President, Ian Firth, looks at five outstanding structures celebrating 90 year anniversaries in 2017.

What was happening 90 years ago?  It was the Roaring Twenties – the age of Art Deco, Surrealism and Impressionism, and a period characterised by many new technological advances. The streets were filling up rapidly with new "motor cars", and in 1927, Charles Lindbergh made the first solo flight over the Atlantic. People were enjoying greater freedoms and prosperity as the world shook off the restrictions of the previous decade, and listened to jazz and danced the Charleston. It was the time of prohibition and the speakeasy, and the great depression of 1929 was just around the corner. 

Buildings and structures were built which set whole new trends in construction, including a rapid growth in tall buildings, reflecting the new age of steel and the development of the elevator and escalator. Strong geometric shapes created a modern look, and many of these buildings still look fresh and modern even now.

I hope you enjoy reading about the small selection of 90-year structures for this month.  These examples were all completed in 1927 and all are still in use.

1    The Paramount Building, 1501 Broadway, New York City

1501 Broadway, also known as the Paramount Building, is a 113m high, 33-storey office building in Times Square, which once housed the Paramount Theatre. It was built as the headquarters for Paramount Pictures, one of the major American film companies at the time, together with the cinema/theatre. Construction lasted a year and cost $13.5 million, and at the time of its completion in 1927 it was the tallest building in Times Square.

Paramount Building(Image source: Wikimedia Commons, author: Ingfbruno)

The Chicago based architects, Rapp and Rapp, had designed numerous theatres in the Midwest and were hired by Paramount to design their new flagship theatre and office tower in Manhattan. They created a 33-storey office block, heavily influenced by the Art Deco style, with a theatre in the palatial Neo-Renaissance style behind it. The theatre had 3,664 seats and served as the venue where the company's major films were premiered. It also contained one of the largest and most admired Wurlitzer organs which was used to accompany silent movies. The theatre closed in 1964 to be torn down and replaced by additional office space.

The entrance at the front of the building was marked by a five-storey arch on Broadway. A long gallery passed from there through the office building to reach the theatre at the rear of the building. This structure included a long, grand lobby along the south end, which opened into the auditorium facing the stage at the north end. The lobby was modelled after the Paris Opera House with white marble columns, balustrades and an opening arms grand staircase.

Today, the Paramount Building is a busy office building, and is known for its large, four-faced clock with the hours denoted by five-pointed stars (forming a circle of stars as used in the Paramount Pictures logo), topped by an ornamental glass globe. The ornamental décor was characteristic of the period, with fresco ceilings, brass railings, Greek statues and busts carved in wall niches, and grandiose toilets and waiting rooms. The highlight of the décor was an enormous crystal chandelier in the main lobby.

2    The Butin Bridge, Geneva, Switzerland

I wanted to include this rather unusual bridge not just because it is unusual, with its double level arrangement, but also because the design has an interesting authorship.

The bridge is a reinforced concrete arch structure, 270m long overall with five 48m spans, carrying a highway over the River Rhône between the communities of Lancy and Vernier. It was also designed to carry a railway at a lower level, in a gallery below the highway, but this was never built, being provided instead much later a short distance away on the Junction Viaduct.
Construction began in 1916, with work interrupted after the collapse of a pile in 1924. The bridge was finally completed at a cost of about 11 million francs. The bridge was widened in 1970 to add two traffic lanes, and it was substantially renovated in 2000. To my eyes the bridge appears rather heavy and inelegant, and the added width created a cantilevered deck which casts an unfortunate shadow partly concealing the gallery of arches.  But what really intrigues me is the design authorship.

Butin Bridge(Image source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain).

The design was the successful entry to a design competition, attributed to the famous architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier. Jeanneret had no engineering background, so he turned to French engineer, Max Du Bois, for assistance. Although trained as an engineer, Du Bois was an administrator, so he delegated the responsibility for most of the engineering calculation to his colleague, Juste Schneider.

Jeanneret was very demanding of Du Bois, and expected in-depth investigations, very detailed drawings and specifications within very short timescales. Why Du Bois was so obliging one can only speculate, but all the design was carried out for free by Du Bois/Schneider in Paris, with Jeanneret directing matters by wartime mail from Switzerland.

As the competition deadline approached, Jeanneret became increasingly demanding, requiring instant responses from Du Bois, in spite of the difficulties of the wartime postal service, to all sorts of detailed questions. But with a mad last minute rush, Du Bois eventually managed to hand-deliver "Jeanneret's design" to the competition authority just in time. Le Corbusier was evidently very pleased with "his" design, and included it in his published complete works, but without giving any credit whatsoever to Du Bois or Schneider: some things never change! I don't know about you, but I never knew that Le Corbusier had done a bridge.

Reference: "Le Corbusier's Formative Years: Charles-Edouard Jeanneret at La Chaux-de-Fonds" by H Allen Brooks

3    The LeVeque Tower, Columbus, Ohio

The LeVeque Tower is a 47-storey Art Deco-style building in Columbus, Ohio. It is 555 feet 6 inches (169.32 m) tall, which at the time of its completion made it the fifth tallest building in the world. Located at 50 West Broad Street, it was the tallest building in Columbus from 1927 until 1974, when the Rhodes State Office Tower was completed. 

