The Advance of Architecture

Two remarks addressed to me in the last two years have made so profound an impression that they are in a measure the text, if not the cause, of this essay.

The first was made in London by an architect, and a distinguished one, a great admirer of the States and all contained therein, a Fellow of the Royal Society of British Architects, advisory head of a great architectural school. We were engaged in doing the ancient churches of London — what could be a more delightful occupation? — and he, my friend, was overtly acting as my guide and unconsciously as my philosopher.

The ancient chapel of St. John in the Tower, with its Norman arches and its half-whispered memories of William the Conqueror, had given way to St. Bartholomew’s, and that to the Austin Friars, but the little-known churches of St. Ethelreda and All Hallows led us into the more familiar ground of the City and the Wren churches. How delightful their forms and how delicious their names! St. Mary-le-Bow; St. Bride’s, Fleet Street; St. Veda’s, Foster Lane; St. Peter’s, Cornhill — all sweet children of one family, standing up to their knees in the ceaseless tide of London traffic, but with their graceful white fingers pointed to Heaven, where every Londoner and every architect believes the great Sir Christopher is occupying a place not far distant from the Heavenly Throne. And here at last comes the remark. I had said, ‘ I suppose Sir Christopher Wren’s work has a profound influence on modern British architecture.’ We were standing in the shadow of St. Paul’s; my friend turned to me and said, ‘Listen,’ — he had recently made a tour of America, — ‘do you really want to know the greatest influence in British architecture to-day? Well, it’s the United States of America!’

The other remark was made by a painter, and near at home — to be exact, in the galleriesof the Art Institute of Chicago during the Exhibition of American Paintings in the fall of 1923. This painter is not widely known. He has a quaint idea that pictures are only to be painted. Such little considerations as getting them before the public and selling them — even at a price that represents only in a small degree their worth — fill his soul with fatigue and his eye with alarm. One promising young artist was advised to come to Chicago and, by way of finishing his education, to sit at my friend’s feet and listen to his talk. I had been listening to his talk as we walked from picture to picture. My unexpressed feeling that we were face to face with something reminiscent of chaos was being endorsed and set forth by my friend.

‘ Have we exhausted the mine of art as some say we shall exhaust the coal veins? . . . What are these fellows trying to do? Don’t they know that plastic art. has definite limits? . . . Art may be the expression of an emotion, but, whatever the emotion, its expression should be learned. . . . Artists no longer paint for themselves or the public. They paint for each other and the juries.’

Finally came the remark that I am chronicling. He turned to me and exploded with ‘I envy you.’ ‘Yes?’ said I. ‘What is it, my private stock?’ He passed it by. ‘I envy your being an architect.’ I looked at him in alarm. Surely the golden thread had snapped under the strain. ‘There, John,’ I said, ‘calm yourself. You’ll be all right pretty soon. I ‘ll go and get a couple of the guards.’ ‘No, I mean it,’ he said. ‘Architecture is the only art that has made any progress in the last twentyfive years.’

Was it so? I looked about me, and behind the purposeless, formless, soulless haze of color and shapes arose the breathless shaft of the Woolworth Building, glimmered the opalescent columns of the Lincoln Memorial, and smiled so benignly the cloistered and fretted quadrangles of Yale.

Curiously enough, the architectural history of this country has never been written. We know it has a history with an interesting succession of styles and dates and examples, like Italy or France, but these have been passed down from generation to generation as part of the folklore of the tribe. Its first manifestation, the Colonial, we know very well. From the pretty young bride, building her nest, to the University don beside the stereopticon, its graceful porticoes and delicate ornament are res cognita, and it is an honorable style. It is the last of the Renaissance, the second childhood of the infant so carefully tended by Brunelleschi and taught to walk by Bramante. The sun which rose in 1420 so gloriously in Italy, whose morning light illuminated France, whose slanting beams tinged the castles and manors of old England, set in pale but lovely hues four hundred years later in the thirteen colonies of our own America.

With the Colonial or the Georgian, as its later phase is often called, died taste. From its grave sprang the plant — very like an acanthus — that is called the Greek Revival. Carthages, Romes, and Uticas sprouted in the wilderness, and the covered wagon, along with the rifle and the ploughshare, found room for the porticoes of the Parthenon and the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates. In simpler phrase, all of the buildings in this country built between 1825 and 1860 — wood, brick, or stone; house, church, or state capitol, — were built in some form of the Greek Classic style.

