ART DECO

The term Art Deco is a now firmly established designation for an aesthetic of the late 1920s and
1930s that in its own day was called art moderne. In architecture, the style took various forms, each
of which has prompted historians to devise different identifying terminology. In the
1960s, the more ornamental phase of popular modernism was dubbed Art Deco, echoing
the name of the 1925 Parisian Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes , where the style’s formal design motifs, patterns, and
decorative predilections were first observed. Recognizing in Deco a character both
modern and abstract but a style that nevertheless avoided the white, volumetric, and
planar reductivism of the emerging 1920s “Bauhaus Modern,” some historians referred to
the style as “modernistic,” that is, pseudomodern or approaching modern. These and
other design terms and stylistic labels have been applied to the several dimensions of Art
Deco architecture after the mid-1920s.
Inspired by the aerodynamic forms and kinetic lines emerging from the drafting
boards of industrial designers, a “Streamline Moderne” architectural style (dubbed
“nautical moderne” when marine imagery was most explicit) evolved as one of the
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quintessential styles of the 1930s. In architecture, it borrowed from the streamlining
evidenced in the forms of new transportation machines—planes, trains, ships, and
automobiles—and streamlining was most frequently applied to buildings that served
these transportation machines: air terminal buildings, bus terminals, marinas, and
especially such roadside buildings as diners, gas stations, and car dealerships.
Recognizing that streamlining’s paring down of moderne forms to the ultimate teardrop
was paralleled by a general economy of line and form and that this restraint was
considered appropriate in a period of economic depression, writers employed the term
Depression modern to describe elements of selected examples of the later Deco-era
aesthetic. Finally, when 1930s government architects looked to a restrained classicism to
communicate an image of authority and order, a Deco-era “modern classic” derivation
presented itself in county courthouses, New Deal-era post offices, and other government
architecture.
The Art Deco period in architecture, therefore, was polyglot and multifarious, an age
in which Progressivism and modernity were embedded in different forms in which the
more conservative Deco stylists, often traditional Beaux-Arts-trained designers, might
express their ornamental predispositions in more abstract modern terms. Likewise,
classicists might mollify earlier Edwardian enthusiasm for the baroque in favor of a new
monumentalism that was simpler, plain surfaced, and grand without being grandiloquent.
Finally, the more avant-garde modernists offered a populist, ornamental, and colorful l’art decorati f of
recognized, albeit abstracted, motifs.
The Art Deco era was fundamentally a 20th-century machine age. In Deco reliefs and
architectural ornament, a knife-edged profile transformed human, animal, and plant forms
into lowrelief sculptural representations treated as faceted machine-cut patterns of light
and shadow. Similarly, a Streamline Moderne building’s curved corners, neon signage,
marquees, and “drivethrough” features, as found in diners, bus terminals, and gas stations
alike, merely borrowed forms from the period’s machine, especially from transportation
and industrial designs. Architecture was characterized by a transmogrification of
aerodynamic shapes and surfaces from streamlined fenders, curved car bodies, and
zephyrlike lines of speed that, by the 1930s, shaped and accented Chrysler Air Flows,
Hupmobiles, Cords, and other contemporary sedans and coupes of the day. Comparable
architectural elements emerged from designs first shaping airplane fuselages and wing
sections, from the aerodynamic shrouds enveloping the Pennsylvania S-1 locomotive or
bull-nosed Studebakers of Raymond Loewy, or from the hydrodynamic hull of a Norman
Bel Geddes futuristic ocean liner. Moreover, during the Deco era, technology (in the form
of steel-frame construction, reinforced concrete, and plate glass) provided the means to
build skyscrapers higher than ever before, making the Chrysler Building (1930), the
Empire State Building (1930–31), Rockefeller Center (1931–40), and indeed, the entire
skyline of New York icons of the age.
The period was also quintessentially an era of popular modernism. Cosmetic Deco and
moderne facades brought a face-lift to Main Street America by an applied architectonic
skin of colorful, glazed terra-cotta, Vitrolite, ceramic or gloss metallic panels, glass brick,
neon, and other Deco-era materials. At the same moment that European modernists such
as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were defining an avantgarde
modern style based on lack of or minimal color, no ornament, and an emphasis of
volume over mass, popular ornamentalists in America rejected the utilitarian for the
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 124
visual, the intellectual for the sensual, the rational for the expressive, and the sociological
for the purely decorative. Art Deco was jazzy, bright, sexy, loud, and visually appealing.
If Bauhaus modernism and the International Style appeared to limit its focus to
functionalism at the exclusion of emotionalism or expressionism, Art Deco found its
appeal in the very color and excitement that polychromatic stylized facades, neon
lighting, and zigzag profiles communicated.
