Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Perspective in the 50s & 60s

Having just written a post about tempera rendering in the '50s and '60s, I thought I should note the other styles that were alternatives to the dominance of tempera.

As I noted before, modern architecture emphasized the cold orderliness of the machine, expressed in steel, glass and concrete. At the same time, people became accustomed to full, vibrant colors in magazines, books and advertisements, and this led to the dominance of tempera in architectural renderings. Other forces were also pressing society toward uniformity, but there were equally strong winds blowing toward diversity.

The most obvious “wind” was the expectation of a new viewpoint in the fine arts. As noted in my post covering 1900 to 1940, there was an ongoing dialogue between the modern and the traditional, as well as between the realistic and the abstract. This conflict has continued throughout my entire life. I started out naturally ignorant of it all, was enamored of it in college and came to an accommodation with it in my middle age. It is now a phenomenon to be mulled over while sipping sherry by the fire.


The interwar years were a scattered time in architecture and architectural illustration. World War II forced a pause in the creative arts, but after the war, art exploded, and the mix of styles became even wilder.  Some of the architects and artists active before the war came back (Wright as celebrity and Hugh Ferriss as apologist). Some of the architects forced out of Europe by the Nazis landed in the United States and created a “Europeanized” modern movement (Gropius at Harvard and Mies at Chicago). Several movements that had been fermenting began to take center stage (skyscraper style and expressionism). Everybody (who was anybody) was tied together by electronic media, so that a new building in Chicago was soon reproduced in Houston. There was plenty of creativity and talent, but it was a wild whirlpool of confusion. 

Some architects were seduced by the rational while pursuing the beautiful.… For example…

Before the war Le Corbusier saw the human race as undifferentiated objects to be fit into a massive box. His focus on science, analysis and the machine as savior was mixed with a love of classical proportion. His Unite d'Habitation was occasionally beautiful, but never humane. This sketch, on the other hand, is thoroughly human and personal; indeed, it is almost primitive.

After the war his designs were more sculptural, human and natural. Above is a sketch of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp (1951). In both examples Corbu exhibited a disdain for photographic reality, opting for a self-involved path of the genius artist, leading to celebrity. It was a very shallow and very modern career move but a growing and lucrative trend.

Some architects of that time could draw… 

Bruce Goff was a uniquely creative spirit based in Oklahoma. He drew perspectives of most of his projects, even though his designs were often non-rectilinear and organic in form. Above is an interior view of his Crystal Chapel, an unrealized proposal for the University of Oklahoma.

Eero Saarinen leaves me cold, perhaps because I compare him with his dramatic father, Eliel. However, Eero could design in a uniquely modern way; just look at his TWA terminal or his Dulles International terminal. He never created full-scale renderings, like his father, but instead tended to draw small sketches. This notepad-sized sketch of the David Ingalls Rink at Yale is rightly called a classic.

Paul Rudolph, a consummate draftsman, studied under Walter Gropius at Harvard (ironic because Gropius was famously uninterested in drawing). He picked up the modern Bauhaus sense of design but developed an almost Beaux-Arts sense of drawing. His hard-line ink renderings are elegant, detailed and highly informative, an aspect that was rather unusual for the time. His section perspective of the Art & Architecture Building at Yale is a wonderful example of his seductive genius. 

Some people have the talent, the drive and the breaks that move them to draw: Louis Kahn is one of these. While still a child, Kahn helped earn money for his family by selling his drawings. His architectural training, at the University of Pennsylvania, was strictly Beaux-Arts, emphasizing drawing and watercolor rendering. Kahn studied under and worked for Paul Cret, a Philadelphia architect and artist of some fame in the '30s. The drawing above, of the Mikveh Israel Synagogue project in Philadelphia, was done when he had achieved fame in his late-blooming career.

Other architects could design but couldn’t draw. Professional renderers filled that void, producing seductive images.
Hugh Ferriss had been the toast of architectural illustration in the '20s, and was still working in the '50s. Lever House (1952) by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill offered an opportunity for Ferriss to reprise his iconic black-and-white drama. Unfortunately, glass-and-steel towers were less amenable to his rough charcoal approach than the masonry buildings of 1925 had been.

