Art and Artifice

The picture above, once of Irving Underhill’s more self-consciously arty photos of a building, shows the Woolworth building behind the Brooklyn Bridge in 1921. For better or worse you can’t get a view like that today because of the presence of so many other buildings over 700 feet tall in lower Manhattan. I like the photo for itself, but it also gives me the opportunity to revisit a topic I bludgeoned almost four years ago: structural honesty.

The bridge and the tower were both marvels of their periods of construction – the 1870s and 80s, and the 1910s, respectively. They share a basic aspect of design: both have historicist architectural masonry decoration and modern steel structure. The relation between masonry and steel is different, however: in the bridge both are performing structural functions, although the steel is doing the more difficult job; in the building the steel is the structure, and the masonry is a decorative skin that could (physically, anyway) be replaced by a glass curtain wall.

If you truly believe in structural honesty, the terra cotta curtain wall of the Woolworth Building is a mistake, as are the gothic arches and cornices of the Brooklyn Bridge. And, in my opinion, you must therefore live in a world with rather stunted architecture. Architecture fails (sometimes literally, in the engineering sense) when it becomes pure art without enough connection to reality; it also fails when it abandons any interest in art. More-rationally designed versions of these two structures might have been more honest, but they would also have been unlikely to inspire awe and loyalty over more than a hundred years.

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