27 August 2014

Garage Atlas

Walking or driving along the Avenue Maréchal-de-Saxe in Lyon's 3rd arrondissement – especially in the summer, when the trees are full of leaves – it's easy to miss the seven-storey white Art Deco building that takes up an entire block at numbers 65-69 and continues along adjacent along Rue Le Royer, Rue de Bonnel and Rue Vendôme. 

If you do spot it, you are most likely to notice the lines and geometric shapes covering the façade and the somewhat dated-looking restaurant that occupies part of the ground floor of the huge building on the Avenue de Saxe side. Glance up at the sign above the central door framed between two Doric columns, and you get a hint about the listed building's former life. 

The restaurant's name? 'Le Garage'.

G.H. Bouilhères
The building was not the first at this location. In 1907, the architect Germain Hippolyte Bouilhères (1861-1919) applied for permission to build a much smaller, single-storey building on the site on behalf of the company Christy, Médecet & Cie, the general agents for the booming Renault car company, which was already the largest auto manufacturer in France.  Building permit issued and the house built, the company opened its car showroom in 1908.

Sometime between 1916 and 1923*, the showroom changed hands and became the property of traders Antoine-Benoît Laroque and Louis-Joseph-Antoine Bollache, who were or would soon become the Renault factories' exclusive dealers for Lyon and the surrounding area. Through their dealership – Bollache, Laroque & Cie – they played an important part in the spread of the Renault brand in south-western France, and by 1929 they were selling almost 1200 cars a year.

Part of the façade on Avenue de Saxe
It was on the back of their undoubted success that the two men decided in the late Twenties to knock down the existing building at what was then 151 Avenue de Saxe as well as the next-door house of surveyor and residential construction expert Victor Cotton and replace them with something far grander: a 35m-high, six-floor multifunctional garage on a 3000m² plot of land providing a total utilisable surface area of 16,000m² to meet the needs of Lyon's growing number of car-owners. 

The job of designing this new edifice was given to architect Georges Trévoux (1889-1956).

The garage itself was only one part of the project. At Victor Cotton's suggestion, it was to occupy only the rear of the building. The front, facing the up-scale Avenue de Saxe, was turned into flats of three sizes that could be sold off individually. A cleverly hidden insulating double-wall between the flats and the garage completely prevented sound and fire travelling from one side to the other. What's more, home-owners could drive right up to their apartments rather than parking outside.

Although multi-storey car parks were nothing new, the Bollache, Laroque & Cie building was unique in many ways and certainly Europe's most modern car emporium at the time. Built between 1929 and 1932, it was a driver's dream: in addition to the ground-floor showroom, where you could choose and buy your new automobile, there was parking for more than 100 cars on every floor (plus the basement), there were no fewer than ten car washes, six lubrication and maintenance centres as well as repair and breakdown services.

The entrance and exit to the garage was on Rue de Bonnel, leaving the front of the building, facing Avenue de Saxe, looking to all intents and purposes like a regular residential house. Which, with the exception of the showroom, it really was.

Ground-floor window, Rue de Bonnel
Without a doubt, the building was – and remains – one of the most splendid Art Deco-style constructions in Lyon. The front façade and parts of the side by the pedestrian entrances are decorated with delicately chiselled parallel lines, zigzags, diamonds and other typical geometrical Art Deco features. 

The walls on Rue de Bonnel, Rue le Royer and Rue Vendôme consisted almost entirely with large windows topped with semicircular concrete spirals to let light flood into the car park and service station. Inside the pedestrian entrance, the walls were covered in mirrors, each crowned by a bronze lion's head. A spiral staircase and a lift led up to the apartments.

But the pièce-de-la-résistance was the system used to drive from one floor to the next within the garage. Trévoux was well aware of the difficulties of climbing and descending a multi-storey building in the cars of the time. So instead of building ramps at either end of each floor, which would have taken up too much space, or using lifts, which would have slowed the flow of traffic to a veritable trickle and was thus completely unfeasible, Trévoux opted for a central double-helix similar to the stairway at Chambord Castle on the River Loire and, more famously (to us, at least), the DNA molecule.

Sketch of the central double helix.
The idea was a brilliant as it was simple: one of the intertwined, 168m-long spirals was used exclusively by cars travelling upwards, the other by those heading down. Exits to the floors were located every half-turn. This meant that the ramps within the spirals needed a gradient of only 12%, far less than the permitted 17% and thus easily within the capability of even the less powerful cars.

What's more, to prevent broken down vehicles blocking the path of everyone unfortunate enough to be trapped behind, the ramps were made fully six metres wide, the size of a fair-sized road, allowing stranded cars to be circumvented with ease. A service elevator occupied the "core" of the helix.

In May 1931, with construction still underway, Trévoux applied for and was granted permission to add a seventh storey to the building. This penthouse floor, equipped with an ingenious three-humped stepped roof with vertical glass panes that bathed the inside with natural sunlight, was used to house a tea room and – wait for it – three tennis courts, complete with changing rooms, bathrooms and toilets.

The penthouse tennis courts, clearly showing the
three Aztec pyramid-like rooves.
This automotive paradise, christened "Les Garages Atlas" (later simplified to "Atlas") opened its doors in December 1932, with Lyon's long-standing Mayor Edouard Herriot (1872-1957) attending the official inauguration. Architectural magazine La Construction Moderne was so impressed by the Garage Atlas that it dedicated a 10-page article to it, which was published on 12 June 1932.

Three pages from the La Construction Moderne article, showing the fabulous interiors of the Garage Atlas.
The Garage Atlas remained in use as a multi-storey garage and service station until the 1980s, when the then managing director of Bollache, Laroque & Cie, Jean Bouvier, bought the company*. He then passed it on to his son Pierre, who sold the garage to the Accor chain of hotels in 1986. 

The hotel Mercure Saxe-Lafayette on Rue de Bonnel.
Note the semicircular moudlings, which have since disappeared.
While the former showroom on Avenue de Saxe now houses the auto-themed restaurant Le Garage (complete with tyre-shaped napkin rings), the multi-storey car park and garage have been turned into the four-star yet bland Hotel Mercure Saxe-Lafayette, whose main entrance is on Rue Bonnel, where cars once entered and exited the magnificent marvel that was the Garage Atlas.

The apartments are privately-owned to this day.


* Unfortunately, with the departmental archives moving premises for the best part of a year and not due to reopen until September, I have so far been unable to determine when this took place – or indeed how.

1 comment:

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