Robert  MALLET-STEVENS (1886 – 1945)
Illuminated fountain and streetlights for the Pergola casino, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, 1927-1928.

In 1927-1928, Robert Mallet-Stevens, then at the apex of his career, designed the Pergola casino, located at the seafront in the Basque city of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France.

The architecture of the reinforced concrete ocean liner with terraces projecting out to the ocean is quite representative of the classic modernity embodied by Mallet-Stevens, which emphasizes the flow of lines and volumes. However, since he was continuing a project started by the architect William Marcel, and had to factor in the strong identity of the Basque territory, Mallet-Stevens worked within constraints that made him feel compelled to rein in his creativity.

However, he demonstrated extraordinary boldness in his treatment of surfaces which he painted in bright yellow, his favorite color. This same yellow was used on the shutters of Villa Martel and Villa Reifenberg on rue Mallet-Stevens. Following the turmoil caused by these colors, the municipality hastened to repaint everything in white with the moldings highlighted in Basque red, a few years later.

The interior decoration also shows an extensive use of color: yellow again for the restaurant walls with apricot chairs; green and beige for the gaming rooms; yellow, blue, red, green, brown for the terrace chairs.

The front façade is preceded by a multi-level stepped garden with rigorous geometric lines, punctuated by a cluster of eight painted reinforced concrete streetlights, with varying heights – ranging from six to seven meters – and proportions between the base and the cruciform trunk, topped by a large levitating horizontal slab.

Giving free rein to his artistic streak, Stevens designed a giant 5.4-meter high painted reinforced concrete mechanistic totem pole, evocative of a crankshaft. This polychrome sculpture is also a fountain with tiered pools around a central trunk that spill down into each tier. A clever play of light brings the pole to life at nightfall.

In addition to its visual qualities, the sculpture is also a piece of carefully devised engineering work, which achieves perfect balance in spite of its bold overhangs and the precision of the water flows

In keeping with the plastic quests of the international avant-garde of his era for the total artwork, a milieu that he frequented and shared some of their convictions, Mallet-Stevens achieves a successful synthesis between architecture, sculpture, painting, movement, sound and light.

This column, which comprises a central circular pillar around which is enrolled a repetitive quarter circle volume – containing a pool – caught between two disks, would be “endless” if it did not start from a discreet base and end with a double disk.

The comment written by the architecture photographer Thérèse Bonney on the back of her picture is an exciting testimony from the period. It does confirm the yellow color of the entire casino building and the exclusive paternity of Mallet-Stevens: “the architect also designed the triangular garden (…) in its concrete trees which supplant nature in this influence”

It was made around the same period as the monumental version* of Brancusi’s Endless column, hewn out of a seven-meter high poplar tree trunk, in 1926 at Voulangis in the garden of Edward Steichen.

*The first version of the Endless column was two meters high and was produced in 1918; the second version in 1925 measured three meters in height, the third version in 1926 measured seven meters and the fourth version in 1938 measured twenty-nine meters.

 The constructive principle is also similar to that of the cylinder of the Villa Martel central stairway (1926-27) around which the various floors are laid out, and which leads to the terrace roof through an observation tower crowned by a red disk.

We also draw attention to the optical illusion of the sculptural “endless stairway” simulated by an interplay of mirrors on the floor and ceiling of the stairway.

The correspondences between the two works are not fortuitous.

In fact, Mallet-Stevens and Brancusi met in 1926 for the commission – subsequently abandoned – of a monumental version of the Bird in Space sculpture intended for the Cubist garden of Villa Charles de Noailles in Hyères built by Mallet-Stevens in 1923.

At the request of Mallet-Stevens, his occasional associate, ironsmith Jean Prouvé, met with Brancusi who was contemplating a 50-meter high stainless steel enlargement. Although the commission fell through, Jean Prouvé produced the stainless steel sculpture, The Newborn, for Brancusi.

In addition to Mallet-Stevens, many other architects such as Le Corbusier, Frederick Kiesler, Eckart Muthesius, etc. also visited Brancusi’s studio.

 Brancusi, who joined the De Stijl movement in 1927, declared that “architecture is sculpture”. Throughout his life, he sought to produce large scale works in correspondence with architecture. In 1930, he studied a project – subsequently abandoned -  for Temple of Delivrance adorned with three Birds in space for the palace of the Maharajah of Indore, the major work of Muthesius, then in 1938, the monumental ensemble of Targu Jiu in Romania comprising the Table of Silence, the Gate of the Kiss and the Endless Column.

There were indeed many things for architects to discover in Brancusi’s workshop. In fact, his art  is also essentially a dialogue with architecture. There are several concrete common points between the two: geometric elementarism as a principle for form, transparency as the principle for appearance, the combinatory method as the principle forconstruction and the search for a new interpretation of traditional urban structures, a new form of urban texture.”
Friedrich Teja Bach, Constantin Brancusi, la réalité de la sculpture, Ed. Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1995, p.32

Light also plays a very important role in the work of Mallet-Stevens. There is a reason why this work is called “illuminated fountain” In his fantasy movie sets designed for Marcel L’Herbier’s (1923 and 1926)  L’Inhumaine and Le Vertige, and The Mysteries of Château du Dé by Man Ray (1929), the volumes are literally sculpted by the light that helps to create the expressionist ambiance of these cinematographic masterpieces.

