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Paper Architecture

( Originally Published 1912 )



IF to a certain extent it be true that clothes make the man, it is with a similar qualification true that technique makes art. In polite society a picture without technique appears to as great disadvantage as a person without clothes. An excessive recognition of this fact has led during the last half century to the use of the catchword " art for art's sake," which, as currently employed, means technique for technique's sake. In painting the value of the technical means has thus been grossly over-exaggerated. In architecture, on the other hand, it may well be doubted whether the value, or even the existence, of technique has been sufficiently recognized.

The modern technique of architecture differs fundamentally from that in vogue during the Middle Ages and in antiquity. In the Italian Renaissance there began a gradual evolution, or perhaps it would be better to say revolution, which has entirely altered the mechanical aspect of the art. If we seek for the fundamental cause of this radical change in means of expression, we shall find it in a very obvious mechanical detail. It is the invention of paper, which has entirely changed the practice of architecture.

It may seem surprising that a mere mechanical and utilitarian invention such as that of paper should deeply transform, not only the surface finish, but even the inner spirit of a major art. Yet the event is not without analogy. Historians have long called attention to the influence which the invention of printing produced upon thought, though, of course, it is obvious that printing could not have had its effect had it not been for paper. Further improvements in the mechanical arts have produced an equally great transformation in the art of literature. Stenography and typewriting in recent years have vastly increased the quantity of the output, and have also with equal certainty altered the quality, though that for the better rather than for the worse, I should hardly venture to assert. In-deed, I am far from being satisfied that the influence of printing upon literature has been as beneficent as usually supposed. It has not been demonstrated that either Dante or Homer would have written more divinely had the printing presses stood yawning to issue their works in editions of the hundred thou-sand. An inspection of an American newsstand has seldom failed to leave me with the impression that the average of literary production in the Middle Ages, in that hour which we are accustomed to consider as most dark, possessed greater merit, both from a literary and an intellectual standpoint, than the average of literary output to-day.

For the mediaeval architect the only drawing material available was, generally speaking, parchment or vellum, which was comparatively expensive and used sparingly. Architects and builders did indulge in its use. Quite a few Ś all told, perhaps twenty or thirty Ś architectural drawings of the Middle Ages have come down to us. Villard de Honnecourt, a thirteenth-century master-builder, even possessed an entire sketch-book filled with free-hand drawings. Recourse to parchment, however, was had only very rarely, and in general the builders appeared to have worked directly in the stone. With the introduction of paper, all this changed. Architects became able to sketch as much as they desired. With very little expense and very little effort ideas could be tried out on paper and their effect judged. Moreover, paper lay flat and could readily be stretched on boards. It lent itself to mechanical drawing, whereas sketches on parchment must, perforce, be largely free-hand. The invention of paper was supplemented by the discovery of improved drawing instruments and a new convention of architectural drawing. The latter is the result of a long evolution. Du Cerceau, at the end of the sixteenth century in France, perfected a system of architectural perspective in which buildings were seen at bird's-eye view from above, so that the plan as well as the elevation was indicated. This method, delightful from a pictorial stand-point, was yet complicated and difficult, so that it was gradually supplanted by the mod-ern conventional drawings which are entirely mechanical and, therefore, very quick.

It is evident that the new methods offered immense advantages to the architect. By means of drawings he was able to study and re-study, not only the building as a whole, but any of its details. He was enabled to judge with far greater accuracy what the ultimate effect would be, and he was able to foresee and solve many difficult problems of planning and intersection which otherwise might lead him into serious embarrassment. Indeed, so evident are the advantages of the modern method of construction, that it is very difficult for us to conceive how an elaborate building could have been erected with only the simple appliances at the disposal of the mediŠval builders.

As in the case of literature, however, the obvious mechanical advance does not seem to have produced the artistic results which might reasonably have been expected; it is easy to point out several particulars in which architecture created with the modern technique is inferior to that produced by the more laborious ancient process.

For one thing, there has resulted rigid mechanical exactness in the laying out of buildings. Nothing is easier than to draw straight lines with the help of a T-square and a ruling pen, and straight lines were adopted in drawings in place of the broken lines and curves which had been used in ancient edifices. From the drawings, the mechanical exactitude, the hard straight lines, were transferred to the buildings themselves, and thus were lost the vibrations that lent so much charm to mediŠval and ancient architecture.

In our modern cities, the fronts of the buildings are elaborately finished and often coated with cut stone or other forms of decoration. The sides and back, however, are generally left unfinished, and are apt to be exceedingly ugly in their crude lack of ornament. It is doubtless the theory that the back and sides will not be seen, but as a matter of fact they constantly are visible. This so too familiar defect of modern architecture I believe to be due to the use of paper. Modern architectural drawings are made in elevation, that is to say, from an imaginary and artificial point of view from which only one face of the building is seen. In actuality, of course, a building is never seen under precisely these conditions. The fact that buildings are studied in elevation and not in perspective leads to many blemishes, of which the unfinished backs and sides are the most conspicuous, though perhaps not the most insidious.

