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  • Writer's pictureNigel Wakeham

Villa Cavrois

Updated: Apr 22, 2019


Nigel Wakeham: Consultant Architect

In August 2017 when we were returning from a visit to UK, we stopped off at Roubaix, a city in the north of France close to the Belgian border, in order to visit the Villa Cavrois.

In the 1920s, a number of wealthy residents of Roubaix were constructing very large family homes in a suburban section of the town called Croix and Paul Cavrois purchased a seven and half acre plot there with a view to building a large house for his family. Cavrois was a very wealthy man whose fortune came from the family textile mills in Roubaix. Most of the houses being constructed combined a mix of regionalism and historicism and initially Cavrois had a house designed on these lines by a Parisian architect called Jacques Greber who had designed a number of similar houses and other buildings in the area.

In 1929 however he seems to have changed his mind and decided to build what no other industrialist in Northern France had then done; a fully modern house. To this end he commissioned another French architect, Robert Mallet-Stevens (I have not been able to find out where the name came from) who was making his name through the design of a variety of ‘modern’ buildings for industrialists in Northern France as well as for a number of houses for himself in the Rue Mallet-Stevens in the sixteenth arrondissement in Paris. Mallet-Stevens was then 43 years old and had gained a reputation similar to Le Corbusier for modern buildings and interiors in the ‘International Style’; buildings finished in white stucco with double-height spaces, external terraces, flat roofs and steel windows.

The Villa Cavrois was designed between March 1929 and February 1930 and construction was completed in July 1932. Unlike most of his other buildings, Mallet-Stevens clad the house in bricks. The inspiration for this was apparently a trip that he and Cavrois made to Hilversum to see the town hall designed by Dudok (another building that I would like to visit) that is also clad in brick. The bricks used for Villa Cavrois were specially made, long and narrow (in 26 different types) laid in stretcher bond with the mortar to the vertical joints matching the bricks while the horizontal joints are painted black which accentuates the horizontality of the design of the villa. The accommodation is spread over three floors: a semi-sunken basement with a large garage and service areas; a raised ground floor with the entrance, sitting and dining rooms, 2 bedrooms for the sons of the family, an office, a kitchen, scullery and pantry and servants accommodation; a first floor with a master bedroom and bathroom, a boudoir, children’s and governess’ bedrooms and external terraces; and on the second floor the children’s playroom, studies and more large external terraces.

From the outside the house is quite spectacular because of its scale, its horizontality accentuated by the brickwork and its sweeping terraces with a similarity to some of the houses that Frank Lloyd Wright was designing at the same time in the USA. The interior is however something of a disappointment with none of the excitement of the interiors of FLW’s houses with their interconnecting and flowing spaces. Instead, after the somewhat cinematic entrance leading to the main interior feature of the house, the huge double-volume central living and entertaining room, the layout of the ground and first floors is rather disappointing with all rooms accessed off of rather boring corridors. The main interest in the interiors is produced by the built-in and free-standing furniture all designed by the architect and constructed of expensive and rare timbers; the floor and wall finishes in expensive marbles; by the specially designed lighting systems and by the colour schemes in rooms such as the two son’s rooms that resemble three dimensional versions of Mondrian paintings.

Although it was a breakthrough in that it was conceived as a ‘modern’ house built of modern materials, its owner was a rich bourgeois industrialist with a position to uphold in society and the design of the house could not therefore break with the conventions of that society: there had to be servants (and lots of them); their quarters had to be separate from the family quarters and they had to be able to access all parts of the house without impinging too much on the activities of the family, hence the corridors.

The house has had rather a chequered history. It was lived in by the Cavrois family for eight years before and after the Second World War but was occupied by the German army during the war. The family made extensive changes to the interior after the war and then, in 1986 after Paul Cavrois’ widow died, sold it to a firm of estate agents who wanted to develop the site. Most of the furniture was sold in 1987. The house was listed as a historic monument in 1990 which stopped any development of the site but it was not until 2001 that the French state purchased the house and what was left of the estate by which time the house had been extensively vandalised and stripped of most of the interior fittings, finishes and furniture. The house has now been, at great expense, completely renovated and restored to more or less the same condition as it was when it was completed in 1932 with the same colour schemes and wall and floor finishes and with either the original furniture or reproductions of the originals. It is quite spectacular particularly with regard to its external design and detailing even if disappointing in terms of its layout but still well worth a visit. An idea of the scale of the house is given by the size of the central heating boiler (see the photo below)!

 

Architecture in Developing Countries: A Resource


The design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health in rural areas of the developing world.


Nigel Wakeham is an architect who lived for 23 years in Southern and West Africa and the SW Pacific working on education, health and other projects. He has since worked for over 20 years as a consultant for national governments and agencies such as the World Bank, DFID, ADB and AfDB on the implementation of the construction components of education and health projects in many countries in the developing world.​​​


The objective of this website will be to provide the benefit of more than 45 years of experience of working in developing countries to architects and other construction professionals involved in the design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health. It will provide reference material from the projects that Nigel has worked on and technical information on the design, construction and maintenance of educational and health facilities and other relevant topics and these will be added to from time to time.


I am happy to be contacted by anyone requiring further information on any of the projects or resources referred to in this website or by anyone wishing to discuss work possibilities.

 

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