Saturday, January 25, 2014

Art Deco and the Adelphi

click photo to enlarge
Between the years of 1768 and 1772 the architect brothers, Robert and James Adam, built a group of Thames-side streets and grand terraces called the Adelphi. The name is very appropriate, coming from the Greek, "adelphoi", meaning brothers. The project was on a grand scale. It involved embanking the river, demolishing and removing the remains of Durham House, then building their new scheme using large amounts of their own money. The undertaking nearly bankrupted them and a lottery was needed to get them out of their financial predicament. The most striking part of the Adelphi was the riverside terrace. It stood on arched vaults and was composed in what was by then a common style - with emphasised centre and "pavilion" ends - making the whole appear rather like one majestic building or a transplanted country house. However, unlike most examples the centre and terrace ends barely projected, very shallow pilasters doing the job instead. It was rather like the Adam brothers had transplanted their interior decoration to the main elevation.

The Adelphi was demolished in the 1930s to make way for the enormous Art Deco buildings that now stand on the site of the brothers' imaginative scheme. Today's photograph shows the main pair - the Adelphi Building and Shell Mex House. Despite the great numbers of Art Deco (formerly more commonly known as Moderne) buildings that were constructed the history of twentieth century architecture sees the style as something of a disappointing dead-end. It doesn't fit neatly into the line that stretches from Gropius, through Mies and Le Corbusier, to Philip Johnson, S.O.M., Foster, Stirling, Rogers and the rest. Rather than the break with the past that these architects represent, Art Deco is seen as a continuation of classicism, an updating of it certainly, but tradition dressed in modified clothing nonetheless.

There is some truth in that point of view, but it shouldn't blind us to the decorative style and exuberance that Art Deco often displays, or to the monumentality that sometimes sits quite well alongside older buildings in a city. When I stood on the South Bank to take this photograph across the Thames I reflected that the simple, gigantic clock on Shell Mex House could belong to no other time than the 1930s, and the uplighting of both buildings seemed to work so well with their windows and their stepped back floors.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Camera: Sony RX100
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 28.2mm (76mm - 35mm equiv.)
F No: f5
Shutter Speed: 1/80 sec
Exposure Compensation: -1.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On