John Beverley Robinson in “The Architectural Record” (1896–1899)

  • John Beverley Robinson, “Authority in Architectural Design,” Architectural Record 6 no. 1 (July-September, 1896): 71-76.
  • John Beverley Robinson, “Modern Vault Construction,” Architectural Record 6 no. 4 (April-June, 1897): 447-459.
  • John Beverley Robinson, “Architects’ Houses,” Architectural Record [serial, starting in Vol. 3, p. 188]
  • John Beverley Robinson, “Principles of Architectural Design,” Architectural Record 8 no. 1 (July–September, 1898): 1–25.
  • John Beverley Robinson, “Principles of Architectural Design,” Architectural Record 8 no. 1 (October–December, 1898): 181–223.
  • John Beverley Robinson, “Principles of Architectural Design,” Architectural Record 8 no. 3 (January–March, 1899): 297–331.

Authority in Architectural Design.

With the revived interest in architecture, and with the knowledge of it that has come within these latter years to the inhabitants of the United States, there have come innumerable notions, more or less wise, more or less persistently expressed, each one demanding some restriction upon the doings of architects in order to suit the views of its especial advocates.

The restrictions are either statutes enacted or demanded, or deference to certain ideas expressed with the boldness of authority, and tending always toward the use of legal force to maintain them.

Outside of building laws, which are, ninety-nine hundredths of them, politicians’ tools for party aggrandizement, special enactments are continually demanded. Chief among these is the law to limit the height of buildings and the law to regulate their height by that of adjoining buildings, so as to secure as far as possible a uniform height of all the buildings in a street. Not less important is the bill to give politicians the power to prevent architects from practising at all, based, I presume, upon the well-known ignorance, incompetence and dishonesty of architects, and the intelligence and incontaminability of politicians. Add to these the various art commissions upon statuary, paintings and so on, that it is proposed to establish, that in some cases have been established, perhaps without legal power, yet claiming to be the voice of alleged authority, and ready at the earliest opportunity to enforce their views by law.

Two causes, one general and one special, yet closely connected, are discernible. One is the general reactionary tendency observable in this country to forsake the ideas of the founders of the Republic, that government should be reduced to a minimum; that it was the privilege of the members of a free government to do what constituted for each of them the pursuit of happiness, whether others regarded it as moral or immoral; that only to repress attacks upon this freedom should governmental organizations be used. Forsaking all this, the tendency of the moment is to make the acts of each, however clearly non-aggressive, subject to the censorship of the mobile vulgus.

The special cause is the growing number of those who obtain their education in Europe; who, carried away by the grace and charm of the older civilization, admirably and laudably wish their friends to share their pleasure; and to that end would erect in a moment here what a thousand years has there slowly ripened; would build for us a dreamland with what sticks and canvas and paint may be obtainable; would construct for us thankless ones, a diadem with Dutch foil and quartz sparks, a sunset with lanterns and colored glass.

For up to the very last point we may hold with this Europeanizing school, agree with them, admire them, love them. They are true and sincere lovers of the worthy, the beautiful, the refined.

They say, and they say truly, that American architecture is for the most part barbarous. They show, and it is undeniable, that our public works of art, statues and parks, are mostly monstrous.

Let us acquaint you, they say, with better things, such as you yourselves, when you come to know them, will admit to be better than what you have hitherto done.

However much we may be disposed to deny, fair and candid dealing will compel us to admit all that these men charge. We are as a nation, half-baked and barbarous. Moreover, we are commercialized, in this commercial age, beyond any other country. Others have traditions, feudal and ancestral, or ethical and religious, that mitigate the asperity of a purely commercial regime, traditions of noblesse oblige, for both prince and peasant, of affection for ancient landmarks, monuments and customs, that do much to maintain the harmony of a past time through the present chaos of transition. But here there is no consideration for the mass of us but dollars and cents.

If a building is handsome, that is to say if it is costly and elaborate, we care not for logic or beauty, we do not even know, most of us, what beauty means. It is indeed astounding to discover how far among us the aesthetic sense is atrophied. It is as though in cookery we had lost the sense of taste: as perhaps we might indeed be thought to have lost that also, were it not for the distinct appreciation that we show of French cookery.

So our lack of a sense of beauty has evolved for us an atmosphere which reacts to still further dull us to beauty. How, from an entourage of tenement houses and elevated railroad skeletons, shall an artist emerge?

