To this day the Art Deco style remains a contentious and oft disputed entry into the Architectural journals and history books. With its penchant for excessive ornamentation, non functional frills and outlandish colour schemes, the style is all too often dismissed by contemporary Architects as a brief and embarrassing rush of blood to depression era architects’ heads. Certainly the conservative colonial population of Durban thought so, when in 1931 the veritable anti- Christ of architecture reared it unsightly head in the form of Art Deco apartment block known as the Enterprise Building in Aliwal Street. Unhappily for its detractors, the style would flourish like an overly flamboyant fungus in city and suburb across the country before petering out during the outbreak of the second -world war.
Presently I am taking a tour of Durb’s ample Deco heritage alongside Jean Powell the President of the Durban Art Deco Society .Powell initiated the Society in early 2000 after visiting a Deco convention in Los Angles and undoubtedly drew inspiration from the efforts of Deco Crusader Barbara Capitman. Capitiman– the founder of the Miami Design preservation league– is revered in Deco circles the world over for managing in the early seventies to salvage and revamp over eight-hundred Art Deco blocks in the Miami South Beach zone, an area which to this day stands as the city’s biggest tourist draw card.
The Durban Art Deco Society (the only organisation of its kind in the South Africa) consists of a group of committed professionals and aficionados who have taken it upon themselves to watch- dog the upkeep of buildings around the city while lending insight (including a web-site with deco colour combinations to ensure building facades are kept authentic)to Art Deco building owners and curious members of the public.
Standing before a range of Art Deco buildings in Durban’s inner city Powell explains that while local architects sought inspiration from their American counterparts (think Manhattan high rise and Miami holiday Mecca) they were not adverse to putting a unique Afro-Indian spin on the style, depicting local flora and fauna, as well as religious (Hindi and Muslim) patterning in their elaborate facades.
Reduced to a tourist in my own city, I quickly cotton on to my guide’s enthusiasm for picking out the stucco menagerie of real and imagined beasts adorning the various facades : a pair of stylised blue herons, cavorting dolphins, fascist looking raptors or Griffins with drain pipes disguised in their roaring mouths.
Still nothing quite beats the spectacle of first setting eyes on the eight–storey Art Deco apartment block Surrey Mansions designed in 1937 by architect William B Barboure which looms out of its Berea suburb like a gargantuan tiered wedding cake. Owing to the intensive commitment of the body corporate and residents, the block stands as the best kept Deco site in Durban and one that resident Cynthia Carrick is only too chuffed to show visitors around. Stepping into the entrance lobby–all lustrous brass and chess board tiling— one feels transported into the pages of a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel .It’s here, lingering beside a vacant reception desk, that I half anticipate an encounter with troupe of tipsy flappers spilling out of the elevator or overzealous bell boy offering to take my coat.
Still Carrick admits that snaring one’s own slice of Gatsby heaven comes at a relative fee with lack of indoor parking (Motor vehicles were a lot less prevalent in the thirties) and rising maintenance levies being two of commonest gripes.
A few kilometres down the road, Powell and I visit the indigent younger deco sibling to over -manicured Surrey. Glancing over Berea Court’s (designed in 1937 by the same architect as Surrey Mansions) exterior, all sullied stucco and toothless Griffin motif, I’m reminded of those over decorated old dames (dainty gloves, rusty broaches, strings of pearls) who grace suburban shopping malls on pensioner Tuesdays.
“Most of the Art Deco buildings in this city are dying by attrition” Powell admits grimacing at the sight of Berea Courts deteriorating facade, “with a majority of people who own them unable to contribute to their upkeep and maintenance. To embark on exterior renovations is a costly affair with owners reluctant to invest R30 000 on a lick of paint when their plumbing has rusted shut and elevators have stood ‘out of order’ for months.”
In these tough economic times (and low income areas) running water must understandably take precedence over pleasant but unessential aesthetic niceties and it’s for this reason that without substantial funding, all the society can do is attempt to enlighten residents and owners on the historic and beautifying potential of their buildings. For the moment this is largely achieved by sending letters to admonish owners for letting such architectural jewels deteriorate into blemishes on the down- town urban fabric of the city.
One would of course hope that with the world descending on Durban in 2010, a major inner city facelift is in order, yet Powell can only shrug despondently when I ask what level of support and interest they have received from local municipalities and city mangers.
“Durban” she says, “has not yet cottoned onto the fact that Art Deco architecture can be a very viable tourist attraction. In most other countries in the world there are incentives like rates- rebates to ensure the longevity of these heritage sites .In this city there are no such structures in place. The city managers keep brushing these buildings off saying they are Euro- centric and my response to such a comment is– what building isn’t?”
For seventy- six year old Dennis Claude, lecturer, celebrated architect and fundi on all things Art Deco (Claude was responsible for compiling a comprehensive inventory of the hundred odd Art Deco buildings in the city) the tedious “Eurocentric” claims used to diss Art Deco as mere colonial hangover are without substance.
“You must remember the prevailing attitude in Durban at the time of Art Deco’s emergence was neo colonial” he explains over a cup of tea at his Berea home, ‘”the type of folks who read Country life and dreamt of gardens with blue bells in them. However If you look at a majority of the names of the owners of the Art Deco buildings in Durban at the time they are of Jewish or Norwegian origin and I suspect that their employment of the style was largely as a reaction to British snobbery prevalent at the time.”
In less polite terms, Art Deco might very well have served as an over- decorated middle finger flung in the face of the stiff upper- lipped establishment. Surely all the more reason for South Africans to embrace and protect its fragile remnants.
In the last ten years a brief resurgence of the style occurred in Durban with the erection of the Deco-dent inspired Sun Coast Casino along the Durban beachfront. The Casino and the varied response it received from city residents (I once heard it described by Comedian John Vlismas as a building designed by a gay Lego-maniac alien on acid) causes Claude to chuckle knowingly when I press him for his own impressions on the eye- sore.
“It’s the sort of over the top vulgarity that got the English up in arms all the way back in the thirties” he grins, “and I find it fascinating to see how nearly seventy- years down the line, very little has changed.”
For more information check out the Durban Art Deco Website http://www.durbandeco.org.za/