The International Style: Regularity, not Symmetry

Since I spend a good part of my life writing and reading descriptions of buildings, I naturally love symmetrical buildings. It’s so easy and simple to describe, say a Georgian Revival building, even a big building: center entrance with transom and sidelights and broken pediment is sheltered under a full-height portico and flanked by four windows on each side, etc, etc. But how in the world do you go about describing or even just organizing in your head this building?

Coleman High School, Greenville (1950, N.W. Overstreet & Associates, archts.)--I may be wrong, but it seems like when I drove past this building a few years ago, I saw that the windows had been replaced at some point. If that's right, you can see from this picture how detrimental that would be to the original design.

Coleman High School, Greenville (1950, N.W. Overstreet & Associates, archts.)--how do I make sense of this really amazing building?

In yesterday’s Book Quote of the first chapter of The International Style, we found that Volume is part of the description, and that concept certainly helps me a bit here; but there’s something else, and Hitchcock and Johnson explain it in Chapter 2: “A Second Principle: Concerning Regularity.” They begin by discussing the patterns of Gothic and Classical architecture that were by-and-large determined by the heavy methods and materials of construction. They go on to say that now with new, lighter construction, we have a chance to create a new way of thinking about buildings that doesn’t involve the centuries-long battle between symmetry and asymmetry–they effectively remove their new style from that debate and provide a new way to look at these buildings that could be either symmetrical or asymmetrical, depending on the volumes involved. Whether the building is symmetrical or asymmetrical, the regularity of its major features–especially windows, but it could also be patterns of exposed framing or even a unifying stringcourse as in Coleman above that draws the eye around the building–is the important thing, on par with how it expresses its volume.

Interestingly (to me) they also respond to the problem of boring buildings that are too regular, something I guess I would have thought wouldn’t have been so obvious this early in the style’s life.

 Just as the aesthetic principle of surface of volume has been derived form the fact that architecture no longer has solid supporting walls, the second principle, that of regularity, depends on the the regularity typical of the underlying skeleton of modern construction. This second principle is expressed in an ordering of design more consistent than would result merely from the aesthetically unconscious use of regular structure and standardized parts for varying and complicated functions. . . .

It must be remembered that the nearer approaches to absolute regularity are also approaches to monotony . . . . The principle of regularity refers to a means of organization, a way of giving definite form to an architectural design, rather than an end which is sought for itself. As an end, regularity is modified by the equal necessity, understood in all aesthetic organization, of achieving a proper degree of interest. What constitutes a proper degree of interest is hardly to be determined in theory.
 . . . .
In the various styles of the past a principle of axial symmetry controlled design rather than a principle of regularity as that is understood here. . . . Modern standardization gives automatically a high degree of consistency in the parts. Hence modern architects have no need of the discipline of bilateral or axial symmetry to achieve aesthetic order. Asymmetrical schemes of design are acutally preferable aesthetically as well as technically. For asymmetry certainly heightens the general interest of the composition. Function in most types of contemporary building is more directly expressed in asymmetrical form [plus, we want to make life difficult for architectural historians of the future].

Sometimes asymmetry will be strong and positive, marked by emphasis on a real axis well off center. In other cases the general effect may suggest symmetry, but there will be no stronger emphasis at the center than at some other point. But in any case the avoidance of symmetry should not be arbitrary or distorted.
. . . .
The functionalists, and those who are too timid to break with rigid regularity, fall rather in the the aesthetic danger of repeating the commonplaces of the style. Ranges of equal-sized windows, set in an unbroken pattern, facades where ribbon of glass alternates with ribbon of stucco, broken only by an occasional stair window, are already frequent enough in Europe to have lost the interest of mere novelty. The most determined defender of the international style must admit that the too rigid application of the principle of regularity, the unimaginative repetition of the most obvsious schemes of composition, has produced much very dull building. But such work is nevertheless preferable to the building of the careless modern architects who have failed even to apprehend the existence of a principle of regularity. Those who try to follow the new style without understanding it produce work which is not only dull but irritating [dummies!!]. They abuse corner windows; they fail to avoid the visibly gabled roof [the horror!]; they pile up blocks as if they were still dealing with the massive architecture of the past. In designing facades they dispose the elements with an obvious and gratuitous asymmetry and they arrange their fenestration according to no discernable principle of order, aesthetic or technical. For them the new style that they parody is merely the architecture of the [*shudder*] half-moderns with the decoration omitted, a makeshift product of apologetic individualism.

Wow, I know that last paragraph was long, but it’s so wonderfully righteous that I couldn’t help but put it all in there, along with a few asides of my own, which I hope you’ll forgive.

The chapter goes on and gives the reasoning behind the horizontality of International style buildings (which I frankly still think is an arbitrary over-reaction to vertical styles) and throws in a nice jab about those evil Art Deco skyscrapers that were all about verticality: “meaningless and anarchical.” Well . . . I guess I kind of like them.

As is our wont, let’s end today’s chapter by looking at a couple more Mississippi buildings that may be more easily described and organized since we now understand the principle of regularity:

United Gas Building (now Mississippi College of Law), built 1953-54, unknown architect. I think this is one of the best International style buildings in Jackson--it's got the asymmetry of different volumes, the windows are about as flush with the surface as possible, and you even have the bris soleil shading the windows and the wide cantilevered awning, both giving a horizontal emphasis while also being functional.

