Perpignan – World Capital of “Curvitecture”?
By Henry Shaftoe
Unlike many cities, Perpignan was booming between the two world wars (maybe from the combined benefits of a successfully growing wine trade and people getting out of Spain while the civil war raged), with the result that many new houses were built in the areas just outside the historic town centre core during the 1920s and 30s.
This happened to be the period when “Art Deco” was all the rage, so many of these houses were designed and built in this style. Art Deco aimed to clear away the clutter and fussiness of previous design styles. As a result, many art deco buildings incorporated graceful curves as part of their “streamlining” effect.
This “curvitecture” is very evident in Perpignan; in fact I would argue that Perpignan is a world leader in Art Deco “Curvitecture” ( Challenged only by Miami, USA and perhaps Royan and Vichy in France).
Straight lines are much easier for architects and builders (there are many fine “straight” art deco buildings in Perpignan too), but there is something warm and sensuous about curves. After all – you don’t find many straight lines in the natural environment!
With the widespread adoption by architects of Computer Aided Design (CAD) over the last couple of decades, “curvitecture” has been at the root of some spectacularly popular new buildings (Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Santiago Calatrava’s Foundation Vuitton in Paris are just two examples) and, of course Antoni Gaudi’s landmark buildings in Barcelona (which pre-dated Art Deco) demonstrate the massive public appeal of “curvitecture”.
Rue Georges Rives (parallel and directly to the south of traffic-clogged Boulevard Felix Mercader) is arguably one of the most beautiful residential streets in Perpignan and a living museum of Art Deco building styles.
But the whole area from here to the ramparts of the Palais des Rois de Majorque is a treasure trove of curvy delights. Add to that a number of curvacious buildings around the Boulevard Jean Bourrat and some lovely examples in the “Vernet” districts to the north of the river and you can witness a unique richness of delightfully curvy buildings without having to take a long-haul flight to Florida!
Although ‘curvitecture’ flourished between the two world wars, Perpignan also has good examples of the use of curves before and after. A stroll down and around Boulevard Wilson reveals some curvaceous facades from the “Art Nouveau” period, starting in the 19th century, as well as some sinuous apartment blocks from the 1940s.
Going way back in time: the iconic “Castillet” gatehouse has few straight lines in its mellow red brickwork. And of course “starchitect” Jean Nouvel’s contemporary Grenat auditorium at the Theatre de l’Archipel is as curvy as you can get!
The people at Perpignan Town Hall seem to be missing a trick by not promoting this glorious manifestation of Perpignan’s heritage. Maybe the Council could produce a self-guided tour leaflet of some key art deco buildings.
In the meantime you can enjoy these relatively undiscovered gems yourselves, just by wandering around the streets and squares off the main Boulevards of Mercador, Briand, Anatole France, Wilson and Bourrat, before the tour operators find out and the coachloads jam the streets!
Or, why not explore Perpignan on the little train?