Although other nations may excel in particular points, yet for aesthetic sense, the French are first. In architecture especially the French once did, what no other nation but the unequalled Greek has done, pushed an architectural style—a style in the highest “and best sense, the reasonable adornment of a logical system of construction—to the extremity of perfection.

But, admitting all this, what shall we do to advance ourselves to the plane of the more developed nations?

Will it suffice for us to set up for ourselves as the ultimate authority, methods and ideals that they have evolved? Is it possible for us to graft upon the thousand branchlets of our growth a new species of fruit? And, if it be possible, are we sure that cultivation and selection of the seed of our proper stock may not perhaps excel in quality the scions offered?

The supremacy that I have spoken of as achieved by France in architectural development, the perfecting of the Gothic style, the only style besides the Greek that ever reached perfection, was achieved not by the methods of the schools, but by cutting loose from the methods of the ecclesiastical schools that then ruled, and rejoicing in the spring breeze of a newly found liberty. It was not by churchmen, but bv laymen, by the people of the free cities, that the culminating glories of French architecture, during the latter part of the thirteenth and the earlier part of the fourteenth centuries were built. Since then, although the new discovery of antiquity and the decline of religious ecstacy made the Renaissance inevitable, nothing but the genius of the French people has prevented it from degenerating into a mere ossification.

For, in judging of French ideals, even of modern French ideals, too much dependence must not be placed upon their champions here. The reduplication of classical colonnades, the frontispieces of pilasters and cornices, tier upon tier, in unexceptionable Ionic or Corinthian orders, perfect enough in their way, but a little wearisome after we have seen them several thousand times, these are not by any means the ideals of the most conservative French school. On the contrary, they know as well as anybody what logic and good sense mean in design, but an unfortunate spirit of chauvinism leads them to copy themselves, over and over again in the details of ornament, resulting in a degradation which nothing but their innate French good taste saves from failure.

It is to be regretted that I am unable to obtain illustrations to show what I mean. Let me try to describe one typical instance.

Serving as a support to the spring of a certain arch in the Palais de Justice, in Paris, is a hybrid Ionic capital, of a pattern often seen, the volutes springing perpendicularly from the necking and joining each other by a horizontal band just above the necking. Above this is a detached piece of a hybrid architrave. The whole stands upon a corbel of hollow quarter circle profile, bearing in the hollow a sculptured female head. Although the profiles are refined and the carving and modelling excellent, such a curious compound cannot be regarded otherwise than as debased art.

Many similar instances might be brought to warn us not to sit too humbly at the feet of any master. Moreover, no amount of authority can justify such decorations as the familiar festoon, the mask and the escutcheon as intellectually tolerable.

Somewhat revived in our self-esteem by the discovery that we too have some little taste, some little intelligence. Let us ask ourselves whether we have not abased ourselves too much, whether there may not be virtues hidden under our uninviting exterior, seeds of flowers yet to bloom.

We are encouraged in this view by the expressed opinions of French writers themselves. Says a contemporary French periodical* speaking of Americans and American art: “One might be willingly tempted to think that a race so absorbed by business and commerce would be entirely deprived of artistic sense. It is not so; the Americans are better endowed, in this respect, than the pure Anglo-Saxon race. Their painters appear with honor at our exhibitions, and one may listen to a girl from New York or Washington sing without stopping his ears. As for their architecture, in the midst of imitations of all styles, one encounters, often an attempt that is happy—original. . . . . .

“But what is peculiar to them is the construction of their lofty buildings, of which we have on several occasions given characteristic specimens. In this order of ideas they have known how to answer to new needs with novel inventions, which by their originality often present both good proportions and a certain majesty in their mass.”

“Nos confrères des Etats-Unis ont une science de confort que nous ignorons absolument.”

Moniteur des Architectes Nos. 71-12. p. 119, 1893.

Nor is this a single note of approval; on the contrary, the habitual attitude of the French press joins to its expressions of disapproval of the horrors that we do perpetrate, an outspoken wonder at, and admiration of, great gifts beneath.

Thus, in speaking of American interiors, another writer remarks: “Our fellow architects in the United States have a knowledge of comfort of which we are absolutely ignorant.”

On serait volontiers rente de croire qu’une race aussi absorbée par les affaires et le commerce est entièrement dépourvue du sens artistique.

