METROPOLIS

january - february 1997

 

Masterpiece in peril

 

« At Croix, the boat is sinking ! » proclaims a picture postcard that depicts a 1930s Cubist villa capsizing lice the Titanic. The card is part of a local effort to save the Villa Cavrois, one of the great houses of the twentieth century and the masterpiece of Robert Mallet-Stevens, a fashionable French architect who worked between the wars. It is located off a leafy lane in an affluent suburb of Lille, a city in northern France that, having lost its prosperous textile and steel industries, is now looking to reinvent itself as a hub of the new Europe. Coarse, grossly overscale buildings by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and his cohorts dominate the bleak city center, where the recent past has been forgotten in a billion-dollar stampede to the future.

 

Eight years ago, a developer bought the historic treasure, intent on leveling it to make way for a dozen tract houses. Denied a demolition permit three times, he decided to expose the house to the elements and vandals, hoping for a more indirect destruction. In 1990, Villa Cavrois was declared a historic monument by the French Ministry of Culture, and a local preservation organization was formed to help save it. According to a 1913 law, the ministry can compel owners of such designated structures to undertake needed repairs, and, should they fail to do so, expropriate the property. That is the theory. In practice, it takes political will to enforce the law; and local incumbents are unwilling to rally round a bourgeois villa in a region with high unemployment. Last fall, the Ministry of Culture gave the developer an ultimatum, but there is no guarantee it will be effective.

 

Meanwhile, this glorious house continues to sink. The fine yellow brick cladding inspired by Willem Dudok's 1930 Town Hall in Hilversum, the Netherlands, appears whole, but the steel frame is exposed and rusting. Many of the windows have been broken, so water streams into the denuded interiors whenever it rains. But it is not too late; Le Corbusierís Villa Savoye outside Paris and Mallet-Stevensí Villa de Noailles on the Côte díAzur were equally decrepit when they were rescued. If just a fraction of the private and state funds being poured into the rebuilding of Lille were redirected, this fine house could be saved. Perhaps then it could serve as a museum of the 1930s, as a scholarly retreat, or even as an executive conference center.

 

0utside support is urgently needed. To join the cause, or for more information about the structure and the effort, write the Association de Sauvegarde de la Villa Cavrois, at 68 rue Jules Guesde, 59170 Croix, France.

 

MICHAEL WEBB.

 

METROPOLIS january / february 1997

 

 

 

Preservationists published a postcard, above, to raise awareness and generate funds to restore Villa Cavrois, whose owner would rather see the 1930s building, below, demolished and replace with tract housing.

 

Top, steven A. Heller, center courtesy Association de Sauvegarde; Bottom, Michael Webb.

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