Architect Frank Furness was a mustachioed bulldog of a man who, by contemporary accounts, seemed more renowned for his legendary swearing ability than for his architectural skill. Yet in his greatest projects, which date from the 1870s and ’80s, Furness gleefully took Victorian eclecticism to another plane entirely, if not to another planet. He replaced conventional Victorian detailing with his own peculiar idiom – strange piston-like columns, weirdly pinched openings, outlandishly overscaled ornament – and composed them into wildly polychromed brick and stone facades filled with such tense vitality that they seemed ever on the verge of exploding.
It was these remarkable buildings, many of them long destroyed, that were skewered by one modernist-era critic as “relics of the low water mark in American architecture.” Thanks to the tenacity of such anti-Victorian sentiments, Furness’s reputation remained at rock bottom for nearly a century before being revived amid the more individualistic leanings of the 1970s.
It’s surprising how often architects like Furness – bad boys who confounded their contemporaries, and often succeeding generations as well – eventually seem to leave the most lasting marks on posterity.
One of Furness’s few professional admirers was Louis Sullivan, who with his elder partner Dankmar Adler had won great respect for Chicago’s celebrated Auditorium Building of 1889. His star on the rise, Sullivan was invited to design the Transportation Building for Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, already envisioned by its organizers as a sort of idealized Beaux-Arts dream city. Sullivan responded with an eye-popping design featuring a single enormous arch wriggling with bands of exotic ornament and flanked by strange motifs resembling giant scribbles. The spectacle of this structure blazing out amid the fair’s sedate, white Classical temples outraged the architectural mainstream, and even sympathizers complained that, by overstepping his bounds to such a degree, Sullivan had set the fledgling modernist movement back 20 years.
Sullivan’s pupil, Frank Lloyd Wright, didn’t get much more respect in his early career. Wright built many of his most famous houses in the quiet Chicago suburb of Oak Park during the 1900s. Bad enough that these otherworldly designs horrified the neighbors – one of whom memorably pronounced the epoch-making Robie House “monstrous” – but mainstream architects and critics were just as quick to chime in, branding Wright’s designs “prairie houses” and “steamship architecture” before those terms were considered laudatory.
More recently, Robert Venturi, among the first architects who dared declare modernism an emperor with no clothes, was seen as more or less a crackpot by much of the architectural establishment. One esteemed architecture professor at U.C. Berkeley sneeringly dismissed Venturi’s 1966 book “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” with the comment: “This is a guy who likes Las Vegas.”
In that manifesto, which has since become a classic, Venturi wrote: “I aim for vitality as well as validity…I like elements which are hybrid rather than ‘pure,’ compromising rather than ‘clean,’ distorted rather than ‘straightforward’… inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity.”
As one bad boy to another, Frank Furness might have agreed.
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