“I've always loved the fashion of the 30s and everything that came with the Art Deco era – the jewellery and the glamour,” American actress Emmy Rossum is quoted as saying. You may ask yourself what Art Deco architecture has to do with fashion but, after it was established in the 1920s, the geometric shapes and sunrise patterns of the design infiltrated almost every part of modern life, including furniture design, jewellery, ceramics and indeed, fashion. Anyone who’s in doubt of the Art Deco influence on pop culture only has to look at the remake of The Great Gatsby, with music produced by Jay Z, to realise how decades later the design aesthetic still informs so much of what we consume.
According to Wentworthstudio.com: “The style takes its name from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs held in Paris in 1925 as a showcase for new inspiration. The style was essentially one of applied decoration. Buildings were richly embellished with hard-edged, low-relief designs.” Some of the most memorable and iconic buildings in America that embody this design include New York’s Chrysler Building and the famous Rockefeller Centre.
Taking a page out of Egyptian and Aztec art, with some even going so far as to call Art Deco ‘tamed Cubism’ (Cubism is a style of painting which used geometric motifs, invented and made famous by the legendary artist Pablo Picasso). Art Deco architecture spawned an entire generation’s worth of design inspiration. From the 20s to the 40s, Art Deco dominated the scene and it’s no wonder then that the architectural design also made its way to our shores. And no other city in South Africa embraced Art Deco architecture quite like Durban. It’s been just over 70 years since the trend waned but the beauty of the geometric buildings built in the city during that time is still something to marvel at.
It’s also not surprising that this vibrancy was embraced by one of our country’s sunniest and warmest cities throughout the year, we must add. From hosting award shows to music festivals, you can’t separate Durban from its interesting historical background. In 2015, during the festive season alone, there were 1.45-million visitors with a total direct spend of R3.1 billion. The city’s a leading tourist attraction, both domestically and internationally. The home of one of the most well-known African tribes, the Zulus, Durban also has the biggest Indian community outside of India. The history and beauty of the city is rich, so it’s fitting that Durban has hosted the Tourism Indaba, one of the biggest African tourism events on the calendar, since 1998. The many Art Deco buildings leave a lasting impression on the thousands of international visitors who attend the Indaba.
The buildings and icons tell of a history largely steeped with British and Indian influence. For instance, The Cenotaph was erected in honour of soldiers who died in the World War I, and the monument was completed in England and shipped to Durban in 1926. Pixley House, another remarkable Art Deco building and formerly known as Prefcor House, has its roots entrenched in our history and the South African Native National Congress, known today as the African National Congress. Pixley House was witness to a history of struggle, a narrative familiar to South Africa, one we're used to hearing and are now celebrating.
Art Deco buildings are storytellers, not in words but in complex designs, sharp geometric shapes and striking colours. When looking upon these awe-inspiring buildings, they shouldn’t be observed set in black, Indian, coloured or white history, but a collective South African history. They need to be preserved as the visible tapestry that is our country’s rich heritage. So the next time you’re in Durban snap a selfie next to one or two of these marvellous old buildings, put them on social media and make a point of sharing our South African treasures – our foundations and heritage no matter whose history they once belonged to.
Durban Art Deco buildings
Pixley House: Is located on the historical Dr. Pixley Kaseme Street in central Durban – a street named after the president of the South African Native National Congress in 1912, known today as the African National Congress. Pixley House was built in 1938 inspired by the Art Deco architectural craze. This historical building was also home to a prominent store of the time, Payne Bros Stores. The building has recently been refurbished and is now a residential block.
Colonial Mutual Building: Is a prominent landmark recorded as being the tallest building in South Africa when it was designed and completed between 1931 and 1933. It’s almost 57-metre high with 14 storeys. It encapsulates the image of economic and political power, according to researcher Lindsay Napier. “Gothic and Romanesque elements are used as reference to the strength and longevity that Gothic and Romanesque architecture symbolised.” It was built for the Mutual Life Assurance Society at 330 Dr. Pixley Kaseme Street.
Cheviot Court: Is found on the corner of Musgrave Road and Poynton Place. It was built in the 1940s, and the six-storey building is used as a residential block today. Well-maintained to date unlike other buildings that have fallen in decay, Cheviot Court has been refurbished in vibrant colours.
Surrey Mansions: Is at 323 Currie Road and is an eight-storey apartment building that was built in 1937. The Durban Deco Society claims it as one of the great Art Deco buildings with excellent resolution of geometry in the use of rectangular and curved forms.
The Cenotaph: The construction is one of outstanding work and this monument has a powerful story to tell. Completed in England and shipped to Durban, the beautiful sculpture was unveiled in 1926 in commemoration of soldiers who died in World War I. It is 11-metres tall and is made of granite.