Watercolor rendering (or its cousin ink-wash rendering) was the preferred technique at the Ecole des Beaux Arts through the 18th and 19th centuries. In addition, Cyril Farey was only one of many professional watercolor illustrators active before and after WWII, but in spite of that watercolor lost in popularity to tempera at this time. This student painting of the United States Embassy in India is quite simplistic but displays the charm of the technique.

This dusk rendering of St. Augustine’s Church in Union City, New Jersey, by Alan Davoll suggests the subtlety and range that watercolor could attain. Thirty years later watercolor would supplant tempera as the most popular media.

In some circles the very idea of clearly reproducing reality seemed to be optional. Instead personal expression and graphic impact were the priorities.

At the “cutting edge” of design, perspective became less realistic and more artsy. Paul Hogarth was a popular illustrator at this time who specialized in drawing the built environment. His work is idiosyncratic and charming, but only loosely realistic. Above is a 1967 drawing of an Art Nouveau Apartment House in Moscow.
You can obviously avoid photographic reality while using hard-edged perspective. Such was the strategy of the neofuturistic architects of the '60s (a style that I copied at one time in architecture school). A good example is Bournemouth Gallery by Ron Herron of Archigram, a British avant-garde design studio.

…and just as a contrast…

The reality to me growing up was that I didn’t see any of this bubbling. There was a tension between the two approaches, with the common man seeing only the practical realistic drawings/paintings while the cognoscenti luxuriated in theoretical abstraction. 

… I was too young in those years, and I was far from the center of trendy culture. I did see magazines with commercial ads for houses, however. Compared with the best illustrations of the time they seem simple and na├»ve, but they were amazing to a ten-year-old.
Levittown house plan and rendering, 1958 (above), and a house ad from 1960 (below).

By the end of high school I knew that I wanted to study architecture. I’d taught myself perspective, and I had read several books on architectural history, but my view of the profession was parochial. When I finally ran into the most recent architectural drawings in Progressive Architecture magazine, the wide range of drawing styles and attitudes was both confusing and fascinating to me.  

Final thoughts…

Now… look back over the drawings and paintings in this post. 

Do you see any pattern?

The only thing I see is variety; a diversity of style, media and effect. This is not bad; in fact, any vibrant cultural period will have a lot of ideas gestating. But in a healthy society this all leads eventually to a new consensus and a new synthesis. The problem is… we seem to be stuck on a merry-go-round, reaching for the new ring over and over and over again. 

All the examples here are perspectives, but the fact is that there were more isometrics, axonometrics and other orthographic drawings (such as this final drawing, above, by M. Gierst, 1951). There was less focus on being clear and more focus on being interesting, startling and transgressive. All these graphic approaches should have led to a single dominant style and media, if historic patterns were followed, but they didn't. Why?

I think there are two reasons for this… first, technology came to the rescue, allowing Gehry, Koolhaas and Hadid to solidify and construct their dreams just as solidly as Pei, Pelli and Johnson realized their more rational ideas. Second, we continue to live in an age of celebrity and image, which means that we (or the media elite) will forgive much silliness as long as it is entertaining. "The engineers will keep it up; come on, let's party!"

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Age of Tempera

Note: I found surprisingly little published material on this subject. Therefore, please take this post as a preliminary outline about, and a personal reaction to tempera architectural rendering.  Yes, the title is somewhat ironic. 

The decades after World War Two produced many design trends, but the central stream of architectural design in the United States was what I’d call “Mass Modern”. The outlines of design in the 30s (clean lines & minimal ornament) were mixed with the large scale mass production of the war effort, and the modern materials which were also developed in the war. Style setters advocated a simpler (and cheaper) way of building, using modern methods and fewer hands. There was an emphasis on machine made things, and a rejection of handmade ornamentation. Natural materials were still used, but they were always mixed with glass, steel and concrete, and always modeled in a simple geometric way. The emphasis was on efficiency, logic and simplicity. 

The Seagram Building is an icon of the period. With its undifferentiated slab shape and its use of structural shapes for ornament, it was the antithesis of design in the 30s.