The use of paper has also led to deterioration in the quality of detail. In mediaeval times the man who cut a capital was himself an artist. He designed what he executed. The discovery of paper has made it possible for the architect or his office force to design on paper all the details. The drawings are given to the workmen, who copy them mechanically. The result has been a great decline in craftsmanship. This has been accentuated by the unhappy fact that the ease of the new method has greatly stimulated production. Modern architecture, like every-thing else modern, has too often been wholesale. It was so easy to draw capitals that the architects themselves ceased to bother with them, and even the office force became annoyed at the task. The thoughtless drawings came to be executed more and more thoughtlessly by labourers who felt no joy in what they did. The trades-unions gave the coup de grÔce to the art of stone carving. MediŠval guilds differed from modern trades-unions fundamentally in that the guild was organized primarily to safeguard the art, to ensure the thorough training of all who professed it, and to maintain the highest standard of quality in the production; while the modern trades-union seeks only to safeguard the material welfare of its members. The trades-union has no interest in maintaining quality. For its selfish ends it even seeks a lower standard of production.

Trades-unions have been able to exert this baneful influence upon architecture, only because of the evolution which has taken place in the art. It is a mistake to conceive of the trades-union as occupying to-day the place held by the guild in mediŠval times. The modern system tries to compensate for the inferiority of present-day labourers by producing a class of specially trained architects to direct them. The decadence of modern labour is evident if we stop to think of the dire results which almost inevitably follow the attempt to erect a modern building of any pretensions without an architect. Yet nine-tenths of the architectural masterpieces of the world have been erected without an architect, in the modern meaning of the term. Throughout the Middle Ages such a functionary was unknown. The so-called architects of the Italian Renaissance were almost without exception trained as apprentices to painters or sculptors, and were much more analogous to the medieval master-builder than the modern architect. Of the three best known English architects, Inigo Jones, Sir Christopher Wren, and Lord Burlington, not one was a trained architect. In America we possessed no architect before Charles Bulfinch, a name which marks the close of the great period in American architecture. The professional architect was really a creation of the French, and more precisely of Colbert. It is only during the nineteenth century that his right to existence came to be generally recognized. The rise of the architect was due to an attempt, in a large measure successful, to counteract the decline in the quality of labour.

One of the most serious, though the least tangible, evils of paper architecture is the fact that the architect no longer senses the building growing beneath his hand. It is undoubtedly a great advantage for the creative artist to work directly in the stone. There comes a feeling from the material itself, a subtle unity with the medium, which cannot be attained when the artist does not himself execute. Moreover, the very labour of the execution compels a closeness of study, forces a thoughtfulness which is lacking when the conception is translated from paper. This fact has been so thoroughly demonstrated in sculpture that, as a rule, sculptors who possess artistic conscience (there are still a few who have not become commercialized), will not allow their works to be executed by another hand. Paper architecture is always executed by another hand. Thus it loses.

Another quality which paper architecture has lost is the element of colour. Until the introduction of paper, colour played an almost predominating r˘le in architectural effects. When buildings began to be studied in drawings instead of in actuality, colour, which does not appear in a drawing, came to be eliminated. Instead, there was developed the new art of rendering. This often supplies in the drawing the important element of polychromy, so potential in artistic effects, but the colour is not reproduced in the actual building.

In recent years the introduction of photography has had a profound influence upon architectural art. Even before, engravings and other methods of reproduction had led to the use of foreign and distant models, for the architect in search of inspiration found it more convenient to turn to books than to the actual monument. It therefore became as easy and natural to copy a Burmese pagoda or a California mission as a Colonial house. The natural consequence was that eclecticism, that use of models of all types and styles, which is, perhaps, the dominating, but by no means the most fortunate, characteristic of present-day architecture. Moreover, photo-graphic effects have been very largely sought in design. I am amazed to see in turning over the pages of current architectural magazines, how much more effective photographs of modern buildings are than the structures themselves. It is undoubtedly because the design was itself inspired by photographs. The architect has selected those effects which appear best, not in the actual building, but in reproduction, and these he has copied or enlarged upon.

