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March 03, 2005

Guest Posting -- Donald Pittenger Part Two

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

More memories and reflections from Donald Pittenger. Today: how architecture was taught in the 1950s, when Authoritarian Modernism was really something to behold. I wish I'd been aware of what Donald writes about here in the 1970s, when I cluelessly studied architecture history. I'd have had a lot less brainwashing to shake myself free of later.

You can read the first part of Donald's memoir here.


Observations on Architectural Training in the 1950s

by Donald Pittenger

As part of my wayward art training as an undergraduate at the University of Washington (1957-1961), I took two architecture classes. My freshman year, I took an Architecture Appreciation class (or was it History of Architecture? -- I forget the exact title). As a sophomore I took the year-long Beginning Architectural Design (I'm guessing about this title too) course that provided basic training for students in Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Industrial Design, and perhaps a couple other fields. At the time, I was transitioning from Industrial Design to Commercial Design (alias commercial art), but stayed in the course anyhow.

Where it begins

One incident sticks in my mind from the Architectural Design class. It was the winter or spring of 1959 and we were assigned the project of designing a low-house or town-house unit. We were given certain parameters such as square-footage and perhaps number of stories, but had aesthetic freedom.

After the completion deadline, our floor plans and wash renderings (combined on a large piece of illustration board) were propped against a wall and critiqued by the instructors. (It was a large class, with more than 70 students and about three teachers.) Every design was in the T-square-and-Triangle International Style idiom -- except for one. Some naive soul produced a tidy looking traditional design that included a brick front and diamond-shaped window glazing. He was gently, but unmistakably, informed by the teachers that Such Things Are Not Done.

Everyone got the message, even though all but the wretched traditionalist had already internalized the prevailing architectural ideology.

One reason we knew the Standing Orders was due to the aforementioned Architecture Appreciation class that was a required course for Architecture majors.

Architecture Appreciation was taught by a gent in his late fifties or early sixties, one Arthur Herrman, who also happened to be Dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning. I just did a Google search on Herrman and found but one tangential citation, so I can't report on his background; all I can do is report on what I remember from the class.

The class had a lot of students because it was open to non-majors and it was held in the auditorium of the old Architecture Hall that dated from Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (a mini World's Fair) days on the University of Washington campus. It was essentially a slide-show lecture where the slides were from black-and-white photos or illustrations. I also had to buy a copy of the current edition of Sir Banister Fletcher's book A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, which remains in my collection 48 years later.

The end of history?

The subject matter began with ancient Egypt and ended with the at-the-time sensational Park Avenue structures, Lever House and the Seagram Building (the latter was completed about the time I took the class). I'll skip over the pre-Twentieth Century part of the course other than to say that Herrman was busy weaving in the themes of "honesty of use of materials" and "ornamentation was suspect." These two points can be linked because ornament is, by definition, not part of structure and honesty to the materials used in construction is therefore compromised to the extent that ornament is applied.

A baroque no-no

I took the class nearly 50 years ago, so I hope I'll be excused if I get some details wrong. Nevertheless, I seem to remember that Gothic cathedrals were praised for their structural aspects but that sculptural embellishments were presented with less enthusiasm. And I also seem to recall that the Milan Cathedral was disparaged because, while the embellishment was Gothic, the structure itself was more of a basilica (it lacked flying buttresses) than the cathedrals of France and England and therefore its Gothic touches were ornamental, not structural, and therefore it was a dishonest design. I do remember that Herrman was not at all pleased with buildings with Baroque or Rococo trim.


When we got to the mid-Nineteenth Century, iron and (later) steel structuring came into the picture. Here, Herrman vented his wrath on nearly everything. Dishonesty to the ironwork and steelwork was rampant, as architects clothed the pristine metal frameworks with stone or terracotta sheathing that aped classical, Gothic, Baroque and other historically-themed sculpted embellishments.

Nothing worse

One building I recall that he loathed was Garnier's Paris Opera. He blasted the use of all the different marbles used in its famous staircase as well as the ornate decor. About the only Nineteenth Century stuff he liked were train sheds and Louis Sullivan's early skyscrapers (though I can't recall if he cared for the decorations on the spandrels).

All those Sullivan verticals: Good

But that Sullivan ornamentation? Bad!

Verbal acid continued to flow regarding early Twentieth Century buildings as well. Unfortunately, I've forgotten what he said about structures such as the Woolworth Building or Raymond Hood's skyscrapers with Art Deco motifs.

