5.9. UNDERSTANDING THE INFLUENCES ON FRANK FURNESS

In addition to a new city hall, Philadelphia’s leaders also decided to erect a new building for the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in preparation for the Fair.  Furness and Hewitt (Fraser had since left the firm for a position in the Treasury Department) were awarded the commission that launched their careers and Furness’ reputation as an “idiosyncratic” designer.  In order to better understand his mature designs, I think it is best to first summarize his influences (his professional incubator, if you will allow…)

Furness and Hewitt, Pennsylvania Academy of Art, Philadelphia, 1871. (Online)

#1. The importance of the Individual and of an American art: the ideas that he grew up with from both his father and Emerson had imprinted on him the importance of developing a truly American-derived style of modern architecture, and being a strong, self-reliant individual in so doing. One can also not ignore the influence of Philadelphia’s “independent” spirit as well as his Unitarian upbringing. For Furness, his search for an American style, however, did not actually preclude the use of European styles, for what else was known to him?  What he wanted to do was to avoid merely copying these styles in his buildings.  What he was attempting to do is now referred to as “synthetic eclecticism,” that is, to synthesize the best aspects of two or more styles in attempting to develop a new, unique formal syntax.  What today might be called gene-splicing.  Furness brought to the drawing table his training from Hunt in French academic classicism while Hewitt’s abilities lay in the British Gothic revival.  As historian Michael J. Lewis so clearly summarized their efforts: “How to marry the freedom and picturesque qualities of English architecture with the discipline of academic French classicism… by combining French discipline in formal planning with English interest in surface effects and a vigorous roofline.”   This is exactly what Furness and Hewitt attempted, and helps to explain the manner in which the American Architect described it: “Nobody would think of calling it commonplace; and it is so far from being scholastic that a good deal of it is hard to classify…”

Furness and Hewitt, Pennsylvania Academy of Art. Grand Stair. (Online)

#2. Richard Morris Hunt’s atelier experience: In the atelier, Furness was surrounded and befriended by four students who would become leaders of America’s next generation of architects: George Post (early pioneer with the skyscraper and iron framing), Henry Van Brunt (America’s first true architectural critic), William Ware (the country’s leading architectural educator and founder of the MIT program in 1865 and Columbia’s in 1881), and Charles Gambrill (early partner of H.H. Richardson), names we will come across from time to time in the following chapters.  Hunt gave his students a rigorous training in sketching combined with classic École des Beaux-Arts design and presentation methods, the best architectural education available in the U.S. at that time. I always told my architecture studio students that it is the nature of studio education, if the studio is run correctly, that one learns more from one’s fellow students than from the professor. Although the training emphasized the Classical orders, Hunt did not limit his students to only the study of Classical design, for it was during his time at the École when its curriculum had opened up to the possibilities that all styles had something to learn.  Hunt’s experience at the École (1846-55) had not been similar, contrary to what some historians project, to what, say Charles McKim experienced between 1867-70, for Hunt was in the Parisian school during a brief period when the strict imitation of ancient Classical architecture had been relaxed in favor of a more open acceptance of other styles, brought on by what would be termed the Romantique rebellion of Henri Labrouste and his fellow freedom-seeking students.  During his time in Hunt’s atelier, Furness had access to the French magazine, Revue générale de l’architecture, in which its editor, César Daly, discussed Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in a number of articles.  Furness’ nascent architectural iconoclastic tendencies could easily have been embolden by Labrouste’s example.

Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, 1838-51. (Online)

5.10. HENRI LABROUSTE AND THE NÉO-GREC

In Section 1.7. I reviewed Labrouste’s radical design in 1838 for the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in which he consciously chose to detail a multi-bayed arcade and not to employ any columns in the library’s exterior, the first time for such an exclusion in a French public building since Laugier’s Essai of 1753 had codified the use of the freestanding column.  Labrouste’s design had been a direct challenge to the hegemony over French architectural practice enjoyed by the Classical tenets of the Académie royale, the professional organization that controlled the École royale.  Without columns, Labrouste’s elevation had no inherent order, literally (i.e., doric or ionic), and, therefore, with this one simple, yet profound move, Labrouste had eliminated all of the formal rules of the Académie royale as they pertained to which order and set of proportions were to be used in a design.  Therefore, he had wiped the architectural slate clean, allowing him to approach the problem from any and all perspectives that he wanted. And he wanted to express the function of the building on its exterior, what is termed “Functional Expression,” to distinguish it from what the École royale taught prior to Labrouste’s brief intermission, “Academic Formalism” or “Formal Expressionism.”  In fact, Henry Van Brunt, one of the other five students in Hunt’s atelier when Furness was there had published an article, “On Greek Lines,” in the 1861 Atlantic Monthly in which he may well have been the first American writer to praise Labrouste’s design for just these qualities.

Léon Vaudoyer, Marseille Cathedral, Marseille, 1852. (Online)

One of Labrouste’s fellow Prix de Rome pensionnaires in Rome and rebels was Léon Vaudoyer.  In !845 Vaudoyer had produced the Cathedral of Marseilles that took Labrouste’s ideas to the extreme: he wanted to develop an architectural style particular to the 19th century by incorporating elements from all past styles, for not only was it then (the mid-19thcentury) believed that each style had an element of beauty in them, but also because never before in history had architects been so knowledgeable about the past, due the advent of archeology and “history” so that his design could not even have been attempted (or confused with one) prior to the 19th century.  Therefore, Vaudoyer’s inclusivist synthesis of such diverse architectural elements could have only occurred in the mid-19th century.  

5.11. NÉO-GREC DOES NOT LOOK LIKE GREEK

The point is that during Hunt’s stay at the École things had begun to “change” (perhaps ‘evolve’ is more descriptive) in the École (even its name had been shortened with the removal of “royale” after the 1848 revolution that brought in the Second Republic).   The “style” of the designs by Labrouste and his associates needed to be differentiated from the conventional Academic Classical designs supported by the Académie des Beaux Arts.  Romantique was the au courant term used to identify French literature and painting at this time that consciously challenged academic Classical conventions and was, therefore, first applied to these buildings, as also was the term “Romantic Rationalist,” but by the early 1860s, the term “Néo-Grec” seemed to be the consensus name applied to the work of Labrouste, his students, and his associates, that is still used today.  It has nothing to do with Greek forms or ornament, however, and therefore, this enigmatic term has plagued students and amateur historians ever since.  Charles Garnier may have best expressed this quality as it “was Greek in name only.” In essence, this term emerged to define this body of work because of the independent spirit of these designers was seen to parallel that of the ancient Greek architects.  It spoke of the Greek sense of freedom or individuality, in contrast to the Academie’s strict demand for the use of the conventions of Roman Classicism.  What united this body of work into a “style” or “movement” were two characteristics: first, these buildings were rationally designed in terms of the building’s function as well as the expression of the materials of construction, in contrast to the École’s long-taught conventions of Classical ornament; and second, rather than producing a building that tried to associate with the continuum of Classical thought and design, the architects were attempting to communicate/express an unique, personal artistic idea in its design. 

Richard Morris Hunt, Joseph Howland Library, Beacon, NY, 1872. A Néo-Grec design; note his use of the “keyboard” voussoirs of alternating colors in the arches over the windows. (Online)

(The term “Néo-Grec” as used by later Americans was somewhat simplified to mean a design in which the architect has employed/arranged Classical details in an unorthodox, creative manner.) Hunt not only had witnessed this change of style at the École royale, he also brought it home with him and employed it in some of his designs while during this period he could also produce what he had been trained to do,  Academic Classicism, such as the Lenox Library of 1871.  We will see Furness using some of these Néo-Grec designs by Hunt for inspiration.

Richard Morris Hunt, Lenox Library, New York, 1871-7. (Online)

FURTHER READING:

Drexler, Arthur (ed.). The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts. Cambridge: MITPress, 1977.

Lewis, Michael J. Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind. New York: Norton, 2001.

O’Gorman, James F. The Architecture of Frank Furness. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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