Welcome to the Frank Furness Zone

"So, What makes a Furnace Frank, Anyway?"

It might seem like kind of an obvious thing to say, but the best way to learn about architecture is by looking at, and walking through, architecture. Close looking and careful description is a requirement for understanding any piece of art on formal terms, and I believe that anyone is entitled to an opinion on the built space we occupy. While these skills can be honed and perfected with time and an expanded vocabulary, the basic skill is simple. Everyone experiences architecture, and art, and everyone has their own opinion about aesthetics, that can be argued (for better and worse).

That being said, I draw the line at hating buildings to death, as so often happened during the Urban Renewal period to the work of Philadelphia Architect Frank Furness. His best buildings, some of the most innovative and visually interesting designs from Philadelphia's 19th century Gilded Age, were the exact kind of overbearing Victorian architecture that became unfashionable in the long urban decline following redlining and white flight. Although his legacy has been rehabilitated through scholarship today, Furness' heavy, masonry buildings and often unsettling, projecting elements - remain criminally underappreciated.

Photograph of Frank Furness

Frank Furness (Penn)

Art Historical method tend to favor the Architects who are prolific writers, which in the 20th century meant vying for prominence in a marketplace of both ideas and commissions. It makes the job of interpretation much easiser to have a manual to guide your understanding of a building which is made as much of material substance as theory. Modern and Postmodern architects, grounded in a theoretical tradition stretching back to ancient times, often relied on paper to argue and define their design philosophies, as it is always cheaper to write than build.

Although Furness participated in this academic scholarly/professional tradition, as evidenced by his role in co-founding the Philadelphia chapter of the AIA, he never wrote deeply of an underlying theory. Therefore, Furness' buildings often must speak for themselves, and in turn, what they communicate is far more open to interpretation.

When I was in college, my architecture professor used to say that one could think of "Frank Furness" to envision the architect's style. The buildings were Frank; that is, their principal parts, such as doors, windows, rooflines, etc; were clearly delineated, reinforcing how one was to "use" the building. In execution, though, his desings contained a fiery, smouldering energy that burned as if forged in a furnace. Full of spiky detail and using solid materials in creative ways.

I think this is a good starting point for discussing in greater detail the works of Frank Furness. On today's show, we will take a close look at the works of Frank Furness, as a starting point for talking about architectural design and the urban environment more broadly. Before moving on to the next section of your workbook, please spend 5 minutes looking at the following four images:

Clockwise from left (click for big): Provident Life And Trust Company (Wikipedia), Fisher Fine Arts Library (Penn), Thomas Hockley House (HABS), Broad Street Station (HABS)

Part 1
Solid, Useful, and Beautiful
The Dummy Thicc Werks of Frank Furn-ass

In Philadelphia, most new construction is made cheaply - of poor materials employed in ways that frequently lead to water intrusion issues scant years after they are built. The construction boom - incentivized by a ten-year tax abatement that drains our public schools and cities of funding - has created a dearth of terrible looking and poorly built architecture - physical manifestations of this regressive tax.

Ironically, this construction frenzy is situated in a city known for its powerful examples of solidly-built masonry architecture and beautiful buildings. Blocks of brick rowhomes and the meticulously maintained Independence Hall both emphasize different kinds of permanence. stands in contrast the powerful examples of solid architecture

Scholarship on the history of Furness’ life, the experiences he had that shaped his worldview, as well as the social ties that provided the commissioning of his work, is less widely-known. What is known - about his personality, philosophy, and aesthetic - often suggests a caricature rather than a fully-fledged human. Which may be fitting, as his sketchbooks featured distorted caricatures of people alongside skillful renderings of architectural ornamentation. And frankly, it might be more interesting to some people, but in the physical world, it seems more relevant to engage first with the form and design of actual things as a starting point, with which we can begin to examine Furness’ experiences and how they may have shaped both his architecture, and that of his contemporaries and students.

Often imitated, Furness was the most prolific among a group of inventive architects vying for commissions from Philadelphia's newly-made wealthy elite, eager to show off their fortunes gained through railroads, manufacturing, and related ventures. He was instrumental early in the career of Louis Sullivan, father of the modern skyscraper, and his designs were so admired that they were copied in other cities.

