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The anti-traditional elegance of Art Deco

The Manila Metropolitan Theater in Manila has been a symbol of craftsmanship that has stood the progression of time and has remained ageless despite the nicks and scurf around it.

UNIVERSITY BELT'S BEST-KEPT SECRET. Around the area of the Nicanor Reyes building exists manicured gardens and shady decades-old trees, and, more notably, green spaces where a large ensemble of free-ranging sculptures by National Artist for Visual Arts Vicente Manansala. 
There is an airiness to the contours of the building, a freshness of its appearance despite the patina of time and the many failed efforts at conservation. The style is one that is highly recognizable, a bit flamboyant, perhaps, when viewed today, but the extraordinary details inside the theater and its precise workmanship are what give the Met its irresistible lure and historical importance.

Art Deco, alternately referred to as Deco or Moderne, is a style of visual art, architecture, and design that flourished initially in France in the 1920s, before World War I, and has since developed into a prominent art style in Western Europe and the USA in the 1930s. 

Art Deco, whose name derived from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925, was born from an aesthetic which aimed to induce a sense of sleekness and nonchalant elegance evocative of a charmed life and era, its wealth and sophistication—an art style that defied the Baroque, Classical, and Impressionistic genres.

Its designs—a mix of everyday elements carried out to glamorous details and subtle refinements—live on, intriguing the eyes and pleasuring the psyche. Its style is described as planar, unpretentious, simple and clean-shaped, symmetrical, and “streamlined” configurations (almost geometrical) with stylized flowers, foliage, animals, and distinctive sunrays like that on the steel spire of the Chrysler Building in the USA.

To trace the course of Art Deco movements is to journey to an era that extends back over a century of art history and the remarkable evidence of its flourish where the artists’ whims and fantasies have turned into enduring oeuvre despite the influence of related art movements such as Art Nouveau, Mid-century Modern Modernism, Bauhaus, Abstracts, and Cubism.  

Buildings like the Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building in the US, furniture pieces by Jacques Ruhlmann and Maurice Dufrêne, jewelry by René Lalique, fashion by Erté, architectural designs by Eliel Saarinen, cars, movie theaters, locomotives, ocean liners, radios, vacuum cleaners, and miscellaneous machines continue to generate affectional attention and nostalgia.  

Art Deco artists Tamara de Lempicka, Gustave Miklos, Bruno Zach, Eugene Savage, Louis Icart, and Ernesto Tamaris have been great inspirations to succeeding craftsmen.

In the Philippines, the Art Deco style had an enormous influence especially in the structural designs during the American colonization period.  

A well-marked dissimilarity in the European-inspired Bahay Kastila vis-à-vis the more modern and depictive approach to rendering architectural design and form brought over by the Americans can be seen in the building structures. The new style, an innovation on the old architecture, quickly gained acceptance from the conservatives who saw a new kind of freshness in the simple, uncluttered building facades.

The anti-traditional elegance of Art Deco
UNIVERSITY BELT'S BEST-KEPT SECRET. Around the area of the Nicanor Reyes building exists manicured gardens and shady decades-old trees, and, more notably, green spaces where a large ensemble of free-ranging sculptures by National Artist for Visual Arts Vicente Manansala.  
Avenida Rizal and Quezon Boulevard were the early notable thoroughfares where a line of Art Deco structures were built and where commerce and entertainment centralized.  Movie houses were the only few places where people converged—Gaiety Theater and Capitol Theater by Juan Nakpil, and the Bellevue Theater (architect unknown).  

Other buildings were the Manila Jai Alai building by Welton Becket, the First United building in Binondo by Andres Luna de San Pedro, the Quiapo Church, the University of Santo Tomas seminary building by Fernando Ocampo, the Rizal Memorial Coliseum and the Manila Metropolitan Theater by Juan Arellano, the Iglesia ni Cristo in San Juan City by Juan Nakpil, and the Far Eastern University building by Pablo S. Antonio.

Unfortunately, the years have not been kind to some of these works of art. Avenida Rizal and Quezon Boulevard lost their luster, and the movie theaters became the venues for mass-produced schlock and fast food outlets. Where Art Deco buildings once stood, (e.g. the Torre de Manila structure’s wrecking ball flattening the Manila Jai Alai building) modern high-rises now towered. 

Mercifully, unlike the Met’s uncertain fate of finally, finally dressing up to its old Grand Lady glory (it is currently undergoing another refurbishing and might see the day when the political wind stops being fanciful), there still survives beautifully the FEU building, known also as the “best-kept secret” around the University Belt, and one of the five Art Deco buildings designed by National Artist for Architecture Pablo S. Ocampo.  

And happily, too, especially around the area of the Nicanor Reyes building, the oldest in the campus, there also exists a context designed for future growth: manicured gardens and shady decades-old trees, green spaces where a large ensemble of free-ranging sculptures by National Artist for Visual Arts Vicente Manansala is prominently installed, and buildings that would later be esteemed as prudential legacies of a notable time—places that still look, feel, and smell like a classic memory, thick with the souls of past generations of alumni who passed through their halls.

A tour of the FEU building—organized by WalkwithChan (with tour leader Lawrence Chan) the FEU President’s Committee for Arts and Culture, the Heritage Advocates, and the Royal Postage Heritage Tour—would include an informative trip inside the administration building, built in 1928 and designed by Antonio, which houses a great stack of things from the past such as four murals by National Artist for Visual Arts Carlos “Botong” Francisco, the largest Art Deco mural in the Philippines by Antonio Dumlao, a triptych of a Sarimanok in stained glass by Dumlao, four bas-relief works by Francesco Monti, some Amorsolos, and elsewhere, works on the international styles of architecture and other works by Filipino National Artists.

So much of the modern art is fixated on social outrage and misaligned senses. Art Deco’s ability to declutter the renderings of the previous art movements resulted in works that are particularly elegant and celebratory, a calm clarity of ideas.  

The anti-traditional elegance of Art Deco
The Metropolitan Theater in Manila, an enduring Art Deco building in the country, is noted for its fresh appearance despite the patina of time and the many failed efforts at its conservation. 
It is the fate of art to circulate, reconstruct, and re-invent itself because the vitalities of cultural periods are ephemeral and do not last forever. Art Deco is an old aesthetic that has survived because the world continuously needs a happy relaxation from a simpler appreciation of man’s differences.

Photos by Diana B. Noche

Topics: Manila Metropolitan Theater , Art Deco , Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes

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