United Gas Building (now Mississippi College of Law), built 1953-54, unknown architect. I think this is one of the best International style buildings in Jackson--it's got the asymmetry of different volumes, the windows--whose regular patterns provide a backdrop for the asymmetrical and irregular brick volume near the center--are about as flush with the surface as possible, and you even have the brise soleil shading the windows and the wide cantilevered awning, both giving a horizontal emphasis while also being functional.

Tupelo Post Office, built 1963, architect unknown. Sorry to use yet another postcard image, but they're invaluable to show the original design of these buildings that have so often been changed.

Tupelo Post Office, built 1963, architect unknown. Sorry to use yet another postcard image, but they're invaluable to show the original design of these buildings that have so often been changed.

Tomorrow, we’ll finish this up with Hitchcock and Johnson’s dissing of Frank Lloyd Wright and others of his “individualist” ilk. I guess since it will be Friday, I should also get a News Roundup together–we’ll see.

This post is the 3rd of a week-long series. Want to read the rest?

1. Book Quotes: The International Style

2. The International Style: Volume, not Mass

4. The International Style: Conformity, not Individualism



Categories: African American History, Cool Old Places, Greenville, Jackson, Modernism, Recent Past, Schools, Tupelo

9 replies

  1. Thank you! for sharing your postcard images! Where are they from?

    Every time I read or hear this kind of philosophy I am mostly left thinking that, while I’m glad these folks came up with this idea, style, whatever, does that mean we should really throw the baby out with the bath water? Why is that when someone comes up with something new and cool that they think that everything that came before was, at the least, inferior?

    I think when people start talking about not liking modernism this is often where that aversion comes from, this smug superiority. And, much as I now love these mid-century buildings, it makes me cringe when I think of what used to be on the site that many of them now occupy– think the Methodist building in front of the new capitol (which replaced the Carnegie library) in downtown Jackson.

    In reality, all these styles are valid and they mostly build on what came before even if that’s a reactionary rejection of what was there previously.

    The other side of this “problem,” to my mind, is the overwhelming acceptance of every style which seems to have been the trend for the last twenty years, i.e. I’m an architect who likes a little of everything, I can’t decide on a style so I’ll go with fun/”form follows function” and slap a bunch of stuff together and call it whimsical.

    I hated international style and other mid-century styles when I was younger, though now I can’t get enough of them. I’m really curious what hindsight is going to look like on contemporary architecture …

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    • Several years ago, I stumbled on a few large blocks of Mississippi postcards for very cheap on ebay. The risk was that they didn’t tell you what was in the group, but as I found out when I bought one of them, they were mostly post-WWII buildings. Definitely some junk in with it, but the images have been invaluable.

      I totally agree with your assessment of Modernism and its smugness–people in general don’t like being told that they are stupid or that their parents or grandparents were stupid.

      Re: your point about all styles being built on what came before, in looking at our Mississippi architects, it has struck me many times that the International style or Modern buildings I like best are those designed by the old guys who were actually trained under the Beaux Arts system. Guys like Overstreet, Naef and his smutty buff brick, Canizaro, and of course Malvaney. There’s a humanism there that often seems missing in the strict constructions of the younger, post-WWII generation.

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      • YES! Those guys are definitely the best (although I think Canizaro is somewhat younger and should, perhaps, be grouped with Biggs and Liddle, etc.). I wonder why it’s all our older guys who seemed to be so good at the new style? Well, obviously they were open to learning from their juniors!

        On your new post: I thought that it was assumed but unproven that Rand was writing about Wright. Didn’t she deny it?

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        • Canizaro was younger than Overstreet and the other old guys, but he had the same kind of architectural training, with a degree from Notre Dame in 1928. Which actually would put him around the same age as Hays Town. I think it was that Beaux Arts-type training that made the difference, not the generation. The older type of training emphasize proportion and scale and getting the details right, whereas the Bauhaus method (and this is all hearsay since I’ve never taken any Bauhaus classes myself) emphasizes “design” and “creativity” without, imho, giving the students a sound foundation on which to design creative yet functional buildings. Just my viewpoint right now.

          As for Rand and Wright, I admit I didn’t actually research that when I wrote this post, but I did read two biographies of Rand a year or two ago and from one of them (this is not a standard footnote, you can see!) I recall that when the book was being made into a film, Rand wanted Wright to design a house that they could use as Roark’s. But something about his fee being too high for the budget (hilarious!) made them drop that plan. Whether she had him in mind when she actually wrote the book, I don’t know. When will you get back to us with your research on this topic? :-)

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          • Looks like you were Wright! He was the inspiration for the character of Roark. It’s all over the place; I don’t know what I was thinking.

            That’s an interesting idea about the Beaux Arts training; I wish we could ask one of them …

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            • Wouldn’t that be convenient? I’ve often thought how nice it would be to go back in time and see what was going on and talk to people about stuff they never thought to write down. Then I think that might be too easy, would throw all the historians out of work, left to wander the streets and get into trouble :-)

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            • Delinquent historians! You have met Grady, right?

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            • My point exactly–we need to keep guys like him busy doing historical research not wandering the streets getting into all sorts of trouble. :-)

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  1. Before and After: Coleman High School, Greenville | Preservation in Mississippi

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