Jenney’s years in Paris obviously had expanded his insights into art, as well as life itself, and Jenney himself attributed this period as the influence for his move into architecture. But before he could find employment in the profession back in the U.S., he joined the Union Army at the start of the Civil War, serving on the engineering staffs of first Grant, and then Sherman. His skill set, therefore, included both ends of the spectrum of the profession of architecture: art and science. Upon his arrival in Chicago after the war, he found an architectural position as the junior partner of Sanford Loring. One can easily posit Jenney to have been a leader of Chicago’s nascent post-war avant-garde. In early 1869 Jenney, at the age of 37 co-authored with Loring (I give the majority of the credit to Jenney on the basis of his later writings), Principles and Practice of Architecture, that appears to have been an attempt by Jenney to introduce his fellow architects in his newly-adopted hometown to the history of western architecture as well as the principles and nuances of modern architectural theory as they were then being published in Europe at this time.
His first published essay that dealt with architectural history and theory revealed that he was a voracious reader, and as he was thoroughly fluent in French, it also included references to works of French theoreticians. In this book, he managed to introduce the ideas of many of the major writers who were at this moment in the forefront of modern architectural theory: Pugin, Ruskin, Jones, Edward Lacy Garbett, Scot James Fergusson Viollet-le-Duc, and Americans James Jarves and A. J. Downing.
Jenney found much of his inspiration in Garbett’s 1849 Rudimentary Treatise on the Principles of Design in Architecture. While Garbett had fallen into professionally obscurity after its publication, having moved on to writing about theological matters, his architectural treatise was imported to the U.S. in 1853 when it was included with other British writings in a compendium of architecture knowledge published by John Bullock under the title The History of Rudiments of Architecture, that Bullock intended as a textbook for Americans interested in gaining a more thorough understanding of the art of architecture. While Jenney chose to name his first book, Principles and Practices of Architecture, most likely after Pugin’s 1841 book, The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, the order of its contents seem to have been inspired by Garbett’s taxonomy of his five classes of architectural forms, in which he employed a gradation from the most important, overarching general issue to the most specific detail, that Jenney also employed to order his efforts:
1. Architectural Theory
2. Architectural History
3. Structural stability and calculations
4. Materials of Construction
5. Examples of Modern French Architecture
In fact, Jenney seems to have been so enamored with Garbett’s work, that he dedicated two entire pages for a direct quote of Garbett’s five classes of architectural forms and his three rules pertaining to a building’s composition. Jenney also made two direct references to Owen Jones’ writings, first in regards to true beauty, “that repose which the mind feels when the eye, the intellect and the affections are satisfied by the absence of any want,” and second, in regards to “harmony of form appears to consist in the proper balancing of the straight (horizontal or vertical), the inclined or the curved.”
Jenney invoked Pugin and Ruskin in demanding Truth in Art by devoting an entire chapter to the topic, “by teaching one to look at nature as nature should be seen, with the intellect and affections as well as with the eye.” He also cited Garbett’s condemnation of British contemporary architecture: “the object of all real art, as of all science, is to elicit TRUTH; but any one who, fresh from nature, or from the works of other ages, or nations, should arrive among the works of modern English architecture, would suppose its whole aim, and that of every detail in it, to be DECEPTION.” Jenney had also paraphrased Garbett’s argument in his critique of current American buildings:
“There has been too much bad copying, an improper use of precedent. The highest beauty is fitness. How totally unfit is a heathen temple to modern requirements, yet how often we see costly copies of them, for public offices and even for suburban residences. The temple was for the worship of a single deity… They were as well adapted to the use for which they were invented, as they are foreign to the use to which moderns have assigned their degraded copies.”
