February 08: Ave Ioannes

2012/02/08 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1819 John Ruskin was born.

Ruskin wrote great books like this one (which is great, but a long haul) and  this one (which is great straight through) and this one (which needs a little editing) and this (which is the best part of the latter). He had a great eye for art and celebrated this old painter and these youngsters (but had a troubled interlude with this one).  He could also really paint and really draw.  He cultivated impressive whiskers and could tie a cravat.  Speculations about his personal life are unimportant in the recognition of his monumental professional contributions.  Let us pray.

Hail Ruskin, full of grace, the Truth is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst writers,
and blessed is the fruit of thy pen (
especially the “Seven Lamps of Architecture)”.
Blessed Ruskin, Father of Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory, and Obedience,
pray for our sins of Egoism, Falsehood, Meanness, Ugliness, Technophilia, Forgetfulness, and Capriciousness,
at the hour of architecture’s death.

image: “John Ruskin in His Study” by William Gershom Collingwood (1881)


February 07: ‘lunar Gothic’

2012/02/07 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1868 an awesome review of Oriel Chambers appeared in The Building News and Engineering Journal.

Most histories of iron technology ignore this nubby little office building in Liverpool, which is a shame.  As perhaps the first fully metal-framed curtain-wall building anywhere, it certainly knocks the wind out of Chicago’s sails for technological predominance in the story of tall building construction.  Then again, saying this Liverpudlian one-off is the world’s first skyscraper and a precedent for virtually all of the Modern movement might be an exaggeration (even so, it’s true Liverpool deserves more attention; see here to see why).  Peter Ellis’ building is novel to be sure, but it turned out to be avant garde in the bad way: the military way, the way of being the first into the battle and getting skewered by a bayonet.  For Ellis it was the architectural press and public opinion that did him in as his building was universally panned.  For all their good manners elsewhere, nineteenth-century folks knew how to let it fly when they didn’t like a building, and the critique of Oriel Chambers is something special.  To get the full effect of the review, please grow excellent facial hair and twirl your mustache at every sarcastic adjective (hint: that’s all of them) (and that goes for a few verbs and nouns, too).  You may also wish to imagine Bill Nighy reading the following, which is reprinted here in its entire nineteenth-century perfection:

The lover of the sublime in architecture … will be amply rewarded for previous disappointment if he turn down Water-street and contemplate the erection called Oriel-buildings, which the genius of Mr. Peter Ellis has called into existence.  This is a kind of greenhouse architecture run mad; consisting of a series of vertical bays running completely from the top to bottom of the building, divided from each other by long thin shafts, rising from the plinth without any bases, said shafts being flanked by a very large coarse “nail-head” ornament.  Between these artistically designed piers are a series of bay windows with iron frames, one above the other, projecting beyond the mainline of the wall, and suggesting the idea that they are trying to escape from the building.  The whole thing is composed of these vertical strips of design (?) placed side by side, each bay crowned with a finial looking like a big, badly cut decanter-stopper.  The style, in short, might be described as  “lunar Gothic;” and no one who has not seen it would believe, we think, that such a thing could, in the present day, be erected in cold blood by any person calling himself a member of the architectural profession.

Those were the days.  The days when architecture critics could dole out a one-two punch based on actual standards and expectations, rather than running to keep up with the jargon intended to apologize for whatever has most lately dripped out of the CAD stations in Koolhaas’ office or wherever.  The days when critics and public could tell a guy “we hate your building” without the fear of being labelled philistines.  The days when that guy would hang it up and stop being an architect–which is precisely what happened to Ellis.

Read the full issue of The Building News and Engineering Journal (vol. 15, 7 February 1868, pages 90-91) right here

image: Oriel Chambers, Liverpool (Clio’s)

February 06: a prairie architect’s companion

2012/02/06 § Leave a comment

In this month in 1883 the premiere issue of The Inland Architect appeared.

Although it had no editorial stance against architecture outside of the midwest, the journal’s focus was on the buildings rising in such quickly growing cities as St. Louis, Cincinnati, St. Paul, Detroit, and of course its home base, Chicago.  With this point of view, it filled the gap left by myopic East Coast journals that thought only barns and tepees existed in the wild west beyond the Hudson River and supported the profession in the midwest by recording the aims and concerns of these first architectural professionals on the prairie.  Its first issue promised a history of Chicago architecture written by William Le Baron Jenney, lots of news on apartment construction, info on the growth of Chicago’s hardwood market, the rediscovery of vasa murrhina  (which is apparently in need of rediscovery again), reports on new buildings (including the Calumet Club House portrayed above–the only illustration that appeared in the fourteen-page issue), warnings about improper application of brass curtain-loops, notes on several upcoming art exhibitions, a short piece explaining that the “erection of buildings at night by means of the electric light is becoming quite a common thing all over the country,” advice about trendy colors for libraries and dining rooms (Pompeiian red) and parlor wallpaper (electric blue and shell pink), predictions on the damage done by the winter’s snowfall, and a complete list of building permits issued for the month.

