frank furness’ birthday bash(up)

SUN 064

Fisher Fine Arts Library (1888-90)

. . . an architect who seemed to have taken as the motto of his maturer years, “oderint, modo metuant,” which, being translated, is “Let them abuse it, so long as it makes them ‘sit up.’ ” There can be no question that the contemplation of these later works is incompatible with the maintenance of a recumbent attitude. . . (Architectural Record, 1910)

Considering both the designer and his designs, Frank Furness (1839–1912) was as difficult in life as he has become celebrated in death.  Born in Philadelphia, Furness was a strong-willed architect, described by professional peers and clients alike as having a hot temper.  He designed some of the more compelling and unusual buildings of the last decades of the nineteenth century, mostly in the Middle Atlantic states, especially southeast Pennsylvania.

1 provident

Provident (1888)

As some biographers would have it, no earlier American architect had a single legitimate creative thought before Furness’ unparalleled genius rose above the wholly-derivative boredomscape of American architecture to shine with dazzling, perhaps even blinding, magnificence.  Even if that is stretching the point, Furness’ ability to convince bankers (and other clients one might expected to be somewhat conservative) to take a dare on unusual compositions is a significant achievement for any period. While much of Furness’ work can be categorized with the kind of eclecticism that raged through American cities after the Civil War, his most impressive buildings stick out like the proverbial sore thumb–an apt metaphor since they have a sense of throbbing aggression about them.  They brood and grimace through weighty proportions and sneer with bristly ornament. Even a refined building like the Fisher Fine Arts Library is built up of a fiery combination of brick and terra cotta that blazes in the sunlight. (For good recent color photos and a description of the $16M restoration by Venturi, Scott Brown and Assoc. in 1991, click here.)

1 prov demo

Provident (during demolition)

Yet it is noteworthy that so many of Furness’ captivating and confounding creations met with the sorry end of wrecking balls swung by later generations who found his work confusing, ungainly, in questionable taste or perhaps just plain ol’ ugly.  Hundreds of Furness buildings, like the Provident Bank shown here, exist only in black and white photographs today.  His buildings that remain standing are now admired for their creative conglomerations of historical features; Furness’ handling of architectural elements was so distinct that standard architectural terminology falls short of describing or even naming all the elements present in these wild confections. A century before the term mashup was coined, Furness was blending unlikely combinations of materials and historical precedents and somehow achieving a consonance between elements that in the hands of less-skilled architects lead to disastrous mélange productions that are so dissonant they can make your teeth hurt.  But Furness was able to merge Gothic and Second Empire features, as well as connect highly-polished granite and low-class iron, in a way that honors each element on its own while enhancing its individual qualities by virtue of the comparison with something foreign or divergent; somehow those original pieces are made more fun and enjoyable for their unexpected pairings.  Is Furness the nineteenth century’s architectural precursor to 2manydjs?  Do his buildings Smell Like Bootylicious?  Click here and you be the judge.

November 12 is the anniversary of Furness’ birth; the following menu is offered in honor of the conflicting conundrum, the bizarre beauty, the weirdness and wonder of Frank Furness.


Oderint, modo metuant

Crudités: primarily green and red peppers, pass with vinaigrette (more vinaigre than grette)

Main Course Offerings: Jerk Goat, Phaal Curry, Szechuan Ma La Spicy Chicken Pot

Cheese Tray: Limburger and Stinking Bishop paired with Mango Chutney and Figs

Dessert Tray: Peaches in Habenero Chile Glaze, Sage Custard, Goat Cheese Mousse, Chocolate Fondue with French Fries and Bacon

Digestif: Whiskey, filtered with Scotch Bonnets

Provident Life & Trust Company Bank, 407-409 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA: photographs from the Historic American Buildings Survey (for HABS site click here)

Interested in reading more about Furness?  Allow me to suggest Frank Furness, Architecture and the Violent Mind by Michael J. Lewis (for publisher information click here)


in praise of consistent color stories: a birthday celebration for Scrumpy

Arrangement in Gray and White, No. 1: The Author's Pooch

Arrangement in Gray and White, No. 1: The Author's Pooch

In an ideal world each of us would enjoy a consistent color story every moment of the day: a palette of hues that coordinates everything (and I do mean everything), producing feelings of cosmic peace and emotional comfort. Yet, we who have been blessed with what I call chromatic hypersensitivity must contend, on an all-too-regular basis, with the jarring juxtaposition of other people’s color stories, or—the horror—their obliviousness to the existence of such succor to the challenges of daily life (we call these people, technically: hypochromes, or, commonly: people who wear beige).

