25 Nov 2017

The Art Déco Redesign of Saint-Quentin

It is high time Mirabelle paid its dues to a northern French Art Déco town which holds a special place in my heart: my hometown of Saint-Quentin! A born-and-bred saint-quentinoise, I spent my formative years there. I moved away for college before returning briefly home (for three years), and then onto the next leg of my personal journey, the UK.

Most of my family still lives in Saint-Quentin. My parents relocated to Corsica ten years ago and I followed suit from the UK approx. three years later. When my dad left Saint-Quentin, he left his heart behind - and probably even his soul. I left bits of myself behind and fragments of my heart too. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all leave bits of ourselves behind whenever we up sticks.

Nouvelles Galeries, rue Saint-Jacques

We are ambivalent as to whether we should have moved away, whether we should have moved on with our lives. For my dad, this has proved virtually impossible after he was forced to sell our much-loved family home, a one-of-a-kind (unique) property whose elaborate construction and overall design he had been personally invested in every step of the way over the course of almost 35 years. A painstaking labour of love carved out of the best materials, using the best skillsets, that makes the house he lives in now a mockery (his words) if only in terms of architectural merit.

Mosaic ribbon (detail), rue de la Sous-Préfecture; another element of the façade is shown on pict. (13)

The irony of it all is that through our time in Saint-Quentin, none of us hardly took any photos of the town itself, none of us photographically recorded its beautiful, history-laden architectural heritage which was the background to our every day. A faux-pas which I reiterated in Manchester! So once again, I find myself reliant upon other people's photography in order to relate a part of my personal, intimate history.

Trade 'Commerce' medallion on a façade, rue de la Sellerie, carved out by French sculptor Raoul Josset

The moral of the story: do not take for granted the locale you live in. Pay attention to it, observe it, acknowledge it and immortalise it with your camera (or your paints and brushes or pencils).

Because this article just so happens to be a tale of ironies, the other irony is that while living in Saint-Quentin, we didn't pay much attention to its Art Déco architecture. We took note of the older (albeit rare) buildings that survived WWI ravages (and to a much lesser extent WWII ravages), namely the Basilique Saint-André (Basilica), Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), Palais de Fervaques (tribunal) and theatre, all of which were extensively renovated post-war. Scattered vestiges here and there also survived the war. In actual fact, roughly 70% of Saint-Quentin was destroyed by the Great War.

Criée Municipale frontage, place Gaspard de Coligny

Now prepare for some home truths in this tribute:

Art Déco architecture was such an element of our daily lives - we bathed in it - that we found it too mundane and ordinary, to be worthy of any value. We didn't notice its merit, nor did we recognise it formally as a component of the internationally-celebrated design movement. We appreciated it only for what it was: an architectural style that characterised our town (and other northern towns and villages) and made it functional, rather than functional, innovative and eye-pleasing. We did not sing its praise. Rather, it just happened to be there, a mere landscape to our lives.

Brochure, via Calaméo

In retrospect, I wish I had paid attention. I hear you suggest that I could return to Saint-Quentin to soak it all in and capture it but nostalgia, and generally the memory of loved ones gone, times gone and a way of life gone, have ways to make you sea-sick. And this is the pain I have interiorised. Maybe after all, we shouldn't have gone in the first place. Just stayed put. But is this what life is about? Stay put? Deprive yourself of brand new adventures?

Buffet de la Gare, train station restaurant mosaic (detail)
Forged iron and bevelled glass door (detail), rue Voltaire

Now let us be clear. To label Saint-Quentin as strictly an Art Déco town (as modern-day historians tend to do) is a fallacy. It deprives it of its rich, long and checkered history: founded by the Romans, sacked and looted by the Francs (in 406), then by Atilla the Hun (in 450), and later by the Barbarians (in 531). Not to mention other charming visitors like the Spanish conquistadores and the Prussians. Saint-Quentin's strategic location as a gateway to northern and Eastern Europe, made it a geopolitical hotspot and a battlefield, as well as an intersection point between paganism and christiandom.

The Casino cinema, built 1929, a flamboyant landmark

The prevailing Art Déco style across our northern town reflects the fact that 3/4 of its pre-WWI buildings had been blitzed out by war. Thus no expenses were spared when reconstruction came about. This coincided with the flourishing movement of the time, Art Déco, using a variety of materials (brick, stone, slate, marble, granite, mosaics, stained glass, enamel, concrete, plaster, forged iron, stainless steel, bronze, brass, copper, lead, wood) and a palette of techniques that heralded the new and the bold while grounding it into a solid classical approach in terms of proportions, perspective, materials and general elegance. The constructions were made to last the distance in terms of both appeal and quality, not be demolished on a whim within a couple of generations.

Local architectural firms, as well as those from Paris, Lille or nearby, all delighted in the prospect of showcasing their know-how, and added quirky touches as they came up with residential, commercial, institutional and industrial premises, not to mention train stations, churches and war memorials, that lived up to their name, reputation and promises.

Art Déco translated the wave of post-war optimism into a movement. No solemnity to it, only a hymn to joy and oppulence meant to affect everyone positively, if only by way of a little architectural beautification, whatever came to play to perk up a nation raw from the horrors of the Great War.

Over several years, in certain cases to the dawn of WWII (or beyond for churches), the reconstruction of France and other war-torn nations was akin to a beehive of ingeniosity writing the book of 20th century design and paving the way for the mid-century modern of later years. Artisans and craftsmen were an integral part of the workforce, hence process. My great grandad, Joseph, a marine carpenter by trade, travelled all the way from Brittany to Saint-Quentin with his family in order to provide his sought-after skills to the building trade.

