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Through neon-tinted glass

BBC4's recent series on 1930s architecture looks at Britain's art-deco history through neon-tinted glasses. The reality is a bit more complicated

There's no denying art deco's attraction: it's the style of 1930s cinemas, ocean liners and flamboyant Manhattan skyscrapers. It conjures Hollywood, Busby Berkeley musicals, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat. It makes you think of glamorous climes – whether Miami, Havana, New York or Shanghai – in which buildings that seemed to be encrusted with fashionable jewellery gleam in the summer sun. It's also a style that's been much in vogue recently, because of BBC4's Glamour's Golden Age season, which includes a series of documentaries by David Heathcote on art deco icons.

But here's the funny thing: Britain doesn't actually have much in the way of art deco architecture. Even London has just a sprinkling of buildings: Ideal House, a black granite-clad office block off Regent's Street designed by Raymond Hood; The Odeon, Leicester Square; and the glorious Daily Express building in Fleet Street, with its spectacular, cinema-style entrance lobby by Robert Atkinson. Outside London, cinemas are the most shining examples of the style – Harry Weedon's Odeons are the best (all too many converted into bingo halls or graceless multiplexes), along with shop fronts. Manchester and Glasgow have their own dramatically deco Daily Express buildings, both dramatic examples. If you look hard enough, you can detect deco influences in the buildings of Liverpool's Speke Airport (now a hotel) and even in the suburban stations of the old Southern Railway, such as Surbiton.

But it's never a style that really took root in Britain. Which makes it all the odder that the BBC has decided to label buildings art deco that aren't. In his documentaries, Heathcote devoted much time to Charles Holden's 55 Broadway, the headquarters of London Underground, describing it as "a fantastic art deco building". Holden would have turned in his grave at the description. Influenced by contemporary US architecture, yes. And detailed inside in ways that might suggest art deco. But an art deco icon? No.

This isn't entirely Heathcote's fault. Television thrives on telling stories with the broadest of brush strokes. And art deco has become something of a catch-all title in recent years, used to describe almost any building, piece of furniture, bronze lamp or ceramic dish designed between about 1925 and 1940. I've seen Albert Speer's Reich Chancellery for Adolf Hitler described as art deco and even – a mortal sin, surely? – Le Corbusier's coolly modern Villa Savoye in the suburbs of Paris tainted with the same label. The term itself was something of a latecomer. It wasn't much used before the design historian Bevis Hillier published his delightful book Art Deco of the 20s and 30s in 1968, defining a style that had more usually been known as moderne, modernistic and jazz modern.

The style emerged from the legendary Exposition Internationale des Art Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris in 1925 – a grand showing of design and decoration, from furniture and accessories to interiors and architecture, mapped out in acres of precious veneers, marble and onyx, stainless steel and aluminium, all much influenced by Egyptian, Babylonian and Assyrian archaeology. It was this licentious playfulness that provoked the contempt of the rising stars of the Modern movement – modernism – which had been rooted in the far more serious researches of the Bauhaus and, most notably, Le Corbusier. Modernists held art deco in contempt: it was all but sinful. A travesty. Low and dishonest. Downright vulgar – it was the stuff of fashion rather than function, of escapism rather than realism.

When Nikolaus Pevsner, the architecture and design historian, went to see the cinematic Hoover Factory on London's Western Avenue, built by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners (1931–5), he described it in the Middlesex volume of his The Buildings of England series as "perhaps the most offensive of the modernistic atrocities along this road of typical bypass factories". (A comment that was toned down to something substantially less angry in the revised edition of the book, published in 1991.)

And whereas Modern architecture, for better or worse, influenced the British landscape for decades to come, art deco never really took flight. It remained in domestic settings: hinted at in the stained-glass sunrises of mock-Tudor front doors, echoed in the interiors of 1930s MG sports saloons. It conjured fantasy and escapism at a time when the world could be a very grim place indeed.

Perhaps some of the same escapism touches our view of art deco. It's a way of looking at the past through neon-tinted glasses. By all means, watch Top Hat, gawp at the Chrysler Building, imagine yourself sipping cocktails aboard an ocean liner – let the dark and disturbing interwar era become the stuff of ritzy cinematic dreams. But life in the 1930s was more complicated. And while it's understandable that the BBC should have fallen for art deco's charms, it might have been better if they had got their history straight. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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