Philosophy is to the mind of the architect as eyesight to his steps. The term „genius” when applied to him simply means a man who understands what others only know about. A poet, artist or architect, necessarily „understands” in this sense and is likely, if not careful, to have the term „genius” applied to him; in which case he will no longer be thought human, trustworthy or companionable. Whatever may be his medium of expression he utters truth with manifest beauty of thought. If he is an architect, his buildings are natural. In him, philos-ophy and genius live by each other, but the combination is subject to popular suspicion and the appellation „genius” likely to settle him — so far as the public is concerned.
Everyone engaged in creative work is subject to persecution by the odious comparison. Odious comparisons dog the footsteps of all creation wherever the poetic principle is involved because the inferior mind learns only by comparisons; comparisons, usually equivocal, made by selfish interests each for the other. But the superior mind learns by analyses: the study of Nature.
The collected evidence of my own active work-time is for my guidance, pride and pleasure as much as for any other reason half so good. Romanticist by nature — self-confessed — I am pleased by the thread of structural consistency I see inspiring the complete texture of the work revealed in my designs and plans, varied building for my American people over a long period of time: from the beginning —1893 — to this time, 1957. This architecture is often called „engineering-architecture.” I plead guilty to the tough impeachment.
So the poet in the engineer and the engineer in the poet and both in the architect may be seen here working together, lifelong. William Blake — poet — has said „exuberance is Beauty.” It took me sometime to know just what the great Blake meant when he wrote that. For one thing, this lesson, now valuable to the creative architect, I would finally illustrate here; in this poetry-crushing, transitory era of the Machine wherein development of a national culture or even a personal culture of one’s own has long been so recreant. Blake meant that Beauty always is the consequence of utter fullness of nature in expression: expression intrinsic. Excess never to be mistaken for exuberance; excess being always vulgar. He who knows the difference between excess and exuberance is aware of the nature of the poetic principle, and not likely to impoverish, or be impoverished, by his work. The more a horse is Horse, a bird Bird, the more a man is Man, a woman Woman, the better? The more a design is creative revelation of intrinsic nature, whatever the medium or form of expression, the better.
„Creative,” then, implies exuberance. It is not only true expression but true interpretation, as a whole, of the significance, truth and force of Nature, raised to the fullest power by the poet. That design revealing truth of inner being most abundantly is best design. Design that lasts longest; remembered by mankind with greatest profit and pride.
Art formalized, empty of this innate significance, is the cliché: cut and dried content no longer humanely significant. The so-called modern „classic” has become cliché and does not live under this definition of exuberance. Only the mind of one who has left the region of the soul and inhabits the region of the nervous system in our time mistakes florid or senseless elaboration for exuberance. The „efficient” mind that would put Pegasus to the plough never knows the difference between the Curious and the Beautiful or the difference between the prosaic and the poetic.
ARCHITECTURE IS ALWAYS HERE AND NOW
Victor Hugo, in the most illuminating essay on architecture yet written, declared European Renaissance „the setting sun all Europe mistook for dawn.” During 500 years of elaborate reiteration of restatements by classic column, entablature and pediment — all finally became moribund. Victor Hugo, greatest modern of his time, went on to prophesy: the great mother-art, architecture, so long formalized, pictorialized by way of man’s intellect could and would come spiritually alive again. In the latter days of the nineteenth or early in the twentieth century man would see architecture revive. The soul of man would by then, due to the changes wrought upon him, be awakened by his own critical necessity.
I was fourteen years old when this usually expurgated chapter in Notre Dame profoundly affected my sense of the art I was born to live with — life-long; architecture. His story of the tragic decline of the great mother-art never left my mind.
The University of Wisconsin had no course in architecture. As civil-engi¬neer, therefore, several months before I was to receive a degree, I ran away from school (1888) to go to work in some real architect’s office in Chicago. I did not want to be an engineer. A visit to the pawnbroker’s — „old man Perry” — made exodus possible. My father’s Gibbon’s Rome and Plutarch’s Lives (see Alcibiades) and the mink cape collar my mother had sewed to my overcoat financed the enterprise.
There, in Chicago, so many years after Victor Hugo’s remarkable prophecy, I found Naissance had already begun. The sun — architecture — was rising!
As premonition, then, the pre-Raphaelites had appeared in England but they seemed sentimentalist reformers. Beside the mark. Good William Morris and John Ruskin were much in evidence in Chicago intellectual circles at the time. The Mackintoshes of Scotland; restless European protestants also — Van de Velde of Belgium, Berlage of Holland, Adolph Loos and Otto Wagner of Vienna: all were genuine protestants, but then seen and heard only in Europe. Came Van de Velde with Art Nouveau, himself predecessor of the subsequent Bauhaus. Later, in 1910 when I went to Germany by instigation of Professor Kuno Francke, there I found only the rebellious „Secession” in full swing. I met no architects.