Raymond Hood the Good ...

... and Raymond Hood the Evil

But I do know that he had no use for bank buildings tricked out as Greek or Roman temples. All became better with the construction of Hood's Daily News and McGraw-Hill buildings and honest perfection could be seen in the work of the sainted Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Saint Mies of the Verticals, the Horizontals, and the Grid

What Herrman was giving us was the Revealed Truth of the late 1950s, the Party Line, if you will. I know this because at the time I was reading the same themes in the main architectural magazines -- Architectural Forum, Architectural Record, and so forth. These were available at the Seattle Public Library, University of Washington libraries, and at my father's office (an industrial appraisal firm, where they needed to keep track of building components and fixtures -- these were found in the magazines' advertisements).

The ethos might be described as manichaean. International Style architecture was good. Old and ancient buildings were also good to the extent that they expressed their structural materials "honestly." But any building that sheathed a metal frame with pre-Twentieth Century architectural embellishments was essentially Evil and deserving of all the scorn one could heap upon it.

Herrman gave the impression that it would not bother him much if all such "dishonest" buildings were replaced immediately and the result was akin to a Corbusian Plan Voisin city.

Le Corbusier's idea of Utopia. Note verticals. Note horizontals. Note grid.

The late-Fifties zeitgeist was hardly eclectic. Simplicity was more than a vogue; it was virtually a Moral Imperative.

A couple years later as a Commercial Design student, we were assigned the project of designing a new logotype for an established product. I recall that I chose to redesign the logo for Miller Beer. It never occurred to me to do anything but come up with a clean, simple design. Clearly I was lacking in imagination. But I now suspect that if I had produced an ornate design, my grade for the project would have suffered.

Unless you were there, it is hard to realize how much pressure (albeit usually subtle) there was to conform to the Brave New World of Modernism. I'm not certain why this was so and maybe this is because I was born too late to put the issues into their proper context on a first-hand basis.

But let me offer an idea that makes sense to me: The great crusade that resulted in the eventual triumph by the early 1930s of International Style architecture, the industrial design profession and simplified graphic designs in publications was probably still fresh in the minds of architects and designers over age 40 or 45 in the late 1950s. And it was this cohort who had finally attained the age of power or influence and who could mold the minds of those such as me who were born after their war had been won. They wanted to do everything in their power to see to it that the evil old ways would not return.

This leads me to suspect that the struggle for "modernity" was harder-fought than it seems today. Perhaps this is true of all wars. Be it World War Two or the aesthetic contests of the early Twentieth Century, the outcome is known and has taken on the aura of being pre-ordained. And if the result was pre-ordained, then how much of a struggle was there really? But many of my teachers were either veterans of the struggle or observant bystanders. They had a large emotional investment in the outcome and were prepared to defend it to the hilt. Or so I think.


Thanks once again to Donald Pittenger. In his next installment he looks back at how art was studied.



posted by Michael at March 3, 2005


Architecture is amusing. Is there any other field where they try so hard to give you what they think you need rather than what you want?

Posted by: C.S. Froning on March 4, 2005 11:17 AM

I find what you say about the struggle for Modernism fascinating. Because we always read about the heroic fight of the Modernists. But perhaps it wasn't so heroic? Thanks for another great posting! Hope there will be more.

Posted by: Maryse T. on March 4, 2005 12:39 PM

First that comes to mind: almost half a century years passed, and "dishonesty to ironwork" is still the phrase I distinctly recall from "History of interiors" sophomore course at FIT in '94 (from lecture on Victorian design).
Incidentally, I agree with this definition as applied to Brighton pavilion nightmarish columns, and I loved the course, read by beloved Adrienne Bordes (she's still a faculty member although I don't know what courses she gives now).

Interior design, by its nature, is unable to discard ornament or decoration alltogether, so in my college years modernism by necessity was presented as one of many movements/styles/POW's. Albeit, by some profs, as The movement/style/POW.
But I was not a typical art/architecture student, and I can't track the sources of my art and architecture/design views and impressions assuredly to the school only.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 4, 2005 01:26 PM

"What Herrman was giving us was the Revealed Truth of the late 1950s, the Party Line, if you will."

