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Thread: Why Art Deco deserves a second chance

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    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    Why Art Deco deserves a second chance

    Whenever the topic of preference among architectural ‘styles’ arises, the objection of subjectivity follows closely on its heels. Ultimately, there is no way to settle the issue conclusively and therefore the approach favored here, to set out in detail the justifications behind the opinion, seems more fruitful than attempting to achieve ontological exactness.

    Miami Beach flaunts what is undoubtedly one of the largest, densest concentrations of late ‘art deco’ architecture anywhere in the world. I have recently had the privilege to visit it, having previously read about the history of its original development in the 1920s-1930s and its rescue from oblivion and destruction in the 1980s-1990s.

    The definitional question of what, exactly, constitutes art deco architecture is not entirely moot. However, in the context of Miami Beach, the unity and cross-referencing of decorative and compositional themes and the chronological and geographical compression of the buildings permits a robust empirical interpretation of what art deco architecture is and is not. Ancillary to that point, I would draw a distinction between stray art deco details (such as decorative motifs, neo-deco pastel colors and architectural neon illumination) ‘plastered’ on essentially ‘modernist’ buildings and art deco buildings proper.

    So, why do I like art deco? There are several interrelated reasons. Art deco is an organic, unforced extension of the classical tradition. It reconciles engineering pragmatism with aesthetic beauty. It represented a machine-age alternative to the excesses of ‘modernism’. It is astoundingly adaptable in scale and geometry. Last but not least, it is a style that respects the preeminence of the client over the architect .

    Art deco and the classical tradition
    Among post-Palladian architectural styles, art deco is not alone in often adhering to the classical precepts of ‘golden ratio’ proportions, bias for symmetry, main mass relief, parallelepipedal volumetry and lateral subordination to the façade. However, the incidence (never 100%) of classical orthodoxy among art deco buildings far surpasses that found in modernist and post-modern buildings to such an extent that it stands apart among the main stylistic trends that emerged in the aftermath of widespread metal-frame construction. Empirically and historically, I contend there is strong evidence to suggest that aesthetically beautiful building styles have tended to evolve within a continuum of a ‘classical’ style. Art deco achieved this and in doing so generally pleased and suited the owners and users of such buildings.

    Art deco cheap and cheerful
    Art deco buildings generally attract and hold your gaze eye thanks to the use of ornamental motifs, chromatic and textural contrast, as well as of course their general adherence to classicist proportions. At the same time, art deco buildings are clearly modern in their use of steel and concrete construction techniques, simplified and streamlined profile and general acceptance of modern machine-age (i.e., advanced industrial) techniques and materials. Whereas it is rather a challenge to erect an ‘authentic’ Palladian or gothic building using modern construction techniques, the same cannot be said of art-deco buildings. Indeed, it would be difficult to build an art deco building without modern techniques.

    Art deco vs. modernism
    While the contest was not merely two-sided, it is fair to say that between 1900 and 1930 the two main competing (and, initially, overlapping) trends within ‘new’ architectural styles were art deco and ‘Bauhaus’ modernism. Modernism won. For much of the 20th century, it triumphed while art deco languished. It is not accidental, however, that modernism rose to pre-eminence broadly coincidentally with a number of alienating political trends: a) the triumph of totalitarian states on one side and bureaucratic, industrial-conglomerate, semi-planned economies on the other; b) the deepening of nihilistic tendencies within the broad stream of ‘romantic’ (i.e., anti-rational) ideologies.

    Without delving too deeply into philosophy, it is readily apparent that austere ‘less is more’ minimalism, arrogant dismissal of cultural and aesthetic antecedents and open contempt for popular preferences and ergonomic considerations will appeal to an anti-humanist mindset. Modernist advocates loathe art deco precisely because it is intuitively, classically appealing to wide strata of the population and because it shows that aesthetics and functionality do not have to be sacrificed in order to achieve engineering simplicity and affordability . Houses are indeed machines for living in; that is tautological. The question is whether you’d rather ‘live’ in a machine like a vintage gull-wing Mercedes or one like a cheap, shoddy 1970s Detroit rust-heap.

    Assuming that western civilization is (gradually and fitfully) receding from its infatuation with anti-humanist ideological tendencies, could art deco make a comeback? Modernism long succeeded in equating an interest in organic aesthetic beauty with philistinism. But the sterility of that approach has been amply revealed by the forced conversion of most modernist architects (Philip Johnson, first among them) from the asceticism of structural purism into the meretricious, sarcastic whoring of post-modernism. And that, today, is largely the choice we are confronted with: atrocious people-hating architecture or Las Vegas’ idea of Venice.

    Can art deco make a broad-based, stylistically authentic, geographically coherent comeback? I would guess not. Enough time has elapsed to consign it to being considered a ‘period’ style. We may get art decoi-ish postmodern buildings (there are more than a few in Miami Beach itself), but I doubt we’ll see another Chanin Building, Another Chrysler Building, another Colony Hotel. I hope I’m wrong.

