Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Remarkable Traditionalist: World's Pioneer in Skyscraper Architecture

A few years ago after it was completed, Cass Gilbert wrote to a friend about how he wished he had never built the Woolworth building. In his words, "Whatever it may be in dimension and in certain lines, it is after all, only a skyscraper."
Born on November 29, 1859, Cass is now considered a pioneer in Skyscraper architecture and was one of the world's first celebrity architects, counting among his peers Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies Van Der Rohe and Robert Venturi.
Unlike his peers, however, Gilbert stayed away from the modernist and post-modernist debate that would grip architecture in the mid 20th century. Instead, Gilbert believed that architecture's purpose was grander than the intended use of a structure; that a structure must bestow on its occupants, surroundings and even the city it resided in, a purposeful dignity and identity.
Thus when Gilbert envisioned the US Supreme Court Building, he imagined a place which would resoundingly echo the importance of the American Constitution, a document that claims inspiration from Plato's The Republic.
Built in an imposing beaux-arts meets neo-classical style, the pantheon shaped building with its tall columns echoes the tone of the inspiration on its pediment, 'Justice The Guardian of Liberty'. In effect, the building embodies the American sentiment that their republic is the ideological heir of Greek democracy and Roman organization.
The Supreme Court building was Gilbert's last major project, completed a year after his death in 1934. However, the intentions and style of the man who saw "early Romanesque cathedrals" in Beethoven's symphonies and "old Gothic windows" in Mozart's works, is evident in all his buildings.
Unfortunately, by the mid 20th century, modernism had gripped the world; Gilbert's designs were described as simply "classically competent" and his name disappeared into obscurity for a half century. But as a new generation of architects in training is looking back at how cultural identity has evolved in architecture, the words of The Times of London on his death continue to ring true, that Cass Gilbert was "the most remarkable architect of his generation in America."

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