August 24, 2006

Why art deco architecture is great

Whenever the topic of preference among architectural ‘styles’ arises, the objection of subjectivity follows closely on its heels. I have addressed this somewhat overrated problem previously. 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 (I suspect this sentence would cause most living architects and, more so, architectural critics who read it to spontaneously combust).

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 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. Consider, for instance, the relative durability and solidity of an art deco ‘eyebrow’ (the thin, flat concrete strips or slips that jut out of the main walls to provide some shade to windows or doorways) achieved by simply extending the concrete slip a few inches beyond the wall line to the delicate and maintenance-heavy stucco cornices on masonry buildings.

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 ago 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 deco-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 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.

testing, testing
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