Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/June 1890/Utility in Architecture

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IT is a significant commentary on the actual state of our culture that architecture, the most ancient and grandest of the arts, is to-day the least understood, the least satisfactory, the least appreciated of all the achievements of our civilization. This is the more remarkable because there are few periods so prolific of building as our own. There have been times when great and splendid works have been raised by some ambitious ruler who has produced monuments quite unlike anything that is undertaken at the present; but, while we erect no costly palaces or magnificent temples, we build thousands of smaller structures whose combined cost in any one year or term of years greatly exceeds the sums expended on the most elaborate edifices of antiquity in the same time. This is especially the case in our own country, where there is a constant and active demand for buildings of all kinds, for the most expensive as well as the cheapest, for state use and for the individual citizen. And yet, in spite of this undiminished call, which in any department of trade or of manufactures would at once produce the very best results and the most satisfactory methods, the architecture of our time is so thoroughly bad, so wanting in the first principles of common sense, so debased, that this noblest of all the arts is scarcely included in the term, and our critics speak patronizingly of it as just being "gradually recognized" as such.

Architecture has an historical chronology of at least four thousand years during which we can trace its growth, and in which it expressed in a very thorough manner the conditions under which it was developed. It has been reserved for the superior knowledge of modern times to cast it aside as one of the peculiar products of a less intelligent age, as something to admire for its past monuments, but as being quite out of our modern ideas of progress. Because in the last few years a partial revival has taken place; because it has been discovered that it offers a convenient and expensive way of impressing the beholder with the importance of the builder; because our rich men and large corporations want to give some visual evidence of their resources—it has been taken up as something that may be approved of as a means of testifying to the wealth of our cities and adding to their general good looks. The very art element of architecture has been the cause of its degradation. From the most useful of arts, it has become mostly ornamental. From meaning and expressing the utility of an edifice, it has come to refer to its appearance only. People have forgotten that it arose from the necessity of man for shelter, and view it as a product of the study or of the studio in which beauty and sesthetic effects are the only ends sought, while utility, convenience, expression of intention, have all become secondary considerations. Nothing could be more erroneous, nothing more fatal to the production of sound architecture.

Architecture is not the product of the imagination, but the result of experience and foresight. The painter in his studio, or the sculptor in his, has nothing to dictate to his thoughts or force them into certain channels. His fancy is free, and he allows it to carry him where it will. The architect, on the other hand, is limited by innumerable requirements and difficulties, all of which are real and physical, and all of which must be overcome before his work can be a success. His creations are not intended for the decoration of a gallery or to be preserved under glass, but they must stand the test of time and of climate, must bear a relation to the manners and customs of the day. He must exercise care and discrimination in the selection of his materials. He must count their cost and be fully acquainted with their physical properties. There is, in fact, no end to the details he must consider, in all of which there is no place or opportunity for the exercise of the imagination. His art is the product of natural conditions, and may be not inappropriately compared to a plant which, through the action of certain external elements or forces, finally assumes a character that can be directly traced to the environment, and which is, in fact, directly dependent on it.

These views are not those popularly held on the subject, but it is impossible to make an intelligent study of the history of the art without reaching them, if, indeed, they had not been already indicated by common sense. Of all the arts, architecture calls, for the greatest exercise of thought; yet, strangely enough, this is the very element that is most wanting in it at the present day. All successful buildings must express an idea; they must mean something. The architecture of previous times rests on this basis, and those structures which give the most evidence of the fact are the most successful. Even in the distorted view of our day those buildings which depart from this position are the most condemned. Yet the very people who censure such lack of judgment by their ancestors do not hesitate to follow in their footsteps and produce architectural monstrosities that should never have been conceived in an intelligent age. The very rudest of African savages is fully aware of this important fact, and keeps it well in mind in building such structures as the simple needs of his life and his primitive ideas require. Thus, for example, he will build a very different edifice for a granary than he will to live in. It has been reserved for the nineteenth, century, with its great wealth, its boundless resources, and its extensive and diversified knowledge, to cast this cardinal principle to one side. Savages may, indeed, be foolish enough, to build houses which, exactly express the life of their builders and answer every requirement of their primitive form of existence, but we of this time are above such, petty expedients, and can well afford to conform our lives to our architecture. We do not need to make our architecture conform to ourselves.

Judging from the monuments of our time, the view that architecture is not ornamentation but construction, not for beauty but for utility, not for an elaborate exterior but for a well-devised interior, not for something pleasing to look at, but for something to live in or to be put to a certain well-defined purpose, is not one that has any considerable support. A glance at a few of the chief points of architectural history will show how true this is, and to what an extent it underlies all that is good in the building art. It is characteristic of the earliest stages of society, those in which architecture had its birth, that nothing is built without a reason. Then people had too few ideas, were provided with too limited means, to be able, on the one hand, to think of unnecessary erections, or, on the other, to do more than was called for by absolute necessity. Architecture was barren of ornament, and had a crudeness that is almost repulsive to modern eyes; but, nevertheless, primitive buildings answered their purpose, as a rule, much more satisfactorily than many later ones.

