December 31: The End

2016/12/31 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1907 a New Year’s Eve celebration, in which an illuminated time ball was lowered on a flag pole, took place for the first time in the triangular plaza once known as Longacre Square.

The roots of the event stretch to 1903, when the tenant of a new building (designed by Eidlitz & MacKenzie) at the head of the square decided to draw attention to their new headquarters by hosting a big fireworks extravaganza on its rooftop.  That tenant, the New York Times, also convinced the city to rename the square in honor of the Gray Lady.  Already using their building as a launchpad for the immediately popular festival, a few years later they changed things up by lowering a time ball on a flag pole.  A “time ball” is, actually, a thing: historically (at least as far back as the early nineteenth century) they were used as navigational aids, usually wood or metal spheres lowered on a staff at a particular time of day within eyesight of ships in a harbor.  (In the States they’re lowered at noon; in England and Europe at 1 PM, because 1 PM is, apparently, metric noon.)  Although radio made them obsolete in the 1920s, they were still recognizable to folks deciding an interesting way to ring in the New Year.

The time ball in question here (which drops on a 140′ staff–that’s about 280 hot dogs, according to New York measure) was built on a five-foot framework of iron and wood, glittering with 100 25-watt bulbs.  Although it has been replaced and tarted up through the years, and the Times has long since moved away, that glow ball been a consistent part of New York’s festivities ever since 1907, except for two years during World War II.

The Times Square time ball may be one of the last things of its particular kind that people still pay attention to, but its setting is certainly not unique in being a place where architecture plays an important role in the big communal event of turning the calendar.  Around the world these events take place almost always within the framework of buildings.  In part this just makes sense, because when lots of people get together they typically do so in a city which by its nature is going to have buildings.  But buildings are not just a coincidence of gathering.  Indeed some of the most spectacular celebrations depend on architecture: the buildings themselves as launchpads, plinths and focal points, as well as the big urban furniture that defines the spaces into which people gather by the dozens or thousands or tens of thousands or gazillions.  People identify the celebration with its setting, especially so in places with great architectural scenery: check out Sydney, London, Beijing, Paris, BrusselsRome, Dubai, Seattle, Hong KongBerlin, and, significantly this its first public New Year’s celebration–humbly so, but still–in Myanmar.

Enjoy your bubbly.  Yank the end of one of those plastic confetti bottles.  Blow a horn.  Make noise with a noise maker.  But don’t neglect looking at the place you’re in; it matters.  It matters more than the way it’s important as the backdrop for your event (or your non-event, if you are just over these sorts of things) (and the Muse understands if here, at the end of 2016, you are Over It).  By its nature, architecture is a contract with the future; hopefully it’s an optimistic one; one made for you and people before you and people to come after you.  It’s there for our future plans, our current events, and our memories.  And that’s history.

Image: the ball in 1955 (from this source)

December 30: THE Academy (and an Almost-Conclusion)

2016/12/30 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1671 the Académie royale d’architecture was founded.

One of several academies founded by the French to set down la pratique parfaite in virtually all fields–in other words, to codify the ideal Frenchness of everything dans le monde–the Royal Academy of Architecture had both specific goals and tremendously broad reach.  As a training ground it ensured that properly educated and directed corps of designers could contribute to the great works to honor the great king, notably Versailles and the Louvre.  But it did much more than ensure the beauty and consistency of seventeenth-century French architecture for the state; it became the core of Classical training in the grand tradition for generations of architects in France and, ultimately, far beyond its borders.  De-royalized at the time of the Revolution, by the early nineteenth century the Academy was back in business as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the most successful and important architecture school and tradition ever, anywhere, in the universe.  It brought together the traditions of the Classical world as they were first formed: guides to the identification and understanding and creation of beauty as well as the application of design principles within contemporary practice.  It is the universal, timeless, truly modern way to design and build, and always has been, except for a brief interruption occasioend by a small blip of pestilence–a nasty, hard-to-shake virus still sadly lingering on–that brewed in 1920s Germany among the sorry, misguided followers of a poor ill soul who had lost his ear for the Muse.

As a whole, the establishment of the academies may have been the high point of the Sun King’s reign.  They are a part of a small but significant heritage of tasty patrons cut of royal cloth.  A small club to be sure, but when they have an eye for beauty, there is no stopping them.  And while we may cringe at the excesses and downright grossness of Louis and others in his fraternity–Nero and Napoleon III come quickly to mind–there’s no denying that imperial legacies are not all bad (just take a skipping romp through Early Christian Rome, sixth-century Byzantium, the eigth-century Frankish Kingdomtenth-century China,  seventeenth-century India, eighteenth-century Italy and Russia, and nineteenth-century Vienna). (The previous, as a yearbook, also not a bad way to wrap up this chronicle as we approach the year’s end.)  Maybe it is appropriate then that Louis, who built the place that Thomas Jefferson would one day call “the pit of depravity,” is the one who left the single most important legacy to the world of architecture: as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, Classicism without end.

