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From the Supreme Court to “Puckingham Palace”: Art Deco in Canadian Culture

What exactly is Art Deco? The Canadian Art Deco Society describes it as a 20th century phenomenon that emerged during the period between the First and Second World Wars. It was a new style for a new modern era. Combining the affluence of materials with the artistic simplicity of specific design, the Art Deco style often focused on geometric forms composed primarily of angular elements, like highly stylized chevrons and zig-zags. Other characteristics of Art Deco include: sunbursts, sweeping curves, ziggurats (staggered or tiered pyramid shapes), a liberal use of sleek-looking material, as well as Egyptian influences and motifs focusing on birds and floral patterns.

Recognized as a popular, non-revolutionary modernism, Art Deco was a self-conscious split from the past designed to celebrate the new technologies of the 20th century: namely electricity and gas- powered vehicles. The artistic direction of Art Deco found inspiration in Cubism, the machine aesthetic, jazz, streamlining, and 1920s fashion, all of which influenced the style's new direction. Art Deco was at its height at the 1925 Exposition des arts décoratifs in Paris, where the style derived its name, but slowly declined in the aftermath of the stock market crash in 1929. In Canada, Art Deco and its Depression era offshoot - Art Moderne, remained popular until the 1940s when international style modernism swept the country.

A number of Canadian Art Deco buildings are now recognized and valued historic places. Within our nation's capital several excellent examples are the Supreme Court Building, constructed between 1938 and 1940. A recognizable landmark along Wellington Street, the building was designated by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada as one of the top 500 buildings produced in Canada during the last millennium. Designed by Ernest Cormier, the building is characterized by its extensive use of geometric shapes and a mixture of crisp lines and smooth, flowing curves. The building's carefully proportioned symmetrical design, both inside and out, together with a liberal use of sleek-looking materials, capped off by ziggurats, are all characteristics of the Art Deco. Interestingly, the original design included a flat roof, in keeping with its modern aesthetic, but the current steep roof with dormers, was added because of a directive from the Department of Public Works to reference the Château style of other nearby government buildings (some say that the Prime Minister of the time preferred a less modern style).

Maison_Ernest-CormierAmong other notable examples of Cormier's Art Deco designs is his Montréal residence, Maison Ernest-Cormier (left). One of the most prominent Art Deco buildings completed in Québec, the interior spaces have a strictly Art Deco character, created by the furnishings, colours, textures, and patterns, all of which were designed by Cormier. Recurrent themes throughout the structure include horizontal bands, checkerboards and, specifically within the architect's studio, interlocking circles. The house is also known for pioneering the use of reinforced concrete as the main construction material. Later, the building became the residence of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and remains in the family.

Round Room 1930 CRHPThe Art Deco was not only for private residences and government buildings but also for commercial enterprises. The Eaton's department store chain, regarded as one of the most important retail businesses in Canadian history, was known for its use of Art Deco in many of its prominent locations, such as the Eaton's 7th Floor Auditorium and Round Room National Historic Site of Canada (right). The structure is recognized as one of Toronto's best examples of Art Moderne architecture, a late type of Art Deco design known for its use of curving forms, long horizontal lines, and sometimes nautical elements. Lady Eaton, wife of Timothy Eaton, aspired to bring high society and world-class culture to Toronto and in doing so was actively involved in the planning and designing of Eaton's College Street location and notably, the seventh floor. To realize her desire for high style and elegance, she commissioned famed French architect Jacques Carlu, renowned for his work on Lady Eaton's favourite ocean liners, I'Île de France and Normandie, as well as some magnificent structures in Paris, namely the Trocadero and Palais de Chaillot. Comprised of a former restaurant (Round Room), large foyer and auditorium, the space is highly praised as a feat of Art Deco design. Using simplified geometric forms, a contrasting colour scheme, and a mixture of costly traditional and glossy new materials, the site's rooms, which have hosted significant cultural events and were a favorite gathering place for Toronto's middle class and elite, are now available, after recent conservation work, for private rentals.

MapleLeafGardensFew may realize that one of Canada's most celebrated sporting venues, Maple Leaf Gardens National Historic Site of Canada (left), is an example of Art Deco architecture. Also known as the "Taj-Ma Hockey" or "Puckingham Palace," the building was constructed in 1931 as a large-capacity arena for the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team. This Toronto landmark exhibits the style through its symmetrical yellow brick façade and dome with crowning lantern. Other prominent characteristics of Art Deco within the Gardens include its simple brickwork pattern, and use of metal along the building's patterned window arrangement. Many of the original fittings, fixtures, fabric and design components relate to the Toronto Maple Leafs and survive to this day, contributing to the heritage value of the building which is now a rehabilitated building, housing a local grocery store and upper floor arena.

Occupying a prominent place in our built environment, the architectural significance of the Art Deco has played an expressive role both historically and aesthetically. Although a number of these monuments are slowly deteriorating and disappearing, many others are being conserved and continue to be national landmarks. Visit one of these historic places and enjoy the beauty they add to our cities and the importance they have in Canadian history.

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