Friday, June 22, 2012

Architecture: Ocean-Liners in Paris and Boulogne-Billancourt

This is a reworking of two of my articles on architecture for AngloINFO Paris, on Pierre Patout's 15th Arrondissement paquebot building and Georges-Henri Pingusson's treatment of the same theme in Boulogne-Billancourt, both constructed in 1934.

Georges-Henri Pingusson, 5 Rue Denfert-Rochereau.
Cruise ships were a frequent influence on modern architecture, with flat white walls, interior balconies, simple lines and stepped terraces often inspired by transatlantic travel. Oceanliners were glamorous, like international travel itself, and so provided architects with inspiration in combining luxury and compact living. Often you have to really look at a building to see the influence of ocean-liners, but at other times you're sitting on the tram, tired and staring vacantly out the window, and your eyes almost fall out of your head as a huge ship sails toward you. 

This is the case with Pierre Patout's apartment building on Boulevard Victor in Paris's 15th Arrondissement.

Pierre Patout was best known, between World War I and World War II, for his interiors on actual oceanliners. He worked for the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, designing the interior for the Île-de-France in 1926, l’Atlantique in 1928 and le Normandie in 1934-5. The lives of Patout’s ships, too, are interesting: the Île-de-France is famous as the world’s first art deco cruise ship. After 33 years in service, the Île-de-France ended its days in Hollywood, playing a doomed ocean-liner in the 1960 MGM film The Last Voyage. I'm also fairly sure I remember Marilyn Monroe mispronouncing the name before boarding at the beginning of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

It was in 1934 that Patout placed this ship on Boulevard Victor. If you pass by on the tram, looking out the left as you head south from Pont de Garigliano, the building appears to be sailing along the avenue. The sense of movement is incredible. I unfortunately didn't get any pictures from this angle, so I should go back. My French class didn't believe me when I told them about it.

This is a huge building, and you have to cross the road and stand back to see it in its entirety. One is struck first by the obvious resemblance to a ship, but there’s more to Patout’s design than mimicry. This isn’t just an unusual building, but also a cleverly designed one.

Firstly, gentle curves are replaced with sharp, cubist angles and clearly defined pieces that fit together, almost more like a ship built from a series of blocks. These blocks are an indicator as to the apartments within; those with vertical orientation are duplexes, while horizontal areas house studios. The interior spaces themselves are small, due to the city’s requirement that the building be leased at affordable prices, with most apartments measuring less than 25 square meters.

Secondly, though, and surprisingly given it appears huge and heavy from across the road, there’s how thin the building turns out to be when viewed from the side. From the north, looking at the side resembling the ship’s bow; it’s barely the width of a car. This is because, in addition to stunning them with the design’s resemblance to an ocean-liner, Patout puzzled people by managing to design a building for this site at all. Between a railway line supported by a steep, rocky hill and the Avenue Victor, this site had long been considered impossibly narrow and unsuitable for building.

Patout drew his inspiration from a ship for more than just aesthetic reasons. The design suits the site; just as a ship narrows toward the base and at the front, where it cuts through the water, this building needed to be most compact at the north end of the triangular site and juts out over the heads of passers-by due to regulations governing how far onto the pavement it could extend. The building, like a boat, is wider at the back, taking full advantage of the site. Similarly, Patout’s thoughts on how best to balance the building and fit living functions into small spaces are drawn from the lessons of ocean liners.

While a series of smaller dwellings may have been possible on the site, the Avenue Victor is one of the widest streets in Paris (having been constructed in the place of the former city walls) and smaller buildings are often overwhelmed; Patout’s building is solid enough to make an impression on the expansive landscape. The delicacy, where it shows, adds to the building by making it more complex and subtle. From the south, where the narrowness is not obvious, the building can appear a little heavy and forbidding.

Less forbidding is Georges-Henri Pingusson's much smaller building at 5 Rue Denfert-Rochereau in Boulogne-Billancourt. While Patout captures the weight of a vast machine, Pingusson focuses instead on the streamlined stylishness of a mode of transport closely associated with luxury. Nonetheless, the buildings are very similar and I wonder -as both were finished in 1934- which one actually came first and whether the architect himself acknowledged the other.

Pingusson is known best for his much later (1962) Mémorial de la Deportation at the eastern tip of Île de la Cité, for the Hotel Latitude at Saint Tropez and for his other work in the South of France in the 1920s. In 1934 he joined the growing number of celebrated architects to make their mark on Boulogne-Billancourt, the suburb that lies between the Western border of Paris, the Seine and the Bois de Boulogne. Boulogne-Billancourt is a paradise for those with an interest in architecture, particularly with regard to interwar modernism.
Pingusson's building is sometimes called Villa Terniesen, after the house that stood on the site previously, designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in 1927 for the painter Paul Terniesen. This building was mostly destroyed in 1932 in order to create the larger block of flats, but Pingusson chose to keep the ground floor, which points out like the bow of a ship from the bulk of Pingusson’s flats. In keeping with Le Corbusier’s own ideas, Pingusson incorporated a roof terrace at the top of the building.

As with the block on which Pierre Patout's paquebot building sits, the site for Pingusson’s apartment block is very narrow and the architect would have faced constraints with a building of this size. In the same way as in Patout’s building, the ocean-liner design allows the building to become wider within its alloted space without sacrificing grace and continuity across the whole. Pingusson uses the details of a ship more decoratively than Patout, with bizarre patterns of porthole windows spread across the elevation facing Rue Denfert-Rochereau and appearing again on the doors.

Maison Voisin, Pierre Patout, 7 Rue Denfert-Rochereau.
Next door to Pingusson’s cruise ship is, incidentally, one of Pierre Patout’s simpler buildings, which retains his bizarre, ever-unpredictable touch with simple shapes and strange proportions. Patout’s building is wittily named Maison Voisin, and makes a nice neighbour to Pingusson’s flats, feeling as if a nod to camaraderie between the two architects’ work. 
In truth, Patout's building was constructed earlier, in 1928, and Voisin was the surname of the industrialist who owned the house. I still find the combination of the two buildings interesting, though, and I'm still curious about what sort of relationship Pierre Patout and Georges-Henri Pingusson and their two boats actually had.

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