What the Fork? Part 2: A Fork in the Road

Last week I introduced an article about how Americans had co-opted a European tradition for tradition's sake, despite the fact that it made little practical sense. The article also points out that while we continue this tradition the originators ceased long ago. This week, the danger of blindly adhering to someone else's tradition…

The Chicago School was a group of talented architects practicing in the City of Broad Shoulders around the turn of the last century. They were experimenting with new building materials and techniques and were developing a new aesthetic to suit these new forms. The school comprised such illustrious names as Burnham and Root, Adler and Sullivan, Holabird and Roche, and William LaBaron Jenney. While these architects were of the same place and grappling with the same issues, they each did so in different ways. A confluence of events including advances in steel technologies, the invention of elevators, and inflated land costs conspired to give birth to the skyscraper- America’s great contribution to the architectural cannon.

The problem with the skyscraper was that technology had outpaced aesthetic. We now had the ability to make extremely tall buildings, but had no idea what they should look like. The designers of the earliest skyscrapers simply tried to adapt classical European elements to the new form. This technique was awkward and clunky, and had the tendency to be very horizontal in nature. It was Louis Sullivan who was the pioneer in embracing the vertically of this new building form and throwing off the shackles of precedent that worked counter to the inherent nature of the new form and material. I highly recommend reading his article The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered. It is packed full of goodness, and here are a couple of snippets:

“It demands of us, what is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist nature its thrilling aspect. It is the very open organ tone in its appeal. It must be in turn the dominant chard in his expression of it, the true excitant of his imagination. It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line…”

 “It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”

Genius. Inspiring concepts and clear logic (and some say the birth of modernism). This was our moment. Louis Sullivan and the Chicago School had the philosophical grounding and were poised to lead the United States in the development of our own enduring architecture worthy of the promise of our great nation. Only it didn’t happen.

The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was a watershed moment in the history of American architecture and planning. The exposition, a world’s fair in essence, was to be held in America in honor of the four-hundred year anniversary of the Christopher Columbus journey to the new world. The Americans were under a great deal of pressure to show out, as the French had just done a bang up job of a fair in Paris (including a certain sculpture by a man named Gustave Eiffel). After fierce competition with New York, D.C., and St. Louis, Chicago won the honor of hosting.* This was a bit of a coup for the mid-westerners as they were essentially a frontier town, and not perceived as being as refined and sophisticated as the easterners. What Chicago did have (amongst other things) was this talented group of architects and planners and their new building forms and philosophies.

Daniel Burnham and his partner John Root were the architects and urban designers tapped to oversee the design and construction of the entire Exposition. In the process they created what was in effect the first American comprehensive plan. They were faced with a herculean task and a nearly impossible deadline to pull the thing off. Early in the process, Root, the driving creative force of the partnership, dies. Burnham consults his group of architects (McKim, Sullivan, Olmstead, Hunt, Cobb and Post) and decides that the best way forward is to design the entire exposition in the Beaux Arts style.  The Beaux Arts is a neo-classic style of architecture as espoused by the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Burnham’s decision was based in the belief that a single architectural style would provide unity for the disparate set of buildings on the site. I suspect there was also a desire on the part of the Chicagoans to express just how sophisticated they were and to do that by affecting that paradigm of sophistication, classical European architecture. Louis Sullivan calls bullshit on this.

Sullivan, who actually spent a year at the Ecole in Paris, balked at the historicist styling of architecture. While he was heavily influenced by what he saw during his stints in Europe, he took from the masterworks an admiration of the spirit behind the work instead of rote replication. Upon his return to the States, he was a driving force in the effort to establish an American architecture. Until this point, the best American architects were simply recycling classical European forms (see Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Latrobe). Sullivan (a man of principal and strong opinion) was livid that Burham (a “client-friendly” designer, wink wink), would turn his back on the new and innovative work that members of the Chicago School was pioneering in favor of the stale safety of classicism. Sullivan’s Transportation Building is the sole building in the Exposition not designed in the Beaux Arts style (which pissed Burnham off). It is worth noting, however, that the Transportation Building with it’s “Golden Door” was the only building in the Exposition that gained international critical acclaim.

The Exposition overcomes hardships of all kinds to become a wild success. One of the outcomes of this success is that millions of American visitors return to their homes with grand visions of a clean, gleaming, white, classical city. They left Chicago, returned to their home cities and copied what they had seen. What was essentially a stage set** in classical style became the inspiration for new building projects across the country. Sullivan later lamented:

"Meanwhile the virus of the World's Fair, after a period of incubation ... began to show unmistakable signs of the nature of the contagion. There came a violent outbreak of the Classic and the Renaissance in the East, which slowly spread Westward, contaminating all that it touched, both at its source and outward.... By the time the market had been saturated, all sense of reality was gone. In its place, had come deep seated illusions, hallucinations, absence of pupillary reaction to light, absence of knee-reaction-symptoms all of progressive cerebral meningitis; the blanketing of the brain. Thus Architecture died in the land of the free and the home of the brave.... The damage wrought by the World's Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer."

There is no happy ending to this story, we are only left to wonder what might have been. What if John Root had lived, and his more progressive designs had inspired millions of American visitors by a new architecture? What if New York or D.C had won the exposition and left the Chicago School to continue their work along its former trajectory?

The end of Sullivan’s story is very sad. After the Exposition, the economy takes a dive and his partner Dankmar Adler breaks the partnership. Adler was the friendly, well-connected partner who found work for the firm and without him Sullivan had difficulty finding clients. Beyond the issue of personality, classicism was in vogue and no client wanted what Sullivan had to offer. He drank too much and his personal relationships, including his marriage, failed. Sullivan died penniless and alone in 1924. He spent what should have been the most productive years of his life designing an average of one small building per year. What brings me tears is the absolute beauty and unmistakable genius of those works, those small mid-western banks dubbed jewel boxes.

As fate would have it, one of those jewel boxes is located in Iowa, just a short detour away from one of my current projects. Last week I made the pilgrimage to Grinnell to see his Merchant’s National Bank. It is truly stunning. And it talks to you. It proudly exclaims “I am an American bank”. This in stark contrast to banks in classicist revival style that could just as easily be schools, post offices, churches or government buildings in any western country (and the New Urbanists would have us believe this is a good thing). As sometimes happens, life conspired to derail what could have been. 

I fear I have ventured far afield. I was going to make the connection between the literal fork discussed in the article last week with the figurative fork in the road that the exposition proved to be...but that was a bit cheesy. So I suppose the parting observation is that we should ever question why we do things the way we do, and just because something is old and familiar doesn’t make it right. Perhaps the best local example of this is the god-awful, new pedestrian lighting fixture that has spread across downtown like a fine case of warts. The new lights are poor generic copies of a historic type whose form adversely impacts their function. Their introduction is doubly injurious as the fixture they replaced had a much more functional design that was also unique to Chattanooga. The other lesson in the post is that life is not fair. Good ideas don’t always win out. Being on the side of right doesn’t always pay off. The Sullivan story always tears me up- what a waste and oh, what could have been.

*It is worthy of note that it was during this process a New York editor referred to Chicago as “that windy city”

**The buildings were meant to be temporary and were built of frames that were then coated in a plaster and hemp fiber mixture, molded to form, then painted white.

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