In some areas of the country, I think the Party Line was so pervasive that even kids whose architectural "education" consisted solely of reading magazines, newspapers and their Sunday supplements also adopted it by osmosis. I vaguely remember handing in some sort of school assignment -- it might have even been a grade school scrap book -- where I cut out a photo of the wonderful New York Central building (now the Helmsly Bldg.) and proudly ridiculed its classically-inspired ornamentation (in particular the bracketed columns high up on the tower) as being foolishly non-functional.

But to be fair to the modernists and their "fellow travelers" at the time, cities like New York City in those days were filled with so much dark, weighty and heavily ornamented architecture that an OCCASIONAL shiny, glassy, light-weight "functional" building was such a refreshing breath of fresh air.

The first time I saw the Seagram Building and its plaza was on TV (as a background location for some show) -- and I could hardly believe that that kind of wonderful space existed somewhere in my home town. I even made a special trip "into the City" to try and find it -- and it was indeed just as wonderful to see in person. BUT in those days, the Seagram plaza was still a rare oasis of light and air in a city of weighty stone buildings and little public open space. As many have already pointed out, the modernism of the building and its plaza are far, far less impressive now that New York City is actually overwhelmed with its imitators. (And the wonderful effect that the Seagram Building and its plaza originally had was particularly damaged by the destruction of the wonderful jumble of buildings that used to line the plaza on the southern side of 52nd(?) St.)

Philharmonic Hall (Avery Fisher Hall) was another building that seemed astounding because it was so light, spacious and airy and nothing like it existed anywhere else in New York City at the time.

Also, it should be pointed out because it almost never is that some heavily praised classical monuments were not all that they have been cracked up to be, in my opinion. My candidate for most overpraised classical monument is Pennsylvania Station (largely a monotonous hulk of cold stone although I still believe it should have been saved).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 4, 2005 04:06 PM

As an architecture student during those same times, I was taken in by the "honesty" of modern architecture. The simple materials used in an honest way. No apparent veneers, facings or applied decoration. It you study the detailing of the classics from this era, you find that it's an appearance of honesty and that great ingenuity and subterfuge is required to acheive it. After living through (I hope) the post-modern period, I value the effort and results much more than the abominations of Michael Graves.

Posted by: Ralph on March 4, 2005 04:37 PM

2blowhards is getting fat! can u narrow it down pls?

kthxbye :D

Posted by: al on March 4, 2005 04:52 PM

C.S. FRONING and MARYSE T. -- Thank you for commenting; I'm grateful that my post stimulated your interest.

TATYANA -- I don't follow interior design other than casually. But, as you say, it's true that there has always been a lot of variety in the way of objects used to decorate or furnish interiors. Back in the early days of industrial design, there was a notion floating around (if Michael ever asks me for an ID post, I'll research this better) that there existed platonic ideals of classes of things such as refrigerators and toasters. This came from the Louis Sullivan (architectural) notion of form following function. So, given a functional requirement and a given level of technology, there ought to exist a form that would most perfectly embody said stove or ice chest or whatever. I think there might have been advertising claims about perfection of shape for a brand of refrigerator in the mid-30s. But a few years later there came the marketing need to freshen up the product and so Raymond Loewy (I think it was) had to produce a new design. I stongly suspect that interior designers never took seriously the notion of a platonic chair, say. Unlike refrigerators, chairs had been made for millenia and it was clear to most people that variation in style was unavoidable. However, it's true that fashions in furniture moved from Louis the X-teenth to simple forms with little or no ornamentation during the heyday of Modernism (think Scandinavian). As for industrial designers, the notion of primacy of function is probably still central to their practice, though the platonic notion was swept under the rug years ago.

BENJAMIN HEMRIC -- I agree. Lever House stood out when first built because every nearby building was clad in stone, brick, whatever, with classical embellishments: think sparking jewel in a proper setting. I first visited New York in 1956, a few years after it was completed, but I don't remember getting over to Park Avenue (I was a high school kid on a family vacation all the way from Seattle and we focused on the obligatory tourist sites). I was stationed at Fort Slocum (on David's Island in Long Island Sound near New Rochelle) for about four months early in 1962 and was able to get to the city on passes every weekend; this gave me plenty of time to explore a lot of Manhattan. Park Avenue still had some of the old-style buildings left below 59th Street, so there was a little sense of how Modernist buildings were set-off by other architecture. The horrible Pan Am building was being built between the New York Central building and Grand Central Terminal. Over on Sixth Avenue, the new Time-Life building was up and perhaps a couple more Modernist ones. Penn Station still existed in its old form. Please nobody shoot me, but my reaction to it was along the lines of yours. I found it dark and cold-seeming, but maybe that was partly because they were letting it slide knowing it would soon be razed.

