Monday, December 3, 2007

Commercial Gothic Revival Architectural Sculpture

In Europe Gothic architecture metamorphosed out of Romanesque during the 12th Century and held sway in Europe until being made hopelessly "old fashioned" by the Renaissance. And it pretty much stayed there until during the 19th Century when writers and architects such as Ruskin, Pugin and Viollet-le-Duc rediscovered it and brought about the First Gothic Revival. By the beginning of the 20th Century Gothic had become out-of-date again. But not for long. A trio of architects (there were lots of others, but three is a more-or-less manageable number) resurrected its forms in three different areas of architecture.

Ralph Adams Cram started building powerful, conservative Gothic churches, Cass Gilbert erected the Woolworth Tower, nick-named "the Cathedral of Finance" and Charles Clauder (and others) started building colleges and high schools in what is now called "Collegiate Gothic." All three of these variations developed a particular style of architectural sculpture, though there is a fair amount of overlap.

If it's okay with you, let's begin with Commercial Gothic. When Gilbert put up the Woolworth Building (1911-1913) in New York City it was assured to catch attention because it was at that time the tallest building in the world. It's decoration was largely made possible by the use of terra cotta instead of carved stone for much of its detailing. Oversized finials, spires, pinnacles, crockets and other Gothic characteristics could be created by the dozen once a mold was made and this allowed for their repetition across the facade and up and down the length of the building. The advantages of this approach was quickly picked up by both architects and businessmen and commercial Gothic structures sprung up across the country.

Commercial Gothic buildings are fairly easy to spot from a distance, they typically have white or cream colored glazed terra cotta surfaces that are tacked onto a steel frame, allowing for lots of windows, often the ones at ground level being arched. However the defining architectural sculpture details is the use of the grotesque - here defined as a distorted human figure, usually crammed into a square frame. It might be used as a corbel or as a decorative motif along a string course. Often these grotesques are found around an entrance, but finding one backed into a dark corner somewhere is not unusual. I have frequently found that if I look at these figures for a while the attributes that the figures hold, often has some relationship to the function of the building. A clue to figuring out why a particular figure, for example, is clutching a cash box, might be resolved by learning that the building was built as a business or even a bank. Sometimes a figure will hold a model of the building, in other cases (and I feel another whole blog happening here) the grotesque will be a caricature of a real person.

As with the rest of my blogs, the real point is to motivate you to go out into your community and find examples. And then tell me about what you discover. I don't label my images because it really doesn't matter if, as in the case here whether the picture is from NYC, Milwaukee, Lamar, Newark, Lafayette, Tulsa or any of the many other places where they are found.

A sort of footnote is the recent (post 1980s) work done by Chicago architectural sculptor Walter Arnold. Can you spot which of these pictures might be his work?