If you want to learn something new, agree to give a lecture or write an article on the topic. There are limits, of course – I would never feel comfortable speaking or writing about Nuclear Fission . . . or is it Fusion?

However art and architecture is something else again. While I can probably not distinguish between Corinthian, Doric, or Ionic columns, in my travels within and outside the UK I have seen many examples of public buildings and private homes utilising ancient Greek and Roman pillars. In writing this article, I have probably learned more about architectural styles in the past month than in my previous 69 years.

In common with women’s clothing, architectural styles come and go, and what is fashionable one moment is relegated to the ‘side-lines’ the next. And the adage ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ applies in this discipline. Architects rebel – either partially or completely – against an existing style which either goes ‘underground’ or disappears entirely . . . for a while. And after a few years or decades, like a boomerang, the previous style ‘returns’ – with a slightly different curve or embellishment each time. The classical architecture, in which we defer to Greece and Rome, is still being built, even if it’s not the choice of the majority.

Neoclassical architecture began in Italy and France in the mid-1700s and is associated with the ‘Age of Enlightenment’. It has become one the Western world’s most prominent and iconic styles.[1] It was a reaction against the Rococo style and an outgrowth of the Late Baroque architectural tradition. The style was defined by symmetry, simple geometry, and social demands instead of ornament.[2] Neoclassical architecture owes a lot to development of archaeology – excavation sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum allowed architects to make in depth analyses of classical architecture and develop their own unique style.[3]Noteworthy examples of such architecture are the National Gallery and the British Museum in London.

The British Museum. photo by Colyn Boyce

Classical architecture after about 1840 is considered academically as one of a series of “revival” styles, such as Greek, Renaissance, or Italianate. However Classical architecture in the 20th and 21st century – rather than merely a revival – represents a return to a style that it was thought to have disappeared with the appearance of Modernism, but in reality is as vital as ever.

Grand Central Terminal, New York City.               photo by Colyn Boyce

The next major architectural style in Europe was Beaux-Arts – which was taught at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, from the 1830s to the end of the 19th century. It took its lead from the principles of French neoclassicism but also included Gothic and Renaissance elements, and used modern materials, such as iron and glass. It also had a strong influence on architecture in the United States, in particular in the period between 1880 and 1920 [4] because of the many prominent American architects who studied at the École des Beaux-Arts.[5] The beautiful railway station in New York City – Grand Central Terminal – is one of the finest examples of this style. Beaux-Arts architecture continued without major interruption until 1968.[6]

The late 19th century and early decades heralded the ascendancy of the avant-garde, spawning as it did three major movements.

Art Nouveau flourished in the United States and Europe between 1890 and 1910. An ornamental style of art, it is characterised by the use of a long, sinuous, organic line and appears most often in architecture, interior design, jewellery and glass design, posters, and illustration.

Yellow-Red-Blue. by Wassily Kandinsky, 1925. courtesy of Wikipedia

The Bauhaus (German: “building house”), was a German art school operational from 1919 to 1933 that combined crafts and the fine arts. In contrast to Art Nouveau, Bauhaus designs – whether in painting, architecture, or interior design – feature little ornamentation and focused on balanced forms and abstract shapes. The movement inspired artists of all backgrounds – including such abstract painters as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, who were influenced by theosophical concepts. Its influence is evident today in art and design around the world – on the walls of museums or in the streets of cities.

The third movement to appear in this time frame – and the focus for this study – was Art Deco. The term ‘Art Deco’ is actually an abbreviation for ‘Arts Decoratifs’ taken from the name of the 1925 Parisian Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes.

Sunrise motif from the Wisconsin Gas         Company, 1930. courtesy of Wikipedia

Art Deco arose as a reaction against the highly ornate ‘Art Nouveau’ but was not as minimalist as the Bauhaus school, whose remit was marrying beauty with utility. Art Deco is characterised by bold, geometric patterns and shapes – notably zigzags, chevrons, starbursts, and symmetrical arrangements. It also experimented with new design materials – chrome and plate glass, and luxurious finishes like exotic woods and lacquered surfaces.

