In which SL gets her art deco fix

By skepticlawyer

I have just arrived in Oxford (via a somewhat circuitous route) from New York. Everything was very late, I was astoundingly lucky to catch a cab (NY end) and astoundingly lucky to catch the last bus back to Oxford (after catching the last Heathrow Express). I came within a whisker of spending the night among the glorious amenities provided in Terminal 5. Three feet of snow will do that to you.

Anyway, the main reason for this post is for me to engage in some gratuitous art deco property porn. I do like me some art deco, and have long wondered why modern architects make office blocks/skyscrapers so anonymous. With notable exceptions, architects in New York have avoided this. The buildings are all different. And some of them are fabulous. My prize for truly fabulous goes to the Chrysler Building, which is a marvel. Most people are familiar with the steel spire and the chrome gargoyles (okay, I have a soft spot for gargoyles; put it down to living in Oxford), but there are so many other nice touches. One of them is (get this) the lift doors, which are marquetry. This is constructed on the same principle as parquetry, but is done on a wall, door, ceiling, cupboard or desktop. It is often more intricate than parquetry, for the simple reason that the pieces of wood veneer don’t have to be as hardwearing (they’re not getting walked on, for a start). The use of metal highlights in this piece is a neat and innovative touch.

This is a lift door to die for 😉

Outside the building (including around the margins of cashpoints; no, I don’t know why) are various intricate exercises in what can only be described as large scale ‘steel filigree’, which is combined with what I suspect were once gas lamps. All of the detail has a wonderful rhythm, like the interlocking borders around Roman mosaics or the repeated floral motifs in Persian carpets.

It is art, but art that builds on a ‘craft’ rather than a ‘fine art’ tradition, and when combined with the precision machining that was so much a part of the industrial revolution, the effect is glorious. I’ve included one image of the lights and the metal border; this one is a bit larger and situated around the doorway to a bank, which has modified its trademark to fit in with the overall design scheme.

Now I suppose I can get all Prince Charles-ish and start complaining about the ugly carbuncles modern architects produce, and also point out that skyscrapers do not have to be ugly. That so many of them are ugly is down to a failure of imagination, and nothing more.


  1. Posted February 27, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    My prize for truly fabulous goes to the Chrysler Building, which is a marvel.
    The girl’s got taste. The Chrysler Building is the scrummiest. ‘Cept maybe the Taj Mahal.

  2. Posted February 27, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    have long wondered why modern architects make office blocks/skyscrapers so anonymous.

    Early 20th century architecture was motivated by a Utopian vision that saw architecture as a way to perfection. At the heart of this was a widespread conviction that it would be beneficial, in Louis Sullivan’s words to “for a time… abandon ornament and concentrate entirely on the erection of buildings that were finely shaped and charming in their sobriety. Visionary architects who followed, like Adolf Loos (who worked for Sullivan) were less moderate in their endorsement of this principle.

    The Housing Estate owes much to guys like Le Corbusier. But the idea was to use these new materials and techniques (like the steel frame) and to build a new architecture by eliminating all vicissitudes of the old one. The advantage of this approach from the point of view of those who paid for it, was that it was very cheap. The 1871 fire in philistine Chicago helped establish this taste for simplicity. One hundred years later an architect reflected that “We are at the close of one epoch and well before the start of a new one”.

    The new one started about ten or so years ago. Pretty wacky so far.

  3. Posted February 27, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    In general, it is another manifestation of the evil of modernism. We have new materials, new technologies, new techniques which allow us to do things we could not do before, so new is good and ornamentalism is old (and therefore not good).

    Le Corbusier’s “a house is a machine for living” was an example of this general outlook. The suggestion that us humans have certain enduring features, habits of mind, etc which architecture might have been successfully responding to for centuries was thrown out.

    Modern Beijing is a particularly good example of the horror of this approach.

    Art deco was the last “aristocratic” movement in art, one which both used new techniques but in ways that still harked back to enduring concepts of beauty. I, like LE, SL and Adrien like me art deco too.

  4. Posted February 28, 2010 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo – Funnily enough the underground in Art is getting reacquainted with late 19th century movements in art and architecture. There’s a certain rekindling of interest in Art Deco, Symbolism etc. I guess maybe people are finally bored of sharks in tanks and cans of shit.

    I reckon the early 20th century blocks of concrete phase was necessary. But I’m glad it’s over. And that architects now seem to take LSD on a regular basis.

  5. Nick Ferrett
    Posted February 28, 2010 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    SL, are you aware of the Art Deco festival held in Napier, NZ each year. My wife was there this year with a friend and won a prize for the clothing she designed and made for the event.

  6. Nick Ferrett
    Posted February 28, 2010 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    First sentence should have had a question mark

  7. Peter Patton
    Posted February 28, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    If you want the ultimate feast of modern (though not modernist) urban architecture, then Chicago is your nirvana.

  8. Posted March 1, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Phwoar baby!

    It also appeals to my sense of humour to have things like lifts and drains decorated in this way. One of these days I mean to write something about the many fancy toilets of Melbourne, which are decorated in a similar fashion.

  9. Posted March 1, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Gosh I’d love to see that. Ideas for a blog post, or even a separate web page, on this particular issue are firming…

    In the Heide House there’s a toilet that is, I think, handpainted too. At the time I just took it as representative of the sense of humour of those artists.

    We just spraypainted our telly gold to go with an art-decoish lady mum gave us that sits beside it. We even gave it bright red curtains.

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