From the Crystal Palace to the skyscraper and on to the functional aesthetic of the German Bauhaus, the development of modern architecture required less than seven decades. Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts warrants a central place in this narrative. Unlike the earlier buildings that made fragmentary and disconnected use of the latest industrial materials and systems, the Academy project combined the critical elements of modern logistical planning—steel and iron construction and modern plumbing, heating, and ventilation systems designed to serve a workplace and a school—with the architectural expression of the age. Moreover, rather than seeking to reify the past, architects Furness & Hewitt had chosen the most dynamic of modern forces, the machine, as both inspiration and ornament. Instead of being based on the rearview mirror, the new Academy, opened in 1876, looked to the present and the future. This created a civic museum and school building whose expressive style referenced both its updated purpose and a novel attitude toward history. The Academy's machine for making art can rightly be termed the first modern building.
George E. Thomas is a cultural and architectural historian who serves as codirector of the Critical Conservation Program at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. His books include Frank Furness: The Complete Works, with Michael Lewis and Jeffrey Cohen, and, with David B. Brownlee, Building America's First University: An Architectural and Historical Guide to the University of Pennsylvania.
David R. Brigham is President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the nation's first museum and school of fine arts. He is the author of Public Culture in the Early Republic: Charles Willson Peale's Museum and Its Audience and American Impressionism: Paintings of Promise.