|Introducing the Language
|Why There Are Angels at the Top of the Bayard Building|
|The building of old Broadway are of the end of the nineteenth century, the time Lewis Mumford called “the Brown Decades.” They are caked with decoration: corbels, crockets, pediments, brackets, pilasters. They are too sombre, too narrow, too high. But some of them are fine in their way. This was the centre of New York a hundred years ago, and now it is coming into its own again.
As I turn onto Bleecker, there suddenly rises up something quite different, the Bayard Building, by Louis Sullivan. The building is so much finer than its neighbours, it is like stumbling across some Gothic masterpiece off on a side street. But it is just 1890’s office building, not brown but white-glazed terra cotta. More than colour sets it apart. The building is sensual, and it is magical in the evening light; but most of all, unlike its neighbours, it is sure-handed. That is what is so pleasing. “Lieber Meister,” Frank Lloyd Wright called , and that is the character of the building, love and mastery.
|Six giant angels spread their wings under the cornice. Years ago I used to walk downtown and admire the Bayard Building, but I sow it in the context of Modernism. Those angels above those frilly arches were a disappointment, they ravelled the clean white proto-skyscraper lines.
It is much easier to appreciate Sullivan now that I don’t require him to be a precursor of the International Style. I see, for example, that removing the extraneous does not have to lead to plainness, as Modernism believed.
It may reveal, or make possible, richness.
|Compared to its neighbours, the Bayard Building, though heavily decorated, does look simple because its patterns are very clear. Looking straight up, you can almost see the regulating lines running diagonally through the spandrels to the leaf-clump capitals that are the springing point of double arches, and on up to the faces of the angels.
Sullivan’s simplicity is not Spartan. The streamlining that came later to tall buildings made the eye move faster, but the top of the Bayard Building is slow. Embellishment can be annoying to an eye not accustomed to lingering, but the Bayard Building slows you down because it is already there.
|Sullivan’s buildings “the thing itself”, as Montgomery Schuyler said of it when the building was new. Simplicity, for Sullivan, was not ascetic purity or virtue. Simplicity was to be, as much as possible, there, in the present moment. As the eye becomes involved in the pattern of a building, the viewer is taken out of time. The viewer’s experience is a parallel, a match, to the eternal moment in which the architect made the design. In such moments, spirit comes into, and can be recognized in, a building. Sullivan’s angels are a sort of Eureka! They proclaim the building’s spirit.|
|The presence of the Bayard Building is an expression of Sullivan’s mastery, which is the ability to organize material, function, structure, symbol – and still be in the dark.|
|Language of Architecture|