Any discussion of today’s topic, The Spirit of Architecture – Art Deco, should probably start with some historical perspective. The first thing to consider is that the term “Art Deco” refers to far more than a highly stylized approach to architecture. Instead, it is really an encompassing design approach that erupted from the modernism of the 1920’s to take hold of fashion and design. Let’s discuss this a bit more.
Let’s get back to architecture. We have posted previously in this space on Art Deco Fireplaces. In that instance, the discussion revolved around the Art Deco architecture of Manhattan as opposed to the Art Deco of Miami Beach. A passage from that post was “some of my earliest memories as a young man are of being taken to the Chrysler, Radio City and the Empire State, and wondering why my house in suburbia did not look that way. As a grown man, in 1981, I recall vividly sitting at the Avalon Hotel on South Beach and staring at the ocean over drinks. So, for me, it’s all good as the young people say.” The differences between the two Art Deco styles were not then, or now, very important to me. Instead, they simply added to the fun. Vive la différence.
What would Art Deco be without the Chrysler Building? Who knows? What we do know is that the Chrysler was borne of the Roaring Twenties, a time of real estate speculation in Manhattan where developers were battling for prestige of all types, and taller was better. The original developer of the project was a man named William Reynolds, and he made the choice of the architect, William Van Allen. To make a very long story short, Reynolds sold control of the development to Walter Chrysler of automobile manufacturing fame. That transition would prove crucial to many of the now legendary details.
ArchDaily does a nice job in saying: “The Chrysler Building is a classic example of the Art Deco style, from the street to its terraced crown. Interior and exterior alike, it is admired for its distinctive ornamentation based on features that were also found on Chrysler automobiles at the time.” The fact is, to experience it is more than that.
The ethereal stainless-steel skin from the German manufacturer Krupp, the gargoyles, the replicas of Chrysler automobile hood ornaments, the sunburst illusion beneath the spire, the African stone walls in the lobby, the ceiling mural, etc., etc. It’s all there as a visual immovable feast.
The Chrysler Building formally opened in 1930 and was, for about eleven months, the tallest building in the world before being eclipsed by the Empire State Building. Ironically, some of the best views of the Chrysler are from the Empire State Observation Desk. My last visit confirmed prior thoughts that the lobby alone is worth a hundred visits. It is space so magical that even jaded Manhattanites occasionally pause to take it in. Le Corbusier said the building “was hot jazz in stone and steel.” Let that be the last word.
It may seem hard to believe in 2020, but the place so grandly known today as “South Beach” was headed for a date with the wrecking ball in the 1970’s. A significant portion of south Miami Beach, where the Art Deco architectural style had once been so beautifully expressed, had fallen into a sullen dilapidation. The demographics of the neighborhood tended towards elderly, retired, and fixed income, with a dose of homeless mixed in. The developers were eager to scoop up the old buildings for a song, and start over on the prime beachfront locations.
- an over-all symmetry
- glass block
- stepped rooflines
- elements grouped in threes
- round porthole windows
- neon lighting
- curvilinear edges and corners
- terrazzo floors
- decorative sculptural panels
Art Deco is admittedly a tad quirky, and maybe not for everyone. What cannot be denied is the unique gravitas of a space like the Chrysler Building lobby, or the tropical frivolity of the Miami Art Deco District. Thanks for reading and be safe.
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