Henry Hobson Richardson : architect biography

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Henry Hobson Richardson
Henry Hobson Richardson
Henry Hobson Richardson
Henry Hobson Richardson

Henry Hobson Richardson

Henry Hobson Richardson architect Henry Hobson Richardson was born at the Priestly Plantation in Louisiana on September 29, 1838. During his brief but productive career of 21 years Henry Hobson Richardson had perfected building solutions and design formulas for a wide range of building types, many of which were new to his age: smalltown and large-scale libraries, campus buildings, train stations, cathedrals, courthouses, city halls, state capitals, the commercial block, and the suburban home.

As a gauge to the important role Henry Hobson Richardson attained in his day, the Amercian Architect and Building News in 1885 polled its readers for, "the ten buildings which the subscriber believes to be the most successful examples of architectural design in the country." Of the top 10 choices, half were by Henry Hobson Richardson. Trinity Church, Boston (1872-1877) was voted first (nominated by 84% of the voters). Also on the list were these works by Henry Hobson Richardson: Albany City Hall, Albany, N.Y. (1880-82); Sever Hall, Harvard University (1880-1882); New York State Capital (1867-1898); Town Hall, North Easton, Mass. (1879-1881). At the time of his death in April 1886 at the age of 47, Henry Hobson Richardson was at the peak of his career, and the architecture that Henry Hobson Richardson had raised to a national style and that bore his name-Richardsonian Romanesque-could not be ignored by aspiring young architects who hoped to fall heir to his architectural dynasty. However, as evidenced by the assortment of buildings selected as Richardson 's best, there was no consistent agreement as to what constituted the basis for his achievements even by his peers. Much, then, that would be mimicked in Richardson 's work did not strike at the heart of his style.

Today, the term Richardsonian Romanesque is perhaps one of the most generalized stylistic categories in architecture; its vagueness allows one to apply the term to nearly any structure from the mid-1870s to the turn of the century that used rock-faced granite ashlar, one or more apparent arches, or a host of architectural features that one associates automatically with the master, namely, eyebrow windows, octagonal library rooms, short stubby columns, or the so-called "Loire dormers." Oddly, the term maintained as much latitude at the end of the nineteenth century as it does today, and an architect who mimicked all or any of these typologic elements could legitimize his end product by referring to it as Richardsonian. But these disparate parts in themselves do not begin to constitute the essence of Richardson 's style; they are simply part of the design vocabulary that accompanies a more vital grammar. Instead, these design elements are synthesized into a powerful language that emerges from a very conscious and consistent design process that most Richardsonians failed to perceive.

Richardson 's architecture, when analyzed according to the basic forms it assumed, presents a reliable key to the underlying creative formulas that would lend his total work the qualities of consistency, strength, clearness of conception, and repose. This article will provide a formalistic study of Richardson 's architecture based on an examination of his preliminary sketches and completed work as abstract forms in an attempt to establish what patterns emerge in his work and to identify the essential qualities that make Richardson 's reinterpretation of historic styles (such as the Romanesque) distinctive. Through such a study, it will be seen that Richardson 's approach remains relatively static and (after Sever Hall, 1878) responds little to changes in material or civic or domestic programs, because what is given from the first sketch is a Richardsonian formula-a consistent aesthetic response applied to five architectural formats, within which all functions are sensitively arranged and clearly expressed. It is inappropriate, then, to make distinctions of substyles within Richardson 's mature work (ie, the Queen Anne, the shingle style, or Romanesque) on the basis of the materials used or the typologic elements employed-they are simply Richardsonian. Henry Hobson Richardson developed many of his design principles and his design process while at the Ecole des Beaux Arts (from 1859 to 1865, but principally in 1861). Henry Hobson Richardson was the second American to study at the Ecole (preceded only by Richard Morris Hunt). There, a student was required (generally within a day's time) to establish a parti or schema that incorporated the required program and to present an esquisse (quick sketch). Both the parti and the esquisse would then be developed into scaled and tinted drawings and be presented to the patron of the atelier for criticism, the final presentation having not deviated at all from the primary elements of the original esquisse.