Illustrations of structures in which use, not beauty, is the central idea, are to be found among the masters of art in antiquity. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, all followed this leading idea. There are, indeed, instances where the folly of a wealthy tyrant has produced an overloading of ornament, an unnecessary multiplication of details, and a striving after effect has led to the employment of bad methods; but these exceptions do not disprove the rule. On the contrary, these very structures are censured for their violation of this fundamental principle, and it is those in which it is adhered to most closely that excite our admiration and esteem.

Utility, then, being the first element of successful architecture, it follows that the structure of buildings varies according to the use to which they are to be put. This proposition is self-evident, and expresses only ordinary common sense. It would scarcely call for demonstration, were it not for the fact that many modern buildings are constructed on the basis that, if they look well, whether the outward form is suitable or not for the purpose for which they are intended, or whether the exterior expresses the interior in any way, all has been done that is required. A very different state of affairs existed in the past. The ancient Egyptians, for example, adopted a totally different style of architecture for their temples or palaces than they did for their dwellings. The former were of stone, and of a massive method of building that was intended to withstand the wear and tear of ages; the latter were of wood or brick, constructed in a light manner, and without much concern as to their durability. The Romans supply another illustration of the same fact. These people were unquestionably the greatest builders the world has seen, and the methods they employed can properly serve as a guide for later usage. Much of their architecture, judged by the pure standard of the Greek, on which it largely rested, is bad from an aesthetic point of view, and not a little of their construction was devised on methods that can not always be approved of; but, apart from this, the buildings of the Romans offer many interesting examples of the application of idea to structure, and-the importance of utility over mere questions of art.

It has been remarked that in ancient Rome no one ever had a doubt as to the use to which any building was put or what it was; and, in truth, great as was the variety of Roman buildings, their forms were so many, their plans so varied and so well expressed in the structure, that there never could have been room for the smallest doubt on the subject. The temple differed from the basilica, the basilica from the amphitheatre, the amphitheatre from the palace, the palace from the baths. In a word, each class of buildings had its own form, its own plan, which was based, not on some fancy of the architect, not on some individual caprice, not on some mistaken idea of the beautiful, but on the single thought that if the building answered its purpose it was satisfactory and accomplished all that was to be expected of it. In the golden age of the Roman Empire enormous sums of money were spent in adorning the capital and chief cities with public works—buildings not only for the emperor himself but for public and state use as well. The display of wealth and luxury was lavish in the extreme; ornament and decoration were to be seen in every available place in the greatest profusion; yet in the midst of all this gorgeousness the Roman architect never forgot the destination of the building. If a complicated structure, like a bath, was needed, there was no limit to the extent to which the plan was elaborated; if a simple edifice was required, such as a basilica, there was no multiplication of parts for external effect, but simply the large hall and the necessary rooms. The ornament was frequently profuse and much overdone, but the architecture proper, the structure itself, the plan, the essential part, was never anything else than what it was intended to be.

There is nothing astonishing in this method, which is only the application of common sense to art and the subordination of ornament to the requirements of the time. It would not call for comment were it not that modern builders so persistently refuse to recognize it as a fundamental principle in building. Nowadays, when an architect designs a building, he is satisfied he has done all he is required to do if it looks well. If the builder of a house wants a stairway or a window in a particular place because he thinks it will be more convenient, and thereby interferes with the symmetry of the drawing that is submitted for his inspection, he is argued out of it because, forsooth, it will destroy this carefully prepared symmetry or spoil some technical gimcrack that the architect regards as his chief device; and if by chance the owner carries the day, the architect retires in chagrin, and despairs of his art ever making good progress.

No greater harm is done to the true advancement of architecture than this insistence that exterior effect is the sole end to be desired. More than any other cause it has operated to depress the art, and helped to make people question the utility of intrusting their interests to the architects. It has spread abroad the impression that these gentlemen, who might be very useful, are unnecessary luxuries, and that a much more comfortable dwelling can be built by indicating one's own desires and following one's own suggestions and views as to convenience, than by paying large sums for "pretty" façades that very likely conceal more discomfort and dissatisfaction than the most vivid imagination can conceive of in a twelvemonth. As a natural result there is a popular skepticism as to the value of professional services that not only hinders the development of a modern architecture, but does serious injury to the profession as well. Yet architects have only themselves to thank for this condition of things, and they can never hope to win the confidence of the public until they have laid aside their so-called art, and begun to design structures with the sole end of making them answer the requirements for which they are intended.

