by Adam Sarjeant, Lougheed House Admissions Assistant
Calgary contains more Art Deco than you might think: from the solid brick monumentality of Glenmore Water Treatment Plant, to the futurist weirdness of the AGT Phone Exchange, and even homey little Moderne House (a private residence in Mt. Pleasant so unassuming you might drive right past it). Deco was a style which was expressed in a popular sensibility, which leaked into every corner of our visual lives, and its history is told as much in the objects around us as in any art history textbook. This month, we’ll be exploring the growth and decline of Art Deco through three Calgary buildings representing three distinct periods of the style.
- The Bank of Nova Scotia (1929): Early Art Deco and Nationalism
It’s no coincidence that Art Deco began its rapid rise to popularity in the inter-war years; the ideological landscape of its time, and particularly that of its middle-upper class patrons, is inseparable from the movement. Critic Rossana Bossaglia once described Deco as “…more of a taste than a style…”, emphasizing that Art Deco was not simply the brainchild of a movement of artists and craftspeople, but a response to the desires of their patrons, whose tastes were visibly dictated by their political milieu. For the futurist, Deco delivered an obsessive fetishism for the machined object, manifest in regular geometric forms, straight edges, regularity, precision. For the proto-fascist, constant reminders of a “classical” lineage, Greek and Roman motifs, Egyptian patterns, pompousness. For the capitalist, mass-produced disposability, fake opulence, and kitsch.
Like its European counterparts, Canadian Art Deco adapted to the political and social environment. When the Bank of Nova Scotia migrated from its original headquarters to Stephen Avenue in 1929, the new building was not only a way to expand its work space, but an opportunity to purchase a visible monument to its legitimacy as a competitor to Calgary’s many established banking firms. John McIntosh Lyle, a prolific and popular architect who had studied abroad in France and New York, was selected for the job. Lyle was an outspoken proponent of the “City Beautiful” movement, and espoused the belief, like many of his contemporaries, that a return to old-fashioned European monumentality could restore order and moral “virtue” to North America. In the economic chaos of the interwar period, it isn’t hard to imagine the value Calgary’s banks might place on the appearance of order, stability, and familiarity.
Lyle’s previous projects had also exposed a talent for appealing to an emerging sense of Canadian Nationalism. Canadians had proved highly receptive to the (often xenophobic) rhetoric of the pro-war Borden government; buoyed by a sense of collective achievement after the First World War, the newly minted nation flocked to anything which reaffirmed their national prestige. Lyle’s buildings capitalized on this sentiment by combining stylized Greco-Roman motifs with relief carvings of Canadian industry and landscapes, as well as local floral and faunal motifs. The building which resulted is a total-artwork dedicated to Canadian self-image, drawing a less than subtle parallel between European settlement and the vanguard of Classical Empire. The Bank’s bellicose themes mirrored those developing in Europe among nations which would soon be on the war-path; similar Greco-Roman motifs prevailed in Italy and Germany, establishing the visual rhetoric of the Fascist world.
- Tivoli Theatre (1936): From Modern to “Moderne”
“Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts.”
The 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition is often considered the climax of the Art Deco movement in North America. The tone of the above motto suggests a dramatic difference between the spirit of Deco in Europe and in America: more commercial, more capitalistic, more democratic. Whereas the design community of Europe had sprung from the guilds and workshops, making bespoke pieces for wealthy clientele, much of America had never known a time without the factory. Design was a limb of the great American culture machine, reproducible and accessible to the masses – for maximum profit.
When the Odeon Movie theatre chain came to Calgary in 1936, they were aware of the role aesthetics played in capturing the public imagination. Architecture was essential to the mystique of film, and theatres were expected to be palaces to the new. The form of the theatre had to be matched with the new Art Deco look presented on its screens. In many ways, Deco had arrived on Canada’s screens before it arrived in the Canadian home; popular American films featuring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire drew heavily on an growing pool of European emigré talent. Many of the great European film nations were becoming increasingly hostile to the avant-garde, meaning an exodus of German, Russian and Italian filmmakers, many of whom chose to settle in Los Angeles to take advantage of the lucrative studio system. American films had been overtaken by the new European style, at the same time that exploitative business practices, such as block- and blind-booking, were causing the American film industry to overtake all others.
To allow these aggressively modern films to be shown in an environment which contradicted the fantasy of Deco glitz, such as the increasingly antique-looking Sherman Grand (constructed in 1912 by the Lougheeds), would have undermined the escapist fantasy the film chains prided themselves on. For Odeon’s Calgary debut, a new, if small, building would have to be constructed. The project was awarded to GBR (Green, Blankstein and Russel), a recently founded firm operating out of Winnipeg which was one of the few Canadian architecture firms operating in a modern style. Later, the firm would help popularize the International Style in Canada with its Norquay Building and Winnipeg Post Office designs. But at this time, in 1936, when they designed the Tivoli theatre, GBR were arbiters of the American interpretation of Art Deco, a pop-art reinvention of the style known referred to as “Streamline Moderne,” or simply, “Moderne.”