Indeed, it is from reproductions in books that fashions in architecture are set and reputations made. The r˘le played in the history of English architecture by Campbell's " Vitruvius Britannicus," is well known. Yet this work was composed with no higher motive than that of self-advertisement in which the author so admirably succeeded. It may well be doubted whether the Adam Brothers would enjoy half the reputation they actually possess, had they not advertised themselves by a book useful to architects. There is hardly a modern architect who does not know and admire the finely pictorial works of Mr. Charles Platt, yet it has been my experience that those who are most influenced by them have seldom seen them in the beautiful originals, but are acquainted only with the reproductions in Mr. Platt's book.

All told, it appears that evolution in architecture has not been in the direction of unqualified advance. The obvious advantages gained have been counterbalanced by serious losses. A realization of this fact has produced in recent years a considerable dissatisfaction with the state of things as they are, and more than one attempt has been made to overthrow our existing system. It has been believed that at all costs ancient conditions must be revived.

A little thought, however, will, I think, be sufficient to show that this can never be done on a large scale. We cannot go back to the Middle Ages. The ancient guilds are dead. The architect has come to stay, and there is no possibility, even were it desirable, that he should be replaced by a master-builder. Craftsmanship and the conditions of labour we may not too unreasonably (if we be of optimistic temperament) hope to improve; but the fundamental technique of the art cannot be rolled backward. We must produce paper architecture as we produce paper books. It would be as unthinkable to revert to mediŠval methods of building design as it would be unthinkable to issue a great poem in manuscript on parchment.

Moreover, after all, in the last analysis, the faults of modern architecture are not so essentially those of the technique. The disadvantages of paper architecture might, for example, be overcome by the use of tridimensional models, employed with such effect at Bryn Athyn. Certain it is that new methods should be devised to meet new conditions, and if the new conditions have produced difficulties that have not been solved, the fault lies not so much with the conditions themselves as with us who have failed to meet them. It is distinctly the public, not the architects, who are to blame. Many modern architects are conscientious artists, but they are too often helpless in the hands of the spirit of the time. America of the nineteenth century was not a land sympathetic to art. Artists were born, but we gave those of them that were true artists no encouragement. We produced one great novelist, Henry James. He expatriated himself. We produced one great painter, Whistler. He also expatriated himself. We produced one great musician, MacDowell. He was harassed to insanity, and among his chief persecutors was an institution which passes as a centre of culture. James, Whistler and MacDowell, although unsympathetic with the American environment, still produced work of high calibre. Less strong men, however, were doubtless sucked into the mediocrity which surrounded them by the Great Boyg, that most uncompromising spirit of compromise. But if some painters, musicians and poets have produced in America great art in spite of their environment, an architect can hardly hope to do so. The chance of the architect depends upon immediate recognition. He cannot wait for vindication by time. If he is not given his chance, he can leave nothing for posterity to judge.

Also in a more subtle way the architect is the child of his age. He must build in the manner in which men about him build. No individual, however great a genius, could have produced the cathedral of Reims in the fifteenth century at Florence. The modern architect must build in the modern manner. He must, moreover, contend with modern conditions, and these conditions have been very adverse to the perfection of his art.

No influence has been more pernicious than that of machinery. Nothing has played such havoc with the Šsthetic sense of the race, or with craftsmanship. We are all familiar with what machinery did to furniture. We are also familiar with the gingerbread carved woodwork introduced by its gentle ministrations into the Victorian House. We do not, perhaps, often stop to consider the deadening effect upon the aesthetic sense of the people produced not only by the habitual contemplation of such abortions of art, but by long days passed in the presence of machinery and far removed from everything beautiful. The machine also supplemented the T-square in producing that rigid regularity which is the curse of modern buildings.

In addition to the machine, architecture has had to contend with other enemies no less dangerous, more insidious. A people in-tensely interested in the latest inventions in plumbing, steam-heating and electricity, but indifferent to the expression of the beautiful, has pushed the artist downward on the prim-rose path. He who sold his birthright was rewarded with flesh-pots fatter and greasier perhaps than any ever before offered; he who was obdurate was crushed. The power of vicious folkways, the tyranny of the majority has been victoriously asserted. Architecture has been engulfed by the commercialism of the age; and in so far as it has become a business, it has ceased to be an art.

In such conditions it would be most dangerous, even were it practicable, to revert to the mediŠval system. The architect is at present the only safeguard for art against the degeneracy of craftsmanship and the ignorance and vulgarity of the people. Hope for the future lies, not in stopping the education of the architects, but in beginning the education of the general. When our public possesses some-thing of the appreciation of beauty felt by the people of Greece in the fifth century B. C., by the people of France in the thirteenth century A. D., or by the people of Italy in the fifteenth century, then we shall produce great art. The seeds of genius are sown among us, as thick, perhaps, as they ever have been; but unless they fall on soil that has been worked and fertilized, they can never reach their full fruition; they must continue to be choked by weeds, starved between rocks and unbroken clods, perverted by the irresistible force of environment.



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