Oppositional Synchronicity

December 30, 2022 Blog, Vision and Style Comments (0) 272

I have been reworking an old slide show about architectural styles. “Styles” are rubrics we use to categorize things, generally after the fact. This means that the labels we produce for stylistic trends are not usually those being used by the practitioners at the time. In architectural history, for example, the asymmetry, contrast and exuberant ornamentation of the Victorian era is labeled “Queen Anne” when many of its practitioners called it “Free Classical.”

Carson House, Eureka, California

To make things understandable, we push them into categories they never conceived, which is itself a problem, as I have explained before. Compounding this contortion is the problem of time and history. We can say that the Art Deco style kicked off at the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs, or that Napoleon instigated the rise of the Empire Style around 1805, and we would be partly right. The problem is that historical events can often have two, oppositional results.

College Hill, Providence, Rhode Island

One of my favorite examples is the 1954 Supreme Court case Parker v. Berman, which famously declared “the right of cities to be beautiful” as well as safe and sanitary. This has two opposite effects in terms of design. One result was Urban Renewal, which in less than a decade would be labeled “Urban Removal”. This involved the wholesale demolition of huge tracts of urban land, to be rebuilt with modernist housing and shopping.

Prairie Shores, Lake Meadows, Chicago

Of course the formal opposite of Urban Renewal in 1954 would be Historic Preservation. Preservationists ran with that 1954 decision and within 12 years some 70 cities had historic preservation ordinances. By the time of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, most cities could create their own ordinances without state legislation, and the Act itself mentioned urban renewal as a challenge it was trying to address.

Greenwich Village, resisting the building beauty shaming of Modernism.

In fact, both urban renewal and this new idea of historic preservation were inspired by the same “right of cities to be beautiful.” They just had different concepts of beauty.

To find an even more interesting example of oppositional synchronicity, we need to go back 60 years earlier, to the birth of this new, unadorned, mechanistic mass-produced Modernism. In 1893, 27 million people visited a World’s Fair in Chicago called the World’s Columbian Exposition. At the time, Chicago architects had been building the first skyscrapers for about a decade, and one of them, Daniel Burnham, was the architect of the Exposition. In order to coordinate architects from across the nation, they had to go with the Classical Revival style they had all been instructed in at the Ecole des Beaux Arts or its imitators. As the story goes, the “White City” in Jackson Park celebrated old styles just as Modernism was being invented in the same city. The exception that proved the rule was Louis Sullivan’s Transportation Building at the fair.

from my copy of Magic City
The “Golden” Door did borrow from Moorish and other styles

The Columbian Exposition had such an impact on architectural design that the following year a young Frank Lloyd Wright, newly independent of Louis Sullivan, submitted a pure Classical design for the Milwaukee Public Library, even as he was refining a Modernism even more abstract than his Liebe Meister. He never did this again, but the weight of the moment had a momentary impact on his design. Everyone wanted in on this Beaux-Arts Classicism that enthralled 27 million.

LEFT: Thomas house, 1901 by Frank Lloyd Wright. RIGHT: 1892 townhomes.

But those 27 million also saw Louis Sullivan’s ornament, and may well have seen the stripped skyscrapers downtown, embodying a new modern style. Louis Sullivan wrote “The Tall Building Artistically Considered” in 1896 placing him firmly in the Modernist camp. BUT… turns out he was one of the most skilled ornamentalists ever, creating rich flourishes without precedent.

You tell me where is the figure and where is the ground. Go ahead. I dare you.

The Columbian Exposition of 1893 also launched the modern field of urban planning, with Burnham designing “City Beautiful” plans for Washington, San Francisco, Manila and Chicago, among others. These tended to be in the same style, replete with columns and pediments and swags and balustrades.

Chicago

As Sullivan was declaring tall buildings “every inch a proud and soaring thing” in 1896, Frank Lloyd Wright was bending the rules of architectural design with horizontal houses that pushed away traditional ideas of facades, entrances, walls and windows. By 1900 he had invented something completely opposite to Beaux Arts Classicism, and by 1910 he blew away Europe with his “Ausgefuhrten Bauten” that illustrated his newly realized designs.

Find the front door. I dare you.

In 1908 Adolf Loos would declare ornament a crime in the building arts, citing an analogy with tattoos that would not exactly work today. So here we have the oppositional synchronicity of a world charging on in two seemingly opposite directions and an architect paving the way for an unadorned future with the most elaborate ornament ever. In fairness, his ornament was always secondary to the building design from the plan outward, and the impact of Loos would only be felt fully in the 1920s.

Yet, in many ways you can trace BOTH the Neue Sachlichkeit of bare bones European modernism and the White City mimicry of Beaux-Arts City planning to the SAME event in 1893, when young Frank Lloyd Wright was still a “pencil in the master’s hand.”

1924 Rietveld Schroeder House and contemporaneous neighbors.

Moreover, ornament can be misleading because architectural composition starts with a plan and massing, which can be generally Classical with symmetry and hierarchy, or Romantic with asymmetry and contrast.

