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   Chapter 1 BEFORE THE WAR

Architecture and Democracy By Claude Fayette Bragdon Characters: 27275

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The world war represents not the triumph, but the birth of democracy. The true ideal of democracy-the rule of a people by the demos, or group soul-is a thing unrealized. How then is it possible to consider or discuss an architecture of democracy-the shadow of a shade? It is not possible to do so with any degree of finality, but by an intention of consciousness upon this juxtaposition of ideas-architecture and democracy-signs of the times may yield new meanings, relations may emerge between things apparently unrelated, and the future, always existent in every present moment, may be evoked by that strange magic which resides in the human mind.

Architecture, at its worst as at its best, reflects always a true image of the thing that produced it; a building is revealing even though it is false, just as the face of a liar tells the thing his words endeavor to conceal. This being so, let us make such architecture as is ours declare to us our true estate.

The architecture of the United States, from the period of the Civil War, up to the beginning of the present crisis, everywhere reflects a struggle to be free of a vicious and depraved form of feudalism, grown strong under the very ?gis of democracy. The qualities that made feudalism endeared and enduring; qualities written in beauty on the cathedral cities of mediaeval Europe-faith, worship, loyalty, magnanimity-were either vanished or banished from this pseudo-democratic, aridly scientific feudalism, leaving an inheritance of strife and tyranny-a strife grown mean, a tyranny grown prudent, but full of sinister power the weight of which we have by no means ceased to feel.

Power, strangely mingled with timidity; ingenuity, frequently misdirected; ugliness, the result of a false ideal of beauty-these in general characterize the architecture of our immediate past; an architecture "without ancestry or hope of posterity," an architecture devoid of coherence or conviction; willing to lie, willing to steal. What impression such a city as Chicago or Pittsburgh might have made upon some denizen of those cathedral-crowned feudal cities of the past we do not know. He would certainly have been amazed at its giant energy, and probably revolted at its grimy dreariness. We are wont to pity the mediaeval man for the dirt he lived in, even while smoke greys our sky and dirt permeates the very air we breathe: we think of castles as grim and cathedrals as dim, but they were beautiful and gay with color compared with the grim, dim canyons of our city streets.

Lafcadio Hearn, in A Conservative, has sketched for us, with a sympathy truly clairvoyant, the impression made by the cities of the West upon the consciousness of a young Japanese samurai educated under a feudalism not unlike that of the Middle Ages, wherein was worship, reverence, poetry, loyalty-however strangely compounded with the more sinister products of the feudal state.

Larger than all anticipation the West appeared to him,-a world of giants; and that which depresses even the boldest Occidental who finds himself, without means or friends, alone in a great city, must often have depressed the Oriental exile: that vague uneasiness aroused by the sense of being invisible to hurrying millions; by the ceaseless roar of traffic drowning voices; by monstrosities of architecture without a soul; by the dynamic display of wealth forcing mind and hand, as mere cheap machinery, to the uttermost limits of the possible. Perhaps he saw such cities as Doré saw London: sullen majesty of arched glooms, and granite deeps opening into granite deeps beyond range of vision, and mountains of masonry with seas of labor in turmoil at their base, and monumental spaces displaying the grimness of ordered power slow-gathering through centuries. Of beauty there was nothing to make appeal to him between those endless cliffs of stone which walled out the sunrise and the sunset, the sky and the wind.

The view of our pre-war architecture thus sketchily presented is sure to be sharply challenged in certain quarters, but unfortunately for us all this is no mere matter of opinion, it is a matter of fact. The buildings are there, open to observation; rooted to the spot, they cannot run away. Like criminals "caught with the goods" they stand, self-convicted, dirty with the soot of a thousand chimneys, heavy with the spoils of vanished civilizations; graft and greed stare at us out of their glazed windows-eyes behind which no soul can be discerned. There are doubtless extenuating circumstances; they want to be clean, they want to be honest, these "monsters of the mere market," but they are nevertheless the unconscious victims of evils inherent in our transitional social state.

