Wednesday, January 28, 2015

War, Perspective & Reality - 1900 to 1940




A couple months ago I traced the development of perspective to the end of the 19th century (Perspective - A History of Perspective Layout). I ended the survey at the beginning of the last century because linear perspective had reached its apex. I will now look at the years when perspective was the established art technique, but the drive toward realism, with linear perspective as the prime tool, was being questioned.

I will not dwell on the reasons for this turning away from reality; they are well known. The First World War destroyed the illusion of European superiority among young Europeans. The Great Depression and World War Two destroyed Europe’s military power, and led to economic stagnation. The heart of western civilization was still alive, but had ceased to believe in itself. Culturally, Europe believed in everything, but could not synthesize the confusion; and therefore it increasingly believed in nothing. There was peace under the aegis of the United States, but it was a new world sown with cultural doubt. Tradition was worth nothing, but anything new was feted. “Subversive,” “revolutionary,” and “transgressive” replaced “beautiful” and “skilled” as words of praise. This was not a new phenomena in human history, but the speed and scale of the change was that of another world war; and, it has not resolved itself yet.

Let’s look at the turn of the century in architectural illustration…



Looking back we see that perspective layout had become “normal” by the early 19th century. Perspective (both one and two point) was well known in all the graphic arts. Not only highly trained architects and artists, but technicians knew how to produce excellent work. In addition, the public expected and demanded illustration that closely modeled reality. Cram Wentworth & Goodhue’s 1893 proposal for the N.Y.C. City Hall (above) was presented using a simple line perspective. I don’t know if Goodhue himself drew it, but it has the feel of his later work. The Goodhue post is here.

 In addition to the use of perspective, artists and architects used a range of visualizing tools to make their two dimensional painting or drawing look like three dimensional reality. Shade and shadow, reflections, texture, and many other “tricks” were normally learned by the turn of the century. The Beaux-Arts handling of perspective came to California in a big way with the competition for the University of California master plan in 1896. This rendering of the proposed Stadium by Emile Benard shows the softening effect of ink wash over the precise layout. 


By this time in history the use of perspective to imitate reality had arrived at its widest dissemination. It was the structural underpinning of many different rendering styles, illustrating all the new designs that began to be proposed. The modern design movement was built on the rational visualization process developed during the Renaissance.  Above is Cite Industrielle by Tony Garnier, from 1904.

Frank Lloyd Wright developed innovative designs throughout his long career. The perspective renderings of those designs were also innovative in their use of unusual viewpoints. The Hardy House (1905) takes a view from the lake far below the house itself. The lake occupies the lower half of the paper, and the house is tucked just below the top edge.

Eliel Saarinen was another architect/artist who worked from exacting perspective layout to create evocative atmospheric illustrations. The proposal for the Parliament House of Finland, completed 1908, is a good example of his approach. The design is simplifying the classical style in a careful way, while taking the art of architectural rendering into the realm of drama.

At the same time as Saarinen was working his magic. Peter Behrens was pressing architecture toward the machine. The AEG factory above is an example of “industrial classicism”, a precursor to the Bauhaus and the modern era of design. The rendering of the project however, was in no way experimental or ground breaking, but is a nice clean, if pedestrian perspective.
The end of World War One came in 1918. It is as good a date as any to mark the beginning of the modern era. The seemingly mindless killing on an industrial scale brought the whole humanistic enterprise into question. Although the old ways continued, new styles, ideas and attitudes began to gain a following. 

Accurate perspective layouts were still the basis for all sorts of illustrations and designs.  This drawing of a Victorian club room by Erwin Pauli is from1918.

Some perspective drawings matched the simplified “architectonic” style coming into fashion at the end of the world war. This rendering of the Amsterdam Royal Academy by Bijvoet & Duiker, from 1918, is a good example of the curious tension between the 2 dimensional graphic and the 3 dimensional perspective.
You might note from this survey that abstraction in architectural illustration was found more often in the work of architects from continental Europe. Britain and America continued to prefer 3 dimensional realism.

Drama and sentiment were also increasingly valued in illustrating traditional designs. This dramatic view of Madison Square Garden by Hugh Ferriss is also from 1918. Ferriss did not use a separate layout when doing his charcoal renderings, but instead roughed out the perspective as he went along. You’ll find the Hugh Ferriss post here.

This rendering of a villa from 1919 is much like the Amsterdam Royal Academy in its strict perspective and flat coloring. The architecture features large blank walls with interspersed geometric ornament, a style surprisingly congenial to the rendering.

The residential sketches above by Arthur L. Guptill show that accurate perspective was still a design tool. These sketches from 1920, show that good perspectives were trickling down to the middle class domestic life in the U.S.

At the same time, perspective was being used to describe very avant gard living spaces. Above is a rough pencil sketch for a residence by W.A. Hablik. It is no coincidence that the traditional was still largely accepted in America, while it was being replaced in Mitteleuropa.  The U.S. had been hardly touched by the war, but Europe had been devastated. 

