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Frank Furness: the Poetry of the Present

In 1888, when most American architects were turning to marble classicism of the granite of Richardson´s Romanesque, Frank Furness designed the University of Pennsylvania´s library in fiery red brick. Though there are hints of history in its gargoyles, Penn´s new library was a conflation of towers, chimneys, sky lighted rooms and foundry-like clerestoried halls whose closest sources were the factories of Philadelphia.

In Furness´s career of more than 700 commissions, the University Library was not an aberration. From the 1870s into the early twentieth century, brick was his customary material while functional rather than associative expression gave form to his buildings. Equally striking was Furness´s use of iron. Where John Ruskin had confidently predicted that iron would never become an important building material because it was not commonly used as a metaphor in the Bible, Furness anticipated modern design by giving iron a central architectural role.

Furness´s and by extension, Philadelphia´s architecture was distinct from that of other American cities because it served a work culture rooted in engineering and industry, in contrast to the more international cultures of finance, commerce, and academics that dominated New York and Boston. Like most Philadelphia institutions of the era, the majority of the University of Pennsylvania´s Trustees came from engineering and industry. These were not laymen whose expertise was the amassing of capital. Fairman Rogers, trained as a civil engineer, had resolved the problem of compass deviation in iron ships for the Navy. John Henry Towne headed great iron foundries and endowed the University' scientific school. The University provost, William Pepper, was a medical doctor with an interest in research science. William Sellers, head of Penn´s Board after the Civil War, was the premier mechanical engineer of his day, designing and manufacturing the great machines that made Philadelphia the world capital of heavy industry. British judges at the Centennial stated that the Sellers exhibition outshone all machines ever exhibited in any world´s fair for the "beautiful outlines that are imparted to each structure by the correct proportions that have been worked out in the determining of strength and form and the disposal of material to take full share of the duty". A century later, Sellers was still remembered for making the form of the machine "follow the functions to be performed".

Furness´s ability to make buildings "out of his head," in pupil Louis Sullivan´s phrase, linked his method to the Philadelphia world of work. This approach resonated with the values of Furness´s father´s close friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had preached that America should turn away from Europe to find her own arts in the principles of nature and modern engineering and railroads. In the generation of Furness´s youth, beginning in the 1850s, Philadelphia locomotive engineers had defined a new type of beauty that lay in the relation of forms to their function - an approach that Furness´s family friend Walt Whitman called "organic." In the same decade, industrial design that eschewed extraneous ornament for a direct expression of function through form was described as typical of Philadelphia:

The machine work executed in the leading establishments of Philadelphia, is distinguished by certain characteristics, which enable a competent judge to detect a Philadelphia-made machine by the "earmarks." Excellence of material, solidity, an admirable fitting of the joints, a just proportion and arrangement of the parts, and a certain thoroughness and genuineness, are qualities that pervade the machine work executed in Philadelphia, and distinguish it from all other American-made machinery. (Freedley, Manufactures in Philadelphia, 1858)

A generation later, the same modern qualities in Philadelphia-made locomotives elicited similar comments from British judges at the Centennial Exhibit:

The painting and general finish of the engine is planned with a view to quiet and harmonious effect, and is based upon the principle that the purpose for which a locomotive is used does not admit of any merely ornamental devices: but that its beauty, so far as it may have any, should depend upon good proportions and through adaptation of the various parts to their uses. (Judges´ Report, Centennial Exhibition, 1876)

To clients who were at home in a boardroom or a factory, Furness´s direct use of brick and iron in forms that expressed function would have seemed unremarkable. In a city where machine form denoted purpose, it would only have been surprising had Furness not made his architecture of modern materials and in forms that reflected function. This quality animates Furness´s best buildings such as the B&O station and the University Library. They have the raw impact of giant machines even as they transcended their materials to become a summa of the industrial age. This directness of expression has defined Philadelphia architecture from Furness to Howe, to Kahn, and to Venturi.

In the 1890s, when the University of Pennsylvania´s leadership changed from a scientist to a financier, Furness was fired and replaced as campus architect by the firm of Cope and Stewardson. Their designs in the academic Gothic mode became Penn´s twentieth-century image, marking Philadelphia´s shift toward the national mainstream of historically based design. Albert Kelsey, a veteran of Furness´s office who had continued to maintain contact with Sullivan, was outraged. Noting that Penn´s first graduates had been leaders of the American Revolution, he asked the effect on young students working in modern labs of a campus, "But what inspiration might they not impart if they reflected the poetry of the present as well as they suggest the romance of an alien past!" In the 1890s, the triumphs of the Beaux-Arts and historicism made Furness´s work seem bizarre; it would be half a century before the library was appreciated again. In 1957, when Sullivan´s pupil Frank Lloyd Wright visited Penn to see the library, he proclaimed, "It is the work of an artist."

George E. Thomas By Permission