Modernization through Materialization
The Fall of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E. resulted in the loss of valuable knowledge in a wide range of subject matters including architectural design, building methods, and contemporary materials. The expert technique of construction and manufacturing materials such as glass, metals, and concrete were lost during the Middle Ages, and the six hundred years following the empire’s collapse served as a rebuilding period for the lost wealth of knowledge. Nevertheless, those gains were often limited by the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and furthermore, novel discoveries had restricted mobility due to insufficient means of communication, thus most architecture remained confined to heavy load bearing masonry construction. However, with the onset of the Renaissance Era, which began unfolding in the late 1300’s and early 1400’s, the civilized world flourished as knowledge of antiquity was unearthed. From the canon of historic information, the profession of architecture was nurtured and with it the reinstatement of classical principles of design. While these ideas were circulated by theorists, they could not have been implemented without advancements in building materials and highly specialized craftsmanship. Mechanical innovations and refinement of ancient practices facilitated new developments of glass, iron, and concrete production, and these materials were transitioned back into architecture, creating hybrid forms that bridged the gap between the contemporary design methodology and the future of modern architecture.
Glass: The Elizabethan Curtain Wall
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, England, 1597, Robert Smythson
During the Roman Empire, glassmakers developed techniques to manufacture plate glass, which was large enough to be used in buildings. However, the use of architecture glazing was limited to society’s wealthiest individuals. The basic process established by Roman glassmakers to make sheets of glass was the cylinder method. This technique involved blowing a large molten ball of glass into a cylindrical form that was then partly cooled before been sliced open and flattened on metal. The cylinder process survived into the Middle Ages, but its application was constricted because trade between Europe and the Far East diminished, and the supply of quality soda ash, a principle material for glass manufacturing, was impeded. Glass from this age contained imperfections and a green hue from iron oxide found in the silica, and therefore glazing did not offer clarity but distorted or obstructed the view from a window. Similar to Roman times, glass in the medieval period continued to be a luxury good, and architectural glass was predominantly produced for religious institutions since the church accumulated vast wealth and was the patron of most high architecture. Churches and cathedrals used stained glass that required additional minerals from remote regions of Europe and Asia to obtain the desired use. Therefore the use of glazing was done so sparingly in rose windows, for example on the façade or rear elevation and in thin elongated windows on the church’s side elevation. In these instances the glass was used for grandeur and to impress, while often being communicative by displaying biblical and historical events to the Church’s largely illiterate audience.
A developing merchant class in Renaissance Italy, primarily traders from Venice, reopened the foreign markets to Europe, and consequently the quality of glass improved with the inundation of valuable resources. Additionally, France Huguenot glassmakers established a new process for glazing called the crown method. In this processes a molten glass ball was blown into a circular sheet, which was subsequently cut by a glazer to fit the window’s mullions. In the early development of the crown method the size of the panel prevented the manufacturing of large windows. However, lattice casements made from lead were used to hold multiple pieces of smaller glass in order to cover a greater surface area. These casements became an integral feature in the building’s orientation and further conveyed the Renaissance ideas of symmetry and hierarchy. During this period, the aristocracy, as a declaration of affluence and power, used intricate detailing of the casement’s framework in their homes and palaces. As the crown technique was refined, glassmakers sought to produce substantially larger sheets of glass. At the height of the renaissance glassblowers managed to fabricate a circular plate measuring five feet across.
This level of craftsmanship facilitated a new architectural form in England. For the first time ever glazing could compose the majority of the façade and side elevations, only limited by structural requirements and the desire of privacy. Under Queen Elizabeth of England the production of glass thrived because of a chartered monopoly given by the Queen to Sir Jeremy Bowes, a Huguenot emigrate, in 1591. A great rebuilding period accompanied the rule of Elizabeth, and England entered a golden age of Renaissance construction: prosperous merchants, business owners, and the royalty portrayed their status through the use of glass in their countryside estates. The most famous case of this lavish display of riches can be found at the Hardwick Hall, which is commonly said to have “more glass than wall.” In 1590 Countess of Shrewsbury, Elizabeth Talbot, the second richest woman in Elizabethan England following the Queen, commissioned Hardwick Hall to be designed by the architecture Robert Smythson. While the use of glazing had been increasing throughout the Renaissance, the Hardwick Estate marks a turning point for the articulation of windows on the façade. In Smythson’s building, described as, “a house of monumental symmetry,” by architect Stephen Bates, it represents the pinnacle of Renaissance design ideology, yet it stands at the forefront of modernization. The house’s array of glass is unprecedented for the time, and the structural system becomes the only non-glazing aspect present in façade. Here the design methodology demonstrated by Smythson can be seen as the first phase in the evolution of contemporary modernization through the international style where the curtain wall and structure become fully independent. French architect Le Corbusier was the champion of the international style and theorized five governing principles for modern architecture. In his 1923 manifesto, Vers Une Architecture, Corbusier stated the five points of architecture to be: the Pilotis, a structural grid of concrete columns, a roof garden, a free plan, a free façade, and strip of horizontal windows. Le Corbusier integrated these ideas into his future buildings and most noticeably brought them to life in his design of Villa Savoye (1931) where each point is meticulously articulated to its fullest potential. The horizontal reading of Villa Savoye’s facade is uninterrupted by structure since it utilizes an exterior partitioning wall separate from the building’s Pilotis structure. Within this curtain wall Corbusier imbeds a continuous line of windows that allows the user to engage with the landscape on the longitude axis. Le Corbusier brings into fruition the picturesque movement’s desire to view the natural environment. The strip windows are the reminiscent of Hardwick Hall’s façade of horizontal row of windows, which attempted to push confining relationship between glass, structure, and façade.
