This book recently came into my life once again. Inside was written my name and the year, 1974. The chapter on MODERN architecture was probably the only one I’d ever read. It still is. I was interested to read it again, to see what ‘modern’ might have meant in 1963 when the first edition was published – to see what the future was going to be like. That chapter was written by a John Jacobus Jr. who, it turns out, wrote a book on Philip Johnson in 1962.
I’ll get to that later. The introduction of World Architecture was written by the doubly-named Henry-Russell Hitchcock so let’s first see what he has to say for himself, 30 years after The International Style. I’ll ignore stuff like “Buildings that survive from the past are fossils of civilization” etc. etc. and only concentrate on passages that indicate whether he became more mellow or more bitter over the 30 years or, more importantly, whether he felt he had anything to apologise for. Just after halfway through the 3,000-word piece we get this.
… some great architects have, in fact, built rather badly, because they didn’t master or know how to command the best craftsmanship of their day. Much of the finest stonework, brickwork and, a fortiori, steel or concrete-work, on the other other hand, can be found in buildings that hardly rise high in the scale of works of art because the creative control of a designer of talent – whether builder, architect or engineer – was not utilized.
You’ll remember that in The International Style, the production of Architecture had been dependent upon architects with “taste” so even though at first it seems like he’s up to his old tricks, at least now he can admit that a talented builder or engineer might produce something worthwhile. I guess that’s a good thing. Mostly though, the introduction is a bit bland and never really gets going. There’s not much of the old Hitch to see until the closing three sentences.
We should read history not to lose ourselves in the past but to set high goals for our own achievement. Nor need we be discouraged. Already our own century has produced many buildings not unworthy to stand with those of the past, and three or four architects active since 1900 – Wright, certainly, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, perhaps one or two others – need not fear comparison with the greatest names that have come down to us.
We need to remember that Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were the creations of H-R H and Johnson. So no change there. Let’s move on, skip about 310 pages, and see what John Jacobus Jr. thought we’d learned in 1963.
… the Larkin Building was a novelty in principle as well as in exterior appearance. In lay-out [sic!], all the offices on five floors were tied together through a central light-well, so that instead of compartmentation, there was an easy flow of space throughout. p327
The above photograph (circa 1906) is one of my favourites. It shows the birth of office work. All those men and women are tracking bulk orders and deliveries of soap and incentives, would you believe? The ladies are probably using an Underwood #5 to type – it’s a classic.
But what the quote tells us is that architectural bullshit language was already well developed in 1963. “all the offices on five floor were tied together through a central light well”. Is it even English? However, I can understand how an open plan resists compartmentalisation – even if it doesn’t look much fun. Here’s a plan showing some of that “easy flow of space”.
It’s far more illuminating to go to the website of The Larkin Group which is still around.
In his groundbreaking design for the Larkin Building, Wright pioneered the use of natural light, fresh air, and structural framework. It set a new standard in the design of corporate offices. Wright’s numerous innovations contributed significantly to the objective of designing a clean and comfortable building. Inside was a beautiful work setting, filled with natural light and fresh air. Clean air was distributed throughout the sealed interior of the building from an innovative air-conditioning system in the basement. [Did I read that right? Fresh air in this sealed building comes from an A/C system in the basement?] Metal office furniture, built-in file cabinets, wall-hung toilets, and a gracious restaurant and conservatory are all design innovations that contributed to the ambiance of the building and were featured as part of daily factory tours.
John Jacobus Jr. told us nothing about the innovative air-conditioning system or the wall-hung toilets. In fact, I looked at the above photograph and saw the built-in file cabinets for the first time. This is the only plan we ever get to see. Without a basement plan to check, the corner air intakes seem contrived. The suspiciously square stairwells don’t benefit much from all this natural light as their main role seems to be to create some monumentality on the corners. The Larkin Building was demolished in 1950. The Larkin Terminal Building Warehouse (1912) still exists. It
had a unique counter balanced elevator system which assisted in lowering the stored products to the lower floors after delivery from production via the sky bridges to the upper floors.
In 2001 CityView Properties and Taurus Partners purchased the Larkin Terminal Warehouse and the extensive renovation included the installation of over 2200 new windows, newly poured concrete floors, state-of-the-art mechanical systems including digitally controlled zoned heating and cooling, seven passenger elevators, two freight elevators and a Building Standby Power System second to none in Western New York. Amenities include a fully licensed Childcare Center, a Fitness Center, Conference Center, retail convenience store, private taxi service to the central business district and much more.
Moving on …
The architectural history of the post-war period, the 1920’s, has been commonly written as an account of the International style. This familiar phrase is the one habitually used to describe the characteristically rational geometry of the early work of Gropius, Mies, J.J.P. Oud, Le Corbusier, André Lurçat and their followers.
André Lurçat?? Sorry – but I have to stop this right here, and find out what happened to this guy. In 1963 he was up there with the top dogs, and now he’s totally forgotten. First stop.
Nice enough, non? And this one’s not bad either. It is 1929 remember. (Hmm. I wouldn’t have thought the owners of a city house of this size would have been able to afford an automobile – maybe the garage is a modernisation. Either way, don’t park in front of it!)
There was also this image, which I remember now from The International Style.
Here’s what Hitchcock & Johnson had to say about it.
Corsica semi-tropical? Hitch’s illuminating text tells us the projections between the balconies isolate the separate studio apartments. What next? Stairs that go up to the first floor, windows that let people see what’s outside?
Notice how the dining room has only that end window for joy whilst the tiny windows (one per apartment above!) face the main view? This is curious. It’s not something an architect would do today. Those projections between the balconies happen to have toilets and basins and I’m assuming there’s plumbing (but where?) The building has one bathtub.
Lurçat certainly wasn’t as prolific as the others but no better or worse really. He was probably just crowded out of history because there was already enough being said. His moving to Moscow and working for the Soviet government between 1934 and 1937 was probably a bad career move at a time when Hitchcock & Johnson were diverting the flow of architectural history to America.
Oh hello – here’s this building again!
Notice how the caption tells us a bit about De Stijl, only one thing about Oud, and nothing about the building apart from its geometry? Like H&J, JJJ has nothing to say about what this building might have meant for the residents of this estate. If you go back to the plan of Kiefhoek in my previous – Architecture vs. Building, you’ll see that the entrance to this church is at the back. This is probably so that worshippers can have a view of the canal before entering. A small pleasure, and probably the highlight of their week.
I’ll stop it here. Frankly, I didn’t expect re-reading this chapter from the past to be such a big deal. It confirmed a lot of my suspicions about how a history of architecture is manufactured and spread, about how it’s just what a person or persons think is important FOR WHATEVER REASONS THEY MAY HAVE. This collection of blog posts that is becoming my alternative history of architecture is no different in that respect.
Part 2 of this post continues here.