Art Deco overdose in Casablanca

Art Deco on Place des Nations Unies

The name of Casablanca is largely associated with the 1940s, thanks to Michael Curtiz’s movie from 1942. I had heard from friends that the city center had a number of Art Deco buildings and hotels, so this large port city became part of our Morocco trip, but nothing could prepare me for the shock of so much Art Deco in one place.

Rialto Art Deco Movie Theater

Shanghai and Casablanca have a number of interesting common points. They are both large port cities and subtropical, located slightly above the Tropic of Cancer. Although they have been used as ports for centuries, both cities were largely developed in the early part of the 20th century thanks to export of exotic goods from the hinterland to West colonial powers. This greatly influenced the architecture of both cities. All these similarities, give a strong sense of familiarity to a Shanghai visitor to Casablanca. Like new western district were build around Shanghai Old City while preserving it, Casablanca Western city was built next to the Old Medina, that is still inhabited. With a similar structure, history and timing, Casablanca and Shanghai shared a similar architecture from the 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco.

Local craft chef d’oeuvre

Although numerous Shanghai Art Deco buildings remains in the city today, many have been demolished and the city center has changed a lot since the 1930s. What is fascinating with Casablanca, is that little has changed. Most of the 1920s to 1940s buildings are still in place, and Art Deco clearly flourished in Casablanca. In the central district, nearly every single building is a declination of the Art Deco style. French young artists and architects (like Majorelle) moved to Morocco and used the city to experiment with the then modern style. Local crafts were used to create unique pieces for the new style. In Shanghai, Chinese wood carving skills were in Art Deco furniture. In Casablanca, the most visible is the use of plaster and ceramic inherited from islamic art, to create exterior sculpture on buildings and mosaics.

Volubilis Hotel, Art Deco with islamic features

Like in Shanghai, early 20th century heritage has been used but largely neglected for decades. Shanghai has its Historic Shanghai association, Casablanca has Casa Memoire. The association’s map was very useful for an overview of the best places to see, although the best is sometimes (just like in Shanghai), just off the beaten track.

Rick’s Cafe

Although Casablanca the movie was not fimed here, an American former diplomat has opened a real life version of Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca. The bar definitely has the right atmosphere, an evocation of the 1930s or 40s, reminding me of Shanghai’s own M on the Bund. A great way to close this short stay in Casablanca.

Art Deco surprises in Mogador

Hotel Beau Rivage in Essaouira
Hotel Beau Rivage

Our short Morocco trip took us to Essaouira, a sea side resort that is famous for its constant climate all around the year. Before air travel, it was the cooling station for Marrakesh and Casablanca, just like Qingdao or Yantai were for Shanghai. Essaouira has a small and pretty Medina with narrow streets to protect from the wind (now protected as UNESCO heritage) and a few Art Deco buildings. The medina is surrounded by a city wall, originally designed by a disciple of 18th century French architect Vauban.

Cafe de France Art Deco interior

The current main square overlooking the sea was clearly made by taking down parts of the Medina wall to clear space in the early 1920s, when the city was called Mogador. Near the square stands Beau Rivage hotel, with is modernist style and its ground floor Café de France that has kept is Moorish Art Deco interior.

Art Deco villa on the Essaouira beach front

The other spot of Art Deco buildings are villas along the beach, South from the old town. This area feels quite similar to places Miami Beach, Long Beach California or Bondi Beach in Sydney. The beach side is now a mix of modern hotels and apartment blocks with a few Art Deco beach villas remaining.

Art Deco beach house
The veterinarian’s house

I managed to talk with an old man enjoying the sunset on the balcony of one of the them. “This house was built for the director of the regional veterinary administration, in 1948, under the French protectorate” he said. For the French civil servants, posting in Mogador must have been quite a remote location, but having a nice villa on the beach to watch the sunset was a pretty nice compensation.

Another villa on the beach

The really interesting part is that I had always thought that French Art Deco stopped with WW2. It seems that in Morocco, Art Deco continued well in the late 1940’s and maybe further, just like it continued in Asia (See post Frankenstein Art Deco). Casablanca architecture was also influenced by California in the 1940s, so the trend of Art Deco beach villas came all the way to Mogador, just like it came all the way to Qingdao, Yantai and other sea side resorts in China.

