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Authors: Jan Morris

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Then to the east and west, more like pavilions than substantial buildings, rise the showy display pieces of Russian Hav, Serai on one side, station on the other. Their symbolism is extravagant, and entertaining. They represent Mediterranean Russia — the achievement at last of a dream as much aesthetic, or imaginative, as political. High above them tower the gilded onion domes, capped with gay devices, which instantly summon in the mind bitter steppes and snowy cities of the north — something of the sleigh and the fur hat, the samovar and perhaps the OGPU too — Mother Russia, at once smilingly and authoritatively embodied, here at the end of the railway line.

But below these bright globules, which somehow manage to be a little grim, as well as flashy, the architects Schröter and Huhn (who also designed the gigantic garrison cathedral at Tiflis, up the line) built in a very different allegory: for the tall arches and arcades below the domes, the gardens surrounding them, the inner courtyards and the long interior corridors are built in what architects Schröter and Huhn conceived as Southern Eclectic. Ogive arches in multi-coloured brick sustain that Slavic roofline, and there are high balconies with hoods, as in great houses of Syria, and even
mashrabiya
windows here and there. The courtyards are Alhambran, with prim patterns of orange trees; the tall shuttered windows of the wings might be in Amalfi or the old part of Nice.

Seen in the general rather than the particular, against the high silhouette of the castle hill, this ensemble really is rather spectacular, a little muted though its colours are now, a little skew-whiff some of its shutters and rickety the less frequented of its balconies: and especially seen from the Electric Ferry, sliding quietly across the harbour, all those strange and disparate shapes, the towered severity of the Fondaco the bright domes, the stark castle walls above, seem as they shift one against the other oddly temporary, as though one of these days the Grand Hav Exhibition must come to an end, and all its pavilions be dismantled.

The most celebrated architectural hybrid of Hav is the House of the Chinese Master in the Medina, directly outside the west entrance of the Great Bazaar. In the Middle Ages, when the Venetians were paramount upon the waterfront of Hav, the Chinese established a financial ascendancy in the city, and in 1432 the Amir was obliged to allow them a merchant headquarters actually within the Medina walls — hitherto they had been confined to their own settlement of Yuan Wen Kuo. They built it essentially in the glorious Ming style of the age, to plans said to have been sent from Beijing by the architect of the Qian Qing Gong, the Palace of Heavenly Parity in the Forbidden City; but they were subtle enough to make of it something specific to Hav. It is the westernmost of all the major buildings of Chinese architecture, and some say the finest Chinese construction west of the Gobi: discovering it for the first time out of the darkness of the Great Bazaar is perhaps the most astonishing aesthetic experience Hav can offer.

Imagine yourself jostling a way through those souks, shadowy, dusty, clamorous, argumentative, and approaching gradually, past charm-hawker and water-seller, blaring record shop and clatter of iron-smiths, the small yellow rectangle of sunshine that marks the end of the arcade. So great is the contrast of light that at first there is nothing to be distinguished but the dazzle itself; but as you get closer, and your eyes accustom themselves to the shine, you see resolving itself out there what seems to be a gigantic piece of black fretwork — multitudinous squares, triangles, circles and intersections, with daylight showing intricately through them. Is it some kind of huge screen? Is it something to do with the mosque, or an antique defence work? No: when you reach the end of the corridor at last, and step outside into the afternoon, you realize with delight that you have reached Qai Chen Bo, the House of the Chinese Master.

It
is
a house, and a very large one, but its inner chambers and offices, long since converted into a warren of tenements, are surrounded by a nine-sided mesh of elaborately worked black marble, forming in fact an endlessly spiralling sequence of balconies, but looking from the outside wonderfully lacy and insubstantial. The building is eleven storeys high, deliberately built a storey higher, so legend says, than any of the Arab structures of the city, and it is capped by a conical roof of green glazed tiles, heavily eaved and surrounded by pendant bobbles. It is reached by five wooden bridges over a nine-sided moat, once filled with fish and water-lilies, now only with rubbish: at each angle of the moat a separate small circular pool festers. The building is hemmed in nowadays by nondescript brick and concrete blocks, but still stands there sublimely individual and entertaining — after five hundred years and more, much the liveliest building in Hav.

