France: French Art Deco Architecture of the 17th Arrondissement in Paris


What? 
A string of gorgeous Art Deco buildings that are both traditionally Parisian as well as strikingly different.

Why visit? 
Stereotypically Parisian architecture can be rather frilly: the (neo-)Rococo-kitsch of many pre- and post-Hausmannian buildings drips with ancient acanthus leaves, chubby cherubs and flowery garlands.

Yet the post-WWI building spree in parts of Paris left a sizeable Art Deco heritage which, although part of a global Art Deco movement, is also uniquely French.

These buildings are much underrated and rarely featured- so join us in this Art Deco indulgence on the edge of the city.  

Where? 
There's Art Deco in many parts of Paris but the apartment buildings featured here are concentrated between Port de Champerret and Port de Courcelles in the 17th Arrondissement. Map.



Art Deco and the end of Art History

Why are we so fussed about Art Deco? Well, we're glad you asked. There is a number of reasons, and allows us to diverge a little before we dive into the actual sight.
Classical lines, Art Deco forms. 
You remember your art history classes, where one clearly defined style followed after another? Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classicism, Romanticism, Art Nouveau... and Art Deco. Then, nothing. Art Deco is really the last of the various artistic styles that have carried Western art and culture. The end of Art Deco ushered in the end of Art History. 

Let us explain. 

After Art Deco, there have been no more real artistic styles. Yes, in architecture there was what's sometimes referred to as the International Style- whose primary characteristic is that it's not really architecture as art, but just utilitarian construction of rectangular boxes, shorn of decoration and beauty. The kind of buildings that are now being torn down in cities across the globe.

The 21st century still has noteworthy architects who build noteworthy buildings, but architecture these days is one big ego-trip. There is no longer a style that binds today's architectural creations together. The Gehry museums, the Beijing Bird's nest, it's mostly architectural masturbation, a competition of one-upmanship, none of them connected to the other. Artistic and architectural styles are dead: Art Deco was the last descendant, and died without issue.

Art Deco was really the final heir of the classical tradition of European architecture that started in Ancient Greece. It used the same principles, including figurative decorations. The buildings of Paris are a feast for the eyes, full of sculptures of human faces and bodies, acanthus leaves, flower vases, etc. And Art Deco was the last wave of figurative decoration in architecture. Who decorates buildings with mascarons, caryatids or curvy leaves these days? Nobody does. Art Deco was the last of the architectural Mohicans.

Yet, for all its adherence to classical forms and tradition, Art Deco is assertively modern. Stylized, bordering on the abstract, with references to machines and transport, Art Deco is the only style that's both modern and classic at the same time.

Although often associated with landmark buildings in Miami and New York, Art Deco's roots are in France- in Paris to be precise, where in 1925 the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes gave birth to what became later known as Art Deco. Paris was an early hotbed of the new style, which comprised, like its ancestors did, architecture, interior design and the visual arts. Again, this was the last time a style covered all the realms of art, much like Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau did before.

Although there are various forms of Art Deco, there is a typical, almost folkloristic, French expression of the style, which is what we will explore today.

And so, with this long-winded, self-indulgent rant behind us, let's look at the Minor Sight of today...   


French Art Deco Buildings of the 17th

Why the 17th Arrondissement? And why at the edge of the city, spitting distance from the roaring Périphérique ring road? As always, there is a reason...
The last city wall of Paris, known as the Thiers Wall, was built in the 1840s to keep those pesky Prussians out. The wall didn't last long. After World War I it was abundantly clear that a wall was useless when the enemy could simply fly over it. And so the Thiers Wall was demolished, starting in 1919.

The Thiers Wall ran outside what's still known as the Boulevards des Maréchaux, a ring of boulevards that encircles Paris. The demolition left a stretch of no-man's land as no building had been allowed near the wall (a bit like Berlin post-1989.) The far end of this urban wasteland became the Périphérique ring road, which still separates haughty Parisians from the riffraff in the suburbs. 

This ring of vacant land around Paris quickly attracted development. And so, at the height of the Art Deco area, here was a whole stretch of land waiting to be filled...
Many prime examples of Art Deco are grandiose theaters, cinemas and palaces.  But the Art Deco buildings here are vernacular architecture: apartment blocks- spacious and comfortable, and with mod-cons like lifts, which were absent in the older buildings in central Paris.

We're talking the early days of Art Deco here, and given that these were bourgeois homes, the buildings conformed closely to the classical notions of Parisian apartment buildings. Narrow windows, 6 floors high, strong decorative elements.
Special emphasis was given to the doors which showed the standing of a building.









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What's is so typically French in this expression of Art Deco is the use of stylized flowers, leaves and fruits. Minor Sights hasn't seen this rather folksy form of Art Deco outside of France- and it's a form that can be found not just on these buildings but also in furniture, which is still easily found in the city's antique markets, like the Puces de St Ouen (another Minor Sight).

Flowers and leaves...
... you could deck out your whole house in this stuff. 
Art Deco architects continued another Parisian tradition: architectural graffiti. They carved their name on their buildings, and as you walk around you'll find many buildings having been signed by a certain J Bellat. Jerôme Bellat must have made good money designing the 20+ buildings in this area. However, the sad truth is that immortality escaped him, his life having been largely forgotten, even by Google. 

We know little about him, but see his name on these buildings and a small garden named for him on Boulevard Berthier. His buildings surround this little spot of greenery.
J Bellat & friends were here. 
Another architect who was slightly luckier in leaving his mark was Pierre Patout. Patout ran a little business on the side designing ocean liners, which clearly inspired some of his architectural creations. The giant building on Rue Catulle Mendes looks almost seaworthy. One of his other creations, the Hotel Mercedes, is built in a more internationally recognised form of Art Deco (known as Streamline), and looks like it's been lifted straight out of Miami.
Patout's paquebot.
The Mercedes, hemmed in by two 'International Style' monstrosities. 




Getting there: 
Port de Champerret Metro station is a good starting point. Work your way towards Port de Courcelles, and basically the whole area between the Boulevard des Maréchaux and the Périphérique, all of it former wasteland, is your hunting ground. There are more Art Deco goodies towards Port Maillot. 

Rue Catulle Mendes sees architects Patout and Bellat squaring off against each other on opposite sides of the street.  If you're looking for an immersive experience, you could stay at the charming Hotel de Banville (designed by Bellat). Pierre Patout's Hotel Mercedes is a little further down at the corner of Ave de Wagram with Rue Ampère.


Useful links:
What is Art Deco? Art Deco Society of New York
Art Deco: the 1925 Paris Exhibition. Victoria & Albert Museum.
Paris Invisible talks about Hotel Mercedes


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