Sunday, October 4, 2009

PEOPLE'S GAS. In Defense of Detail

It is true that much of the Detail on the facade of the People's Gas Building is not clearly visible from the street. And that only the broadest sense of design is perceived from a speeding taxi. But when viewed from an adjacent building, the detail is not only clear, it is remarkable. And when viewed from a distance, the logic of composition is also clear. And from that taxi -- it is a memorable blur of columns and light.

Daniel Burnham, and his designer, Peirce Anderson, understood the subtle nuances of scale. A building, (or a masterplan, for that matter) is perceived at a variety of speeds and distances, at a variety of times and during any number of recurrences. And while heavy massing at People's corners may seem without logic while standing adjacent, their statement of stability won't be missed from Grant Park. The delicate and intricate patterns carved into each stone are for the benefit of the neighbors. Not for us down below. Those missing eagles - would have been seen from inside and out. And perhaps noticed only the second or third visit. The list is almost endless. Some examples are shown below.

It is the lack of detail - any detail - that is my singlemost criticism of most architecture that follows WWII. A building's entire statement is most often a single gesture, understood at first glance. Leaving nothing left to give. Nothing left to learn.

People's Gas, on the other hand, has much to give. And whether it is a gift that is theoretically appreciated or opposed -- or simply considered precious antique -- it is a piece of architecture that speaks directly from turn-of-the-century Chicago and directly from the man who shaped much of what we are, and how we see ourselves.

Well worth a second look, I would say.

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