Let us examine these strange creatures, doomed, it is hoped, to extinction in favor of more intelligent and gracious forms of life. They are big, powerful, "necessitous," and have therefore an impressiveness, even an ?sthetic appeal, not to be denied. So subtle and sensitive an old-world consciousness as that of M. Paul Bourget was set vibrating by them like a violin to the concussion of a trip-hammer, and to the following tune:

The portals of the basements, usually arched as if crushed beneath the weight of the mountains which they support, look like dens of a primitive race, continually receiving and pouring forth a stream of people. You lift your eyes, and you feel that up there behind the perpendicular wall, with its innumerable windows, is a multitude coming and going,-crowding the offices that perforate these cliffs of brick and iron, dizzied with the speed of the elevators. You divine, you feel the hot breath of speculation quivering behind these windows. This it is which has fecundated these thousands of square feet of earth, in order that from them may spring up this appalling growth of business palaces, that hide the sun from you and almost shut out the light of day.

"The simple power of necessity is to a certain degree a principle of beauty," says M. Bourget, and to these structures this order of beauty cannot be denied, but even this is vitiated by a failure to press the advantage home: the ornate fa?ades are notably less impressive than those whose grim and stark geometry is unmitigated by the grave-clothes of dead styles. Instances there are of strivings toward a beauty that is fresh and living, but they are so unsuccessful and infrequent as to be negligible. However impressive these buildings may be by reason of their ordered geometry, their weight and magnitude, and as a manifestation of irrepressible power, they have the unloveliness of things ignoble being the product neither of praise, nor joy, nor worship, but enclosures for the transaction of sharp bargains-gold bringing jinn of our modern Aladdins, who love them not but only use them. That is the reason they are ugly; no one has loved them for themselves alone.

For beauty is ever the very face of love. From the architecture of a true democracy, founded on love and mutual service, beauty would inevitably shine forth; its absence convicts us of a maladjustment in our social and economic life. A skyscraper shouldering itself aloft at the expense of its more humble neighbors, stealing their air and their sunlight, is a symbol, written large against the sky, of the will-to-power of a man or a group of men-of that ruthless and tireless aggression on the part of the cunning and the strong so characteristic of the period which produced the skyscraper. One of our streets made up of buildings of diverse styles and shapes and sizes-like a jaw with some teeth whole, some broken, some rotten, and some gone-is a symbol of our unkempt individualism, now happily becoming curbed and chastened by a common danger, a common devotion.

Some people hold the view that our insensitiveness to formal beauty is no disgrace. Such argue that our accomplishments and our interests are in other fields, where we more than match the accomplishments of older civilizations. They forget that every achievement not registered in terms of beauty has failed of its final and enduring transmutation. It is because the achievements of older civilizations attained to their apotheoses in art that they interest us, and unless we are able to effect a corresponding transmutation we are destined to perish unhonoured on our rubbish heap. That we shall effect it, through knowledge and suffering, is certain, but before attempting the more genial and rewarding task of tracing, in our life and in our architecture, those forces and powers which make for righteousness, for beauty, let us look our failures squarely in the face, and discover if we can why they are failures.

Confining this examination to the particular matter under discussion, the neo-feudal architecture of our city streets, we find it to lack unity, and the reason for this lack of unity dwells in a divided consciousness. The tall office building is the product of many forces, or perhaps we should say one force, that of necessity; but its concrete embodiment is the result of two different orders of talent, that of the structural engineer and of the architectural designer. These are usually incarnate in two different individuals, working more or less at cross purposes. It is the business of the engineer to preoccupy himself solely with ideas of efficiency and economy, and over his efficient and economical structure the designer smears a frosting of beauty in the form of architectural style, in the arch?ological sense. This is a foolish practice, and cannot but result in failure. In the case of a Greek temple or a mediaeval cathedral structure and style were not twain, but one; the structure determined the style, the style expressed the structure; but with us so divorced have the two things become that in a case known to the author, the structural framework of a great office building was determined and fabricated and then architects were invited to "submit designs" for the exterior. This is of course an extreme example and does not represent the usual practice, but it brings sharply to consciousness the well known fact that for these buildings we have substantially one method of construction-that of the vertical strut, and the horizontal "fill"-while in style they appear as Grecian, Roman, Renaissance, Gothic, Modern French and what not, according to the whim of the designer.

