As a follow up to my Toronto Then and Now series, my new series of bi-monthly blog posts continues, where I’ll focus on many different architectural styles that can be found around the city of Toronto. This next post is on Art Deco, a style that’s not that prominent around Toronto anymore, but there are a few good examples still left, including a residential house.
Original: early 1900s – 1930s / Revival: 1980s
Art Deco was developed just before World War I, in France. A new art style emerged, partly due to the growing popularity of decorative artists (i.e. artisans, artists who make functional art, for example beautiful ceramic dishes to eat off of, jewelry, rugs, etc), and partly due to France’s growing desire for their own innovative art style. The style influenced everything, not just architecture. Art Deco represented vibrancy, excitement, modernism, boldness, and sleek opulence. It celebrated modern technologies like electricity and gas powered machinery, and incorporated modern materials like plastic and stainless steel, which were often juxtaposed against decadent materials such as ebony, ivory, or zebra skin.
This bright and hopeful style of art was influenced by several specific art styles. The bold geometric forms of Cubism, the bright colours of Fauvism, the modern craftsmanship of French royalty, and the exotic styles of Asia and the Middle East.
The height of Art Deco was in 1925, when the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts was held in Paris, France. It ran for seven months, from April to October that year, and had 15,000 exhibitors from 20 different countries, and 16 million people visited. This massive showcase was put on by the French government, to highlight this new, optimistic style of art. It was not just architecture, but also jewelry, furniture, glass, and interior design. The name Art Deco was based on the name of the exhibition (from arts décoratifs, or as you can probably guess, “decorative arts”), and described this new modern style that was on display.
Unfortunately, the Art Deco movement was relatively short lived, partially due to the stock market crash in 1929, but mostly due to World War II, when function became prioritized over fashion. It did experience a sort of “revival” movement in the 1980s, particularly in film and graphic design, because of its association to film noir and the glamour of the 1920s/30s. Art Deco in Toronto specifically is evident in some older buildings, some of which have been turned into low-rise condominiums.
Art Deco architecture has a very sleek and modern style that often features geometrical patterns. Linear patterns such as triangles, zigzags, trapezoids, chevron are popular. The buildings are usually designed with a vertical aesthetic in mind, so the eye is drawn upwards, often through the use of very tall, narrow windows. There are often curved ornamental elements and decorative geometric floral motifs. Roofs are usually flat, and often corners are rounded to create contrast. There is usually a symmetrical element, whether it be the entire design, or just a section or carving.
Where to find
Commercial buildings, some older apartment buildings. Now you would mostly find buildings with certain aspects that are influenced by Art Deco, for example geometric brick around a window.
Forest Hill, Downtown Toronto
Tip Top Lofts – 637 Lake Shore Boulevard West (colourful decorative tile, elaborate carvings)
The Tip Top Lofts was an industrial building built in the 1920s as a headquarters for Tip Top Tailors, a menswear retailer. It was designed by Bishop and Miller and completed in 1929, and then in 1972 the building was designated heritage by the City of Toronto. In 2002 the building was converted into condominium lofts, and six additional stories were added on to the top.
Lawren Harris House – 2 Ava Crescent (sleek and modern, visually draws your eye up, long elegant windows, geometric shapes)
Lawren Harris was born in Brantford, Ontario, in 1885. He was an integral part of the Group of Seven, a group of Canadian painters who were best known for their paintings inspired by the Canadian landscape. He first came to Toronto to attend St. Andrew’s College. Harris then spent some time abroad in Berlin to study art, and then when he returned to Toronto in 1908, he began regularly painting scenes from both in and out of the city. The Group of Seven officially formed in 1920, but all the members were well acquainted and had been working alongside each other for the past several years. Harris had 2 Ava Crescent built in 1930, and in 1975 it was designated as a heritage property. The house was designed by Alexandra Biriukova, a Russian ex-pat, who was the first woman to register with the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA). Unfortunately Biriukova’s career was short-lived, as after designing the Lawren Harris House, she received no further commissions. The reason why is unclear, some speculations are that her modernist style was too avant-garde for the then conservative Toronto, perhaps because she was a woman, or a result of the Depression. She registered as a nurse in 1934 and worked at the Free Toronto Hospital for the Consumptive Poor (now West Park Healthcare Centre at Jane Street / Eglinton Avenue West ) until she retired in the 1960s.
Balfour Building – 119 Spadina Ave (geometric carvings, big long windows, stone floors)
The Balfour building was named after Arthur J Balfour, British Prime Minister and then Foreign Secretary, who authored the “Balfour Declaration” in November 1917. The Balfour Declaration was a statement that discussed the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. This had many long lasting consequences, and is considered one of the main causes of the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The Balfour Building is a high-rise building built in 1930, originally built for the Schiffer-Hillman Clothing Company, and was listed as a heritage property in 2011 by the City of Toronto. It was constructed by Benjamin Brown, who often used Art Deco motifs in his design. He designed several notable buildings including the Hermant Building at 21 Dundas Square (which has Art Deco panels along the roofline), his own residence at 37 Castle Frank Crescent, and the Paradise Theatre at 1006 Bloor Street West.
394/396/398 Avenue Road (tall, narrow design, geometrical shapes)
These apartment buildings are known as the Mayfair Mansions, designed by Herbert Charles Roberts. H.C. Roberts was an architect born in Cornwall, England, and emigrated to Canada (Toronto) in 1909, where he specialized in designing apartment buildings, and by his own claim has designed and supervised over 200 buildings.
Drawing by Doug Lawrence @dsl_design_, the Lawren Harris House on Ava Crescent in Forest Hill.