To move ahead with a visual education, we should begin to look outside the study of art and design in an interior context. Everything we see contributes to the mix of stimuli that forms and nurtures our individual aesthetic. Thus it is natural that buildings, which provide the context for these stimuli, would have a profound effect on the way we look at things. As it is with the fine arts, architecture expresses the hopes and ambitions of the times. Most of us take the built environment for granted. But we should be aware that our streetscapes furnish a wealth of information about business trends, shifts in demographics, changing social customs, and fluctuations in taste and concepts of beauty.
Whether you live in a large city or small town, most American streets present a stylistic parade of architectural styles and building types that are indicative of changing prosperity. Generally speaking, the tone of a city is set by the construction that occurred during its greatest period of growth. The sleek Art Deco style popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s was adapted in Seattle for many downtown structures. In Dallas, a variant loosely referred to as “Cowtown Moderne” suited progressive business ambitions and marks the special character of that city today. New York, for all its skyscrapers, still has an underlying architectural fabric that is elaborate, early twentieth-century Beaux-Arts, marking a period of rapid expansion as waves of immigration reached their peak at Ellis Island.
Of course, many cities have different periods of growth–Boston, for instance, has Federal buildings on Beacon Hill and Victorian structures in Back Bay and the South End, while its former Colonial Era downtown is bristling with Post-Modern towers born of the 1970’s and 1980’s economic boom. In less complex environments, such as small towns, the main architectural style indicates peak years of prosperity. The lack of a later, superseding style usually indicates an economic decline such as the demise of the local factory or the loss of rail service to the area.
Dallas has a variant of the Art Deco style loosely referred to as “Cowtown Moderne.”
Architectural style refers to specific types of structure and ornament. Style is essentially visual and doesn’t necessarily relate to the function of a building. Some terms, such as Victorian and Colonial, refer to historical periods that can contain several waves of stylistic development. A middle nineteenth-century building displaying Gothic Revival elements borrows its finery from the enduring and morally secure Medieval, cathedral-building period. On a domestic scale, this ornament is quaint and picturesque, reminiscent of a simpler, more honest time. Later on, Gothic ornament was applied to huge commercial structures, such as New York’s Woolworth Building, because it reinforced similar earnest associations, allowing big business to profit from the evocative image projected by its “Cathedrals of Commerce.”
At the turn of the century, under the influence of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, American cities and towns began erecting public structures in an impressive Classical-Revival style. The grand columns of the local library were meant to recall the splendor and intellectual achievements of ancient Greece and Rome, and also to serve the rhetoric of the City Beautiful Movement, which advocated noble civic structures as a factor in remedying the contemporary ills of society.
Architectural form and style often indicate building types and their attendant uses. When visiting any American city, it is usually possible to easily identify hotels (U- or H-shaped plans and Renaissance-Revival ornamental trim); post offices or courthouses (rough masonry facades and Romanesque features)–even YMCA’s, which seem to favor a brick facade with a palazzo-style appearance. On the other hand, a building type as omnipresent as the apartment house was a response to changing social and economic conditions, with a variety of fashionable styles applied to this new mode to serve the interests of eager real estate developers.
Basic knowledge of architectural terms and styles will open up new avenues of thought and fresh ways of assessing the environment that influences our everyday circumstances. Guides like What Style Is It?–published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation–are enjoyable, easily digestible subway, train, or lunchtime reading. Armed with this basic information, our travel to the workplace is a radically different experience.
In New York City, it is said that only the tourists look up. But gazing skyward should not be taken as a sign of naiveté because, especially with pre-World War II buildings, architects took great care with the upper reaches of their creations, which are alive with narratives in carved stone and terra-cotta detail. Later streamlined towers present a drama of shape and mass in their setbacks and ornamented crowns. Our upward gaze enables us to notice that the spectacular middle and upper levels of the Chrysler Building reflect progressive automotive design and carry a decorative scheme inspired by hubcaps and hood ornaments!
What kind of style defines and reveals the history of the neighborhoods in which we live and work? By way of an answer, the streetscape presents a cornucopia of visual clues and delights that enlivens the way we view our world. Looking up and around–along with the tourists–is a surefire method for honing our observational skills.