The steel structure has not gone on its way soaring into the empyrean without being challenged, criticized, and denounced. Every Frenchman that comes to us shrugs his shoulders over the “skee-scrapaire,” and looks unthinkable things, though he may say nothing; our English friends are usually frank enough to assure us that we are architecturally demented; and even Madame Waddington and Mr. James, one-time Americans, return to us after many years to tell us that the high buildings are “hideous.”. That is not the worst of it. Many New Yorkers entirely agree with them, and can find nothing good to say of the new city. They talk much of the sordid and commercial spirit (and there is much to be said against it), they speak of the destruction of the old things, old streets, houses, churches, graveyards, and they hark back a great deal to the old city and the good old times.
They have always done so, in the past as in the present, quite ignoring the fact that, time was never so old and never so good as just now. There has ever been an objection to both the innovator and the innovation. People become attached to things, to conditions, to environments, and they dislike any disturbance of the status quo. It is not that the things are necessarily good or bad, but that they are, that they exist, and that we have become accustomed to them. Instinctively we love the broken path, and fall into ways of acting and methods of thinking from which we would not be jostled in the name of change or variety or progress. 1r. James, returning to New York after twenty years, misses what he left when he went away, and wonders that the city has changed. During his absence he has been accustomed, perhaps, to the streets of London, and he is somewhat surprised to find those of New York so unlike them. But what came he forth to see, a conventional city, a model of regularity, a place where people carry on the affair of living as becomes a luxurious upper class? Why was it to be supposed that history would repeat itself and produce on this continent, under entirely different conditions, another Vienna or Paris? Why is it that people seek here the Place de la Concorde, or the Ringstrasse, or Trafalgar Square ? Nothing in our history or our social state or our commerce has called for such places; and yet, having seen them elsewhere, people think them necessary parts of every city and marvel that New York lacks them.
It should be insisted upon again that New York is not primarily a place of residence, nor a center of government; but a city of commerce. In Paris people live over the shops in the busiest streets of the city; and, at best, the exclusively residential portion along the Champs Elysees, and in the region of the Arc de Triomphe, is neither very extensive nor very far removed from the Boulevard des Capucines and the Avenue de l’0péra. Again, the Strand and Piccadilly and Mayfair seem to be one, and even the Bank district of London is not wholly deserted of houses where people live. But not so New York. Its people, perhaps unconsciously, recognize that it is not a place to live in, and hundreds of thou-sands doing business there live out of it, have homes on Long Island or in Westchester or over in New Jersey, and come to the city each morning and leave it again each evening. Even those who stay in town and have homes therein try to put as much distance as possible between their houses and their offices. Below Canal Street, and practically below Union Square on either side of Broad-way running south, there are business buildings only. No one lives there except care-takers and their families, perched upon the roofs of the high buildings, or occupying quarters in the basement. The things that make for pleasure, for comfort of family or home, for restful scene and quiet stroll, are not wanted there; they would, in fact, be in the way and more or less of a hindrance. The lower city is a shop or office, is fitted up solely with an eye to trade, and is given over wholly to business.
The residential section of New York has been pushed farther north year by year until now, with some exceptions, such as the Washington Square region and its adjoining side streets, the southern line is drawn at, say, Twenty-Third Street. There is a tendency to gather east and west about the Central Park or along the Riverside Drive. Of course, on the extreme sides of the lower city, both east and west, there are vast tenement-house districts thickly populated; but these are not, in any general sense of the phrase, “the residential portions” of a city. Moreover, those things that 1r. James feels the lack of in New York, he would not expect to find in the lower quarters of London or Paris. The slums are not the places in any cities that are pointed out as restful or homelike or samples of civic beauty.
Even in the best quarters along the east side of the Central Park our French and English friends will find nothing that reminds them of the square houses of Hyde Park, or the monotonous gray-stones of the Champs Elysées. Time was when the streets of upper New York wore a dull garment of chocolate-brown, and were as sedate and as uniform as the spirit of 1850 was prosaic. But all that has largely disappeared with the new era, and in its place there are infinitely varied houses of brick, stone, and marble. The great wealth of the city is throwing off an ornate efflorescence in its up-town houses, just as the commercial wealth of Florence centuries ago reared splendid palaces along the Arno; and just as that of Buda-Pesth or Bucharest is doing to-day in its florid rendering of the art nouveau. It is picturesque and quite appropriate to the commercial center of the western continent; but it is not at all like the picturesque of Whistler’s London or Balzac’s Paris. That, it seems, is the chief grievance of our critics. The city is not like other cities, therefore it must be very bad. “Hideous” is a word that seems to apply exclusively to things modern; and when the old things were new things, undoubtedly it was applied to them, too.