Can some social diagnostician explain the strange artistic plague that swept over Europe in the fifties, was brought to this country by returning travelers in the early sixties, spread by the new railroads all over the country, and ran a virulent course for almost twenty years ? Among its victims were the Greek Revival in architecture, beauty and charm in painting and sculpture, taste in dress, dignity in manners. Some of its symptoms were hoop skirts, Dundreary whiskers, Rogers groups, haircloth Eastlake furniture, wax flowers, the Hudson River school of painting, P. T. Barnum, and the panic of ‘73. Mansard roofs, an atrocious importation from France, and feeble, ignorant adaptations of the Victorian Gothic, degenerate descendants of Ruskin and Pugin, made in this country more permanent architectural scars. What Jenner and Pasteur effected in other plagues, William Morris and the PreRaphaelites did to this across the water. Our own champions were William Morris Hunt and Henry Hobson Richardson.

Richardson, with his Trinity Church on one hand and his powerful personality on the other, — if one may coin a figure, — came within an ace of establishing an American style. His weapon was the Romanesque, and its simple and primitive forms held great possibilities for development. But, having overthrown the enemy, he had no legionaries to pursue the retreating foe.

There were few trained architects in the eighties, and very soon the imitators of Richardson were doing worse things with the Romanesque — which had become exceedingly popular, especially in the Middle West — than the parvenus had perpetrated with the mansard roof and the pointed arch. Then came one of those rare and extraordinary events which almost in a night turn the tide of history. When Daniel H. Burnham and his distinguished band of associates, sitting about his great mahogany table, voted that the style of the Columbian Exposition should be Classic, with a word almost they gave the coup de grâce to the Romanesque and to struggling Romanticism, and established for another epoch, at least, the course of art in this country. So in 1893 we embarked on that architectural journey which has led us thirty years later to the shores of an architectural Cytherea.

We do not need any Pisgah height to see the present architectural movement in its true significance. It is stylistically a period of pure eclecticism. The Classic of Phidias and Augustus, the Gothic of Saint Hugh of Lincoln and Abbé Suger, the Renaissance of Brunelleschi and Peruzzi, of Lescot and Soufflot, of Vanbrugh and Inigo Jones, of Egas and Herrera, have all been picked over and the choicest selected. These, however, are but the garments that drape so gracefully and display so beautifully the American body of steel and concrete within; a body which pulsates with the energy of electricity and steam and through whose veins course the corpuscles of human lives.

America’s great contributions to structural architecture are the skeleton steel frame, on which are hung the walls and floors; the high-speed elevator, a necessary corollary; and the development of reënforced concrete — a new element in architecture, by the way, the youngest of the family of which the elder brothers are the post, the lintel, the arch, and the truss. Her contribution in decorative architecture has been her ability to select, digest, and assimilate the choicest products of the ages, although a golden fruit from her own garden, the creative work of Louis Sullivan, awaits the appetite of a future generation.

This combination has resulted particularly in great buildings of unbelievable height and dimensions, built as no buildings were ever built previous to the last decade of the nineteenth century in America, and ornamented with architecture freely and joyfully borrowed and adopted from all ages and all climes.

The columns of the Parthenon, the pendentives of St. Sophia, the arcsboutants of Amiens, the cornices of the Farnese and Versailles, gaze down from immeasurable heights on a welter of humanity and machinery. Their shining flanks are dappled with shadows of aeroplanes that ‘laugh as they pass in thunder,’ while ‘sublime on their towers’ the mysterious antennæ ‘join cape to cape over a torrent sea.’

This robbing of the Hesperidean apple orchard has been taken very seriously by critics of American architecture, who well argue that, as we have invented our own structure, we should invent, not borrow, our own decorative forms. The use of precedent is, after all, a matter of manners, not of morals, and, like other adventurers, what we want we take.

Previous to 1893 there was not a single class of building in which we excelled or equaled contemporary work of the mother countries, although there is a tradition that back in the forties European architects visited this country to study our penal institutions, which had advanced a step or two beyond the Bastille and the Old Bailey. To-day there is hardly a single class of structure in which an excellent claim cannot be advanced for either our supremacy or our equality.

In the skyscraping office-building class, the Woolworth Tower not only is supreme, but is one of the great architectural creations of all time. In monumental architecture the serene beauty of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington surely shames the florid extravagance of its grandiose rival, the Memorial to Victor Emmanuel in Rome. In railway stations the Pennsylvania Station in New York is so far ahead of such a building as the Gare d’Orléans in Paris that a fairer comparison would be to put it shoulder to shoulder with the Baths of Diocletian or Caracalla. The great public libraries in Boston, New York, or Indianapolis are all superior in size and, in the case of one at least, equal in architectural merit to the Bibliothèque de SainteGeneviève in Paris.

