Friday, 24 July 2015

Buffalo City Hall, 1931.

Buffalo City Hall is a giant. Its vast scale cannot be overplayed. As municipal statement's go this is among the heaviest, most steroidal and most comic book of them all.

Designed by architects Dietel, Wade & Jones it was completed in 1931 as one of the largest and tallest city halls in the USA at 398 feet high and its most expensive costing 6,851,546.85 dollars or about 94 million in todays money. It was a brilliant symbol of confidence and a mighty exercise in civic boosterism - a symbol that modern Buffalo's might was real and that this glorious edifice would carry the people through the darkest days of the Great Depression and beyond.

Buffalo City Hall, 1931
(c) United States Library of Congress' Prints and Photographs Division.

Clustered over three blocks, the building has a classical, pyramidal sort of layout, the kind that Stalin 20 years later would mimic with his university buildings in Moscow and Warsaw. Buffalo though is denser and a lot more more butch. Its towers don't give way to lightweight spires and turrets, instead they seem muscular and tense. With its colourful jazz mosaics, angular patriotic sculptures and allegorical friezes it's like some Byzantine muscle man - hulking over the city its stance, literally and appropriately enough, Buffalo-like.

Today the building still does what it was built for and it dominates completely the rather forlorn surrounds of modern downtown Buffalo. In 1999 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Wabash Pittsburgh Terminal, 1904.

Designed by Theodore Carl Link - a German emigre architect - this fantastically florid building was built for the Wabash Pittsburgh Terminal Railway by railway magnate George Jay Gould and completed in 1904. Located in gritty Pittsburgh - America's great steel mill - it was a spectacular Beaux-art statement for an ambitious, but small railway company, one of four that served the city at the time.

Looking more like a bank than a railway station, the building climbed to 197 feet and made full use of a tight and awkward downtown site with passenger facilities, departure lounges, shops and hundreds of company offices vertically stacked over eleven floors and topped by a handsome dome. Behind it, trains entered the city via the company's own Wabash Bridge - high above the Ohio River - and into an elevated train shed linked to the main building at the third floor.

Wabash Pittsburgh Terminal, 1904
(c) Detroit Publishing Co

Despite the confidence and grandeur of this magnificent terminal, it was incredibly short lived. The company over spent terribly on the project and it contributed to its financial collapse in 1908. Unlike many American cities at the time, Pittsburgh did not manage to persuade its various railway companies to invest and collaborate in one unified station. The consequences at Wabash was that their grand edifice served dwindling passenger numbers at great cost.

It was closed to passengers in 1931, lived on as offices and freight use for a few years until the bridge was dismantled in 1948 and was demolished completely in 1954 to make way for the Gateway Centre.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Singer Building, 1908

The Singer Building was for a short while the world's tallest building. Designed by architect Ernest Flagg for the Singer Manufacturing Company - of sewing machine fame - it was completed in 1908 and stood at 612 feet - towering over downtown Broadway New York for almost 60 years.

It is a prime example of what I am calling a 'New World Freak' and demonstrates brilliantly the freedom of American architects at the start of the 20th century to work with whatever 'old world' historical elements they wanted and apply them to their 'new world' context - creating incredible new hybrid architecture in the process that was frequently both restrained and flamboyant, conventional and surprising, everyday and surreal and good and bad taste.

The building's finely detailed lower 12 storeys were from the outside pretty conventional as Edwardian offices go, matching the accepted scale of old Broadway, however by the time its slim-line tower had lept up 47 floors it was positively Vaudeville! Its show stopping climax being a spectacular weighty mansard dome with Second Empire French roof with dormers and lots of heavy Baroque details.

The Singer Building, 1967.
(c) Historic American Building Survey
In the 1900s lower Manhattan was a breeding ground for experiments in skyscraper design where commercial ambition, a rampant property market and chaotic street plan forced architecture into frequently bizarre forms. Views from the Hudson River - those greeting millions of emigrants and new world arrivals - during this time reveal an almost fantasy cityscape of other-worldly classical domes, turrets, blocks, roofs, columns and spikes scaled up beyond recognition.

Despite its iconic status amongst New Yorkers and its incredibly rich architecture inside and out, the Singer Building was destroyed in 1967 after the city's Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) chose not to designate it. It was replaced by 1 Liberty Plaza by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Starting Points, 2015

American Flourish is an Englishman's exploration of architecture and urbanism in the USA during its great coming of age, which for the purposes of sheer scope, amusement, variety and plain 'wow' - looks at the extraordinary 60 year period between 1885 -1945.

Through buildings, urban landmarks and icons of design, this blog looks at the point where the USA threw away the manners and habits of the European 19th Century and started owning the 20th Century.

Through architecture and urbanism it seeks to capture and illustrate the sheer energy, excitement and dynamism of a place in the process of remaking itself, of coming to terms with its scale and it's own possibility.