Marrakesh Art Deco #2

Art Deco pavillon in Jardin Majorelle

This post is the sequel of post Marrakesh Art Deco #1, continuing the series of chance encounters around Art Deco in Marrakesh. Post #1 was about our first day on a sidecar visiting the Gueliz district of Marrakesh as well as discovering the palace hotel and Marrakesh icon, La Mamounia. The second day started with a visit to one of the gem of Marrakesh, the famous garden jardin Majorelle.

Jacques Majorelle was born in Nancy in 1886 and was the son of Nancy furniture designer Louis Majorelle, one of the leader of the major Art Nouveau current, l’école de Nancy. Having grown surrounded by art, Jacques Majorelle naturally turned to painting, studying art first in Nancy, then in Paris. He moved to Morocco in 1919, a few years after the country became a French protectorate. There he developed his career, including a massive ceiling painting for the grand hotel La Mamounia (See post Marrakesh Art Deco #1). His most known work is the Majorelle garden, were he collected plants from all over the world.

Green Pavillon in Jardin Majorelle

Although the garden itself has seen renovation and transformation, elements of it are clearly Art Deco, most importantly the villa Majorelle used as a workshop. Like in some Shanghai Art Deco pieces, and in many other places, Art Deco global influence is blended with locally inspired motives. This is particularly true for the Moorish archways  of the main house (somewhat similar to the house on Duo Lun lu in Shanghai) and motives on the green pavilion. The calm and tranquility of the place is perfectly completed by the beauty of the garden and it dominant Majorelle blue.

Art Deco glass screen in Marrakesh

Our discovery of Art Deco continued with the visit to an antique dealer. Although all his collection is not Art Deco, there was a number of interesting pieces and he liked Art Deco himself. “You have come too late for Art Deco, we have some sold so many pieces. Weatlhy people came to Marrakesh in the 1930s, they would bring pieces from Paris like this one”, he said while pointing at a really nice cabinet. “Some houses had not been opened since the 1950s, then they were sold by the owner’s heirs and the content is dispersed”. I could not stop thinking about a similarity with Shanghai, when old Shanghai house are destroyed or ruinovated and antique art deco pieces are found on the market. One real surprise was a set of stained glass doors. “They were made by a local glass maker who worked with Majorelle”. I wish I could buy it all.

Sassoon room at villa Makassar

A true Art Deco spot was Villa Makassar, the Art Deco riad. Although it is recently built, the owner has spent a lot of effort to design it in Art Deco style and furnish it with antique furniture. Every room has a theme associated to the style, and coming from Shanghai we were offered the Sassoon room. Being greeted by Old Shanghai posters and a picture of actress Hu Die was quite a surprise, and a strong link of our trip with Shanghai homeland.

Art Deco in La Casba

The hotel is located in La Casba, a recent part of the Medina that has clearly been built (or re-built) in the 1920s or 30s, with a few Art Deco buidlings. After these 2 days of being unexpectedly surrounded with Art Deco in Marrakesh, a few more surprises were waiting for us at the seaside town Essaouira.

Marrakesh Art Deco #1

View from Marrakesh from Mount Gueliz
View from Mount Gueliz

Going to Morocco during winter was a great deviation from a long trip in Europe. While preparing for Art Deco beauties of Casablanca, Marrakesh was a real surprise. Beyond the World-famous Medina, getting lost in the souks and admiring the beautiful Atlas Mountains, a series of chance encounters allowed a unique view of the unknown Art Deco side of the city.

Most tourists come to Marrakesh to spend time in the old part of the city, the Medina while they spend little time in Gueliz, the former French district which is mostly residential. After the 1912 protectorate of Morroco, French troups built a fortress on Mount Gueliz and the area was chosen for the French army soldiers to settle. Most of the original architecture on the main road has been replaced by newer buildings during the 1990s, but our guide knew where to look. Rachel Thomann has lived in Marrakesh for years and became the specialist of the Gueliz district while writing her thesis about the area, that is soon to be published as a book. She took us on the sidecar tour with Insiders (a company started in Shanghai), searching for lost Art Deco in Gueliz, starting with an overview of the city by climbing on Mount Gueliz.