RALPH -- The mention of Morris Graves brings to mind his municipal building down the road in Portland, OR -- I'll try to supress a rant about Post-Mod. Regarding classical Modernist buildings, there is truth to what you say. Somewhere I saw a photo documenting that some of the exterior steelwork on Mies' Seagram Building was mere applique -- I-beams stuck on just like the rest of the "curtain wall" cladding. And it's true that Modernism is a perfectly valid style. In nearly everything, a 20-80 or 5-95 or whatever rule can be applied to quality. The problem I suspect most Blowhard readers have with Modern is that the Modernist Establishment insisted that EVERYTHING had to be built in that style. Sixth and Park avenues from 42nd to 59th streets illustrate how wrong that idea was.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 4, 2005 10:21 PM

Donald, thanks for the these postings. I'm a college student and they're giving me information I'm not getting from my professors, and helping me see the present moment a little more clearly. I'm getting the impression from what you write that a lot of the modernism you grew up with is still with us. Do you think that's true? Do you see us still struggling with its legacy? Top-down planning, etc. Also you're reminding me of some of the things I've read on this blog but never made sense of before, like the way Modernism was a religion for some people. It sounds like it really was. What do you think was the hold it had on people? It really seems to have galvanized so many of them.

Posted by: David Ebory on March 5, 2005 11:29 AM

No apparent veneers, facings or applied decoration. It you study the detailing of the classics from this era, you find that it's an appearance of honesty and that great ingenuity and subterfuge is required to acheive it.

Regarding classical Modernist buildings, there is truth to what you say. Somewhere I saw a photo documenting that some of the exterior steelwork on Mies' Seagram Building was mere applique -- I-beams stuck on just like the rest of the "curtain wall" cladding.

Hmmm, I'm confused about all this 'honesty.' Ornament that is transparently ornamental is dishonest, but faux-structural detailing is honest?

And am I the only person to look at the Milan Cathedral and think that its architects and builders would never have understood how their highly ornamented building would qualify as 'dishonest'? One suspects they would consider the term, um, a tad intellectually dishonest.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 6, 2005 12:08 AM

FRIEDRICH -- This "honesty" business was the line I was given by Arthur Herrman in that achitectural history/appreciation/indoctrination class I took as a freshman. I suppose Herrman (and whatever pack he ran with that used the term) found it a useful bumper-sticker phrase to both justify and explain International Style architecture.

I bought into all that at the time, but 10 or 15 years later I had to admit to myself that New York City's Sixth Avenue was getting to look pretty sterile and that those pre-Daily News buildings by Raymond Hood looked pretty interesting. I like tastefully-done ornamentation, where I get to supply the definition of "tasteful"

Post-modern buildings tend not to have enough ornamentation in my opinion, and I further think that often the ornamentation they do get is not well designed. I'm thinking of very low-relief, sometimes poorly proportioned pilasters and other classical details on early Po-Mo buildings; these left the impression that the architects were trying to signal to a "sophisticated" audience that they really weren't being serious.

As for "honestly", nowadays I don't look at architecture with whatever it might mean in mind. As I think you were pointing out, "honesty" (like "tasteful") is a weasel-word that can be hard to pin down.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 6, 2005 05:46 PM

The "honesty" thing is still around, if in a morphed way. Deconstrucivist architecture is thought to be "honest" because it supposedly mimics the disjunctiveness and leaps in scale that chaos theory is supposed to have taught us about. It's true to what advanced people now know about the True Nature of life -- hence it's honest, and other contempo styles of architecture are dishonest.

Nikos does a great job of demolishing these pretentions in his book and in his q&as and pieces at this blog. And there's another question: why should "honesty" of any of these kinds be thought to be -- in and of itself -- a virtue, a plus? Maybe it's a neat virtue sometimes. Maybe at other times it's a crock, or just ugly, or doesn't work. Seems to me (FWIW) that the real problem with it is the way it gets used as an everywhere-and-all-the-time transcendent virtue. But that's part of the modernist legacy, isn't it? This feeling that, like science, modernist art was somehow getting through to a True Nature of things in a way that other art approaches don't?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 7, 2005 11:36 AM

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