The True Education of an Architect

IT is a commonplace that hard work is the best remedy for despondency, and that constant occupation tends to create optimistic views of the present and the future. In like manner, occupation and partly successful labor tend to blind the laborer to what is feeble or bad in his work. The mere fact of doing is so delightful that the doer is not always the best judge of the work done. In this way we account for the cheerful acquiescence of the practicing architects in that lifeless and thoughtless designing with the results of which they are filling the country. Practitioners of other fine arts find the architect’s work hopelessly uninteresting, and say so to one another, and, hesitatingly, to the man they think better informed than themselves ; that is, to the architect. Hopeless dullness, — that is the characteristic of so vast a proportion of our architectural work that it is hard to keep from saying that it is the characteristic of all ; nor is there any considerable body of that architectural work to be excepted but the better class of wood-built country houses. These, being of American origin, and developed naturally out of our materials, our appliances, and our requirements, are full of interest and are worthy of study.

The architects themselves, both the younger and the older ones, have a suspicion, indeed, that things are not right; at least, there are many among them who show at intervals that such a suspicion has crossed their minds. It is not uncommon to hear it said that one would like to design his own work, but that really he cannot afford it; that no doubt he takes all his ornament ready-made from the photographs he has purchased, but that this is the universal custom, he supposes. The fact of hard work and the consciousness of doing well what they are paid to do keep most architects from worrying too much about qualities which their clients do not ask for, — nobility, or beauty, or even sincerity of design, — and keep some architects from thinking of these matters at all; still, the consciousness of there being something amiss is very general in the profession. To those persons, not architects, who know something about ancient architecture, its glory, its charm, its beauty, and who have thought somewhat of modern possibilities, the miserable result attained by the outlay and the labor of the last twenty years is more obvious than it can be to the practicing architects ; and these observers have a right to say, each man according to his temperament, “ The outlook is hopeless,” or, “Vigorous remedies are required.” The methods by which architectural students have been educated are clearly inadequate ; the traditions held before them are clearly false; the influences under which they have grown up are clearly pernicious. It remains to be seen whether a new departure and a more radical one may not be of use. The time may have come for abstract theorizing about the preparation of the young architect for his task.

What, then, should the young architect be taught ?

First of all, he should be taught how to build. It is hardly supposable that this proposition will be seriously disputed, although in practice its truth is disregarded so generally that it becomes necessary to assert it once in a while. There is a growing tendency to treat the art of architecture as the art of making drawings, “ rendered ” in accordance with certain hard-and-fast rules ; and it is as well to repeat that the business of the architect is to build. What is meant when it is asserted that the young architect must be taught how to build ?

When any man calling himself “ architect ” or “ builder,” or merely acting as the amateur creator of his own home, prepares to put up a building of any sort, the primary necessity for him is to have a thorough understanding of the means at his disposal and the object which he proposes to attain. The material which he can control he should understand exceedingly well, and its possibilities. The building which he intends to erect he should see clearly in his mind’s eye, and its construction. This requires that he shall know how stones and bricks are laid or set; how mortar is mixed and applied; how walls are bonded together; when anchors are needed which shall tie those walls to the floors, and whether it be ever possible to avoid the use of anchors ; under what circumstances lintels may be safely used ; how far corbels may be used to advantage ; the conditions of an arch, its line of thrust (in a general way, for it is not always feasible to calculate the exact line of its sideway pressure) ; how gutters may best be carried at the head of the wall; what are the approved methods of attaching to the main structure such lighter and smaller pieces as bay window, carriage porch, or kitchen wing. He must know in a familiar way what a brick wall is, and what are the conditions of its being, — solid or hollow, or built with hollow bricks. In some of our states the masons have a theory that brickwork ought not to be laid up too solidly, nor so filled with mortar as to be one homogeneous mass, because such a mass transmits the moisture from the outer to the interior face. These masons prefer slightly and loosely built walls, with plenty of cavities within to act as air-spaces. Our builder should know whether that astonishing theory is warranted or not, and also whether a more deliberately planned air-space is better or not so good as furring, and whether either device be necessary in a given case. He should even have some notions of double air-spaces, for he may be called on to build in Minnesota or in Manitoba. Again, he should be aware how commonly the skilled French builders disregard such devices altogether, and trust to the repellent power of good stone walls. The building of chimneys should be a special fad of his ; for although it may be admitted that no man can guarantee his flue and his fireplace as affording together a chimney which will not smoke, yet there are conditions precedent, and one of those is that the flue in an outer wall should be protected on its weather side from stress of weather. Many are the chimneys that will not draw because the outer air keeps them too cold, and because the wind drives through the porous bricks of the outer wall. Such chimneys there are, even in solidly built houses, which seem to transmit rain and cold from without more readily than smoke and hot air upward from within.