Elliot Glushak, the creator of the image above, was one of a number of architectural illustrators who worked in tempera (a quick drying, water soluble, opaque paint). Tempera was a very popular medium at this time, due to the quick execution and bright colors. It lost much of its popularity by the end of the 60s.

Tempera happens to be the paint I gave my kids for art projects because of the easy clean-up (I still have a large box full sitting in the basement). Contrarily, I used tempera for only a short period at the beginning of my rendering career, moving quickly to acrylics. I never followed the style of tempera renderers from the 50s, seeing them as old hat. Indeed, I’ve heard renderings from that period described as “hack work”, and lacking sophistication. But tempera can produce amazing results, and there are still renderers who use the technique.

Following is a sampling of art from the heyday of tempera rendering (mostly found in a book from 1960 called Architectural Rendering, by Albert O. Halse). There is a dearth of sources on this media and period of architectural rendering, and so my comments will be quite limited. No doubt someone with access to art and artists from that time, will do a better job eventually.

This rendering of a church by Robert Schwartz is a good example of a vignette composition; a trick regularly used by tempera renderers. This image doesn’t show it well, but the effect of the solid colors on the neutral illustration board creates a nice tension between the abstract paint on board, and the illusion of reality.

Both Schwartz and his partner Emil Kempa were award winning architects, as well as tempera artists. Kempa’s rendering of the Iberia and Icelandic Airlines Passenger Facility is shown above.

This student project by Harry B. Mahler has an awkward composition and color palette, but it does show the impact of tempera.

Now days an automobile showroom is out of place on Park Avenue in New York City, but in the 50s it seemed perfectly natural. This proposal by Carson & Lundin Architects and Kahn & Jacobs Architects makes me think of the glass cube Apple Store on Fifth Avenue.  Pierre Lutz, the project’s renderer, displays a fine flare that is often lacking in architectural rendering.

The returning GIs needed millions of homes to raise their families in; so was invented the mass produced suburban developments. Model homes were built to entice buyers, and colorful, quick renderings were needed to illustrate the various options. The paintings above by Peter Rahill were done for Leisure Time Developers of Rock Hill, New York.

Tempera was also used for custom designs such as for this modular house.

But, in the end tempera renderings were most often used for large scale developments, corporate headquarters and skyscrapers. This rendering of the United Fuel & Gas Company Headquarters by George Cooper Rudolph is a good example of the typical corporate headquarters rendering. 

A list of active tempera renderers from the 50s and 60s would include, Vincent Furno, Elliot Glushak, Kenneth A. Licht, Pierre Lutz, Marcel Mutin, Robert C. Nelsen, Peter Rahill, George Cooper Rudolph, and Charles J. Spiess, Jr. (this list does not include young artists who continued to work through the 80s and 90s).

So, why has this period been ignored? My own opinion on the fading memory of tempera architectural rendering in the 50s is that it was too closely connected with the modern style of architecture in the 50s. Being THE style during an era of a dominant style brings rejection from the next generation. The 60s brought new music, new art, new lifestyles; and specifically rejected the entire world of the 50s. While tempera continued to be used through the 60s, 70s and 80s, it was largely relegated to the “provinces”. The Avant Garde projects which expected to be discussed, awarded and published, used the new techniques.The shopping center in Dubuque used the old tried and true tempera, while the latest Manhattan skyscraper did not.

All right. But why is tempera as a medium fading away, long after 1960? Tempera is remarkable in terms of speed and impact when practiced by a master, why not revive it? The answer here I think, is that the feel of tempera has been taken up in computer rendering. Computer rendering is nothing if not fast and powerful.
There are still masters of tempera working out there, but they are getting old. Not only that, but aspiring architectural illustrators are opting for watercolor or the computer. The skill is not being passed on.
This is tragic. When done well a tempera rendering is truly breathtaking. While most of the examples above are rather pedestrian, the best artists produced, well, Art! And I should not get too depressed: the best of the color sense and composition found in that era’s art is still being emulated by young artists and illustrators. 

The best of the old is remembered. Which is as it should be.