Friday, 9 December 2011

Past and Present No. 5: Houlgate

Today’s comparison comes from the genteel resort of Houlgate in Normandy. A casino and an imposing Grand Hôtel were the centrepieces of the town when it flourished in the 19th. century. The casino survives but the hotel is divided into apartments and the days when exalted Parisian sophisticates, such as Zola and Proust, graced it with their patronage are long gone. My photograph from 2007 shows how little has changed in the century since the postcard (courtesy of Chris Mullen) was issued. The line of substantial seaside villas that front directly on to the beach is a showpiece of flamboyantly inventive domestic architecture. Dormers and turrets and gables and pinnacles and finials proliferate without restraint. Medievalism, Art Nouveau, Beaux-Arts and Norman vernacular traditions are combined and re-combined in a stylistic free-for-all. Note that the villa on the extreme left of the photograph has acquired a half-timbered makeover since it was last seen in the postcard. Houlgate has a unique atmosphere and we may return in future for a more detailed observation – meanwhile the photo below shows your first sight of the town when you approach from Dives-sur-Mer – a railway line half submerged by drifting sand, a level crossing and an architectural sampler of the eccentric delights to be found a little further down the road. A single glimpse of this spectacular visual clutter was enough to convince me that this must be an exceptional place.

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