The Conservatoire Municipal (Music Academy) lobby area

After all, mass-consumerism hadn't quite cut its teeth into society just yet. France was still being built up out of wares that had been made in France! There was this fierce, strong sense of belonging and the Nation State. Personalisation, customisation and innovation played an important part in Art Déco craftsmanship. The result was an architectural equivalent of fashion haute couture or a quality off-the-peg piece, rather than ready-made, pre-assembled ensembles churned out on an industrial scale. Ironwork was hot off the local forge, not off Home Depot.

Decorative terracotta grapevine relief band, residential property, Champs-Elysées area?

All these elements fuse together into lessons in contemporary design and late neo-classicism that many a modern-day architect worth their salt should embrace rather than run from or deride. I cannot bear to think what our towns and cities would look like if they were being rebuilt today, under this post-industrial, post-craftsmanship styleless, paradigm of using cheap and cheerful one-size-fits-all Far-East imports that line up the shelves of DIY chain stores. I can all too painfully notice its ravages at a local level (in Corsica), the breeze block-plasterboard-PVC residential combos with their utterly charmless personality-devoid utilitarian Soviet finished look. Life is meant to be celebrated, not mourned, which is why Art Déco should make us thankful. Rejoice, people, rejoice!

Glass and metal front door, rue de la Sous-Préfecture; another element of the façade is shown on pict. (4)

Sources: Art Déco knows no blandness. Art Déco as a movement created bold, awe-inspiring, sculptural - even flamboyant - statements. Think the Chrysler Building! Made up of bold, aerodynamic, streamlined curves, abstract patterns and geometric florals and feathers, it is meant to be embraced from a distance and appreciated up close. A celebrated duo of form and function that epitomises good design and relishes both its clean lines and intricate vignettes and frescoes. Born just after WWI, the artistic and architectural movement swept across the world and span across the Roaring Twenties and Depression Era.

Front door (detail) of the Grande Poste (central post office)

(1-3) Construction of the Nouvelles Galeries retail store started in 1922, and the store opened to the public five years later. Despite the building having been disused for the last 50 years, it has nonetheless managed to keep visitors spellbound to this day. While awaiting an hypothetical renaissance, the site has found its vocation as an exhibition hall for... Art Déco exhibitions! (1) Photography by Julien Sarrazin, via On Teste Pour Vous en Picardie. (2) La folle expo d l'Art  Déco, photography via Art Déco de France. (3) Photography via the city of Saint-Quentin's official website. (4-5) L'Art Déco à Saint-Quentin, photography by Jean Triboulloy and Michèle Wojciechowski. (4) Mosaic ribbon (detail) fringing the façade of a much-photographed Art Déco maison bourgeoise residential property, located next to the sous-préfecture. See its panelled glass and ironwork door pict. (13). (5) 'Commerce' medallion on a façade, rue de la Sellerie, carved out by French sculptor Raoul Josset. Interestingly the prolific sculptor moved to the USA in order to pursue his craft under the Art Déco influence; he created larger-than-life statues in his adopted state of Texas. (6) Criée Municipale, unattributed photography via Nicole Boxberger. It features a concrete curved one-storey building that used to host the municipal fish market. I remember it operating until at least 20 years ago. Under the town hall's Art Déco preservation and renovation programme which provides incentives and professional advice to eligible property owners from both the public and private sectors, the Criée was renovated. Its lettering, which used to be a tomato red on cream, has now been given a flattering blue floral treatment that lends panache and a little relief to the signage. The neat Art Déco typeface is pure typographical delight! (7) Art Déco has taken centerstage in Saint-Quentin only recently, over the last 25 years. Prior to that, the movement might have been perceived as being still too recent in order to deserve acknowledgement and critical acclaim from local historians, the local authorities and the local population alike. The brochure 'Raconte-moi l'Art Déco à Saint-Quentin' was published by the Local Authority (Agglomération du Saint-Quentinois), and is available to read via Calaméo. (8-9) Photography by Pascal Stritt, featuring (8) the mosaic detail of the Buffet de la Gare (train station restaurant), and (9) the forged iron and bevelled glass door, rue Voltaire. (10) Inaugurated in 1929, the flamboyant Casino cinema and music-hall is flanked by two pilasters topped by carnival heads, Jean qui rit (the laughing John symbolises comedy) and Jean qui pleure (the weeping John symbolises tragedy). The heads used to spook me stiff every time I went past! (11) The Conservatoire Municipal (music academy) is a gem of Art Déco fusion, with its façade bearing a distinctive flemish style flanked by bow windows. (12-13) Photography by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, via Flickr. Their photography portfolio is a collection of (mostly) Art Déco architecture, including architectural artefacts (plaques, reliefs, friezes, etc.) from around the world. (12) Decorative terracotta grapevine relief band on the façade of a residential property believed to be in the vicinity of the Champs-Elysées municipal gardens. (13) Glass and metal front door, rue de la Sous-Préfecture. Cf. pict. (4) for another element of the façade. (14) Glass and metal front door detail of the imposing Grande Poste (central post office), located nearby the Basilica. Photography by MEL.A, via Instagram. René F. Delannoy was the architect (1929). The account features more Art Déco views of Saint-Quentin. (15) Photography by Pascal Stritt, of one of the tin plaques that decorate the bar of the Restaurant des Champs-Elysées, rue de Baudreuil. (16) The Art Déco movement is now celebrated every Spring in Saint-Quentin and neighbouring towns.

Tin plaque, Restaurant des Champs-Elysées, rue de Baudreuil

Further Resources:

A yearly celebration of Art Déco in Saint-Quentin


* The acute accent on the letter 'e' of Art Déco is my deliberate attempt at translating the fact that the Art Déco movement originated from France. It derives its name from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in 1925 in Paris, an event which came to be known as a catalyst of the Art Déco movement.

* Last updated 12-Apr-2018.

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