Austin’s Art Deco

April 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

It needs to be said once in a while – Art Deco architecture is pretty great.

This past Saturday I was lucky enough to go on a walking tour of downtown Austin that centered around the great examples of 1920s-50s Art Deco buildings.  We saw into the darkened lobby of the Brown Building, the Chicago-esque Scarbrough Building, and the compact Fidelity Mortgage & Loan.  The tour was put on by the Austin History Center and was guided by authors of a new book on Hill Country Art Deco.  There is a soft spot in my taste maker for Art Deco. Seeing that my taste maker is usually geared too much towards historicism and sexy curves, I don’t feel like I’m alone.

Art Deco wasn’t Art Deco until the style was decades in the rear view. It began by stylizing the form to flatten the classic architectural decor (the column, fluting, pediments, etc.). Still holding to the idea that there can be style in architecture (which is a difficult mentality in that it’s limiting the complexity of architecture to a consumer product, even if it is), Art Deco digested the use of new products such as aluminum into a new obsession of the long vertical lines and swooping forms that soon redefined how people saw buildings.  Whether or not people began seeing Venturi’s ducks  and what I’d call googi-tecture in the port hole windows and curving corners is arguable (Hut’s is a hamburger, right?).

I believe the style of Art Deco, especially after spending time seeing some of Austin’s examples, proves that designers don’t live in a bubble without historical, political, economic, or social touchstones.  They were still holding to the basic rules of architecture, symmetry and composition of form and space, but they integrated a more restrained urge for the decoration, a greater willingness to stretch the bounds of material. Yes, there were still the statues and carvings of eagles,  the elaborate light fixtures,  and carved stone recesses, but these decorations felt more like utility, as though they were exploring the beauty of a machine with a budget. These buildings were invented from exciting forms seen in vehicles, rockets,  and airplanes. The flight/speed steel, aluminum, and glass.

This was the style that defines architecture for a pre-war America, The Great Depression, The Roosevelt years, and Superman. The devil is in the details with architecture and Austin has quite a few Chrysler buildings in it’s midst.

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