Given that it was once deeply out of fashion and didn’t even receive its name until the late 1960s, the Art Deco style of architecture has proved surprisingly durable. Known for its streamlined forms, bright colors, and imaginative flourishes, Art Deco is more fluid and eclectic than the rigid International Style that emerged in the same period. This style of the 1920s and ’30s is widely loved almost a century later.
Designers at Hollwich Kushner, a New York architecture firm, noticed that many of the city’s major landmarks—the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Waldorf-Astoria—were Deco buildings. Curious about what gives the style its enduring appeal, they came up with an experiment: What if they tried redesigning these historic buildings for today, using contemporary techniques and materials?
“We basically absorbed the quality of these old buildings and created a progressive reinterpretation of them,” says Matthias Hollwich, a partner of Hollwich Kushner.
The results are compiled in “New(er) York,” a booklet that identifies 12 Art Deco icons (well, 11 and one non-Deco exception, the Flatiron Building) and reveals their 21st-century digital doppelgängers. The new buildings look … not Art Deco. At all. The Chrysler Building has become a stalagmite. The Eldorado, on Central Park West, has morphed into three shiny towers, rising at bulbous curves from their base.
To redesign the landmarks, first, the architects studied them using 3D modeling software. Next, they stripped away details to focus on the buildings’ massing (their overall forms) and proportions. Then they reinterpreted that massing, and finally applied contemporary facades to the new models.
The designs may not bring to mind jazz and speakeasies, but they’re eye-catching. Hollwich Kushner’s answer to One Wall Street, a monumental 1931 tower, translates the building’s setbacks into jagged layers of glass and limestone panels, and dissolves the original solid crown into a splintered apex. A 16-story office building in Chelsea, 214 West 29th Street, has its tiers smoothed into a unified mass, with angled walls and prominent vertical ribs that draw the gaze up. Not surprisingly, the speculative buildings in “New(er) York” echo other projects by the firm.
Hollwich says he and his colleagues did glean some insights into Art Deco’s power. The buildings’ solidity “makes [them] look incredibly strong and stable,” he says. Their exteriors have depth, as opposed to the two-dimensional facades of many contemporary buildings. Also, “these buildings always have a hierarchy,” he adds. “They never unify all elements, but there’s an overruling unity.”
In the early 20th century, Modernist architects rejected ornamentation as useless and impure. Then Postmodernism attempted to bring it back, with mixed results. Hollwich is not a fan of Postmodernism, but “New(er) York” grapples with how to include an abstracted kind of ornament in progressive architecture today. This is something we’re seeing more of, from the revival of terracotta (once used on Deco buildings) to patterned filigree skins. Whatever is emerging may not be the next Art Deco. But it’s a breath of fresh air in the age of the boring glass box.
“Some of these buildings that try to copy the older masters devalue them by becoming cheap-looking copies of them,” Hollwich says. “It’s a dangerous line to walk. But [through] all of these design reviews, we felt comfortable where we landed. It’s a great middle ground between historic inspiration and futuristic vision.”