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Hugh Ferriss was America's most celebrated architectral artist, famous for his dramatic charcoal ...
Hugh Ferriss was America's most celebrated architectral artist, famous for his dramatic charcoal renderings which stand among the century's great architectural drawings.
A book like this lives or dies by the quality of the drawings. And here Ferris's dark, chiaroscuro renderings retain their atmospheric impact. Howard Mansfield, Small Press
CITIES OF TODAY
A FIRST IMPRESSION of the contemporary city—let us say, the view of New York from the work-room in which most of these drawings were made—is not unlike the sketch on the opposite page. This, indeed, is to the author the familiar morning scene. But there are occasional mornings when, with an early fog not yet dispersed, one finds oneself, on stepping onto the parapet, the spectator of an even more nebulous panorama. Literally, there is nothing to be seen but mist; not a tower has yet been revealed below, and except for the immediate parapet rail (dark and wet as an ocean liner's) there is not a suggestion of either locality or solidity for the coming scene. To an imaginative spectator, it might seem that he is perched in some elevated stage box to witness some gigantic spectacle, some cyclopean drama of forms; and that the curtain has not yet risen.
There is a moment of curiosity, even for those who have seen the play before, since in all probability they are about to view some newly arisen steel skeleton, some tower or even some street which was not in yesterday's performance. And to one who had not been in the audience before—to some visitor from another land or another age—there could not fail to be at least a moment of wonder. What apocalypse is about to be revealed? What is its setting? And what will be the purport of this modern metropolitan drama?
Soon, somewhere off in the mist, a single lofty highlight of gold appears: the earliest beam is upon the tip of the Metropolitan Tower. A moment later, a second: the gilded apex of the New York Life Building. And then, in due succession the other architectural principals lift their pinnacles into vision: the Brooklyn skyscraper group, the Municipal building, the Woolworth. The promised spectacle is apparently at least to include some lofty presences ...
But a subtle differentiation is beginning to occur below in the monotone of gray; vertical lines, but a degree more luminous, appear on all sides; the eastern facades of the city grow pale with light. As mysteriously as though being created, a Metropolis appears.
Obviously, we can now conclude, it is to be a city of closely juxtaposed verticals. And, indeed, it is not until considerably later, when the mists have been completely dispersed, that there is revealed far below—through bridge and river and avenue—the presence of any horizontal base whatever for these cloud-capped towers.
One further discovery remains to be made: on a close scrutiny of the streets, certain minute, moving objects can be unmistakably distinguished. The city apparently contains, away down there—human beings!
The discovery gives one pause. Between the colossal inanimate forms and those mote-like creatures darting in and out among their foundations, there is such a contrast, such discrepancy in scale, that certain questions force their attention on the mind.
What is the relation between these two? Are those tiny specks the actual intelligences of the situation, and this towered mass something which, as it were, those ants have marvelously excreted?
Or are these masses of steel and glass the embodiment of some blind and mechanical force that has imposed itself, as though from without, on a helpless humanity?
At first glance, one might well imagine the latter. Nevertheless, there is but one view which can be taken; there is but one fact that can—in these pages, at least—serve as our criterion. The drama which, from this balcony, we have been witnessing is, first and foremost, a human drama. Those vast architectural forms are only a stage set. It is those specks of figures down there below who are, in reality, the principals of the play.
But what influences have these actors and this stage reciprocally upon one another? How perfectly or imperfectly have the actors expressed themselves in their constructions—how well have the architects designed the set? And how great is the influence which the architectural background exercises over the actors—and is it a beneficient one?
I have just said that the human being is the Principal, and it is indeed true that the human values are here the principal values. Yet it must be realized, as one gazes over this multiform and miscellaneous city, that the builders must at least have been lacking in the two attributes usually assigned to principats—clear sense of the situation and manifest ability to control it.
Is the set well designed? Indeed, it is not designed at all ! It is true that in individual fragments of the set here and there—in individual buildings—we see the conscious hand of the architect. But in speaking, as we are, of the city as a whole, it is impossible to say that it did more than come to be built; we must admit that, as a whole, it is not work of conscious design.
And nevertheless it is a faithful expression! Architecture never lies. Architecture invariably expresses its Age correctly. Admire or condemn as you may, yonder skyscrapers faithfully express both the characteristic structural skill and the characteristic urge—for money; yonder tiers of apartments represent the last word in scientific ingenuity and the last word but one in desire for physical comfort.
As regards the effect which the "set" is having upon the actors: it is unquestionably enormous. I am not referring to the effect of the physical conveniences (or inconveniences) which it provides—and of which we are all acutely aware—but to another kind of influence which is none the less direct and potent for being difficult to define. It is well known and generally admitted that a few people are especially sensitive to the element of design; but a more serious and equally indubitable fact is that the character of the architectural forms and spaces which all people habitually encounter are powerful agencies in determining the nature of their thoughts, their emotions and their actions, however unconscious of this they may be.
