The Larkin Building in Buffalo
Reprinted from the April 1908 edition of Architectural Record.
Editor's Note: This story is from the April 1908 issue of Architectural Record. See the original pages here, and read our Record Looks Back essay, “Soap Opera: The Larkin Building," from the August 2016 issue here.
This business building, the architectural creation of Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright of Chicago, is reproduced in many excellent photographs, some of which will be shown in this article and others in the March number of the Architectural Record. From among them I select Fig. 1 as the most capable of giving a general idea of the design. The plan given in Fig. 8 shows the purpose of each member of the building, and the scale can be estimated as to the heights, on the basis afforded by the steps of the entrance doorways, checked by the height of the doorway (seen in Fig. 1) themselves, and by comparison with the plan. It is not safe to utilize the courses of brick in this way, because their height is uncertain; the bricks may be of unusual dimension or laid with unusually wide joints. The nearest tower-like mass in Fig. 1—that against which the telegraph pole is seen relieved—is about 90 feet high. The broader mass behind it would be, then, about 110 feet high, and this appears to be the highest level of the walls. A perspective draughtsman can easily determine the relative proportions, as width compared to height, etc., -but this front may be taken, in the absence of any figure mentions on the plan, roughly as 90 to 95 feet in width, not, of course, including the north wing seen in Fig. 2.
That front shown in Fig 1 is called in this paper the east front. The longer side, showing in the same picture seven windowed bays divided by square buttress-piers, is called here the south flank.
It is possible to gain some knowledge of the character of the building by means of photos of the interior. Twenty excellent interior views are found in the collection above mentioned, and Fig. 3 shows how the building has a nave and aisles-the nave shown in the illustrations having windows at the ends, and a skylight overhead; each aisle is divided up into four lofts or stories of 16 to 17 feet each, in the clear. The broad end windows, seen in Fig. 3 at the end of the great hall, are the same windows that show in Figs. I and 2 between the buttresses, and they correspond with the arrangement of the south front, as in Fig. 1—note the four stories of broad windows flanked by narrower ones, which are seen within and without alike. One relation between exterior and interior is seen in square brick piers which divide what we here call the nave from the galleries at each side—a long double row of them are on the same axes as the buttress-like piers crowned by globes and human sculpture, in Figs. 1 and 2.
In Fig. 3 there are partly seen the large galleries, at the left and at the right hand of the central skylighted nave. These halls are of 011I,y moderate height—one story of windows to each, as seen in Fig. 4, which gives the interior of the fourth story, south side. Each one, as well as the floor of the high nave, is filled rather closely with desk-tables, at which are seen seated clerks fully occupied in their employ. In this view, we are looking eastward, the window on the left and in face of us are those seen from outdoors in Fig. 1, and the central nave is north of us, on our right.
The western end of the building is very closely like the east front; but the northern side as shown in Fig. 2 is masked by projecting masses of building which include a great vestibule with entrance doorways to east and west. In the detail view, Fig. 5, the doorway at the head of-the steps where a young man is standing is one of those two entrances; it has the firm name on the large fan-light, and is probably the working entrance. The plan shows a similar doorway at the west of this one, and opposite to it. The houses of the town and a church crowd the site rather closely on the northern side.
The square towers at either end and flanking the entrance in Fig. 5 are about 18 feet in horizontal dimension. That one seen in Fig 5 has the overplus of water very skilfully treated as a cascade with a sculptural setting. The two outer towers, seen in Fig. 1, have small doorways, with steps of approach. These are ventilator and stairway towers, and that with the fountain contains also a staircase.
In tracing the analysis of this building through this pile of photographs and m setting down, as above, its scheme, we have also partly prepared ourselves to judge of it as a work of architecture. The lover of architecture who looks, perhaps for the first time at a building so entirely removed as this one from the traditional styles and schools feel a shock of surprise, and this surprise which is the reverse of pleasant. Few persons who have seen the great monuments of the past, or adequate photographs of them; who have loved them and tried to surprise their secret of artistic charm, will fail to pronounce this monument, as seen in Fig 1, an extremely ugly building. It is, in fact, a monster of awkwardness, if we look at its lines and masses alone. It is only capable of interesting that student who is quite aware that the architects of the modern world during fifty years of struggle have failed to make anything of the old system—the system of following the ancient styles with the avowed purpose of developing some one of them and going on to other things.
For such a task, the as yet unperformed duty of making comely a hard working and economical building, the designer might feel that Roman colonnading was out of the question, as extravagant in cost and waste of space, and the frankly arcuated styles of the Middle Ages unavailable for similar or equally cogent reasons. He might find his only available suggestion from old times in the seventeenth century Italian, and the eighteenth century French palaces—in styles which depended upon fenestration. And then he might well say that he was tired of seeing imitations of those monuments; that the popular and successful architects of the time have filled our cities 'with such an array of feeble school studies, based upon plans good in themselves but powerless to suggest an architectural treatment of the whole, that he will have none of that pseudo style.
Admitting, then, that the chase of the Neo-Classic, of the Gothic, of the French Romanesque, has come to nothing, that we are as far as we were in 1850 from a living style of architecture, and even from anything which is worthy to be called architecture at all, when a large mass of the work of a period is taken together, we shall find that the building we are considering puts on a new aspect.
