A Fake Building from 1895

Grant Hamilton 1895 "What We Are Coming to"

The more I look at this illustration, a work of satire from 1895, the more I like it.
The illustration was recently exhibited at Brown as part of Building Expectation: Past and Present Visions of the Architectural Future although the only information I can find about this specific illustration is scant. The illustrator is Grant E. Hamilton and the title printed at the bottom reads “What We are Coming to.” According to a snippet of curatorial text:

“In this satirical take on the trajectory of urban evolution, Hamilton pokes some rather pointed fun at the tendency of capitalist industry to relentlessly intensify the scale of real-estate development, in this nominally residential building are found not only shops, living space, and a steam-powered mass transport system, but also religious institutions and the houses of government —the public realm has been totally absorbed by the monolithic power of the private.”

But I like it for different reasons. It seems more relevant than most 19th century political satire, to me, because it resembles a kind of hodgepodge that has persistently interested illustrators and architects alike. For instance: Catrina Stewart’s London City Farmhouse project has a similar aggregation of unlikely programs and mechanical structures; the same assemblage is apparent in REX’s Yongsan Experiment. But there’s another, more immediate problem for architects in 1895: how to design tall buildings.

The steel frame evolved faster than the faculty of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, putting American architects in an odd position of having the ability to build taller and taller, but not the skill to refine the building’s expression. Because architects at the time predominately drew inspiration from classical structures, and because the Greeks did not build skyscrapers, architects struggled to play with the proportions and orders of classical architecture as buildings stretched higher and higher. Why this obsession with classic structures? The Chicago World’s Fair, which just two years before this illustration was printed impressed millions of visitors and sparked it’s own Architecture and Urban Planning movement: the City Beautiful Movement. Louis Sullivan (who famously said “form follows function”) disliked most things, but especially backward-looking architecture, saying that the World’s Fair set american architecture back “half a century” which is strange since he participated in the fair, having the largest building that wasn’t painted completely white.

So even though the illustration above is older than most everything living today except for turtles and trees, it’s foreshadows a modern critique of its time. It’s still funny a century later, and surprisingly informative.


November 23, 2011