The professional architect, then, must know, in the intimate sense indicated in the above paragraphs, the whole art of building. He must also love building; he must love heavy stones, and good bricks, and stout, solid walls, and handsome timbers handsomely cut and framed. He must even love the new material, wrought and rolled iron and steel, for its great and as yet only partly known capabilities. When one is asked by a would-be student of architecture about the chances of succeeding as an architect, it is expedient to find out what his proclivities are, and whether he is merely interested in fine art, and seized with the idea that architecture is an easy fine art to study and to practice. Advice to the effect that really he ought not to become an architect unless he truly loves building and the materials of building is apt to be in place, and instances could be given where such advice has been well applied and well taken. One of the very best and worthiest of our mural painters had that advice given him twenty-five years ago, when he proposed himself as a student of architecture. He was told plainly that it seemed to his adviser that he was rather a lover of drawing and a dreamer of fine-art dreams than a possible builder. The young man took the advice that was given him, and the noble results of his career prove the soundness of the counsel.

The architect should love the quarries, and should visit them with eager curiosity. The cleavage of stone and its appearance in its natural bed should be not only a delight to him, but an object of close study. He should love the lumber-yard, not to say the forest. To him, the timber in itself should be a thing delightful to study, and its possible uses delightful to contemplate. He should love the brick-yard, and experiments in cements and in mortars should be his holiday amusement. Finally, the architect must have such an eye and such a soundness of judgment that bad work cannot escape him. A familiarity with details not unlike that of a good master builder he must combine with a knowledge of principles and of possibilities far beyond that of the master builder, so that good work will come to his buildings as of inevitable sequence, and bad or even slighted work will be impossible in them.

The matter of modern scientific construction in iron and in steel can only be touched upon here, and there is really but one thing that need be said about it. Such construction is the affair of the engineer. Let it be admitted that the architect should understand its general principles. These are not so remote or so mysterious as they may seem to the beginner. When it comes to the actual building, to be run up in ten months, the metal uprights and ties composing the structure and the exterior of masonry being a mere concealing and protecting shell, that metal structure is the work of the engineer, and must be. It is, indeed, probable that in this case the engineer should be the first man employed, and that the architect should act as his subordinate ; for the plans of the stories are rarely complex or difficult, and all the uses of the building are simple and obvious, while what need special ability are the calculations of the engineer. It is useless for the scheme of education laid out for any pupil in architecture to include steel construction in its higher development. It is inevitable, in our modern complex physical civilization, that the trades and the professions should be separated more and more, and that a man should be satisfied with expert knowledge in a single line of daily vocation.

