Layers of history

The term Art Deco was first coined by Le Corbusier, who used the headline 1925 Expo: Arts Déco for articles in his journal L’Esprit nouveau. He was referring to the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. Thus, the style is usually said to have begun in 1925, although it was widely used in France several years before that. Its popularity waned after World War II.

As an art deco lover and knowing the style’s history, I’ve always wondered how my apartment building came to be. It’s a beautiful example of middle class Art Deco supposedly dating from 1953. I figured it meant it was on the tail end of art deco’s popularity, but it still seemed odd that there be no sign of 1950s architectural styles inside or out. I was also puzzled as to its excellent construction – post-WWII buildings in France are usually less substantial. Our walls are solid blocks of metre-thick stone; after the war, stone was rarely used in new construction, especially not in apartment buildings.

Apartment building

Dernier étage

Entry mosaic (art deco)

Due to the water damage in August, I needed to get my hands on our règlement de copropriété, building regulations. These are drawn up for all new shared residences. Our original regulations date from 1953, which is why everyone believes the building dates from that year. Usually you can order your règlement de copropriété from the syndic that manages your building. In the case of syndics in Nice, however, they have a reputation for never delivering, and ours was no exception.

Coming from a family background in construction and civil engineering, I knew how to get around that obstacle, and went to public architectural records for my part of the city. There I discovered that while I could get a modification to our regulations that was submitted in 2003, our original regulations were no longer held there. All buildings dating from before 1956 now have their regulations stored at the archives départementales. I phoned them, and they gave me their email address for the request. Two weeks after I sent my email, I received our regulations, scanned as a PDF. That was Friday. At first, I looked through them quickly, most curious about the plumbing issue directly related to my water damage. Relief – the pipes and septic tank that had caused the problem were indeed communs, meaning, supposed to be managed by the syndic, building management, not me. I’ll eventually be reimbursed for my troubles.

Today I finally had time to read through all twenty typewritten pages. Our building’s stylistic oddities now make perfect sense: it was originally privately owned and managed, so didn’t require a règlement. The land it’s built on was purchased in 1940, and construction began shortly thereafter, with the building finished in 1941. After the war, it was sold twice: first in 1947, and again in 1953. Our 1953 regulations also contain some fun throwbacks to 1950s usages:
il ne pourra être cassé du bois ou du charbon dans les appartements
“There shall be no wood chopped or coal broken inside apartments”

on ne pourra faire dans les vestibules, escaliers, paliers, aucun travail de ménage tels que brossage et battage de tapis, literie, habits et meubles, cirage de chaussures, etc. On ne pourra casser ou fendre du bois…
“In entryways, stairwells, and hallways, no housework shall be done: brushing and beating carpets, bedding, clothes and furniture, shoe-shining, etc. Breaking up and chopping wood is forbidden.”

les tapis ne pourront être secoués que conformément au règlement municipal et de police
“Carpets may only be shaken according to city and police regulations”

It’s great to know our building’s true age, dating from 1940, and more of its history now. My own apartment’s characteristics make more sense, and we can now say that it is indeed genuine Art Deco from the height of the style’s popularity.

5 responses to “Layers of history”

  1. Bruce Says:

    I was a little bit surprised at the 1925 date you cite. I remember from my architectural history classes when I was getting my interior architecture degree (although I’ll admit, it’s somewhat vague now, the classes were 26 years ago) that the professor mentioned a show in Paris in 1921 when the first Art Deco objects were shown. He dated Art Deco from that show, and for some mysterious reason, I really glommed on to that date.

    Try googling “art deco” and 1921 (including the quotes). You’ll see all sorts of references to, as well as images of, objects from 1921 that are very clearly in the art deco style. What I think dates from the 1925 exhibition is that’s when the art deco style started becoming very widely known and hugely popular. But from a historical perspective, I think the actual “beginnings”, and earliest clearly art deco objects date from a few years earlier (i.e. 1921). What I remember from my lectures is that there was a single stand at a major, annual Paris art exhibition (don’t remember the exact name) that year that had the first art deco objects.

    Ehh… a few years here, a few years there… so who’s counting? :D

  2. Bruce Says:

    Just thought of another thing: one of the arguments of where the style came from and why it so thoroughly replaced the earlier art nouveau style had to do with recovering from World War I, and the mechanization that the war represented. Since the war only ended barely 3 years before the first examples were shown, it’s logical that there would be some kind of connection.

    The earlier nouveau style was an organic, more-or-less plant oriented, “growing” style. WWI, with it’s machines, tanks, death and mechanization “killed” the hopeful organic approach. Everything that was mechanized (i.e.: machines) had sharp angles, was shiny (at least when it was new), and was made out of hard metal, glass and rock-like, almost indestructible materials, not all that different from the machinery of war. It could be argued that art deco artistically and creatively rechannelled and transformed some of the fear and angst from the war years.

    At least, that’s an argument that was put forward to try and understand the radical change from art nouveau that art deco represented.

  3. fraise Says:

    I’ve always liked the contrast between the two. And am surprised (still) at my building, because if you look at the cornices, it has beautiful flourishes of flowers. Nice Art Deco, I suppose — flowers have always been a popular motif on cornices, you can see them everywhere, on all architectural styles in the city.

    I had heard 1921 as well, got the 1925 from Wikipedia because they cite the same exhibition — I thought I had misremembered the year! The name is the same though, “arts décoratifs” is indeed where it comes from.

  4. Bruce Says:

    Your building is indeed a lovely example of a mixed post-war style (although I might quibble with the height of art deco being after the war). It’s quite delicious, and I love that well preserved terrazzo floor with its tile edging. :D And just looking at your building, I might have placed it at slightly before the war.

    I’ve also always thought that the style of ’50′s art deco was strongly influenced by the streamline style that came out of art deco in the 30′s.

    Because I LOVE the art nouveau and art deco styles, I sometimes wonder if I was born too late. ;) Then again, I didn’t have to live through 2 world wars so je ne regrette rien… :D

  5. fraise Says:

    Just realized there’s a misunderstanding, due to me hiding it in a longish paragraph, heh — the building dates from 1940, it’s just barely pre-war, not post :) I updated the last paragraph to clarify that! Everyone believes it’s post-war, but reading the règlement showed it was actually built just before the war broke out. In any case it’s great to hear from someone with more knowledge of architectural history!

    Just realized the photos I put here don’t show the cornices on the lower windows, that’s because the picture with them is mainly of unattractive gutter problems, but here it is:

    I should really take better photos of them. The facade was cleaned six years ago, so they’re still in good shape.

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