French officers house, art deco style

French officers based in Marrakesh built their villas in the 1920s and 30s, in Art Deco style that was popular at the time. Traveling through the small streets lined with orange trees looking at Art Deco / Modernist villas was a great discovery off the usual tourist track. in the 1920s and 1930s,

Gueliz was a modern city, next to century old Marrakesh. Rachel has deeply studied the history of the area. “ Local people living the old City were rarely allowed in the French district. The ones who had this privilege had the feeling they had traveled to France.”

Art Deco apartment building in Gueliz

One of her most beloved place is former Cine-Palace that she managed to save from destruction. 1920s Cine-Palace is to early to be truly Art Deco style, but later additions are spot on. The tour ended with a drink at Café de la Poste, a restored bar and restaurant that is perfect keeping the 1930s feeling.

La Mamounia’s bar, a time travel

This time travel day ended up with a visit night cap at 1923’s grand hotel and Marrakesh icon, La Mamounia. Although the building is from the 1920s but not really Art Deco, but current renovation and lighting really gives the feeling of a trip back to the 1930’s. A grand style ending for a day trip in Marrakesh Art Deco.

California Dreaming

Art Deco in SOMA
Art Deco in SOMA

Having met several delegates from California during the last Shanghai Art Deco Congress was surely part of the decision for a trip to the sunshine state over the latest Chinese New Year. We were really lucky with the weather as the weekend of President Day was the one of blue sky and nicer than normal temperatures in February, best after exceptional good weather in Shanghai in the previous days (see pictures from those days). We had not even reached our destination that Shanghai had already caught with us, with a conference in Standford University by old Shanghai original re-discoverer, Tess Johnston attended by a friend we later visited.

california 002
Alcatraz light tower and prison

Expectations about Art Deco were definitely met from day 1 in San Francisco. The city is mostly famous for its rows of victorian style wooden houses bordering streets going up and down, but Art Deco is very well represented. Art Deco buildings can be found towering the hills of the city and in the Mission district and SOMA area, like the enclosed picture of the office of San Francisco Chronicle. The other major Art Deco sight is on the bay, with some of the piers and docks, Alcatraz prison… and the Golden Gate Bridge.

As expected, California has lot’s of Art Deco just like Shanghai, but another style very common in Shanghai can also be found in California, where it originated. Spanish Colonial Revival style was not so visible in San Francisco, but it only took a short trip South to see much more of it.

Spanish revivals in Palo Alto
Spanish revivals in Palo Alto

California was first scouted by Christian missionaries, who created a line of missions all the way up to San Francisco. The Spanish Colonial style of the 16th century missions, inspired a revival in the 19th and 20th Century. This style was used to make many villas and houses in California, creating a mix of Art Deco and Spanish Colonial Revival style that makes Shanghailanders feel just at home. The same mix can be found in many smaller cities in California like San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara. Having been built in the same time, 20’s – 30’s Shanghai and California, it should not be surprising that both had the same building styles then.

Stanford main corridors
Stanford main corridors

The best example of Spanish Colonial Revival style architecture is the main building of Stanford University, which main building from late 19th century is really inspired from Spanish architecture, overlooked by a very nice Art Deco tower.

Art Deco in San Luis Obispo
Art Deco in San Luis Obispo

One of the many example of great Californian Art Deco, is the San Luis Obispo Court House. It is located very closed to the original Spanish mission and Victorian style wood houses. Another great example of the California mix of architecture, that feels really familiar when coming from Shanghai.

 

A trip to old Rangoon

Sule Paya at night, Yangon
Yangon main street at night

Arrival in Yangon (Rangoon) at night woke back many memories of other cities frozen in time. The first contact reminded me of arriving in Saigon in 1998. Same trees, same roads and mostly 1980’s Japanese 10th hand cars around. The cars falling apart with wheel on the wrong side reminded me of Cambodia in the late 90’s. I was expecting the former British colony to have right hand side driving like its neighbors. Just like Old Shanghai did in the mid 1940’s, driving direction was changed in Burma (Myanmar) in the 1970’s. In any case, if the airport drive at night had led me to the Caravelle hotel in Saigon instead of the Trader’s hotel in Rangoon, I would not have been surprised at all.

