According to the late Professor Gaudet, architecture may be defined as the art and science of building. The average person knows practically nothing about either. Most of the human family gives but a cursory glance at the buildings which line the streets of our cities, and if the question is asked them, "What do you think of such and such a building?" their answer is shrouded in the fogs of vagueness. Even if they express admiration for the building in question, they have but an indefinite idea as to why they like it. It strikes some sympathetic chord in their being and they are pleased. But the fact that there is even such a subconscious basis for appreciation is a gratifying fact. It indicates that there is a nucleus upon which to build an intelligent appreciation of art and architecture. Let us then take this nucleus, this sense of the fitness of things, which is often termed taste, and think of it as the foundation of the edifice of intelligent appreciation which we hope to erect. Now of what is the main part of the structure of appreciation to consist? Shall it be a knowledge of architectural styles - Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance and others? I do not think so. Architectural styles change with the epochs of history. A building is not necessarily good because it has a pleasing style of architecture. Being Gothic does not make a building beautiful. We must take something more elemental than style for the main part of our building - the factors of composition. In musical composition there is proportion, balance, rhythm, harmony, contrast, dominance, unity. In literature these are essential considerations, likewise in sculpture, in painting, in dancing. So in architecture we shall take these factors, with the addition of truth and scale, as basic, permanent and most important. In a brief space I shall try to explain the meaning of each.
1 Adapted from "What I Should Like Everybody To Know about Architecture," Architectural Progress, August, 1929.
Were I speaking to those who expected to become architects, I should place great emphasis upon truth in architecture. I should take time to illustrate how the great and beautiful buildings of the world have expressed clearly their purpose or function in their form. In brevity, it is perhaps sufficient to point out that certain forms in building have come to express very definitely certain social functions of mankind. It is not difficult to recognize a church, nor a state capitol, nor a library, nor a prison. The external aspect of each of these structures has been shaped to express that which goes on inside them, and so firmly established are the traditional forms that a departure is bewildering. If we entered a building which appeared to be a library and found on the inside of it an altar, choir and pews, great would be our surprise. So in a bank, in which we expect to deposit our riches, we experience greater mental satisfaction if the building is expressive of strength, security and enduring protection. To go a step further in the matter of truth, external form should express internal arrangement. Seeing a huge dome upon a building, as we approach it, we have something of a shock if we find nothing but a flat ceiling on the interior. If the exterior is pierced with great tall windows, we are confident that we shall find a large and majestic room on the interior. If we do not, disappointment follows. Lastly, should there not be truth in the use of materials? Is there any reason for graining steel door frames to give them the appearance of wood? What is the logic which leads men to paint plaster to resemble marble? The deceit is obvious. Why not frankly realize the limitations and possibilities of the material which is to be used and design in conformity with the nature of that material? If we cannot our artistic intelligence is indeed decadent.
.... In architecture, our ideal of beauty is built up by what we have hitherto observed. And in different classes of buildings we have different ideals. Hearing the word "church," we form an image of a certain type of structure. Now, if some church we actually see has a tower which appears too high for the rest of the building we say that it is out of proportion with the building, just as we say that a nose is out of proportion with a face when it is too long. Certain proportions for certain types of building have become the composite ideal of man through centuries of repetition and are therefore called good. Furthermore, this matter of proportion extends to every part of an edifice. The doors and windows involve proportion, likewise the mouldings around the doors and windows, the bands of ornament, the rooms on the interior. Proportion is everywhere in art, and by intelligent observation one can develop a critical sense of this factor.
Let us next consider balance. Probably because most of mankind is well balanced - physically at least - man desires balance in external objects. Balance is necessary to stability. In nature we observe an exquisite balance in trees, in flowers, in broad landscapes. We see a delicate balance in the sailing ship, in the airplane, and while a building rests upon a more solid medium, nevertheless we want it to have balance, both in mass and in interest. Lacking balance a thing cannot be perfect aesthetically.
Rhythm is in the internal and external world of man. There is rhythm in the movement of the planetary system, in the waves of the sea, in the change of the seasons, and in the daily life of the individual. Our times of sleeping, of working, of eating conform to an established rhythm. Rhythm is obviously a part of the arts. Havelock Ellis writes, "The dance lies at the beginning of art and we find it also at the end." And what is dancing but harmony of movement in measured beat or rhythm. Thus in architecture as in the other arts rhythm is an essential. In the Gothic cathedrals we are conscious of rhythm in the measured march of the lofty piers down the majestic nave. In the temples of Greece we behold rhythm in the ordered regularity of the columns around the cella. In the structures of the present day, in the dwelling house as in the sky scraper, rhythm is necessary and may be found in the window spacing, in the ornament, in the succession of stories, in the play of light and shade on different planes, in the repetition of similar geometric forms.
The meaning of harmony is generally understood. If two people live peacefully and sympathetically together they are said to be in harmony with each other. In architecture there is harmony when the elements seem to belong to one another, when they are related in shape, in color or in design.
Contrast accentuates the importance of the elements in a composition. Richness becomes more effective when contrasted with plainness. A monumental entrance to a building would not be very monumental if there were ten others adjoining it. It gains its monumentality by contrast with less important elements.
This brings us to the factors of dominance and beauty. Imagine two domes on a state capitol, exactly alike in size, shape and importance. The result would be a division of interest and this division of interest would destroy unity. With but one dome, however, there is no hesitation on the part of the observer. The dome becomes the climax of the composition and unifies the design, all else being subordinate to it.
Scale is the factor which enables one to form an estimate of size. It is relative to the size of man. At Saint Peter's in Rome, although the vaulting on the interior rises to a height of one hundred and fifty feet, one cannot realize its immensity unless the cathedral is filled with people. This is because the elements commonly proportionate to the height of man are in this structure exaggerated. There are not enough small elements, of which the size is common knowledge, such as delicate ornament, balustrades, doors, and life-size statues, with which we may compare the larger elements. Lacking these units of measure, therefore, we cannot appreciate the enormity of the large elements and there is a waste of effect. We are not impressed as we otherwise should be.
In this brief space I have suggested the meaning of the factors of composition. They form the main portion in our edifice of intelligent appreciation. With them we have a sound basis of judgment for all art. To this main body we may advantageously add a knowledge of historic styles, and in the acquisition of that knowledge we shall see how the styles developed in accordance with the climate, materials and other influences of each country, we shall see the logic of such development, and thus armed we can observe the ludicrous combinations of style which are not infrequently foisted upon the public in this supposed era of general enlightenment. After all, it simply means that if we are to progress in art and architecture the public must have a living interest in these subjects, an interest which will constantly stimulate them to criticize with knowledge and appreciation. And if we do not criticise, if we do not demand buildings in which there is truth, beauty and reason, the mistress art, the goddess of things lovely and great, will in sorrow and disdain depart from her dwelling amid the mortals of earth.
Note: What is good architecture? "If a building answers the purpose for which it is built, if its masses are grouped in an interesting and pleasing manner, if all its parts are well-proportioned - are 'in scale,' as an architect would say - not only with regard to themselves, but with regard to the surroundings of the building, and if the motives are selected with good taste, then the complete structure will be a true expression of architecture." (DeWitt Clinton Pond, "For a Better Appreciation of the Art of Architecture," Scribner's, February, 1923.)