01
Jan
12

Buildings At The Edge Of The Sky

I talked about this subject a little bit in my Seattle seeking post.  How buildings meet the sky is a pretty big deal as it is where our eye is naturally drawn to and architects have wanted to take advantage of that situation.  The top edge of the building has historically been called the cornice and before modernism’s stripping away of ornament, it was an intensively detailed and decorated part of the building.  Note the Berkeley Building above in Boston and the railing with the fussy balusters (vertical posts supporting the top rail) and then the spiky mini obelisks every so often.  Folks, we are talking major animated articulation here.  I was totally captivated by this building when I saw it and I would venture to say that most architects today would say they like this.  But ask them if they would design like this and they would adopt a  somewhat condescending expression and tone in their voice as they digress on the virtues of modern design.

From a historically bent website here is some detail on the building.

The Berkeley at 420 Boylston Street, designed by the firm of Codman and Despradelle,  is a lyrically beautiful building that was completed in 1905.  Désiré Despradelle was a professor of architecture at MIT who had been educated at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris–an architectural school that was highly influential on early 20th century U.S. architecture.   Boston lagged behind Chicago and New York in construction of the new steel-framed buildings (especially skyscrapers), and this building doesn’t compete on height, but its exterior is stunning–its steel frame ornamented with glazed terra-cotta, copper, and glass.

Now we get to a modern interpretation of the cornice.  This is the Harkness Graduate Center at Harvard designed by Walter Gropius around 1950.  Note that this building has very little of what we would call ornament.  There is almost nothing extra here; it has just enough to do the job.  Consequently the overall form of the building is accentuated and the details of construction become very important as visual elements since we have so little else to look at.  Look up where the building meets the sky and you see the human equivalent of a tail bone.  No tail just a remnant of one with that 3″ top piece of stone hanging over just 1.75″ (measured with my super accurate micrometer eyes).  I actually loved this building and even though it might look a bit foreboding in this image, it is nicely scaled outside creating an excellent courtyard beyond this front entry.  Inside is a total delight with lovely dining and study areas.

Now for the tough guy of early modernism.  Le Corbusier (aka Edouard Jenneret) was a hero to me in architecture school (1984) whose luster has tarnished a tad since then.  This is the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts (art studios and gallery) at Harvard, completed in 1963.  This is an all concrete building, inside and out.  He was super clever.  Look at this tower element here in the foreground and see how the horizontal construction joints, those narrow 6″ bands are spaced so that, “oh wow, the last one just forms the hint of a cornice at the top”!  What a coincidence!  He was for sure not a cornice guy either but nifty how this worked out.  There is lots more to say on this building later on.  A future post is needed to see some of the form making that modernists have done up there at the edge of the sky

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2 Responses to “Buildings At The Edge Of The Sky”


  1. 1 e moore
    January 12, 2012 at 9:44 am

    “virtues of modern design”

    ah yes, the virtues of modern design…which is in singular, its relatively cheap to build.

    (Note also area lighting on Gropius’s parapets assume an importance probably not parcel to the original design. Unintended form follows function?)

    Not that I have anything against “modern” design methodology (particularly early variants) but a more ornate approach, as represent in the first photograph, is really not in the cards, budget-wise.

  2. January 13, 2012 at 9:59 am

    I notice those lights are shining down away from the building, not a good look I think. There is quite bit of pricey modern work being done I would say, the tight detailing is expensive to pull off well. Thanks for sharing.


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