But more important than all, a great protestant, grey army engineer, Dank-mar Adler, builder and philosopher, together with his young partner, a genius, rebel from the Beaux-Arts of Paris, Louis H. Sullivan, were practising architecture there in Chicago, about 1887.
After tramping the Chicago streets for some days I got in with Cecil Corwin, foreman for J. L. Silsbee, then Chicago’s foremost resident architect. He was a minister’s son—as I was—and so were Cecil and the other four draughtsmen there at the time. One year later I was accepted by Mr. Sullivan and went to work for „Adler and Sullivan” then the only moderns in architecture, and with whom, for that reason, I wanted to work. Adler and Sullivan were then building the Chicago Civic Auditorium, still the greatest room for opera in the world.
The tragedy befallen beloved architecture was still with me, Victor Hugo’s prophecy often in mind. My sense of the tragedy had already bred in me hatred of the pilaster, the column for its own sake, the entablature, the cornice; in short all the architectural paraphernalia of the Renaissance. Only later did I come to know that Victor Hugo in the sweeping arc of his great thought had simply affirmed the truth: Art can be no restatement.
The great poet had foreseen that new uses of new materials by new inven¬tions of new machine-methods would be devised and therefore great social changes become inevitable in the life of mankind. The poet saw that inherited styles and customs would undergo fundamental change in life and so in architecture: to make man ready to face reality anew in accord with „the great be¬coming.” The inexorable Law of Change, by way of which the very flow of human life provides fresh inspiration, would compel new architecture, based upon Principle, to come alive.
The poet’s message at heart, I wanted to go to work for the great moderns, Adler and Sullivan; and finally I went, warned by the prophecy and equipped, in fact armed, with the Froebel-kindergarten education I had received as a child from my mother. Early training which happened to be perfectly suited to the T-square and triangle technique now to become a characteristic, natural to the machine-age. Mother’s intense interest in the Froebel system was awakened at the Philadelphia Centennial, 1876. In the Frederick Froebel Kindergarten exhibit there, mother found the „Gifts.” And „gifts” they were. Along with the gifts was the system, as a basis for design and the elementary geometry behind all natural birth of Form.
Mother was a teacher who loved teaching; Father a preacher who loved and taught music. He taught me to see great symphony as a master’s edifice of sound. Mother learned that Frederick Froebel taught that children should not be allowed to draw from casual appearances of Nature until they had first mastered the basic forms lying hidden behind appearances. Cosmic, geometric elements were what should first be made visible to the child-mind.
Taken East at the age of three to my father’s pastorate near Boston, for several years I sat at the little kindergarten table-top ruled by lines about four inches apart each way making four-inch squares; and, among other things, pkyed upon these „unit-lines” with the square (cube), the circle (sphere) and the triangle (tetrahedron or tripod) —these were smooth maple-wood blocks. Scarlet cardboard triangle (60°-30°) two inches on the short side, and one side white, were smooth triangular sections with which to come by pattern — design — by my own imagination. Eventually I was to construct designs in other mediums. But the smooth cardboard triangles and maple-wood blocks were most important. All are in my fingers to this day.
In outline the square was significant of integrity; the circle — infinity; the triangle — aspiration; all with which to „design” significant new forms. In the third dimension, the smooth maple blocks became the cube, the sphere and the tetrahedron; all mine to „play” with.
To reveal further subordinate, or encourage composite, forms these simple elemental blocks were suspended from a small gibbet by little wire inserts at the corners and whirled. On this simple unit-system ruled on the low table-top all these forms were combined by the child into imaginative pattern. Design was recreation!
Also German papers, glazed and matte, beautiful soft color qualities, were another one of the „gifts” — cut into sheets about twelve inches each way, these squares were slitted to be woven into gay colorful checkerings as fancy might dictate. Thus color sense awakened. There were also ingenious „constructions” to be made with straight, slender, pointed sticks like toothpicks or jack-straws, dried peas for the joinings, etc., etc. The virtue of all this lay in the awakening of the child-mind to rhythmic structure in Nature — giving the child a sense of innate cause-and-effect otherwise far beyond child-comprehension. I soon became sus¬ceptible to constructive pattern evolving in everything I saw. I learned to „see” this way and when I did, I did not care to draw casual incidentals of Nature. I wanted to design.