Jenney also addressed those architects whose writings had a different definition of architecture than his:
“The use of architecture is to provide proper buildings for the infinite varieties of uses developed by the wants of the human race… An architect is a building artist. It is his office to use building materials as the musician uses sounds… It is claimed by some writers that the province of an architect is to design sculpture to fill the frame-work of constructions. Should he attempt this, the sculptor will excel him, for he has devoted a lifetime to the exclusive study of one branch of art. Other writers insist that architectural beauty consists in polychromatic decorations, to use their own expressions: “throbbing with color,” – “suffused with all the tints of the rainbow.” Mr. [George Ashdown] Audsley claims that the real office of the architect begins with the colored decorations of the interior, after he has completed the “mere shell of foundation for artistic display.” If this is true there is no place for the architect at all; for the sculptor, the landscape and figure painter can surpass him… An architect in every other point of view than a building artist, finds some one to excel him in a specialty peculiarly their own, but in his own special province, that of combining in one harmonious whole the details of all, he stands alone and without rival.”
It is quite evident after having read Jenney’s book that he heartily agreed with Pugin, Ruskin, and Viollet-le-Duc in advocating not the Classical, but a modern Gothic as the appropriate style for the late nineteenth century:
“The architects and artisans were a numerous and privileged body. United in a society or brotherhood… Art was practiced for the love of art… Art looked to Nature for her models, and followed her teachings in their true spirit, and adapted them to the nature of the materials she employed… Not only is every capital throughout a vast cathedral of a specific design, differing from all its fellows, but often this same variety of detail is found in the four sides of the same capital. We talk much about the five [Classical] orders, and it is even stated by one author “that the ingenuity and intelligence of the world has never been able to invent a sixth.” There are many times five orders in every thirteenth century cathedral, quite as beautiful and often differing quite as much, the one from the other, as the old classic ones, that have been repeated an incalculable number of times, often to the injury alike of the architects, workmen and the tastes of the people. In literature we spare no pains to avoid a repetition of the same phrase or even words, however, fine, and yet we go on carving the same capital or modillion all around a building and expect the public to admire it. We talk of the great nineteenth century, and justly in many things, but in our general architecture we fall far below the thirteenth.”
But if this indictment wasn’t sufficient, Jenney rubbed salt in the wounds of those who copied Classical buildings by stopping his history of architecture, that he had accurately begun with Egypt, with the demise of Gothic:
“The English wars. factions and divisions of the French nobility…destroyed the most beautiful and rational style of architecture that the ingenuity of men and nations has yet invented. From its ashes, Phoenix-like, rose the Renaissance, and conquered the world and pervaded all things; literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, even collegiate instruction. It destroyed art in the last century, until Gros and Gericault burst its bonds.”
Obviously, Jenney believed that the architecture after 1400 had little to recommend it to contemporary practitioners.
Jenney laid the blame for the poor state of contemporary architectural design in America on four causes. First, the U.S. had been founded after the end of the Gothic, so there were no good examples of architecture to be found in America that might help inform its architects. Second, the country was growing so fast that the buildings typically demanded by clients needed to be temporary, for they often would be replaced in only a few years. Third, most of the country’s buildings were still being constructed without the aid of an architect. And lastly, it was due to the general ignorance of the public:
“Art is dependent upon public feeling, and the public, as a whole, are not well-informed in architecture… They know little or nothing of architecture as a fine art, and very little of the purely practical side of adaptability to the wants and requirements… Why is it so many feel themselves capable of judging on art matters, while they would instantly decline, on the plea of total incapacity, were it a question of medicine, chemistry, or the merits of a sonata….What we require is a more universal art education.”
William Le Baron Jenney, therefore, had brought to Chicago in 1867 a sorely needed level of cultural sophistication in general, and in architectural theory in particular. He had also produced in 1869, TWO YEARS BEFORE THE 1871 FIRE, an introduction to the latest architectural theory that any budding or experienced architect in town could learn from if he so chose to do. Owen Jones’ call for a search for a new, innovative style for the nineteenth century, however, was simply too far advanced to comprehend, let alone undertake at the midpoint of the nineteenth century, especially in the relative cultural backwaters of the American continent (as evident in the illustrations from the book I have included). Jenney’s was a lone voice in the wilderness of the West, but this about to change…
(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org)