Sunday, November 30, 2014

Architecture & Art: First Impressions

Mankind's innate desire to create reveals a unique connection between architecture and art. They are trails through the wilderness; they fork, only to run parallel, reconnect for a while, then diverge again. The changes of direction from these creative endeavors result from any number of things, which the layman may incorrectly construe as minor technological advances.

Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet, 1872
A group of Paris based artists shunned the Beaux-Arts establishment and began painting everyday scenes, often in bright colors painted with short and quick brushstrokes. The movement they began was named after an early painting by the leader of the movement, Claude Monet. For these artists, capturing the fleeting impression of their subject matter took priority over realism. The entire movement would not have been possible had it not been for the simple invention of the now common paint tube. Prior to this invention, artists were confined to their studio, where they had to carefully mix their paints. The Impressionists recognized the newly invented paint tube not only as a convenience but also as an opportunity to venture outside of the studio, set up their easel wherever their subject was located, and paint however they liked, paying particular attention to the colors of the rising or setting sun, and how they reflect off their subject at various times of day.

mixing paint in the Studio
pre-mixed paint in a tube

The architecture that surrounded the Impressionists in Paris was typical of that of other major cities throughout Europe and the United States. The buildings were designed in the traditional Beaux Arts style and were normally seven stories or less in height. That changed in many cities, with the design and construction of the Home Insurance Building in Chicago in 1885. The architect William LeBarron Jenny designed this building using a couple of new, but now commonplace, inventions - the now common safety elevator and the steel frame. The elevator allowed the building to contain extra floors without tiring out or wasting the time of the building's occupants. The steel frame allowed the walls to be thinner than masonry construction. It also allowed the spaces to be designed more efficiently, especially on the lower floors. This building ushered in a new type of architecture, the skyscraper.

Home Insurance Building, William LeBarron Jenny, 1885
The paint tube changed the history of art just as the elevator and steel frame changed the history of architecture. Jenny's skyscraper introduced a new type of building that was embraced by a country of growing cities, the United States. We'll explore this in greater detail in the next post. Please join me next time for Race for the Sky.

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