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Art Deco, ‘in Sydney as in New York’

Butler-Bowden, C. Art Deco, insites, Newsletter of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW Winter 1999

During the 1920s and 1930s Sydney astonished visitors and residents alike. Sydney threw off its imperial clothes and donned cosmopolitan fashions. In Sydney as in New York, Art Deco was the unifying language of 1920s and 1930s design, a fusion of technology and populism, decoration and function. The exhibition Art Deco at the Museum of Sydney will take a new look at the Australian interpretation of this fusion of technology and craft, decoration and function. As Sydney and suburbs experience another transforming building boom, the current urban debate would do well to recall Sydney's Art Deco offerings, notably the street level appeal and appropriateness of so many large of its structures. In contrast to later versions of architectural modernism, this design movement was popular and adaptable.

Art Deco was an international style that encompassed diverse elements and regional definitions. Coined in the late 1960s, the term ‘Art Deco’ remains appropriate to the decorative style that evolved prior to the First World War in France. It was given prominence by the 1925 Paris L’ Exposition Internationale des Art Decoratives Industriels et Modernes. But in the 1930s Art Deco was popularly associated with the booming cities, soaring skyscrapers and new transport technologies of the United States.

Art Deco's optimistic declaration of progress and modernity cemented its popularity as Australia rebounded from the Great Depression. It was expressed through all types of buildings, commercial, residential and monumental, ushering in a moment of consistency and accessibility to Australia's built environment.

The centrepiece of the exhibition will be 45 photographs by Patrick Van Daele, capturing the many faces and moods of the movement. The photographs have been selected from the book A Spirit of Progress, Art Deco Architecture in Australia, published by Craftsman House in 1997.

The Art Deco exhibition will showcase a wider variety of artefacts than is normally the case in architecture displays, as well as photographs, architectural drawings, models, furniture, building elements, and paintings and drawings.

Art Deco worked on human, street scale and provided definition to the city skyline. The embellishments and architectural detail of Art Deco created theatrical incidents which enlivened the conservative atmosphere of the streets. Its hallmarks: the distinctive stepped summit, ornamental detail including popular motifs such as the rising sun, lightning zig zags and bold geometric patterns with the use of rich and colourful materials still assert their presence on the streets of Sydney today. Its appeal is of recognisability and visual accessibility

The Art Deco office towers of the 1920s and 1930s were among the first of this building type in Sydney. They created a new sense of the city and established an atmosphere of progress and modernity with their rich decoration and new use of materials. As well as a particularly fine pair of bronze and glass lift doors from Delfin House, Art Deco will feature vintage models of Transport House and the CML Building, the exquisitely detailed mini-skyscraper which still embellishes the corner of Bligh and Hunter Streets.

Office towers were seen by many as the epitome of the modern age, while other new building types, like service stations and cinemas, were likewise created in new materials and expressive of the machine age. However, cinemas were perhaps the most outstanding and popular expressions of Art Deco. Unfortunately they also have a poor survival rate, especially in the city area, which was once resplendent with glittering cathedrals of cinema.

Art Deco will feature spectacular plaster reliefs rescued from the Embassy Cinema, and a door inlaid in a futuristic geometrical pattern of contrasting light and dark wood veneer, as well as a sinuously styled cinema ticket box from the State Theatre which is in the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive.

Art Deco will highlight the textures and materials that were so important a part of the Art Deco language – glazed terracotta, vitrolite, pressed metal, piano finished timber, polished granite and marble. Wunderlich Limited was Sydney's leading manufacturer of building materials and the exhibition will feature fluted bronze capitals and terracotta columns from the company's showroom, created in 1929 to advertise the new aesthetic and new materials.

The machine age look was applied to greater or lesser degrees to all types of buildings — commercial, residential and monumental ushering in a brief moment of consistency and cohesiveness to Australia's built environment. It was not restricted to the city and harbour-side suburbs. Art Deco apartments sprouted across the suburbs, while homes, pubs, service stations and shops also took on the new look. As well as architecture, Art Deco dramatically reshaped interior design — the exhibition will include some elements of interior design with a suite of Art Deco furniture and popular advertisements from the time documenting this new look in design and its appeal in Australia.

...The jazz of moving shapes makes patterns in the streets whilst up against the sunset sky is the jazz-like serrated edge of the up and down masses of concrete and steel. What we cannot get in romantic old subjects in the modern youthful city ..must be turned to account in exploiting its modern possibilities...

From Transport House to the Archibald Fountain, a surprising number of landmark structures emanate from the Art Deco era. Many of them, like the Grace Hotel, have taken on new roles since the 1930s, but have not lost their presence or allure. The exhibition will inspire a new view of Sydney’s streetscapes, and a new appreciation of our 20th century heritage. After a visit to this exhibition, you'll want to take a long walk around Sydney to enjoy our Art Deco treasures.

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