[Illustration: PLATE II. THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY]

With the modern tendency toward specialization, the natural outgrowth of necessity, there is no inherent reason why the bones of a building should not be devised by one man and its fleshly clothing by another, so long as they understand one another, and are in ideal agreement, but there is in general all too little understanding, and a confusion of ideas and aims. To the average structural engineer the architectural designer is a mere milliner in stone, informed in those prevailing architectural fashions of which he himself knows little and cares less. Preoccupied as he is with the building's strength, safety, economy; solving new and staggeringly difficult problems with address and daring, he has scant sympathy with such inconsequent matters as the stylistic purity of a fa?ade, or the profile of a moulding. To the designer, on the other hand, the engineer appears in the light of a subordinate to be used for the promotion of his own ends, or an evil to be endured as an interference with those ends.

As a result of this lack of sympathy and co-ordination, success crowns only those efforts in which, on the one hand, the stylist has been completely subordinated to engineering necessity, as in the case of the East River bridges, where the architect was called upon only to add a final grace to the strictly structural towers; or on the other hand, in which the structure is of the old-fashioned masonry sort, and faced with a familiar problem the architect has found it easy to be frank; as in the case of the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, on 42nd Street, New York, or in the Bryant Park fa?ade on the New York Library. The Woolworth building is a notable example of the complete co-ordination between the structural framework and its envelope, and falls short of ideal success only in the employment of an archaic and alien ornamental language, used, however, let it be said, with a fine understanding of the function of ornament.

For the most part though, there is a difference of intention between the engineer and the designer; they look two ways, and the result of their collaboration is a flat and confused image of the thing that should be, not such as is produced by truly binocular vision. This difference of aim is largely the result of a difference of education. Engineering science of the sort which the use of steel has required is a thing unprecedented; the engineer cannot hark back to the past for help, even if he would. The case is different with the architectural designer; he is taught that all of the best songs have been sung, all of the true words spoken. The Glory that was Greece, and the Grandeur that was Rome, the romantic exuberance of Gothic, and the ordered restraint of Renaissance are so drummed into him during his years of training, and exercise so tyrannical a spell over his imagination that he loses the power of clear and logical thought, and never becomes truly creative. Free of this incubus the engineer has succeeded in being straightforward and sensible, to say the least; subject to it the man with a so-called architectural education is too often tortuous and absurd.

The architect without any training

in the essentials of design produces horrors as a matter of course, for the reason that sin is the result of ignorance; the architect trained in the false manner of the current schools becomes a reconstructive arch?ologist, handicapped by conditions with which he can deal only imperfectly, and imperfectly control. Once in a blue moon a man arises who, with all the advantages inherent in education, pierces through the past to the present, and is able to use his brain as the architects of the past used theirs-to deal simply and directly with his immediate problem.

Such a man is Louis Sullivan, though it must be admitted that not always has he achieved success. That success was so marked, however, in his treatment of the problem of the tall building, and exercised subconsciously such a spell upon the minds even of his critics and detractors, that it resulted in the emancipation of this type of building from an absurd and impossible convention-the practice, common before his time, of piling order upon order, like a house of cards, or by a succession of strongly marked string courses emphasizing the horizontal dimension of a vertical edifice, thus vitiating the finest effect of which such a building is capable.

The problem of the tall building, with which his predecessors dealt always with trepidation and equivocation, Mr. Sullivan approached with confidence and joy. "What," he asked himself, "is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? It is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist-nature its thrilling aspect. It must be tall. The force of altitude must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a dissenting line." The Prudential (Guaranty) building in Buffalo represents the finest concrete embodiment of his idea achieved by Mr. Sullivan. It marks his emancipation from what he calls his "masonry" period, during which he tried, like so many other architects before and since, to make a steel-framed structure look as though it were nothing but a masonry wall perforated with openings-openings too many and too great not to endanger its stability. The keen blade of Mr. Sullivan's mind cut through this contradiction, and in the Prudential building he carried out the idea of a protective casing so successfully that Montgomery Schuyler said of it, "I know of no steel framed building in which the metallic construction is more palpably felt through the envelope of baked clay."

[Illustration: PLATE III. THE PRUDENTIAL BUILDING, BUFFALO N.Y.]

