an architect of the machine age -- 5/11/18

Today's selection -- from Frank Furness by George E. Thomas. In the mid-to-late 1800s, at a time when Philadelphia was becoming the manufacturing capital of the world, the citiy's greatest architect was Frank Furness. His architecture celebrated the robustness of the era:

"As we will see, though Frank Furness's architecture is clearly and profoundly Victorian in its richness of detail, its delight in textures and contrasts, and its reference to other cultures and times, it also, more than any architecture of the day captured the potency of the present and the future. Where most Victorians concealed the new materials of the industrial age, Furness celebrated them, plac­ing them front stage in his buildings even as he expressed his delight in the possibilities that they represented. From giant steel trusses supporting the side of an art museum and massive steel girders spanning a library reading room to muscu­lar riveted steel columns in the entry lobby and stair of a grand hotel, to his final tour-de-force, the steel beams that form the ceiling of the waiting room in the train station in Wilmington, Delaware, Furness made the 'new' integral to his designs.

Fisher Fine Arts Library -- University of Pennsylvania

"Where his peers were soon to venture into accurately detailed historical revivals, distorting modern life to old forms and spaces, Furness subjected his architecture to the logistical demands of the present, and in the process created a modern response to the great experiment that is at the heart of modern life. In the freshness of his response to the possibilities of his age are the seeds of mod­ern architecture and in a broader sense to modern design -- one not constrained by past forms but rather responding to the endless variety of the present. His story begins in the first half of the nineteenth century -- just after Samuel F. B. Morse's invention of the telegraph and as the first railroad networks were expanding into the heartland of the nation. Above all Furness connects us to the story that links life and architecture to the possibilities and values of new cul­tural types of Americans -- the inventor, the engineer, and the industrialist. By placing him in the industrial context that encouraged his revolutionary archi­tecture, we see Furness not as an eccentric, but rather as proof that the roots of modern architecture (to borrow a tide from Lewis Mumford) came from the experimental culture that flourished in Philadelphia and was extended from east to west along the routes of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

"In the late 1860s, emboldened by the wealth created by the city's Civil War­ -- grown industries, the board of Philadelphia's Franklin Institute proposed a world's fair, ostensibly centered on the Centennial of the American Declaration of Independence, but with the actual motive to display to the world the fruits of a second American revolution, this one experimental and aesthetic, which had transformed machine design and architecture in the most industrialized city in the nation. From May 1876, when the fair opened in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, until it closed six months later, attendees equaling a quarter of the nation's populace, together with visitors from every corner of the earth, saw, heard, and felt the future in vast factory like exhibition buildings and in the machines that filled those buildings. For those who made their way to the old city to see Inde­pendence Hall and the relics of the Revolution, they would have also seen a new and vibrant architecture that included top-lighted, iron-spanned banks within earshot of the old bell of Independence Hall, and across the city, new institu­tional buildings that made expressive use of iron and steel, an unconventional material that even was used for the exposed flying buttresses on a church in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood.

"The architect of the most interesting buildings of Centennial Philadelphia was Frank Furness. He was singled out for praise in the nation's lone architec­tural journal, American Architect and Building News, albeit with a caution for his originality that hinted at future criticism: 'By far the most important ele­ment in the recent building in Philadelphia is Mr. Furness's work. Nobody would think of calling it commonplace; and it is so far from being scholastic that a good deal of it is hard to classify.' With their hot colors, striking details, bold use of iron and steel as central features of the designs, and logistically con­ceived and profoundly rational plans, Frank Furness's buildings are one of the instantly recognizable creations of Victorian America, as identifiable as the opening chords of the rock-n-roll hits of the 1950s or the tail fins of a 1950s De Soto. Alternately dazzling and confounding critics from the years when they were built to the present, Furness's buildings now attract fans ranging from con­temporary 'steampunk' hipsters who see in his designs the expressive energy of the great engines of the Victorian age to others who see in his work the begin­nings of the journey that led to modern architecture.

Original Rodeph Shalom sanctuary by Frank Furness  Photo: Rodeph Shalom

"Both views are valid. Furness's buildings drew on the forms of the great en­gines and machines of his day; training in his office unleashed two generations of students who, following his lead, broke with tradition to take on the possibil­ities inherent in new technologies and new purposes. Furness's buildings are demonstrations of the core narrative of modern architecture: innovative design arises from innovative cultures. In the second half of the nineteenth century Philadelphia's chief architectural clients were drawn from engineering and in­dustry. The imaginations of these men were shaped not by history but by the new technologies that were transforming modern life. Out of the power of the great machines of the nineteenth century came the modern metaphors expres­sive of mechanical forces that reach their apotheosis with Le Corbusier's idea of a house as a 'machine for living.' Frank Furness, working for Philadelphia in­dustrialists, began that process."



George E. Thomas


Frank Furness: Architecture in the Age of the Great Machines


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2018 University of Pennsylvania Press


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