Introduction: Art Deco?
The decorative art movement known commonly today as Art Deco swept throughout the world during the 1930's. Initially the movement was based in France and most scholars identify the enormous Paris exhibition, the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925 as the movement's formal coming of age. Numerous exotic cultures are said to be reflected in the style: Ancient Egyptian, Aztec, Native American and African. There was also, however, a reverence for machine culture and the aeroplane, train and ocean liner too influenced architectural design. The French liner, SS Normandie, both influenced and epitimized the style. It was, however, the Americans who in adopting it for themselves invested the movement with great energy and vitality. Many American designers believed that here was a uniquely American style. A new style which was revolutionary different from the European gothic and classical styles and all their derivatives. Consequently the American interpretation of this style was typically homespun; automobile hubcaps and radiator cap gargoyles adorn the Chrysler Building, bald eagles the old East Side Airline Building in Manhattan.
Yet it was the same desire amongst architects elsewhere, the need for a local style or identity, that gave Art Deco its appeal in other countries. Examples of the movement can be found in such disparate locations as Kuala Lumpor, Malaysia (eg. The Central Market Building), Napier, New Zealand (eg. The Napier Times Building) and Cape Town & Durban, South Africa. Many incorporate local symbols in the geometric designs that adorn these buildings. For example local Muslim traders in Durban incorporated Islamic symbols into their two and three storied shop front homes (eg. 19 Cross Street).
Most English language architectural journals focus almost exclusively on US, British and French examples of the Art Deco movement. However a wealth of examples exist outside this domain.
Durban's Art Deco Heritage
Traditionally Durban was well known for its conservatism when it came to the erection of public buildings. Yet in the 1930's the city threw off this mantle and enbraced the new style. Numerous buildings, especially residential high rises, were erected in this new design. Durbanites too, it seems, were keen to embrace a new identity. South Africans during the late 1920's and early 1930's were very aware of the issues of sovereignty. The politics of the day rested heavily on Prime Minister Hertzog's attempts to gain clarity on the issue of "Dominion Status" at numerous Empire Conferences. White Durbanites in particular found themselves betwixt loyalties to Britain and the South African government as well as facing rivalries with the Afrikaners. In many ways the art work on the Art Deco Buildings reflect a particular Durban identity with a strong emphasis on the city's maritime background. Durban's Muslim traders reflected their religion in many of the Art Deco structures in Prince Edward Street. The Durban structures, however, are not unique as the architects borrowed heavily from their American counterparts. Partly because the American style was considered 'modern', partly because it was not a style that emanated from Britain, Durban deco owes a debt to the American interpretation. Some critics have commented that it is unfortunate that much of the decoration reflects an American interpretation rather than direct local influence. Yet in the 1990's these buildings remain monuments to the era of the troubled 1930's.
Motivation : The plight of Art Deco Buildings
One of the reasons for the establishment of this document is not only to trumpet Durban's contribution to the international Art Deco movement but also to highlight the plight many of these buildings find themselves in. Many now verge on being derelict. Some buildings have been neglected because the area they are located in now houses lower income groups and even squatters (eg. Jeena's Center - Victoria Street). It is hoped that these pages will ignite in the reader an interest in Art Deco that will ultimately evolve into a concern to preserve what remains both here in Durban and around the world.
These pages are far from being comprehensive. The compiler welcomes any feedback, extra information, positive criticism and encouragement so that the directory can be constantly improved and updated. Please e-mail your correspondence.
10 July 1997