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New York City and the allure of its Art Deco buildings

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

"Art Deco reflects confidence, vigor and optimism by using symbols of progress, speed and power."

- Robert McGregor

The Art Deco is a period that match my tastes very much! I love pretty everything coming out of that historical period between 1920s and 1930s.

I have already talked about Art Deco in general in my previous post where I had explained about how this style strongly influenced the art, fashion, interior e industrial design, architecture and visual arts ((movies, paintings, graphic arts) during the so called Jazz Age. Since the the Art Deco style made its mark in all those domains I am going to cover this subject again in my future posts, but today I would like to concentrate on the influence of this eclectic style in New York buildings, where the Art Deco style developed in 1930s.

During my trip in the United States in 2016 I could admire with my own eyes the majesty of some buildings built in the period in which the Art Deco style flourished. Honestly, I am not keen on recognising the different architectural style but the Art Deco is a truly unique and distinctive one!

These New York buildings are characterised by the new shapes such as: spheres, polygons, rectangles etc…, symmetrical patterns and sunburst motifs. New shapes combined with materials like stainless steel (of which several buildings were made of), aluminium, chrome and limestone. The quintessential expression of modernity.

Art Deco style lines are eye-catching and mesmerising projecting you in a future that only those who lived in the past could imagine. “Wow,The future was then!” I tell myself whenever I admire these amazing decorations. Its eclectic style combines traditional craft with motifs Machine Age imagery and materials. The colours are rich. Bold geometric shapes and lavish ornamentation kidnaps me at first glance!

The Chrysler Bulding

This is a classic example of Art Deco architecture and considered by many contemporary architects to be one of the finest buildings in New York City.

It was built to be the home of Chrysler corporate offices and for that reason it had to represent the automobile and the machine age of the 1920s. By this way, the stainless steel building was ornamented by the eagles “Gargoyles” on corners of the 61st floor, like the hood ornaments of the Plymouth automobile for example. The terraced crown, composed of seven radiating terraced arches, was made to look like the 1929 Chrysler radiator caps.

The terraced crown, composed of seven radiating terraced arches

Chrysler building gargoyle eagle variant

Chrysler building gargoyle wind

The lobby of the Crhysler Building is decorated with Egyptian motifs, frequently used by Art deco artists. But what catches my attention the most is the ceiling fresco "Transport and Human Endeavor" by Edward Trumbull portraying airplanes, buildings and some scenes from the Chrysler assembly line.

Crhysler Building lobby

"Transport and Human Endeavor" by Edward Trumbull

The Empire state Building

Named by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, it is also the most famous skyscraper in the world. With its 381 meters (443, considering the television antenna) it was the tallest building in the world after its construction (completed in 1931) until 1973, when the Twin Towers were built. Sadly, it became the tallest skyscraper in New York City in 2001, until the One World Trade Center construction was completed in 2013.

As the Empire State Building rises into the sky it moves away from its base. What we see is a terraced step construction similar to a pyramid, of successively receding levels. This architectural style best known as Ziggurats was frequently used by the art deco architects. The New York zoning commission of that period gave precise instruction for the buildings to keep a distance from the street as they grew in height. By this way, the Ziggurat seemed to be the most suitable style that an architect could use.

Talking about the material used, the exterior of the Empire State Building is composed by limestone, chrome bars and aluminum panels. This kind of juxtaposition of different materials in construction (combining modern and industrial materials with more traditional ones) was typical of the Art Deco architect who wanted to give more majesty to their buildings.

Art Deco architects made use of marked horizontal and vertical lines. This linear style was very different from past architectural styles with intricate and elaborate details. The vertical strips that cover the skyscraper help our eyes to move toward the mast placed on top.

On top of the entrance of the Empire State we can find two moulded eagles. The Art Deco artists loved to take much of their inspiration from Egyptians and ancient Greeks figures which were then stylised and adapted to their conception of modern design.

As well as the Chrysler Bulding, the lobby of the Empire State is very impressive. It has a 24-karat gold and aluminium leaf mural on the ceiling, where lines of gears are put together in homage to the mechanical age. On the wall above the information desk in the Fifth Avenue lobby there’s the famous depiction of the Empire State Building, with beams of light radiating from the mast.

The lobby of the Empire State Building

The Rockfeller Center

The style chosen to build the complex was the Art Deco characterised by austere and simple lines. Unlike other contemporary buildings, the Top of the Rock has no flagpole. The building is decorated with a vertical bas-relief on the facade depicting Wisdom, on which is written "Wisdom and Knowledge Shall be the stability of thy times". A verse of Isaiah that is well suited to the spirit and philosophy of the early twentieth century, where the celebration of the human skills gained with acquaintance are the basis of modern knowledge.

The Wisdom bas-relief at the entrance of the building

And right in the yard of the Top of the Rock was immortalised the famous photography that all of us have seen at least once in our life: the eleven workers sitting on a beam suspended in the air eating their lunch (Lunch atop a Skyscraper, taken by Charles C. Ebbets in 1932).

American Progress (back wall) and Time (ceiling), murals in the lobby of 30 Rockfeller

Statue of Atlas on Fifth Avenue

News by Isamu Noguchi

Prometheus at Rockefeller Center

Other Art Deco buildings in New York

The American Standard (Radiator) Building

The General Electric Building

The Chanin Building

The Barclay Vesey building

The New Yorker Hotel

The Paramount Building

The Majestic Apartments


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