California AHGP - New California - Chapter XXII



It is usually in old countries that we look for striking developments in architecture, or, rather, for examples of the greatness of architecture, as exemplified in modern replicas of ancient masterpieces.

California's principal cities, however, are showing good examples of modern architecture, expecially in the field devoted to commercial structures. San Francisco has set the example for smaller cities, but it is within the last twenty years only that large buildings of modern design have supplanted the old structures of mining days. It fact, for many years it was erroneously believed that larger structures woul be unsafe owing to occasional earthquakes. As there has never been a destructive earthquake in the state since the temblor of 1868, which hurt all parts of the United States, that objection has lost its validity.

Architects assure the commercial public that the great steel frame buildings of to-day will withstand earthquakes even better than the smaller structures, so sky-scrapers are now quite common in San Francisco and are destined to take the place of inferior buildings in other cities.

Some of the great architects object to the cheapness of many buildings now under way. though the old-fashioned low residence has given way to modern apartment houses, the latter are often cramped for room and the structural part is built for profit only; but the same statement is true of other cities where commercialism predominates. The calculations of interest, wear and tear and general utility modify and curtail designs and cheapen the work.

The one distinctive type of California architecture is to be seen in the missions of the olden days. Many of them still stand as glorious ruins of a former thriving era, and the mission type has afforded an example for many beautiful buildings of to-day. A study of the missions is fraught with deep interest to the historian as well as to the student of architectural designs.

Mr. Alex F. Oakey, one of San Francisco's best known architects, contributes the following to the History:

In architecture the chain of cause and effect is unbroken as in everything else. The prime causes are: Natural resources, climatic conditions, and social conditions.

The natural resources of California in every kind of building material are perhaps more varied and more unlimited than anywhere else in the world. There are inexhaustible deposits of the highest grade of glass sand, of clays and koalins for the manufacture of the coarsest terra-cotta, or the finest procelain--vast quantities of stone for the making of cements, marble, granites, limestones and sandstones; all the metals, and greater variety of woods than can be found in any equal area in the world--given greater facilities in transortation, which will be provided when a denser population requires them, and the first requisite of extensive and permanent building operations is satisfied.

The climatic conditions are also peculiarly favorable to the development of all the arts.

by social conditions, of course we mean the consitution of the whole social fabric; the increasing competitive struggle; "when each, isolated, regardless of his neighborn, turned against his neighbor, clutches what he can get, and cries mine! and calls it peace because in the general cut-throat, cut-purse scramble, no steel knives but only a far cunninger sort can be employed." such conditions inevitably produce ephemeral social relations, and make flats, apartment houses and hotels essential. People who can afford to build houses do so less to live in than entertain in. These facts are not peculiar to California; the tendency is the same everywhere; and the question is not whether these conditions are good or bad, but whether they have had a radical effect upon architecture for better or worse. One result is undoubtedly bad that by the commercial necessity of economizing space, the relative number of openings is increased to the destruction of an expression of repose. Certainly repose is the most important expression of architecture; it is synonymous with dignity, with peace, and with permanence. Hence the modern sky-scraper can only be imposing in size. the confession of rent-grabbing is frankly made by its innumerable windows, with no restful expance of wall, or deep embrazures to give the assurance of solidity. Tacking on details of the glory of Rome when available spots can be found, will not restore the monumental chracter sordidly sacrificed.

Naturally California adopts such developments in architecture as appear in older and more populous communities; and we all know too little of metal to say whether the steel frame is more than a passing commercial experiment--some conservatives believe that these ingenious devices must ultimaely fail from several causes: vibration, corrosion, electrolysis, etc. If this belief should prove warranted by the collapse of some of this type of building, a general revival of what is meant by architectural design would certainly follow. It may be on the other hand that the steel frame and the elevator are to be the means of developing new and beautiful things. But as their avowed purpose is to make money regardless of esthetic considerations the prospect is not encouraging.

Society is incapable of building a great architectural monument, such as a cathedral at present. It prefers to spend its energies and resources in something that pays better. Some sacrifices are made, some tribute paid in the form of fine art, to the name of religion or science; but the personal element is so ostentatious as to make the results mere advertisements, however beautiful the design or perfect the workmanship. The unconscious honesty of purose that has given the old missions of California their expression of repose, of being indigenous, cannot be assumed. Be it in pating, music, poetry, architecture or philosophy, the author cannot do more than disguise his real motive. The real character of the motive will inevitably determine the importance of whatever he attempts. It is not surprising that there should be no distinct tendency in architecture during the supremacy of such conditions. During the last fifty years we have seen a Gothic revival, a Queen Anne craze, a Romanesque period; and now because it is the fashion to study architecture in Paris, we must submit for the time being to the constant assertion of modern French Renaussance, whether we want a theatre, a home or a church.

If it were not for the civilization of Greece and Rome our jurisprudence could not be what it is--nor could we have such libraries as we enjoy, but for the monasteries of the middle ages; and yet we find a court house more like a monastery than anything else, and a library trying to look like a Florentine palace. We are only pleading for a little discrimination--no amount of money can buy good things without. We have heard it said that we have nothing to do with musty tradition and should stand on our own feet, working out our own salvation in art as in everything--so be it! but then we should logically throw away our photographs, our picture books and our histories and forget them, evolving our own forms from our necessities, and indeed under different social conditions we might, like the old Padres, do something individual.

As to what has actually been accomplished in architecture in California since it became one of the United States, we must admit that considering the opportunities, what has been done is quite as good, and quite as bad as could be expected. We see an increasing number of expensive buildings for all conceivable purposes, and of excellent workmanship, in which all sorts of scientific contrivances are liberally provided for comfort and convenience; but when we consider the design of such structures as a whole or in detail, there is seldom any true reason for their existence--association of ideas seems entirely lacking.

It would seem that as Moliere is the father of the modern theatre, it should to some extent be a reminder of the Louis XIV. period. But we are as likely to find the theatre a weak reminder of the Alhambra in Grenada in all its details, while next door one of the pavilions of the palace of Versailles stands of sheets of plate glass to sell dry goods in. From all these passing whims and fashions future generations will thrash out something that shall have a character of its own, as expressive of the life and character of modern civilization as any style of architecture ever was of the civilizations we have superceded. Such a style must be born of other social conditions than we have yet established.

California is only beginning to perceive that her geographical position, her natural resources and her climate may make the center of such a civilization by the time she is an hundred years older, and what is more to our immediate purpose in this direction, the commercial classes are beginning to appreciate that the best fine art has a tangible commercial value.

Mr. Lowell once said that after all there are some things the heavy roller of Democracy cannot quite flatten down, and we may congratulate ourselves on the fact that the greatest achievements in fine art have hitherto been coeval with the greatest commercial prosperity.

We need hardly take the arguments against luxurious living seriously because the world will not listen to them, and if it did life could easily be reduced to a pot of dried peas and a blanket. The greatest force in the world is an idea, and the greatest art is to adequately express it. We may remind those who like practical results, and are still skeptical of the importance of fine art to any but the leisure classes, that on more than one well authenticated occasion Ruger de Lille beat the Austrians with his Marseillaise hymn.

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