How architects exorcise their demons

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One of our favourite bars is Helvetica, in a laneway off Howard Street. If you’re a whisky fan there is no better place to be. Before heading in for a dram (or two) pause on Howard Street to look at a very fine piece of Gothic architecture, the Haynes, Robinson & Cox Building, which opened in 1907.

The history of Gothic Revival architecture is complex, but it basically boils down to a rejection of industrialisation and a longing for a time when objects were not mass produced. Its leading supporters saw Medieval cathedrals as the greatest buildings ever, whose every stone told a story of an individual skilled artisan taking pride in their work. And now for a brief digression on pubic hair. Seriously.

A significant figure in promoting Gothicism was the English art critic John Ruskin, and the story goes that he was unable to consummate his marriage to Effie Gray because his entire knowledge of the female body came from Greek statues, which don’t have much going on down below. As a result, on their wedding night the sight of her lady parts revolted him, or as Effie put it: “He had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was”. Eventually she left Ruskin for his protege, John Millais, with whom she had eight children. So somebody appreciated her body, anyway.

Anyway, back to the Howard Street building. Designed by Charles Oldham to be used as offices for lawyers, it is a no-expense-spared construction (we wanted to say erection, but see above) with fine Gothic detailing on both the exterior and interior.

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Yet the Haynes, Robinson & Cox Building was not erected by teams of traditional masons struggling for decades to produce fine stonework, but is thoroughly modern in design and construction. So what is going on here? The answer almost certainly lies in how big an architect’s ego is. Every architect wants at least one building which is impressive enough to guarantee their name will go down in history. But they have the problem that the components of architecture are derived from tradition, and even more so when it comes to the Gothic.

If Medieval cathedrals were the greatest buildings ever, what else is the unfortunate modern architect going to do except copy certain elements and always look derivative? Poets and novelists often face this same heart-breaking dilemma as well. Fortunately, the answer came with the arrival of steel and concrete.

George Temple Poole bemoaned the fate of the poor architect in 1909 when he pointed out that every building since 1400, when techniques of construction were perfected, was just a pale imitation of the original. All the modern designer could do was “play with our buildings”. But Poole was not going to let history beat him, and he announced that steel and concrete, things unknown to Medieval architects, allowed him a way to surpass his predecessors. Buildings could now be designed to any form or shape, and style can be introduced to any scale and (as the people paying for it will love) much cheaper than in the past.

In effect, Poole is putting a middle finger up to all the architects of history and saying that he can design and erect anything he likes, whereas they were constrained by the physics of the stone they were working with. You want Gothic? You got it. Italian Renaissance? No problems.

This did lead to complications for the architect, such as handing a lot of power over to engineering firms for the structural parts of a building, which would come back to haunt them a decade or so later. But for the meantime, architects could rejoice in the fact they had beaten the system, triumphed over history, and could now produce innovative works for which they would become famous. And our Howard Street building tells us exactly that story.

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