American Modernism and Art Deco
Buildings dating from the 1920s and 1930s are often referred to as Art Deco due to their construction date. With the term Art Deco coined from the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes as a critical reaction in 1966 it must be remembered that this is not a definite style of architecture such as classicism or orthodox modernism. Schools of design such as the Bauhaus or International are often noted as Art Deco due to similar architectural elements. It is this juxtaposition which must be explored when
observing the designs of Ralph Bencker. The following pages will chronicle his designs from the 1920s - 1940s. With a focus on his Philadelphia designs, the following pages will look at Bencker's work and try to disseminate its architectural and ornamental features. Too often Ralph Bencker's designs are listed as Art Deco, especially with an assumed lack of quality Deco buildings in Philadelphia. Bencker who had been practicing architecture for 20 years prior to the Paris exposition represents an early American modernism based on the design of architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan and Irving Gill. Although much of his work exhibits the features of Art Deco design, it must be remembered that his designs existed prior to the Paris exposition and were not of direct lineage.
Decorative elements such as heavy, stripped masonry and botanical imagery are influences for American modernism but cannot be directly traced to Bencker. The influence that is certain is Bencker's understanding of the Arts and Crafts movement due to his association with William Price. Bencker does not move into clear Art Deco such as strong polychrome, use of metal or iconic imagery. Bencker's designs are clearly not of classical ornament but are not bombastic or eye-grabbing. Following the Paris exposition Bencker's work does begin to incorporate features of Art Deco including strong metal work and masonry reliefs but not to the grandiose extant of great works of the era. Ralph Bencker's later works can be understood as Art Deco and do include prominent ornamental characteristics, but lack the polychrome and industrial symbolism which clearly define the style. Bencker is a modern architect who incorporates Art Deco ornament, but does not strongly embellish it.
Art Deco Ornamentation