Art Deco was born out of a yearning to demonstrate the notion of progress and modernity and to beautify the everyday and mass-produced objects such as toasters, radios and vacuum cleaners. Thriving as it did between the two major world wars, Art Deco reflected the historical ups and downs of the period. At the beginning of the 1920s there was an enormous amount of wealth in the world and an accompanying optimism and energy.

Corner cabinet of Mahogany with rose basket design of inlaid ivory. 1923. courtesy of Wikipedia

Initially no expense was spared to impress – pieces of furniture included ivory and silver inlays, and Art Deco jewellery combined diamonds with platinum, jade, and other precious materials. The style was used to decorate the first-class salons of ocean liners, deluxe trains, and skyscrapers. It was used around the world to accessorise the great movie palaces of the late 1920s and 1930s.

The Great Depression meant there was less cash ‘to splash’ and resulted in the end of hand-crafted décor in favour of mass produced processes using less expensive materials such as chrome plating, stainless steel and plastic. A sleeker form of Art Deco, called ‘Streamline Moderne’, appeared in the 1930s.[7] 

Hoover Building canteen in west London. 1938. courtesy of Wikipedia

Buildings in the style had rounded corners and long horizontal lines; they were built of reinforced concrete, and were almost always white; and they sometimes had nautical features, such as railings that resembled those on a ship. Examples are BBC Broadcasting House in central London and the Hoover Building, an industrial complex in a London suburb.[8]

Guardians of Traffic pylon. Hope Memorial Bridge, Cleveland. 1932. courtesy of Wikipedia

As one of the earliest truly international styles, Art Deco was influenced by the bold geometric forms of Pablo Picasso’s Cubism, the Vienna Secession of such well-known artists as Gustav Klimt and the bright colours of Fauvism (whose greatest exponent was Henri Matisse) and the Ballets Russes. Many different styles were borrowed and used by Art Deco – including pre-modern art from around the world. Artists and designers were influenced by discoveries in Egyptology and the growing interest in the Orient and in African art and integrated into their works such elements along with the exotic styles from India, Persia and Meso-America and Oceania. [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14]

1937 Cord model 812.            courtesy of Wikipedia

From 1925 onwards, Art Deco was often inspired by a passion for new machines, such as airships, and automobiles.[15]

While the term ‘Art Deco’ generally dates from the 1925 Paris Exhibition, the term arts décoratifs was first used in France in 1858; published in the Bulletin de la Société française de photographie.[16] In 1868, Le Figaro newspaper used the term objets d’art décoratifs with respect to objects for stage scenery created for the Théâtre National de l’Opéra.[17]

The emergence of Art Deco was closely connected with the rise in status of decorative artists in France, who until late in the 19th century had been considered simply as artisans. The Société des artistes décorateurs (Society of Decorative Artists), or SAD, was founded in 1901, and designers of furniture, textiles and other decoration were given the same rights of authorship as painters and sculptors. Parisian department stores and fashion designers also played an important part in the rise of Art Deco.

 The Firebird. designed by             René Lalique 1922.                        courtesy of Wikipedia

Well known silverware firms, glass designers and jewellers – notably Louis Cartier – all began designing products in more modern styles.[18] [19] The department store, Printemps, created its own workshop called Primavera, [20] which by 1920 employed more than three hundred artists.

Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris. courtesy of Wikipedia

New materials and technologies, especially reinforced concrete were key to the development and appearance of Art Deco. The first concrete house was built in 1853 in Paris. The material was then used in a garage in Paris, in an apartment building, house, and finally, in 1913, in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Thereafter, the majority of Art Deco buildings were made of reinforced concrete, which gave greater freedom of form and less need for reinforcing pillars and columns. A further development was the covering of concrete with ceramic tiles, both for protection and decoration.

Other new technologies that were important to Art Deco were new methods in producing plate glass, which was less expensive and allowed much larger and stronger windows, and for mass-producing aluminium, which was used for building and window frames and later, by modernist designer Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) and others, for lightweight furniture.