The most remarkable movement in modern architecture has been the Gothic revival, in the midst of which we are living. It has resulted in the wholesale approval of all that is mediæval, and all that bears the impress of Gothic art. It is important, not only as showing an interest in the really good work of previous times, but as indicating an appreciation for an art that is based on common sense and the adaptation of ends to means. Gothic architecture is nothing if not sensible. It originated in a time in the world's history when building was at its lowest ebb. The founders of Gothic art were possessed of limited means; they were without wealth, and their general knowledge was of the scantiest. The magnificent structures to which the Romans had been accustomed were impossible to them. Every stone counted, every item of expenditure was rigorously scrutinized and, if not essential, cast to one side as a luxury that was unnecessary and could not be afforded. It followed, therefore, that a Gothic building had no superfluous parts, no erections intended solely for effect, nothing that was not absolutely essential. There was no unnecessary multiplication of detail; there was no attempt at a refined balance of parts or at symmetry.

Symmetrical building is the greatest bugbear that besets the modern architect, and has done more to throw him into disrepute than any other invention of the craft. The making of two parts of a building the same, whether their use was identical or not, is a very recent invention, and, though practiced by the Romans to a limited extent, was almost unknown prior to the fourteenth century. Every style has permitted more or less irregularity, according as the plan required it, and it was not. until the Renaissance—a movement that is responsible for more architectural sins than is generally supposed—that the astonishing idea was presented to the world that all the corresponding parts of a building must be alike. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, and the architects of mediæval Europe, were all equally free and unsymmetrical in their designs and their methods. Even the Greeks, who produced more symmetrical buildings than any other people of antiquity, varied their designs to suit circumstances. It is needless to multiply examples, and it is sufficient to point out that this freedom from restraint, this ability to vary the design, is one of the chief glories of Gothic architecture, and helps make it applicable to the varied requirements of modern life.

Yet this very freedom militates against the use of Gothic, and is one of the reasons why it is not as satisfactory for modern requirements as it ought to be. The capability for constant variation permits the architect to compose designs of not a little beauty and almost infinite variety, which so fascinate him that in his search for a pleasing façade he forgets that the external appearance of his building may not conform to the best plan or the greatest convenience. The new Law Courts in London furnish a remarkable illustration of this. These buildings were designed by one of the leaders of the Gothic movement—Sir George Gilbert Scott—a man who was thoroughly imbued with the Gothic spirit, and who devoted his life to the propagation of Gothic forms. Yet he so far overlooked the prime element of Gothic architecture—utility—that the completed structures have been found totally unsuited for the purposes for which they were intended. It can not be wondered at that, when those to whom we look for guidance fail, there should be so many smaller failures by those not so well equipped, and who can not, therefore, be expected to have the same knowledge. There can be no surprise that there has been a revulsion against Gothic art, which, bids fair to reach such proportions as to once more drive it out of use.

There is nothing more misunderstood at the present day than Gothic architecture. It is popularly supposed that if a building has a sloping roof, and is plentifully adorned with buttresses, pinnacles, towers, arches, balconies, dormers, and similar things, it is in the correct form of that order. Gothic architecture is, indeed, characterized by all these objects in one shape or another; but the mere placing of them in juxtaposition no more produces it than does the placing alongside of each other water, flour, and yeast make bread. It is the proper and due combination of these constituents that produces the desired result in each case. Gothic buildings have sloping roofs, because the style originated in a part of the world where the rainfall was abundant, and some device was needed to throw off the water. They have arched openings, because practical experiments in building have demonstrated that they are the most economic and safe form to use. They have buttresses and pinnacles, because they were necessary to resist the thrust of a vaulted roof. In the best Gothic not one of these forms was used unless it was an essential part of the construction. The moment one is applied to a building for ornamental purposes, or for any object other than as a necessity to its statical condition, the structure ceases to be Gothic and becomes a hybrid without a name.

Gothic architecture never employed a form that was not necessary. In this respect it offers a striking contrast to what is now called modern Gothic, which consists in applying ornament to surfaces and giving them forms which have no real meaning of their own, and are nothing more than ornamentation. A building does not become Gothic simply because it has a gable or a carved door-frame; the principle, the cause which made them Gothic in the old form, is wanting, because from parts of the structure they have become mere pieces of decoration. Gothic architecture is expressed by many forms; but its true character lies not in them, but in the application of sound constructive methods to the science of building. It is this principle that gives it a glory of its own, and it is the violation of this fundamental element which renders the Gothic architecture of the present day so unsatisfactory and so un-Gothic in spirit.

