Buffalo in Detail – Decoration and Abstraction: A Photo Essay

The city of Buffalo was woven into the discourse of Modernist architecture when Walter Gropius published images of its daylight factories and grain elevators in the Jahrbuch in 1913.  In this publication, these buildings were presented as examples of a new functionally driven type of architectural production, the example of which European architects should follow.  In fact, the prowess of Buffalo’s industrial architecture frequently approximates, if not eclipses, that of some of its more consciously architectural masterpieces, like H. H. Richardson’s psychiatric hospital, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin Complex and Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building.  Taken together, Buffalo’s collection of late nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings of both high and industrial architecture present to the contemporary observer the transition from the highly ornate, decorative handling of façades and finishes indicative of Victorian-era haut design, to the more austere, volumetric treatment of un-ornamented space indicative of the high-modernist aesthetic, and most recognizable in Buffalo’s industrial architectural heritage.

As early as Adolph Loos’s 1908 article Ornament and Crime this transition had been defined in terms of an evolution from the wasteful paradigm of ornamental excess of the 19th century, to the economical paradigm of “honest,” austere forms, functionally derived.  Gropius’s 1913 Jahrbuch article reasserts this narrative, and itself became a cornerstone for the development of the austere aesthetic frequently associated with early modernist rationalism.  This is the narrative, now refined and codified through academic rigor, that most students of architecture and architectural history have stuffed in their heads by conscientious school masters and marms, themselves crammed full of the same rubbish.

Thus, while architectural historians and theorists brought up on Reynar Banham attack the modernist movement for its tendency to appear more functional than it actually was, the fundamental rationalistic arguments of modernity have rarely met with a sustained critique beyond this.  It may be true that at least some modernists perfected the aesthetics of functionalism, while at the same time ignoring the dictates of functionality; and it may be equally true that rationalistic arguments based in zeitgeist theories of social evolution were only, themselves, superficially rehearsed by the European avant garde.  However, what both of these positions assume is that functionalism was, for the most part, center stage for the European modernists, and that the drastic shift from the ornamental style of the late 19th century to that more ascetic style of the 20th century was based in an honest attempt to realize a functionalist agenda.

If we momentarily turn our gaze to the history of art, it may be possible to find a more compelling theoretical foundation for the type of architectural aesthetics that emerged at the turn of the last century.  Starting, arguably, with the French Impressionists, and moving through Pointalism, Fauvism, Futurism and Cubism, and into Suprematism, Constructivism, De Stijl and eventually Minimalism, what one sees is the gradual abstraction of artistic forms; which shift from a mnemonic, representational mode, to a grammatical, self-referential mode; the cathedrals of the pre-modernist painters disappear under Monet’s torrent of light and pigment, while traditional beach scenes succumb to Seurat’s system of chromatic complements, and so on until the language of painting is laid bear as a relationship between point, line, color and plane; and then reduced even further to a pure color field.  Furthermore, what one finds in the writings of artists is an insistence on how this kind of radical abstraction can directly effect the “spiritual” disposition of both the artist and the observer, an argument that, after modernism, became, and still is, in many respects, anathema to architectural discourse.

Yet, even while many contemporary architects might blush at the mention of anything remotely associated with “spirituality,” many of the early documents of modernity are filled with the concept and its theoretical presence oozes off of these pages like so much butter off of a well-toasted muffin.  It is no accident that the Bauhaus included such instructors as Walter Gropius and Wassily Kandinsky; Mies van der Rohe and Paul Klee; Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Theo van Doesburg; Josef Albers and Johannes Itten.  Just as we should not theorize the buildings of Horta, without first acknowledging the influence of Klimt, nor should we theorize the work of van der Rohe without acknowledging its indebtedness to the culture of artistic abstraction in which it was immersed.  Thus, it is perhaps better to understand aesthetic developments in architecture from the turn of the last century, not in terms of any new rationalist and/or functionalist focus, but rather as a co-extensive evolution towards increasing abstraction, paralleled, and most likely inspired by, similar evolutions occurring in painting, sculpture, photography, music and (arguably) literature.

Thus, the elimination of ornamentation from buildings that has been in vogue since the conquest of the modernist aesthetic is not founded in functionality, rather it is based in systems of artistic abstraction; and while the success of the ascetic style of high modern design may owe something to its amenability to mass-production, it may be equally determined by a simple shift in taste.  For today, as we visit the edifices of the past, and wonder at the craft with which they were rendered, at the opulence of materials and figures and forms, we do so with a consciously retrospective gaze, the way a parent might indulge a small child its “cuteness.”  We admire it because it came before us, because it fits into our romantic version of a better past, a past supposedly more human, supposedly somehow better than today.  We admire it, in essence, because we know that it might well go extinct, unless it is preserved; that as a style, its place is in the past, and in the few extant buildings where it currently resides.

Living in Buffalo, I have the luxury of access to a vast compendium of late 19th and early 20th century structures, many of which are unparalleled for the quality of their construction, and the opulence of their material and decorative vocabularies.  They range from the large number of extant elevators that loom over Buffalo’s waterfront, like vast Egyptian temples to the goddess of grain, to exquisite works by 19th century masters like Daniel Burnham.  This photo essay includes detail images of the decorative motifs for several of Buffalo’s better buildings, including Buffalo City Hall, Sullivan’s Guaranty Building, Burnham’s Ellicott Square Building, the Market Arcade by E. B. Green and the Statler Hotel.

* For more images of Sullivan’s Guaranty Building, please see the post titled:  The Devil’s in the Details

Buffalo City Hall

Guaranty Building

Ellicott Square Building

Market Arcade

Statler Hotel

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