Recognizing Deco’s increasing presence on Main Street, in Kress and F.W.Woolworth
five-and-dimes, in arty neighborhood theaters with their sunburst splashed facades, and in
chic department stores and other commercial emporia, historians have characterized the
Art Deco style as transcending social class, as egalitarian and democratic, and as the
modern aesthetic of the people. Even today, a revived Art Deco is in evidence at populist
marketplaces as the preferred style of perfumeries and at the cosmetic displays of
department stores. This neo-Deco, both chic and cheap, parallels the rebirth in the 1980s
of the Streamline Moderne in roadside architecture as evidenced in nostalgic diners and
drive-through hamburger chains.
Landmarks of Art Deco architecture, therefore, are less often palaces of royalty,
cathedrals, or monumental institutional buildings and more often commercial, Main
Street, and roadside structures—indeed, department stores were nicknamed “people’s
palaces,” and skyscrapers of the period were called modernistic cathedrals of commerce.
Among the most noteworthy were Timothy Pflueger’s Paramount Theater (1929) in
Oakland, California; G.Albert Lansberg’s Warner Brothers’ Western (Wiltern) Theater
(1930) in Los Angeles; B.Marcus Priteca’s Pantages Theater (1929) in Hollywood; and
Donald Deskey’s Radio City Music Hall (1931) in New York. Only occasionally was the
style of cathedrals of commerce applied to genuinely religious edifices: First Church of
Christ, Scientist, in Perth, Western Australia, designed by Ochiltree and Hargreave, is a
notable late Deco church of 1939, although perhaps the best-known religious building of
the idiom is the 1929 Boston Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma,
by Ada M.Robinson and Bruce Goff.
The true cathedral of commerce on Main Street, however, was the department store,
which ranged from such landmarks as Bullock’s Wiltshire store (Los Angeles, 1928) by
John and Donald Parkinson to scores of F.W.Woolworths, Kress fiveand-dimes, and
small boutiques in small towns nationwide. However, the vertical giants of commerce
were the skyscrapers. These were sometimes actually dressed in a Gothic Deco, as at
Atlanta’s City Hall (1930) by G.Lloyd Preacher. Generally, however, the Deco
skyscraper rose skyward to form towering commercial ziggurats and office buildings in
New York whose prominence advertised sponsoring companies. McGraw-Hill (1931,
Raymond Hood), Barclay-Vesey Telephone (1923–26, Ralph T.Walker), Chrysler (1930,
William Van Alen), and RCA Victor (1931, Cross and Cross) were the ultimate Deco
exemplars of capitalist architecture.
Indeed, the extensive construction of taller urban office buildings and apartment
towers during the Deco era has prompted some historians to label Art Deco the
“skyscraper style.” Distinctive zigzag setbacks brought Deco skyscrapers a jazz-aged
syncopated profile, a feature that was initially required by the 1916 zoning ordinance in
New York but soon developed as a style. Beyond the New York landmarks cited
previously, Manhattan’s Deco masterpieces included the Waldorf Astoria Hotel (1930,
Schultze and Weaver), the Chanin Building (1927–29, Sloan and Robertson), the
Panhellenic Tower (1929, John Mead Howells), and the Film Center Building (1928–29,
Ely Jacques Kahn). The 450 Sutter Building (1928, Timothy Pflueger) in San Francisco
and the W.W.Orr Building (1930, Pringle and Smith) in Atlanta are two medical office
buildings whose relief panels and ornament reflect the popular modern style, the former’s
decoration employing Mayan elements, the latter a Decoesque serpent and staff of
Asclepius. Among the ornamentalists enriching Deco buildings were muralists and
sculptors. Among the most representative period murals were those executed between
1934 and 1943 for 1,100 local post offices under the sponsorship of the U.S. Treasury
Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (later known as the Section of Fine Arts).
Most notable among Deco sculptors was Lee Lawry, whose relief carvings and sculpture
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 126
may be seen at the Nebraska State Capitol (1919–32, Bertram G.Goodhue), the Louisiana
State Capitol (1930–32, Weiss, Dreyfous, and Seiferth), and Bok Tower (Mountain Lake
Singing Tower, 1929, Milton B.Medary) as well as at Rockefeller Center.
In southern Florida, Miami Beach preserves an entire historic district of Art Deco
hotels, apartment buildings, and other period landmarks by architects Henry Hohauser,
L.Murray Dixon, Anton Skislewicz, and others. Notable works include Hohauser’s Hotel
Park Central (1937) and Hotel Cardozo (1939), Dixon’s Marlin Hotel (1939) and Ritz
Plaza (1940), and Skislewicz’s Breakwater Hotel (1939) and Plymouth Hotel (1940).
These works synthesize modern and Art Deco elements into a unique blend of 1930s
ornament, streamlining, and ribbon windows accented in these oceanside structures with
local decorative references and regional themes, including waves, palm trees, fountains,
flamingos, fish, sails, portholes, ship bows, and rising bubbles. Since the 1980s,
revitalization of the beachfront Deco color palette on refurbished facades and in
rehabilitated hotel lobbies in a Postmodern vein has created a “tropical Deco” style that
has transformed an originally predominantly white architecture into a wash of pastels,
rainbow figure-ground profiles, and neon-enhanced pizzazz. In Los Angeles, Sunset
Towers (1929, Leland A.Bryant) is comparable in form to Miami Beach’s smaller-scale
residential blocks, and further echoes of this domestic Deco found its way into private
residences.
