The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken


The Winter Garden, photo by William Helsen.

My arcades fetish has been aired here a few times to which one might add a complementary fetish for iron-and-glass structures in general, especially railway stations, palm houses and winter gardens. The Royal Greenhouses at Laeken, Brussels, are an impressive example of the latter, even if they happen to owe their existence to King Leopold II whose barbaric exploitation of the Congo is recounted in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Alphonse Balat was the architect of the central Winter Garden built between 1874 and 1876, and reading up on him it turns out that the celebrated Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta was one of Balat’s apprentices. Horta never had the opportunity to create anything this extravagant, unfortunately, but if he had the results may have resembled one of the structures created by François Schuiten for his greenhouse city of Calvani (below), a metropolis of the Obscure World. Schuiten is a resident of Brussels and we’re told that one of the earthly “Passages” to the Obscure World can be found at the Royal Greenhouses. The building is only open to the public during April and May each year, however, so anyone looking for a route to Schuiten’s world may be better off searching elsewhere.

• The Royal Greenhouses at Wikimedia Commons
• The Royal Greenhouses at Flickr


Calvani by Schuiten.


The Winter Garden dome, photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont.


Photo by Roman Bonnefoy.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Arcades panoramas
The art of François Schuiten
Passage des Panoramas
Passages 2

Compass Road by Iain Sinclair


I was hoping to get my delayed 2011 calendar launched today but other work needed completing so here’s an interim post.

Think of your journey through mortality as a sequence of valid movies and the pain is ameliorated. Forget the tedious 60-minute division of the lecture hall or dead television (quartered by adverts): arrange just enough markers for the 90-minute slots of Golden Age cinema. And then it’s only a question of nominating the eight guides, culture-figures who will dominate your thoughts (and reveries) for as long as you stay upright. The road is endless, you aren’t. Iain Sinclair

There may be a recession on but people still keep putting out the luxury goods; maybe the bankers are buying all this stuff with their unwarranted bonuses. Compass Road is a limited edition wristwatch from Mr Jones Watches, London, and sports a design commissioned from writer Iain Sinclair, a somewhat surprising choice given that these things are more usually farmed out to those individuals we have to call celebrities. Sinclair is too intelligent and interesting to be a mere celebrity and consequently designs a watch I’d probably buy if I had an excessive income. The watch middle and the hands are based on the British road signs designed by Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir while the typeface used for the compass points is Calvert and Kinneir’s Transport (below) which is also used across Britain’s road signs. For the destinations Sinclair has chosen eight writers with London associations: John Clare, Gerald Kersh, Bram Stoker, Joseph Conrad, William Blake, HG Wells, JG Ballard and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. The last seems an odd choice but he did work in London for a while.


Sinclair’s design is a flexible enough to be applied to other literary cities which raises the question of which names you’d choose for Paris, say, or New York. And which signage systems? Subways or the local roads? Compass Road meanwhile can be yours for £145.

Weekend links 1


• Two covers from a new range of Penguin reprints for the AIDS awareness fund (RED), all of which are based around quotes from the books in question. Non-Format‘s stylised extract concerns the blazing red of the Count’s eyes while Coralie Bickford-Smith plays some Tom Phillips games with the text of The Secret Agent. The random circles no doubt relate to those which the doomed Stevie Verloc occupies his time in drawing. More at Caustic Cover Critic.

Artspeak? It’s complicated. Jon Canter at The Guardian makes a blazingly obvious point which few in the art world would ever admit: that the specious pronouncements of many galleries and contemporary artists are the worst kind of bullshit.

• I helped judge the Ballardian/Savoy Microfiction competition whose winners were announced last week.

• Designer Jonathan Barnbrook enjoys Neu! and Wendy Carlos.

Nuit Blanche, a short film by Spy Films.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The book covers archive

Stevenson and the dynamiters


The Dynamiter: More New Arabian Nights (Longmans, London; 1914).

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a sporadic collector of the Tusitala Edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s works, 35 small blue volumes published by Heinemann, London in 1924. I’ve found 15 of them so far and today turned up another one, volume 25, Virginibus Pueresque and Other Essays in Belles Lettres. Most of the ones I’ve collected are later reprints and this is no exception, being a sixth edition from 1928. The popularity of the series and the many reprint editions is the main reason they still appear with such frequency. Another reason is that these small pocket books, which were very common before and after the First World War, were well-made and have easily outlasted the first generation of paperbacks that eventually replaced them. I’d have no trouble ordering a complete set of the Stevensons from a book dealer but prefer to let chance find new additions. Given the dearth of good secondhand shops this is becoming increasingly difficult.


Also in today’s book haul was an earlier Stevenson, The Dynamiter: More New Arabian Nights, in a rather battered leather binding from 1914. I bought it almost solely for the Art Nouveau motif on the cover whose ship suits the author of Treasure Island but doesn’t really fit with the London setting of this particular book. I seem to recall having seen this design before which means it’s probably part of a uniform set like the Tusitala Edition, each volume of which bears a palm tree design on the spine and the signature of RLS blocked on the front board.

The only number of the Tusitala Edition I have in a leather binding is this book’s precursor, volume 1, New Arabian Nights. The Dynamiters is a collection of linked stories that Stevenson wrote with his wife, the Arabian Nights conceit being an attempt to transplant the telling of tall tales from medieval Baghdad to Victorian London. The dynamiters are a group of inept terrorists whose comic exploits were based on the real Fenian bombings that took place in London in the 1880s. A later attempted bomb attack on the Greenwich Observatory inspired the unsuccessful anarchists in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Whatever some contemporary commentators might have us believe, terrorist attacks in cities are nothing new at all, only in Stevenson’s day they were labelled “dynamite outrages”. Stevenson dedicates his stories to the police officers charged with protecting the capital and apologises for making light of a serious matter. I have to wonder what he would have made of modern Baghdad being plagued by dynamite outrages on such a regular basis. And I also wonder how much real dynamite many of these Longmans’ books might have encountered, having been published just in time to be packed in the kit of soldiers going to the Western Front.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The book covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Chronicles of Clovis and other sarcastic delights