Jenney in Paris

Today’s sessions dealt with Paris in the late 1850s, and whether developments there influenced Jenney while he was in school. One paper went so far as to find the actual apartments that Jenney occupied during his time at the Ecole Centrale, while others looked at the state of city planning–this was serious Haussmann era—and of iron construction in the city, particularly Gare Ste. Lazare.

This is a valid question, of course, and any researcher who has run across an interesting coincidence of subject and major event has been tempted to draw similar parallels. Jenney in Paris during the Haussmann era is only slightly less tempting than Buckminster Fuller in the navy during 1920s airship trials–to name one example.

In this case, I’m skeptical of some connections, more convinced by others. It’s hard not to see in Jenney’s park plans (of which more tomorrow) the impact of the mid-1850s Victorian picturesque, but that wasn’t only in Paris, and it would have permeated his clients’ tastes as well as his own. As to Haussmann, Jenney never participated in the Chicago Plan–he retired a few years before his death in 1907 and so wasn’t anywhere near the Commercial Club’s work. Again, his park designs showed little taste for demolishing huge tracts of land to achieve broad boulevards–so if anything this might have been a negative influence,

I found the suggestion of iron construction in Paris at the time to be a more convincing influence. Any student of construction or engineering then would have been familiar with Gare Ste. Lazare, of course: it was probably the leading case study and it represented the latest in metal engineering. Jenney undoubtedly saw it, and who wouldn’t be inspired? On the other hand, dozens of his classmates saw the same thing, and none of them came up with the skyscraper as a giant railway truss turned on its end.

More convincing to me has been the suggestion that it was his military and railway careers that suited him best for skyscraper engineering. Any architect’s college education ends up having at best a tangential relationship to their career. As teachers, we know only too well that what we teach today will be largely irrelevant in twenty years when students become project designers. Jenney’s training suited him–clearly–for his early military and railway career. But how much he took from the Ecole Centrale directly, as opposed to through the filters of these early, formative experiences, is another question altogether, one that is provocative, and entertaining, but ultimately unknowable.

Tomorrow focuses on his landscape designs and his buildings. I’m in the latter camp, along with Gerald Larson (in absentia), Sara Wermiel, and Robert Bruegmann, among others. An intimidating group on the podium to be sure…

jenney symposium, Paris

I’m in Paris this week for a symposium sponsored by the Ecole Centrale honoring William Le Baron Jenney, who received his degree here in 1858. They’ve assembled a good range of presenters, whose expertise collectively points out what a polymath Jenney was. In addition to the iconic Chicago skyscrapers, Jenney was a rail and military engineer, a landscape architect, and a residential designer–his works in these last two spheres alone would have made him at least a moderately important name in American architecture.

Today’s session focused on the Ecole itself, which was something of an antidote to the better one own Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Jenney himself critiqued Beaux-Arts graduates as able to draw better than they were able to build, and the Ecole Centrale offered a far more practically-minded education. Their curriculum included dedicated building technology classes alongside those in classical composition, and there was a required public works track as well. We saw a bit of that in talks today, and I have to say their tech curriculum seemed awfully SCI-ECHy–single lectures on a lot of topics, followed by design problems that synthesized major ideas. Interestingly, these were issued as only exercises: they weren’t public competitions like those at the Beaux-Arts.

We get more into Jenney’s life tomorrow, and then Wednesday is full of American scholars discussing Jenney’s landscape and building work. I’ve enjoyed meeting historians and archivists from the Chicago Park District and the Art Institute today–collectively we have managed to work our way through the French presentations, which has been a bonding experience…