As we explained in the article Refinement and Elegance, Art Deco took off after the Great War (1914-1918). To give people hope, an illusion of happiness and prosperity had to be created. It had to be seen everywhere, even on skyscrapers with their heads in the clouds.
Art Deco buildings give the illusion that they are higher than they actually are. It’s because the windows are high and the guidelines of the façade are vertical. Keep in mind that this is the late 20s and early 30s. The Great War crushed the human spirit. Verticality symbolizes momentum towards a new life and prosperity. Human beings were picking themselves up.
Certain architects dared going higher. They gave buildings styles, often related to the daily activities of the building owner.
Take the peak of the Chrysler Building in New York, the ultimate Art Deco building. A 58 metre arrow weighing 27 tonnes rises above a structure in which some see the design of Chrysler car bumpers of the period. The structure is composed of seven arches that reflect the sun.
Suns and halos are a big part of Art Deco. The Empire State Building is reproduced in its lobby, with beams of light radiating from the wall. The sun symbolizes happiness and richness.
Let’s go back to the Chrysler Building. The architect allowed himself to use his imagination on the façades since eight steel eagles are launching in the outside corners of the 61st floor. Another decorative whim: the outside corners of the 31st floor form radiator caps of Chrysler cars of the era.
Still in New York, the peak of the General Electric Building at 570 Lexington Avenue (see photo), evokes radio or electrical waves through a gothic sculpture.
The peak of the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge has an octagonal shape, four stone eagles, at each outer corner, a human torso representing the law, science, philosophy and art.
A detour to Montreal. The University of Montreal tower (picture above), which rises on a side of Mont-Royal is an Art Deco work. When you pass by, you will notice the vertical lines that rise to the peak, topped by a small dome that symbolizes education.
The façades of Art Deco buildings are smooth, symmetrical and pure. Since most of them have no decorative ornament, fantasy adds its touch at the base of the building, usually around the main entry door which opens up to grandiose entry halls, at least in hotels.
For instance: two griffins stand guard above the door of the Empire State Building. Geometric shapes and a bas-relief evoking the wood industry appear at the base of the Price building in Quebec City. The Wikipedia article on the General Electric Building (link provided) shows an old clock mounted on two arms that appear to hold an electric current.
The Niagara Mohawk Building in Syracuse, New-York, owned by National Grid, is an exception. Contemplate this marvelous sculpture that does not rise at the base, but just below the peak.
The last feature of Art Deco architecture: the buildings are often mounted as blocks piled on top of each other which decrease as they approach the peak. Example: Sun Life in Montreal. The same applies to the Louisiana State Capitol which you see in the photos.
- Bruxelles Art déco, 1920-1930, Norma éditions, 1996, 236 pages
- Art Deco New York, David Garrard Lowe, Watson-Guptill Publications, 2004, 214 pages
- Paris Art déco, architecture des années 20, Jean-Marc Larbodière, Massin éditeur, 2008, 157 pages
- French Wikipedia Art Deco fr article
- English Wikipedia Art Deco en article
Our thanks to the director of communications of National Grid US, for having authorized the use of the photo of their Niagara Mohawk Building.
Photos of the Chrysler Building and Louisiana State Capitol: ISTOCKPHOTO LP
Photo of the General Electric building – crown: Wikipedia Attribution Share-Alike MegaMatic