Our supremacy in hotel architecture is acknowledged abroad, and the great caravansaries which line Park Avenue and Michigan Boulevard are emulated as far as possible by European architects. In bank buildings we are again easily supreme. There is an unbelievably long list of magnificent structures in which the splendor that was Rome is united to the big business that is America. In shops we have not, perhaps, achieved the charm of those fascinating magasins of the Rue de la Paix and Bond Street, but Fifth Avenue and State Street have no equals in the size, magnificence, and convenience of their great stores. In theatres the great building of Garnier, which from its throne in the Place de l’Opéra holds the sceptre of Napoleon the Third over the right bank, is still unrivaled. Perhaps the mighty auditorium of Sullivan in Chicago approaches it in part, but let it reign supreme.

In public-school architecture American architects have evolved types of plans and forms of construction that have revolutionized or rather created out of whole cloth a new architectural science. Such high schools, junior high schools, grammar and primary schools, as are found in even unimportant communities are not approached and hardly dreamed of in Europe. In the domain of the less technical but more picturesque collegiate architecture, the Harkness Memorial and the dormitories at Princeton have no contemporaries in England or France for comparison, and so beautiful are they that the faded loveliness of Trinity and Magdalen seems to glow again in these their youthful daughters.

Gothic churches in Europe since the thirteenth century have, like pallid seedlings, here and there sprung up about the giant roots of Amiens and Chartres, of Salisbury and Wells. The kindest soil seems to have been in England, and here of this second growth are to be found its two noblest specimens — Westminster Cathedral, London (not the Abbey), Bentley’s great building, adored by the profession, abhorred by the laity; and the new Liverpool Cathedral, where Sir Giles Scott seems to have rediscovered the secret of the Middle Ages, and in the majesty of his masses and the freshness of his detail has achieved the inevitability of a Notre Dame. Can we balance the ledger in ecclesiastical architecture on this side? It would seem to the writer that none of the three great cathedrals now building in America will equal the great fane of Liverpool. In our parish churches, however, under the leadership of the learned Cram and the sainted Goodhue, our country has achieved a convincing leadership. The departmentalized Sunday school, especially in the denominational church, has given birth to church schools or parish houses the like of which are utterly unknown abroad; and aside from supremacy in such matters as heating, lighting, acoustics, and scientific arrangement, the best of these churches and parish houses, especially those from that magic hand now stilled, surpass in grace and beauty of detail the work of the best Gothicists of England.

When we attempt to rival England, the home of homes, in domestic architecture, we are bearding the lion in his den, or more particularly, perhaps, the Douglas in his hall; but it is America that has shown England that the house can be built cheaper, the servants will be fewer, and the roast beef will be hotter, if the kitchen is built on the same side of the house as the dining-room! It is America that has shown the traditionally tubbed Englishman that a house with ten bedrooms should have more than one bathroom! If you want to see the real influence of the United States on British architecture compare the plan of the contemporary English house with the houses that are springing up by thousands in our suburbs, and whose plans make fascinating patterns on the pages of many of our magazines.

There is no space here to point out the great influence on the architecture of Germany and Holland of what has been called the ‘Chicago School,’ the rationalist style of Sullivan and Wright, of which the principal examples are in the Middle West. Nor can we draw attention even for a moment to our other various ‘schools,’ the most brilliant of which has jeweled the cliffs of Monterey and the valleys of Santa Barbara with villas which yield nothing in either brilliance or charm to those sirens who still beckon to us so irresistibly as they bathe their white feet in the waters of the Mediterranean. So much is being accomplished in the present. What of the future?

The tolling bells and the shouting voices of Armistice Day unknowingly rang out that great epoch of history in which for five hundred years we loved and fought, laughed and wept, worked and played. We called it the Renaissance. It saw the rise of science and the triumph of capitalism, but it was not the most glorious period or even a rebirth of architecture. Architecture in the breathless beauty of Amiens and Chartres had reached its apogee in the great five-hundred-year cycle that preceded it, which we call the Middle Ages. And now the bells and the voices that sang the requiem of a bloody and a restless past have rung in with shouting a new era, an era which will see with other wonders America in her destined place in the sun; and who shall say she will not be enthroned in an architecture with which neither the glories of the Periclean Age nor the ecstasy of the thirteenth century can compare?