Later, when I was put to work as a teen-ager on my Uncle James’ farm in the valley where I now live, this early habit of seeing into and seeing from within outward went on and on way beyond until at the age of nineteen when I pre¬sented myself as a novice to Mr. Sullivan I was already, and naturally, a potential designer with a T-square and triangle technique on a unit-system; the technique that could grow intimate with and master the rapacious characteristics of the Machine in consistent straight-line, flat-plane effects natural to machine technology, which then, as now, confronted all who were to build anything for modern life in America.
Among most of the architects I soon saw the great mother-art, architecture, completely confused when not demoralized. I saw their work as hackneyed or sentimentalized travesty of some kind; some old or limited eclecticism or the so-called „classic” of Beaux-Arts training encouraged by too many influential American Beaux-Arts graduates. The pilaster again!
But of the Naissance needed to replace moribund Renaissance I saw little or nothing outside the offices of Adler and Sullivan to take the place of the futility of restatement at least. Awakening was to come. Whoever then acknowledged the importance of art did not seem to know so well as we now know that art cannot be restatement. Against all this face-down servile perversion by education, encouraged by my early training at the kindergarten table and subsequent work on the farm in the valley, I came to feel that in the nature of Nature — if from within outward — I would come upon nothing not sacred. Nature had become my Bible.
Man the spiritual being, I now saw continually defeating himself — confusing his spiritual power with his mentality; his own beauty lost by his own stupidity or cupidity simply because he could not see from inside by his intellect alone: could not see the nature of his own intrinsic values: see his own genius, therefore. So during those days of early apprenticeship to Adler and Sullivan I found that when I talked about Nature I was not talking about the same thing those around me meant when they used the term. I could not fail to see (nearby was the Chicago Art Institute) each noble branch of the fine-arts family driven to filch what might be from the great wreck of architecture — the head of the regal family of art — and trying to make a go of it.
To survive, our American art was cheating itself of life. This consequent spread of the tragic Renaissance, I saw largely due to outworn but desperate reliance upon a dated formal professionalism: the Classic. This not alone in architecture but in all the arts; partly, perhaps mostly, due to the fearfully efficient tools, invented by Science, so abusing artists and abused by them. These new tools I saw wrecking the „classic” imitation of ancient formalism, called modern art but founded upon a philosophy completely false to modern life.
Human life itself was being cheated.
All was the same dire artificiality. Nature thus denied was more than ever revenging itself upon human life! The very soul of man was endangered. The Machine thus uncontrolled enlarged, and was living upon, these abuses. Already machine sytems had done deadly harm — and more harm, as things were then. Modern machine-masters were ruling man’s fate in his manufactures as in his architecture and arts. His way of life was being sterilized by marvelous power-tools and even more powerful machine-systems, all replacing hand labor by multiplying — senselessly — his activity and infecting his spirit. Everywhere these inventions of science by ignorant misuse of a new technique were wiping out the artist. He was himself now becoming a slave. The new chattel. I saw in these new „masters” no great motive above the excess of necessity-for-profit; all likely themselves by way of their own assembly lines to become machines. The kind of slavery that now loomed was even more monstrous and more devastating to our culture now dedicated to senseless excess, so it seemed to me, than ever before. Slavery more deadly to human felicity than any yet devised. Unless in the competent artist’s hand.
The pole-and-wire men in the name of social necessity had already forged a mortgage on the landscape of our beautiful American countryside while all our buildings, public and private, even churches, were senseless commitments to some kind of expediency instead of the new significances of freedom we so much needed. In the name of necessity, false fancy fronts hung with glaring signs as one trod along the miles of every urban sidewalk — instead of freedom, license — inextricable confusion. Trimmings and embellishments of trimmings pressed on the eye everywhere, made rampant by the casual taste of any ignoramus. These were all social liabilities forced upon American life by the misconception, or no conception at all, of the mother-art — architecture. Man, thus caricatured by himself — nature thus violated — invaded even the national forest-parks by a clumsy rusticity false to nature and so to architecture. The environment of civilized mankind was everywhere insulted by such willful stupidity.
But soon this saving virtue appeared to me in our disgraceful dilemma: Realization that any true cultural significance our American free society could know lay in the proper use of the machine as a tool and used only as a tool. But the creative-artist’s use of mechanical systems, most beneficial miracles, was yet wholly missing.
Steel and glass themselves seemed to have come to use only to be misunder¬stood and misused, put to shame by such abuses as might be seen anywhere because they were everywhere.