Image: Louis XIV, within a few years of founding the Académie (from this source)

December 29: A Spectacular Picture on a Devastating Day

2016/12/29 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1940 the Luftwaffe fire-bombed London.

In and of itself, that event is not particularly significant within the history of the Germans bombing the English capital (71 times) during the Blitz.  What set this day apart was the presence of a photographer who took the astonishing image above.  The dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral (designed, of course, by the exquisite Christopher Wren) stands staunchly above the ruins of its neighborhood, its apparent resolve and stiff-upper-lippedness clearing the smoke away.

The picture summarizes the significance of the cathedral as a symbol, central to the the British capital as well as to British identity.  The building’s importance was obvious to all.  Churchill reportedly asked his aids to report  on the status of the church at the start of each day; Hitler is believed to have offered a reward to the airman who landed a bomb on it.  But St. Paul’s never did succumb to the German attack, even in the midst of the destruction all around it.

Many theories have been offered to explain the against-all-odds survival of the church.  Burning debris and the occasional small hit did damange to the building, but it was minimized by the corps of watchers who patrolled the rooftop at night, where hundreds of pails of water stood at the ready.  Fire-watching parties were stationed throughout the city, but no area was as closely protected as the cathedral.  Still, a bucket brigade would not have been able to fend off a direct hit.  By the rule of the “Baedeker Raids,” Germans aimed to land a bomb on every three-star building in major British cities.  Ironically, of all the other monuments that became German targets in Exeter, Bath, York and elsewhere, St. Paul’s main attraction may have actually been its saving grace: the great dome was a significant navigational device for the Luftwaffe.  Another popular notion takes the idea of saving grace literally: a divine barrier protected the cathedral from the raids.  This last is even less likely than the others to be verified by the historical record–though it is likely, if the hand of the Almighty were to move in order to spare a building, it would be one with a gracious dome.

Image: St. Paul’s and a lot of smoke and debris (from this source)

December 28: A Church In Threads

2016/12/28 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1065 the rebuilt St. Peter’s Abbey was consecrated.

Twenty-three years earlier, Edward the Confessor had started repairing the church for Benedictine monks and in anticipation of its eventual use as his burial place.  Although it was was not quite finished, the building’s consecration came in the nick of time, as Edward died about a week later, on January 5.  The appearance of Edward’s church is recorded in one single place, the Bayeux Tapestry, which records lots of details about his successor, Harold II, and that trouble-maker William the Conqueror.  Both of them were probably crowned in the abbey church, in that heady year, 1066.

St. Peter’s was demolished by Henry III in 1245, in a curious act of vandalism-cum-memorial, as he wrecked the church in order to build a proper (?) shrine to the Saxon king, Edward.  (This has something of the ring of Julius’ demolition of Constantine’s church on the grounds that it was not Roman enough.)  It’s regrettable that the maybe-first-Norman-Romanesque church in England was lost, but at least it wasn’t replaced with something stupid like a parking lot or something truly horrid like a Brutalist dentist’s office.  In fact, the thing that stands there now is really pretty nice.

Image: “Here the body of King Edward is carried to the Church of Saint Peter the Apostle” (from this source)

December 27: The Boss

2016/12/27 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1976 the Chicago Civic Center was renamed the Richard J. Daley Center.

Daley (1902-76) was The Boss in a town that knows from bosses.  His twenty-one year reign as the Windy City’s mayor commenced in those heady post-war years in which faith in increasingly sophisticated technology as a salve to all human ills was steered toward solving the problems of American cities by tearing down and building up at a big, bold scale.  The city held the power to name any neighborhood bearing a certain patina as “blight” which could then be bulldozed and either rebuilt to serve the city’s interests or sold off to private developers. (And when we say “city,” of course we mean “Daley,” and you may feel free–hard as it is to imagine Daley speaking French–to picture him stating “la ville c’est moi”).  The new Civic Center was one such project among many, including the new campus of the University of Illinois, expansion of Michael Reese Hospital, and the development of huge housing projects at both ends of the economic spectrum (Carl Sandburg Village and Robert Taylor Homes began life in weirdly similar ways).  Considering both the new architecture projects and the vast expansion of highways during his terms in office, Daley oversaw more construction than any Chicago mayor since Joseph Medill.  His legacy is better judged against such builders as Napoleon III, Julius II, or maybe Trajan, keeping in mind that none of those guys were mere mayors.

