Wednesday, 11 July 2012


Nothing provides more torment for the strolling urbanite than correctly classifying architecture dans le mode Arts Decoratifs. Because, quite frankly that Art Deco building you pass every day almost certainly is not Art Deco.

First, and most obviously, because Art Deco dates from les Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs, April to October 1925. Yet the term Art Deco is not coined until 1960. Art Deco was an exhibition, not a school. Thus it has become conflated with the contemporary and formal architectural schools of, say, The Bauhaus in Germany and De Stijl in the Netherlands.

Also since we are talking about the city of Toronto, we could not be farther away from the European capitals where Art Deco was practiced.

Finally, Art Deco was never about architecture. Art Deco is about household decoration. The primary Art Deco object is a cocktail shaker. In an Art Deco cocktail cabinet.

Then there is the practical business that in the period 1914 to 1939 the world was:
  • Twice at war
  • In a recession
  • Traveling by steamer

The totality of these conflated realities is that there were almost no chances for wealthy American property developers to:
  • Become exposed to the ideas of Art Deco
  • Find expert architects to design Art Deco skyscrapers
  • Have sufficient funds in the bank to build Art Deco skyscrapers
  • Have a sufficient labor force to mobilize to build their chic and modern tributes to their own inner Croesus

Thus it is with confidence I state that your favorite Art Deco building might be Art Moderne. It might even be Streamline Moderne. But it is NOT Art Deco.

Let us use this humble borough war memorial to function as our Rosetta Stone and provide the codex of Art-Streamline-Deco-Moderne.
What do we see?
  • Clean lines
  • A trapezoid shape
  • Limestone
  • Corners without fillet or radius curve
  • Period font
  • Only one obscure glyph - the memorial wreath
  • Korean War -1950s

And directly across the street is this superb Streamline Moderne masterpiece - Toronto East General Hospital, circa 1949...
"Fox, you ask - Why Streamline Moderne and not Art Moderne?". Good question. Those horizontal speedlines are among the most characteristic design element of Streamline Moderne. To qualify in this category, something on the building must look like it's going fast

Sadly, here is a cute little Art Moderne cottage right next door to the hospital. With a callous application of siding and brick veneer her perfect lines have been completely destroyed...

Finally, here is a real Art Deco building, Hamilton's 1930 Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo passenger train station...
copyleft Wikimedia Commons

And finally, another look at that beautiful Art Deco building that has been destroyed in the 21st century

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