Inland Architect represents the first centralized voice for the profession in the middle part of the country as directed by and focused on some of its leading practitioners–names like Burnham, Root, Adler, and Sullivan.  These are the same people who would form the Western Association of Architects in the following year after losing patience with the East-Coastcentric AIA.  (And why not, seeing how they could still totally eat the lunch of their contemporary eastern rivals like Hunt or McKim or Kendall or Post or whomever.)  However, just like the WAA (which merged with the AIA in 1899), Inland Architect could not maintain its sense of isolated professional bravado as the country and profession expanded and the country was knit more closely together.  That is a good and a bad thing, for it meant more opportunity for midwestern architects, but less of a regional voice–both expressed and preserved.  Inland had a troubled publication history after its heyday, struggling for steady readership through the twentieth century.  During the 1980s Harry Weese valiantly helped it along, but after his exit from its leadership the journal wobbled.  The costs associated with its next iteration, which made it glossier and fatter, also made its publication costs untenable in the collapse of the profession in the latter part of the 1980s.  In 1994 it was sold to Steven N. Polydoris, who runs REN Publishing Co., “a publisher of high-quality consumer and trade magazines” (according to his website).  Inland is now a sad orphan among his list of titles, standing among such stunning journals as North Shore Style Weddings and New Accountant.  Jenney would not be impressed.

In April, 2011, the Art Institute of Chicago made a load of Inland images available on its website.

You can read the inaugural issue of Inland Architect here.

February 05: Russian Ark

2012/02/05 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1852 the Hermitage Museum opened to the public.

The website of the Hermitage reports–with that uniquely hilarious understatement for which the Russians are so famous–that in 1764 Catherine the Great purchased “a considerable collection of Western European paintings” that formed the core of the mammoth museum.  “Considerable” is one way to describe it: 225 paintings (mostly Italian, Dutch, and Flemish) purchased in one fell swoop from the King of Prussia, including thirteen by Rembrandt, eleven by Rubens, five by van Dyck, five by Veronese, three by Frans Hals, two by Raphael, two by Holbein, and one by Titian.  It was the first of Catherine’s massive acquisitions, made with the desire of raising the cultural status of her empire, the throne of which she took 1762 at age 33.  In subsequent years, scores of artwork made their way from points across Europe to St. Petersburg, with a few more spectacular binges.  In 1769 the empress acquired a batch of over 600 paintings representing the Dutch, Flemish, French, Italian and German schools, adding more works by Rembrandt and welcoming such names as Rubens, Poussin, Watteau, Ruysdael, Bellotto, and Tiepolo to the capital.  In 1772 she added works by Raphael, Titian, Veronese, a few more Rembrandts, two canvases by Rubens, six van Dyck portraits and a slew of modern French and Netherlandish painters.  She emptied Houghton Hall of 198 collected first by Robert Walpole in 1779 and two years later made her final whole-collection purchase of 199 works, including nine Rembrandts.  All together, Catherine’s acquisitions included 4,000 old master paintings, an even greater number of prints and drawings, 16,000 coins and medals, a number of classical sculptures, 10,000 engraved gems, and the libraries of philosophers Voltarie and Diderot within a library numbering 38,000 books.

All the while, the building complex grew to accommodate the blossoming art collection.  Starting in 1764 with the Small Hermitage, a two-story Neo-Classical building next to the Winter Palace, additions were made in the late 1760s, leading to the development in 1771  on the Great Hermitage, a huge three-story addition by architect Yuri Velten.  1792 saw the construction of an extension called the Raphael Loggia, specially constructed to house copies of the famous sixteenth-century frescoes in the Vatican.  A great theatre was added in 1783.  In 1795 Giacomo Quarenghi designed and built the 8611 SF Large Throne Hall, adorned with pink marble Corinthian columns and other sumptuous materials, frescoes, and a great gilded perch for the empress.  The palace was furnished with porcelain, silver and furniture from the best known artisans across Europe.