This imaginary power plant by Antonio Sant’Elia (1920) exemplifies the love affair that avant garde architecture had with the machine. The drawing, on the other hand, is a perspective sketch embued with a human emotion. Le Corbusier took Sant’Elia’s prophetic revolutionary ideas, and froze them in aphorisms and concrete.

Early modernism flirted with the reinterpretation of classical forms. Auguste & Gustave Perret were at the forefront of this movement. Their radical 1922 proposal for neoclassical towers near Paris is now forgotten. The rendering is pure Beaux-Arts, in the style of Jules Guerin.

For some architects, ornamentation, especially that derived from the old and therefore discredited ancient world, was verboten. Riviera Villas by Adolf Loos is an example of a very “stripped-down” design presented with the old established technique. It is an interesting example in that the design is relentlessly rectilinear, and therefore the drawing itself is little more than the basic layout of an earlier rendering. Loos would lose influence, but come back into vogue in the 1980’s.  

Wright’s Mayan period is represented in a correct, if crude way in this rendering of a fraternity house from 1924. His long career involved many shifts in style; the prairie school being the one he began with in Chicago working for Louis Sullivan. In every shift of style however, perspective was always his preferred presentation technique.

The Soviet Union was a curious place to practice architecture. Much of the new construction was banal and soul-less, but the approved “heroic” style could be interesting. Above is a project called Suspended Office Block, by El Lissitzky & M. Stam, “suprematists” from the Soviet Union. The Wolkenb├╝gel design is radical, grandiose and utopian, but the perspective is plain vanilla.

Large scale urban projects also used the old Renaissance tools. Above is the French Hospital, in N.Y.C., by Crow, Lewis & Wick (1925). While the Soviets at this time seemed to bounce from extreme to extreme, the Americans looked for middle class respectability in their architecture.

Public works were equally tied to the old lens of perspective. Here is Hell Gate Bridge, in N.Y.C. by Henry Hornbostel (1925). This rendering happens to be a long time favorite of mine. Interestingly, it is the inspiration for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which was rendered by CyrilFarey

“Paper architecture” was as prevalent in the 1920’s as it is now. Alvo Auat was a designer/illustrator who specialized in fantasy architecture at this time. He is largely forgotten now, but I have a copy of his book Architectural Visions. His work is like Piranesi’s sketches; fantastic, romantic and yet believable because of his use of perspective. 

Although most offices had a draftsman who specialized in drawing perspectives, the profession of perspectivist/renderer came into being at this time. This Residence Prototype by Johnson Kaufman & Coate, was illustrated by Chester Price in 1925. The design is traditionally domestic, and the perspective is a warm reflection of homeliness. 

The avant-garde of European architecture created new designs and images within the old perspective system. This small hotel in Brussels by Charles Colassin seems dull and pretentious architecturally. It also presents a fresh interpretation of a standard perspective view. Colassin, along with many other “cutting edge” designers, used gouache (or opaque watercolor) to illustrate their designs. Professional renderers in the 50s and 60s brought gouache painting to a new high of style and flexibility, but also made it synonymous with mass produced modernity, and in time mediocrity.

As time went on there seems to have been an increasing divide between realistic illustration in architecture, and abstract illustration. Both sides used linear perspective, but one emphasized the realism, while the other undermined the realism. This interior view of an “Apartment Hotel” for the 1930 Werkbund Exhibition by Herbert Bayer & Walter Gropius is an example of the latter ‘abstracted’ perspective.

This watercolor of the Holzworth House by George Fred Keck (1930), shows a modern design rendered in a fairly realistic perspective. It is appropriate that it emphasizes strong sunlight, since Keck was an early proponent of passive solar design. Incidentally, Keck mentored Ralph Rapson, one of my professors at school.

Hall des Torpilleurs by Auguste Perret (1932) is a practical assemblage of glass and concrete. The rendering of the building is firmly in the realist camp, but is a curious mix of static and dynamic.  The symmetrical corner view gives it a solid, even boring look, but the highly developed sunlit side and blank right elevation are a fascinating contrast.

End of examples…
I’m going to end this post here, since the Great Depression and World War II created a huge break with the past. The trouble in Europe spewed the new ideas over the Atlantic Ocean, where they took root in the newly powerful universities in the United States. The bubbling brew of modern vs traditional, and realistic vs abstract would end up traveling on American coat tails, and has now infected the whole world.
What does this mean for the future of art, architecture and architectural illustration? Well, it has been 70 years since the end of World War II, so there are more posts in which to answer that question; besides which, the human race moves forward by reinventing our culture, tools and traditions. It is not a straight line of progress, but rather a forward, backward, sidestep, turnaround dance. Sometimes the most important developments are put in the closet, only to be brought out by some later generation


Other posts on Perspective:
Perspective - Two Point Perspective - Distortions & Complications
Perspective - Three Point Perspective- Hand & CAD

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