Thursday, August 05, 2010

An Amazing Resource for America's Golden Age of Building

Cram and Goodhue's proposal for Los Angeles (Episcopal) Cathedral

I recently stumbled onto a wonderful collection of scanned books and images posted on Flickr all pertaining to American architects and architecture of the early twentieth century, a period which may well have been the apex of our nation's cultural progress: Sargent and Whistler were painting, Cram building churches, Henry James novelizing, Cass Gilbert and Louis Sullivan trying civilize the skyscraper, McKim designing banks and pleasure-palaces and Stanford White getting shot on top of them. (Too soon?) Architecture had suddenly and rather abruptly cast off a quirky and rather provincial Victorianism and was rediscovering both authentic ancient precedent, and its imaginative and often innovative reuse. Here are posted numerous scans from books and magazines of the period, both secular and sacred, which will be of great interest to our readers. I include a few samples below, taken from, I believe, the two-volume Cram-edited American Churches. The image above, incidentally, is taken from a work entitled Drafting Room Practice.

The two middle images are taken from one of Cram's many proposals for trying to bridge the cavernous crossing space of St. John the Divine in New York, which still remains one of the least resolved and most unsatisfactory aspects of the building in its present unfinished state. They are from what may well be the most intriguing proposal put forward, which placed two large spires directly before the north and south transepts, while capping the crossing with a rather low nondescript cube.

The design intrigues me, though I believe there is good reason it was superseded by other proposals. The arrangement is not as strong seen approaching the church from the rear, and would have been a bit more elegant had the towers been placed directly over the transepts, as in Scott's initial proposal for Liverpool Cathedral, and a large bridgelike space raised between them to cover the crossing. (A truly horrible rendering of Scott's otherwise competent first design can be found here; I have yet to find another online.) Furthermore, the contrast between the towers on the front facade and those at the crossing, while creating an interesting, almost Piranesian shift in scale, seems almost unsettling and combative on closer inspection, rendering the otherwise gigantic westwork puny and even toylike by comparison. It is still an interesting "what-if?" in the realm of American sacred architecture, and commendable in its mixture of boldness and precedent.

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