Through a study of the various schemes for buildings, which are recorded on the numerous sketches by Henry Hobson Richardson (mainly in the possession of Harvard's Houghton Library), certain observations can be made. One notices, for example, the tendency to rely on imposing rooflines (which after 1875 are usually unbroken along the ridge) as an organizing element and as a means of achieving repose. The roofline, by providing a strong visible statement, lends unity to the design as a whole as opposed to the nervous profiles of Queen Anne and Victorian Gothic forms; this is found to be true even in his Watts-Shennan house of 1874, where there is a piling up of rooflines. The front gable in this structure, nevertheless, rules supreme in the hierarchical arrangement of forms and establishes a focal point. By stretching the roof outline nearly two stories down to the masonry construction of the first floor, it visually unites the home with the earth and reinforces the human scale of the structure. This covering" quality of the roof is especially apparent in Richardson 's designs for the North Easton and Chestnut Hill railroad stations. In these examples, the roof fully embraces (and nearly smothers) the structure below as it overtly expresses its function to shield passengers and carriages from the elements.

The roof, then, lends monumentality as well as unity (compositional, spatial, and textural) by its forceful presence and at the same time becomes a symbol of home or shelter. This play of monumentality and domesticity can be merged (as in the Watts-Sherman house) or manipulated for its associative aspects to achieve the desired results. Henry Hobson Richardson effectively used roof forms as a symbol to temper or reinforce the impact Henry Hobson Richardson desired in a building. For example, Henry Hobson Richardson would use a very apparent hip roof to temper the impersonal quality of a tall and expansive civic building, such as the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce (1886-1888), or to help stretch the horizontal lines of Harvard's Sever Hall while serving to relate it conceptually to colonial structures nearby. When unbroken rooflines were coupled with uniform surface treatment and tight wall surfaces, Henry Hobson Richardson had achieved the basic ingredients of his mature style. Note the powerful image of the Glessner house. The long gable ridge line, parallel rows of rock-faced granite ashlar, and forceful expanse of uninterrupted wall (150 ft long) all serve to reinforce horizuntality and continuity of planar surfaces while establishing a weighty and rooted presence. Yet, the house form, when viewed abstractly, takes on the appearance of a simply central-hall eighteenth-century Colonial domestic structure with an attached ell. This visual alignment with familiar Colonial house forms was an attempt to balance the assertive design gestures of the explosion of scale, rugged wall surface, and inordinate length that otherwise counter the associations of home. It was Richardson 's ability to pull forms across the surface of the building and to use expressive building materials skillfully that transformed this simply domestic outline into a monumental structure. At the same time, Richardson 's handling of uniform surface texture within a unified wall plane preserved visual unity despite the variety of features and demonstrates how Henry Hobson Richardson had reconciled the use of singular picturesque elements of Queen Anne styling to be compatible with his design philosophy of a unified whole. The window and door openings in the Glessner house, for example, withdraw into the wall mass, allowing the wall to assert itself even further as a singular element. Individual elements (such as the Saracenic arch that leads to the service wing) maintain their own life and personality, but not just as singular sensational elements that call out for attention (as in Queen Anne styling); instead, they become subordinate parts of a larger compositional scheme. Henry Hobson Richardson, having relied heavily on Queen Anne design features and handling earlier in his career, resists (after 1878) sacrificing the whole to the power of its parts.

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Henry Hobson Richardson, then, through the manipulation of rooflines and materials, is able to lend his domestic structures monumentality and his monuments, domesticity. The use of the roofline as a domineering and symbolic element provides the viewer with the simplest (though perhaps the most forceful) organizing scheme. Close observation of Richardson 's sketches also reveals that except for his earliest works, such as the Unity Church (Springfield, 1866-1869), and when it was necessary to compromise his design for economic reasons, as in the case of the Emmanuel Episcopal church, Henry Hobson Richardson generally avoided placing entrances at the gable end of a building, preferring instead to place the entrance on axis with the long side of a building. The gable entrance structures generally signal the still immature phase of his work when in 1865, having returned from his studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the young architect was groping for architectural inspiration. Having had little practical experience designing churches while in Paris, Henry Hobson Richardson relied on English precedents for parish churches built by architects such as Butterfield and Burgess whose works were constantly illustrated in English periodicals.

What quickly developed, however, from these early church formats, when combined with the rationalist training at the Ecole in cross-axial planning, was merely a reorientation of focus in the nave-transept-apse arrangement. The standard cruciform format was later merely shifted so that one enters through the "transept" and a long horizontal wall is allowed to assert itself. This orientation was actually prompted by the predilection of English Gothic churches to have the primary entrance through the side (north porch) rather than the front portals (as the French prefer). One notices in the massing for the Grace Church in Medford, Massachusetts, as early as 1867-1869 that Henry Hobson Richardson is already well on his way to establishing the basis for his later library parti-employing the tower-gable-arch grouping (still separate elements in Grace Church) on axis with the long side of the building and using the apse area as a reading room, especially the Winn and Billings libraries).

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