4.10. A MODERN AMERICAN ORNAMENT VIA “THE GRAMMAR OF ORNAMENT”

The final, finishing touch of the design was the building’s ornament.  I have devoted many paragraphs in the previous sections to the mounting arguments in Europe and, eventually in the U.S. to develop a modern, and in the U.S., an American style of architecture.  I have shown how these ideas came to Chicago following the end of the Civil War in the persons and works of Jenney and Wight, who begot Root.  The campaign for an American culture, started by Emerson, was continued through the efforts in Philadelphia by Charles Stillé, Provost of the University of Pennsylvania whose ideas were manifested in the buildings designed by Frank Furness, who begot Sullivan.

Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, 1856. (Online)

Although there were a number of European theorists who were influential on the Chicago School architects, when it came to ornament, it was Owen Jones who was the fountainhead.  He wrote their bible, The Grammar of Ornament, first published in 1856, in which he exhorted his readers not to “slavishly copy” the works from the past, but to develop new styles of art for the contemporary world:

“How is any new style of art or new style of ornament to be formed, or even attempted to be formed?… the rising generation in both classes are born under happier auspices, and it is to them we must look for hope in the future.  It is for their use that we have gathered together this collection of the works of the past; not that they should be slavishly copied, but that artists should, by an attentive examination of the principles which pervade all the works of the past, and which have excited universal admiration, be led to the creation of new forms equally beautiful… “

Root had thoroughly digested Jones’ theory and applied it rigorously :

“To rightly estimate an essentially modern building, it must not be viewed solely from an archeological standpoint… Whenever in the world there was a period or style of architecture worth preserving, its inner spirit so closely fitted to the age wherein it flourished, that the style could not be fully preserved, either by the people who immediately succeeded it, or by us after many years… Our architecture if it is good will fit us… The object of all this study of architectural styles must be to acquire from former times the spirit in which our predecessors worked; not to copy what they did.”

In The Grammar of Ornament Jones was one of the first, and the strongest voice calling for architects to stop copying the architecture from past cultures and focus on developing an architecture that reflected contemporary life in the nineteenth century:

“All, therefore, that I have proposed to myself in forming… The Grammar of Ornament… in thus bringing into immediate juxtaposition the many forms of beauty which every style of ornament presents, I might aid in arresting that unfortunate tendency of our time to be content with copying… the forms peculiar to any bygone age.

“It is more probable that the first result of sending forth to the world this collection will be seriously to increase this dangerous tendency, and that many will be content to borrow from the past those forms of beauty which have not already been used up ad nauseum.  It has been my desire to arrest this tendency, and to awaken a higher ambition.

“If the student will but endeavor to search out the thoughts which have been expressed in so many different languages, he may assuredly hope to find as ever-gushing fountain in place of a half-filled stagnant reservoir….

“How is any new style of art or new style of ornament to be formed, or even attempted to be formed?  In the first place, we have little hope that we are destined to see more than the commencement of a change; the architectural profession is at present time too much under the influence of past education on the one hand, and too much influenced by an ill-informed public on the other: the rising generation in both classes are born under happier auspices, and it is to them we must look for hope in the future.  It is for their use that we have gathered together this collection of the works of the past; not that they should be slavishly copied, but that artists should, by an attentive examination of the principles which pervade all the works of the past, and which have excited  universal admiration, be led to the creation of new forms equally beautiful.

“I have endeavored to show, that the future progress of Ornamental Art may be best secured by engrafting on the experience of the past the knowledge we may obtain by a return to Nature for fresh inspiration.  To attempt to build up theories of art, or to forma style, independent of the past, would be an act of supreme folly.  It would be at once to reject the experiences and accumulated knowledge of thousands of years.  On the contrary, we should regard as our inheritance all the successful labours of the past, not blindly following them, but employing them simply as guides to find the true path.

Jones had laid out 37 propositions of good design that would influence the best American architects of this period.  The most important of these as they pertained to a nineteenth century style of architecture were:

#2. Architecture is the material expression of the wants, the faculties, and the sentiments of the age in which it is created.  Style in Architecture is the peculiar form that expression takes under the influence of climate and materials at command.

#3. As Architecture, so all works of the Decorative Arts, should possess fitness, proportion, harmony, the result of all which is repose.

#4. True beauty results from that repose which the mind feels when the eye, the intellect, and the affections, are satisfied from the absence of any want.

#5. Construction should be decorated.  Decoration should never be purposely constructed.  That which is beautiful is true; that which is true must be beautiful.

#36. The principles discoverable in the works of the past belong to us; not so the results.  It is taking the ends for the means.

While during the Chicago School’s early phase, its ornament admitted the free use of any historical detail, including Classical details, the real challenge faced by these architects was developing a “modern” expression or language.   The central idea was Truth:  truth in function, truth in the use of materials, and truth in construction.  During the 1880s, they slowly but consciously moved away from their starting point, the then fashionable Romanesque Revival (the round-arched style championed by H.H. Richardson and used throughout the country) and abandoned the romantic, but anachronistic use of arches (needed to span openings in masonry construction) as the iron frame was carefully worked into the exteriors of their buildings.  

Burnham and Root, The Rookery. Exterior lightcourt. (Author’s collection)

Jones had pointed the way for “inventing” a new style of ornament:

#8. All ornament should be based upon a geometrical construction

Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, 1856. “Proposition Ten.” Jones recommended achieving harmony in a new ornamental system by “the propering balancing , and contrast of, the straight, the angular, and the curved.” One can find Jones’ system in most of Sullivan’s ornament. (Flores, Owen Jones)

#10. Harmony of form consists in the proper balancing, and contrast of, the straight, the inclined, and the curved.

#11. In surface decoration all lines should flow out of a parent stem.  Every ornament, however, distant, should be traced to its branch and root.

Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, 1856. “All lines should flow out of a parent stem.”(Flores, Owen Jones)

An architect needed to only use geometry and/or nature to invent a new style of ornament.  Nobody was more talented in this arena than Louis Sullivan, who took Jones’s propositions as gospel.

Louis H. Sullivan, A System of Architectural Ornament, 1924. “Development of a blank block through a series of mechanical manipulations.” (Zukowsky, Chicago)

Eventually, some owners would even question the need (cost) of ornament.  But to be clear, during the 1880s in Chicago, there was no architect who equated the complete lack of ornament with an American modern architectural style.  Architectural ornament was still a very important element of a building, but as Jones had so forthrightly stated:

“To attempt to build up theories of art, or to form a style, independent of the past, would be an act of supreme folly.  It would be at once to reject the experiences and accumulated knowledge of thousands of years.  On the contrary, we should regard as our inheritance all the successful labours of the past, not blindly following them, but employing them simply as guides to find the true path…

“The principles discoverable in the works of the past belong to us; not so the results.”

All ornament by Sullivan above can be found on exhibit in the Art Institute of Chicago. (Author’s collection)

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

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