II n’en est rien; les Américains sont mieux doués sous ce rapport, que la race anglo-saxonne pure. Leurs peintres figurent avec honneur a nos expositions, et l’on peut entendre chanter une miss de New York ou de Washington sans se boucher les oreilles. Quant à l’architecture, au milieu d’imitations de tous les styles, on rencontre souvent une tentative heureuse, originale. * *

Mais ce qui leur est propre, c’est la construction de leurs hautes maisons, dont nous avons donné, à plusieurs reprises des spécimens caractéristiques. Dans cet ordre d’idées. à des besoins nouveaux ils ont su répondre par des créations nouvelles, qui, par leur originalité et présentent souvent des proportions heureuses et line certaine majesté dans leur masse.

La Construction Moderne, 1 July 1803.

More noteworthy yet is the attitude of the French critics of the World’s Fair, at Chicago. In that, all of the large buildings, except one, were avowedly designed upon the system supposed to be inculcated by the Ecole des Beaux Arts; and embodied some of the principles which the law is now to be invoked to force upon us, such as the uniformity of the line of cornice.

One great building stood apart, the Transportation Building, done by the gifted Sullivan, a man of original thought in other directions as well as in architecture.

In general effect it might be said to approach Romanesque, the especial antipathy of the advocates of French methods, so far as the presence of round arches and a total avoidance of Renaissance detail counts; but the detail was something by itself, elaborated by the peculiar invention of the designer, and as individual as Richardson’s was in its way. Moreover, in color also this building stood apart.

Eschewing the general whiteness, which is held to be most suited to the conventional Renaissance type, it boldly strove for a brilliant external color treatment, all the outside detail being enforced by the richest painting. Yet the French critics picked out this heterodox building for commendation, and sneered at the rest of the buildings, unconscious of the flattery of French orthodox design that a sincere attempt at imitation might be justly held to imply.

Estimating ourselves then, not by our own opinion of ourselves, which is more than modest, but by the opinion of those whom we have recognized as worthy of our greatest esteem and of all the encomiums of their champions, we find, when we consult the authorities themselves, and not the champions, that the authorities admire in us the very things that their champions condemn. Our high buildings which Continentalizers want to suppress by law, are picked out by actual, live Parisian critics as one of our few virtues. Our interiors, although not distinguished by those marks of a clear intellect in design, pilasters and pediments transplanted from exteriors, are yet again praised for the embodied spirit, the highest praise for any design.

All through it is for our breaking away from precedent, our direct shooting at new targets, that we are applauded, and we begin to think that our crudity may be but the crudity of boyishness, as becomes our youth, that recklessness and vigor and frankness and courage and everything most removed from grandmotherliness may be a better foundation for the coming manhood than the powders and perukes, the cocked hats and dancing master’s graces of Versailles.

“How often,” says Arsène Houssaye, the noted antagonist of scholasticism, “How often, in a civilized age there has been but a clever handling to take the place of the architectural grandeur of a barbarous age. * * * We walk upon heaps of bones, we lean upon piles of rubbish, we build only with broken fragments.”

“* * * Que de fois, dans un siècle civilisé, on n’a qu’un manœuvre savant pour remplacer la architecte grandiose d’un siècle barbare! * * * Nous marchons sur des ossements, nous nous appuyons sur des décombres, nous ne bâtissons qu’avec des débris! * * * “Arsène Houssaye, Quarante-unième Fauteuil.”

There are at the bottom of all social development two principles of action, imitation and initiative; both of them means for gratifying desire, the one by the sure and tried course of what has been done before; the other, risking failure on the chance of greater success. Although alarmists are forever warning us against novelties, pointing out the risk, minimizing the possible gain, yet experience shows that it is actually safer to be too progressive than too conservative. Nations have perished over and over again from conservatism, never yet one from progressiveness.

Still the two principles of action survive, the one conservative, holding up always the past as the model, perplexed with fear of change, striving for the most part to use the dead force of the majority to resist change; on the other the advanced guard, seeking, like the Greek, to hear or tell some new thing, the progressive misunderstood, rejected by academies and institutes, sometimes crushed, but, if he survive, always leading the way to a future better than the past.

What chance is there that an academy will receive an Ibsen, that a conservatory will recognize a Wagner or an institute a Corot?

Against such organizations the new idea must always struggle. And one reason why the French are less oppressed by their institutions, is their profound confidence in themselves, which leads them finally to accept and glory in the new idea which has been able to assert itself. The French ideal is not the past, it is the present, their own present, hence they suffer less than would a nation constitutionally less progressive.

