Thursday, June 10, 2010

Rheims and Art Deco

Eighty percent of Rheims was destroyed in the First World War, the worst loss of any of France's big cities. From this loss grew, at an incredible pace, a flowering of construction in 20th-Century styles, especially Art Deco. Reflecting the great destruction, 6,500 building permits were issued in Rheims between 1920 and 1930. The city held a competition among architects to plan its rebuilding. An American, G. B. Ford won. His plan led to opening up of public spaces, adding new public buildings, zoning for industry, and creating garden-city areas.

While Ford's plan specified some restrictions on building styles (e.g., no imitation Gothic buildings behind the cathedral), most of the city was open to architectural freedom and innovation. The 400 or so architects who designed Rheims's new buildings worked in a range of styles, from the Hausmann style of 19th-Century Paris to the "ocean-liner" style of large, moderne buildings. The style most often built, though, was Art Deco. The city's destruction and reconstruction turned Rheims into, effectively, the capital of Art Deco architecture. The Web site "Reims Ville Art Deco" provides comprehensive coverage.

Thanks to audioguides provided by the Rheims Tourist Office, Susie and I were able to take an Art-Deco walk through the city. Here are a few of the great Art-Deco buildings to which the tour took us.

This apartment building provided just about the purest representation of the Art Deco style of all the buildings we saw.

The ultra-modern addition to this Renaissance-style house was the project of the son of the house's owners.

The designer of this larger residential building managed to include references to Renaissance architecture, such as the oriel windows and the loggia, within a clearly Art-Deco style.

This smaller building, in the heart of the center of Rheims, includes a variety of Art-Deco features, such as abstract floral motifs, assymetry, a pergola, and simplified iron work.

Here's a view of a former bookstore, with its wonderful curves, lettering, and friezes.

On the eclectic side, this building is a garage for a residence on the street behind it.

For last, I've saved two of the most direct but opposite expressions of Art Deco. The first is the post office, which is modernist and built in concrete, but with lines and curves that make this building a sort of pure expression of Art-Deco principles.

The second is the facade of the Opera Cinema, a (former) movie palace. With its curves, friezes, ornements, gilding, and stained glass, this is about as far as you can get from the minimalist expression of the post office.

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