The modern architect can “play” with light, to emphasize location and intensity. He places and doses. Similarly, he emphasizes or minimizes the depth of the material, he enhances colors, makes lines more assertive, creates cheerfulness and well being. But this role of “magician” requires serious and in-depth study, and just as in the sciences, chance has little or nothing to do with it”
Robert Mallet-Stevens, Lux, No. 1, January 1928

These reinforced concrete sculptures include, first, the four cubist trees produced in collaboration with Jan and Joël Martel for the Decorative Arts Exhibition in 1925; and the 36-meter high large cruciform clock tower that indicated the way to the Information and Tourism booth.

Then for the 1937 Exposition des Arts et Techniques, the 16-meter high “Signal des Ciments Français” produced in collaboration with Jan and Joël Martel, to promote the use of reinforced concrete by demonstrating its technical and plastic potential.

In the Martel archives, no document indicates that the Martel brothers assisted in the execution of the fountain and the streetlights of the Saint-Jean-de-Luz casino. Thèrese Bonney’s comment corroborates the exclusive attribution of this concrete garden to Mallet-Stevens.

Furthermore, since Mallet-Stevens destroyed his archives shortly before his death in 1945, there is no document about the design of these works.

All these creations have been destroyed, only the fountain and the streetlights of the Saint-Jean-de-Luz casino have miraculously survived.

 In the 1980s, the casino was completely reworked and disfigured to widespread indifference.

Whatever the case, the Cubist trees of the 1925 Decorative Arts Exhibition (in collaboration with the Martel brothers), the Illuminated Fountain and the streetlights of the Saint-Jean-de-Luz Casino (described as concrete trees by Thérèse Bonney) constitute, together with the various versions of Brancusi’s Endless Column,

In 1988, Eric Touchaleaume saved from destruction the stucco bas-reliefs of the theater, major work of the Martel brothers, one panel of which can be found in the collections of the 1930s museum of Boulogne-Billancourt.

 Art dealer Jacques Devos also bought the fountain and the streetlights which he reproduced based on a period picture in a U.A.M. exhibition catalogue in 1994.

Since there were no buyers for these pieces, they were stored in their condition in the park of a property in the south of France.

In 2007, Eric Touchaleaume decided to acquire all the pieces and begin a long and complex restoration (cf. restoration file), carried out by his own team of associates and by Jacques Bourgeois, a sculptor used to working on historical monuments.

These restorers had acquired experience in the restoration of reinforced concrete by working on Le Corbusier streetlights from Chandigarh.

An advertising poster from 1928, produced by Mallet-Stevens, showing the casino façade painted in yellow with red ochre overhangs, together with the testimony of Thérèse Bonney, confirm that the entire casino building was treated in yellow.

However, as far as we know, there are no documents that mention the polychrome decoration of the fountain and the streetlights, but it appears that the fountain, at least, had an original polychrome painting.

Indeed, there are different successive layers of paint: red and gray ocher, yellow and apricot, Basque red and white were found by drilling on the fountain, showed that multiple colors had been tested on this sculpture before it was “normalized” with Basque white and red. The oldest layer of red ocher on the central pillar and the pools and gray on the disks have been restored to resemble the original as much as possible.

One can assume that originally the polychromy of the streetlights had been treated in the same way as the casino façades and the sculpture/fountain. In a concern for unity, their polychromy has been restored to match that of the fountain.

The sculpture / fountain is displayed on a private space in front of the Villa Martel at the location of a flower bed delimited by a concrete border similar to the edge of a pool.

The osmosis between the sculpture and Villa Martel is such that numerous visitors believe that the fountain was originally designed for that specific spot.

Although that is not the case, we consider the spot to be ideal and think it would be interesting if the exhibition scheduled to last six months renewable, were extended …for a longer term.

Unfortunately, since it would be too complicated to organize the exhibition of several streetlights at rue Mallet-Stevens, three of the restored pieces can be viewed on appointment in the Paris area. Four others are yet to be restored and one has been destroyed.


- Jean Brunel, Une conception moderne du Casino, Art & Décoration, Ed. Albert Levy, avril 1929, p. 7.
- Rob Mallet-Stevens, dix années de réalisations en architecture et décoration, ed. Charles Massin, Paris, 1930, pp. 44 – 47.
- Léon Moussinac, Mallet-Stevens, Editions Cres & Cie, Paris, 1931, planches 19, 22.
- Rob. Mallet-Stevens architecte, Editions des Archives d’Architecture Moderne, 1980, pp. 291-294.
- Robert Mallet-Stevens, architecture, mobilier, décoration, Ed. Philippe Sers / Vilo, Paris, 1986, pp. 58-59.
- UAM, petits meubles de grands noms, Jacques De Vos, 1994, pp. 86-87.
- Robert Mallet-Stevens. L’œuvre complète, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2005, p. 142
- Robert Mallet-Stevens architecte, sous la direction de Jean-Pierre Lyonnet, Editions 15, square de Vergennes, Paris, 2005, pp 188-201.


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