The boy whose habitual outlook was over wide, open plains and the boy who habitually dwelt among the mountains have received impressions lasting for life from these forms and have become, in consequence, utterly different types of men. What is true of plains and mountains is no less true of architectural forms; everybody is influenced by the house he inhabits, be it harmonious or mean, by the streets in which he walks and by the buildings among which he finds himself.
Are not the inhabitants of most of our American cities continually glancing at the rising masses of office or apartment buildings whose thin coating of architectural confectionery disguises, but does not alter, the fact that they were fashioned to meet not so much the human needs of the occupants as the financial appetites of the property owners? Do we not traverse, in our daily walks, districts which are stupid and miscellaneous rather than logical or serene—and move, day long, through an absence of viewpoint, vista, axis, relation or plan? Such an environment silently but relentlessly impresses its qualities upon the human psyche.
The contemplation of the actual Metropolis as a whole cannot but lead us at last to the realization of a human population unconsciously reacting to forms which came into existence without conscious design.
A hope, however, may begin to define itself in our minds. May there not yet arise, perhaps in another generation, architects who, appreciating the influence unconsciously received, will learn consciously to direct it?
But we may postpone more general conclusions until we have examined, at closer view, the existing facts. Let us go down into the streets ...
GOING DOWN INTO THE STREETS of a modern city must seem—to the newcomer, at least—a little like Dante's descent into Hades. Certainly so unacclimated a visitor would find, in the dense atmosphere, in the kaleidoscopic sights, the confused noise and the complex physical contacts, something very reminiscent of the lower realms.
The condemned—that is to say, the habitual city dwellers—seem to be used to it and to take it for granted; yet one occasionally wonders if some subtle alteration, of which they themselves are unaware, is not occurring in their facial expressions, their postures, gestures, movements, tones of voice—in short, their total behavior!
We usually feel that the traffic situation is getting a little worse every day. Certainly every year, if not quite every day, it is becoming perceptibly several degrees more congested and is now rapidly approaching the point of public danger. As the avenues and streets of a city are nothing less than its arteries and veins, we may well ask what doctor would venture to promise bodily health if he knew that the blood circulation was steadily growing more congested!
With a very few exceptions (such as the Superhighway project of Detroit) no design for urban traffic is now being proposed that can truly be called masterly. This is the problem of problems that must be comprehended if we are adequately to visualize the future city. Nevertheless, we must postpone it for a moment and give our attention first of all to the architectural structures of present-day cities. We shall not be going far out of our way, since the buildings of a city—especially as to their cubic contents—are the determining factor in its traffic congestion; and a further advantage lies in the fact that buildings exhibit, although the traffic situation does not, the deliberate hand of the designer. By scrutinizing one by one, some of the outstanding buildings of the country, we shall be able to get some clue to what our more influential designers are about; and after determining the trends their designs indicate, we shall have the strands for our pattern of the city of the future. Let us, then, glance at a few of the more significant structures in various of the larger cities....
IMPRESSIONS OF THE EXISTING CITY which have so far been mentioned are not, of course, local to New York. Many watchers have, in similar mood, looked down on Pittsburgh at dawn; there was, for instance, the hour during which Town Planner Frederick Bigger analyzed the panorama which unfolded itself beneath us across the Monongahela. Waiting, on Twin Peaks, to watch, with Architect T. L. Pflueger, the whole of San Francisco in deepening twilight, similar queries arose to mind. And Chicago seen at night (at least on a September night which I well remember) brought up identical questions as to the nature and significance of the metropolis.
As our first example of an individual building, a St. Louis structure is shown. This is not because of a native's enthusiasm but because—in our inquiry into the contributory value of contemporary architects—this building will provide us with an encouraging start.
Here, an architectural form, unique in its locality, came into existence not as an indirect result of some legal or economic cause, but as the direct result of a bold stroke on the part of its designers. The designers, moreover, were quite obviously moved by a consideration of what might be immediately accomplished in the way of human convenience and health.
At the time this building was erected, St. Louis had no building regulation which required or even suggested this set-back type of structure. The rank and file of previous buildings had been of the familiar box-like shape. The architects in this case were therefore quite free to follow the convention: they could easily have thus supplied the owners with the required cubage and, in short, have performed all the obligations usually demanded of architects. It is apparent, however, that they foresaw that this set-back type of structure, while giving all the interior space specified, would allow for floor plans considerably more convenient and agreeable to the individual occupants; would allow decidedly more light and air to their neighbors across the streets; and could be designed—as the conventional cube-like structure cannot be designed—to express the concepts of individuality, ascension and summit.