Problem is, people will impose their own color choices on our hue-sensitive world. At work, I regularly see dozens of students who clearly have made no group effort to achieve a harmonious effect when they assemble before me in class. At home, I contend with thoughtless cookbook publishers who impose terrible choices of book-spine colors on my kitchen schema, not to mention a thoroughly unfortunate soda can design that goes with me everywhere and looks good nowhere. Granted, these items could be corrected with a little more industry on my part. But there are certain troubles one cannot so easily rectify as wrapping one’s home library in coordinating book covers, decanting one’s Diet Pepsi with Lime into a vessel that is not the color of chemically-generated lime flavor, or convincing one’s employer to adopt a policy that demands that all undergraduates don uniforms that match the paint on the lecture room walls. Easier to control, the selection of one’s spouse should be made very carefully to ensure chromatic concord (while avoiding matchy-match outfits, needless to say). One faces a greater challenge coordinating one’s children to, say, the sofa on which they spend so much time; but even this is not impossible for the dedicated parent. (If you struggle in this area, may I suggest directing this appeal to the child in question: “Poopsie-bunny, your stripes/tie-dye/sports team advertisement is/are giving mummy/daddy/your state-appointed guardian a migraine/apoplexy/blurred vision; perhaps if you could change into something more muted/dark/restrictive, I will find a wad of cash/pony/your father’s Lamborghini keys for you.”)

Although the people we live with can be a source of significant coloristic annoyance, it is not so for all creatures under the roof. Just as our four-legged companions are, sometimes, our most predictable and agreeable cohabitators, they can also serve the great goal of the truly harmonious color story—the dream of all tastefully civilized people. When my family was preparing to add a dog to our household earlier this year we considered many characteristics of different breeds, including temperament, activity level, maintenance demands and health expectations. These considerations, in light of our family situation, led us into contact with multiple rescue agencies for Pit Bulls and American Staffordshire Terriers, and ultimately to a love connection with our dog, Scrumpy.

Pictured above (and below), Scrumpy is a two-year-old, sixty-pound Blue Pit. She has white markings on her feet, chest and face, which stand out prominently against her silvery warm-gray fur. She is a beauty. She looks great on the carpet, by the furniture, with my wardrobe and in my car. I recognize that canine aesthetics are not prominent in most people’s adoption process (do I ever, when I witness some of our neighbors’ unfortunate matching of pet and house color–honestly, some of you need to keep that pooch in the back yard or paint the trim to keep the neighborhood from aesthetically going to the . . . never mind.). Some people select a guard dog that will actually rise from a recumbent position when danger (and not just the noise occasioned by living across the street from a grade school) is sensed. Some people choose an athletic dog that can run an agility course without knocking down the equipment. Some people opt for a smart dog that learns to fetch the paper and brew the coffee in the morning. Scrumpy is not one of those dogs. But she looks so, so pretty not doing all those things.

Not afraid to throw all her muscular weight behind proofs of her love, Scrumpy is as affectionate as she is striking. To celebrate Scrumpy’s aesthetic achievement, we will mark her birthday with a special menu featuring blackish and white dishes. So, even if my family shows up in chromatic disarray, the dog, and the table, will look great. Behold:

Birthday dinner for Scrumpy
What Scrumpy’s people will eat: Wild Mushroom & White Wine Risotto; Molten Chocolate Cake with Vanilla-Bean Ice Cream
What Scrumpy will eat: Canned Dog Chow on a bed of Last Night’s Basmati Rice; two Fiber-Formula Biscuits
What Scrumpy would rather eat: Loaf of Bread Stolen from the Kitchen Counter, Old Taco Found in a Gutter on Main Street, Dust-Bunny-Coated Oreo Excavated from under the Kitchen Stove, Cat Poo


Composition in Gray, White and Drool: Scrumpy and her Joie de Vivre

birthday luncheon for Le Corbusier

Nous savez, c'est la vie qui a raison, l'architecte qui a tort. (Le Corbusier, 1969)

Nous savez, c'est la vie qui a raison,
l'architecte qui a tort.
Le Corbusier, 1969

Le Corbusier was born on October 6, 1887. From the 1920s to the 1960s he designed many famous buildings in France, Switzerland and other places. His early buildings have sharp corners and are mostly white. His later buildings are curvy and are mostly concrete. There’s a little color here and there, as you might expect from an architect who was once an artist who painted in a school associated with Cubism.

He also wrote several famous books that continue to be read, mostly in schools of architecture. He liked to write in short, terse sentences and paragraphs.

Like this.

I do not believe that Corbu, as we were taught to call him affectionately in architecture school, would fuss over a birthday celebration the way I do. He probably would have condemned birthday parties, especially the cake and presents, as bourgeois.

He believed that sofas are bourgeois, too.

But chairs are not bourgeois; chairs are architecture. He said so.

To mark this date I have prepared a simple four-course menu, designed as the ideal birthday luncheon for Le Corbusier. Let us assemble correctly and magnificently in the light; pull up a chair, s’il vous plaît, and enjoy—but not too much; I have a funny feeling that pleasure may also be bourgeois.