Cincinnati Union Terminal. constructed 1933.          courtesy of Wikipedia

After the First World War, art deco buildings of steel and reinforced concrete began to appear in large cities across Europe and the United States. In the United States the style was most commonly used for office buildings, government buildings, movie theatres, and railroad stations. Interiors were extremely colourful and dynamic, combining sculpture, murals, and ornate geometric design.

Buffalo City Hall. Built 1931.                             photo by Colyn Boyce

A number of town halls incorporated this style – notably those in Los Angeles and Buffalo, both 32 stories high. Buffalo City Hall was designed and built with a non-powered air-conditioning system, taking advantage of strong prevailing winds from Lake Erie. Los Angeles City Hall is the tallest base-isolated structure in the world, having undergone a seismic retrofit so that the building will sustain minimal damage and remain functional after a magnitude 8.2 earthquake. Art Deco elements also appeared in engineering projects, including the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and the intake towers of Hoover Dam.

Interior – Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) Mexico City. 1934. courtesy of Wikipedia

In the 1920s and 1930s it became a truly international style, with examples including the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) in Mexico City, National Diet Building in Tokyo and the Mayakovskaya Metro Station in Moscow. [21] During this period, Charles Holden designed for the London underground system a series of 17 modernist and art-deco stations many of which are listed, five at Grade II*.

American skyscrapers marked the summit of the Art Deco style; they became the tallest and most recognisable modern buildings in the world. They were designed to show the prestige of their builders through their height, their shape, their colour, and their dramatic illumination at night.[22]

Elevator doors. courtesy of Wikipedia

Pinnacle of the Chrysler Building. photo by Colyn Boyce

The New York skyline experienced a radical change with completion of the Chrysler Building in 1930: a seventy-seven-floor tall advertisement for the automobile manufacturer. The summit was crowned by a stainless steel spire, and was ornamented by deco “gargoyles” in the form of stainless steel radiator cap decorations.

The tower’s base, thirty-three stories above the street, was adorned with colourful art deco friezes, and the foyer was resplendent with art deco symbols and images expressing modernity.[23]

Entrance to Detroit’s Guardian Building.  photo by Colyn Boyce

Detail of mosaic in foyer. photo by Colyn Boyce


Another early Art Deco skyscraper was Detroit’s Guardian Building (originally the Union Trust Building), which opened in 1929. It was the first building to employ stainless steel as a decorative element. Native American themes are common on both the interior and exterior of the building.

Banking hall of the Guardian Building. photo by Colyn Boyce

The entrance foyer is filled with red and black marble and brightly coloured ceramics. The sculptural decoration installed in the walls illustrated the virtues of industry and saving; the building was immediately termed the “Cathedral of Commerce”. The Medical and Dental Building in San Francisco was inspired by Mayan architecture, utilises pyramid shapes, and the interior walls are covered by rows of hieroglyphs.[24]

And my ‘hometown’ of Vancouver has what is regarded as one of the most beautiful examples of Art Deco, in the Marine Building, which rises to 22 stories near to the city’s waterfront. The building was used as the main production site for 10 seasons of the television series (2001-2011), ‘Smallville’ – based on the story of Superman.

Art Deco buildings. Miami.    courtesy of Wikipedia.

Vancouver’s iconic Marine Building entrance. courtesy of Wikipedia

The South Beach area of Miami contains the world’s largest collection of Art Deco buildings – covering a range of styles known as ‘Streamline’, ‘Tropical’ and ‘Med-deco’. Most were constructed during the Great Depression and the early 1940s. Mumbai (formerly Bombay) has the second biggest assortment of such buildings.

Many of the best surviving examples of Art Deco are movie theatres built in the 1920s and 1930s – which often combined exotic themes with the contemporary style; Grauman’s Egyptian in Hollywood (1922) was inspired by ancient Egyptian tombs and pyramids. The largest of all is Radio City Music Hall in New York City, which opened in 1932. Originally designed as a stage theatre, it quickly transformed into a movie theatre, seating 6,015 persons. The interior design used glass, aluminium, chrome, and leather to create a colourful escape from reality.