The difference between the American Moderne form of Deco and its European counterparts is striking. In the early 20s, Art Deco simply hadn’t “taken” with the American consumer when it first crossed the Atlantic. Americans’ growing distrust of largely European immigrant population certainly played a part – many early proponents of Deco hailed from Europe, and the first official community of Deco artists, AUDAC (American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen) frequently held meetings in German. Likewise, there seemed to be issues of a purely aesthetic kind: a 1929 issue of Good Furniture Magazine described audiences at a touring exhibition of Deco design as “baffled.”
It was a New York advertising firm by the name of Calkins & Holden which broke through the indifference. Calkins, a self-style marketing guru, believed that if consumers could be convinced their clothing had to be replaced whenever style dictated a change, the same could be made true for all products. The new American aesthetic would not be about a particular look, but a constant quest for novelty, which the firm conflated with American values of boldness, ingenuity and reinvention. Art Deco was new – Art Deco was available – Art Deco was seized by industrial America, not for its inherent meaning, but because it was what was cutting-edge at the time. Formerly ghettoized European designs were adopted and altered to American tastes, and draped over anything which could plausibly be called “new,” be it a train, a car, a telephone – or a movie theatre.
Not surprisingly, the Tivoli theatre was both a beneficiary and a victim of Calkins & Holden’s new system. Though it began as a roaring success, by the 40s it had already begun to look outdated. Never the less, it struggled on for 54 years, playing everything from Buck Rogers serials and musicals in the early 50s, to spaghetti westerns and pornography in the 70s.
- St. Mary’s Cathedral (1957): Deco in Retrospect
The reasons for the gradual decline in popularity of Art Deco are just as hotly debated as the forces that created it. What’s generally agreed is that it was generally “on its way out” by World War II. Among the totalitarian regimes of Europe, which in the 1910s and 20s had played host to some of Europe’s most vibrant design communities, growing paranoia had led to the expulsion, suppression or in extreme cases imprisonment of voices of the avant-garde, which were now regarded as subversive elements. In the “Democratic” Capitalist West, on the other hand, the rhetoric of progress through radical industrialization which had styled so much of the Art Deco’s self-image had led to market crashes, labour exploitation, corruption scandals, and host of other sources of political unrest and skepticism.
The New York World’s fair of 1939 was a paradigmatic example of the decline of Deco, a desperate attempt to recapture the highly lucrative consumer optimism of 1933. Despite advertising itself as a taste of the Utopian American future, it was from the beginning a shadowy and cynical affair. Corporate interests were allowed to sell wares directly on the grounds, and had enormous control over the goings-on; three months before the exhibition opened, 21 members of the Advisory Committee on Consumer Interests resigned in protest. The most iconic event staged at the exhibition was also the most crass: a time capsule, sponsored by an electrical company, intended to remain sealed in Flushing Meadows until 6939. This so-called “account of universal achievements” contained, among other things, a kewpie doll, a Gillette razor, and a package of Camel cigarettes. The political conditions which had briefly allowed the commercial, governmental and artistic interests of Europe to come together in 1926 to create a harmonious new style, no longer existed, or had never existed, in America, where Art Deco had come to roost.
Fortunately, no style ever goes extinct without sending repercussions through future generations; Calgary’s St. Mary’s Cathedral is a perfect example of how, as late as 1957, Canadian architects continued to draw on Art Deco. Though its architect, Maxwell Bates, spent the majority of his career better known as a poet and expressionist painter, he had been raised in Canada’s architectural community, and returned to it in his later years. He had apprenticed at the firm created by his father, William Stanley Bates (see our March post) in the 20s, before quite suddenly giving up architecture for nearly twenty years. After a long sojourn Europe, he returned to Calgary to found his own firm in 1946. When the firm received a commission to rebuild St. Mary’s Cathedral in 1957, bates created more than 400 preparatory sketches, eventually settling on a style which blended the contemporary Modernism with a now decidedly “old fashioned” Art Deco influence. Bates recognized the kinship between the Cathedral’s religious and cultural function, its need to remind parishioners both of the history of the Church and to convey a sense of religious majesty, and the aims of Deco: to simultaneously recall and idealize the past, to modernize it and allow it to serve as an icon of a glorious future.
 Rossana Bossaglia, L’Arte Déco (Bari, 1984).
 Tom Morawetz. Art Deco Architecture Across Canada. (Toronto: Friesens, 2017), 17.
 Geoffrey Hunt, “John MacIntosh Lyle,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, September 8, 2009, accessed March 25, 2018, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/john-macintosh-lyle/.
 William P. Thompson, “Green, Blankstein, Russell,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, July 2, 2006, accessed April 06, 2018, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/green-blankstein-russell/.
 Mel Byars, “Introduction: What Makes American Design American?” in Richard Lawrence Leonard and C. Adolf Glassgold, Modern American Design (New York, 1930; reprinted New York 1992), pp. v-xix-.
 Nellie C. Sanford, “Modern Furniture Designed in America: It Must Meet American Living Conditions,” Good Furniture Magazine (April 1929).
 Charlotte Benton and Tim Benton, “Decline and Revival,” in Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton, and Ghislaine Wood, Art Deco 1910-1939 (London: V & A, 2005).
 Joyce Zemans, “Maxwell Bates,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, May 21, 2008, , accessed April 07, 2018, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/maxwell-bates/.
 Morawetz, 97.