10 Stunning Lesser-Known Cities for Art Deco Architecture
By Morris M,
Urban Ghosts Media, 4 February 2016.

The 1920s was a time of unparalleled optimism in the Western world. The war was over, the economy was booming, the Great Depression was still over the horizon and jazz, machinery, automobiles and modernism were laying waste to everything that had come before.

It was out of this heady cocktail that Art Deco architecture, which had taken root in France before World War One, became an international movement. A hymn to the possibilities of a mechanical world, it combined angular lines, white surfaces, pastel colours and geometric design to create something that still thrills today. We’ve written previously about the Art Deco style wonderland that is Miami. Let’s now turn our attention to 10 more great cities for Art Deco architecture that you might not know about.

1. Mumbai (India)

Image: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose; Indian Merchants’ Chamber, Mumbai.

With over 900 surviving structures, Miami is one of the great Art Deco capitals of the world. But the city with the second-largest number of buildings may come as a surprise. Mumbai in India is an Art Deco Shangri La.

That the home of Bollywood wound up with so many grand jazz age buildings is due to a happy accident. A large land-reclamation scheme in the Dadar-Matunga area happened to coincide with the return home of the first generation of Indian architects taught in the West. Those returning stars were determined to make Mumbai an Indian city unlike any other. They succeeded spectacularly.

Whole swathes of the city are still home to imposing Art Deco structures. Some are faded and shabby after decades of neglect, but still awe-inspiring to behold. Others are as popular as ever. The Eros cinema on Marine Drive looks like something out of Fritz Lang’s 1927 Sci-Fi epic Metropolis, and still caters to large crowds hungry for Bollywood fare. This is the future reimagined for India, to the extent that you can almost convince yourself Art Deco architecture originated here.

2. Asheville, North Carolina (USA)

Image: AbeEzekowitz; Asheville’s Art Deco style City Hall.

Tucked away among the hazy Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina sits one of America’s architectural gems. Once an icon of the Jazz Age, Asheville played host to geniuses like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Now it’s distinctly more an upper-middle class retreat for second home owners. Yet many of its buildings still retain their 1920s glamour and grandeur.

Chief among them is the imposing City Hall, a light pink edifice that rises over the landscape looking impossibly grand. Beside it other vast Art Deco buildings thrust upwards towards the heavens - huge structures that would seem more at home in New York than backwoods North Carolina. It’s here that you can see Art Deco as a statement of power and optimism, less elegant and more concerned with dragging America into a plentiful future.

Downtown, smaller buildings and statues still echo the rhythm of jazz and the beat of whirling machinery. If you catch Asheville at the right time, you can almost imagine the world hasn’t moved on from those heady days.

3. Mexico City (Mexico)

Image: Keizers; Art Deco architecture in Mexico City.

A sprawling, smog-choked urban nightmare of slums, gated communities and tourist districts, Mexico City seems like an unlikely place to find the elegant contours of Art Deco design. Head to the hip neighbourhood of Colonia Condesa, though and you might just be surprised. Taken with Colonia Roma and the northern tip of Colonia Escandon, the area is home to roughly 275 surviving Art Deco structures.

The style landed with a splash in 1927. Art Deco was based on Aztec and Mayan designs, so bringing it to the spiritual home of the Aztecs seemed like a no-brainer. In no time at all, it was flowing out across the area, influencing everything from statues to homes, to shop doorways and hotels. When Colonia Condesa was semi-abandoned following an earthquake, development stopped. The Art Deco structures were left intact, waiting to be rediscovered.

Unlike some on this list, the buildings in Colonia Condesa are rarely grand. It’s often little more than a doorway or fountain that survives, and great edifices are scarce. Yet this only adds to the area’s charm. This is Art Deco architecture reimagined on a human scale.

4. Casablanca (Morocco)

Image: Sandra Cohen-Rose & Colin Rose; the grand Art Deco architecture of Casablanca.

Situated on the northern tip of Africa, Casablanca has been stunning international visitors for decades. Chaotic, crowded and enveloped in a thick layer of smog, it nonetheless still gleams - a true Moroccan jewel. In a large part this is due to the city’s stunning architecture.

A blend of Art Deco, French colonial and traditional Moroccan known as Mauresque, Casablanca’s buildings are bone white, highly-decorated and encircled by wrought iron balconies. In some parts of the city, the Art Deco influences are clear almost to the point of parody. In others, it’s a subconscious influence. A hat-tip here. A quick nod there.

Sadly, the city’s purest Art Deco masterpiece is also its most derelict. The Hotel Lincoln was once the crowning achievement of Casablanca’s architecture. Today, it’s a mere shell. A ruin prone to break-ins and deadly collapses. Those who venture as far as its remains may still find traces of the building it once was in its broken façade.

5. Asmara (Eritrea)

Image: sailko; the Art Deco style Cinema Impero in Asmara.

Over 3,000 miles away from Morocco on the other side of the continent, Asmara is perhaps the most-unlikely city on our list. Buried deep within a country known as ‘the African North Korea’, this faded capital was once named by Mussolini as “little Rome.” Inherited by the Italian fascists in the 1930s, it was quickly transformed into an architectural playground designed to show off Italy’s cultural might.

Today, many of the buildings have been preserved as if in a time capsule. Among modernist and futurist efforts, there still sit plenty of Art Deco structures and designs. One of the most-famous is the lettering of the Fiat Tagliero service station, a giddily surreal building that seems to defy gravity with its grand concrete wings. Explore further afield though and you will find cinemas, theatres and little-visited cafes hidden on street corners.

