Tuesday 28 Jun 2011

From the largest room in the world to fairies: New materials and innovation

In a book called ‘Visions of Architecture’ (Bloomsbury A&C Black 2011 ISBN 978-1-4081-2881-7, £16-99) the author Stephen Lees examines various buildings and the fascinating facts that caused their creation due to what might be termed the ‘Construction Process’ involving seven disciplines: Architecture, Religion, Engineering, Arts, Psychology, Economics and Politics, the influences of which have eluded people even though they may be familiar with the structures. Stephen shares his findings with WAN readers in an exclusive seven-part series...

Despite the innate Romanticism at the St. Pancras Hotel the building had a more important role in developing architecture and building engineering. The hotel, built in 1867, was one of the earliest buildings to be constructed on to a steel cage frame enabling builders to erect quickly and economically buildings for different uses, in particular, in 1869 the 150 foot high Gothic Water Tower in Chicago. This fantasy steel-framed limestone clad tower with battlements, turrets and usual Romantic paraphernalia, survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. After the fire, buildings had to be of a fire-proof design principle based on the steel cage frame and stone cladding. This Neo-Gothic fantasy tower was the basis of skyscraper construction augmented by the advent of the Otis elevator allowing access to upper floors. The steel cage concept was incorporated into the designs of the Empire State Building that survived a bomber flying into it in unlike the Twin Towers, dispensing with the steel cage frame, could not survive collisions by aircraft.

A real test of strength of the Neo-Gothic style came about in a battle over an Exhibition Building in 1862. The Anglo-French alliance of the Crimea War ending in 1856 had brought about in England a partial use of French architectural styles. The Exhibition Building 1862 was designed to reflect the French Second Empire style, an early form of Beaux-Arts. However, though built, it failed to get government funding, to convert it into what was to be the Natural History Museum in London, largely due the popular reaction to it as being too ostentatious and ‘one of the ugliest public buildings that was ever raised in England!’ In retaliation the building was demolished by its owners! The Neo-Gothic style based on Romanticism and Fairies won the battle and was used extensively thereafter including on the St. Pancras Hotel, the original designs for which were for a country house called Kelham Hall in Nottinghamshire.

The Beaux-Arts style was triumphant in the United States as the appropriate architecture of an emerging powerful nation. The distinguishing features of Beaux-Arts designs are the extravagant uses of masonry blocks usually of polished limestone or sandstone fixed to a steel cage frame to re-create a classically styled stone building. The resulting stone façade of the building would display ornate details as carvings, relief, statuary, crotches, symbolic ciphers, bronze and nickel metal fixtures including window and door frames, ornamental lamps, emblems, signage and general ostentatious paraphernalia. The grand scale and dignity of the Beaux-Arts tradition is essentially a Nineteenth Century application of classical architecture. It responds to technological innovation and requirement of a desire to display power, especially commercial or imperial power. American Railroad corporations embraced the style as befitting their imperial aspirations. On the front of Grand Central Terminal this extravagant approach to decoration is evoked by the carvings of the monumental statue relief group dominated by Mercury, the Roman god of speed and by implication of transport. Beaux-Arts had its apogee at Pennsylvania Railroad Station that housed the largest room in the world based on steel but modelled on the Baths of Caracalla in imperial Rome!

Stephen Lees
Visions of Architecture

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