Exploring the Art Deco Marvels of Boulogne-Billancourt

Few French places have an architectural heritage as rich as that of Boulogne-Billancourt. In the 1930s, the city west of Paris, then a nerve center for the aeronautic and automobile industries, became a laboratory of modernity.
The Molitor swimming pool was designed by Lucien Pollet and inaugurated in 1929. Restored to its original condition, the building – now home to a luxury hotel – reopened in 2014 and recently featured in Emily in Paris. © Sébastien Giraud

It was a small revolution a stone’s throw from the French capital. On the edge of the Bois de Boulogne in the Parc des Princes neighborhood, the founders of modern architecture such as Le Corbusier, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Jean Lurçat, Auguste Perret, Pierre Patout, and Jean-Léon Courrèges built residences that doubled as artist studios, apartment buildings, and townhouses. The initiative was encouraged by the town’s visionary mayor André Morizet and patrons and artists who rallied to the cause of new building design. The goal was to make the town an urban reference focused on living functionality. The architects were given the chance to experiment thanks to cheap plots of land, and within a few years Boulogne-Billancourt had become a “town of art.” The city has recently introduced an architectural walking tour complete with plaques explaining the history of these exceptional spaces. Here are a few you should know.

The Lipchitz-Miestchaninoff Residence-Studios

9 Allées des Pins

Le Corbusier moved to Paris in 1917 looking for commissions and recognition. The sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, whom he met at an auction, tasked him with designing two adjoining residences and studios in 1924. These were to be shared between Lipchitz and his friend, sculptor Oscar Miestchaninoff. The ensemble was built on a private street in Boulogne-Billancourt where Marc Chagall once lived. In this city, the young Corbusier found a fresh canvas on which to make choices and test ideas. Inspired by the industrial aesthetic and modern materials such as reinforced concrete, he created simple geometric patterns, smooth white walls, rooftop terraces, and vast windows overlooking nature and letting in natural light. Comfort and simplicity were the cornerstones of his vision. These elements are found in the two residence-studios on the Allée des Pins, which both overlook a shared garden. On the corner of the street, the “front turret” of the Miestchaninoff residence, which also boasts pontoons and terraces, offers a focal point for the entire construction. The location was ideal for creating the form of an ocean liner (known as Streamline Modern style), a fashionable choice in the heyday of transatlantic voyages. Visitors will see a funnel framed by a spiral staircase and a handrail modeled on those used on ships. The rest of the building features interplaying, connected parallelepiped shapes in a nod to Le Corbusier’s cubist influences. Inversely, the Lipchitz residence-studio is characterized by an overall simplicity – the result of personal choice and budget.

© Philippe Fuzeau

Villas Collinet, Cook, and Dubin

8, 6, and 4 Rue Denfert-Rochereau

Rue Denfert-Rochereau is home to a “dictionary of modern architecture” in the form of three adjoining villas designed by three avant-garde architects. While each contributed their own style, the overall result is one of unparalleled consistency, with air, light, cleanliness, and efficient function making up the collective founding principles. The first was built by Robert Mallet-Stevens in 1926. A smooth, simple facade, a rooftop terrace, and horizontal windows were part of this so-called modern dandy’s love of pure dimensions. As it happens, the owner even demanded that Le Corbusier and Raymond Fischer lower their rooftop terraces by seven feet to avoid obstructing the view. Next came Le Corbusier’s house for William Cook, an American journalist and friend of Gertrude Stein. The residence was the first to showcase the architect’s “five-point theory for modern architecture.” This principle implied building on piles, a totally free interior layout, a façade separated from the structure itself, long, wide windows, and a rooftop terrace offering a garden and a relaxation area. In this case, the dimensions, space, and light are more important than the materials used. The final project was the work of Fischer, who created a villa for fashion designer Suzanne Dubin. As a disciple of Le Corbusier, he adopted the same criteria of smooth, concrete façades, a rooftop terrace, and horizontal windows for enjoying sunlight all day long.

