18OctJenney and the new structural technique

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My quick notes from ARCHITECTURE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, AN INTRODUCTION, course by Antoine Picon, Harvard University.

Condit C., The Chicago School of Architecture. A History of Commercial and Public Building, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1964, Chapter 4, “Jenney and the New Structural Technique,” pp. 79-94.


This chapter presents the complete iron framing (or skeletal construction) as being the most radical transformation in the structural art since the Gothic system. It describes the work of the architect William Le Baron Jenney and its place in American building art.

The first Leiter Building of Jenney from 1879 is nearly a glass box supported by cast-iron columns as a finished building of skeletal construction is a framework covered with glass (as many today are).
It proposes few examples of Iron framed building:
- The Home insurance building by Jenney and Withney (engineering assistant), telling the anecdote that Jenny was inspired by a trip to the Philippines where houses are made using whole tree trunks as columns and split trunks as beams etc… to complete the framing system.
- McCullough Shot and Lead Company of New York (James Bogardus in 1855)
- Warehouse of St Ouen docks in Paris (Hyppolyte Fontaine 1864-1865)
- Viollet-Le-Duc’s lecture on Architecture discusses Iron Framing.
It then introduces the foundations of the skyscraper as we know it today. Indeed, the Chicago Office by Jenney in 1884 and demolished in 1931 was the major progenitor of the true skyscraper, first adequate solution to the problem of large-scale urban construction. It consisted of a series of columns and beam system (cast iron columns and wrought iron box columns of built-up section). The exterior envelop was granite and at the base allow to carry 18% of the total column load on the periphery making possible the addition of more stories. This method of supporting the outer envelop remains the standard practice for tall steel or concrete-framed structures. Without this technique, the skyscraper would have been an impossibility.
The advantages of iron and steel framing were utilitarian, because it allowed to get rid of a supporting wall then makes it lighter and higher. Jenny felt he was contributing to the making of new architectural forms, but his purpose was the development of more efficient structural features. Skeleton construction would bring a revolution in the design of office buildings.
This chapter offers J. Carson Webster definition of the skyscraper:
- Great height, arrangement in stories, space and light potentially in each stories
- skeleton construction to achieve the above (to date), material necessary to the structural system (steel, iron and reinforced concrete, fireproofing, heat resisting material), passenger elevator.
- favoring conditions: economic (high value of land), social (living in large group, enterprise,…) technological (suitable tools, sources of power, heating etc..), psychological (desires which a tall form can express), aesthetic (liking for height).
Most Chicago architect at the time, pragmatic, consider utilitarian demands and functional necessities. Sullivan was an exception with his highly emotional and subjective approach to design. Indeed the Home Insurance is a ‘proto-skyscraper’ and Sullivan’s Guaranty Building in Buffalo is a ‘mature sckyscraper’ in structure utility and form.
Influenced by Jenney’s work, the third chamber of commerce building was another proto-skyscraper in 1888 and demolished in 1928: the most advance structural art at the time. The frame was covered with an exterior envelope of marble at the base and brick above. It had an interior light court extending the entire height of the building and roofed by a glass and iron skylight at the top.
The second Leiter building, the one known as the Leiter Building, was a triumph of commercial architecture. It is called the Sears Roebuck Store: a huge rectangular prism of 402 feet long and eight stories in height. Exterior is white Maine granite. “What is essential is that for the first time the steel and the wrought-iron skeleton became fully and unambiguously the means of architectonic expression.” Partner with Mundie, Jenney created the Fair Store starting in 1890, it is also of warehouse construction. Also the Manhattan building that contains a combination of advanced innovations and traditional materials. The variety of window openings in the street elevations is immediately noticeable.

The Leiter 2 Building by Jenney

Nineteenth-century Iron construction: from Iron to steel

The railway station
The 19th century is marked with Iron and iron was linked to a series of question regarding type. Ex: railwyas 1825 (first line) in the UK, line devoted to passenger traffic.
1- The railways is a building for crowds. The question is to know how we manage crouds; so they had built waiting rooms where the passengers were locked and unlocked to take train (a bit like plane today).
2- Crouds were then able to self served then the idea of station emerged.
3- this is the first building for men and machine. The station shows the emergence of national manners and style, for instance the roof. There is a traditional shape, for instance Gare de L’Est, they try to build stations as if it was architecture. The Havre station is a contradiction as it is very rational. In France more triangle shape versus in England, stations have a semi circular or oval shape

Gare de l’est - hall, outside, sketch

Because UK think that the station is linked to technology, as in the 19th century the curve is technology. Paddington station in the UK is treated almost like a church, still curve but sheld. The US are influenced by the UK.
There is not the problem of unicity at the time as the idea of the 19th are organic (assemblage of organs) that is only in the 20th that it becomes unicity. The station is the only place where there is a clock, so people go there to know the time.
In 1889, the galery des machines at the same time than the tour eiffel with a better understanding of the building at the time.

Huge, around 420 meters length. Then there is Le Grand Palais with thick iron thick with Art nouveau to make Iron less immaterial.

Le grand palais

This is the great period for iron bridges
1874: st Louis
Baker & Fowler Firth of forth bridge

Paul Bodin’s the Viaduc du Viaur, the most beautiful french bridge

the most important feature is the introduction of trusses.
In the US the bridges are more complex than in Europe, while in Europe bridges are minimalistic, diversity in engineering in the US.
Behind the story of forms, there is the economic dimension of patterns. Huge bridges were constructed for railways because railways were very profitable and made iron construction something very desirable.

Framed buildings
Technology has become international since the 1850’s because of the travels, at the same time nationalization emerged (idea of most sophisticated country).
British story: the boat store in Sheerness to stock, a structure totally framed.
France: Chocolate factory in Noisiel (Meunier) built by Saunier (Le Baron Jenney was his friend). It is claimed by french to be a frame structure but it does not look like a frame structure.
Europe: frame building is horizontal and bring the middle age into the modern.
Chicago: In Europe, frame building does not have a type, versus in Chicago it became a type (tower). For instance the Home Insurance Building in 1885 by le Baron Jenney. And the fair store framed. This is the passage from frame building to skyscrapers when it became vertical (not the case in Europe). In Europe, there is a problem: how do we treat these long horizontal facades.

New questions for new types
Then there is the status of ornament that emerge with the fisher building. When a new type emerge, questions emerge in the 19th. For the skyscraper coherence is there: a stack of offices, the form is simple. Then the question of inventing an architectural treatment for an object which does not need architecture, this is a pure symbol that does not need architecture for its credit. What can an architect do with an object that is so coherent? So what they did is that they have exaggerated the rhythm, and even add superflux facade and add ornament to look like a basement. This is the case of Sullivan who uses ornaments and thinks that it vibrates with the structure and he can be compared with Viollet le Duc who is rationalist. Ornament create a rhythm in the US and European will refuse this solution and ornament. Art Nouveau arrive at this moment, at the end of the 19th century.

There is difference between european architects (e.g. German & French) and US is that in Europe too much decoration is bad, it just means to hide something. This is an actual question for digital architecture, should we reinvent ornament?



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