But there is another element of Gothic architecture that calls for consideration, and that is, that notwithstanding it could be varied and each part made to be exactly what it was intended to be without regard to the total effect, the results are perfectly satisfactory from an æsthetic standpoint. It shows, in a conclusive manner, that a building can be erected with the sole aim of being useful and answering exactly the requirements for which it is designed, and at the same time be of sufficient beauty to call forth, the commendation of future ages. In other words, utility in architecture is not synonymous with ugliness, nor does it follow that, because a structure is essentially useful, it is any the less beautiful. This fact is of great importance, because many modern builders have the singular idea that beauty of form and utility of structure are mutually antagonistic. The Gothic builders, for instance, employed the grandest forms and the most ambitious designs for their cathedrals; but, when they set about building a dwelling or a warehouse, kept their designs well within the limits for which they were intended. They used the same shapes, the same details, the same ideas, it is true; but the application of them is different in a dwelling from that in a church. Modern architects, on the contrary, do not hesitate to apply forms and methods that are peculiarly ecclesiastical, and which have no significance in any other connection, to domestic work; and it is no unusual thing to-day to see a castle turret decorating the corner of a thoroughfare, or a church doorway leading into a financial institution. A confusion naturally ensues as to the use of the structure, and the average spectator is frequently at a loss to know for what purpose a particular building is intended. In mediæval times such a condition would have been impossible, because then the idea that intention was the chief thing to be expressed in a structure was so firmly imbedded that any other process would never have been thought of.

It goes without saying that, if an adherence to this principle produced satisfactory results in past times, the same methods would bring about equally good ones at the present day. And yet the thought is so far forgotten as to be seldom practiced. Not all the architecture of the present time is bad, but so much of it is, that no opportunity should be neglected of hastening a reform. Our political thought is directed toward reform; we have ballot reform, civil-service reform, tariff reform, and very shortly the art world must have architectural reform, or it will be impossible to live in our houses. In place of use, we are given ornament; in place of intention, we have design. On every side buildings are criticised for their appearance, and are generally found unsatisfactory—a state of affairs that can be directly traced to their lack of ideas. Music is flat and insipid just so far as ideas are absent from it, and the same may be said of architecture. There are unrivaled opportunities for good work and plenty of it in this country, and yet there is a constant cry of dissatisfaction with the products of our architectural labor. Government architecture is as bad as that produced under private auspices. In ancient Rome it was the government's work that was the best done and has survived the longest. In the nineteenth century it is the private work that reaches a respectable age, while that done by the government undergoes a rapid decay. The difference between the ancient and the modern method is enormous, and it needs no guide to tell which is the better. In our time, in our country at least, government architecture is considered of more importance for its effect on the "boys" than for any direct relation to the progress of art. There is no limit to the expenditures that are made on our large public buildings, but they are no sooner completed than extensive repairs are necessary that not infrequently amount to as much as the original cost.

Nothing could be worse than this, yet it is happening every day. Our streets are lined with hideous structures and comfortless dwellings. Lighting and ventilation, plumbing and heating, and all the requirements of our daily life, are sunk into subordinate positions beside the questions of external effect and the support of a large number of political hangers-on whose interest in architecture terminates with the job. It is evident that this can not be continued indefinitely. Sooner or later there will come a revulsion in public feeling, and an insistence that our architecture shall express our civilization in its fullest development, regardless of designs or exteriors. The direction in which we are working is essentially bad; and it is manifest that, if they did things better in past time, when utility was the prime consideration, the sooner we return to primitive methods the better it will be. It is a lasting disgrace to our culture that the Bushman and the Hottentot, the Indian and the Patagonian have ideas in architecture that put our own attempts to the blush and will render us a laughing stock to posterity. The instincts of animals, even, teach them ways and means of construction that are far in advance of the methods of the men of the nineteenth century. Did not the wise man say go to the ant and consider her way and be wise?

The architecture of the past teaches us many facts of interest and value, but none more important than this, that a building must express an idea. It must not seem to be what it is, but be it, without any uncertainty or doubt. In the structures now going up around us, in this land as well as in other lands, this essential element is apt to be found wanting. There are too many buildings that need repairs and alterations before they can be occupied. There are too many structures erected for external effect, without due regard to the planning and the use to which they are to be put. There is too much drawing of pretty plans and elevations on paper, without proper attention to structural requirements. There is too much haste, too much careless management, too much poor construction, too much attention to detail, too much bad taste. As a result, our buildings are bad in conception and execrable in execution. We must not condemn a building for some unpleasant detail, some crude idea. Nothing could be less proper; no building, no matter what its form, should be condemned until we know its purpose, and whether it fills it or not. The very fact that it is necessary to speak of "knowing the purpose" of a building shows how thoroughly the art has degenerated.