What, then, becomes of our student of architecture ? Is he to be expert in one thing only ? He is to be expert in all the branches of ordinary building, ready, dexterous, handy, and full of resources ; and he is to know so much of the general principles of building, and also of the putting together of metal and the conditions of stability of the metal structure, that he can foresee the need of engineering skill in a given case, and can forestall the probable decisions of the engineer. What should be taught to the young man meaning to be an architect is, primarily, the how and why of simple, every-day building, such as has been practiced for centuries, is adapted to all those materials which his own country furnishes, and is acccording to all those processes which his countrymen recognize. Thus, if he should wish to study Byzantine vaulting without centres, or Gothic vaulting with ribs, or vaulting in cut granite, such as is used in our seacoast fortifications, it would be, in a sense, an additional and most interesting study for him ; but his instructors should see to it that first of all he thoroughly learns the building of common life. After ten years of practice he may well enjoy the attempt to introduce into his work some of those beautiful, simple, inexpensive methods of building which the past offers for his consideration, while the present ignores them ; but he will not begin with this. Building of an every-day sort, — that is what he needs to know; but he needs to know it thoroughly well, to know it as a child feels the conditions of stability of his house built with wooden blocks. And he must grow to be ambitious to excel in the perfectness of his work. The writer remembers the shock which he felt when, as a student of architecture, he heard one architect in large practice say of the newly fallen wall of the unfinished church of a brother architect that no one could find any fault, because the accident was due to frosty weather. Was that the standard which one architect set up for another ? Was it really held by prominent architects that a wall might fall down, and the blame of it be laid on cold weather ? His wonder has not diminished since that time, nor does it seem easy to understand how anything can excuse the falling of a wall, unless it be an earthquake or a bombshell. A mason of repute would never have forgiven himself, or have been forgiven, for such a collapse. The builders in our cities are not too conscientious, nor are the builders in our small towns too skillful or troubled with too high a standard of excellence ; but the architect, as we find him, may generally lean upon the builder, as we find him, with great advantage, and get sound and good example from the practice of the builder when left to himself.

Second, the architect must learn to draw. He must learn to draw as a painter learns; that is to say, he must be ready, prompt, and dexterous in drawing everything that can be drawn, from the human figure down to a chimney-top or a square house with square windows. It may not be required of him that he shall draw altogether as well as a painter. It may well be that whereas the painter goes on year by year growing still more familiar with the human figure, nude and in every attitude which comes natural to man, woman, or child, and with drapery as cast upon the figure in every such changing attitude, the architect will stop at a general knowledge, difficult to define or to express in words, but still very real and tangible. Take the well-known drawings of Viollet-le-Duc, for instance ; that is to say, his drawings of the figure, as in the article Sculpture in the great Dictionary of Architecture, or in the article Armure or Cotte in the Dictionnaire du Mobilier. These drawings are not better than every architect should be able to make. Violletle-Due was a man of exceptional genius as a draughtsman in that he could make drawings by the thousand of architectural details and of architectural compositions, all of them extraordinarily clear in the way of explanation,—the inessential parts omitted or hinted at, the essential parts insisted on, — all with an almost infallible judgment, and a judgment so rapid that time was not lost in hesitation. He was exceptional, perhaps unique, in this ; but in the mere excellence of any one drawing of the human figure or of sculptured detail he was no more happy than the architect should be ; nor should the aspirant be satisfied with much less than Viollet - le - Duc’s excellence in this respect.

Apart from excellence of final achievement, a certain dexterous readiness is also eminently desirable. Thus, the architect should have drawn, before he begins to design for himself, hundreds of buildings at home and abroad. One of the best living architectural draughtsmen has said, as we may translate it, It makes little difference what one draws. To draw a great deal, to be always drawing, — that is the secret. “ Dessiner énormément, avoir toujours le crayon à la main,” — that was Alexandre Sandier’s word to his American friends. The architect should have drawn from the best examples within his reach, but at all events he should have drawn, in great numbers, gables and dormers, towers and steeples, timber roofs seen from within and moulded arches seen at various angles, groups of columns, coupled columns, entablatures and archivolts, and masses of building as seen from an adequate distance. These things he should have drawn freehand, either with the camera lucida, which is unobjectionable in difficult cases, or without help of any kind, under all sorts of conditions and in all sorts of light; and from such drawing he should have gained such a knowledge of the appearance of the existing building, solid and enduring, with firm joints and upright angles, that the look of the structure should have become a part of his familiar knowledge. Then, when a new design is in progress, and he has to put into shape the exterior of a building which he has partly planned, he can do it by a drawing made from the vision before his mind’s eye. His conception of the gable or spire, of a whole mass of building or of a group of buildings, can be embodied in lines which are very nearly accurate. It is remarkable how close to the actual truth even a very imperfect draughtsman may come in this respect. Many a man whose knowledge of the human figure is far less than we have assumed has become so dexterous in drawing architectural forms that his perspective sketches of a building or of its parts would prove on trial to be scarcely inaccurate even in small details.

Now, this matter of designing in the solid, and skill in setting down the main lines of that design in approximate perspective, is the very life and essence of ready and easy design. It is the thing which our school-taught architects lack most sadly, and the thing which every student should put before him as most of all to be desired. Men who are taught mechanical drawing, and little else ; who know artistic drawing only as a means of indicating the presence of a scroll ornament, or of putting in the curves of an arch in a mechanical perspective, are always making the mistake of designing in elevation. To do that is to invite failure. Nothing can be designed in elevation except a street front, as of a narrow city house ; and even for this, no designer should be satisfied with an elevation drawing alone. Every separate arched window, even every separate square-headed window, — or at least every separate pattern of window, — requires to be drawn in perspective, that the relation beween the reveal or visible thickness of wall and the width of the opening, the relation between the length of the lintel and its bearing on the wall, the relation between the mouldings at the angles, if there are any, and the whole window, the relation between the ornament put upon the face of the lintel or the archivolt and the open space and the piers on both sides, may all be seen aright. An elevation drawing falsifies all these things, and its one function — namely, that of transmitting to the builder the architect’s purpose — should not be confused with the idea of its embodying the design ; for it cannot do that. Elevations must be made as sections must be, and ground-plans; but elevations, and also sections which have to show any part of the architectural composition, should be drawn with the constant sense of their being what they are, — namely, the abstract embodiment, in a technical form and for a technical purpose, of the design previously completed in the solid.

The need of skill in artistic or freehand drawing for all design in the way of decorative sculpture, and the application to a building of such sculpture, and for all design in the way of decorative painting, mural painting, and polychromatic adornment, is too obvious and well known to need restatement here. To be sure, if you are content, as many of our practicing architects to - day seem content, to design buildings without decorative sculpture or decorative painting, you need not worry about learning to draw ornament. Buildings are being erected, even at high cost, and by architects and firms who are leading men and leading firms, in the business sense of the word, which buildings affect no decorative or artistic success beyond that of a generally pleasant harmony of proportion in façades and in interiors of rigid plainness. If you agree with yourself to have no carving about the building except a few Corinthian capitals, and to take those capitals directly from the plates of a book, or to let the marble-cutters work them according to their own notions, then, indeed, you are to get off cheaply, and to produce your architecture at but little cost of thought. In this, as in other ways, to quote a much-talked-of article in The Architectural Record, “ classic is such a soft snap ” that the designer of that kind of classic does not come within the scope of the present inquiry. Architecture, however, has always adorned itself with sculpture and with painting, and it always will. The rejection of such adornment is a surer sign of deadly decay than exaggeration or misapplication of such adornment. Nor is the architect who deliberately rejects the knowledge and the practice of sculpture and painting other than an inartistic modern of the most hopeless species.

We are brought inevitably to the third requirement of the architect, which is a knowledge of modeling. Drawing can do much, and in the hands of a facile draughtsman the pencil or brush is capable of a language readily comprehensible to him and to others ; but there is another language which makes it possible to say clearly some things which even drawing cannot express. Some benefactor of his kind should gather a collection of models made by great men of the past and used for their own study. There are not many such in existence, but there are a few, and any one of these which is finally fixed in a museum might be photographed, at all events, and perhaps cast, for our supposed collection in America. One clay model of a piece of furniture, as of a bahut of the sixteenth century, would teach our young workmen a great deal which they ought to know. They have, no doubt, a general idea that the modern sculptor works in clay, takes a cast in plaster of the finished clay model, turns that cast over to marble-cutters or bronze-founders, and then supervises the final finishing of the piece ; but are they aware that every silver powder-horn or carved gun-stock of a good time of art was modeled in clay or wax? Any one can see the designers for a firm of silversmiths or dealers in furniture making delicate and refined drawings, but the precious material, modeling wax, hardly has a place in the modern designer’s rooms ; and yet there is no greater encouragement to the spirit which would reach out toward novel modifications of the ancient types — toward the re-designing of the old design, as Mr. La Farge has put it in his latest book — than freedom in the use of modeling clay and wax. Let us assume that no one is so rash as to try to create a new design, or to design without reference to art which he knows of old. Even then his porch or his bay window, when modeled in the solid, has a chance to put on a very different air, and to be original in a truer sense, if he is using the solid instead of merely the flat for its shaping as a feature of a new structure.

