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10.2: The New American Architecture

  • Page ID
    215496
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University

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    Figure 10.19: Wall Street, New York, c. 1882. New-York Historical Society.
    Figure 10.19: Wall Street, New York, c. 1882. New-York Historical Society.

    In the decades after the Civil War, the nation still lacked architectural traditions in which to develop building forms for an emerging urban industrial society. Mirroring the robustly free enterprise of the times, American architects competed fiercely with one another, producing an eclectic and chaotic mix of buildings (fig. 10.19). The following generation attacked such "mongrel" inventions, which lacked proportion and combined elements with little sense of overall massing.

    This earlier architecture had been shaped by historicism-the use of styles and forms, dominated by the Greek and Gothic Revivals, associated with specific historical periods and qualities. Within this practice, attributes of style mattered more than the program requirements of a specific building. Architects were trained through apprenticeship; only after the Civil War did architecture emerge as a professional practice with a methodical approach shaped by an academic curriculum.

    The Influence of the École des Beaux Arts in Paris

    The catalyst for an energetic, original, and functionally integrated architecture in the post-war years was study in Paris, at the École des Beaux Arts, where the major American architects of the period all received training. (At this time, the only American institution to offer professional architectural training was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, opened in 1865 and directly based on the philosophy of the École.)

    At the École, aspiring architects learned to think of design as a rigorously rational "science" in which the plan (the parti, or building program dictating functional requirements) unfolded logically and bore a close relationship to the style-the building's dress. No more were the architectural sins committed of applying the Greek Revival arbitrarily to houses, churches, and banks. Style would now be logically related to building type and function as well as symbolic association-plan, interior volumes, and elevation now integrated into a unity. French training provided young American architects with a design approach that could be flexibly adapted to a range of styles and functional needs, as is evident from the wide range of architecture produced by this generation. Although criticized for its emphasis on historical styles, Beaux Arts training furnished architects with thorough principles and a complete toolbox to resolve the complex programmatic requirements of new building types such as concert halls, tall office buildings, railroad stations, and department stores.

    RICHARD MORRIS HUNT. Hunt (1827-95) was the first American architect to attend the École. He went on to become the most successful architect of his generation, in a career that paralleled the painter William Merritt Chase-cosmopolitan, celebrated, and influential in shaping the next generation. Hunt mastered a range of classical styles, from French Renaissance to Second Empire ( classically derived and widely used in contemporary France). Along with other New York architects-most notably the firm of McKim, Mead, and White-Hunt combined historical forms with steel frame construction, which allowed for the creation of dramatic new spaces: enormous exhibition halls, tall office buildings. The real modernity of these structures was not in their sheathing of historical forms, but rather in the way they skillfully managed problems of human circulation, multi-use, and broad-span spaces using new construction materials and methods.

    ORIGINS OF THE SKYSCRAPER. As land in American cities became more expensive, buildings expanded skyward to maximize income relative to the cost of property. Soon to become an international building type, the skyscraper originated in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, primarily in two places: Chicago and New York, assuming a distinctive form in each city. Daniel Burnham (1846---1912) and Louis Sullivan (1856---1924), members of what has come to be called the Chicago School, used the steel frame to generate new forms shaped both by the structural potential of steel and by the economics of urban real estate. Burnham began his career in Chicago and went on to an international practice that included large-scale urban design. His flexible and inventive approach is evident in his Fuller Building, also known as the "Flatiron Building" (see fig. 12.23), in New York City, whose attenuated shape reflects its narrow triangular footprint at the diagonal juncture of Broadway and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. While Burnham did work in New York, his approach to design was shaped by the Chicago School, with its bold expression of structure and its unified building mass. New York architects, though they also used steel frame construction for tall buildings, favored picturesque outlines and an emphasis on historical styles. It was the Chicago School's more direct expression of a building's structural frame in its outline and fenestration that furnished the inspiration for twentieth-century modernist architecture. Yet far from merely expressing the logic of commercial profit, tall buildings in Chicago and elsewhere incorporated a range of entryway ornament, roof gardens, luxurious restaurants, and skylit lobbies that graced urban life and expressed the civic pride of the urban business class.

