Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | June 29, 2012

George Town: Art Deco shophouses

Chic: Chinese characters combined with bold verticals. And a decent paintjob

Flats, frocks, furniture – Art Deco curves and flourishes can make almost anything look more stylish. In the opening credits of Sex and the City, it wasn’t Carrie’s stupid tutu dress that grabbed our attention, it was the stunning crown of the Chrysler Building, the jewel of Manhattan’s city skyline.

Penang’s capital doesn’t have any buildings that were briefly the tallest in the world, or have illuminated starbursts at night, but it does have shophouses that incorporated elements of the French design movement into their facades.

It took me a long time to notice them, partly because a shophouse/Art Deco pairing seemed about likely as Sarah Jessica Parker dropping into George Town for a big bowl of curry mee. Then there are the signs, and the wires, and rusty bits and neglected stucco to airbrush out of my vision when I walk along the street.

And then I started to see them, especially in Campbell St, which was the fashionable centre of old Penang. It is also in the centre of the Unesco heritage site zone, which hopefully should ensure their protection, and for the sad, neglected ones, some refurbishment.

The largest concentration of Art Deco – or as it is known in the US, Streamline Moderne – architecture in America can be found on Miami Beach, and the colourful buildings are an attraction in themselves. Less opulent than their Parisian counterparts due to Depression shortages, they still feature curves and theatrical decorative touches, as do these buildings here in Penang.

Beneath the signage and the wires, a little chunk of Miami Beach is fighting to get out

Beginning in Paris in the 1920s, Art Deco influenced all areas of design. it was glamorous, modern and expensive, with its bold stylized motifs, influenced by art movements such as Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism. Weirdly enough, the first art book I ever read was on these three movements. The early Twentieth Century was an exciting time  for art and design, because there were so many new forms to play with, and taboos to break. That panel with the rounded top running down the side of the shophouse above left was once ultra-modern.

Possibly I am alone in my enthusiasm for this though, the locals were staring at me taking photos and no doubt thinking I’d be collected soon and put in a nice quiet room with padded walls.

When I really started looking, I was surprised to see a large Art Deco apartment building on Campbell, near Penang Rd, under which at least eight businesses were trading away. The rounded facade of the building pictured above right graces the corner of the street on the other side. The pair picture below are a bit of a mess, but ditchthe signs and budget roofing up top and slap a bit of paint on these and you’d have two rather funky buildings.


  1. […] design, because there were so many new forms to play with, and taboos to break.”  Full post here. […]

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