Interior of Fox Theatre, Detroit. courtesy of Wikipedia

Another Art Deco ‘jewel’ is the Fox Theatre in Detroit, which was constructed in 1928. Seating over 5,000, it is the largest surviving movie theatre of the 1920s. The Grand Rex in Paris (1932), with its imposing tower, was the largest movie theatre in Europe. The Gaumont State in London (1937) had a tower modelled after the Empire State building, covered with cream-coloured ceramic tiles and an interior in an Art Deco-Italian Renaissance style.

Prometheus statue. courtesy of Wikipedia

Sculpture was a very common and integral feature of Art Deco architecture. In France, allegorical bas-reliefs representing dance and music decorated the landmark Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1912. In the United States, perhaps the most prominent Art Deco sculpture is the statue of Prometheus at Rockefeller Centre in New York, a 20th-century adaptation of a classical subject.

In Britain, Deco public statuary was made by Eric Gill for the BBC Broadcasting House, while Ronald Atkinson decorated the lobby of the former Daily Express Building in London (1932).

Christ the Redeemer. Rio de Janeiro. courtesy of Wikipedia

One of the best known and undoubtedly the largest public Art Deco sculpture in the world is the Christ the Redeemer  (built between1922 and 1931, located on the summit of a mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro.

And in New Jersey, in honour of the inventor and theosophist Thomas Alva Edison, is a prominent structure, topped off by an enormous light bulb.

Stained glass window in Longwy, built 1928. courtesy of Wikipedia

One of the finest examples of Art Deco, anywhere, appears in the stained glass window at the former steel factory in Longwy, northeastern France. In the 1930s a dramatic new form of Art Deco painting appeared in the United States. During the Great Depression, many were employed by the state to decorate government buildings, hospitals and schools. One of the significant artists was the Mexican painter Diego Rivera, who depicted automobile factory workers for the Detroit Institute of Arts.[25] [26] [27]

The onset of World War II ended the dominance of Art Deco, giving way tomore functional and minimalist styles of modern architecture and the International Style of architecture which was pioneered by Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe.[28]

Diego de Rivera mural in Detroit Institute of Arts. photo by Colyn Boyce

A handful of Art Deco hotels were built in Miami Beach after World War II, but elsewhere the style largely vanished, except in industrial design, where it continued to be used in automobile styling and products such as jukeboxes.

In the 1960s, there was a modest academic revival in the design style. And starting in the 1970s a drive was undertaken both in the United States of America and throughout Europe to preserve the best examples of Art Deco architecture, resulting in restoration and repurposing of a number of buildings [29] [30] [31] [32] Art Deco still appears in contemporary fashion, jewellery, and toiletries and given the cyclical nature of fashion perhaps we are due for another major ‘resurgence’ in the movement that was last in its heyday a century ago.[33]

At this time of the year, we might do well to remember the birthday of the ‘father of Art Deco’, Romaine de Tirtoff (aka ‘Erté’), who was born in St Petersburg on 20th November 1892. At the age of 20, he moved to Paris to follow his dream of illustration. Art Brokerage, an online distributor of his work, characterized his style as “the fusion of the curvilinear designs of Art Nouveau of the 19th Century with the Cubist, Constructivist, and geometrical designs of modernity.” Evidence of his influence can be seen in several prominent museums in the UK and USA.

Main image: Front foyer of Guardian Building, Detroit. photo by Colyn Boyce


[1] 1. “Neoclassical architecture”. Encylopedia Britannica.  Retrieved 7 July 2017.

[2] 3. Middleton, Robin. (1993). Neoclassical and 19th century architecture. Electa

[3] 2. Pierson, William Harvey, 1911- (1976). American buildings and their architects. Anchor Press/Doubleday. 

[4] 4. Clues to American Architecture. Klein and Fogle. 1986. p. 38  

[5] 1. Texier, Simon 2012. Paris- Panorama de l’architecture. Parigramme.

[6] 2. Robin Middleton, ed. (1982). The Beaux-Arts and Nineteenth-century French Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson.