    History and the Individual Talent: H. H. Richardson

    The international emergence of American architecture in the later nineteenth century was propelled by the career of Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86), cut short by his untimely death but which, in a brief span of twenty-one years or so, produced an approach to building that was monumental, forceful, and unified. Richardson's lessons contributed to the younger Louis Sullivan's own prophetic vision of a new, more vigorous American architecture. Richardson went well beyond the imitative eclecticism of the post-war period into an idiom that, while still drawing on the past, could also claim to be something new. His massive load-bearing walls, his squat arches and use of boulders, the tautly stretched skin of his shingled houses, and his broad, unified, and gravity-bound monumentality, gave architectural practice in the United States a new authority. Richardson gave his name to an architectural style-the "Richardsonian Romanesque" -that was assertively individual and yet flexible enough for a range of building types.

    Richardson was a southerner but moved north to study at Harvard, the nation's leading university, where he found his architectural calling. After graduating there in 1859 he spent six years in Paris at the Ecole (thus avoiding as well the problems of being a southerner in the North during the Civil War). In Paris, he saw large-scale building projects engaging the collaboration of architects, sculptors, painters, and designers. He also encountered a range of historical styles-including the French Romanesque, with its massive volumes and simple outlines- that offered alternatives to the Classical and Gothic Revival styles that had dominated American architecture up to then. At the same time, his sense of massing bore the impress of the warehouses along Boston's wharf.

    Figure 10.20: HENRY HOBSON RICHARDSON, Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, Massachusetts, 1872-7.
    Figure 10.20: HENRY HOBSON RICHARDSON, Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, Massachusetts, 1872-7.
    Figure 10.21: HENRY HOBSON RICHARDSON, Trinity Church, interior, Copley Square, Boston, Massachusetts, 1872-7.
    Figure 10.21: HENRY HOBSON RICHARDSON, Trinity Church, interior, Copley Square, Boston, Massachusetts, 1872-7.

    TRINITY CHURCH, BOSTON. This was the building that made Richardson's international reputation (fig. 10.20). After six years of practice in New York City, Richardson won the competition for this prestigious commission, and shortly thereafter assembled an extraordinary team of transatlantic collaborators-including John La Farge (1835- 1910), Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), and the English designer William Morris (1834-96)-who helped him to realize the most aesthetically harmonized interior in American architecture up to that time (fig. 10.21). Reflecting the growing sophistication of the arts, the collaborative model assumed a common aesthetic vision to which individual personalities and disciplines were subordinated.

    The idea of architecture as a unified work of art orchestrating interior volumes with colored and filtered light, wall treatment, interior appointments, and painted decoration would be realized by a range of architects and designers working collaboratively, from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth. Collaboration went hand in hand with the concept of a total environment, in which each individual artistic element was submerged within a larger whole, and in which the individual creative personalities likewise submitted to a single governing conception.

    For the plan of Trinity, Richardson used a Greek rather than a Latin cross; all four arms are of equal length, unified around a central volume culminating on the exterior in a squat Romanesque tower. The subdued polychrome interior of wooden barrel vaults and exposed beams, stenciled inscriptions and geometric designs, and stained glass, served as an expansive expression of the renowned preacher and rector of Trinity, Phillips Brooks, whose sonorous voice and unifying message of hope and redemption packed hundreds into the church each Sunday. (He is best known today as the author of the Christmas carol "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.") With no nave columns but only four corner piers supporting the central tower, the interior is a single unobstructed acoustical chamber. The great arches of the barrel vaults are repeated on a smaller scale on the exterior entrance porch and throughout the facade. With its stately organization of exterior forms, building up to the tower, Trinity Church is a commanding presence in Copley Square. Facing the site of what would soon become the Boston Public Library, Trinity comprises part of a symbolic urban space, joining sacred and secular in an expression of authority and civic pride. With its loadbearing walls, its structural accents of contrasting stone, and its play of solids and voids, Trinity-like most of Richardson's architecture-left behind the language of applied ornament in favor of "a bold, rich, living architecture" that satisfies viscerally through sheer weight and visual power.15

    Through his time at Harvard, Richardson established the social ties that would propel future commissions. Thereafter, his architecture, continually enriched through travel and study, would develop toward more elemental forms, expressing a building's purpose with clarity while never departing from his distinctive earth-bound and loadbearing style, which would spread throughout the United States in myriad imitations. Such an architecture of massive and elemental forms answered a widely felt need among local and national governments requiring courthouses, government and educational buildings, train stations, and armories. The Richardsonian Romanesque offered a reassuring image of stability, history, and authority.

    Architecture and the New Metropolis: Louis Sullivan

    In Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie (1900), Carrie Meeber, a young girl from a Midwestern town, arrives in Chicago to start a new life. Among the new allures of urban life for Carrie are the ready-to-wear fashions of well-dressed urban women. Carrie finds these in abundance at the Schlesinger and Mayer Department Store, where she is seduced by displays of consumer goods eliciting unfamiliar desires at every turn. By the end of the novel, city life has shaped Carrie into someone new, someone modern.

    The architect of the Schlesinger and Mayer Department Store was Louis Sullivan. Like Carrie, he grew up in the countryside of an older America, shaped, according to his Autobiography, by intimacy with nature. During a career that took him first to Boston and then to Chicago, Sullivan created compelling new forms for the tall office building and other new urban building types.

    Figure 10.22: LOUIS SULLIVAN, Schlesinger and Mayer Department Store (Carson Pirie Scott), 1899. Chicago Historical Society, Illinois.
    Figure 10.22: LOUIS SULLIVAN, Schlesinger and Mayer Department Store (Carson Pirie Scott), 1899. Chicago Historical Society, Illinois.

    THE DEPARTMENT STORE. Twelve stories high, Schlesinger and Mayer-now Carson, Pirie, Scott-is a steel frame structure encased in fireproof ceramic tiles (fig. 10.22). Sullivan refused to disguise the underlying structural grid of the department store, which is evident in the clean and continuous horizontal lines of its extended facade along the street. In the hands of other architects, this new building technology- used throughout the Chicago business district known as the Loop-was obscured with massive stone facing, heavy cornices, columns, and other classical elements. Sullivan's approach was more matter-of-fact. At the corner, where two major thoroughfares meet, the building splits apart, like a limb exposing ligature and muscle, breaking into a curved bay in which a vertical element becomes more assertive.

    Figure 10.23: LOUIS SULLIVAN, Schlesinger and Mayer Department Store (Carson Pirie Scott), detail, 1899. (See also p. 278)
    Figure 10.23: LOUIS SULLIVAN, Schlesinger and Mayer Department Store (Carson Pirie Scott), detail, 1899. (See also p. 278)

    At the time, this curved corner echoed the curve of the streetcars as they swung around State onto Madison. At the base of the bay is the entrance to the building, contained in a wrought bronze screen of exuberantly stylized foliation (fig. 10.23 and p. 278). Situated at the intersection of two soberly functional facades dominated by plate glass windows, this entry must have seemed a prodigal offering to the shoppers who stepped within- tired shop- girls, middle-class matrons, rural visitors like Carrie- all ready to be dazzled by this new democratic emporium.

    The department store, one of the new urban building types, incorporated a number of new materials, chief among them plate glass, first industrially produced in the 1870s. In tandem with steel frame construction, plate glass brought expansive displays of consumer items into the public spaces of the city street. Sullivan's Schlesinger and Mayer store redefined the street-level experience of the pedestrian with an uninterrupted use of plate glass, lightly framed by decorative panels.

    The building's interior was an open expanse supported by a grid of columns. Sight lines were unobstructed by partitions or walls, leaving the eye free to roam from one display to the next. Departments were separated into stories; functional requirements were met at the perimeters of the open floors. On the third floor a spacious lounge offered comforts previously available only in men's clubs; here women shoppers could rest, read or write, and talk quietly Further appealing to urban professionals and women of leisure was an eighth-floor restaurant. Sullivan's program for the department store dignified consumption and made even the most modest urban shopper feel welcome.

    Sullivan arrived at his design philosophy through a combination of American and European influences. From his early mentor, Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, he learned to think about how to express the building's structure and function through dramatic exterior form. Yet Sullivan believed as well that function should be expressed not merely through engineering but also through poetic metaphor. Decoration played an important role in this poetic expression-articulating, in a non-structural way, the symbolic energies of the building on its surface.

