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« One of My Rave Faves | Main | Pic of the Day »

April 23, 2003

Art Deco

Friedrich --

So I notice that there's a big Art Deco show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, here. And there's a lot of press about it, for example here, here, here, and here. Lots of perfectly good coverage. Nothing to get indignant and Blowhardish about, in other words.

And I'm thinking: Art Deco! Swanky but populist. Sensual, glamorous, and a little absurd. Evening-out, romantic-date architecture and design ... But I can't do any better than that.

Yet I'm eager to pitch in, so I'm searching for a connection. And I remember that, years ago, I took one of those architecture tours of Chicago. And it was really, really, proud-to-be-an-American great -- Chicago's buildings really are everything they're said to be.

Most of them, anyway. I remember the thought crossing my mind, "You know, I'm with all of this, all these buildings, they're all so cool, they make my heart beat faster -- right up through Art Deco. And after that? Well, may it all crumble and disappear." In fact, I told the lady at the desk when the tour was over about my reaction, and she told me it wasn't an uncommon one.

So, buildings ... Deco ... And I remember that one of my favorite New York buildings is 500 5th, a 1930 Deco charmer by the firm of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates. Fun to walk by. Fun to see from a distance. I've never been inside, I've never talked to anyone who works there, I'm just talking eye candy. And there it is, right across the street from the NY Public Library, looking like a 3D incarnation of a fabulous Deco poster, or the backdrop of a Cary Grant movie. A cocktail dream of a cityscape, all by its lonesome.

Everything good

And now the brain is beginning to buzz. I've just watched a perfectly OK A&E documentary about the making of the Empire State Building, which was also designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon. Amazing stuff. The building was built in two years -- two years! -- using all sorts of innovative techniques. It was proposed before the Depression and finished during the Depression, and it took decades -- decades! -- for it to begin making its investors a little money. For years (years!), the owners employed someone whose job it was to go to all the empty floors after dark and turn the lights on, to give the impression the mostly-empty building was full and busy.

OK, it's not that I'm that fond of the Empire State Building in pure design terms. It kind of sits there, huge but dorky. But still, let's face it, this is the Empire State Building. And this Shreve, Lamb & Harmon firm that designed 500 5th as well as the Empire State -- wow, they must really have been something.

So I'm looking into them and their work. I click around and poke into websites. And the bottom drops out. The firm does perfectly fine buildings -- right up into the '50s. And then? One faceless International-style modernist slab after another. Worse: I click onto another screen and -- oh my lord -- this firm is responsible for one of the NYC buildings I most hate. It's a classic monstrosity at 40th and Park, up on a boring plaza with a stupid piece of sculpture, with its lower stories bricked-over. And -- ultimate piece of stupidity -- it's turned 45% to the street. Take that, streetscape.

Everything bad

Can you imagine any way for a building to be less congenial or less generous -- less of a good date -- to its neighbors, visitors and passersby? This is a building that peeves and offends me when I come within five blocks of it. If I didn't feel so depressed by my discovery I'd call Shreve, Lamb & Harmon up and say, "What happened?!!!"

So, long story short, I thought I had myself a posting, but the posting crapped out on me. I wanted to add a bit to the Deco discussion. I wanted Shreve, Lamb & Harmon to be good guys. And, pfffft, there it all went.

Dang. Life is complicated.

Here's a link, though, to the ultra-worthwhile -- in fact, to-die-for -- Chicago Art Deco Society. Deco rules.



PS: Apologies for the teenybopper language. The Wife and I just finished watching an hour-long documentary about Britney Spears -- we're both fans -- and, what can I say, I'm very suggestible. Hoping to shake it off by the a.m., though.

posted by Michael at April 23, 2003


An hour-long documentary about Britney Spears? How is that possible? Isn't she only like twenty years old? What would there be to say for an hour? I feel far less embarassed about "...About Last Night" when you admit to watching Britney DOCUMENTARIES. I mean---not even a music video or anything. As far as your architects go--so, like, I mean, ooops, since the 1950's, maybe they did it again.