The only large collection of like Art Deco structures to rival Miami Beach is the town
of Napier, New Zealand, substantially destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt within a
short period of the 1930s. Both a Mediterranean or Spanish Mission style and a Decoinformed
international modern informed nearby Hastings, New Zealand, but the
rebuilding of the commercial district of Napier provides an unusual concentration of
period architecture in a city well off the beaten track. Moreover, a remarkable body of
Art Deco architecture survives in major Australian cities including theater architecture by
William Leighton (Windsor, 1937, in Nedlands and Perth) and Samuel Rosenthal
(Beacon, 1937, South Fremantle) as well as Deco office buildings in Sydney (City
Mutual Building, 1934–36, Emil Sodersten) and Melbourne (ACA Building, c.1936,
attributed to Hennessy and Hennessy). A strong presence of streamlining and flatroofed,
ribbon-windowed modernism informed this region’s international Deco, with Australian
architects achieving designs of additional interest when ornamental accents included
kookaburra birds and other native references. Australia’s quintessential Art Deco
landmark, however, is a monumental Deco classic: C. Bruce Dellit’s powerful Anzac
Memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney, dating from 1934. Embodying the monumental form,
decorative detail, and spirit of the best formal, public side of the Art Deco style, the
Anzac Memorial, like smaller monuments of the period nationwide, is an emotionally
charged memorial to the Australian and New Zealand fallen from the world wars.
Such a restrained yet monumental modern classic was foreshadowed in the World War
I memorials by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, including his Whitehall Cenotaph
(1919–22) in London and reflected in the work of Paul Cret (Folger’s Shakespeare
Library, 1929–31, Washington, D.C., and National Naval Medical Center, 1939–41,
Bethesda, Maryland). The Palais de Chaillot (1937) by Carlu, Boileau, and Azéma is
Paris’s best example. In the United States during the same period, the modern classic
phase of Art Deco architecture is represented by Goodhue’s Los Angeles City Hall
(1922), San Francisco’s Veterans Hospital (1934, designed by the U.S. Treasury
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Department’s supervising architect), and Atlanta’s Federal Post Office Annex (1931–33,
A.Ten Eyck Brown).
The modern classic and Depression modern character finds its way into Holabird and
Roche’s Chicago Board of Trade Building (1929–30) and the same architects’ Chicago
Daily News Building (1929). However, it is given its most evocative representation in
Hugh Ferriss’s renderings of dramatic urban towers, as published in his Metropolis of 1929, whose
images appeared immediately brought to fruition in Buffalo’s City Hall (1929–31) by
George J.Dietel and John J.Wade. Indeed, Ferriss’s influence is seen as late as the 1990s,
as evidenced by Rabun Hatch and Associates’ GLG Grand (1992) in Atlanta.
The 1939 New York World’s Fair closed the late moderne era with clear evidence that
the decade had been dominated by streamlining. At the fair, the General Motors
Highways and Horizons Exhibit, including the Futurama, presented the World of
Tomorrow as envisioned by Norman Bel Geddes, a world of and for the automobile
encouraging the free-flowing movement of goods and people across the continent. In
1932 Bel Geddes had published his industrial designs (particularly planes, trains, and
cars) in Horizons. The streamlined phase of Art Deco focused the attention of designers on
roadside architecture. W.W. Arrasmith of Louisville, Kentucky, designed bus depots for
Greyhound, including those for Evansville, Indiana (1938), Washington, D.C. (1939),
and Atlanta (1940), the latter now hidden under a hideous “modernization” two decades
ago. George D.Brown’s Atlantic Greyhound Bus Terminal in Columbia, South Carolina,
shows the influence of Arrasmith’s streamlining that informed such structures nationally.
Similarly, Texaco commissioned Walter Dorwin Teague to design standardized service
stations, and variations on five models were sited at prime corner building sites
nationwide.
In private and public realms alike, electronics, transportation, radio communication,
and other scientific and technological ad vances were viewed as signs of the progress of
the age, and images of these modern marvels adorned murals and ceiling paintings and
shaped neon outlines in signage and advertising. Representations of the machine
informed industrial photography, motion picture and theater sets, and the sharp-edged
profiles of Charles Sheeler landscapes and Ferdinand Leger figures. In architecture, the
Deco-era design impulses, in Streamline Moderne, modern classic, or faceted Art Deco
style, were a synthesis of tradition and Progressive design, nature and the machine, and
the ornamental as well as the abstract. In all, Art Deco architecture was both modern and
popular, and although associated with known designers and stylists, some of its most
ubiquitous forms are anonymous and found along the roadside.

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