Iron: The Industrial Renaissance of Structure
Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve, Paris, France, 1850, Henri Labrouste
While the use of iron dates back to the early eras of human civilization, predating the Egyptians as long ago as 3500 B.C.E, its application was limited due to impurities in its production. Iron was most predominantly used for weaponry, hand tools, and decorative purposes. The formal introduction of iron into architecture began in the Middle Ages during the Gothic Period through ornamented rood screens which were used to separate the alter and central nave of Catholic churches. However, constructing these forms was extremely labor intensive; the wrought, or worked iron required a high level of craftsmanship from expert blacksmiths and metal workers. The wrought iron is produced by smelting ironstone in a furnace of charcoal to create more purified iron concentrate, although traces of contaminating elements such as phosphorus silicon, sulfur, and manganese still existed in the reduced ore. The smelting processes infused trace amounts of carbon molecules into the ore, and the charcoal gave the metal strength and malleability, thus enabling blacksmiths to hammer out alloy into the desired form.
While improvements had been made to the extraction processes through specialized furnaces and forges, the production of wrought iron could not be scaled to meet the demands of the industrial revolution, which began to shape itself in Europe and America during the late 1700’s and into the turn of the next century. The industrialization of the western world required quick and inexpensive manufacturing of goods in conjunction with a simple assembly of these goods through standardized interchangeable parts. Likewise, the wrought iron processes had begun to tax European forests; the large amounts of charcoal needed required extreme levels of logging that deforested and scared much of the continents natural landscape. During this period multiple innovations in technique, equipment, and purification processes resulted in the production of cast iron. Cast iron was produced in forges using high temperatures, which resulted in iron with elevated levels of carbon. The increased carbon turned the ore brittle giving it a lower melting point. The increased viscosity of iron allowed it to be poured into custom forms while retaining a homogenous molecular structure. One of the first major transformations enabling the transition from wrought iron to cast iron was the use of coke, a distilled form of raw coal, by inventor and entrepreneur Abraham Darby in 1709 in a blast furnace. This form of carbon lowered the cost of iron production due to an abundance of readily available coal and helped curb the deforestation problem that many European countries faced because it reduced the reliance on charcoal fuel. A second major development that enabled the mass use of cast iron was the refinements to the blast furnace by James Neilson; his patented hot blast method heated the air prior to being injected into the furnace, which not only reduced coal consumption for smelting by a third but also substantially increased the size of the furnace.
The accompaniment of cast iron’s physical qualities in combination of these two innovations sparked the industrialization of iron production in architecture. The 1800’s witnessed the manifestation of cast iron construction into architecture with buildings such as Henri Labrouste’s Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve complete in Paris, France in 1850. The library’s form rigorously articulates the Beaux-Art stylistic approach of the Italian Renaissance revival period. However, the edifice’s structural organization is far removed from the true thick masonry of classical or Renaissance buildings. Labrouste engages the Renaissance dogmas behind classical orders and geometric composition of spaces and facades, similar to Smythson’s work in at Hardwick Hall. Yet, the Bibliotheque’s spatial qualities disengage it from the Renaissance masters. The library’s reading room best illustrates the instance in which modernized cast iron structure frees itself from its historical precedents. Labrouste’s design uses prefabricated cast iron that was poured into a mold and transported to the construction site for assembly. The iron acts as framing for the roof and also attaches itself to exterior masonry walls.
The exposed iron framework of the barrel-vaulted interior begins to liberate the user, allowing for a transparent and lightened spatial quality not accessible in a similarly constructed Renaissance space such as the central nave of Michelangelo and Bernini’s St. Peter’s Basilica (1626). In the Basilica the monolithic columns ground the vaulted space with a heaviness only alleviated by copious clerestory windows that puncture the deep stone elevations. In contrast, the lightness of the Bibliotheque is achieved through a field of thinly fluted cast iron columns that extend into barreled ribs. Labrouste even goes as far as carving away material from the rib’s web to express the delicateness of the materiality and its superior structural integrity by reducing its mass.
