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Monday, January 9, 2012

Soaring Art

Wrigley Building, Chicago, 1920-24,
Graham, Anderson, Probst & White
As one who has painted and taught painting for a number of years, it's always interesting the definition artists attach to the term "large." For the miniaturist, large means 4 by 6 inches or more. To most of us, large means we measure our canvases in feet rather than inches. To the sculptor, large gets into measurements denoted by yards or meters. Imagine working in a medium where large is measured in acres or stories. Imagine creating a work of art that could be seen from all over an entire city (on a clear day of course). We seldom think of architects as artists or skyscrapers as works of art unless and until we get to know them intimately. Often that means getting inside both of them. Entering what we commonly call the "skyscraper" is one of the most overwhelming art experiences imaginable. The lobby alone with its rich marbles, banks of gold-doored elevators, soaring ceilings, balconies, exquisite lighting, all this can be breathtaking, yet it usually occupies less than 1% of the total structure. Entering the mind of the architect, is much harder. We often find two beings, a creative genius harnessed by the hard-core, nuts and bolts logic of an engineer. Disney called them "Imagineers," and that's a pretty good synthesis of what it takes to be an artist on the grandest scale imaginable.

Tribune Tower, Chicago, 1925,
John Howells & Raymond Hood,
Gothic Revival
The grandest art form imaginable had a tortured birth. It was the direct result of skyrocketing real-estate prices in big cities. During the early 1800s however, it was held in check by the limitations of wood and masonry construction and the unwillingness of inhabitants to climb more than about six flights of stairs to get to the top (pant, pant, huff, huff). Two developments freed them to soar. One, was the Otis Electric Elevator, and the second was cast iron construction. Buildings topped ten, or twelve stories almost immediately. Traditional architectural styles struggled, but eventually managed to cope with the massive demands of this new art form. Then came steel, astronomical real-state prices, and express elevators. Buildings soared to twenty, thirty, even forty stories by the early 1900s. Stylistically, architects struggled mightily to encapsulate these steel-ribbed giants with Classical, Gothic, and Art Deco garments. They had varying degrees of success ranging from the comical to the inspiring.  The Wrigley building and Tribune Tower in Chicago, and the Chrysler Building in New York are some of the more successful examples of this struggle.

Philadelphia Savings Fund Society,
1929-32, Howe & Lescaze
Around the late 1920s, architects gradually gave up decorating skyscrapers to make them look like Gothic cathedrals of enlightenment, or Roman temples of commerce, or rocket ships aimed at the moon. Among the first to see the light was George Howe. Born in 1886, he was trained in the old school--literally and symbolically by the Ecole des Beaux-arts in Paris. In 1929, he and his partner, Swiss modernist, William Lescaze decided to let skyscrapers be skyscrapers. They evolved the slab.  Influenced by the German Bauhaus, they designed a building to be seen as an entity and style in itself.  Their 1929-32 Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building in Philadelphia was just that.  At approximately 40 stories it was by no means the tallest building of its time but it marked the first instance when this type of structure was shorn of comical gargoyles, an inspiring spire, even surface decoration. Constructed at the same time as the Empire State Building, it appears a good 20 years more advanced in design. A new architectural style had evolved. It did not belong to any one man, one nation, or even one continent. It was dubbed the International Style.

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