20 June 2007

Ethical Society -- entry & fireplace

The close proximity of the massive concrete fireplace positioned between the two entry vestibule creates a sense of fundamental elements being employed in a modern way. The use of fire and water are clearly used for symbolic as well as emotive expression.

The density, solidity, and relatively high quality of finish relate the concrete structural elements to the stone masonry construction developed over millenia. Concrete was often referred to as being the modern adaptation of the heavy massive walls and structure of monumental buildings of the past. Rather than brutalist in its expression (as many concrete structural expressions by other architects of the time), it has a refined quality, giving the impression of almost having been solid stone carved into the forms presented.

The fireplace has an almost surreal character. The two joined heavy pillars which constitute its flue are unique in the building. Yet the concrete box to contain the fire (and wood below) hardly seem capable of carrying the kind of weght involved. With a fire burning, this ellision of an emphemeral flame and a permanent, massive central column creates an intense flickering of matter along a vertical axis. The presence of a fire (and the upward movement of the resulting smoke) combined with the the massiveness of the structure (and the gradually widening columns) provides an intensely ambivalent image. In joining the sense of impermance and chaotic form (from the fire) with the massive, symmetrical, formal supporting structure, Armstrong focuses a great deal of attention on this central column.

By dividing the facade in this way and creating two entries of relatively humble scale and construction, the building suggests that the nature of structure is intended to relate directly to the human (and often imperfect) condition. In blocking the central axis in this manner, feelings of grandeur and transcendence seem to be severely reduced, if not eliminated altogether. This condition (creating a solid rather than a void at the center) deters any tendency for hierarchical, ceremonial displays. Historically, churches, cathedrals, temples, and other religious structures will often keep the central axis open and focus a great deal of attention on it formally, architecturally, and symbolically. Sometimes such an axis presents itself as a kind of sacred path from the imperfect outside world to the protected transcendence of the sanctuary within. These kinds of central axes can also facilitate displays of power, authority, and judgment upon those unable to follow such an honored route.

Armstrong's design seems to intentionally contradict that kind of hierarchical, monotheistic symbolism. Rather, the expression appears to focus attention on an individual's personal experiences and values as opposed to a pre-defined structure given by higher authorities. The design seems to emphasize the physicality of the human form, requiring the passage over a sort of bridge (over a symbolic moat) and entry through a blaze of light and color (in the shimmering glass facade). The visitor is given a choice to enter on one side of the central axis or the other without judgment; no one can choose to occupy the central path.

These concepts seem to relate in an appropriate way to the ideals of the Ethical Society itself. The relationship between the design of the building, its control of circulation, admission of light, and expression of structure (among other features) can be evaluated for the degree to which they seem to support the philosophy of the organization. I want to explore this idea in greater detail for this building and others designed by Armstrong that seem to merit such an interpretation and approach. In particular, I will be examining, comparing, and contrasting his designs for religious structures (built and unbuilt). Where appropriate, this analytic method will also be applied to civic structures and other buildings consciously expressive of shared cultural values, such as his entry to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Competition (which resulted in the construction of Saarinen's Gateway Arch), his American Embassy in Iraq, and other projects that seem to suggest symbolic meanings greater than that of an individual.

The issue of monumentality in modern architecture was a subject of great debate at the time following the conclusion of World War II. I would like to investigate Armstrong's explicit and implicit ideas in this regard.

Photograph courtesy of the Harris Armstrong Archives, Special Collections, Washington University in Saint Louis.

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