The International Style: Volume, not Mass

For me, the last concept to click about Hitchcock and Johnson’s definition of the International style was the subject of the very first chapter, “A First Principle: Architecture as Volume.” I’m guess I’m not enough of a physicist or whatever kind of scientist that would be, to have really thought about the difference between “volume” and “mass,” and contrary to popular belief, I still don’t think about such things very often.

But after I mulled it all over and looked around Mississippi at post-WWII buildings, I started to understand the concept in terms of Cubism, where different shaped volumes intersect with each other in interesting (or sometimes confusing) ways. Whether this is the best, or even correct way to think about the International style, I don’t know–I’m not claiming to be an expert on this particular subject, just someone trying to make sense of this phenomenon in architecture and concurrently to see how or if the International style was interpreted by Mississippi architects.

Here’s a bit from that first chapter on volume that I hope will clarify the issue for you maybe better than my Cubism analogy:

Contemporary methods of construction provide a cage or skeleton of supports. This skeleton as it appears before the building is enclosed is familiar to everyone. Whether the supports are of metal or of reinforced concrete, the effect from a distance is of a grille of verticals and horizontals. For protection against the weather it is necessary that this skeleton should be in some way enclosed by walls. In traditional masonry construction the walls were themselves the supports. Now the walls are merely subordinate elements fitted like screens between the supports or carried like a shell outside of them.
. . . .
The effect of mass, of static solidity, hitherto the prime quality of architecture, has all but disappeared; in its place there is an effect of volume, or more accurately, of plane surfaces bounding a volume. The prime architectural symbol is no longer the dense brick but the open box. Indeed, the great majority of buildings are in reality, as well as in effect, mere planes surrounding a volume.
. . . .
The architect who builds in the international style seeks to display the true character of his construction and to express clearly his provision for function. He prefers such an organization of his general composition, such a use of available surface materials, and such a handling of detail as will increase rather than contradict the prime effect of surface of volume.

In giving this effect the flat roofs normal with modern methods of construction have an essential aesthetic significance. . . . For they are less massive and simpler than the gabled roofs usual on the buildings of the past. Flat roofs are so much more useful that slanting or rounded roofs are only exceptionally justified.

The clarity of the impression of volume is diminished by any sort of complication. Volume is felt as immaterial and weightless, a geometrically bounded space. Subsidiary projecting parts of a building are likely to appear solid. Hence a compact and unified solution of a complex problem will be best aesthetically as well as economically. The massiveness of the architecture of the past was felt as gravitational, with surface and content one. Being heavy, massive architecture demanded the appearance of support such as could be given by a piling up of the parts.
. . . .
Thus as a corollary of the principle of surface of volume there is the further requirement that the surfaces shall be unbroken in effect, like a skin tightly stretch over the supporting skeleton. . . . Hence the breaking of the wall surface by placing windows at the inner instead of at the outer edge of the wall is a serious fault of design. For the glass of the windows is now an integral part of the enclosing screen rather than a hole in the wall as it was in masonry construction.
. . . .
Window frames unavoidably break the general wall surface and if they are heavy tend to make the window a mere hole in the wall quite as much as do reveals. Light simple frames, preferably of durable non-corroding metal in standardized units, are to be desired as much aesthetically as practically.

Ok, I’m not trying to be a critic here, but I just have to say this: seriously, is it really wise for an “International Style” to make of “essential aesthetic significance” a feature like a flat roof that is so problematic in so many parts of the world? Ditto putting windows flush with the exterior wall–any place that has lots of rain (like, for instance, Mississippi) is going to have huge moisture infiltrations with this system. I think it’s these details that earn the ire of so many average people who occupy International style buildings. And this anger, sometimes even hatred for a building, is very difficult for preservationists to overcome even when a building’s design (from a stylistic standpoint) is clearly exceptional.

So, let’s apply this newfound wisdom about the International style to some of our Mississippi buildings. How well or not do these buildings pull off the concept of “volume” and a “tightly stretched skin”?

Just Hall of Science, Jackson State University (1957, Frank P. Gates, Principal Archt.; W.E. Mallett & Assoc., associate architects). While this building still stands, it has been horribly mangled, losing its stark white walls--so skin-like!--its windows and gaining (wait for it!) an enormous metal gabled roof, I believe colored a vivid green.

Just Hall of Science, Jackson State University (1957, Frank P. Gates, Principal Archt.; W.E. Mallett & Assoc., associate architects). While this building still stands, it has been horribly mangled, losing its stark white walls–so skin-like!–its windows and gaining (wait for it!) an enormous metal gabled roof, I believe colored a vivid green.

Coahoma County Hospital, Clarksdale (now Northwest Mississippi Medical Center), built 1951, designed by Gates and Birchett (the same Gates as above). This building also doesn't look much like this early postcard view--as I recall (and it's been a while), the windows have all been replaced and as with most hospitals there's many new additions that have lessened the impact of the original volumes.

Coahoma County Hospital, Clarksdale (now Northwest Mississippi Medical Center), built 1951, designed by Gates and Birchett (the same Gates as above). This building also doesn’t look much like this early postcard view–as I recall (and it’s been a while), the windows have all been replaced and as with most hospitals the many new additions have lessened the impact of the original volumes.

William Walton School, Jackson (1952, Drummond and Christian, archts.)--this building is designated as a Mississippi Landmark and was one of the early equalization schools built for African American students in Jackson.

William Walton School, Jackson (1952, Drummond and Christian, archts.)–this building is designated as a Mississippi Landmark and was one of the early equalization schools built for African American students in Jackson. I don’t know that it gets the “skin” tightly stretched but I think it gets the volume or cubist aspect right, at least for me.

This post is the 2nd of a week-long series. Want to read the rest?

1. Book Quotes: The International Style

3. The International Style: Regularity, not Symmetry

4. The International Style: Conformity, not Individualism

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine



Categories: Books, Clarksdale, Hospitals/Medical, Jackson, Mississippi Landmarks, Modernism, Schools, Universities/Colleges

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: