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©Architecture case créole|Emmanuel VIRIN

Rural and urban reunion and its architecture

A plural heritage

It is difficult to summarise the Reunionese heritage into a formula: like the population, it is diverse, reflecting the sometimes painful history of the island, but also man’s ability to adapt to an extremely contrasting territory. “From the seashore to the peak of the mountains” – this was the declaration of the colonists taking possession of a land in the name of the King, and at barely 2512 km², Reunion Island is home to coastal towns and tiny hamlets nestled in the cirque mountain formations, the estates of slave-owning growers and the sheet metal huts of the farm labourers, the neo-classical buildings of the administration, remarkable gardens and places of worship of the main world religions.

A sensory journey

As testimony to their prosperity, and so as to “take in some fresh air” during the harsh austral summer, rich Creole families had residences built in the island’s uplands: the Maison Folio in Hell Bourg in the Cirque de Salazie speaks volumes in this regard: the villa possess all of the attributes of a local Creole house, or case, (lambrequins, vivid colours…) finished in an extremely sophisticated manner, and is surrounded by a garden with its guétali (a small, open wooden clubhouse where one could chat or, if located in the town, watch one’s neighbours (“guet a li” can be translated as: “watch him”), its fountain and its paths surfaced in old stone. To walk in the garden is a real sensory journey, thanks to the aromatic and medicinal odiferous plants: geranium, vetiver, patchouli, turmeric, lime, allspice… One of the outbuildings now houses a small exhibit of objects typical of the period, along with regional crafts.

Several of the island’s rural villages are also worth making a detour to visit on account of their architectural heritage: for example, the Grand Hazier Estate in Sainte-Suzanne, a vanilla growing site, is a great example of Creole architecture within a farming community. There is also pleasure to be found lingering in the small islets (market towns), where you can admire the small tin huts, still exquisitely preserved: moreover, Hell Bourg is considered one of France’s most beautiful villages.

From the modern to the exotic

In the towns, the Revolution, followed by the collapse of the plantation company and the abolition of slavery, was to result in the development of the architecture of the official buildings, symbols of power, in line with the changing course of history. Evidence of this can be found in the Prefecture in Saint-Denis: initially a secure store where the colonial administration stored goods and arms and also home to the governor of the island, the building deteriorated during the time of the Empire and the English occupation, before restoration work began in 1822 to give the building its current appearance: elevation on three levels, neo-classical façade, avant-corps crowned with a belvedere… The beautiful residences are also not to be missed: the Deramond and Carrère villas in Saint-Denis; the Orré and Adam de Villiers houses in Saint-Pierre. Saint-Pierre is still home to the town hall, itself also built on the foundations of the former colonial store, and a beautiful monument to the colonial construction typical of the 18th century, marked by the expertise of the boat-builders whose services were availed of for the construction of the buildings.

Returning to Saint-Denis, the architectural style of the 20th century is evident in several buildings, most notably the Central Post Office (1965) and the Department of Agriculture and Forestry (1970), both designed by the architect Jean Bossu, a member of the Le Corbusier studio. Wings at various heights, arranged one beneath the other (“scissors”, as Bossu called it) for the DRAF; a classic combination (a residential tower block, the first built on the island, and a low-rise office building) but reinterpreted with modern architectural codes accompanied by a touch of the exotic (a sun-breaker, the use of angles evoking the architecture of Algerian cities) for the Central Post Office: two fine examples that will not fail to pique the interest of any amateur architect. To visit the island with a view to discovering its heritage is in this respect to plan a journey that is a little bit out of the ordinary !