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Cantilever balconies, geometric designs and angular archways often go by unnoticed in the city’s bustling centre but it is these features that distinguish ordinary buildings from their art deco counterparts.
Durban is home to more than a hundred buildings in this style and has prompted enthusiasts to refurbish Berea Court, in King Dinuzulu (Berea) Road, restoring it to its former glory.
“There are about 35 buildings that visitors view as attractions. But there are many homes and general buildings in and around Durban. We are currently photographing and recording [itemising] them,” said consultant architect for the building, Nathan Francis.
Ian Reed, the interior designer and consultant behind the project that spanned a year, said that the style had originated in Europe after World War I, where a more linear as opposed to flowing style had been favoured.
“It was seen to be futuristic, industrial and elegant,” he said.
The garden is still under construction, with palm trees planned to complete the look.
He said Berea Court and other art deco buildings made their appearance in South Africa and Durban in the early 1930s, having been influenced by the trends in Europe.
“We’ve tried to preserve the graphic detailing, the murals, friezes [a horizontal band that runs above doorways and windows] and stained glass windows,” Reed said of the building, which is today being used as a residence for students of the Durban University of Technology.
The building has five floors and 50 units.
City architect Arthur Gammage said the plans for Berea Court had been approved in 1933 and the architects were Langton and Barboure, for WE Langton.
“[It is indicated that] by July 1934 the work was substantially complete. A fifth storey was added.”
Jean Powell, president of the Durban Art Deco Society, which was founded in 1999 to encourage owners of art deco style buildings to be aware of their heritage, offer advice on restoration and organise lectures and tours, said 1925 had seen the Paris exposition of decorative arts which emphasised the new style of building design.
“The Art Deco movement that spread throughout the world between 1925 and 1940 embraced all the plastic and graphic arts: architecture, furniture, ceramics, textiles, jewellery, glass, paintings and photography, chryselephantine statuettes and so on. The actual term “Art Deco” only came into popular use during the late 1960s, and is derived from the title of the 1925 Parisian Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes,” she explained.
She said Miami’s beachfront area also sported the art deco look.
“The colours are bright and vivid, even though that’s not necessarily typical of the style. It still looks fantastic.”
She said Durban’s best examples of the style were mostly residential blocks built between 1930 and 1940, and included Broadwindsor and Manhattan Court in Dr Yusuf Dadoo (Grey) Street; Enterprise Building in Samora Machel (Aliwal) Street; Victoria Mansions and Willern Court in Margaret Mncadi Avenue (Victoria Embankment); Cheviot Court in Musgrave Road; and Surrey Mansions in Stephen Dlamini (Essenwood) Road.
“Durban, on the south-east coast of Africa, has a sub-tropical climate that has no doubt contributed to the development of a robust tradition of construction that favours strong, straightforward materials like brick, plaster and reinforced concrete. This is no place for timber filigree, unprotected metals or any design that embodies slender sections.”
Fauna and flora of the area also inspired early art deco enthusiasts, with eagles, antelope and fearsome cats maintaining a vigil on many buildings of this style.
Helenore Labuschagne, secretary of the organisation, said the city council needed to offer more assistance in preserving these “local treasures”.
“Some have not been painted and their original façades have been wrecked. We have more than eight different styles of architecture, which show the richness of our architectural landscape and history,” she said.