Herni Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, 1838-51. Arcade digitally extruded for effect. (Author’s Collection)

When faced with the design of the elevation of a “wall” building, an architect had two variables to manipulate:

1. How to design the surface of the wall:

a. treat the multistory wall as a smooth, unbroken plane,

United States Hotel, New York, 1832. (Landau and Condit, New York)

b. or express each floor with some type of band of ornamental molding, usually referred to as stringcourse. (It is called a sillcourse if it is located at the base (sill) of the windows,

Giuliano da Sangallo the Younger, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 1489. (Online)

c. or compose the design of the elevation of the wall in relation to some preconceived theory or style, such as the tripartite composition of a classical column.  Buildings whose middle bodies contained more than three floors would typically have these floors grouped together into one larger scale layer by the use colossal pilasters or the multistory arcade.  

George B. Post, Mills Building, New York, 1881. (Landau, Post)
George Post, Proposed Design for the Marine Bank, New York, c. 1874. (Landau and Condit, New York)

2. How to design the windows in the wall:

a. repetitive, make every window the same,

Trench & Snook, A.T. Stewart’s “Marble Palace” Department Store, New York, 1845. (Landau and Condit, New York)

b. or compose the design of the windows in the wall in relation to some preconceived idea.

George Post, Produce Exchange, New York, 1881. Detail of arcaded elevation. Note how he respects the integrity of each arch: the lower arches have triple windows, the upper arches have one semicircular piece of glass. He does not split the curved space in two with a mullion that looks like a support under the center of the arch. (Andrews, New York)

The repetitive window solution was a logical solution, because in a skyscraper all the floors are the same.  So what justification could there be for an architect to vary the sizes or shapes of the windows?  If an architect attempted to compose the building’s elevations, by manipulating the windows in some manner, it obviously was not because of logic, because logic dictated that all the windows should be the same.  The reason, therefore, would have been art.  Here, then is the nub of the problem with the design of a skyscraper (or any building, for that matter).  If one aspires to make architecture, by transcending the act of building, is there only one way to be “artistic,” or does one have a choice in how to be “artistic?”


I find the answer to this enigma once again in an analogy with literature.  Is a great novel a work of art?  Of course, it is.  Is a great poem a work of art?  Likewise.  They both are literature.  They use the same media, words.  They both have the same function, to express an idea.  So while they are related, they also are different, are they not?  In the English language, we differentiate between these two methods of using words with the terms “poetry” and “prose,” or “poetic” and “prosaic.”  One is not more “artistic” or more challenging than the other, is one?  Unfortunately, the word prosaic has evolved a separate definition of unimaginative or dull, so it does not evoke the same emotions today as does word poetic.  So what terms should I use to differentiate between an architecture that tries to be “artistic” with the logical aspects of a building, and an architecture that tries to be “artistic” with the compositional aspects of a building?  Having an affinity for alliteration, four pairs of words come to mind:

            Prosaic vs. Poetic 

            Logical vs. Lyrical 

            Rational vs. Romantic          

 Functional vs. Formal 

Architectural theory has traditionally chosen “formal” and “rational” (note that I use an alphabetical order) to describe these two approaches to the design of a building, and so I will use these two terms, keeping in mind that they are not always mutually exclusive.  Throughout the history of architecture, there have been traditions of both approaches, so neither could be labeled as innovative in the nineteenth century (as seen in the first two images).  As with poetry and prose, one is not inherently better or more difficult than the other.

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

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