Canberra School of Art, Cuthbert Whitley, 1939. art-deco-conference-feature

Inter-war art deco architecture

The emergence of the modern movement was the most significant architectural development during the years between the two World Wars. However, the ideas of mainstream modernism were too radical to appeal to a wide cross section of the public. The inter-war Art Deco style also celebrated the exciting, dynamic aspects of the machine age, but in a more toned down, easy to approach way that appealed to a larger group of people on an emotional level, with the use of graphic decorative elements and modern, eye-catching materials.

So while not strictly a style of modernism, there are similarities in influence that make this a style worth including here: a faith in modern technology and the representation of dynamic progress, with a forward looking image. Buildings in this style are also some of the few built in Canberra during the inter-war period, by architects like E H Henderson and Cuthbert Whitley, who also produced work in the inter-war functionalist style.

The inter-war Art Deco style came to be favoured for two distinctively twentieth century building types: the cinema and the skyscraper. In Australia, the style was also frequently used in commercial and residential interiors and shopfronts. In Canberra there were no skyscrapers, but a small number of public buildings were constructed in this style during the inter-war years. Public building in Canberra during the inter-war period was limited, and those few examples that remain are important—and precious.


  • Suggestion of arrested vertical or horizontal motion
  • Symmetry
  • Stepped skyline or silhouette
  • Decorative elements concentrated on the upper part of the building
  • Three dimensional quality in massing and detailing
  • Vertical and horizontal fins, zigzags, streamlined effects
  • Geometric curves, stylised effects
  • Materials include polished granite, Vitrolite, sandstone and textured face brickwork
  • Chrome plated steel used for shopfronts and commercial interiors
  • Metal framed windows
  • Use of stylised typefaces

Canberra examples

  • Manuka Swimming Pool, E. H. Henderson, 1930-31.
  • Canberra School of Art, Cuthbert Whitley, 1939 (pictured above).
  • Ainslie Primary School, E. H. Henderson & Cuthbert Whitley, 1938.
  • Australian War Memorial. J. Crust & Emil Sodersten, 1934-41.

Other Australian examples

  • Anzac Memorial, Hyde Park, Sydney. C. Bruce Dellit, 1934.
  • Birtley Towers, Birtley Place, Elizabeth Bay, Sydney. Emil Sodersten, 1934.
  • ACA Building, Queen Street, Melbourne. Hennessy & Hennessy, 1936.
  • Former City Mutual Building, Hunter & Bligh Streets, Sydney. Emil Sodersten, 1934-1936.