The proposal of the designers was in due course appreciated by their clients, and, after the usual investigation, permit to build was issued. But the true contributory value lies, perhaps, in this: in a very short time after the completion of the building, regulations were proposed and incorporated into the local building code which not only permitted but approved such forms.
Since we intend to build up our image of the "Metropolis of Tomorrow" from existing material, we may take, as one of our ingredients, the fact that a sound innovation of idea may, in a surprisingly short time, become embodied.
ANOTHER CONTEMPORARY PROJECT which like the Telephone Building, may provide a pointer for future use, is the St. Louis Plaza. Unlike the Telephone Building, however, the Plaza points, not to accomplishment on the part of the individual designer, but to an accomplishment resulting from the collaboration of numerous designers.
It is true, by the way, that the Plaza is not a fully accomplished fact at the present moment. Since, however, it has been financially assured through the voting of the necessary bond issues, since certain major parts are actually constructed and the whole project is outlined definitely in blue-prints, it becomes possible to prepare authentic visualizations. This project involves the demolition of numerous city blocks—a great area previously occupied by totally insignificant buildings. The clearing thus made lies, however, between such outstanding civic structures as Public Library, City Hall and Municipal Courts building. Not only are these important centers thus brought into clear view of one another, but the plaza which they now front becomes the site of other major, and much needed public buildings—the whole being embellished with sculpture and formal gardening. The net result is to provide this city with what so many cities lack; a plainly apparant nucleus.
It is natural that in such generally important projects, a problem is encountered in the selection of the directing architects. Everyone knows how often civic building programs show the hand of the politician rather than that of the designer. In this case, however, it was predetermined that the personnel of the architectural commission was to be elected by vote of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The promise of a truly professional character was thus made, which has, on the whole, been satisfactorily fulfilled. But even with civic projects in the hands of admittedly distinguished architects, a question arises. Will we ever get, as fruit of the collaboration of many minds, those startling satisfactory results, which are occasionally produced, by the individual mind working alone? The visualist, whose commission is to analize, assemble and depict, as one project, all the contributory ideas of a large commission of architects, must often find himself at conferences where it is difficult—because of the clamor of minor variations—to discover any major theme. Indeed, one occasionally wonders if the proceedings of some architectural conferences do not defy any analysis—save, perhaps, that of the professional psychologist! The fact remains, however, that the scope of certain civic projects is so great that some sort of collaboration is essential; furthermore, as time passes, the scope of such projects will only increase and collaboration will be only the more essential.
The St. Louis Plaza suggests, perhaps, that a collaboration may indeed occur without, as a necessary concomitant, absence of a strong and unified result.
CHICAGO, in the last decade, has reared towers which, in pictorial interest, rival any of the metropolitan centers of the East. We have, of course, been long familiar with the sheer façade of the city which faces the lake across Michigan Boulevard; but a formation of quite different character has recently begun to crystallize definitely about the winding line of the river. Walking by night along Wacker Drive—or under it—a series of startling compositions revolve before the spectator.
Judging by certain projects which already exist in blue-print form, there will soon be another distinguished development fronting the newly made lands along the lake front. Indeed, the whole current tone of the city's structural development is a good omen for the projected international exposition of 1933. This project should be noted on these pages because—to base a prediction on the personnel of the architectural commission as well as on the designs which they are already formulating—this exposition will prove to be not only an epitome of our most modern architectural developments but also a herald of future actual developments.
An adequate suggestion of the most recent trend in Chicago is conveyed by the Board of Trade building whose strong, ascending mass stands out strikingly against the older buildings which are about it.
ANOTHER CHICAGO STRUCTURE which contributes to any bird's-eye view of the American scene, is the Tribune tower. This building is an admirable monument of an unusually significant architectural competition.
It will be recalled that the Chicago TRIBUNE conducted a competition whose avowed purpose was to produce the "most beautiful office building in the world." It spent over a hundred thousand dollars in assembling and rewarding contributory ideas.
The superlative need not be taken too seriously; but the fact remains that a handsome invitation was issued to contribute an element of beauty to a commercial structure, and that competent responses were received from architects the world over. Nearly three hundred designs were submitted, representing twenty-three countries.
The competition proved influential in more ways than one. The more significant designs, published in book form, constituted. a valuable collection of modern trends; it gave pictorial point to many a discussion, and found echoes, here and there, in subsequent building. The design which was awarded the second prize proved to be the passport to the American scene of Architect Eliel Saarinen, of Finland, whose presence has already influenced our most recent buildings and whose decided point of view may, before long, influence our larger civic projects. Finally, the tower which was actually erected added a gratifying silhouette to the lake front and has, without doubt, proved an inspiration to many.
Excerpted from The Metropolis of Tomorrow by Hugh Ferriss. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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