    Integrating all these influences, however, was the approach to design he learned at the Ecole-a rational and rigorously analytic form of problem-solving. Without this disciplined approach, Sullivan might never have found solutions to the range of new urban and social functions developing in the American city of these years. Each new project demanded its own specific solution, and precedent had little to contribute in determining the shape of the present. Structural logic, not inherited forms, drove his rational approach to design, shaped by his French training. As he wrote much later, the Ecole had planted the seed of his later design philosophy, summed up as "Form follows function."16

    Figure 10.24: LOUIS SULLIVAN, Wainwright Building, St. Louis, Missouri, 1890-1. St. Louis Historical Society.
    Figure 10.24: LOUIS SULLIVAN, Wainwright Building, St. Louis, Missouri, 1890-1. St. Louis Historical Society.

    THE OFFICE BUILDING. The Wainwright Building in St. Louis (fig. 10.24) lucidly expressed Sullivan's commitment to structural logic, poetically expressed. Conceived in a three-minute "volcanic" burst of inspiration, as he described it later, the Wainwright is not tall by present-day standards. Yet to Sullivan and future observers, it expressed the soaring verticality of the modern office building. Unlike earlier steel frame multistory structures, the Wainwright understated the horizontal dimension-the expression of stories one on top of another-in favor of uninterrupted vertical piers running from the third floor to the tenth floor where they reach the cornice. Only alternate piers are structural-that is, load-bearing: they alternate with nonstructural mullions which look exactly the same. Here Sullivan departed from strict expression of function in order to emphasize the appearance of height. His humane attitude toward new urban forms is evident as well in the overall form of the Wainwright. The building sits on a strong three-story base; plate glass windows allow visual access into street-level shops. Capped by a bold cornice, at its corners the Wainwright is firmly bounded by broad piers. This lucid, unified facade is enlivened by molded ceramic tiles sheathing the steel cage. The warm color of the ceramic, along with the building's reference to the classical language of base, shaft, and capital, grounds Sullivan's tall office building in a familiar language.

    Figure 10.25: LOUIS SULLIVAN, Transportation Building, World's Columbian Exposition (World's Fair), Illinois, 1893.
    Figure 10.25: LOUIS SULLIVAN, Transportation Building, World's Columbian Exposition (World's Fair), Illinois, 1893.

    THE TRANSPORTATION BUILDING. Sullivan ultimately believed that the role of the architect was to realize in built forms the visionary potential of modern life and institutions, in which ideas circulated freely between nations, through new means of communication and trade. As A. W Barker wrote in 1901 with respect to Sullivan's work, " ... all art of the future must tend toward the expression of the modern cosmopolitan spirit, rather than a distinctively national idea."17 Sullivan's cosmopolitan spirit was realized in his design for a Transportation Building at the World's Fair, called the Columbian Exposition, in Chicago in 1893 (fig. 10.25). This building featured a great sunburst of concentric arches decorated in gold and mosaic, and dubbed the Golden Door. Its long horizontal shed, punctuated by rhythmic arches, expressed visually the rhythmic sounds of wheels passing over railroad crossbars. Its architectural imagery extended beyond the classical language of Europe to the Middle East and Syria, its splendidly decorative motifs evoking the exoticism of the Orient. Sullivan's design also implied that the modern technology of the New World would accomplish the same thing as imperial power had in the Old World, spanning distances, bridging Europe and Asia, and transcending the boundaries of the nation-state.

    Hoping passionately for a new democratic culture, free to develop unencumbered by the authority of past forms, Sullivan was a lone voice of dissent condemning the great spectacle of classicizing architecture displayed at the 1893 Fair, which he saw as the defeat of his organic principles of design, and the triumph of aristocratic forms indebted to Europe. Yet, in the words of a contemporary critic in 1905, he was first to 'boldly cast off the thralldom of precedent" to treat "the new condition of structure in a frank and artistic manner." 18 Following his death in 1924, Sullivan was heralded as a prophetic figure, an inspiration to a later generation of European modernists looking for precedents for their own modern forms. The structural rationalism they developed would in turn be exported back to the United States, becoming the so-called International Style.


    This page titled 10.2: The New American Architecture is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts.