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Purcell & Elmslie, Architects: Parabiography
Spoken by William Gray Purcell
Pasadena, 1949

Historical Commentary on American Architecture of 1910 - 1920

Editor's note from transcriber Richard Kronick: Above is the hand-written text on the box that contains the original reel-to-reel recording. This recording is contained in the William Purcell Papers, in the Northwest Architectural Archives, a component of the University of Minnesota Libraries in Minneapolis. Following is my transcription of Purcell’s spoken text with emphasis added to indicate his vocal delivery.

Begin text:

The history of architecture, dealing with the last years of the 19th century in both Europe and America, is now out of balance. Neither the nature nor force of the living idea in that building era is actually reported. The character of the architects who put that idea to work in buildings has been confused by academic historianism [sic] and by advertising promotion. Personality has also become a packaged commodity. The living facts can be had, but few will see them.

In order to understand Purcell & Elmslie and the many forgotten men who struggled for fifty years — and who still struggle — against international Boze – art – ism [sic], the historian must first clean out channels filled with a swamp of lush promotion. In this super-successful, self-satisfied, scientific, and technicalized [sic] day of ours, there is actually just as much call for pioneer thought and action as there was in 1900. It is right now exactly as hard as it was fifty years ago to think alive and see the world of tomorrow morning right side up.

In the health of buildings, as in the health of man, we now glorify a philosophy of negation. Sanitary design priorities sterilize, quarantine, and insulate. That state of mind is, in itself, a kind of anti-social disease caused by sins of omission. The life of men and of buildings must get back down into where it came from — and from the cosmic material and spiritual source, come forth again to show the wholesome goodness of heaven and earth.

Freed from puny advertising importances [sic], architecture will then serve men unafraid of smudging its silly polish. Today in the organic concept of architecture, we see necessity fathering a potent idea — that is to say, idea resolving into pattern, and the pattern into usable form. This concept — the function-form relativity — underlies all current thinking. But the herd-thinking, book-minded constructivists have run off with the word, “functional.” All the writers and talkers have rushed to serve this fashionable materialism. Wherever you meet that word “functional,” you know at once it is going to mean the internal mechanical relations of a building with itself — and that it is going to concern itself wholly with arrangement, construction, gadgets, and slick surface.

The unmaterial functions of man are the important ones. The hopes, ideals, joys, and the ethos of the people must find expression. Indeed, there is no eventual way to deny them. But this again is proceeding with words, and architecture does not speak with words.

What is architecture saying today? Well, you can hardly hear yourself think for exhibitionist clatter. A man says, “Who is the architect of this building?” The American people say, “WE ARE — we Americans as workmen, as merchants, reapers, artists, planters, makers, and movers. We made it.” The function of the architect is to pave the way, ease the tensions, find the best, moderate the conflicts, explain the events, keep the records, and tell the story in building materials. The architect must take what is constructed within his own time. He has no right to set cult-ugly or cult-smarty or cult-arty where the public are obliged to see it.

Purcell & Elmslie were part of a team. Each could do some things that the other could not. But both could and did do what was needed for any project. The line-up of the team was shoulder-to-shoulder — friends and brothers — a deep bond continuing to this day. They did not think of themselves as drawing-board-and-desk men or as managers and directors. Outside the office, the contractors, workmen, skilled specialists were also valued members and made to feel indispensable at all times. All these good and capable men believed that they were really contributing something unique and characteristic to American life.

The true architect gladly faces a diversity growing daily of building materials, processes, and procedures. He finds these penetrated by growing demands in the greatest variety. No professional man is obliged to deal so promptly and accurately with the world of invention. This metropolis of things he also finds to be swarming with the feelings, prejudices, and expectations of men. Purcell & Elmslie felt that this living, operating nucleus of the building world and all its suburbs could only be brought to serve by an approach in true scientific humility. They relied on pre-searcher Ben Mash’s [?] “Let’s find out” as a principle of action.

You cannot bulldoze an army of partly organized things — especially not those which are in process of flower from the acts [?] of mankind. In these buildings by Purcell & Elmslie built in 20 states from New Hampshire and Massachusetts to Washington, Oregon, and California, you can discover the results of a continuous exploration of living procedures in office, shop, and field. But in this architecture, if you expect to identify its qualities by some characteristic style form, you will miss it. In the over 400 projects which were carried far enough to receive a number in their records, you will find the social and economic pressures, practical requirements, creative opportunities, and the people who use the buildings — all crystallizing in the widest variety of assembly, form, pattern with the outside, inside, and structure of the finished product affectionately related to earth, to sky, rain, sun, wind, and to the future.

But there is no reaching for effect. True effect, yes — effect as the poetic atmosphere of the result — as a complete response out of observation and intuition. Taking all these things at one, here is no style form — and absolutely, here in NOT Modern.

As heads of this team, if you look for one partner aesthete and the other as executive — the usual designer-business man / artist-engineer combination, you won’t find it. The realization of a finished mechanism to meet any purpose was brought to process by Purcell & Elmslie procedures, by sincere study of every move made by anyone connected with the project: owner, workman, draftsman, manufacturers. There was no idea discrimination by reason of class, creed, or culture. The word “important” was unknown.

Mr. George Feick, Jr., Cornell 1903, was a valued member of the partnership from 1907 to 1913 — when he returned to Sandusky, Ohio, to carry on the extensive contracting business of his father. The partnership was dissolved in 1921. But for many years, Mr. Frederick Strauel, of the original team, kept open the Minneapolis office to serve a continuity of Purcell & Elmslie, which is active to this day.

When this partnership called the signals for any building operation, from just what basic convictions did combined procedures develop? At every opportunity, in speech and in buildings, they stated their beliefs. One might sum up their credo thus: Architecture is the form and material of building, charged to the utmost with meaning and feeling about use. Unless so filled with the thought of living men, no logic, fashion, tradition or special inter-relations will avail to raise any structure to life. Architecture anticipates the spiritual life of the people who are to occupy its fabric. Necessity is the force that organizes usable space, but mechanical convenience is not man’s great need.

Was this attitude unusual in 1900? In 1907? In 1920? In 1930? It was VERY unusual! During all those years, there were only a few dozen architects in the world around who so thought and so practiced.

Architecture, as you know, then, was styles. Now even fewer realize that the so-called Modern has reverted to an already dead style.

Purcell & Elmslie, from the first, have maintained their word function whole and uncircumscribed. Facing work to be done, they continued to ask themselves in both initiating thought and practical procedure, “What is architecture as it is seen on an integral base of true form and function?” And they tried to let their work say, “Architecture is the evidence of the living building in action.” Architecture is NOT the making a thing work; that is engineering. Architecture is the making a thing say what its working means. In true architecture, we see the man-contrived complex, which is communication — the word, which is building. Idea mead flesh — and NOT the static form of this flesh of building, but its dynamic expression by means of that form — that living flesh, speaking to us. In living organic architecture, we see materials and construction together, serving as a tool — to make, and then to declare a noble communication. Of course it has to be a good tool, but building as a tool is itself a special kind of mechanical architecture, within the larger architecture of ultimate purpose.

Well, there is the issue as they saw it — and still do.

 research courtesy mark hammons