Le menu pour le déjeuner d’anniversaire de Le Corbusier
Service: on a paved terrace, overlooking a manicured grassy garden; skyscrapers in the distance; biplane circling overhead

amuse-bouche: L’Esprit Nouveau
Cold cucumber-leek soup with French grey salt
Served in shot glasses with thick black rims

entrée: La Savoye
Poached trout with egg white omelette (taken from hens in harmony with the zeitgeist)
Discreet garnish of serpentine cucumber peel (measuring 5 mm x 4 cm precisely), circular radish slices
Served on square plate

le plat principal: La Ronchamp
Lamb stew with autumn roots and cream; potatoes dauphinoise
Served on rustic ceramic plates made by local Burgundians

le dessert: Vers une bonbon radieuse
Sunlight, oxygen
Served in large portions

Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep. (Le Corbusier, ca. 1927)

Bon Appétit

my birthday dinner for Henry Hobson Richardson

Portrait of H. H. Richardson by Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1886), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Portrait of H. H. Richardson by Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1886), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

It’s conventional—maybe unavoidable—probably preferable—for historians to think about their subjects as real flesh and bones people who lived a lot of average daily life during which they did the few (or perhaps numerous) extraordinary things that have made them worth the attention of later generations. Maybe it’s less common for a historian to spend her mental free time (such as it is) imagining what it would be like to join them for those small events of daily life: say, a birthday dinner, which is where my thoughts turn today, September 29, 171 years after H. H. Richardson was born.

Richardson is one of my heroes. He is one of the rare architects who managed to develop a new idiom that was well received by the architectural profession and the public (so much so by the former that he got a whole style, the Richardsonian Romanesque, named after him). His followers rarely hit the mark so squarely as he did, with his solid but graceful handling of massive masonry highlighted with delicate ornament and carefully-considered details—right down to the mortar beds (look forward to a whole post on Richardson’s mortar in the future; really, they’re fabulous). He was an avid traveler and collected thousands of photographs of architecture throughout Europe, especially in Italy, France (where he studied) and Spain (where he sought influence for some of his most famous buildings). He was described by his friends and clients as warm, affable and interesting. He loved a glass of wine; he loved to eat. And he died very young: at 48, when most architects are just getting warmed up.

Richardson’s biographers (among them, you cannot go wrong with anything written by Jim O’Gorman) report that he died from kidney disease, and no doubt his diet contributed to his demise. This is not a huge surprise after a scan of menu offerings in the 1860s and ‘70s, and knowing that Richardson was a true gourmand—a happy eater, which makes him a great candidate for a dinner date (if one is also a gourmand, likes architecture, and has a time machine and/or vivid imagination). Joining Richardson at, perhaps, the Union Oyster House (one of the country’s oldest restaurants, and which still stands in Boston where Richardson located his practice) for his birthday dinner, what would I share with Henry? Most likely, a whole bunch of animal protein: multiple courses from the menu that featured boiled corned beef, roast turkey, lobster salad, broiled salt mackerel, broiled mutton chops, baked codfish and smoked tongue. Perhaps we would order a side of oyster patties, macaroni au gratin, or boiled tripe (yes, I said tripe); our vegetable choices would include potatoes Lyonnais, radishes, string beans, pickled beets and cabbage, stewed tomatoes, boiled hominy, turnips and boiled onions. Fancy a relish with that, Henry? How about some gooseberry sauce, currant jelly or tomato-walnut ketchup? For “pastry” we could have the ever-popular gooseberries in a pie or molasses pound cake. “Dessert” would follow with lemon or vanilla ice cream, servings of apples, pineapple or watermelon and dishes of figs, almonds, walnuts and raisins. Tea, coffee and/or hot chocolate would round out the meal that would also be drenched with copious selections from the wine list, which for many of these restaurants runs to a length just shy of the Magna Carta, and includes varieties of champagne, sherry, Madeira, sauterne, claret, burgundy and port.

As much as I love staging and participating in nineteenth-century experiences, and as much as I would thrill at the opportunity of sitting at table with Richardson, I admit I would have a fair amount of difficultly swallowing that menu, especially knowing how the food is helping to kill my companion. I wonder if Richardson would have been better off to stay in France, even after his family ran out of money to support his Parisian education: perhaps poached salmon, ratatouille and maybe even the occasional coq au vin would have extended his life and career a bit longer—if he could lay off the buttery omelettes and excessive trips to the fromagerie. But as long as I am directing the time-travels of my favorite Louisiana-born, French-trained nineteenth-century architect, I am going to take Henry to his beloved Spain, where we will have a veggie-rich gazpacho followed by an excellent seafood paella and, since it is his birthday and all, splurge on a slice of tarta di Santiago, which has some eggs, but rather scant butter and flour, but a ton of almonds. Henry, you know it’s much better for you than the churros and chocolate hecho that I know you have your eye on. See, Henry: I know you lived richly, in so many ways, but I wish you had lived longer. How many great buildings died with you?

birthday dinner for Francesco Borromini

St. Ivo della Sapiena, Rome

St. Ivo della Sapienza, Rome

Francesco Borromini was born on 25 September 1599

To memorialize his biography:

Skewered meat (steak kebabs marinated in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic and rosemary), grilled with vegetables, served with more balsamic

To celebrate his architecture:

Perfect vanilla custard ice cream (just milk, cream, egg yolk, sugar and vanilla bean: the simplest, purest ingredients, perfectly managed to great effect). Note: ideally, the ice cream would be sculpted in the form of the negative space in Sant’Ivo della Sapienza, but I do, in actuality, and all evidence to the contrary, have a life.