Modeling for architecture is of two sorts, one and the same in tendency and character, but still capable of separation the one from the other. An admirable paper by Mr. Henry Rutgers Marshall, in a recent number of The Architectural Review, has pointed out the value to architects of the model used for the whole of the proposed building. Mr. Marshall uses a model instead of preliminary studies, except of the floor-plans ; instead of perspective drawings or elevations, he submits to his employer photographs of the model, and the model itself is accessible at his own office. Photographs may be taken in indefinite numbers and from any point of view which the model itself shows to be a good one ; nor is it hard to take bird’seye views, as from a neighboring hill, or views from below, as from a neighboring valley, with the house relieved against the sky. Moreover, the paper in question calls attention in a most masterly way to the value to the designer of seeing his design taking shape in solid form. That paper, although addressed to the professional reader, should be read by every one interested in the possibilities of modern architecture, and it may be accepted by those who read it as containing the soundest of sound doctrine. Such models as it describes, however, are too small in scale to allow of proper proportionate treatment of sculptured detail ; and a farther step must be taken, as will be suggested below.

This matter of sculptured detail is the other half of the subject of modeling in connection with architecture. It will be readily admitted that when a capital is required which shall not be a mere and even a slavish copy of an old one, it should be modeled to full size. It may even be admitted that a bas-relief runs a better chance of being effective as decoration if it has been modeled instead of being cut directly from a drawing. The carver will probably model it from the drawing ; but why should that strange influence interpose itself ? Suppose, now, the case of a porch, in which three or four columns are to be clustered together in one group or arranged in couples. It will not require a very strong effort of the imagination to see the great advantage of modeling the whole corner on a rather large but still a reduced scale. Possibly two of the capitals may need to be cut out of one and the same block ; but even if each capital is to be shaped from a separate stone, the close juxtaposition of two, and still more of four capitals requires in each a treatment which will be found to differ from the treatment of a capital which is four feet away from its nearest neighbor. If, as in many noble styles of architecture, the capitals are to differ in design, it becomes highly necessary to see their models side by side ; and this, perhaps, in full size. So with cornices, lintel courses, entablatures ; their relations to the walls, the pilasters, or the columns which support them are really not easy to determine, except by the careful modeling of a large piece of the wall and its crowning member. This applies equally to classic and to mediaeval fashions of work, not to mention the outlying styles, in which experiment is always the order of the day. Even the most severe piece of classic work should be modeled, in order that the designer may be sure that he is getting his own design into shape. Re-designing the old design is the right thing, of course, but it needs to be re-designed! An architect has no right to say to us that so and so is good because it is exactly copied from the Theatre of Marcellus ; what we ask of him is that it should be good because it is carefully re-studied. The building which our architect has in hand is not at all like the Theatre of Marcellus ; it is not a great semicircle of open arches divided by piers which are adorned with engaged columns. What the modern man is designing is pretty sure to have the arches filled with sashes and with doors ; nor is there one chance in a hundred that he is building so massively. For him, then, to copy the ancient theatre accurately in all its details is to do a preposterous thing. It is for him, if he recognizes the value of the GræcoRoman design, to re-design it for his own purposes, and to consider very carefully the question whether he has not followed the original too closely, — whether his thinner wall, his smaller dimensions, his flat façade, and his glass-filled archways do not require a still wider divergence from the actual proportions of the original.