Why is the architecture of Frank Furness so alluring?

Furness’ buildings revile in their complexities and contrasts. As people smarter than I have argued, Furness was both a “rational and rogue,” with a “violent mind” which seemed to create buildings out of thin air. Furness’ buildings utilize historic elements alongside new technologies, underpinned by a deep understanding of the design elements and planning techniques emphasized by western academic architectural tradition. However, Furness’ designs intentionally play with these principles and aesthetics, distorting elements for dramatic effect, and combining them in unexpected ways.

His design philosophy was total ~ not only did Furness pay close attention to the textures and patterns on the surface of his buildings, he also designed furniture, fixtures, and other interior and exterior elements for his clients.

But what I love about Furness buildings is his ability to manipulate structure and weight; with many of his buildings freely incorporating massive and ornately carved stone, Philadelphia brick, and exposed iron work. Furness knew how to emphasize the underlying structural aspects of the materials he used to emphasize the weight and gravity of building. Many of his buildings contain top-heavy elements which bear down, projecting bold stone elements that over sidewalks.

My favorite quote about Frank Furness comes from the architect Robert Venturi’s Gentle Manifesto, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture:

"The city street facade can provide a type of juxtaposed contradiction that is essentially two-dimensional. Frank Furness' Clearing House (1884), now demolished like many of his best works in Philadelphia, contained an array of violent pressures within a rigid frame.

The half-segmental arch, blocked by the submerged tower which, in turn, bisects the facade into a near duality, and the violent adjacencies of rectangles, squares, lunettes, and diagonals of contrasting sizes, compose a building seemingly held up by the buildings next door.

It is an almost insane short story of a castle on a city street. All these relationships of structure and pattern contradict the severe limitations associated with a facade, a street line, and contiguous row houses.”

~An Acknowledgement~

I was introduced to the architect Frank Furness during my freshman year at Williams College, during a car ride back to Philadelphia with my future neighbor Michael J. Lewis for Thanksgiving Break. With the company of his greyhound, Powder, Mike had been making the drive twice a week most weeks for over a decade, and was used to silence. But we made conversation through the entire five-hour ride. We bonded over our shared love of a TV show, King of the Hill, and a City, Philadelphia - especially its old buildings.

Earlier that semester, I had been introduced - briefly - to the concepts which have remained my passion, namely the study of the built environment, and how humans shape and are shaped by space - in ways both intentional and less so. It had brought into focus a number of things that I had already loved and understood intuitively about cities, and was looking forward to going back home, now equipped with a language to better understand what was happening in the city of World Fucking Champions, 2009’s Philadelphia.

Mike told me all about his path to preservation. How he battled with the Historical Commission countless times in the 1980s and 90s to save architectural treasures. While we compared routes, he pointed out interesting and beautiful buildings along the way. It was only later that I learned he wrote the most complete biography of Frank Furness - Architecture and the Violent Mind; and was responsible for a significant number of the entries in the complete catalogue of the Architect’s works.

Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, these rides embodied the pedagogical aspirations of my alma mater better than anything I experienced afterwards. (Although I came close a few times with Sheafe Satterthwaite; that’s another story for another time.) Even in 2013, Williams made a huge deal out of some man who served as president of the school from 1836-72, Mark Hopkins.

To be fair, he was definitely important and beloved in the history of American Pedagogy. W.E.B. DuBois’ once said:

"There was a time when the American people believed pretty devoutly that a log of wood with a boy at one end and Mark Hopkins at the other, represented the highest ideal of human training. But in these eager days it would seem that we have changed all that and think it necessary to add a couple of saw-mills and a hammer to this outfit, and, at a pinch, to dispense with the services of Mark Hopkins."

While there’s a separate essay to be written about the ways that institutions like my Alma Mater now embody DuBois’ fears; and have moved increasingly towards curricula that often forces students into monetizing their proverbial logs (sorry), this essay, the one you are reading now, is about Frank Furness. However, I am indebted to the handful of rides Mike gave me back to Philadelphia, which were foundational to my passion for the built environment. Each one was its own “log session” - the kind of deep and meaningful education you can only get through conversation.

The only reason I know anything about Frank Furness is because of these car rides.

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June Armstrong | 844 N. Broad St
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