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!"

1 comment:

  1. A request for an article on gifted architectural illustrator Richard Welling (1926-2009) whose drawings and sketches chronicled NYC and New England cityscapes in the 1960's through 1980's. Fits well into the category of this entry. See web sites: