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    COMPETITIONS—
THE VICISSITUDES OF ARCHITECTURE
     
   
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Born in Prague, Leopold Eidlitz (18231908), came to the U.S. in 1843. He had more of a lasting impact through his writings than through his architecture. In fact, many of his ideas influenced the first editors of ARCHITECTURAL RECORD; he wrote several articles for the magazine in its early years.

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Church of the Holy Trinity, New York City, 1853, Leopold Eidlitz, architect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Continental Bank, New York City, 1856–1857, Leopold Eidlitz, architect.

 

 

 

DOCTOR, did I ever tell you what I know about medicine?"

"No," responded the Doctor, dryly, taking a sip of claret, and opening his eyes in my direction as much as to say, ‘I wonder what you know about medicine.’

You see, the Doctor and I had contracted a sort of acquaintance, not to say friendship, while I was building St. Mary’s, and he, next to the Rector, figured as the strongest and most influential member of the Building Committee.

After our morning inspection of the works, he often invited me to his frugal lunch, which included a glass of wine and a cigar.

On these occasions the Doctor gave me his reminiscences of the English cathedrals, nearly all of which he had visited in flighty summer trips to Europe, and quoted Ruskin and Ferguson when our architectural discussions seemed to need reference to authority on his part.

The Doctor enjoyed quite a reputation as a critic of architectural art, also as an expert mechanic, because he spent many of his leisure hours in a workshop attached to his house, where he was known to perfect a machine for stamping pill boxes out of sheet metal on a Japanese principle of two elliptic cups of slight eccentricity fitted over each other. The Doctor often told me when I praised his mechanical ingenuity, that when he was made a physician he feared a good mechanic was spoiled.

And so I liked the Doctor’s claret and cigars, and for that matter also the Doctor himself, for he was a kindly old gentleman who loved St. Mary’s, architecture and mechanics, and who never hated anyone or anything.

I give up all claim to popular sympathy, but many of my professional brethren doubtless know what a terrible thorn in the side of the architect is a man of the Doctor’s description; and then you see I cannot fight him any more than I could a woman or a child. And if I try it by gentle logic or scientific or artistic reasoning, it is of no earthly use, for the Doctor does not know when he is down in an argument, and no man of courage can kick a fellow when he is down whether he knows it or not.

So I made up my mind I would tell him some day what I knew of medicine, and when I saw him open his eyes wide, I plunged into it at once.

"To begin with, Doctor, I inherit medical knowledge from my grandfather, who was a physician, and so were my uncles for that matter. It’s in the blood, you see, on my mother’s side. We must grant that there is something in heredity and environment and early training. Darwin does as much–"

"Fiddlesticks," said the Doctor, "you may inherit from your grandfather mental and physical vigor or defects, but not medical knowledge; and let me tell you that if you did, you would be worse off than if he had been a shoemaker, for you would inherit the medical errors of the times. I venture to say your grandfather bled, cupped and leeched his patients copiously, and suffocated persons suffering from fever in closed rooms. If your mind is in any sense affected by this sort of heredity, it must be disinfected before it can be said to be receptive of true knowledge. It sometimes occurs that the ancestors of eminent men in various walks of life were of the same profession and more or less distinguished; but as a rule great men develop spontaneously without a grain of heredity to show for themselves. So, you want to show me what you know about medicine begin with yourself, and don’t talk about your ancestors."

"Well, Doctor, my parents being poor they boarded a number of medical students, and I may say that I was brought up in an atmosphere of anatomy."

"Good," said the Doctor; "you doubtless played with the bones; but will you tell me what you know of the os tibia, and what is its condition in a child and in a grown person."

"Well, Doctor, I must confess that it has slipped from my mind, if I ever knew it; but then think of he practical experience I gathered as one of a large family of children, who all went through the measles, and the whooping cough, broke their arms and ribs walking on picket fences and swinging on gates, and of the large family of children I have brought up myself, to say nothing of my personal sufferings with dyspepsia and rheumatism. Why, I have tried experimentally on my own person most medicines to he found in the ‘Materia Medica.’ And then I have read much on the Humors of Hipparchus and the Methodism of Gallen, to say nothing of the practice of Sangrado, of modern Water Cures, of the Faith, and Walking Cures. I have visited many of the celebrated baths, and have swallowed many waters from Saratoga to Carlsbad. I should think you might admit that I know something of medicine without doing violence to your professional pride.’’

"My clear fellow," said the Doctor, your conceit is not incompatible with common honesty. It may be explained as the result of profound ignorance. For forty years I have devoted myself to the study and practice of medicine. Forty years ago I graduated with honors, and then I spent five years in Vienna and Berlin at clinical lectures. Since that time I have had a large and lucrative practice, and acquired, as you know, a respectable reputation, not only with laymen, but also among my professional brethren, During these forty years I have devoted much of my time to reading. I will not boast of native genius, but I may say that I conscientiously applied myself to the study of medicine. And what is the result? I am now convinced, and have been so convinced for the last ten Years, that to study medicine with success a man should devote himself to some specialty in order to keep abreast with modern progress, and if possible add something to its acquisitions. How can you talk of what you know of medicine, you who have spent your life in studying architecture, and never had the time to acquire even a smattering of anything else. I might as well talk of what I know of architecture."

"That is just what you do talk about. That is just the point I desired to bring you to by my impudent assertion of what I know of medicine. Please accept it as a complement, a profound trust in your sense of justice, a thorough conviction of your love of fair play, and my utter despair to make you understand the case by any other method. I trust you will forgive me when you realize the enormity of the case. You talk to me of Ruskin and Ferguson, why the Humors of Hipparchus are exact science compared with the speculations of Ruskin on construction, and the ravings of Ferguson on the subject of beauty. If you will he good enough to consider that the anatomy of architecture involves the whole range of mathematics in its application to statical mechanics, that as physiology comprehends a philosophic, historical and ideal conception of the functions of monuments, that its technic in structural combinations and decorative expression demands a laborious training, to be acquired only by hard work and self-denial of many years, and that to compose buildings means a mastery of organisms, which have no model in nature, but must be scientifically and artistically developed on natural laws and not collected, as laymen always suppose, from the surface of existing monuments which almost never express an answer to the problem before the architect. You will admit at once that the suggestions of laymen in architecture are not unlike those of the dear old ladies who are found around the sick bed. And yet the doctor may listen to them and ignore them when he writes the prescription, while the architect is asked to submit his design to the judgment of just such a court and jury."

The Doctor was evidently ruffled. He looked straight at his wine glass for a minute or two and puffed great volumes of smoke from his cigar; then he raised his head, and looked it me in a dazed sort of way, and then gradually melted into a smile.

"Why! you applied to me what we doctors call a heroic remedy; but when I come to think of it, I have no right to be offended, because I am cured. But pray tell me how you architects got into this slough of despond?’’

"Architectural and lay human weakness," said I. "To begin with, there is the weakness of the young architect. I wish I could describe to you the mental porosity and effervescence of the immature architectural brain, its illogical gyrations around in axis which is purely a mathematical line and has no foundation in fact, its gymnastics and attitudes, its gaseous inflations and its pyrotechnic explosions. But then it would be of no practical use, the whole thing is so visionary you would not believe it. But I can try it from your standpoint. What is the process by which the young physician gets into practice? He works among the poor. A child filled with green apples is a godsend to him. He gets up nights to visit the woman suffering from compound hysterics and strong drink, and he hopes for the hod-carrier who may fall from the third story and break his head and legs, not from malice to the hod-carrier, nor for the money it will bring him, but purely from a desire to show to the world that he can heal the sick and mend the broken of limb. Now this young doctor has spent years in the study of medicine, he has walked the hospitals, and he knows that he can render services to society as a physician. But to be employed it is necessary that society shall know what he can do; in fact, he must have a reputation.

"It is not so with the young architect. He is not content to hang out his sign and wait for clients—humble clients at first, and others more important afterwards, for very good reasons. In the first place his announcement to the world that he will henceforth do the work of an architect does not imply that he knows how to do it. There is no law which compels him to pass through a prescribed course of studies before he presents himself for professional employment, as is the case with the young physician. In the next place, both he and his client imagine that his merits may be determined from his designs, his drawings, sketches, etc., which is a radical error."

"You mean to say," the Doctor here interrupted, "that a layman cannot tell the nature and architectural merit of a building from a design of it?"

"No more than they can the merit of a physician from his prescriptions. A physician’s prescription is an empirical formula intended to alleviate abnormal physical conditions indicated by a scientific diagnosis. The prescription being written in characters incomprehensible to the layman, he is content, in his avowed ignorance, to abstain from an attempt to inquire into the rationale of the diagnosis. An architectural design is a scientific, logical, deduction from certain fundamental facts unfortunately presented in a more or less artistic form. This form conveys an idea to the uneducated as well as to the intelligent mind of varying artistic merit. The more obtuse the observer the better he will like it. To critically place it at its true value requires analytical acumen of the highest order. Hence it is that men select their physicians, lawyers, engineers, etc., by consulting the opinion of experts as to their professional merit, or, what is equivalent to this, by their reputation, but they think they can judge of the merits of an architect by their likes and dislikes of his drawings.

"There are architects who have a fair technical training, know something of æsthetics, have passed through an academic course of architecture at some respectable institution, have seen as well as read of the monuments of the world and have in addition to this some practice under the guidance of an architect of reputation. Their number, however, is small; I should say not more than three per cent of the architectural population of the country."

"What of the other ninety-seven per cent?" asks the Doctor.

"To answer this question let me observe briefly that all knowledge begins with a cursory observation of the appearance of things. Take astronomy for instance. Antiquity contemplated the stars as aggregations resembling animate and inanimate forms. The question was not what Is the magnitude, distance, motion, constituent matter of these stars; but what is the physiognomy of the starry heavens. Alchemy attempted to produce a metal that should look like gold, From Aristotle to Lavater endless volumes have been written to show how physical and mental conditions of men may be determined by their external appearance.

"Architecture to the ninety-seven per cent is at this day only the more or less critical examination of the appearance and feature of monuments. Mr. Shandy’s account of Slawkenbergeus, if mythical, is nevertheless allegorically applicable to modern popular notions on architecture; it is very much a study of noses.

"Let me tell you a story of my young friend, John, as an object-lesson of architectural human weakness. John visits me at my office from time to time, to get my advice, as he says, to follow his own, as I know. [continued]

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Posted 08/03