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."

England's Greatest Gardener

To Lancelot Brown, the value of an estate rested in its 'capability' for landscape improvement, hence why today he is better known as 'Capability' Brown. He was also probably England's greatest Gardner and is credited with fashioning over 170 of the 18th century's most remarkable gardens. In doing so he demonstrated how far landscape architecture could boost the appeal and value of a traditional estate.
Brown initially trained under William Kent who pioneered the English Landscape Garden as distinct from the French Formal Garden which was in fashion at the time. Where the French Gardens exhibited order over nature thanks to stairways that led to carefully sculpted hedges surrounding a central fountain, Kent's gardens were inspired by nature and featured lawns surrounded by droves of trees usually in front of a pond or lake.
Brown took the idea further by removing all unnatural structures that preceded the gardens and replacing them will rolling lawns punctuated by clumps of trees opening up carefully to reveal gazebos, temples or bridges, before spreading out towards invisibly dammed streams and lakes.
Brown envisioned the layout of his gardens to echo the sprawling English countryside and in many ways, considered dotting a landscape to be similar to using grammar in language.
As he said, "Now there I make a comma, and where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject."
One of the Brown's most famous works includes Longleat, an estate that is currently home to the Marquesses of Bath. Originally planned in grids featuring foliage and mazes fashioned out of the hedges, Brown replaced the majority of the plan with vast undulating spreads of grass and roads that weaved through the landscape, making the estate appear much larger than it actually is.
The same technique was employed in the redesign of the grounds of Higher Castle, the venue of the critically acclaimed TV show Downtown Abbey. Those grounds, dotted with beech, oak and cedar trees were once complimented by British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli who said, "How scenical, how scenical"