    Versatile art deco
    Most of organically evolved, sequential styles of classical architecture were able to produce admirable examples of buildings ranging from small houses to large cathedrals and palaces. Some of the more heavily ornamental styles (think Rococo) or sparser styles (think early Italian romanesque) were less successfully applicable to, respectively, very small and very large buildings, to be sure. Nonetheless, it was not until the introduction of very tall, extremely large, industrial buildings that these pre-modern styles began to exhibit some limitations. Pugin’s virtuosity at Westminster’s Houses of Parliament is not easily repeated in applying authentic gothic motifs to very large buildings. How many architects could pull of a Boeing 747 hangar or car plant built in the style of Wren or Bernini?

    But consider art deco. The large-footprint, relatively squat Hoover factory in West London is an art deco masterpiece. So is the relatively tall and thin Chrysler Building. So are the three-story, small frontage facades of the Ocean Drive hotels. Art deco scales well from the monumental down to cottage size. Imagine what the post-modern glass menagerie of London’s Docklands, The hollow boxes of Paris’ La Defence and, why not, Miami’s indifferent downtown district would look like if they had been built between 1920 and 1930.

    That is why deco’s great.

  2. #2
    My hometown has 3 pieces of Art Deco architecture (a high school, city hall, and U.S. Forest Service building), all three still retain their original function, as well. The backdrop of Sky Captain was Art Deco, I thought the design for the movie was pretty cool.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    Wow. I just said this on a different forum. Although not with the comprehensive argument.

    Quote Originally posted by jordanb
    I know I'm going to knot Czsz's panties up good by saying this. But I'd be happy to see Art Deco come back into fashion. I think it was a first-rate style. Sure it didn't mean too much. But if I want meaning, I'll read a poem or ponder a picture.
    Anyway, I agree, it's a good idea.

  4. #4
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    I've always liked Art Deco, especially how it's done in Miami with the heavy Latin American/Caribbean influence. There are a few nice deco buildings in San Antonio, especially in the Alamo Heights area. As I recall, I think there's an old bus depot and car dealership that have heavy art deco styles on Broadway, but it's been a while since I've been down that way.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

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    Quote Originally posted by jordanb
    Wow. I just said this on a different forum. Although not with the comprehensive argument.



    Anyway, I agree, it's a good idea.
    And, I just replied to YOUR post.

    Since we can't afford/choose not to afford "Victorian" detailing in commercial buildings, Art Deco has always struck me as an enjoyable, colorful, cheerful and very URBAN style to promote.

    Quote Originally posted by DoneGoneBlue
    My hometown has 3 pieces of Art Deco architecture (a high school, city hall, and U.S. Forest Service building), all three still retain their original function, as well. The backdrop of Sky Captain was Art Deco, I thought the design for the movie was pretty cool.
    On a darker note, did you happen to catch an odd little science fiction movie a few years back called "Dark City"? One of my favorites! Very Art Deco, but more in a gloomy "Batman/Gotham City" way.
    Last edited by Tranplanner; 29 Mar 2005 at 3:12 PM.

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    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by BKM
    On a darker note, did you happen to catch an odd little science fiction movie a few years back called "Dark City"?
    Yeah that was a great movie.

    A neat below-the-radar precurser to The Matrix, but with better acting and fewer special effects. It'd have been really awesome if they didn't have the spoiler at the beginning though.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    Very worried...

    ...city planners who like DARK CITY...hmmmm

    It was quite a good movie and deserved better. Great imagery.
    Another movie that showed architecture in an itnersting light, i thought, was the hudsucker proxy.

    BKM: i agree with the comment 'choose not afford' Victorian ornament. We are, in real terms, vastly more affluent than the Victorians. it boggles the mind that we build edifices they would nto ahve put swine in.

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    We have one Art-deco building in the city, used to be our old water plant, it has since been converted into a restaurant, all old features of the water plant are still there. Its a samller building but very nice and beautifully maintained.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian H's avatar
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    I love deco. The condo I use to live at in Miami has been continually debating a remodel of either Mediterranean or deco over the last couple of years. My old neighbor emailed me the other week and said they finally decided to go with deco. So chalk one up for the home team.

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    Quote Originally posted by jordanb
    Yeah that was a great movie.

    A neat below-the-radar precurser to The Matrix, but with better acting and fewer special effects. It'd have been really awesome if they didn't have the spoiler at the beginning though.
    I'm lousy at catching spoilers. I tend to just immerse myself in the movie without trying to figure it out before hand.

    I loved the graphic design of the movie, and the hint of Aw shucks 1930s boosterism.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    Well, I mean, they tell you that the people are trapped in an alien experiment in the first five minutes of the movie. One of the things that made The Matrix cool is that the audience was just as much in the dark as Neo during the first twenty minutes.

