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Durban Kultcha : Kultcha / Feature

Dilapidated Deco: Durban's Architectural Heritage

If you live in Durban, nothing quite beats the spectacle of first setting eyes on the eight-story Art Deco apartment block Surrey Mansions (designed in 1937 by architect William B Barboure), which looms out of its Berea suburb like a gargantuan salmon pink wedding cake.

Owing to the fierce commitment of the body corporate and residents, this block stands as the best-kept Art Deco site in Durban and one that local residents are only too chuffed to show interested parties around.

Stepping into the entrance lobby, all lustrous brass and chessboard tiling, one feels transported into the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. It's here, lingering beside a vacant reception desk, that I find myself imagining a chance encounter with troupe of tipsy flappers spilling out of the elevator or overzealous bell boy offering to take my coat.

Taking a tour of Durban's Art Deco heritage alongside the plucky president of the Durban's Art Deco society, Mrs Jean Powell, makes for an enlightening, if not depressing, Sunday afternoon excursion.

Travelling from inner city through to Durban suburbs and surrounds, I am introduced to a range of once ostentatious Art Deco palaces, most of which stand in varying states of dilapidation and decline.

The Durban Art Deco Society (the only organisation of its kind in the South Africa) consists of a group of committed professionals and enthusiasts who have taken it upon themselves to police the upkeep and maintenance of the hundred something Art Deco buildings appearing in and around Durban.

A few kilometres down the road, Powell and I visit the indigent younger Deco sibling to the over-manicured Surrey. Glancing over Berea Court's exterior (designed in 1937 by the same architect as Surrey Mansions), all sullied stucco and toothless Griffin motifs, I'm reminded of those over-dressed and often anachronistic old dames who grace suburban shopping malls on pensioner Tuesdays.

"Most of the Art Deco buildings in this city are dying by attrition" Powell is at pains to admit, pointing out that a majority of the buildings' owners are unable to invest R30,000 on a new lick of paint and repair jobs when their plumbing has rusted shut and elevators have stood 'out of order' for months.

In these tough economic times and low income areas, running water must understandably take precedence over pleasant but 'unessential' aesthetic niceties; it's for this reason that without sufficient funding all the Society can do is attempt to enlighten residents and owners on the historic and beautifying potential of their buildings.

One would of course hope that, with the world descending on Durban in 2010, a major inner-city facelift is in order; yet Powell can only shrug despondently when I ask what level of support and interest they have received from local municipalities and city mangers.

"Durban" she says, "has not yet cottoned on to the fact that Art Deco architecture can be a very viable tourist attraction. In most other countries in the world there are incentives like rates-rebates to ensure the longevity of these heritage sites. In this city there are no such structures in place. The city managers keep brushing these buildings off saying they are Euro-centric, and my response to such a comment is "what building isn't?"

For seventy-six-year-old Dennis Claude: lecturer, celebrated architect and fundi on all things Art Deco (Claude was responsible for compiling a comprehensive inventory of the hundred odd Art Deco buildings in Durban) the tedious 'Eurocentric' claims used to diss Art Deco as mere colonial hangover are without substance.

"You must remember, the prevailing attitude in Durban at the time of Art Deco's emergence was neo colonial," he explains over a cup of tea at his Berea home, "the type of folks who read Country Life and dreamt of gardens with blue bells in them. However, if you look at a majority of the names of the owners of the Art Deco buildings in Durban at the time they are of Jewish or Norwegian origin and I suspect that their employment of this architectural style was largely as a reaction to British snobbery prevalent at the time."

In less polite terms, Art Deco might very well have served as an over-decorated middle finger flung in the face of the uppity and stiff upper-lipped establishment: surely all the more reason for South Africans to embrace and rally to protect its fragile remnants.

In the last ten years a brief resurgence of the style occurred in Durban with the erection of the "Deco-dent" inspired Sun Coast Casino along the Durban beachfront. The casino and the varied response it received from city residents (I once heard it described by Comedian John Vlismas as a building designed by "a gay Lego-maniac alien on acid") causes Claude to chuckle knowingly when I press him for his own impressions on the eye- sore.

"It's the sort of over the top vulgarity that got the English colonials up in arms all the way back in the thirties" he grins, "and I find it fascinating to see how nearly seventy- years down the line, very little has changed."

For more information on Durban's Art Deco Heritage check out the Durban Art Deco website http://www.durbandeco.org.za/



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