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?
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 from 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:
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?