Article by Paul G. Russell

T
he complex background of forces that lies behind what came to be called Art Deco retrospectively in 1966 is an amalgam of political movements, competing aesthetic theories, painterly avant-gardism and interest in exotic and ancient sources of inspiration. All this led to a major shift in architecture, as in the arts generally, away from classical and baroque models toward modernism in its many and diverse forms. The so-called International Style in architecture with its flat roofs, sheer façades, “expressed structure” and rejection of ornamental detail came to North American shores through the European émigrés of the twenties and thirties: Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Joseph Albers and others, to challenge the American architectural establishment, skyscrapers and all, with the new modernist aesthetic of “less is more.”


It is against this austerity of architectural form that Art Deco had asserted itself in the early years of the twentieth century in a diversity of shapes and categories influenced by Art Nouveau, the Secessionist style, the Paris exhibition of 1925, the new materials of chrome, glass and plastic, etc. Industrial manufacture and everyday objects made of non-natural materials were introduced to a vast public of modest means, as well as the production for the elites of luxury items psycho­logically promoted as lifestyle, chic, sophisticated, in the new aesthetics of modernism. The thrust of deco however, was still directed to the domestic interior and fashions in clothing.

Where the International Style had rejected ornamentation in both traditional, even structural applications, the deco impulse proposed a staple commodity through the reintroduction of stylized floral and organic motifs while adding imagery relating to time and place in a manner that expressed indirectly, and perhaps unconsciously, some of the precepts of the modernist architectural canon: flattened sculptural detail, the incised parallel lines of streamlining, both of which minimize conceptually their intrusion upon the flat architectural surface.

If Europe’s radical modernist artists and architects agreed that technology was to become the arbiter of taste, the French artistic establishment still continued to assert the pre-eminence of Parisian design in the field of fashion and décor. In the 1920s French designers led by couturier Paul Poiret sought to add the right touch to a dress or hat as well as the right sofa or fine cabinet to a salon or office space within the new ‘moderne’ architecture. The official French statement on style in 1925 took the more concrete and international form of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in the capital. Radical modernism, as expounded by the German Bauhaus, Dutch De Stijl, and French architects such as Le Corbusier, was proposing mass-produced form and function with little if any ornament, while “…the creative impulse of the new architecture is born with the appearance of the new building materials – iron, steel and reinforced concrete” as noted by Erich Mendelsohn in 1930. But if this built environment of tall buildings constructed upon a skeleton of structural steel, and motorways of reinforced concrete were to have any ornament, what kind of French ornament might this be? That was in part the question posed by the 1925 Paris show.

For some, Art Deco would be embellished modernism, and the 1925 exhibition led to a celebration of this emerging style. “Clearly Art Deco,” suggests critic Mario Amaya, “as expressed in that great exhibition, was, in fact, about decorating and ornamentation, not about the deeper implications of the machine age.”1 In other words, Deco was first and foremost designed for the home. It produced elegant furnishings with smooth surfaces and rounded edges for the modern apartment; cocktail ware in glass and chrome for the modern reception; luggage for the modern traveller with sleek parallel lines to create a streamlined
effect. This was the age of low-slung cars with long pneumatic curves and great locomotives of similar curve and straight line design such as the cross-continental Twentieth-Century Limited in the United States.
When Deco style showed in public buildings it took the form of details in the façade and reception areas: low relief sculptural panels or the elaborate flattened geometric patterning of grillwork in door frames, elevator cages and lighting fixtures. Deco in architecture appeared in the details that enhanced an otherwise Spartan and ever-more functional modernism. Canada was a late and lazy newcomer to this deco approach to architectural style and decoration although a number of good examples can be found in all regions of the country.

One prominent early example in Canada is Toronto’s Concourse Building (1928), a sixteen storey skyscraper in the Bay Street financial district, distinguished by mosaic details designed by members of the Group of Seven. The Toronto Stock Exchange (1936-1937) by architects George and Moorhouse in association with S. H. Maw is another. It has a flat modernist façade and a pattern of tall, narrow windows anchored by a decorative frieze in limestone of industrial workers designed by Charles Comfort, extending across the width of the building above the ground floor entrance. Large low relief medallions of workers in agriculture, industry and commerce, arranged in vertical columns on the main entrance doors, appear suggestively like coins in the economic capital of Canada.

The stepped-back Aldred Building (1929-1931) from the architect E.I. Barott, still dominates Montreal’s Place d’Armes today. Its impressive verticality is accented by aluminum and black glass spandrels cut in a rigid floral geometry. Carved stonework caps, each setback with stylized flowers, snowflakes, stars and leaves, stand in mild contrast with the overall machine-age look.

On the western side of the continent, among the British Columbia buildings of the period, the richly detailed Marine Building (1929-1930) in Vancouver is most strikingly deco. Here too the architects have added traditional motifs that assert local circumstances at odds with the international style of modernism. This landmark opened its doors on October 7, 1930. With twenty-one floors it was the tallest structure in the city. The architects McCarter and Nairne asserted that the building was intended to evoke “some great crag rising from the sea, clinging with sea flora and fauna, tinted in sea-green, touched with gold.”2 Marine imagery continues in the details of the lobby and elevator. The walls and polished brass doors crawl with crabs, turtles, sea snails, seaweed and seahorses, in an aquarium of sea creatures appropriate to the site, while the elevator walls, inlaid with 12 varieties of local hardwoods, catalogue the trees of BC and the equal importance of the forest industries to the province.

The stepped corner tower of Winnipeg’s Federal Building (1937) designed by architects Northwood and Chivers, standing tall on a triangular site at 269 Main Street, in turn has its own local reference, mid-continent. Stylized wheat sheafs aligned across the cornice remind the passersby of the city as the Canadian centre of Prairie commerce in wheat then as now.

Art Deco, or “moderne” until the 1960s, also influenced architects working with more traditional Beaux-Arts forms. A series of spacious bank interiors by John Lyle exhibit a kind of stripped-down and simplified classicism. An example is his Bank of Nova Scotia in Halifax, which opened in 1931 at 1709 Hollis Street. Lyle designed the structure as well as its decorative features, fixtures and furniture. He injected motifs depicting Canadian and Nova Scotian natural and economic history throughout the building. Lyle summed up a nationalist approach to decorative details particular to geography and the natural world as an obvious and desirable source of inspiration also found in the preceding examples in Vancouver and Winnipeg. “When we examine our more serious architecture, we look in vain for a distinctly national note…Why do we have to go to Europe for either traditional or modern ornament. We have here in Canada, in our fauna, flora, bird, animal and marine life, a wealth of possible material.”3 This search for a national “note” at the decorative level concedes the overwhelming influence of iconic European architects upon the buildings themselves, of those who had long since abandoned the Beaux-Arts approach to architectural form.

The best known Canadian francophone architect of the 1920s and 1930s was Paris-trained Ernest Cormier. Cormier knew the 1920s French deco mandate first hand. When he returned to Canada from his many trips to Europe he began to produce buildings that were very much in the sophisticated taste of the French capital. His seaplane hangars of 1928 in Montreal, with their thin exterior shells of concrete, reflect the influence on his thinking of the French functional modernists such as Le Corbusier but it is in the design of his own home (1930) that one discovers a more obvious version of Art Deco style. Composed of two rectangular masses, the Cormier house is built of reinforced concrete and faced in granite, with flat relief floral sculptures as decoration.

In central Canada another architectural innovator, this time in ecclesiastical building, was French Benedictine monk Dom Paul Bellot, who came to Canada in the mid 1930s. His work on the vaults of the monastery of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac (1939-1941) combines old forms and new engineering principles. The Romanesque techniques of coloured brickwork and vaulting are used to underline structure in a decorative way that recalls the “expressed structure” of the modernists. Although not Art Deco in the accepted senses of the term, the use of modern materials and concepts of proportion, along with interiors where angularity coincides with deco sensibilities, the Dom Bellot influence in Quebec ecclesiastical style represents another of the variations upon “moderne” to be played out in Canada through the 1930s to the 1950s.
Clearly, Art Deco in Canada was a derivative of European and American deco examples and principles often combined with other historical models upon adapted forms of the modernist spirit in architectural trends. The themes of local iconography, with motif clusters as markers of regional difference remained an unfulfilled ambition to articulate a native idiom with its own internal logic of forms and meanings in a narrative of national identity.

Paul Russell is an artist and writer living in Toronto.
[blockquote] 1 In Deco 1925-1935 (Toronto: Rothmans of Pall Mall Canada Limited, 1975), 6.
2 Harold Kalman, Exploring Vancouver: Ten Tours of the City and its Buildings (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1974), 101.
3 In Art in Architecture: Toronto Landmarks 1920-1940 (Toronto: Department of the City Clerk, Records and Archives Division, 1987), 18. [/blockquote]

Image: The Aldred Building
Place d’Armes, Montreal
Photograph: Colin Rose