The present author can speak with all humbleness of the general failure, on the part of the architectural profession, to appreciate the importance of this achievement, for he pleads guilty of day after day having passed the Prudential building, then fresh in the majesty of its soaring lines, and in the wonder of its fire-wrought casing, with eyes and admiration only for the false romanticism of the Erie County Savings Bank, and the empty bombast of the gigantic Ellicott Square. He had not at that period of his life succeeded in living down his architectural training, and as a result the most ignorant layman was in a better position to appraise the relative merits of these three so different incarnations of the building impulse than was he.

Since the Prudential building there have been other tall office buildings, by other hands, truthful in the main, less rigid, less monotonous, more superficially pleasing, yet they somehow fail to impart the feeling of utter sincerity and fresh originality inspired by this building. One feels that here democracy has at last found utterance in beauty; the American spirit speaks, the spirit of the Long Denied. This rude, rectangular bulk is uncompromisingly practical and utilitarian; these rows on rows of windows, regularly spaced, and all of the same size, suggest the equality and monotony of obscure, laborious lives; the upspringing shafts of the vertical piers stand for their hopes and aspirations, and the unobtrusive, delicate ornament which covers the whole with a garment of fresh beauty is like the very texture of their dreams. The building is able to speak thus powerfully to the imagination because its creator is a poet and prophet of democracy. In his own chosen language he declares, as Whitman did in verse, his faith in the people of "these states"-"A Nation announcing itself." Others will doubtless follow who will make a richer music, commensurate with the future's richer life, but such democracy as is ours stands here proclaimed, just as such feudalism as is still ours stands proclaimed in the Erie County Bank just across the way. The massive rough stone walls of this building, its pointed towers and many dormered chateau-like roof unconsciously symbolize the attempt to impose upon the living present a moribund and alien order. Democracy is thus afflicted, and the fact must needs find architectural expression.

In the field of domestic architecture these dramatic contrasts are less evident, less sharply marked. Domestic life varies little from age to age; a cottage is a cottage the world over, and some manorial mansion on the James River, built in Colonial days, remains a fitting habitation (assuming the addition of electric lights and sanitary plumbing) for one of our Captains of Industry, however little an ancient tobacco warehouse would serve him as a place of business. This fact is so well recognized that the finest type of modern country house follows, in general, this or some other equally admirable model, though it is amusing to note the millionaire's preference for a feudal castle, a French chateau, or an Italian villa of the decadence.

The "man of moderate means," so called, provides himself with no difficulty with a comfortable house, undistinguished but unpretentious, which fits him like a glove. There is a piazza towards the street, a bay-window in the living room, a sleeping-porch for the children, and a box of a garage for the flivver in the bit of a back yard.

For the wage earner the housing problem is not so easily nor so successfully solved. He is usually between the devil of the speculative builder and the deep sea of the predatory landlord, each intent upon taking from him the limit that the law allows and giving him as little as possible for his money. Going down the scale of indigence we find an itinerancy amounting almost to homelessness, or houses so abject that they are an insult to the very name of home.

[Illustration: PLATE IV: THE ERIE COUNTY SAVINGS BANK, BUFFALO, N.Y.]

It is an eloquent commentary upon our national attitude toward a most vital matter that in this feverish hustle to produce ships, airplanes, clothing and munitions on a vast scale, the housing of the workers was either overlooked entirely, or received eleventh-hour consideration, and only now, after a year of participation in the war, is it beginning to be adequately and officially dealt with-how efficiently and intelligently remains to be seen. The housing of the soldiers was another matter: that necessity was plain and urgent, and the miracle has been accomplished, but except by indirection it has contributed nothing to the permanent housing problem.

Other aspects of our life which have found architectural expression fall neither in the commercial nor in the domestic category-the great hotels, for example, which partake of the nature of both, and our passenger railway terminals, which partake of the nature of neither. These latter deserve especial consideration in this connection, by reason of their important function. The railway is of the very essence of the modern, even though (with what sublime unreason) Imperial Rome is written large over New York's most magnificent portal.

