As a sophomore in high school, I went many times to look at catalogues of colleges to which I might apply.
At the time, I could have told you about the grand staircase in the lobby and about the huge Audubon bird book encased in plastic nearby. And I could tell you about the musty aroma of the newspaper room.
What did the library building look like? Uh, maybe I knew it was built with bricks. Other than that, I could tell you nothing. Like most Americans, I didn’t have a clue about how to look at a building, or why I might even want to.
All that changed my sophomore year in college. At an overseas campus program in Britain, I chanced to take some architectural history classes. I learned about some of the architectural eras from the classical to Modern. I visited several of the great cities of Europe and wandered through cathedral after cathedral. While many of my fellow students were bored by cathedrals, I stood in wonder at their size, their artistry and their amazing engineering feats – long before the days of scientific engineering.
I learned to stop and look at buildings – just for the sake of looking. And I never tired of it. To this day, when I plan to venture into a new city, I do research to see what significant buildings there are to see. No wonder, then, that upon my return to Portland one of my first missions was to see buildings in my own environment – really for the first time.
One of the first I looked at was the Multnomah County Central Library – in all of its early 20th Century Georgian Revival beauty. Frankly, I stood still in awe while taking in the brick and limestone façade, its paired pilasters at the corners, its three elegant arched entrances and the symmetrically-spaced large windows at the second floor, the balustrade topping the eaves. This was, to my mind, one of the greatest buildings anywhere in Portland. After admiring it for several decades, I still feel the same way.
The origins of Georgian architecture relate to England in the 18th Century -- the reign of King George III -- when the manufacture of bricks made them a study and cost-effective construction choice. The architecture quickly migrated to the Colonies, despite contempt for King George. Thus Americans often call the style "colonial" rather than Georgian.
The library was an early downtown achievement from the architectural office of A.E. Doyle, whose firms designed about 20 downtown buildings – still more than any other firm in Portland. Besides his work downtown, Doyle designed the English Gothic buildings at the heart of the Reed College campus. Doyle’s own story was equally interesting, as a largely self-taught architect whose career thrived in the Roaring 20s, but was cut short by his death from a kidney disease in 1928.
The library was built on a tight budget. Doyle kept costs down by eliminating interior hallways and scrimping on additional exterior adornment he had in mind. An interesting and inexpensive adornment was the inscription of the names of many of history’s greatest writers and thinkers on spandrels below the large windows. Regardless of its simplicity, the library’s beauty and excellent proportions shine through.
The library comes to mind these days because changes are afoot for the landscaping within balustrades that adjoin sidewalks on three sides of the building. We shall explore these revisions in this space next week.
An elementary guide to looking at buildings
Meanwhile, if you are not accustomed to stopping and looking at buildings, here are some basic suggestions that might be helpful:
1) What holds the building up? Wood? Stone? Brick? Steel frame? Reinforced concrete? The structure is a determining factor in what happens next.
2) What is the building’s function? Does the design reflect one or more uses within its spaces? What effect do you think the architect was trying to achieve?
3) What is the overall nature of the façade? Is it symmetrical, or non-symmetrical?
4) Look at the placement of the windows. Do they follow a pattern?
5) Look for “decorations.” Are there columns? Brackets at the eaves? Casings atop or around the windows? Balustrades?
6) Is there a historical “style” present? This is particularly useful in looking at “old” buildings. Classical? Georgian? Italianate? Romanesque? Second French Empire? Gothic? Art Deco? This will require a little research on your part to learn about historical styles, but it is easy to find basic examples on the internet.
I hope these basic guidelines will give you a greater appreciation of the human-built environment, and add richness to your lives in the way it has in mine. The next time you go near a building that is important in your life, stop for a moment and LOOK at it. Take it all in. Perhaps for the first time.