Without my being conscious of it Art Deco architecture made an impression on me as a small child. Whenever my family made the occasional trip from North London to Heathrow, the only respite I gained from the miserable blandscape of the A40 was the sight of the glorious Hoover Building in Perivale. The pistachio painted window frames, the imposing verticality of the white façade with its red stripes – an unexpected flash of exuberance on an otherwise monotonous journey.
This vitality is in lavish abundance in RIBA’s brilliantly named exhibition of photographs of British Art Deco buildings, “Putting on the Glitz”. The show drew on the RIBA’s rich photographic collection to show the influence of the Art Deco movement on Britain’s architecture of the 1920’s and 30’s.
For many people, including the non-initiated, the geometrical patterning and fluid, sinuous curves of the Art Deco style is instantly recognisable, evoking the ghosts of glamorous flapper girls in chic bobs and the faint strains of 1920’s jazz. This association would be entirely apposite, as this exhibition made all too plain; for Art Deco was a style closely identified with and exploited by the entertainment and consumer industries. In the main the buildings featured in these photographs are bastions of mass and consumer culture: cinemas, hotels, casinos, bars, hairdressers and shops. The exhibition related how fearful some people were – pub owners for example – of choosing a too austere modernist style that might turn clients off. So, they opted for the Moderne instead – the contemporary French nomenclature for Art Deco – a style in perfect step with a period during which a spirit of hedonism sought to escape post-war miseries.
Many of the photographs exhibited were taken at night, giving prominence to one of Art Deco’s principal features, namely illumination. The high-contrast shots convey all the glamour of this most playful and sensuous of styles. Art Deco’s use of highly reflective materials (such as chromium) and the new neon technology make these images all the more dramatic and, moreover, photogenic, affording contemporary photographers such as Dell and Wainwright and Herbert Felton the ideal subject to explore the medium. Some wonderfully dynamic worm’s-eye views are on show here, striking compositions such as the clock on the Shell-Mex house on the Strand (photo reference: RIBA52268).
Several images focus on the sculptural elements of Art Deco, including the figure of “Architectural Aspiration”, above the main entrance of the RIBA building itself. These images of monumental sculpted figures carry disturbing reminiscences of the contemporary fascist aesthetic of the human body – massive, strong, monolithic – and for a moment we are removed from the glitzy, glamorous world of the casino, the swish hotel, the night clubs and into another, darker realm of popularism entirely.
As always at the RIBA the photographs are accompanied by informative texts. Their length may seem off-putting to some but they are always worth reading for useful historical context and fascinating anecdotes. They point to the hostility directed at the Art Deco style from their Modernist contemporaries, who saw it as a gaudy bastardisation of their aesthetic. Elsewhere we are told of Edward Elgar’s similarly outraged response, in a caption to the interior photograph of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. When he was on the brink of taking up the post of Musical Director there, he refused to set foot inside the theatre as he considered it “unspeakably ugly”.
To have this exhibition in the RIBA, itself a dazzling example of Art Deco architecture and ornament is a double delight – it is just a pity that they don’t have better dedicated spaces for such shows. The photographs are mounted, in several tiers above eyelevel, on the walls of the 2nd floor gallery, where the noise of the café below is always a slight distraction. On the day I visited, a meeting on the same floor spilled out into the gallery area where participants stood supping soup from mugs or leaning over display cases with plates of sandwiches. Not an entirely conducive atmosphere for the exhibition visitor, but the images were too wonderful to miss.