The Art Deco aesthetic was enthusiastically adopted all over Montevideo. Classic examples can be found in buildings in the city center and the Old City, but a stroll through the further reaches of the city will give fans of the Deco style an opportunity to discover many more buildings and homes, some quite modest, that clearly reflect Art Deco design principles.
Cities —like all things in this world— appear differently depending on the perspective of the observer. Sometimes, when walking through Montevideo, I focus on the trees. Other times, I contemplate the shops, people, cars, gardens, or houses. Sometimes I see nothing but the awful awnings that hide beautiful buildings on commercial streets, which authorities have been slow to regulate. On my most recent city walk, I concentrated on looking up, above the awnings. I was on a mission to photograph Montevideo’s architecture, especially the Art Deco style. Photography focuses the vision and the camera’s zoom captures details the eye overlooks.
While the architecture of our neighbor, Buenos Aires, is rich with examples of Art Nouveau —a curvaceous style inspired by nature, arabesques, Oriental shapes, minarets, etc.— Montevideo has very few examples of this trend that predated Art Deco. Montevideo is, however, home to many significant examples of Art Deco architecture. Art Deco shows up in the city’s important buildings, particularly inside a circuit that encompasses the Old City and the city center. You can find many neighborhoods with private homes that were either clearly built in the Art Deco style, or have incorporated elements that subtly suggest the style. A tour of Montevideo demonstrates the city’s enthusiastic embrace of Deco from its emergence in the 1920s through its decline in the 1950s
The Art Deco style was launched on an international scale at the groundbreaking 1925 International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, but the exact definition of Art Deco style is still a topic of debate. The term “Art Deco” was popularized after the style itself had already peaked and spread. During the height of the style’s popularity, artists and designers didn’t use the term because they simply considered their aesthetic to be “modern” even though they followed very different, and sometimes-antithetical currents. Some critics and writers label any artistic expression between 1920 and 1940 ‘Art Deco,’ a practice which allows the term to describe such diverse expressions as the Compagnie des Arts Français’ Bon Gout, Le Corbusier’s Esprit Nouveau, the Chicago Streamline camp, Diaghilev’s Russian ballet choreography, Russian constructivism, and Cubism. Le Corbusier, for example, postulated that function should be main goal of architecture. His concept of the home as “la machine à vivre” (the machine for living) directly contradicted the decorative imperatives of some of his contemporaries.
Without a doubt, Art Deco draws inspiration from many diverse sources, including elements inherited from Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau and Art Deco are both defined by “modernity.” They seek to integrate so-called fine art into daily life, insisting that beauty is essential to everyday existence. Art Deco brought about a renewed appreciation for craftspeople as “designers,” although industrialization allowed objects originally designed and made as unique pieces to be mass-produced.
Art Deco blossomed in the optimistic years following World War I, when the future seemed promising and industrialization gave the middle class access to unprecedented levels of comfort. The pace of urban life sped up and women joined the work force, wearing their hair in short, flapper-style cuts; cinemas, amusement parks, and tearooms were built and Fritz Lang produced his film Metropolis. After the stock market crash of 1929, corporations in New York reasserted their power by building towering skyscrapers. The first trans-Atlantic flights, massive ocean liners, and the spread of the automobile revolutionized transportation.
Art Deco developed as a reaction against the excessive ornamentation of Art Nouveau. Art Deco did not entirely do away with decorative elements, however, rather it transformed aesthetics and decoration into determining factors of the architectural style itself. In Art Deco, the sinuous lines of Art Nouveau, which featured asymmetrical and ethereal natural shapes and wild-haired women, were transformed by geometry. Lines straightened, symmetry returned, and structures thrust upward; the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in New York are iconic examples. Pure geometric forms dominated decorative elements and curves straightened out and became uniform lines.
Placed with images of the independent, modern, short-haired women who were joining the work force in record numbers, wearing shoulder pads and practical clothes that showed their legs. Art Deco featured images of contemporary women who drove cars, smoked, and drank like men. A representative example of Art Deco painting can be seen in Tamara de Lempicka’s Self-Portrait, which shows her driving her green Bugatti.
Art Deco reflected society’s fascination with increasing mechanization and dramatic advances in transportation technology. Designs incorporated the smooth, nautical shapes of trans-Atlantic ocean liners, and the strong, aerodynamic lines of the first airplanes and automobiles. Artists and architects used piano-shaped curves and zigzags —representing the strength and speed of lightening— and novel implementations of materials like iron, steel, Bakelite, chrome, plastic, concrete and exotic woods in their designs. Art Deco, like Art Nouveau, was inspired by nature, but in Deco other elements were added and geometry became the defining feature of design. Deco drew motifs from the art of distant cultures like ancient Egypt, Africa, Pre- Colombian America, and the Far East. This was a time of increasing public consciousness of other times and places; the era saw the discoveries of King Tut’s tomb (1922), and the ruins of Machu Pichu (1911). and the influence of African traditional art on cubist painting (early 20th century).
After the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, Art Deco spread around the globe. Art Deco in Uruguay took on unique national characteristics. Uruguayan society, which tends toward moderation in all things, tries to avoid extreme edges and sharpness. A gentler manifestation of Art Deco flourished in Montevideo, as the city grew and joined the modern world. The strongest concentration of buildings in this style can be found in the city center. The peak of Art Deco’s popularity coincided with Montevideo’s boom in the construction of cinemas, dance halls, tearooms, and office and residential buildings. The presence of the style can be seen on a more modest scale in neighborhoods all over the city. Some of these homes have fallen into disrepair; one wonders if those living in these faded treasures know that their homes are classic examples of an aesthetic style that has recently come back into fashion.
The ascendance of Art Deco and modernism coincided with an age of industrialization and economic growth in Uruguay. Customs were changing and the middle class was rapidly expanding. Major figures visited the country, batllismo (inspired by José Batlle y Ordóñez) liberalized society, and the national soccer team won world championships in 1930 and 1950. Internationally known plastic artist and art theorist, Joaquín Torres-García, returned to the country in 1934.
Montevideo is one of the best places in the Americas for enjoying Art Deco architecture. Unlike New York, where Art Deco sits high on skyscrapers, or Miami, where it is limited to one area of the city, visitors to Montevideo can amble through neighborhoods like El Cordón, Pocitos, La Unión, la Blanqueada, or Malvín, and find many homes and buildings —somes quite modest— clearly built in the Art Deco style. These small neighborhoods give visitors a chance to look beyond the iconic buildings in the city center and delve deeper into the ways the city adapted this style.
In recent years, the citizens of Montevideo have begun rediscover Art Deco. Architectural experts are writing books and heated academic discussions take place over which buildings truly represent this style. One of the unresolved questions is whether nautical architecture was the inspiration for Art Deco or if Deco simply used this aesthetic for its decorative applications. “Ship style” buildings can be found all over Montevideo. As lovers of art and architecture, we can forget academic discussions and just enjoy the spectacular design Montevideo has to offer.