The power of Asmara’s architecture is such that many are now lobbying to have it declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Under the current dictatorship, sadly, that may be unlikely.

6. Shanghai (China)

Image: Tksteven; Art Deco design: Paramount dance hall in Shanghai, China.

What do you see when you hear the name Shanghai? Most of us probably picture sweeping skyscrapers and hymns to modern capitalism. But Shanghai has another claim to fame. By some measures, it’s the Art Deco capital of the whole of Asia.

Forget the subdued, pastel buildings of Miami. Shanghai’s Art Deco masterpieces are what New York’s might resemble without the Great Depression. In other words it’s architecture on a massive scale. Buildings like Hamilton House soar above the pedestrians below, stamping their style onto the city with all the subtlety of a boot to the face. The waterfront is crowded with towers and hotels and monstrous creations, all shouting the benefits of speed, innovation and human consumption.

Even in the more-subdued French Concession, the buildings are still grand, incorporating the titanic Grosvenor House and restored Cathay Cinema. Reportedly, the invading Japanese in World War Two were so entranced with the city that they refused to bomb it. Rather than damage the glorious buildings, they wanted to preserve them for their own use.

7. San Juan (Puerto Rico)

Image: Javierpuertorico; Art Deco style Normandie Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Despite lying over 1,000 miles from Florida, Puerto Rico wasn’t immune to the Art Deco craze that swept Miami in the 30s and 40s. As pastel-coloured buildings exploded across the Sunshine State, so too did they begin to appear throughout San Juan. Hotels, cinemas, theatres, offices and homes all took on the characteristic edges and curves of Art Deco. Many still survive to this day.

Sadly, unlike Miami, there is no single district where San Juan’s Art Deco masterpieces can be found. Most are scattered in dribs and drabs throughout the city, waiting to be found by intrepid explorers. Many are run down or badly in need of a lick of paint. However, even in this spread-out, dilapidated condition, they can still look mightily impressive.

Perhaps grandest of all is the old Telegraph Building, which looks like it has escaped from Miami. But even the smaller apartment buildings are fantastic to look at. For those happy to wander, San Juan is a world filled with hidden treasures.

8. Bangkok (Thailand)

Image: Clay Gilliland; Art Deco design in Bangkok’s Atlanta Hotel.

Unlike Shanghai in China, Bangkok retains few examples of its original Art Deco architecture. However, the examples that do survive are impressive enough that it warrants a place on this list.

One of the most iconic may be the interior of the eccentric Atlanta Hotel. Opened in 1952, the building has been called an Art Deco heaven. Staircases, floor design, colour scheme, doorways, tables and even signage all reflect the preoccupations of the 20s and 30s - a world that had already vanished by the time the Atlanta started doing business. Endlessly photogenic, the beautiful interior is sadly only open to guests.

Other grand Art Deco interiors in the city include the waiting room at Hualamphong railway station, and the old Bangkok Noi station, which sits somewhere between Art Deco and the sort of simple lines and redbrick favoured by Czech functionalists. The city’s Art Deco style delights may be few and far between, but they’re certainly worth checking out.

9. Havana (Cuba)

Image: Sandra Cohen-Rose & Colin Rose; Art Deco architecture in Havana, Cuba.

Like Miami and San Juan, Havana in Cuba became a breeding ground for Art Deco architecture in the ’30s and ’40s. While Miami’s structures flourished and San Juan’s stumbled into disrepair, Havana’s fell somewhere in the middle. Although the outsides of many buildings are shabby and unkempt today, on the inside many still contain original features that are breathtaking in their idiosyncrasy.

One of the most-curious of all is the former Teatro Lutgardita. A humble deco façade from the outside, inside it becomes a psychedelic swirl of unlikely influences. Here the Mayan aspect of Art Deco was taken to a true extreme, with square columns flanking the stage, Mayan face masks leering down on the audience, and fake ruins filling the foyer. The overall effect is somewhere between inspired and kitsch, but it’s undoubtedly unique.

Although the rest of Havana doesn’t quite live up to these dizzying heights, its reputation as a neglected Art Deco capital is justified. Grand apartment buildings that still retain their original lettering dominate the skyline. Deco churches jostle for place alongside mausoleums. Above them all sits the Bacardí Tower, looking like some ancient Tower of Babel.

10. Napier (New Zealand)

Image: Phillip Capper; elegant Art Deco design in Napier, New Zealand.

Justly celebrated at home, but sadly little-known elsewhere, Napier is behind only Miami and Mumbai in terms of historic Art Deco architecture. Flattened by an earthquake in 1927 - still New Zealand’s deadliest natural disaster - it was rebuilt as a monument to the machine age; a whirling city of jazz, pastel colours and geometric design.

Today, around 140 of those epoch-defining buildings survive, and are considered a grand tourist attraction. As a result, the level of upkeep is stunning. Buildings retain their original lettering, their original colours and in some cases even their original interiors. The Deco municipal theatre is semi-famous for still featuring an angular neon light that was installed in the 1930s. There are even Art Deco style buses laid on for visiting tourists.

Unlike some on this list, Napier knows how to celebrate its architectural heritage. Every year the town celebrates an Art Deco weekend, where vintage cars flood the streets, women dress like flappers and men strive to become the Great Gatsby. For lovers of 1930s kitsch, spending the weekend in Napier is likely the closest they’ll ever come to really going back in time.

Top image: Art Deco architecture in Napier, New Zealand. Credit: Teacher Traveler/Wikimedia Commons.

[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]

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