Catherine established the foundation and set the tradition of building and collecting that was continued after her death.  It was left to her heirs to open the collection to a wider audience.  In 1852 Nicholas I, an energetic builder and all-around aesthete, opened the museum, featuring a new wing designed by Leo von Klenze, with a celebration that included a special performance in the Hermitage Theatre and feted 600 people at a special dinner in the Skylight Hall which is, you know, not a bad place to eat (or look at paintings).  The building itself continues in the Classical vein established in the previous century, but with Klenze’s more severe approach, and in grey marble around a series of courtyards.  Although at first the opening of this first public art museum in Russia sounds surprisingly democratic, keep in mind that admission was made to only a portion of the imperial collection (the Winter Palace remained off-limits to commoners) and only to those who wore evening dress and avoided particular cuts of millinery that the emperor deemed “Jewish.”  Those who were admitted were treated to a grand collection that was nearly unequalled–maybe outdone only by the Louvre, which opened in 1793 (with 537 paintings and 184 objets) and had grown steadily (especially assisted by the great Plunderer in Chief, Napoleon, and his nephew); closer (but still 980 miles away) the Kunsthistorisches Museum made the Habsburg collection available to the Viennese almost four decades later, in 1891.  The Hermitage suffered after the Revolution of 1917, when an estimated 2,000 pieces were sold off, including the twenty-one old masters that Andrew Mellon purchased in 1931 to kick-start the National Gallery in Washington.

In its scale and scope, the Hermitage stands among, if not above, the other great world museums in Paris, Vienna, Madrid, Washington, and New York.  But it is perhaps distinct in being not just a great museum in a former Imperial capital, but for the sweep of glory, treachery, triumph and misery for which it has also been the setting.  It is this character that is so well memorialized in Russian Ark, which is more of a cinematic poem than a mere movie.  Setting aside the technical accomplishment for which the movie is famous, the film is maybe the best museum experience a person can have–it does not show the art to great advantage, but rather stands in for the art itself, taking us through centuries of Russian culture and history in a manner that is in turns joyful, unnerving, murky, glorious.  Like the Biblical ark, it is a vessel of preservation for precious cargo, in the midst of a wreck brought on by the actions of misguided humanity.  At turns gloomy and exultant, ultimately it is an elegiac hymn to a noble ideal.

image: still from Russian Ark (dir. Alexander Nikolayevich Sokurov, 2002)

February 04: Song Dynasty

2012/02/04 § Leave a comment

On this day in 960 the coronation of Emperor Taizu took place.

Initiating the Song Dynasty of China, Taizu expanded and solidified the empire, instituted administrative reforms, created academies, and lay the groundwork for advance in the arts and sciences.  During the following three centuries of Song rule, architecture would flourish, along with landscape painting, calligraphy, poetry and ceramics.

Although many of its buildings, built primarily of wood and other ephemeral materials, have been lost to fire and general decay, their memory is recorded in paintings like the one above: beautiful renderings of apparently delicate pavilions–their eaves as elegant as the wings and necks of the cranes that waft through the air above–that were actually very heavy and complex structures.  (For eighty-five high-resolution scans of paintings in the collection of the exquisite Freer Gallery, click here.)

Architectural form and structure were codified in building manuals that rose in significance to emphasize the symbolic importance of architecture to the empire.  Most notable among these is the Yingzao Fashi (“Treatise on State Building Standards”) by Li Jie (1065–1110), director of the construction administration in the mid-Song Dynasty.  Not a treatise in the sense of the theoretical works that would flourish in Renaissance Italy, the Yingzao Fashi was more like the practical parts of Vitruvius, laying down expectations for methods and costs, recipes for mortar and glaze, careful directions for devising timber and stone details.  Importantly, it not only codified building practices but regularized them throughout the Empire to serve political ends as the Académie royale d’architecture would do starting about six centuries later.

Some of the great works that do survive from the Song Dynasty reveal the two great reaches with which builders striving for monumentality must contend: height and span.  The Song builders soared into the heavens with lofty pagodas that commonly reached 150 feet (Pizhi Pagoda, 960-1127; Huqiu Tower, 961 ) and leapt over rivers with bridges that could span seventy feet at one jump (Four Lakes Bridge, 10th c.; Rainbow Bridge, 12th c.).  These are the monuments of the empire founded by Taizu.  They form a startling contrast with contemporary developments in Europe, where medieval Christians were hunkering down and fearing for the end of the world, or once in a while building a big stony mass to house leftover parts of dead saints.

Image: detail of painting by Zhao Ji, collection of Liaoning Provincial Museum (from this source)

February 03: a house for viewing the moon in

2012/02/03 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1579 Prince Hachijō Toshihito was born.

The prince grew up to be a well-educated man with deep cultural interests.  Like many aristocrats of his generation he was under the spell of a tenth-century novel about an amorous princeling called the Tale of Genji.  He set out to build a villa that would live up to the scenes he imagined in the story, in particular, the passages that describe the reflection of the moon on water, and the elegant parties of courtiers who gather to watch the moon.