The lightness in construction and the field condition created by the iron columns found at the Bibliotheque begin to employ space-making conditions used by modernists in the 1900’s through the open plan. In an open plan arrangement the space making partitions are independent positioned from the building’s structure allowing for an infinite possibility of constructed volumes. Architect, Mies Van Der Rohe pioneered the open plan method of design in the Barcelona Pavilion (1929), in which walls were floated adjacent to metal columns as opposed to the walls acting as the bearing system or existing in the same plane as the structure. Labrouste’s design illustrates a disconnect of space and structure, not through freely placed walls and columns but through the arrangement of reading tables on the ground plane that abut the column while generating a dialog between space-making-objects and structure.
Concrete: Masonry Through Framing
Ingalls Building, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1903, Elzner and Anderson
While the use of concrete in architecture predates the Romans, their perfection of its capabilities is recognizably one of their most advanced innovations. However, similar to glass, due to the empire’s decline, the secrets of Roman concrete were lost until the 1800’s. Since the material’s rediscovery, it has become a critical foundation for modern construction. The Romans made concrete by mixing lime, volcanic ash called pozzolana from Mt. Vesuvius, rock chunks, and water to create a material as strong and durable as stone. The Roman’s capitalized on the material’s flexibility, which made building a complex and sophisticated forms such as the Pantheon (126 C.E) and the Baths of Caracalla in Rome (217 C.E). The use of concrete made the building process faster and cheaper. No longer did they need troops of skilled stonemasons but rather unskilled workers who mixed and poured the concrete intro forms fabricated by carpenters. The building was constructed in installments, one concrete pour after the next.
The contemporary form of concrete originated through a series of experiments by engineers and scientists beginning in 1794 when John Smeaton, a physicist from England, began producing a masonry mortar derived from hydraulic lime. Smeaton’s research gave way to a flurry of patents and a series of new materials such as hydraulic cement, Parker’s Cement, British Cement, and ultimately Portland cement. These revolutionary mortars were manufactured for infrastructure projects such as sewer piping in London and in bridges.
By the mid 1850’s engineers had started experimenting with cement in buildings. Francois Coignet, with the aid of the architect Theodore Lachez, built a series of iron-reinforced concrete houses outside of Paris, which received negative public publicity that questioned the structural integrity of the buildings. Nevertheless, the 50 years post Coignet’s exposition of reinforced concrete was monumental for the future of concrete architecture. For the most part, during this time architectural forms being developed with concrete continued to be conservative and resembled masonry construction.
At the turn of the century, the integrity of reinforced concrete was put to the test using Ernest Ransome’s reinforcement system that employed twisted iron rods to increase the stability of the bond between metal and concrete. In 1903 the architecture firm Elzner and Anderson constructed the Ingalls Building, a 16 story tall skyscraper in Cincinnati Ohio. This fully concrete building, that deployed Ransome’s reinforcement system, became the tallest concrete structure at the time, ten stories higher than the previous record holder. The Ingalls Building diverged from the tradition of concrete buildings that replicated masonry design such as in Coignet’s houses, but instead embraced the contemporary typology of the skyscraper that developed found in modernizing cities across America.
The mixture of a skeletal concrete frame and bearing wall used by Elzner and Anderson was a replacement to masonry structure found in the Monadnock Building by Burnham and Root built in 1891, which required six foot load bearing brick walls at the ground floor accompanied by an extensive foundation.Additionally, concrete served as an alterative to steel framed skyscrapers, such as the Wainwright Building (1891) by Architects Adler and Sullivan, which necessitated substantial fireproofing to prevent the steel from failing in intense heat.
Steel reinforced concrete paired with steel framing phased out stone and brick structure, as skyscrapers became the hallmark of the 20th century landscape.
The actualization of modern architecture symbiotically entails a manifestation between the glass curtain wall, concrete forms, and an independent structure through metal framing. Through various forms of experimentation and application, these systems developed hybrid forms, linking the period’s preexisting design methodology with the modern world. During the Renaissance glazing techniques were refined allowing for unprecedented levels of fenestration in the noble estates such as Hardwick Hall, an icon of Elizabethan architecture. The revival of the Renaissance through the Beaux Arts style in tandem with the principles of the industrial revolution brought cast iron production to the forefront of architectural structure allowing for lighter and spacious volumes uninterrupted by partition walls as evident in the Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve. Lastly, the Ingalls Building can be seen as the final installment that facilitated modernist design, as load-bearing masonry was replaced by reinforced concrete, which advanced the stature of the urban skyline.
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