    I've heard it said that Dark City is much better if you mute the first couple of scenes so you don't know what's going on. But I'd already seen it before I heard that.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    I am a big fan of art deco, and its cousin, Egyptian revival.
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

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    Quote Originally posted by jordanb
    Well, I mean, they tell you that the people are trapped in an alien experiment in the first five minutes of the movie. One of the things that made The Matrix cool is that the audience was just as much in the dark as Neo during the first twenty minutes.

    I've heard it said that Dark City is much better if you mute the first couple of scenes so you don't know what's going on. But I'd already seen it before I heard that.
    I missed that entirely Not a very careful viewer of movies.

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    Member Nor Cal Planner Girl's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by BKM
    And, I just replied to YOUR post.

    Since we can't afford/choose not to afford "Victorian" detailing in commercial buildings, Art Deco has always struck me as an enjoyable, colorful, cheerful and very URBAN style to promote.



    On a darker note, did you happen to catch an odd little science fiction movie a few years back called "Dark City"? One of my favorites! Very Art Deco, but more in a gloomy "Batman/Gotham City" way.
    Dark City- pretty weird movie... definately Gotham like (I do like that kind of stuff though...)

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    Cyburbian ablarc's avatar
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    Art Deco was the real Modernism. It was Modernism without the puritanism and the social theories. It was content to look great, you didn't have to be a genius to extract any visual interest from the style, and you could make cities out of it.

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    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    What are the chances...

    ...in our lifetime that someone actually builds extensively in Art Deco style (I don't mean some faux crapola in Vegas or one building ehre and there)?

    I tell you what though. Compared to some of teh 'postmodern', 'ironic' stuff, I'm beginning to feel less aoplectic about early international style.

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    Quote Originally posted by Luca

    I tell you what though. Compared to some of teh 'postmodern', 'ironic' stuff, I'm beginning to feel less aoplectic about early international style.

    Or even when compared to some of the embarassing modern commercial architects who try to create "traditional" buildings out of foam and applied plastic.

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    Cyburbian chukky's avatar
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    Couldnt find the image i want - but napier, new zealand is this fantastic little town on Hawke's bay - built entirely in deco. World's only known occurance of a great looking petrol station

    http://www.napier.govt.nz/index.php?...allery/ph_deco

  19. #19
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    check it out!

    Quote Originally posted by chukky
    Couldnt find the image i want - but napier, new zealand is this fantastic little town on Hawke's bay - built entirely in deco. World's only known occurance of a great looking petrol station

    http://www.napier.govt.nz/index.php?...allery/ph_deco
    AND in the middle of beautiful nature / wine country
    Life and death of great pattern languages

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    A new loft building was built in Portland's Pearl District in 2001 which is pretty much an art deco building:
    The Gregory Lofts
    http://www.gregorylofts.com/








  21. #21

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    Cool building.

    Isn't one element of the urban glamour of Art Deco is that is the style of the 1920s and 30s, arguably the last truly "urban" (or even urbane) eras in American history? Think of the CITY movies of the early days.

  22. #22
    Cyburbian abrowne's avatar
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    Pardon for not reading the extensive essay or comments (just a quick break between Psychology chapters), but I feel that Art Deco is redeemed and somewhat saved because of its skillful use of impressive scale.

    Look at that doorway in that new loft building, for example. Impressive, mammoth use of scale. I love it. This may have already been pointed out, I apologize if that is the case.

    Also, it is an overall theme... it sticks to a principle and applies it to all facets of design. What sort of principles are held now? Minimalism? Glass? Glass is impressive, but not mammoth or imposing. It does not have the same presence, even with similar scale.

  23. #23
    Cyburbian Hceux's avatar
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    In the back of my mind, I remember reading the Let's Go travel guide of USA and across a point about Tulsa, OK, having a surprising bunch of buildings done in the Art Deco architecture style.

    Has anyone ever been there and see it in person? Is there really a lot of them?

  24. #24

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    Quote Originally posted by Hceux
    In the back of my mind, I remember reading the Let's Go travel guide of USA and across a point about Tulsa, OK, having a surprising bunch of buildings done in the Art Deco architecture style.

    Has anyone ever been there and see it in person? Is there really a lot of them?

    Yes. Tulsa was a major "capital" of the early petroleum industry (much of which decamped over time in Houston). The downtown itself was not that interesting (it's been a LONG time since I've been there, but overall, the art deco skyscrapers were fantastic. Maybe Oulevin can provide comments or photographs?

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    Ohio Deco.

    This was a popular style in Ohio. Even small citys like Mansfield, Middletown, Lima and Youngstown had art deco "skyscrapers" (Youngstown had a particulary good example), probably not becuase the height was needed, but that the art deco skyscaper, even then, symbolized "city" and urban aspirations....

    Here is one from Dayton..The Hulman Building....





    There is even a deco revival building complex in downtown Cincinnati, the Proctor & Gamble HQ.

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