Art Deco, “buildings dressed to emphasize their modernity”
U.S. American Art Deco
The roaring twenties were a time of post war euphoria. The country was in a romantic mood and Art Deco reflected that sentiment. Art Deco originated in Paris at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts). The goal of the exhibition was to find a new truly modern style. Zigzags and swirls were the outcome. Art nouveau and cubism are married together to regurgitate the same old historical images and icons onto “modern” facades. Truly revolutionary structures were dressed in traditional ornament.
Narratives are told through the ornament. Many cultures are represented. Past epochs are looked to for inspiration in the creation of “modern” ornament. Art Deco was “dressed to emphasize modernity (American Art Deco, Alastair Duncan),” wearing the clothes of historic motifs and scenes in use long before the term “modernity.”
The architect Timothy Plueger orchestrated a symphony of artists to create his Art Deco masterpiece, The Paramount Movie Palace. A place of grand splendor gestated in the womb of the great depression. There is an escapism in it’s sumptuous interior. You can escape to another place, to another social class, a place of wealth, luxury and leisure, a place far from the streets of Oakland.
The Paramount was conceived of just before the stock market crashed in 1929. It was built in one year and five days in downtown Oakland during the onset of the great depression. Once inside this building, you realize just how amazing of a feat that is. An interior of regal splendor was created on modest means with unconventional materials. Plaster is used for its thrift and acoustic properties, wood shavings have been mixed with glue and pressed into forms, once painted they take on the sumptuous appearance of finely crafted metal. In a time of such great turmoil, the need for escapism was clear. Timothy Pflueger succeeded in the owner’s dream, “to provide an antidote for it’s underprivileged patrons, a momentary Shangri-la away from life’s realities.”
I was caught off guard by the oppulance of the interior. I expected it to be beautiful, but I did not expect it to transport me from reality to a dreamlike palace. Lighting played a huge role in transitioning me from the cold world outside to the warm splendor within. The ambience was set with a dim amber hue. The lighting consisted of, “one hundred and fifty lamps in primary colors [that] can be switched, dimmed, mixed, and brightened to create a variety of hues, ranging ‘from a desert sunset to northern lights (American Art Deco, Alastair Duncan).” The lighting is transformative. It takes you deep inside a stylized redwood forest, replete with lush foliage, soaring redwoods and green light filtering through the leaves above. Everything created fits into one congruent vision, Timothy l. Pflueger’s vision. The Paramount is one of the few Art deco buildings where the architectural structure and ornament were both designed by one architect. This is apparent, a vision fully realized.
I am struck by how harmonious all the details are. Every detail is considered and supports the main vision. Plueger’s Paramount Theatre is densely packed with ornament. One might expect this thickly ornamented space to feel cluttered, but no element is made redundant or monotonous by its extravagant use. This building has style and grace. She leads you through in wonderment with welcoming regality.
The mathematical proportions found here enthralled me. Optical illusions built into the floor and the the abundant use of Fibonacci sequence.
In looking at the built environment after leaving the theatre, I saw it in a new light. Inside the palace I was shown the possibilities for immaculate attention to detail. Then on the BART ride home, I was shown the lack of consideration for beauty and detail in the world around me. The bricks seemed unconsciously placed, their relative spots decided with purely practical function in mind, no thought of aesthetics or emotional response. The Paramount is just the opposite, Every detail was thoughtfully and consciously placed, serving to elevate the space to the level of a palace.
Brief timeline of Influences in Art Deco
1521 European contact with Polynesia begins: French Polynesia, source of Polynesian imagery
1721 first commercial steam engine
1760-1850 Industrial revolution
1825 First railroad
1854 U.S Naval Officer Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry opens up ports of Japan; art nouveau follows and influences art deco as seen in swirls and flourishes
1899 Wright brothers first flight
1918 end of World War two
1922 King Tuts tomb found
1925 International Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts
1929 investment properties international made an offer on the lots the Paramount theatre sits on. The original investor was Paramount publix.
1929 Stock Market Crash, the great depression ensues.
1930 Paramount complete
American Art Deco, Alastair Duncan.
Art Deco San Francisco The Architecture of Timothy Plueger, Therese Poletti.
The Oakland Paramount, Susannah Harris Stone.