Do we find in this building none of those familiar motives-those accepted details which are architecture for us? It is because the designer of this building was determined to furnish nothing which his practical requirements did not call for. Is there no visible roof? It is because a flat roof is just as easy to make tight and durable, with modern appliances of building, and because a swarm of skylights and other utilitarian openings are better and more easily accommodated in and upon a flat roof. As there are no chimneys, giving an opportunity for au agreeable breaking of the masonry into the sky and the sky into the masonry? It is because there are no separate fires, each fire requiring its own flue, and that flue carried well above all obstructions. There is probably one fire, and one only, in the building; moreover, that one fire is driven by a forced draught and requires no tall chimney shaft to make it burn. Is there no system of fenestration—the windows, and therewith the doors, showing in pretty groups or in long-drawing sequence carefully balancing one another? That is because the building consists of five equal stories, used for similar purposes; divided generally into long, unbroken halls—lofts, in short; and because it seems a feeble thing to do to break up the arrangement of windows merely for the sake of pretty proportions. Are the grouped rooms and closets of utility arranged, even at the expense of the building, by thrusting forward their crude masses to mask and distort, what might have been the effect of the main structure, all as seen in Fig. 2? That is because this is to be an economical, working building, the offices of a great business house, and because it was thought well to be resolute in the chosen way and not to pretend to build a monument of architecture when a working structure was desired.
It is, indeed, quite certain t hat in New York the newly erected business building at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, shown in Fig. 7, is more nearly like what a business building ought to be than the elaborated and delicately detailed skyscrapers around. It is certain that nothing is gained to architecture by trying to make a business building architectural in the good old sense. The fine arts have nothing to do with the hustle and bustle of daily bread-winning operations. Those are hostile influences, as Ruskin pointed out much more than half a century ago; or it might be urged with still greater force that fine art and active mercantile pursuits are mutually exclusive. If you are to enjoy a work of art you must have leisure and a quiet mind; if you are to produce a work of art you must have peace and a single mind. In neither case will it do to have hanging over you the peremptory calls of the money-making organization—not one paymaster, who might perhaps forget his utilitarian requirements in the light of design and the joy of creation; but the commercial enterprise which can have no enthusiasm and no care for finer things than commerce.
We are left, then, with our sympathies enlisted in Mr. Wright's behalf, to consider what else might have been done had the architect felt that he could not bear to turn out a building so ungainly, so awkward in grouping, so clumsy in its parts and in its main mass. Rejecting all that older styles have to offer us in the way of construction and in the way of detail, we may still ask, How did the designers work when men knew how to design? What, apart at least from the unconscious following of the style accepted during this period was their main object? They sought for light and shade. The interesting treatment of light and shade, the production of graceful and simple combinations of light and shade was their chief aim. A thought in architecture is generally a thought in light and shade.
When the great buildings of the world were designed everything else which was capable of design received it; and all design in pure form, as in sculpture, in relief modeling, in grouping and massing, is design in light and shade. The simple requirements of every-day life were met by the maker of vessels and utensils with as free and as successful a method of designing as the requirements of state and of religion; and he worked in form principally, that is, in light and shade. Earthen vessels and metal utensils were gracefully designed. And all this not because the maker cared greatly to produce a decorative object, for he also was dimly conscious of the fact that it was hardly worth while to waste design on a working tool, but because it was inevitable that a man who did fine things on a Monday would still do ·comely things on a Tuesday. How can you make a clumsy and an awkward thing if you have made graceful ones for forty-eight hours on end? It is a blessed trait of our nature that good habits as well as bad habits may be formed and will stick. And so the designs of a good time for architectural art are sure to be good designs, that is, to have such forms that the light and shade upon them would be lovely. The design before us could not have been made by any able man at a time when there prevailed a worthy style of design in the world around him.
One may try, comparing these seven or eight views of the exterior—one may try the experiment of familiarity to see whether with longer acquaintance the building is less ugly than it seems at the first look. Ruskin tells the story of his having been led astray by the theory of Use and Wont—by the notion that our liking for certain forms and colors is the result of familiarity, and nothing else, and he says that he kept a skull on his mantelpiece for months, but found it just as ugly when the months had passed. And so it is in all probability with this exterior. If we are to consider it as a piece of abstract form, as a thing which is itself ugly or the reverse, the opinion will remain fixed that nothing uglier could exist among objects that were found perfect in condition, cared for, and showing the signs of human thought and purpose. We should see in a moment that where such qualities as those are found to exist, the building cannot be wholly contemptible. That it is wholly repellant as a work of human artisanship which might have been a work of art and is not—so much is probably the verdict of most persons who care for the fine art of architecture.
Light and shade have been mentioned above as the chief elements in our art, and one of the ways in which light and shade are used continually in architectural design is in the way of moldings. What is a molding? What are moldings? It is, they are, a modulation of the surface following continuous lines, straight and curved. Moldings are an abandonment of plane and uniform surface for a broken and generally rounded surface, as along an edge, and a group of moldings consists of an alternation of projecting and retreating forms, mainly of curved surface and of small dimension, although these are broken, interspersed here and there by narrow strips of flat and uniform surface, which we call fillets. Moldings do not weaken the wall where the window jamb, the door jamb, the horizontal cornice or sill course is modified by their interposition. Suppose, for instance, that one who lived opposite this Larkin Building were to have his way for a month, and were to utilize his time in making the building less clumsy in his eyes—would he not begin by molding those square corners which are thrust upon us so sharply in all the exterior views, working those corners into upright beads and coves, developing, perhaps, in an angle shaft with capital and base? This, of course, is not an essential feature. To insert it would be to give, perhaps, too nearly mediaeval a look to the design. Suppose that the corners of one of those tower-like masses were molded to such an extent that eight inches on each side of the arris, everywhere, were to be reduced to a series of soft surfaces, concave and convex, parallel one to another, and carried up from a little above the base to a little below the coping? They may be cast in brick, two or three separate patterns of molded brick sufficing for the whole composition. These moldings must either stop or return; and there are very interesting ways of arranging for either. They may stop against the stone coping or belt course itself; or they may have a piece of cast brick or of terracotta or of cut stone, in the mass of which the stop of the groups of moldings may be against a splay or a concave or a convex curved surface.