Art Deco by the Sea: Coastal Culture and the Architecture of Escapism

Art Deco by the Sea: Coastal Culture and the Architecture of Escapism

In many places across the world, the sweeping curves and nautical designs of art deco have shaped the way we experience the seaside. We trace the evolution of its architectural style from the 30s to present day, taking you from Margate to Miami Beach via Mumbai.

in Britain is more than 113km away from the sea. From

to Blackpool, the British seaside has been a port of
call for holidaymakers since the advent of the railway in the
1840s. With their promenades and iconic piers, destinations such as
and Scarborough became coastal playgrounds. Yet the British
as we know it was shaped several decades and a world
war later.

The 30s was an age of mass tourism, healthy living and seaside
entertainment. As outdoor culture became fashionable in Britain, so
did art deco – the sweeping balconies of its architectural
incarnation connected people to the outside world. Art deco’s sleek
curves and nautical designs came to be the signature style of the
British seaside – and this year it has become the subject of a new
exhibition, Art Deco by the Sea, at the Sainsbury
in Norfolk.

In the interwar years, Brits flocked to seaside resorts. The
Midland Hotel in Morecambe welcomed its first guests in 1933. The
De La Warr Pavilion opened its doors two years later, on the coast
of Bexhill. By 1937, Blackpool was annually playing host to 7
million visitors, who would stroll on the beach, ride wooden
rollercoasters at Blackpool Pleasure Beach or playing bingo at the
Casino. Across the country, art deco shaped the way people
experienced the seaside.

The art deco style first emerged during the 1925 Paris
Exposition (better known as the Exposition Internationale des Arts
Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes), but it wasn’t until 30 years
later that the term was popularised, courtesy of English art
historian Bevis Hillier. Described as a “total” style that varies
from ornamental to clean to eclectic, art deco thrives on organic
motifs, sharp geometries and patterns taken from ancient
civilisations. It draws on tradition while celebrating machines,
movement and speed. “The term has come to be broad enough that
everybody knows what you’re talking about,” says Jon Wright, an
architectural historian and heritage consultant with Purcell

The Paris Exposition was a showcase of lavish decorative styles,
expensive materials and fine craftsmanship. Such opulence was
typically reserved for the elite, that is until architects such as
Mallet-Stevens and Le Corbusier demanded architecture that was
freed of ornament and built with inexpensive materials. “The
trickle-down effect of stylistic reference made it into buildings
like cinemas and theatres,” says Wright. “People could get a piece
of that.”

And so, art deco percolated through the middle class. With
structures such as the Seaton Carew Bus Station, with its long
curves and angular clock tower, the elite-rooted style became
associated with pleasure, leisure and escape for all classes. “This
was an escapist architecture, says Wright. “It was delivering a

Part of that escapism came with a push for the outdoors. After
the working-class employees won the right to a week’s paid holiday
per year in 1938, coastal resorts were revitalised, funfairs were
built and transport networks were modernised. “The mid-to-late
1920s are the age of Coco Chanel and the Mediterranean, and this
constant idea about the sun being healthy,” says Wright. The
fascination with the outdoors was palpable in architecture, too.
Modernist icons such Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe were among
the first to consider the relationship between the indoors and
outdoors, constantly blurring the boundaries between two.

Lidos are the perfect example of this. In the 30s, 169 open-air
swimming pools were built in Britain, making up the largest public
infrastructural project the country had ever seen. In 1934, the art
deco-style New Brighton Open Air Bathing Pool attracted more than
one million swimmers. Four years later came the Saltdean Lido.
Flaunting a glass facade, a generous sun deck and an enveloping
curve, the Lido was restored in 2018 after narrowly escaping
demolition, earning it the nickname of “the seventh wonder of the
English seaside”.

The English seaside isn’t the only one with a penchant for art
deco. Take a stroll along Marine Drive, on the southern tip of
Mumbai, and you will see an ensemble of low-rise apartments that
Salman Rushdie once described as “a glittering art-deco sweep… not
even Rome could boast”. In 2018, this sweep of waterfront
buildings, together with another one along the nearby Oval Maidan
park, were recognised by Unesco as part of a World Heritage site.
Combined with a few more clusters of buildings with sweeping
balconies, sculptural reliefs and Indian flourishes, the city’s
art-deco collection tops 600 buildings – about 200 short of

Miami Beach’s Art Deco Historic District is home to the world’s
largest collection of art-deco buildings, which were built between
1923 and 1943. This is a neighbourhood replete with pastel
structures, porthole windows, curved metal railings and flags, all
duplicated from popular ocean liners once anchored at the Port of

, Miami
and New
– with its famous art-deco towers such as the Chrysler
Building and Rockefeller Plaza – are among the cities that took the
art-deco style and injected their own regional flavours. “The
Indian version carries references to earlier Indian traditions,”
says Wright. “That’s not really true of the Miami experience, which
is much more flamboyant and colourful and more geometric.”

In the UK, after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s nearly intact
tomb in 1922, Egyptian motifs entered the picture, as can be seen
on buildings including Freemasons’ Hall in Central London and
Temple Works, the former flax mill designed to look like an ancient
Egyptian temple in Leeds. Meanwhile, art deco by the sea was
directly influenced by nautical streams and transport innovations
like ocean liners.

The history of ocean liners began in the 1840s and ran out of
steam out in the 60s, with the rise of commercial aviation. In
1867, French novelist Jules Verne sailed on Isambard Kingdom
Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, an iron sailing steamship regarded as
the prototype of the modern ocean liner. “More than a vessel, it is
a floating city, part of the country, detached from English soil,”
he later wrote in his novel, A Floating City, capturing the spirit
of the ocean liner that was yet to reach its golden age.

From the 1920s onwards, ocean liners became floating archetypes
of maritime engineering and elegant design – opulent temples that
sailed across the Atlantic at ever record-breaking speeds. Ships
like the SS Normandie captured the design world’s attention. Marine
Court, an art-deco apartment block in St Leonards-on-Sea, takes
direct influence from the Queen Mary, its balconies bearing the
same distinctive double curvature as the front of the luxury
liner’s superstructure.

Over the years, seawater has greatly damaged art-deco
architecture on the coast. Naturally, restoring is expensive, but
over the past few years, art deco has seen a new wave of
appreciation. “Every period of architecture goes through the ugly
valley,” says Wright, referencing a vulnerable moment in the
history of building’s popularity, which generally occurs about
40-60 years into its history. “The longer it survives, the more
people are going to like it. Art deco is there now, it’s beautiful

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