engineering. The only way up is to purchase an extortionately-priced 'experience', involving endless schmaltz and a pointless '4D' cinema show. These can both be bypassed if one insists, but the queues, disorganisation, bored staff pushing gift shop tat, and rip-off entry fee cannot. The tower is Grade I listed, and deserves much better.

15 May 2016

Rochefort Transporter Bridge

Frenchman Ferdinand Arnodin, with Spaniard Alberto de Palacio, was the patentee holder for the first transporter bridge design brought to realisation, just outside of Bilbao, Spain. Five transporter bridges were built in France, more than in any other country: at Brest (relocated from Bizerta, Tunisia), Marseille, Nantes, Rochefort, and Rouen; with a sixth commenced at Bordeaux but never completed. All were designed by Arnodin. Only the Rochefort bridge remains to France.

Crossing the Charente River, construction of the 700 ton all-steel Rochefort Transporter Bridge commenced in March 1898 and was completed in July 1900. The towers, marked with Arnodin's name on each of the 16 shoes, stand 217 feet high, and the bridge has an overall length of 574 feet, with a main span of 459 feet. The boom is 26 feet wide and 164 feet above water level. The suspension cables terminate in massive anchorages (below).

The gondola, 46 feet long and 38 feet wide, was originally moved under steam power, with electric motors taking over in 1927. It could carry 14 tons - either nine horse-drawn carriages plus 50 pedestrians, or 200 pedestrians alone. The crossing took four minutes. The boom was rebuilt in 1933-34, when the gondola was uprated to carry 26 tons. The boom was dynamited in 1944.

The bridge was abandoned in February 1967 upon opening of a nearby vertical lift bridge, itself demolished in 1991 after opening of the Martrou viaduct road bridge (in background of first photo). Funds were put aside in 1975 for the bridge's demolition, but it was declared an historic monument in April 1976, and refurbished between 1990 and 1994.

The bridge is normally open in the summer months for use by pedestrians and cyclists. At the time of writing it has been closed for a predicted three year period, to replace the boom with one constructed more closely in accord with Arnodin's original design, at an estimated cost of £15.2 million. There is a good museum on the Échillais (Martrou) side of the river.

10 April 2016

April Fools' Car Show 2016

The fourth April Fools' Car Show, held at Canal Central, Maesbury Marsh, Shropshire, was the largest yet. It attracted over 80 cars, two dozen motorbikes, a clutch of tractors, a Stanley steam car, stationary engines, and three traction engines. Unusual items included a lovely 1972 Citroën Ami 8 Break.

The show winner was John Watson's immaculate 1910 Buick, complete with Selden patent licence plate. (Selden had never built a single example, but in 1895 was granted a US Patent for the automobile, much to the ire of Henry Ford.)  Runner-up was Syd Brode's gorgeous 1950 3.5 litre Jaguar Mk V.

31 March 2016

Bilbao - Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, part of the wider Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation's clutch of museums, was designed by the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. Funded by the Basque government, and built beside the River Nervión by Ferrovial of Madrid, it opened in October 1997, on time and on budget.

The interior boasts about 120,000 square feet of exhibition space, in 19 galleries ranged around an impressive central atrium. Ten of these are orthogonal in shape, with an external finish of stone. Nine are of irregular form, with an external cladding of titanium panels.

30 March 2016

Bilbao - Ascensor de Begoña

In the heart of Bilbao's Casco Viejo, the Old Town, is a monumental and incongruous concrete structure that looks like it might be more at home overlooking a Soviet gulag.

It is in fact the Ascensor de Begoña, a set of elevators that takes one up to Park Etxebarri and the 16th-century basilica. The fare is €0.45 per trip, paid to the unfortunate elevator jockey who spends all day stuck in a lift.