5.12. OTHER EUROPEAN INFLUENCES ON FURNESS

So if I said Furness was trying to evolve a modern American style of architecture, why am I focused on his European influences?  Because as I stated in the last section, his search for an American style did not, could not preclude the use of European styles, for what else was known to him?  While Furness had neither any personal experience via travel in Europe, nor any formal academic training at the college level, he did have broad exposure to the leading contemporary European ideas on architectural design:

#3. I have already mentioned the influence of Ruskin that had come from Furness’ father (he had a copy of The Seven Lamps of Architecture by 1849, the year of its publication).  Historian James O’Gorman may have best summarized the influence of Ruskin on nineteenth-century design, and as such, I would like to quote his observations:

A. “By advocating the medieval architecture of northern Italy as the best style adapted to nineteenth-century needs;

B. “By expounding an aesthetic theory that was moralistic and naturalistic; and

C. “By perceiving and discussing buildings as if they were conglomerations of heterogeneous surface details.”

Furness would be influenced by the second and third issues: he will be truthful in the use and expression of the materials in his designs; he will employ motifs in his ornament abstracted from nature; and he will treat many of his surfaces, exterior and interior,  as “conglomerations of heterogeneous surface details.”  His ornament and use of interior color will be also be influenced by the ideas of Owen Jones and his Grammar of Ornament, via Jacob Wrey Mould, the architect of All-Souls’s Unitarian Church in New York. The lectures given by Christopher Dresser during the 1876 Fair may have reinforced Furness’ practice, but as we shall see, he was already using geometrically-abstracted natural elements in his ornament long before 1876. 

Furness and Hewitt, Centennial Bank, Philadelphia, 1873. Interior details. (Online)

#4. French architect and theorist Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc had not risen to prominence during Hunt’s time in Paris, so Hunt had learned of him only through his writings as they became available across the ocean. In fact, Viollet-le-Duc’s first book, a history of French architecture, the Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française (from the 11th to the 16thCentury), the first of a total of ten volumes had been published in 1854, within a year of Hunt’s departure to return to the U.S.   This was followed by his Dictionary of French Furnishings in 1858, both of which had thrust him into the limelight of Paris’ architectural circles, by articulating a theory of architecture based upon the inherent relationship between a building’s structural system and its form that was a direct or honest result of what the structure, and only the structure, required: what soon would be labeled “structural rationalism.”  He would eventually posit French Gothic as the best example of this architectonic approach, claiming that every piece in a Gothic cathedral was designed to perform a specific structural or constructional function (“nothing could be removed” to quote Pugin).  

Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Perspective Section of a Gothic Cathedral. (Online)

There is little doubt in my mind that if not even earlier, Hunt had to become aware of VIollet-le-Duc by November 1863 when Napoléon III, at the recommendation of Viollet-le-Duc, attempted to liberalize the École des Beaux-Arts by divorcing it from the control of the Académie des Beaux-Arts through the elimination of the school’s governmental financial support.  The following month, the Emperor had added insult to injury by appointing Viollet-le-Duc, the advocate of a modern Gothic architecture, to the newly-divorced École, the bastion of Classical architecture, as a professor of aesthetics on December 6.  When Viollet-le-Duc took to the podium for the first time on January 29, 1864, however, a student protest squashed his inaugural address.  As an alumnus, word of this debacle had to have reached Hunt quickly.  

During this time, and most likely in preparation for his upcoming lectures, Viollet-le-Duc had taken up the pen once again to give voice to his theories and by the end of 1863, had completed the first volume of his Entretiens sur l’architecture (Discourses on Architecture).  Following in the footsteps of Pugin and Ruskin, Viollet-le-Duc advocated for a return to Gothic architecture, with one significant difference.  Whereas Pugin had championed the English Gothic architecture of the 1200s for its perceived spiritual advantages (Christianity vs. Roman paganism), and Ruskin had focused on the Gothic architecture of fourteenth century Venice for its moral high ground (in both its honest use of materials and colors, as well as the egalitarian shared design responsibility between all those who worked on the building), Viollet-le-Duc had echoed Owen Jones’ argument not to copy the Gothic buildings from the past, but to use the primary architectonic principles of Gothic architecture that he had deduced from his early reconstruction experience (“structural rationalism”) to evolve a new, nineteenth century version of Gothic, one that employed all of the materials available to a contemporary architect (i.e., iron as well as stone): “Let us be well persuaded, once again, that architecture can take on new forms only if it seeks them by means of a rigorous application of a new structure.”

We saw in Section 2.8 that Peter B. Wight, while still living in New York, had also become familiar with Viollet-le-Duc’s theories at this moment, for he would have known about Viollet-le-Duc’s ideas as his work was often mentioned in the New York magazine, The New Path prior to its demise in December 1865.  Then in 1866, Furness’ former friend in Hunt’s atelier, Henry Van Brunt wrote an article in The Nation in which he introduced Americans to Viollet-le-Duc by stating the he was “the leading reformer of France” and also took the opportunity to self-promote the fact that an American (himself although it wouldn’t be published until 1875) was translating Viollet-le-Duc’s Entretiens into English.  Wight had chosen to also translate Viollet-le-Duc’s work, finishing the first Discourse in 1868 which he read to the New York chapter of the A.I.A. and later published it in the new trade magazine, Manufacturer and Builder (as far as I can determine, Wight’s was one of the early, if not the first published English translation of Viollet-le-Duc’s ideas).  Viollet-le-Duc’s ideas, therefore, were freely circulating in New York’s architecture community, and we are told by none other than Wight in an obituary for Hunt that was published in Inland Architect in 1895 that Hunt was “at one time… largely influenced by the teachings of Viollet-le-Duc…”

Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Entretiens sur l’architecture, volume I, 1863. Apartment building with iron corbels and ceramic tile facade. (Midant, Viollet-le-Duc)

We also must take note of Viollet-le-Duc’s 180° turnaround over the use of cast iron in architecture and its later influence on Furness.  Ruskin had attacked the use of cast iron in architecture at a number of levels, that was repeated, with reservations, by Van Brunt in a talk he gave to the New York A.I.A. December 1858 (when Furness was in his second year in Hunt’s atelier).  His criticism was directed not solely to the use of cast iron, but how it was currently being used in the cast iron fronts by Bogardus and Badger, that is in cast iron’s imitation of the forms of stone architecture (material deceit).  Better, Van Brunt argued, that architects should seek forms that were appropriate for the characteristics of the new material: “How grateful then the task thus opened to the artist, of creating new things for the surprise of men; of writing a new chapter in the history of architecture…” Viollet-le-Duc also had stated this thought explicitly: “if we wish to find the architecture of our epoch [his italics] which is so loudly called for, that we find it not in mixing past styles but by looking to the principles of new structure.”

John P. Gaynor and Daniel Badger, E.V. Haughwout Building, New York, 1857. (Online)

FURTHER READING:

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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