Art Deco Architecture in Edinburgh

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It’s easy to imagine Edinburgh as just a medieval Old Town alongside a Georgian New Town. But our city was never one to stand still, especially during the inter-war period. Our burgh contains numerous hidden 20th century gems that should be admired. Last month we looked at the brutalist heritage of the 1960s. Today let’s jump a few decades earlier and discover the art Deco style of the 1920s and 30s.
Poster of the Portbello outdoor swimming pool, now demolished

What is “Art Deco”?

In 1925, Paris held an international fair called the “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes”. The artists and architects who exhibited there established a new style, which took the exhibition’s name, Art Deco. The style uses clean simple geometric lines, often with luxurious materials and is inspired from man-made objects and machines, with symmetry and repetitive elements. 

Art Deco influenced architecture, but also furniture design and fashion during the 1920s and 30s. It is considered to be the first international architectural movement, and had an influence all around the world, including here in Scotland. The Empire Exhibition held in Glasgow in 1938 marked the highlight of the style in popularity and maturity.

Unfortunately, not all buildings from this era survived the last 80 years. The most famous example of beloved buildings now demolished, is the Portobello outdoor swimming pool. Sadly, it was destroyed in the 80s after being neglected for many years. But some buildings are still standing, and here’s a few of the best examples. 

 

Maybury Casino. Image: Rob Cartwright Photography

Maybury Casino, Patterson and Broom

With a rise of consumerism in the 1920s and 30s, the Art Deco style is often associated with entertainment and extravagance. The glamorous style worked well with luxurious hotel, cinema or restaurant interiors. Here in Edinburgh, a great example of this is the Maybury Casino. The building was originally designed by Patterson and Broom as a roadhouse in 1935. It was often used for dinner parties and live music.

The whitewashed façade is typical of its time. It was designed to resemble the radiator grille of a classic American car. It was described by a writer Iain Zazcek as “international modernism at its most severe”. It is one of the biggest Art Deco buildings in Edinburgh today and is still used as a casino after having been renovated in the 80s.

St Andrew’s House

St Andrew's House, Thomas Tait

Situated on the south side of Calton Hill, Andrew’s house is arguably one of the most impressive buildings in Edinburgh, because of its position in the landscape and its spectacular façade. The government offices were built in 1939 to replace a prison that was deemed not worthy of such a prominent site. The massive retaining wall and the turreted Governor’s House are the only memories of Calton Jail.

The building uses the terrain to create a dramatic spectacular effect, accentuated by the simple geometric lines. Façades of exposed masonry lend it a slight flavour akin to Frank Lloyd Wright. The interior is also notable for its fine details, sculptures and carvings. 

Today, the building is deemed to be one of the best examples of Art Deco architecture and grade A listed. The offices still serve for the Scottish government and the First Minister. Thomas Tait is considered “one of Britain’s most influential inter-war architects” and this building is arguably the highlight of his work.

To visit St Andrew’s House, look out for the annual Doors Open Day in Edinburgh during the last weekend of September, Book your free tour as early as possible, as this gem is very popular with locals!

The Southside Garage

Southside Garage, Sir Basil Spence

Sir Basil Spence is more known for his Brutalist post Second World War work, especially in Edinburgh. But he focussed his early career on Art Deco modernist buildings. He notably designed three pavilions for the previously mentioned Empire Exhibition held in Glasgow in 1938.

This small garage is great testament of Spence’s early work and of Art Deco architecture. Despite not being used as a garage, the Art Deco “Garage” font has remained as well the industrial inspired window frames. The building is now category B listed by Historic Environment Scotland.

The White House. Image: jackdeightonsf on Flickr

The White House, William Innes Thomson

The White House is a great example of how Art Deco buildings can still be put to use successfully today. It was built in 1936 as another roadhouse by William Innes Thomson. Roadhouses served as a new building typology in the 20s and 30s that developed with the advent of popular travel by motor car. Thus, they were often designed in the Art Deco style to emphasize the modernity of the buildings.

After years of neglect, and threats of demolition in 2010, the building was saved by Historic Scotland as part of a £2 million restauration project. Today the White House serves as a community hub for the Arts and is loved by the local community, proving we can often satisfy today’s need with existing facilities.

Lothian House. Image: David Gray on Flickr

Lothian House, Stewart Kaye

Finally, the most memorable Art Deco building in the city, the Lothian House. Situated on Lothian road, the complex elegantly merges the monumental with the simple geometry of the architecture of the 1930s. The giant 3 storey architraves are made of the local sandstone to tie the building in its context whilst the steel frame window give it a touch of modernity.

The original 1930s part of the building is now category B listed. The offices have been converted into apartments and the original cinema has been redone to house a new cinema complex as well as offices. This mix of modern and traditional materials, architecture features and details allow the building to remain relevant in the busy street that is Lothian Road.

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