In 1927 Professor Jean-Claude Bourdin of the Académie française wrote a pamphlet about this building. All sorts of allusions, it seems, can be read into a construction that looks to the innocent eye no more than a splendid
jeu d'esprit
. The fundamental shape of the building is, of course, that of the pagoda, the most unmistakably Chinese of forms, with its wide eaves and its gently tapering flanks — the Arabs were to be left in no doubt, not for a moment, as to the nationality of the Master. In the five bridges there is apparently a direct reference to the five bridges over the Golden Water River in the Forbidden City, an allusion that would imply to the Chinese themselves, if hardly to anyone else, the presence here of the imperial authority. Then the moat itself, with its nine unblinking eye-pools, is claimed by Professor Bourdin to be a figure of the Lake of Sleepless Diligence, while the high corridor which bisects the ground floor of the building, west to east, is said to be exactly aligned upon Tian Tan, the Temple of the Heavens in Beijing. Finally, so Bourdin thinks, the whole edifice, so complex and deceptive, is a sophisticated architectural metaphor of the maze.

Well I'm sure he was right — he was a corresponding member of the Chinese Academy, too — but for me the House of the Chinese Master, whatever its subliminal purposes, is above all the most cheerful of follies. It is a building that makes nearly everyone, seeing it for the first time, laugh with pleasure, so droll is its posture there, so enchantingly delicate its construction, and so altogether unexpected its presence among the severities of medieval Islam. Here is what other visitors have written of it:

Pero Tafur, 1439
: ‘I have seen no building like this masterpiece, not in Rome, Venice or in Constantinople, and indeed I think it is the most remarkable and delightful of all buildings.'

Nicandur Nucius, 1546
: ‘The House of the Chinese Master at Hav is the merry wonder of all who see it.'

Anthony Jenkinson, 1558
: ‘In that part of the city where the Amir lives is a tall tower built by the Chinamen, exceeding ingenious and merry, so that had it not been for the severe scrutiny of the Mussulmans close by we would fain have burst out laughing at the spectacle.'

Alexander Kinglake, 1834
: ‘Do you remember when we were boys together we would make houses in the trees for our childish entertainments? Well, you must imagine all the tree-houses that ever were constructed pushed all on top of one another, and crowned with the wide straw hat that our good Mrs W used to wear to church on Sundays.'

Mark Twain, 1872
: ‘If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I would have said it was more probably the House of the Chinese Teller of Tales — but there it was before me, and I could not have told a taller tale myself.'

D. H. Lawrence, 1922
: ‘A hideous thing. Restless, unsatisfied, And yet one could not help smiling at the vivid, brisk and out-flinging insolence of it.'

Robert Byron, 1927
: ‘Surrounded by the sombre piles of Islam, the House of the Chinese Master burst into our view in a flowering of spectacular eccentricity. It was impossible to leave the city after so brief a glimpse of this prodigy; sighing, we resolved to come back in the morning. “You don't want to see inside now?” nagged the wretched guide. “Alas, it is not allowed,” said David at once. “We are Rosicrucians.” '

But I will leave the last comment to Sigmund Freud, who lived for a time in modest lodgings on the eighth floor of the house:

It is difficult for me to express how profound an effect this experience has had upon me. It is as though I have lived within the inmost cavity of a man's mind — and that the mind of a Chinese architect dead for five hundred years. No number of hours spent in analysis with my patients has brought me nearer to the sources of personality than the weeks I spent, all unthinking, in the House of the Chinese Master.

I suppose you could say the very notion of New Hav is crossbred — critics certainly thought so when it was founded, and historians sometimes say so now. It was certainly a quixotic gesture, to choose this remote and inessential seaport for so advanced an experiment in internationalism. As to the construction of a brand-new city to house the concessionary areas, that was variously considered at the time as either an act of preposterous extravagance, or else a project nobly worthy of the age that was dawning after the war to end all wars.