Here are a couple of examples from San Antonio. First, we have a classically inspired arrangement of volumes, replete with abstract, modernist ornament. Second, an irregular, emotive arrangement with very traditional detailing.

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The Past is Hideous

February 20, 2011 History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (1) 1451

From the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

“We shall be guilty of serious malfeasance if we do not seek to preserve for later generations the best and the most typical examples of those decades, using the same regard that we give to distinguished examples of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Everyone thinks that the architecture, decorative arts, costumes and similar products of their immediate predecessors are hideous…” Continue Reading

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What is Modern?

January 27, 2011 Chicago Buildings, History, Vision and Style Comments (4) 1596

In Beverly Hills they just demolished the 1961 Friar’s Club. In Chicago the big preservation issue is Bertrand Goldberg’s 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital. Yet for many people, the idea of preserving buildings of the Recent Past is anathema. Often the dividing line is a generational one: our historic preservation students in their 20s and 30s have been excited about 1960s and 1970s architecture for a long time. Many people in their 50s and 60s are not.

There is an old saw that you don’t want to preserve something you saw built, but that is certainly not true for me. I got a camera when I was eight and took pictures of the not-yet-complete John Hancock tower in Chicago, and just over 20 years later there I was in front of it helping with a press conference to save a 21-year old building, already an icon of its city. Continue Reading

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Traditional Modernity II

March 4, 2010 History, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1524

Nearly five years ago I wrote about a fantastic debate on the architecture of additions to historic buildings and infill in historic districts between Steve Semes and Paul Byard. You can see the old blog here.

Paul Byard sadly passed away but Steve Semes has finally put many of his ideas about the value of traditional architecture for new construction in and around historic buildings into a new book, The Future of the Past (Norton, 2009) and he spoke and led a discussion today at SAIC. It was fascinating and stimulating and I can’t shut up about it. Continue Reading

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LA Weekend

January 27, 2009 Vision and Style Comments (0) 1168

A great time was had by all at our Los Angeles meetings of the National Trust Board. There was a lot to be done, with a new Diversity Director (Tanya Bowers), an amazing story about the Charity Hospital in New Orleans, where LSU wants to demolish a very solid 1930s hospital that was used all the way up to Katrina. They also wanted to tear down 200 houses for a new hospital. Fortunately, Trust Trustee Jack Davis and others demonstrated to the Legislature that the project would be more expensive, more wasteful and SLOWER than if they restored the building. Typical hospital planning, really. You can check it out on PreservationNation. Continue Reading

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Taste

August 23, 2007 Vision and Style Comments (0) 1102

No, this isn’t an comment on the Incompetent-In-Chief or his latest misreading of history – that would be too easy.

This is about the more difficult issue of taste and how it intersects with that most essential of historic preservation issues: time.

I was in the Wisconsin Dells recently, which is akin to admitting that you visited Branson or Vegas or Gatlinburg. It is quite outside of the educated taste that seems the center of preservation, and indeed many preservationists are refined in both taste and education. Preservationists don’t like billboards or overt commercialism, only the comfy chenille draped over their windows to history. Continue Reading

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Modern Mischief

June 24, 2007 Chicago Buildings, Sustainability, Technology, Vision and Style Comments Off on Modern Mischief 1347

Jack Hartray was one of five “Mid-Century Modern” architects who spoke at the opening event of the Illinois Preservation Conference last week. Always an enjoyable speaker, Hartray mentioned that Gropius and the modernist masters of the Mid-20th-Century created a lot of “mischief” with a seemingly mischief-free command: make the building do what the client wants.

In a sense, this is the restatement of Louis Sullivan’s “Form Follows Function” and a central tenet of all modernist architectural thinking from the 1890s to the 1960s. But the “mischief” identified by Hartray was a classic failing in the hyper-aware three-dimensional art of modern architecture: the failure to appreciate the fourth dimension: Time. Even in the Time-Life Building. Continue Reading

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Modern preservation

February 28, 2006 Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments Off on Modern preservation 1267

Pilgrim Baptist Church’s walls are salvageable (yay!)

The restoration of Carson Pirie Scott Building is almost complete (yay!)

A developers proposal to demolish 17th Church of Christ Scientist (boo!) was leaked by Phil Krone.

Last week I read about the decay and demolition of hundreds of modernist landmarks in Moscow (boo!).

17th Church of Christ Scientist was built in 1968 by noted Chicago architect and preservationist Harry Weese. It is a flying saucer of High Modern delights, a washer and nut bolting down the bend in the river where Wacker Drive turns sharply toward the Michigan Avenue bridge. The quarter-round plan was innovative (although if I were a persnickety architectural historian I would point out a precedent published in Liturgical Arts in 1942) and the result was a building that is interesting in and of itself and also urbanistic, making its surroundings more interesting. So far the congregation have resisted the developer’s advances, but you never know – every church has its price. Continue Reading

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