The tower was originally only going to be around 480 feet (150 m) tall, but for promotional purposes it was decided to increase it to 555.5 feet (169.3 m) tall so it would be 1 foot (305 mm) taller than the Washington Monument. This aspect of the building was often played up in marketing campaigns, but today, using better measuring devices, the tower has been shown to be actually only 7⁄8 inch (22 mm) taller!

LeVeque Tower(Image source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
The tower was commissioned by the American Insurance Union and originally called the "American Insurance Union Citadel" (AIU Citadel for short). It was designed by architect C. Howard Crane and cost approximately $8 million to construct. 

The tower is a steel-frame structure covered in glazed architectural terra-cotta tiles with an oak-bark texture. The foundations are on bedrock, and were constructed using a system similar to that used for the foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge towers. Sealed caissons were sunk into the ground, and excavation was carried out by hand within the pressurized interior. This method was necessary due to the proximity to the Scioto River, which meant that ground water was only just below the surface. This method was, however, very slow due to the short shifts necessitated by working in the pressurised caisson and the time taken to allow for depressurisation each time workers emerged from their shift. It was also extremely costly in equipment and power requirements, and very demanding on the labourers. 

Sadly, five people lost their lives during the construction of the tower. One fell during construction of the steel frame, and four died during construction of the foundations. A pocket of noxious gas was encountered during the dig, and the gas overwhelmed the workers who fell into the deep excavation.
Originally, the building's exterior featured a large number of sculptures. However, for safety reasons many of these had to be removed because the terra-cotta began to crumble and fall to the street. Some were also removed so that Mr. LeVeque could have a better view from his office!

4    The Peace Bridge

This famous bridge crosses the Niagara River at the East End of Lake Erie on the border between the USA (the city of Buffalo, New York) and Canada (Fort Erie, Ontario), about 12 miles upriver from the Niagara Falls. It was named the Peace Bridge to commemorate 100 years of peace between the United States and Canada.

Completed in 1927, the Peace Bridge consists of five arched spans over the Niagara River and a through-truss span over the Black Rock Canal on the American side of the river. The overall length is 1.8 km and 9,000 tons of structural steel was used in its construction.

Peace Bridge(Image source: Wikimedia Commons, author: Wouter)
The official opening ceremony was on August 7, 1927, with about 100,000 in attendance. The festivities were featured in the first international coast-to-coast radio broadcast. Newspapers at the time estimated that as many as 50 million listeners may have heard it. Dignitaries attending the dedication ceremonies included The Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII), Prince George, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, U.S. Vice President Charles Dawes, Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, New York Governor Al Smith and Ontario Premier Howard Ferguson. 

The superstructure consists of riveted steel arches with reinforced concrete deck slabs. It was originally designed to support two highway traffic lanes and two rail tracks. Although the supporting structural steel is in place to support the tracks, they were never installed, and today the bridge has been modified to carry three lanes of traffic.

More recently, a design competition was held for a new bridge across the river adjacent to this old bridge. and generated a lot of interest. But the new bridge has yet to see the light of day. Hopefully it will in the not too distant future. 

5    Weissenhof Estate, Stuttgart, Germany

Here we return to Le Corbusier, who designed two buildings for the Weissenhof Estate, a housing estate built for an exhibition in Stuttgart in 1927. This was conceived, particularly in the context of the straightened economic circumstances following WW1, as an international showcase for new materials and construction methods in architecture and was overseen by Mies van der Rohe.  

Architects Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Bruno Taut were among those who contributed to 21 buildings in this experiment. The two buildings designed by Le Corbusier (Houses 14 and 15) were intended as models for mass housing, and feature modular construction methods and mobile partitions to allow a flexible use of space. They have now been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, along with several other of his works.
Many of the original 21 buildings no longer survive. Bomb damage during WW2 is responsible for the complete loss of some and others were demolished later. The buildings consisted of terraced and detached houses and apartment buildings, and although varied in form they displayed a strong consistency of design. What they have in common are their simplified facades, flat roofs used as terraces, bands of windows, open plan interiors, and the high level of prefabrication which permitted their erection in just five months. 

Weissenhof Estate(Source: Wikimedia Commons, author: qwesy qwesy)

Recognising that an exhibition of modern architecture would lack credibility without the participation of Le Corbusier, who had become immensely influential at the time, Mies invited him, together with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, to design two detached residences for educated, middle-class families. Le Corbusier designed both structures in reinforced concrete to embody the essence of his Five-Point manifesto: pilotis (the use of columns to lift the building above the ground plane), the roof garden, the free plan, the long window, and the free façade.  

A key innovation of the building was the transformable open living space that could be subdivided into multiple sleeping compartments with sliding partitions. A true “machine for living," Le Corbusier envisioned architecture that was designed with the same precision and logic of automobiles and airplanes, and used the phrase "engineer's architecture". His Houses 14 and 15 demonstrate this principle to the extreme, producing what many considered to be efficiency and pragmatism to the point of impracticality. The exhibition was both a valuable learning experience for Modernists and an essential moment in the formalization of the International Style. 


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