Think not that in an age of unfaith mankind gives up the building of temples. Temples inevitably arise where the tide of life flows strongest; for there God manifests, in however strange a guise. That tide is nowhere stronger than in the railroad, which is the arterial system of our civilization. All arteries lead to and from the heart, and thus the railroad terminus becomes the beating heart at the center of modern life. It is a true instinct therefore which prompts to the making of the terminal building a very temple, a monument to the conquest of space through the harnessing of the giant horses of electricity and steam. This conquest must be celebrated on a scale commensurate with its importance, and in obedience to this necessity the Pennsylvania station raised its proud head amid the push-cart architecture of that portion of New York in which it stands. It is not therefore open to the criticism often passed upon it, that it is too grand, but it is the wrong kind of grandeur. If there be truth in the contention that the living needs of today cannot be grafted upon the dead stump of any ancient grandeur, the futility of every attempt to accomplish this impossible will somehow, somewhere, reveal itself to the discerning eye. Let us seek out, in this building, the place of this betrayal.

It is not necessarily in the main fa?ade, though this is not a face, but a mask-and a mask can, after its kind, always be made beautiful; it is not in the nobly vaulted corridor, lined with shops-for all we know the arcades of Imperial Rome were similarly lined; nor is it in the splendid vestibule, leading into the magnificent waiting room, in which a subject of the C?sars would have felt more perfectly at home, perhaps, than do we. But beyond this passenger concourse, where the elevators and stairways descend to the tracks, necessity demanded the construction of a great enclosure, supported only on slender columns and far-flung trusses roofed with glass. Now latticed columns, steel trusses, and wire glass are inventions of the modern world too useful to be dispensed with. Rome could not help the architect here. The mode to which he was inexorably self-committed in the rest of the building demanded massive masonry, cornices, mouldings; a tribute to C?sar which could be paid everywhere but in this place. The architect's problem then became to reconcile two diametrically different systems. But between the west wall of the ancient Roman baths and the modern skeleton construction of the roof of the human greenhouse there is no attempt at fusion. The slender latticed columns cut unpleasantly through the granite cornices and mouldings; the first century A.D. and the twentieth are here in incongruous juxtaposition-a little thing, easily overlooked, yet how revealing! How reassuring of the fact "God is not mocked!"

The New York Central terminal speaks to the eye in a modern tongue, with however French an accent. Its fa?ade suggests a portal, reminding the beholder that a railway station is in a very literal sense a city gate placed just as appropriately in the center of the municipality as in ancient times it was placed in the circuit of the outer walls.

Neither edifice will stand the acid test of Mr. Sullivan's formula, that a building is an organism and should follow the law of organisms, which decrees that the form must everywhere follow and express the function, the function determining and creating its appropriate form. Here are two eminent examples of "arranged" architecture. Before organic architecture can come into being our inchoate national life must itself become organic. Arranged architecture, of the sort we see everywhere, despite its falsity, is a true expression of the conditions which gave it birth.

[Illustration: PLATE V. THE NEW YORK CENTRAL TERMINAL]

The grandeur of Rome, the splendour of Paris-what just and adequate expression do they give of modern American life? Then shall we find in our great hotels, say, such expression? Truly they represent, in the phrase of Henry James, "a realized ideal" and a study of them should reveal that ideal. From such a study we can only conclude that it is life without effort or responsibility, with every physical need luxuriously gratified. But these hotels nevertheless represent democracy, it may be urged, for the reason that every one may there buy board and lodging and mercenary service if he has the price. The exceeding greatness of that price, however, makes of it a badge of nobility which converts these democratic hostelries into feudal castles, more inaccessible to the Long Denied than as though entered by a drawbridge and surrounded by a moat.

We need not even glance at the churches, for the tides of our spiritual life flow no longer in full volume through their portals; neither may the colleges long detain us, for architecturally considered they give forth a confusion of tongues which has its analogue in the confusion of ideas in the collective academic head.

Is our search for some sign of democracy ended, and is it vain? No, democracy exists in the secret heart of the people, all the people, but it is a thing so new, so strange, so secret and sacred-the ideal of brotherhood-that it is unmanifest yet in time and space. It is a thing born not with the Declaration of Independence, but only yesterday, with the call to a new crusade. The National Army is its cradle, and it is nurtured wherever communities unite to serve the sacred cause. Although menaced by the bloody sword of Imperialism in Europe, it perhaps stands in no less danger from the secret poison of graft and greed and treachery here at home. But it is a spiritual birth, and therefore it cannot perish, but will live to write itself on space in terms of beauty such as the world has never known.

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