Architecture – Modern Can Be Original

It is often urged that, in our age and country, no new style of architecture can be originated. With reference to this, something has been said already on page 95 of ” Art in Theory,” on pages 206 and 293 of ” The Genesis of Art-Form,” on pages 330 and 4o6 of ” Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture as Representative Arts,” and on page 227 of the present volume. It may be said here that probably we can find no other ways of bridging openings made for doors and windows than those which have been in vogue for centuries, and which have already determined the chief characteristics of the Greek, Romanesque, and Gothic styles, namely, the horizontal lintel, the round arch, and the pointed arch, and that probably also the necessity of securing correspondence in architecture must continue to cause all other outlines in our buildings to resemble these. Yet while this is true, it must also be true that in every period in which there is progress, progress is possible in art.

Our own age has made an advance upon all preceding ones in two regards which should have, and already have had, some influence upon our architecture. These are the development of our mineral resources and of the facilities of transportation. The one has converted iron, together with various combinations and modifications of it, into a building material, and the other has lined our streets with structures of stone and brick exhibiting every variety of color. One can scarcely believe otherwise than that if one half of the thought expended on the Parthenon were expended upon incorporating the suggestions and possibilities derived from these two facts, we might originate an architectural style of our own which would become as classic and deserve to be as much admired as that of the Greeks. Iron used for the walls of buildings is inartistic. It looks like an imitation of stone produced by wood and paint, while it is standing; and it cracks, curls, melts, and ceases to stand as soon as a fire of any magnitude begins to heat it. But, used for roofs, it is more in place; and, where so used, the most economical and convenient shape that can be chosen for it is often the most beautiful. A correspondence between its arching forms and like forms in the stone- or brick-work underneath it, might give rise to a style equally novel and attractive.

See what is said on page 330 of ” Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture as Representative Arts,” with reference to methods of letting iron be seen in ceilings. Besides this, iron can span immense spaces, and this fact renders the columns characterizing the Gothic, and to some extent, the Greek structures as much out of the way architecturally in some of our modern buildings, as, with our modern uses, they are in the way optically. Large interiors, however, containing few or no columns, necessitate very artistic treatment of the wall-spaces. Otherwise, everything seems too airy and cold. Arrangements of mouldings and spaces can do something toward preventing such effects, but careful attention to the requirements of decorative art can do more. Nor in such cases should efforts be con-fined merely to painting. Decorative color, to be permanent, should be resident in the material used; and here, in treating both exterior and interior walls, architects might avail themselves of our modern facilities for transportation. Pictures have been made of mosaics, but few great buildings have been constructed on the principle of using differently colored bricks and stones and harmonizing them according to the principles of decorative painting.

Probably an architect who should undertake to erect such a building would be considered audacious; and, unless the materials and colors were judiciously chosen—not too brilliant or diversified—and were arranged in strict fulfilment of the principle that like classes of forms should be characterized by like classes of substances and hues, and were grouped in masses large enough to give dignity to the effect—probably the result would prove this opinion to be correct. Yet a great genius might produce something with a beauty as unique and successful as was the earliest Gothic church in its day, and surpassing the beauty of most of our buildings as much as the frescoed interiors of the present New York merchants’ houses surpass the white-washed walls of their Knickerbocker ancestors. Color is certainly an element of beauty. Why should it not be recognized as such in architecture? Even the Greeks acknowledged the fact. It is known now that the marble of the Parthenon, unsurpassed as it is in its capabilities for receiving polish, was painted. But the painting has perished. Used on exteriors, it always does perish. Can no imperishable colors be used thus? They can. In a country where brick and stone of all possible compositions and colors can be collected from all quarters at comparatively slight expense, one can imagine churches, halls, streets, entire cities, wholly different in hue and general appearance from any that have ever existed, built of material destined to remain unchanged as long as the pyramids, and, for a longer time, to continue to be models.—Proportion and Harmony of Line and Color, XXV.