The Civic Center was conceived as one of those many Modernist fantasies that mark the mid-century boom in Chicago’s architecture, and is certainly one of the more accomplished in that vein.  A gridded prism of 648 feet, it eschewed old-fashioned trappings of government symbolism, all bronze glass and Cor-Ten steel (a weathering metal first developed during the Depression to eliminate maintenance on railway cars).  The building stood within a broad open plaza, as if it required more breathing room than traditional buildings, or worried that it might, were it positioned too close to its neighbors, catch their cooties.

Of course, to make room for this architecture of better hygiene, dozens of germy nineteenth and early-twentieth-century structures had to be demolished (take a look-see what was there).  The Civic Center was renamed in honor of Richard J. just a week after his death.  He was buried in the Holy Sepulchre Catholic Cemetery, which is regrettable.  By rights he would have been cremated on a pyre set up in the Circle Forum at UIC and his ashes interred within the building, maybe beneath the Picasso.  Then again, maybe that actually did happen, and we have only to wait for Chicago’s answer to Dan Brown to reveal all.

Image: the Daley Center in a dingy 1970s-’80s shot, or it could be Instagram, who knows (from this source)

December 26: Richmond On Fire

2016/12/26 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1811 the Richmond Theatre burned.

The tall building had been completed only the year before.  Almost six hundred people were gathered to see a double-feature of sorts, but early in the evening, during a scene change behind the lowered stage curtain, one of the backdrops was set alight by candles in a chandelier.  Although the timber, canvas and oil-painted material was great fuel, the fire might have been snuffed.  But no one in a position to do much of anything knew about the fire until it spread through layers and layers of sets and then started chewing at the building.  A great brick box full of wooden furnishings and finishes, the building did not have a chance.  Nor did a large portion of the audience: 72 people perished in the fire.

The building was a loss, and no one had much of a stomach to rebuild a theatre on the site anyhow (another theatre would be built at another location in 1819).  A monument to the dead was proposed and carried out by local architect Robert Mills.  It is an odd thing: the Monumental Church is both worship center and memorial for the fire victims.  Mills designed a curious octagonal plan covered by a low saucer dome with a lantern; boxy projections appear on four sides.  The front portico holds the actual monument inscribed with victims’ names; their remains are gathered in the crypt below.

Although in other projects Mills would have greater success in adapting the Classical vocabulary to new uses; the Monumental Church remains a bizarre experiment.  It’s both Greek and Roman with a bit of Egypt tossed in for good measure.  Is it a short polygonal Pantheon?  A wide Tower of the Winds?  An imperial mausoleum?  Or one of those rare Erectheum-type mash-up temple-things?  Hang on to your hat, since Mills’ original intention, with the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer church steeple, makes it even more of a mystery.  His later works are quite a bit more tame, loads more legible (although never as crisp and commanding as those by his peer, William Strickland).  And later, too, he became better known for technical mastery that may have been inspired by his work in Richmond, as Mills was (for a time) the country’s go-to architect for anything fireproof once he mastered techniques that he began mulling in Richmond.

Image: “The Burning of the Theatre in Richmond, Virginia” (from this source)

December 25: The Great Dome

2016/12/25 § Leave a comment

1846 Capitol

On this day in 1851 Thomas U. Walter investigated the cause of the Christmas Eve fire that gutted the original Library of Congress.

Yes, it was Christmas Day but duty called and Walter, as the recently sworn-in Architect of the Capitol, heeded that call. The previous evening’s fire was devastating, destroying much of Thomas Jefferson’s original collection as well as the library room itself.  Positioned in the center of the west side of the Capitol, it overlooked the mall to the west, where the stumpy unfinished Washington Monument stood.  The library was a complete loss and it is  a wonder that more of the building did not go up in the blaze–in particular, the awkward timber dome completed under the direction of Charles Bulfinch.

Walter was directed to rebuild the room using fireproofing strategies.  By early January he completed the plan for a virtually all-iron library, lit by skylights, lined by tiers shelving, ornamented with ornate Italianate features like big beefy (but hollow) iron consoles.  Complete, and completely satisfactory, within a few years, the widely admired design–noted for its beauty and incombustibility–helped pave the way for Congressional approval of another all-iron addition that Walter would make to the building: the soaring metallic dome that is one of the world’s most recognizable architectural symbols, looking as spiffing as ever due to the humungo restoration project carried out through 2016.

Image: the Capitol as photographed in 1846 (from this source)