A city or a nation in its art should represent itself, its people, its industries, its life, and should do so sincerely and sanely. There could be neither honesty nor common sense in erecting the towers of Westminster down town in New York, or the Madeleine or St. Peter’s up town. We already have enough and to spare of these imitations. The Giralda tower of the Madison Square Garden, for instance, is an attempt to plant the old in the new; and yet what purpose does it fulfill? It has at its top neither bells nor clock nor muezzin to call to prayer, nor at its base any chapel, church, or sanctuary in which to pray. Unlike its Seville original it is only ornamental, and has not the saving grace of being useful. However, it is perhaps justifiable on the plea that it dominates a place of amusement and is what it was designed to be, “a drawing feature.” But how or in what way does it represent New York or its people? And what does it express in art more than a certain eclectic cleverness in its designer?
On the contrary, the vilified Flatiron, facing on the same open square, does represent the commercial spirit of New York, whether people like their commercialism flung in their faces in that way or not. It stands for common sense, and is a very proper utilization of a most valuable triangle of ground – one of the most valuable in the upper city. And it is not unjust in proportions, nor wanting in fine angle lines and sky lines; while seen from upper Fifth Avenue through the mist of evening it is a wonder of color, light, and shade. Of course any dog can be given a bad name, and the Twenty-Third Street building was not improved in public esteem by being called a flatiron, nor again by being likened to an ocean steamer with all Broadway in tow. But the smile and the laugh should not confuse our estimate. The Flatiron is a representative New York building; and, while making no great ornamental splurge, it fills its place admirably, and will be considered not the least successful unit in the colossal quadrangle that will some day hem in Madison Square.
The Flatiron and the New York Times Building stand apart, each occupying a given space of ground and unrelated to other buildings by party walls. The street is their boundary on every side and they are complete in themselves. They do not yet look quite as they should, because standing isolated; but, when the adjoining blocks and the streets around them are built up with sky-scrapers, the relationship will be apparent. Yet even in their present surroundings they are seen at a better advantage than the majority of the new buildings. Many of them rise to twenty stories with only the street wall in presentable shape. The other three faces remain, as a general thing, in a loose-end condition, waiting for the owners on either side to erect structures and thus shut out from view raw partitions and unfinished surfaces. It is in this condition that people see so many of the down-town buildings, and upon the impulse of the moment break out in superlatives about the “hideousness” of the new city.
This judging of the picture by the half-finished sketch, and without sufficient imagination to see the work completed, results in many misconceptions. And then, again, in such swiftly constructed buildings, planned in a month and put up in less than six months, there must be -necessarily much that is deficient, false, or hopelessly bad. It could not be otherwise. And still again, the architect has been confronted with new demands, which it has been necessary to meet in new ways. There have been arbitrary and exacting conditions imposed by the financial and architectural phases of the new building conditions that have never arisen before in architecture or in building.
A condition placed upon the sky-scraper at the start was that it should rise vertically, for practically its whole height, without receding from or protruding over its street line. The building laws of the city would not permit of the latter, and the value of space would not allow of the former. To recede from the line with stories or columns or windows, or to taper away at the top in any form, would be to lose the very space sought to be gained. Of course, the insistence upon the vertical line from street to cornice meant an enforced monotony in the wall space. How should the architect overcome that difficulty ?
Nothing in the architecture of the past seemed of any practical service in planning this new building. In fact, historic precedent was, and still is, something of a stumbling block in sky-scraper construction. The alluring Greek temple with its waste of space in projecting portico and columns, the cathedral with tapering spires and towers, the pyramid with receding platforms, were not the proper models. Breaking the structure into, three pieces on the principle of a column, with foundation, wall space, and cornice corresponding to base, shaft, and capital, again would not answer. Even the campanile principle, though pointing the way, was just a little beside the mark. The very nature of the structure with its space-saving requirements fought all of the old forms.