Posted by: annette on April 24, 2003 7:22 AM

As someone who lived in L. A. I love Art Deco -- I once had an apartment with origianl art deco bathroom tiles in it, lavendar, black and green! I think Art Deco became so wonderfully wacky in Los Angeles and rather more elegant in N. Y. Do you agree? Do you know why that would be so?

Posted by: Polly Frost on April 24, 2003 8:06 AM

Gosh, Michael, I never, like, knew anyone over the age of, like,12 to admit, like, to,you know, liking Britney!


Posted by: Deb on April 24, 2003 8:11 AM


Don't sweat the Britney criticism; I know the enormous effort it takes to maintain one's encyclopedic acquaintance with the arts, and I salute you for having the good sense to leaven this heavy task with a connoisseur's appreciation of terrific set of abs and a few other perky adolescent body parts.

As for Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, what you describe sounds like some kind of palace revolt or generation change. The original guys were obviously hipsters, but perhaps they retired or something. In any event, only further historical inquiry can clear up this terrible cultural collapse.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 24, 2003 11:16 AM

Are the building pictures taken by your own bad self? I myself have taken to carrying around a digital camera so I can snap more stuff that I see on the street.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 24, 2003 11:27 AM

1) As for Britney, hmmm. Should I try to make the case that it's necessary to stay in touch with pop culture? Should I joke about how I like to humanize myself from time to time by confessing to certain trash pleasures? Should I pass along the way the Wife and I love to giggle over Britney's go-getting, blonde Southern-girl quality? (The Wife jokes that Britney's like a pop-music version of Tracy Flick, the unstoppable achiever Reese Witherspoon played in "Election.") Or should I just accept the well-deserved ridicule?

2) More research? Sigh...

3) Got the photo of 500 5th from somewhere on the web. Took the pix of the ugly building myself -- another chance to showcase my utter lack of photographic talent. I like carrying around a digital camera too. Bought a cheap new one to have something small just for carrying around town, actually. Love it, and use it much more than the fancy one I initially bought, which takes gorgeously detailed shots but is the size of a video camera.

4) Anybody got any thoughts or feelings about Art Deco? Is anyone as fond of it as I am? Does anyone else have that "wow, art deco buildings are really the last ones I find really attractive" feeling?

5) Is it just me or do all Britney's songs sound alike? I mean, some are faster and danceable, and some are more ballad-like. But apart from that, I'm lost.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 24, 2003 11:43 AM

I bitterly resent your reminding me of a show that opened shortly AFTER I left London. Ads were all over the subways, taunting me. Went to the V&E in hopes of snooping around with the installers, but no such luck. Deco is both lighthearted and elegant - a rare combination.

I blame the horror of mid-century American buildings on abstract Soviet poster art.

Posted by: j.c. on April 24, 2003 2:01 PM

Friedrich---an "encyclopedic acquaintance with the arts."?? If you do say so yourself...although points are given for a creative justification of liking Britney at a rather, um, advanced age.

Posted by: annette on April 24, 2003 2:14 PM

Gently put, Annette, thanks. We geezers appreciate the consideration.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 24, 2003 3:14 PM

Anyone been to the show at the V and A? Tell me what I shouldn't miss because I'm going there Friday.

Posted by: Bill Humphries on April 28, 2003 2:43 AM

Michael, I agree with you about Art Deco - the best of the Deco towers are, in my opinion, among the loveliest skyscrapers yet built - the Chrysler Building, one of my favorites, is simply joyous - looks like she's about ready to dance right off the sidewalk! And there's so such craftsmanship in so many of the Art Deco buildings, which most later ones seem to lack.
I've seen some impressive post-modernist towers (some of the best, IMO, take a page out of the Deco style book), and even SOME well-done modernist boxes (OK, I'm a sucker for nice, shiney glass curtain walls), but I also still say Deco rules! (BTW, your link to the Chicago Art Deco Society seems to be broken?)

Posted by: Liz L on May 1, 2003 3:36 AM

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