Why I Love Art Deco
Whether we’re talking about churches, universities, or office buildings, in almost every case I’m a staunch defender of architectural classicism. To my mind, the built environment should be more beautiful than dated “modernist” rectangles, grungy Brutalist monstrosities, or deranged postmodern creations: it’s not hard to intuit that there are certain forms that comport with our deepest aesthetic convictions (as traced by Nikos Salingaros in his magisterial Twelve Lectures on Architecture: Algorithmic Sustainable Design). Give me a thousand Notre Dames or Sainte-Chapelles before a single Pound Hall.
But I’ll make an exception for Art Deco—the instantly recognizable, quasi-industrial style that instantly evokes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (or, perhaps, Ken Levine’s BioShock). Art Deco isn’t incredibly common these days; one typically encounters it only in video games, old movies, and the central business districts of large metropolitan areas. Nevertheless, the style has always stirred something in my heart: the sunbursts, shooting rays of light, and idealized human forms capture a kind of indescribable joie de vivre. To be sure, there’s a part of me that’s always wondered if my love for Art Deco was bound up with an adolescent appreciation for Ayn Rand’s ultra-capitalist fiction. But as I’ve reflected on the issue further, I’ve come to realize that my appreciation of this style sounds in a distinctly theological register.
First of all, Art Deco powerfully captures the sense of ontological hunger—the desire for actualization of one’s inherent potentialities—that characterizes contingent existence. In its endless striving outwards from a singular point of origin, it evokes a desire to reach higher, to fully develop one’s capacities, to attain an ultimate ideal. But the lines and planes of its sunbursts must always, ultimately, come to an end at the structure’s edge, or at its highest point. And in that terminus—that thwarted movement outward—the Art Deco design captures the unavoidable finitude of all human efforts. The movement toward actualization (that is, absolute virtue) of the rightly ordered human soul is a perpetual process; at any given moment, our knowledge and embrace of God is limited. But that union with Him is nonetheless real: our being—as reflected by the Art Deco sunburst—is partially actualized, always open to that which exceeds it. (Contrast this with the crushing immanentism of the brutalist style, which violently resists any concept of transcendence. The only absolute, in the brutalist frame, is raw power; the grace of being, and of being human, is nowhere to be found. There is no movement outward, only stagnation.)
The theological reading of the Art Deco style plays out on a second level, as well. If “the glory of God is man fully alive,” as St. Irenaeus put it, the geometric stylings of Art Deco architecture tap into that fundamental truth—specifically, in their synthesis of that which is given (mathematical ratios and proportions conforming to the “golden mean” that permeates the natural world) with that which is distinctively human (materials, planes, and lines requiring the craftsmanship of an intelligent designer). The divinely created order, in short, is reflected in and alongside the artificially shaped order.
One of the more profound reflections on the Eucharist I’ve ever heard treats the Sacrament as a perfect synthesis of the human/rational (that is, that which emerges as a result of secondary causality) with the natural/given (that which emerges directly from God’s primary causality). That is to say, in Holy Communion we do not receive only wheat and grapes: we receive bread and wine, elements “proceeding from” (or grounded in) wheat and grapes, but that require human action in order to take on their proper form. Bread and wine are natural in the sense that they are made from the stuff of God’s creation, but unnatural in that human creativity is required for them to come into existence. This same synthesis, to my mind, is the essential genius of Art Deco design—a genius reflected in these examples of religious iconography done in Art Deco style, which capture the interweaving of the given (the human form, the dove, the flame) and the man-made (symmetric parallel lines, symmetric concentric circles, congruent angles, and so forth).
It is undoubtedly good that classical design reflects the forms of nature (perhaps the source of our intuitive, visceral appreciation of the classical style). But—drawing on the first theological theme—it is also good that we, as “dependent rational animals” (to borrow a phrase from Alasdair MacIntyre), can create architectural forms that reflect our sense of teleological need, our inner awareness that we ought to grow in virtue. Were our architecture to focus solely on the former—the natural—we would, in some sense, be less than human: we would not reflect the fullness of the image of God in us, our character as rational animals.
All that to say: while the Art Deco style may represent, in some limited ways, a differentiation from the classical vision (at least in its human-ness, its origin in the secondary causality of human actions), the form is nonetheless consonant with a distinctively Christian vision of the human experience. I can’t say I’m optimistic that Art Deco will come back into fashion anytime soon. But I can certainly appreciate—and even meditate upon—the examples of it we’ve been given. And deep within those examples, when one has the proper perspective, a truth beyond the merely architectural may await the careful observer.