Not but what they were tried, and some of them still in process of trying. Venetian palaces were elongated, Roman arches were drawn out of all recognition, Norman castles rose to phenomenal heights; but these contorted structures were far from satisfactory. The majority of the buildings, however, rather held by the three-part principle of Roman or Renaissance architecture, with the base, shaft, and capital of the column as controlling motives. In the average sky-scraper of this latter type one or more stories of the basement were heavily constructed or pushed out as a foot, a projecting cornice was used to emphasize the roof, and the intermediate space was broken with ornamental string-courses, bayed windows, high pilasters, or columns upholding ox-bowed windows covering several floors in height. This was little more than an adding-up or a pulling-out of the ordinary four-story building. It was, moreover, a strain at holding the building together; and, by the use of the horizontal line emphasizing the separate stories, it was an attempt to minimize the height. In other words, the architect was apologetic about his building; he was trying to make people believe it was not such a bridge truss on end, not such a sky-scraper, after all.
This proved something of a mistake, and New York learned (or is in process of learning), of its mistake from Chicago. The credit of devising a better design belongs to the western architects. Instead of deprecating the height of the steel building, they emphasized it by using the vertical instead of the horizontal line. The foot of the building was made only a slight projection, the cornice was cut down or changed into a railing or balcony that sometimes hid the roof, and the intermediate space was broken by climbing pilasters, corresponding in size to string-courses or half-round mouldings, that divided the windows up and down instead of across. The vertical line, instead of fighting the height of the building, accented it, gave it aspiration, dignity, and withal lightness and a semblance of honesty the very things in which the first sky-scrapers were lacking.
The West Street Building, designed by Mr. Cass Gilbert, is a good example of the more modern structure using the vertical instead of the horizontal line. The effect of it is to carry the eye upward, to increase the height; and, finally, to allow definition to be lost in a mystery of ornamental window caps, cornices, and terra-cotta pinnacles. Perhaps there are too many of the latter in Mr. Gilbert’s building; but then, ornament has from the beginning been something of a snare to the sky-scraper architect. If applied just for diversion, it is usually bad. There is ordinarily too much of it too much variety as well as quantity and it is perfectly apparent to the passer-by that it is put on merely to break the sameness of the façade. It is good only when it helps out the construction or the architectural conception. If a series of columns, or. jutting string-courses, or ribs of stone, or embayed windows can be used with architectural significance, they may be very successful. So, again, there may be a proper ornamental filling of space in decorated cornices, or sculptured keystones or geometrical arabesques; but there is always danger lurking in them the danger of destroying solidity and simplicity by too much tracery and garnishment.
There is the possibility of error, too, in the choice of stone or terra-cotta or brick or other weather-shield material used for the walls. The earlier attempts at producing an appearance of solid stone-walls, by deceitful veneers of granite or cement pilasters, were never good. Just now there is a disposition, or a desire, at least, upon the part of the architects, to exploit the airiness of the steel structure; but they are at some loss to know just how this shall be done. The Eiffel Tower gives the desired effect, but it would not make an office building; it is not enclosed. The Singer Building is an enclosed tower, but the quantity of glass used to enclose it, perhaps, makes it look too fragile.
Again, in the treatment of the wall space between foot and cap there comes to the architect the question of color. How can this be employed to break the vertical monotony? Can tiles, or terra-cotta, or different-hued bricks be used effectively in geometrical patterns? Is it desirable or practicable to have the walls painted ? Given several hundred feet of upright wall broken only by windows and pilasters, and what is to be done with it? How shall you make it look attractive and yet dignified?
All these questions are asked and answered in an individual way about every new steel building that is sent up. It has been generally assumed that the builders of the sky-scrapers were money-makers pure and simple, men after the dollar and caring nothing for appearances, but such is not the case. They, with their architects and engineers, are very much concerned with the aesthetic side, and wish their buildings to please the eye from without as well as to fill the pocket-book from within. Good form with color and ornamentation are things sought for. The attempt to produce them, which is apparent in almost every high building in the city, is sufficient evidence of the desire to have them. Admitting failure with them in many cases, and still success in perhaps as many more cases, shows that they are possibilities, and that eventually they will become established actualities.