His creation was the core of Katsura Imperial Villa, construction of which was carried on by his son and others.  In all, it is the epitome of Japanese villa architecture.  Asymmetrical pavilions arranged around the modularity of tatami mats seem to be placed casually around a verdant garden of shrubs, trees, rocks, flowering things, and plays of water.  Screen walls open to reveal images of the landscape that are perfect enough to appear on a hanging scroll.

It all looks so natural, because really none of it is.  All natural materials (meaning non-industrially-produced) to be sure, entire thing is artifice, a fiction like the story that inspired it.  Like all great fictions, both written and built, it creates a new world that we are all the better for having visited.

Image: “Geppa-ro: Shokin-tei View” by jpellgen (from this source)


February 02: the central monument of punk rock Pac-Man & disco lightsabers

2012/02/02 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1977 the Musée National d’Art Moderne, in the Centre Pompidou, opened to the public.

Clio ranks this as one of the ten most important buildings of the twentieth century (and probably is not alone in doing so).  It posed a significant challenge to norms of museum design, and asserted blatant technological expression in a most unlikely setting.  To say that the selection of this high-tech project for the newest museum in Paris came as a shock to many is putting it lightly.  This is Paris we’re talking about: Paris of the grande tradition of Classical French architecture (see yesterday’s post to find out where that came from), those little book stalls on the Seine, elderly men in berets playing the accordion, not to mention things like Notre Dame, which is just one-half mile (or, in Parisian terms, 1,462 baguettes laid end-to-end) away.  It’s a big box whose structure and services (the latter color-coded) were moved to the outside to free the interior.  The competition entry by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers took delight in announcing its difference from the physical nature of the city, not to mention its departure from standard museum design.  No traditional galleries, no hierarchical entry, and a style of architecture that was blatantly anti-establishment and anti-art; indeed, it was pro-machine, pro-technology, pro-populism, allegedly all the things that its collection would be about, too.  It became the signal work of High Tech architecture, the building that made it OK for London insurance markets and Hong Kong banks to build landmarks that don’t just reveal their structure but make every effort to celebrate the most acrobatic feats of hugely scaled engineering design possible.

In addition to its demands to be understood as a twentieth-century building for twentieth-century art, the new approach was explained as a way to popularize the museum experience and to make a multi-functioning building in a space that would regenerate a drab part of the city.  Rather than the allegedly off-putting, elitist architecture seen in more traditional museums, where classical cartouches and columns stand at the top of broad flights of stairs, this was more welcoming, open on two long sides, allowing anyone to live out their dreams of hamster life in a Habitrail by taking the snakey escalators up to the top.  (Not that the traditional architecture of the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay appears to slow down the 10.8 million annual visitors to those museums,* but never mind.)  It was a huge success in these terms: the museum opened six years after the competition, on time and under budget, and was immediately and immensely popular.  Too popular, one might argue, since the building (which cost an adjusted $1.03 billion), had to be shut down between October 1996 and January 2000 to restore the damage done by the unanticipated numbers of visitors (to the tune of $119 million)–on some days, four times the expected 5,000 per day showed up.

Pompidou paved the way for other museum enterprises that would use unprecedented architecture to boost attendance.  It had the Bilbao effect twenty years before Bilbao.  As it ages (which it does expensively), it will take on the uncomfortable quaintness that is the destiny of all things designed to be of-the-very-moment: it is fated to be aesthetically obsolete, or at least, really stuck in its particular period, appropriately so, along with the art inside of it.  Remember that the sense of modernity and future technological promise in 1977 is shared by these events and artifacts: the vinyl debut of The Clash, the opening of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, the special effects of the original Star Wars, the creation of the Department of energy by Jimmy Carter, the first test free-flight of the space shuttle Enterprise, the episode where Fonzie Jumped the Shark that you dialed up with your hand rather than a remote control, the release of the Atari 2600, the start of trans-Atlantic flights by the Concorde to New York, illuminated discotheque dance floors.  Clearly, we’ve moved on, but Piano & Rogers’ museum is now an old building, only fifteen years shy of eligibility for a historic landmark plaque.  Pompidou is to the Apple II as the Regium Waterfront is to whatever Apple product you’re holding right now, and you know it’s only a matter of time until they look dumpy.

*or the Rodin Museum, Picasso Museum, Museum of the Middle Ages, Museum of Advertising, Museum of Asiatic Arts, the Arts & Metiers, the Orangerie . . . have I made my point?

values figured with this source and this source.

Image: (from this source)

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