A Celebratory and Sometimes Sober Look at our Seaside Architecture

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On view at the Cité de l ‘Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris through February 13, Tous à la Plage (or Beside the Seaside) offers a colorful and critical romp through ocean-front architecture from Monaco to Miami to Dubai. From 19th-century buttoned-up Britons taking a brisk dip in Brighton to burkini-clad women today, the show also covers a procession of princes, golfers, gamblers, proletariats, nudists, surfers, developers, and now environmentalists.

The exhibition features images of and posters for glamorous hotels, casinos, and resorts, along with exquisitely precise drawings for floating baths near Venice. Film clips further enliven the show, including a 1926 Deauville swimsuit fashion show, flapper-like models dancing along a runway above the water’s edge. Bathing suits designed by Sonya Delaunay and Jean Patou are exhibited in the context of evolving ideals of the body, from hygiene to hedonism. (Historians take note: the bikini was launched in 1946 at the Molitor municipal swimming pool in Paris.) Ads and photographs to lure buyers or vacationers contrast with raw early sketches for the 1929 Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici “E.1027” villa overlooking the Mediterranean. Rarely seen images include still photographs and moving images of the immense 1937 Italian Fascist structure, like some brutalist spaceship tethered to Italy’s Adriatic coast, as patriotic youth were filmed doing calisthenics.

Typologies and behaviors would radically change after the war. Bombed-out cities were rebuilt, among them Royan, France’s masterpiece of 1950s vacation architecture on the Atlantic. With the advent of mass tourism, once-grand Beaux Arts hotels would share coastlines with family camping grounds and later, massively sculpted concrete vacation clubs of the 1970s.

Other observable patterns described by the Cité’s team of historian/curators include: “vernacular” vacation villages and marinas such as the Michael Graves-designed El Gouna Hotel in Egypt, gated condos with swimming pool decks looking down on the ocean, and untrodden beaches discovered by someone famous after which development arrives, with big hotels and villas, compelling the ‘early adopters’ to move on.

How resorts of the future will evolve is still unknown as climate change endangers coastlines and globalized development threatens specific and regional architecture. The prescient fight to preserve beloved 20th century heritage in Miami Beach gets a special panel to itself, beneath the photo of the glowing pinks and neon on Ocean Drive.

Needing no editorial caption is one very large and sobering photo of New Jersey homes, post-Sandy, seen teetering on a beach-eroded cliff as well as aerial shots of the environmental hubris of Dubai’s Palm Jumeira. The resiliency of future coastal architecture remains an open question.

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Royan Express courtesy of Musée de Royan

Royan Express. © of Musée de Royan.

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