26 February 2009

Louis Sullivan -- Wainwright Building under construction

This historic photo of the Wainwright Building clearly reveals its steel frame construction as well as the manner in which the masonry shell encases and "expresses" it.

It's not difficult to image the same sort of steel frame supporting a more recent skyscraper. However, Sullivan did not simply accept the structural engineer's geometry and simply mimic or represent it on the facade.

Instead, the steel columns are coordinated with the overall geometry of the building such that every other masonry pier contains a steel column (and is therefore structural). Therefore the alternate piers are non-structural.

Some might believe this to be an example contradicting Sullivan's famous dictum that "Form follows function." From Sullivan's viewpoint, I don't think he saw any conflict whatsoever.

I believe his understanding of a building's "function" to be much more than the technical realities hidden within the construction.

The so-called Functionalists have completely misunderstood and misinterpreted Sullivan's concept regarding the function of architecture. Rather than some form of materialism, truth to materials, or the representation of a building's internal functions, Sullivan conceived of the function of architecture to be among the highest expressions of a culture.

So a building is meant to satisfy deeper, more fundamental needs of a spiritual and psychological nature rather than an expression of mere matter.

I believe Sullivan's ideas of "Organic Architecture" have been similarly misunderstood and misinterpreted by generations of architects attempting to follow his principles.

At right you see a documentary photograph taken in 1933 for the HABS (Historic American Building Survey) project from a very similar viewpoint (compare to above construction photograph).

The construction photograph above was published in James F. O'Gorman. Three American Architects: Richardson, Sullivan, and Wright, 1865-1915. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1991. The image appears on page 100 and is captioned as follows: "Figure 64. Adler and Sullivan, in construction (L'Architecture, 1894: University of Pennsylvania Library; photo courtesy of George E. Thomas)."

For additional information on the Wainwright Building see: Saint Louis Historic Preservation, Great Buildings Online, and The Library of Congress. You can search for many other photographs of the Wainwright Building on Flickr.

18 February 2009

"Welcome to St. Louis"

These views of entry points to St. Louis when crossing the Mississippi reveal the architectural and urban problem faced by the city in trying to welcome visitors from the East and to establish St. Louis as the "Gateway to the West".

The caption of the first image (Illustration Number 23) reads: "The St. Louis entrance to its new $7,000,000 Municipal Bridge, looks like the approach to a frontier town." The link offers a Google Maps view of the "new" bridge (from 1917) located South of the Poplar Street Bridge. While cars have been banned from using the structure for years, trains still regularly cross the Mississippi using it. As a graduate student working on a studio project located in Chouteau's Landing, I climbed a fence and walked to the center of the span. I carefully walked around the busted out asphalt and concrete road deck and took some panoramic shots of the city. I was then startled and shaken by a train crossing the bridge on the lower level at a fairly high velocity. I wasn't clear I wouldn't end up in the river along with my camera.

St. Louis entry from Eads Bridge

The caption reads,"Illustration No. 22. -- The lack of attention given to the few bridge entrances in St. Louis is really surprising. These gateways to the city should be made to convey a more characteristic impression of a great city. The large plaza at the entrace to Eads Bridge, shown here, could be greatly improved."

This view at the end of the Eads Bridge is denser, more congested, and more disorderly than the "new" southern entrance to the city. This is the condition of the only non-river entry for many people for many decades. The Eads Bridge similarly provided vehicular and rail traffic. The rail lines at the St. Louis end of the Eads Bridge proceeded underground into the city in a manner similar to the existing Metrolink tunnel access.

Interestingly, the Poplar Street Bridge was not in existence at the time of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Competition in 1947 and the Eads and Municipal Bridges framed the site.

These views are taken from Harland Bartholomew's Problems of St. Louis, The City Plan Commission, St. Louis, Missouri, 1917.

My thanks to the St. Louis Brick website for directing me to this publication.

11 February 2009

Saarinen exhibition

If you are in or around Saint Louis, you must make time to visit this exhibition on the life and works of American architect Eero Saarinen. While his most well known icon work is the Gateway Arch at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, seeing the full range of his work including sketches, models, construction drawings, furniture, mock-ups, etc. is a once in a lifetime experience.

Owning the book, Shaping the Future, is highly recommended, but owning it is no replacement for seeing the exhibition in person. Apparently the installation at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum is among the best of this traveling show. The extensive nature of the materials included and their inherent cultural and artistic interest make it a world class exhibition that should be considered a 'blockbuster' museum show for which exorbitant admission fees could be charged. However, due to the corporate support by door hardware company Assa Abloy, this exhibition is free to all.

If possible, make it back several times. The layers of information make it more than worth the investment of time.