The top 10 best Art Deco buildings in the world

We share a selection of the best Art Deco buildings in the world, chosen by the author of ‘Art Deco City: The World’s Most Beautiful Buildings’, Arnold Schwartsman.

Words by Arnold Schwartsman

To be asked to choose your favourite Art Deco buildings is akin to being asked to select your favourite child; there are so many spectacular examples to be found within Art Deco City, which gives examples of beautiful Art Deco buildings from all over the world.  However, I have found ten that I think are worth explaining in more detail – buildings that provide a most interesting back-story.

Bullocks Wilshire, Department Store, Los Angeles (page 112)

Built in 1929, Bullocks is a former department store – now a law school – that is situated in Los Angeles, my adopted home for the last forty years. Designed in collaboration with his son Donald, architect Lancashire born John Parkinson (a distant relative), was responsible for the design of much of Los Angeles’ iconic structures of the 1920 and 30s, including Los Angeles City Hall, Union Station, and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

After paying a visit to the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels, John Parkinson decided to scrap his original designs for the department store, replacing them with what I consider to be one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture universally.

For the cover of Art Deco City, I selected one of the department store’s elevator doors. For the book’s endpapers, I chose an image of the building’s port-cochere ceiling mural “Speed of Transportation”, by Herman Sachs, which features the “Graf Zeppelin” airship; and the “RMS Queen Mary”, which is now permanently docked in nearby Long Beach. Several examples of the ship’s interior are featured in this book.

One of my choice features of the Bullocks store is its terracotta relief by George Stanley. The sculptor was also responsible for the design of the 1929 “Muse of Music” entry fountain to the Hollywood Bowl, plus the 1935 figure of Isaac Newton on the “Astronomers Monument” at Griffith Park Observatory, Hollywood. Not forgetting Stanley’s best-known creation, that of the “Oscar” statuette — of which an example stands proudly before me on a bookshelf as I write!

Academy Theatre, Inglewood (page 135)

As a film-maker, I salivate at the abundance of the numerous Art Deco cinemas in the Los Angeles area, and would suggest the 1938 Academy Theatre, Inglewood, as being among the finest. Originally planned as the home of the Academy Awards (it was never used for this purpose), the Theatre is now a church. It was designed by Charles Lee, who was responsible for the design of so many other local cinemas including the 1942 Alex Theatre, Glendale, and the 1937 Fox Bruin Theatre, Westwood.

Hollywood-Western Building, Los Angeles (page 130-131)

Another cinema-related structure by architect Charles Lee is the 1928 Hollywood-Western building; it was designed for MGM mogul Louis B Mayer, and  was opened by Norma Shearer and her husband Irving Thalberg.

Ironically, the building is covered in nude relief figures, as one of the building’s occupants was film censor Will Hayes (The Tsar of all the Rushes)! Beneath each of the building’s fire escape landings is a stone relief of a full frontal nude holding a film camera – plus that of a film crew, and a director wearing plus fours, who is directing a group of nude figures through a megaphone.

Eden Theatro, Lisbon. (page 58-59)

As an onboard cruise ship lecturer I have had the opportunity to visit Lisbon, Portugal, on several occasions. It was here that I discovered the 1931 “Eden” cinema/theatre building, which has now been converted into an apartment and hotel. Designed by architects Cassiano Branco and Carlo Florencio Dias, the building’s stone frieze facade is ornamented with a series of tableaus depicting actors performing before a film crew and camera.

Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, San Juan (page 110-111)

While visiting the Caribbean island of San Juan to film in a rum factory, I came across wonderful 1938 sculptured reliefs of Ceres, Mercurio, Seguridad and Sabiduria adorning a bank, designed by architect Osvaldo Toro. The suite of heavenly Gods reminded me of the many interpretations of the Zodiac signs that I have photographed around the world, which were such popular motifs during the Art Deco period. Other examples of this motif include the zodiac symbols surrounding the magnificent bronze globe in the entrance lobby of “The Times” building in Los Angeles.

A number of these examples can be found in my book London Art Deco (Palazzo), including the etched glass front doors of The Royal Masonic Hospital, the mosaic entry ceiling of Greenwich Town Hall, and the sculptural renderings on the facade of London’s “Delphi” building. Another prime example is the galaxy of zodiac symbols surrounding the Rotunda chandelier, which graces the cover of my book on the 1928 Los Angeles Central Public Library.

The Daily Express Building, London (page 64)

My birthplace of London brings a rush of possibilities to mind, among which is the black vitrolite glass façade of Lord Beaverbrook’s’ 1930-32 Fleet Street newspaper headquarters. Designed by architects Sir Owen Williams with Ellis and Clarke, the building’s main lobby’s east and west walls sport two gilded murals, “Great Britain” and “The Empire”, by sculptor Eric Aumonier. The wavy blue floor pattern represents the ocean between the two localities.

The Hoover Factory Building, Perivale (page 76)

Architects Wallis Gilbert and Partners designed this unique building, which was built from 1931-1935 as a vacuum cleaner factory. Today, the building functions as a supermarket. The building’s location was specifically chosen for its access to the Great Western Railway and docks, to make the distribution of Hoover vacuum cleaners easier. The exterior of the Hoover Factory Building is constructed using “Snowcrete” (a white concrete that stays white in spite of the British weather), and is decorated with Egyptian inspired faience ceramic tiles.    

Barkers Department Store, London (page 68)

Now a fashion store complex, this 1937-38 Portland stone and glass department store displays a most impressive block tower frontage. It was designed by architect Bernard George, and is decorated with an array of intaglio sculpted household goods that the store would originally have had on offer.

Eltham Palace, Greenwich (page 80)

In 1936, industrialist Stephen Courtauld and his wife Virginia purchased Eltham Palace, the former home of King Henry Vlll. They commissioned architects Seely and Paget, and designer Rolf Engstromer, to convert the interior of the Tudor palace into what became a remarkable example of Art Deco design.

This anomaly brought to mind my first visit to Mexico City’s “Le Palais des Beaux-Arts”, designed by architects Adamo Boari and Frederico Mariscal. The Opera House’s beaux-arts exterior began construction in 1904. However, due to the lack of funding, construction did not continue until 1934. Thus, the building’s interior is – surprisingly – pure Art Deco.

ANZAC Memorial, Sydney (page 86 - 87)

During a lecture tour of Australia, I fell in love with the Art Deco architecture of the country – from Perth in the west, to Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Sydney in the south and east.

I was particularly taken by Sydney’s famed bridge, and by the colourful Lunar Park fairground. In stark contrast, I also discovered the sombre 1934 ANZAC Memorial by architect C. Bruce Delit; two long bronze panels depicting the First World War eastern and western campaigns have been included in its design, as well as a number of stone sculptured figures by Rayner Hoff, a former student of London’s Royal College of Art.

Arnold Schwartzman is the author of Art Deco City: The World’s Most Beautiful Buildings, published by Palazzo.

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