Villa Collinet by Robert Mallet-Stevens. © Philippe Fuzeau

Villa Ternisien

5 Allée des Pins

Villa Ternisien is also an icon of modern architecture from the early 20th century, and was started by Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret in 1927. Today the only original feature is a section of the first floor. The three subsequent upper floors were built by Georges-Henri Pingusson in 1936. In 1923, the musician Paul Ternisien and his wife, a painter, approached Le Corbusier at one of his conferences at the Sorbonne. They wanted to build a residence on a triangular plot including music and painting studios, with the ensemble surrounding an “untouchable” tree. The architect rose to the challenge, adapting the house’s floorplan to the limits of the triangular plot while preserving the tree through a triple division of the spaces. But financial difficulties and the introduction of new procedures disliked by the owners led the project to failure. Following a lawsuit for architectural defects, the building was demolished and Pingusson built a four-story investment property in 1936. In homage to Le Corbusier, he kept the prow-shaped point on the first floor, and used porthole windows in keeping with the Streamline Modern style.

© Philippe Fuzeau

Alfred Lombard's Residence-Studio

2 Rue Gambetta

Pierre Patout is an exception among the modernists. Despite upholding the International architecture style, he retained a penchant for the picturesque. And this is proved by his immense concrete “ship” in the Streamline Modern style, built for his friend, the painter Alfred Lombard, whom he met during the development of the Ile-de-France transatlantic liner. The traditional walls and terraces aside, a search for originality is seen in the numerous recesses, varied openings, irregular dimensions, and stark edges. Lombard himself even added a personal touch: The floor of the vestibule, lined with six columns, features a black-and-white glass paste mosaic. The painter and “captain” then left his “ship” for Toulon in 1946. The residence-studio went on to assume more prosaic roles, being used as a yoga space before being abandoned then transformed into an apartment building!

© Philippe Fuzeau

The Renard Mansion

19 bis Avenue Robert-Schuman

With its sloping roofs, gable façades, Burgundy flat roof tiles, and mullion windows, the mansion seems to be the antithesis of avant-garde architecture. It is in fact an example of a regional style of Art Deco architecture created by Jean-Léon Courrège, the father of the renowned fashion designer, for the Renard couple. This mansion was later home to André Malraux, whose love of this pink-brick building’s aesthetic led him live there from the Liberation until 1962. While there, the author of The Human Condition wrote The Voices of Silence and The Metamorphosis of the Gods. The residence was also the site of a drama on February 7, 1962, by the end of the Algerian War, when a bomb set by the OAS exploded while Malraux was out.

© Philippe Fuzeau

Villa Dora Gordine

21 Rue du Belvédère

The “concrete prophet” August Perret, who taught Le Corbusier, stands out from other precursors as he worked in both construction and architecture, forging his reputation by taking over his father’s reinforced concrete company. In 1929, he and his brother Gustave built an immensely simple reinforced concrete villa for sculptor Dora Gordine, a disciple of Aristide Maillol who emigrated from Estonia. However, such avant-garde material did not exclude the use of traditional shapes. The architect chose to create vertical windows that he said offered a complete panorama, unlike the more restrictive horizontal models. And the villa’s sophisticated façade even saw it listed as a National Historic Monument.

© Philippe Fuzeau

The Froriep de Salis Residence-Studio

9 Rue du Belvédère

Along with Robert Mallet-Stevens and Le Corbusier, Jean Lurçat is one of the standard-bearers of the International style. His Froriep de Salis residence offers a simple, pragmatic, geometric style making it quick to build. The result features a cube for the studio and a parallelepiped layout for the living areas. The workshop’s vast, horizontal bay window is topped with a cement pergola, and the ensemble champions the functionalism and rationalism of modern architecture.

© Philippe Fuzeau

Article published in the October 2018 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.