Excellent as may be the ideals held up by any school, lofty as may be their standard, we shall always do well to reserve our own deepest admiration for the man that advances that ideal or raises that standard by little or much, rather than for him who contents himself with mere conformity.

So the organizations that have achieved the greatest celebrity are those that have continually accepted and assimilated men of new ideas, although always resisting them to the last. Thus the French Academy refused for a long time to admit de Musset and Hugo; yet at last admitted them, as it now tries to keep Zola out, but will doubtless soon do itself the honor of accepting him. Yet the ranks of French literature are filled with great names which the academy has rejected, from Pascal to Theophile Gautier. The influence of such an academy in conserving the past is trifling, compared with that of an organization which undertakes to instruct as well as to recognize merit.

American architecture is doubtless open to severest criticism, but its faults are not those which legislation or authority can correct.

In the first place, all over the modern world architecture is necessarily heterogeneous a mixture of many and often discordant styles. How can it be otherwise and yet be truthful? In the past the architect of Cologne traveled as far as Amiens, saw there the greatest and best that men had devised, and could but copy, with what improvements he might hope to add. Nowadays, in photographs, if not in actual travel, we roam over the known world; we are as familiar with the pagodas of India, the temples of Japan, as with the theatres and palaces and churches of Spain and Russia and Mexico. All history, past and current, is at hand.

Persia and Assyria we have dug up and now wander through their ruins. Greece and Rome are as familiar to us as Boston and Philadelphia: The Forum and the Via Sacra as the Avenue des Champs Elysees and the Court of the Louvre.

What can we do but reflect our minds in our deeds? How can we build without betraying our world knowledge? If the historical styles have each represented the events and

ideas of its time, how can the architecture of this strange, heterogeneous, chaotic, anomalous nineteenth century, culmination of a great past, vestibule of a new and more glorious future, be other than strange, chaotic and anomalous? How, in the absence of the unifying idea that is to come, can it be other than a more or less skilful statement of the fact that men know now the whole world.

Only twice in the brief history of the world so far, has a great idea given a soul to stones; once when the Greeks worshipped the beauty of the present, once when Christendom worshipped the beauty of a fancied future.

The third time it will come no doubt, but its coming will not be accelerated by school methods nor by academic restraints, these will only delay it.

Along with the inevitable variety is an equally inevitable crudity. Just at present we care very little for beauty, we are striving for material advance. We content ourselves with the roughest imitation of the adornments that past ages devised. Just so, as Graeco-Roman ideals and arts declined, did the world labor through a long period of material struggle, while its art was but a rough reminiscence of the past.

Political and social problems now press upon us, and the exigency forbids the calmer artistic study of a more stable period.

Yet, in the midst of the clamor where is it that we see most promise of the future?

Is it in such “manoeuvres savants” as the typical modern French “hotel particulier,” or in the freer, if less symmetrical, homes that such men as Ernest George plant amid the London monotony of ugliness? Is it in the modern French villa or the country house that the best American architects delight in? Is it in such a design as the recently exhibited permeated French Ecole project, correct and studied, but cold and definitely ugly, or in the approximately similar design of French bred American architects for a country house at Greenwich, which was exhibited at the same time, which showed equal study, equal polish, and in addition instead of ugliness, beauty, instead of coldness, charm.

Two kinds of restraints upon architectural practice a temporary wave of reaction is bringing with it: The one, that which expresses itself by attempting to impose its standards upon others by law, that is by force; the other, which contents itself with advocating its standards by voice, pen and example.

Against the first, for men who know what the free life means, there can be nothing but war. Unfortunately for themselves there are too many Americans who have not learned the supreme dictum of freedom, to go their own way and let others go theirs, who are still held by the spirit of domination which enjoys compelling others do its own fancies.

Against the second, no one can have any fair quarrel, except in so far as it tends always to assimilate its methods to the compulsory methods of the former.

An Institute of Architecture in New York, drawing its membership, not from a licensed and ticketed assortment of its own graduates, but from the brilliant spirits that it might gather from within or from without, such an Institute broadly conducted, might add refinement to progress and could do little damage to originality.

Such an Institute might well become, and might well deserve to become, a model for all future schools, establishing its classes, its prizes, its medals, as worthy goals for the pupils of the architectural schools throughout the country.

For such an Institute, abjuring the ways of politicians, preaching eclecticism rather than chauvinism in design, catholicity rather than provincialism in sentiment, there could be none surely but admirers and well-wishers everywhere.

John Beverley Robinson.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2142 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.