There can be no doubt that the young architect should be taught these three things, — to build, to draw, to model. His knowledge of building may be theoretical, though he will know more about it if he has had a little experience in laying bricks himself, but his knowledge of drawing and of modeling must be of the most practical nature. The models of buildings which Mr. Marshall deals with may, indeed, be made for the architect by those whose business it is, but he will find it for his interest to put his hand to the wax, now and then ; nor is it presumable that he will get very good modeling done unless he knows how to do it himself. There are exceptions to the truth of every statement, and it is true that one of our most original designers of sculptured ornament declares his inability to model, and avows that every part of his elaborate work is done for him by a sculptor who is in sympathy with him and whom he can fully trust. Exactly in the same way, one of the small number of our architects who really make their own designs, instead of taking them ready-made from books and photographs, hardly ever touches pencil to paper. These may be considered exceptions. It may be said that they are instances of the general truth that architectural work is the work of many associated minds, and that nothing is misdone which is done rightly, whether by several minds working together in harmony, or by a single spirit. No one is to imagine that a great and complex work of decorative art is designed in one piece by one man, and put under contract with one firm. It is a heresy of our day to suppose that to be possible. The loggetta at the foot of the Tower of St. Mark, with its elaborate sculptures, is assigned to Sansovino, and yet one might safely wager something handsome, if Sansovino could come back to decide the bet, that other minds than his own strove with the problem even of that very small and very simple structure, and that other fingers than his own worked in the clay. The familiar instance of the Gothic portal, with its statues and reliefs, may be cited again, because it is so familiar, and it has so long been a recognized truth that much harmonious co-working was necessary when that conception was put into solid form. In such a case as that many designers may work together, always provided that there is some one to decide peremptorily when there is division or disagreement. It would be quite safe to assume that all those co-workers were practiced artists in the arts of their day.

Is there anything else needed by the young architect ? Other things may be needed by the architectural draughtsman who looks for a good salary ; but that is quite another matter. This is not the only occupation in which the training of the subordinate is not exactly that best fitted for a principal. If a man sees that he must earn his living for some years by making mechanical drawings in an architect’s office, he must, indeed, learn some things which are not set down above. The very simple principles of mechanical drawing, as used by architects, may be learned by practice in a few weeks; but the draughtsman who expects high pay must be skilled in various tricks of mechanical drawing, wholly unnecessary for the actual work of building. Rules for the “ casting of shadows ” and the mathematical system of perspective drawing are to be learned, and the shading up of drawings and the prettifying of them in monochrome and in color to please the client must also become familiar, — though these, of course, are of no practical use whatever. The mechanical drawing which the architect needs for ground-plans, and even for elevations and sections, if he is fond of making his own drawings, as some first-rate men have been, or if he finds it necessary to do his own work, may be speedily acquired. Accuracy of setting out and of figuring (a most vital and most peremptory necessity, under our present system) is a matter of temperament and of thorough knowledge rather than of technical skill as a draughtsman.

Sound and ready knowledge of building, dexterous readiness and some approach to excellence as a freehand draughtsman, and some skill as a modeler, — these are the three things which the student should be taught. All else is a part of his higher education, of his training as a man rather than as an architect. Time was when there existed no such distinction; when there were living traditions which the young architect had to learn, which he would learn naturally as an apprentice, —exactly as the apprentice painter picked up his art of painting naturally, and ground his master’s colors and swept out his master’s workshop the while. Those days are gone. There is no tradition now which ought to he learned, because there is none which is not that of some school or coterie, none which binds the world of building men. There is no tradition now which should not be avoided, because there is none which is not telling against a healthy growth of the fine art of building. Present traditions are of the most mischievous character, and nothing can come of a familiarity with them but a prolongation of the sterile years, the years of the lean kine, through which the European world goes starving in spirit for food of the solid and wholesome sort known to men of old. Designing cannot be taught ; good taste cannot be taught; and yet it is well for the artist in any department to learn what other artists have done, and to learn how they designed and to see what they accounted good taste. The essential distinction is this: that while the young painter and the young sculptor of our time can afford to watch their immediate predecessors — the men twenty years older than they — and learn something of their ways of work, while they learn also the greatness of the bygone ages of art, the young architect would do well not to learn what his contemporaries and those a little older than he have been doing. That which has been done since 1815 in the way of architectural fine art has not been worth the doing, and it would be better, on the whole, if it were all wiped out. Some interesting buildings would be lost, but it would be better for the immediate future of art if the buildings erected since that time had been brick factories in appearance with square holes for windows. There are evil influences working on all the modern world of fine art; and yet painting and sculpture are living arts, and some even of the subsidiary arts maintain a feverish existence ; but the great fine art of architecture is not alive ; its nominal practitioners have become administering, adjusting, dexterous fiduciary agents, with only here and there one among them who cherishes even the spirit of the artist. The student of architecture has nothing to learn from the epoch in which he finds himself. How he is to study the art of other epochs, and what opportunity there is for him to learn, by precept or by example, something of the fine art of architecture, is a subject which we cannot here consider.

Russell Sturgis.