In the plans and designs here presented in much detail may be seen the appropriate uses of the properties of steel in tension in relation to concrete (concrete the new-old plastic). With glass and the growing sheet-metal industries, these were, it seemed to me, only awaiting creative interpretation to become the body of our new democratic world: the same being true of new uses of the old materials — wood, brick and stone.
Often I sat down to write about this as well as continue to design new forms for these new methods and materials. Occasionally, when invited, I went out to speak on the subject of the proper use of all these — always to say „we must know better the here and now of our own life in its Time and Place. In all we must learn to see ourselves as we are, as modern man — and this be our true culture.” As architects young and old we owed this to ourselves, and certainly to our people. In this country of ours we were free now to abandon outdated idiosyncrasy in the name of taste, or arbitrary academic formalisms without thought or feeling — and learn to show, by our own work, our love and conse¬quent understanding of the principles of Nature. Life indigenous was now to be embodied in new forms and more significant uses; new forms of materials by the inevitable new machine-methods yet missing or misunderstood. A natural heretic, I declared these materials and methods to be in themselves a new poten¬tial needed in the culture of modern life. Because of the machine itself, archi¬tecture was now bound by its own nature to be prophetic. The architect’s interpretations would show the way to the right use of these great new organic resources. Our new facilities were already capable of inspiring arid enriching human life if provided with true forms, instead of perpetually inciting American life to folly and betrayal of its own nature by ignorant or silly eclecticism or any of the 57 fashionable Varieties of the day. Despite artificial limitations, a new beauty would be ours. Thus awakening to action, we architects had to become effective soon — or our civilization would destroy its chances for its own culture. Instead of by the handle, man had taken this dangerous new tool by the blade!
In this sense I saw the architect as savior of the culture of modern American society; his services the mainspring of any future cultural life in America – savior now as for all civilizations heretofore. Architecture being inevitably basis of an indigenous culture, American architects must become emancipators of senselessly conforming human beings imposed upon by mediocrity and imposing mediocrity upon others in this sanitary but soulless machine-age. Architecture, I believed, was bound to become more humanely significant because of? these vast new facilities. Therefore not only special but social knowledge of the nature of architecture as presenting man himself, must be greatly ex¬panded. Architecture was to be liberated from all formalistic stylizing by any elite, especially from that perpetuated by scholastic architects or by the criteria of insolent criticism. Architecture of the machine-age should become not only fundamental to our culture but natural to the happiness of our lives in it as well. All this was rank heresy at the time. We have made some progress since because it does not seem so heretical now.
Young heretic, then, I freely spoke but steadily planned all the time: hope of realization firmly at heart — pretty well in mind now, as poetry. I loved archi¬tecture as romantic and prophetic of a true way of life; life again coming beautifully alive today as before in the greatest ancient civilizations. We were free men now? The architect among us then should qualify as so inspired; be free leader of free human beings in our new free country. All buildings built should serve the liberation of mankind, liberating the lives of individuals. What amazing beauty would be ours if man’s spirit, thus organic, should learn to characterize this new free life of ours in America as natural!
But soon I saw the new resources not only shamefully wasted by machinesters but most shamefully wasted by our influential architects themselves; those with the best educations were most deadly. Our resources were being used to ruin the significance of any true architecture of the lif e of our own day by ancient ideas imposed upon modern building or ancient building ruined by so-called „modern” ideas. Thus played upon, some better architects, then called modern, were themselves desperately trying to reorganize American building and themselves as well. The A.I.A., then composed of architects who came down the hard way, was inclined to be sincere, but the plan-factory was already appearing as public enemy number one.
I had just opened my own office in the Schiller Building, 1893, when came disaster — Chicago’s first World’s Fair. The fair soon appeared to me more than ever tragic travesty: florid countenance of theoretical Beaux-Arts formalisms; perversion of what modern building we then had achieved by negation; already a blight upon our progress. A senseless reversion. Nevertheless at that time — now more than sixty years ago — I was myself certain that awakening in our own architecture was just around the turn of the corner of the next year. That year I wrote The Art and Craft of the Machine, delivering the essay at Hull House by Jane Addams’ invitation. Next day a Chicago Tribune editorial announced that an American artist had said the first word for the appropriate use of the machine as an artist’s tool. I suspect that Jane Addams wrote the editorial herself.
By this time the American people had become sentimentally enamored of the old-lace, nervous artificiality of the „classic” grandomania endorsed by the A.I.A. at the fair. It was everywhere in evidence: excess — as usual — mistaken for exuberance. Owing to this first World’s Fair, recognition of organic American architecture would have to wait at least another half-century.