An international committee of architects was invited to design New Hav, and the plan they drew up was patently consensus architecture, a little dull. What it lacks in genius, however, it makes up for in an unexpected and sometimes comic caprice of detail. The idea was to balance the roughly circular walled city of the Arabs, on the western side of the harbour, with a second walled city on the eastern side, leaving the Serai and the castle in between. The harbour gate of New Hav opening on to a promenade upon the western quay, looks directly across the harbour to the Market Gate of the Medina. At the same time, the northern axis of the new city was to be aligned upon the castle hill, so that you could see the rock of the acropolis from the very middle of New Hav; but since this did not in the event prove possible in the city's geometrically tripartite form, the northern boulevard had to be twisted out of true, causing agonizing disputes between the French and the Italians, whose concessions it separated (in the end the Italians were compensated by being given possession of the promenade upon the harbour).

Everything else about New Hav is excessively symmetrical, and there is almost nothing that is not balanced by something else, and almost no vista that is not suitably closed. From the central Place des Nations, below my balcony, radiate the three dividing boulevards, Avenue de France northwards towards the Serai and the castle hill, Viale Roma westwards to the harbour, Unter den Südlinden eastwards towards nowhere in particular. The city was supposed to be a physical representation of the League's visionary initiative — a place of reconciliation and cooperation, of unity in variety. Its circular shape was meant to symbolize eternal peace, and each boulevard was planted with a different species of tree (planes, catalpas and ilexes) to express the joy of amicable difference.

The façades of Place and boulevards are all uniform — grandly neoclassical, in a Beaux-Arts style, arcaded at street level, mansard-roofed above — and they are marked with elegant tiled street-signs, in four languages, contributed to this old haven of the Armenians by the Armenian Pottery in Jerusalem. But the liberty allowed to the powers to do what they liked in their own quarters saves the place from sterile monumentality. Resolutely internationalist though they were, none of the three could resist the claims of patriotism when they were let loose on the side-streets, and there are few facets of French, Italian or German architecture that are not represented somewhere within the pattern of New Hav. There are mock-Bavarian inns. There is a music-hall (the Lux Palace) straight from Montmartre. There is a classic Fascist railway station, modelled on Milan's, which since no railway enters New Hav, was used as the Italian Post Office instead. If the French decided to build a cathedral, what else but a little Rheims would do? If the Germans wanted a Residenz, what but a small
Schloss
? Though everything is cracked and peeling now, it is all there to this day, Beaux-Arts to Bauhaus, neo-Imperial to late Nihilist (the Casa Frioli in the Italian quarter, a marvel of swirled concrete decorated with mosaics of glaring purple, is the least avoidable building in New Hav).

Two world-famous architects are represented. The glass-and-concrete Maison de la Culture in the French quarter, with its stilts and green cladding, is one of Le Corbusier's less inspired works: in it, between the wars, everyone from Colette to Malraux gave lectures on The Meaning of Frenchness or Allegory in Provençal Folk-Dance. More importantly, you may notice scattered fitfully through the German quarter a certain distinction of design in matters electrical: lamp-standards, light-switches, even a few antique electric fires and toasters all seem to obey some central directive of taste. This is because the German administration entrusted the power system of its quarter to the Berlin company AEG, and it was their great consultant architect Peter Behrens who, during a visit to Hav in 1925, drew up designs for the whole electrical network. Unfortunately he had no say in the power station, which had been built by the Russians and supplied the whole peninsula, but within the German quarter everything electrical was his — the bold transformer station, like a whale-back beside the Ostgatte, the powerful street-light pylons, the solid square switches of brown Bakelite. Of course much of it is lost, but even now, so ubiquitous was Behrens' influence, there is a kind of subliminal strength to the style of the German quarter which is distributed, I like to think, directly through the frequently fused and multitudinously patched circuits of AEG-Hav.

For the rest, there is nothing of supreme quality. It is all a bit of a lark. All was done, one feels, even the Italian Post Office, in a spirit of genial optimism, elevated sometimes into parody. Architectural purists of the 1920s sneered mercilessly at New Hav, and Lutyens, invited to attend its formal opening in 1928, said privately that it reminded him of the ghost train on Brighton pier, so dizzy did it make him, and so often did damp objects slap him in the face.

BOOK: Hav
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