Two-Part Vertical Block

Isaac Kremer/ November 15, 2020/ / 0 comments

Two-part vertical block, Detroit, Michigan.

In its mature form, the two-part vertical block began to be used during the late 19th century as a means of simplifying the exterior composition of tall commercial buildings. Reflecting the academic movement’s concern for order and unity the facade is divided horizontally into two major zones that are different yet carefully related to one another. The lower zone rises one or two stories and serves as a visual base for the dominantshaft,” or upper zone. Many large two-part commercial blocks built during the early 20th century were treated in a somewhat similar manner. The essential difference between the two types is the size of the upper zone and the emphasis it receives. The two-part vertical block must be at least four stories high to possess a sufficient sense of verticality. It is further distinguished by a clearly prominent upper zone, rather than appearing merely to have several stories placed atop the lower zone; in addition, the upper zone is treated as a unified whole. The type is most commonly used for office buildings, department stores, hotels and, occasionally public and institutional buildings.

Experiments with a two-part composition, vertical in its emphasis, began during the mid-19th century. In some cases, the approach is limited to some prominent decorative elements applied to a standard version of the two-part commercial block. Yet a clear, unified vertical composition is achieved in some buildings from as early as the 1850s. The simple, round-arched Richardsonian mode, popular during the 1880s and 1890s, lent itself well to this compositional pattern. Nevertheless, such designs are more the exception than the rule before the century’s close. Many buildings from these decades remain transitional in nature. Even when the vocabulary is that of the academic movement and some elements impart a sense of unified verticality there may be a lingering penchant for variation; this precludes the visual strength and cohesiveness that became the norm after 1900 and continued with few modifications well into the 1920s.

In the type’s mature phase, the upper zone is given vertical emphasis by engaged columns, pilasters, piers or just uninterrupted wall surfaces rising between the Windows. Rusticated masonry at the corners or differentiated end bays are occasionally used to enhance the sense of order and stability. A transitional zone of one or two stories may exist between the two major sections. The top story is sometimes slightly different in its window treatment and perhaps separated by a stringcourse or similar device to help the cornice provide a visual terminus. Nevertheless, such a division remains subordinate to the two-part composition. The lower zone may be treated in a wide variety of ways, often with large window areas but also with massive wall surfaces. When banks occupy the ground floor, the effect tends to be monumental; no dominant pattern exists when this area contains small shops or portions of a department store or hotel. On occasion, movie theaters are part of the package, varying the configuration with a separate entry zone and often most conspicuously marked by a marquee and vertical sign. The type was also adapted to serve an unprecedented function: multistory parking for automobiles. Dating mostly from the 1920s, these center-city garages have exteriors designed to appear more or less like office buildings so that they do not visually intrude on the character of the business district. As with other types built during this period, numerous modes of expression can be found with the two-part vertical block. Generally references to the past are classical, although medieval details sometimes are used. In other cases, the skeletal frame of steel or concrete, or motifs derived from work of the Prairie School, form the primary basis of expression. Art Deco examples from the late 1920s and early 1930s are frequently composed with vertical piers. Often the parapet, and sometimes an attic story, is slightly recessed to accentuate the sense of a soaring mass. In a number of instances, the entire building is treated as a sculptural tower, rising above its neighbors to punctuate the skyline from all sides, rather than as a block with one or two facades presented to the street. Setbacks at the top may enhance this effect, as may the use of a tower or another crowning element.

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About Isaac Kremer

Isaac Kremer is a transformational leader with a track record of success revitalizing downtowns in the United States. He has written and spoken extensively. He's always on the lookout for new and innovative ideas to unlock the potential of downtown areas.

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