Colonial building, Yangon
Colonial building, Yangon

The morning of the second day visiting Rangoon reminded me more of the Hanoi of the late 1990’s. Walking around the Kandawgyi lake with the Sedona hotel overlooking it, felt just like Hanoi’s West Lake hotel in my memories. On the river front, Strand Road reminds of the Shanghai Bund with the customs house on the waterfront and the main bank as well as the main hotel (The Strand Hotel) next to it. Today’s Strand Road looks a lot like picture of Shanghai Bund in the 1920’s, before Art Deco towers like the Sassoon House (peace hotel) and the Bank of China were built.  The back streets with trees growing between the buildings look a lot like Hankou (today’s Wuhan) former French concession. Many people eat in the streets in Rangon. They have early diner from 5 to 7 or 8 PM sitting on colorful plastic chairs, eating noodles, curries and meat skewers. The same plastic chairs I used to sit on about 14 years ago in Saigon.

Most of Central Rangoon (Yangon) has been left more or less untouched since the 60th. Although a lot of construction went on in the 50’s and early 60th, style was kept in line with the colonial architecture. Most buildings have been left untouched for decades, with some of them being now renovated. Walking in the streets by daylight gives a nice view of the buildings with various forms and styles. Night time in Yangon is also very nice as there is little activity. The low lights and old buildings create an atmosphere that is charming and very unique. At the same time, it is very clear that redevelopment of the city has already started. A number of colonial buildings have been replaced by new towers and the process will probably accelerate with the recent political changes in the country. Just like other cities in South East Asia, Yangon (Rangoon) will surely transform in the next years but hopefully it will retain its charms and history. In any case, now is probably the best time to visit. This stay in Yangon (Rangoon) was part of a trip around Myanmar (Burma) that has been quite incredible. Although poverty in the country is striking, there is a warmth with Burmese people like nowhere else in Asia and the country is stunningly beautiful. More picture about this trip can be found at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/24266052@N00/sets/72157629302498231/

Singapore Sling at the Raffles

Singapore sling
Singapore sling

Singapore’s Raffles is one of the icons of the colonial hotel where travelers got together and met with local high society and expatriates. Having been restored a few years ago, it still gives a feeling of luxury and excellence, a time travel after a busy day crossing Singapore numerous shopping centers. Drinking a Singapore Sling on the patio of the billard room is part of the trip, as well as visiting the nice little Raffle’s Museum. It would be a great source of inspiration for the team in charge of renovating the Cathay Hotel (today’s Peace Hotel), another legend in the world of colonial hotel.

Singapore race towards progress has left little colonial feeling apart from the central district North of the Singapore river. The colonial administration center development into museums has managed to keep the atmosphere, though only for a small part of the old city. Having not been to Singapore for many years, it is clear that a lot of efforts have been put into preservation of the remains, maybe trying to recapture the soul of the city after so much transformation.

Singapore Cricket Club
Singapore Cricket Club

In the middle of it, the Singapore crickets club is a reminder of old time, looking over sports fields similar to Old Shanghai’s recreation ground (today People Square). The facade of the club house has a shape similar to some of the mansions in old Shanghai.

Apart from colonial architecture that is typical from the remains of the British empire, Singapore also has a specific old architecture shared with Malacca, though in a much commercialized and much less peaceful version. Peranakan culture has Chinese culture from the early Chinese traders in Malaysia, Malaysian culture and western style all mixed into an architecture cocktail.  The architecture mixing Western and Chinese style is also quite similar to the Kaiping area in Guangdong province (see pictures of Kai ping area) and in parts of Fujian province, in particular Xiamen and Gulangyu. Since a lot of the Chinese people in Singapore have Guandong and Fujian origin, it is not so surprising.

Facade on Emerald Hill Road
Facade on Emerald Hill Road

One of the nice surprises was  Emerald Hill Road just off Orchad Road. This last bit of terraced houses near the city’s shopping mecca is like a time travel to the straight settlement. Although the houses at the bottom of the street have all been turned into bars and restaurant, the terraced houses with a Peranakan style of the upper part of the street have a feeling similar to some of the Shanghai’s lilong, giving a little peace and quiet. There is also an interesting mix of various period with typical Peranakan houses mixed with a few examples of Art Nouveau or even Art Deco houses. Unfortunately, only one street like those remains in the area… hopefully Shanghai will keep more of its small streets, while still managing it rise to modernity.