[7] 4. Renaut, Christophe and Lazé, Christophe, Les Styles de l’architecture et du mobilier. 2006, pp. 110–116

[8] 102. Duncan, Alastair. 1988, p.197. Art Deco. Thames & Hudson

[9] 59. “Art Deco Style”. Museum of London. Archived from the original on 7 February 2008.

[10] 60. Wood, Ghislaine (2003). Essential Art Deco. London: VA&A Publications

[11] 61. Hauffe, Thomas (1998). Design: A Concise History (1 ed.). London: Laurence King.

[12] 62. “Art Deco Study Guide.” Victoria and Albert Museum. Archived from the original on 25 October 2008.

[13] 63. Juster, Randy. “Introduction to Art Deco”. decopix.com. Archived from the original on 29 October 2008.

[14] 64. “How Art Deco came to be”. University Times. University of Pittsburgh. 36 (4). 9 October 2003.

[15] 67. Duncan, pp. 7–8.

[16] 6. Bulletin de la Société française de photographie (Paris), 1858

[17] 7. Le Figaro, (Paris), 18 September1869, no. 260, Bibliothèque nationale de France

[18]18. Metropolitan Review, Volume 2, Metropolitan Press Publications. 1989, p. 8

[19] 19. Campbell, Gordon, The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts, Oxford University Press, USA, Nov 9, 2006, pp. 42 (Vera), 43 (Cartier), 243 (Christofle), 15, 515, 527 (Lalique), 13, 134 (Boucheron),

[20] 21. Campbell, Gordon, pp. 42-43.

[21]14. Benton, Charlotte; Benton, Tim; Wood, Ghislaine; Baddeley, Oriana. 2003, p. 430. Art Deco: 1910-1939. Bulfinch.

[22] 71. John Burchard, John and Brown, Albert Bush, The Architecture of America.1966, p. 277. Atlantic, Little and Brown

[23] 72. Benton, Charlotte; Benton, Tim; Art Deco (1910-1939) 2010. pp. 249–258.

[24] 100. Duncan. 1988, pp. 198–200.

[25] 84. “City College of San Francisco: Rivera Mura – San Francisco CA”:  The Living New Deal. Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved 15 June 2015

[26] 85.  Atkins, Robert.1993. ArtSpoke: A Guide to Modern Ideas, Movements and Buzzwords, 1848-1944. Abbeville Press.

[27] 86. “Works Progress Administration (WPA) Art Recovery Project”. Office of the Inspector General. General Services Administration. Archived from the original on 19 September 2015.

[28] 5. Benton, Charlotte; Benton, Tim; Wood, Ghislaine; Art Deco (1910-1939) 2010. pp. 13–28.

[29] 35. Goss, Jared. “French Art Deco”. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 29 August 2016.

[30] 59. “Art Deco Style”. Museum of London. Archived from the original on 7 February 2008.

[31] 77. Fell, Charlotte; Fell, Peter. 2006. Design Handbook: Concepts, Materials and Styles(1 ed.). Taschen.

[32] 78. Heindorf, Anne. 24 July 2006. “Art Deco (1920s to 1930s)”.

[33] 79. Gaunt, Pamela. August 2005. “The Decorative in Twentieth Century Art: A Story of Decline and Resurgence” (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 December 2008.

The author is grateful to Wikipedia for supplying background information.


Written by

A Canadian by birth, Colyn Boyce is a former radio journalist, who worked in central British Columbia in the 1970s. Born in 1951, he joined the Theosophical Society in Vancouver in 1969. An inveterate traveller, he hitch-hiked across America in 1972 and travelled extensively through southern and central Europe after arriving in Britain in 1977. What was meant to be a six month holiday, turned in permanent residency in the UK. From 1981 until 2018, he was Publicist for the English Section of the Theosophical Society - arranging an ambitious programme of lectures, seminars and courses. For about 25 years he was assistant editor of the house magazine, Insight, which he typeset and illustrated - showcasing many of his own photographs. In 2018 he undertook a lecture tour of theosophical branches in western Canada and in 2019 - over a 3 week stint - spoke in Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York City and Buffalo.

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