But the worry of the public, and the critics, and our returned compatriots, is perhaps centered less on the architecture (or its lack) in the new buildings, than on their incongruity when seen with the old buildings. They do not belong to the same school or style or epoch; they break in upon the present arrangement with a disagreeable jar. And yet, it is still within the memory of man that similar things were said about the tall towers of the Brooklyn Bridge. They, too, were once “hideous”; but gradually as the city has grown up to them they have become orderly, contiguous, related, affiliated. Eventually, perhaps, the new buildings will not be out of harmony with the old, because there will be little of the old left.
Not that New York is to become an unbroken stretch of sky-scrapers. Many of the larger and older structures will undoubtedly remain. Not that all the tall buildings will be of a size, a style, or a color. There will be as great a variety in them as in the buildings they have superseded. And just as many inconsistencies along the line of contact. Why not? What strange theory of civic art taught us that uniformity in buildings made the city beautiful? It sometimes makes the dull city, as Madrid, for instance; but it never made the wonder and surprise of Buda-Pesth, nor the unique charm of London. Variety does not mean necessarily antagonism. The Gothic does not clash with the Renaissance except in the theory of the partisan advocate. The Piazzeta at Venice is one of the most charming spots architecturally in all Europe, but what a variety of styles are grouped about it the Byzantine S. Marco, the Gothic Doge’s Palace, the classic Library of Sansovino, the mediaeval campanile, the composite Loggetta! One by one as these structures went up, there were doubtless Venetians who groaned in spirit and declared the last addition to be the ruin of the city architecturally; but time has proved them wrong. There is no incongruity or want of harmony in the group.
Nor will there be incongruity in the buildings of the new New York, save as people for purposes of advertisement or through absurdity, perpetrate the bizarre or the ridiculous. There is, to be sure, a sharp contrast between, say, the Metropolitan Life Building with its tall tower on Madison Square and the small green-and-yellow version of a Roman temple near by that is doing service as a Christian church. Both buildings are new and bad enough the one in its want of proportion and its over-ornamentation, the other in its mixed imitation of the Roman Pantheon and the Kunstler-Haus at Buda-Pesth. The larger one will possibly some day be blurred and blended by weathering until it fits in the square and. meets the structures about it. Nor will the smaller one fail as a picturesque foil to its surroundings; but it will always be a terra-cotta protest against its marble neighbor, a green frog railing at a white giraffe. It was put forth to attract attention and it does it.
But, aside from advertising and fads of fashion, there is no reason why different styles of architecture should not harmonize with each . other; and this, too, without any preconceived plan to meet and match. The idea that a square or street or city needs to be exactly scaled and designed that its buildings should not quarrel, is the latest theory of civic artists; and, no doubt, if an agreement as to style and plan could be reached by all the land-owners of a given space, the result might be more uniform. Yet there is danger in the exact plan. Such a uniformity with monotony is still visible on some of the side streets of up-town New York where the old blocks of brown-stone fronts remain. Berlin is built somewhat in that style, and there are many miles of Paris that are deadly dull because wanting in variety.
But the question is wholly academic. In a democratic city like New York people will build as suits their individual interests; and after all there is compensation in that. The great majority of squares and streets and towns those that we admire to-day were not planned. One thing after another was pushed in to fill a need, first a .tower, then a church, then a town-hall, or a monument; until finally a Piazza del Duomo, a Dresden Theater-Platz, or even an English Oxford, was the result. This grouping by necessity or for convenience has in the past proved quite as good, and even more interesting than the rectilinear laying out of a Louvre, or the formal grandeur of a Viennese Franzen-Ring. At least the result is not stilted, icily regular, splendidly null. It has the appearance of something constructed for use, not for looks, and it also suggests the story of progress unconsciously perhaps, producing harmony in the open places and the long streets of New York. The tall units that, one by one, are being placed in the Plaza, at the entrance to the Central Park, will tone down in color, run over and intertwine in line, group together as masses, until all are but parts of a whole. And it will be the same with Madison and Union squares, with Fifth Avenue and Broadway. In the lower city the massed effect of the high buildings can already be felt. The unity of the new city is indicated there for those who have the imagination to see it. Unity but not uniformity. There is, and will continue to be, the saving grace of variety.