June 10: Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

2016/06/10 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1922 a competition was announced for a new building to house the Chicago Tribune newspaper company.

The Tribune competition ranks as one of the most important, ever.  Certainly in the twentieth century it was a major barometer of taste, echoing the significance of England’s Parliament building competition in the 1830s (which prompted the “Battle of the Styles”).  A century later, the same kinds of questions were raised surrounding style: What was appropriate for this kind of building?  For this city?  At this time?  This may be even more prominent in the Chicago competition, poised on the fulcrum of the modernist/traditionalist debate, and for which the brief was very brief indeed, basically suggesting a target for square footage and the demand that the Tribune tower be the most beautiful office building in the world.

So, what was that–“most beautiful”–supposed to mean in 1922?  The winners apparently got it right–or at least appealed to the jury.  Raymond Hood, better known for super-slick Moderne and Deco work in New York (the American Radiator Building was of the same vintage as the Trib, the Daily News a bit later; but the jolly green McGraw-Hill is the Muse’s favorite in his portfolio), channeled his inner historian by enlarging a Rouen tower to a scale that would astonish a medieval builder.  His use of buttresses for ornament would horrify Modernists and Ruskinians alike, but they have been the delight of generations of Chicagoans who take to this tall building like mustard and onions take to a Polish.

The Gothic skyscraper, as a movement, had a brief and glorious moment, as chronicled in Popular Mechanics, of all places.  But it wasn’t Hood’s strongest idiom, and the Trib was more of a last gasp than an apogee.  As is so often the case, it’s the second-place prizewinner from this competition who was the prophet: Eliel Saarinen’s step-back design was more a predictor of future taste.  It’s a welcome mediator between the Gothic skyscraper and the proposals put forward by some of the great names in European Modernism.  Gropius, Loos, Taut and others all leapt at the chance to design a building at a scale that Europe was in no means ready to build in the aftermath of the Great War.  Of them, it’s the latter that catches the Muse’s eye–in part because of all interwar theorists, only Taut seemed able to muster an optimistic view of the future (he wanted to spread metallic and glass architecture across the globe, believing that light would regenerate the human spirit).  It’s also interesting to revisit Taut’s design because the circulation of his nearly century-old picture will help to contextualize the sad state of skyscraper design today.  Seriously, Renzo: we know you could have done better than that.

Image: early postcard of the modern skyscraper at night (from this source)

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