April 22: Architectural Esperanto

2016/04/22 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1876 the new building of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts opened.

Founded in 1805, the PAFA had already occupied two other buildings.  If architecture is a language, those structures spoke that of Classicism: the cultured, aspirational language of white marble, volutes and domes.  Though it was developed on foreign shores and centuries earlier, Classicism had become the vernacular of cultural institutions in Philadelphia and other great American cities, and remained so through the Civil War (and would return, after a few decades of silence).

In the 1870s the thriving institution sought more commodious space on Broad Street, north of the city’s central square.  Architects Frank Furness and George Hewitt were hired for the new design in 1871; groundbreaking took place the following year, and the building opened in time for the Centennial.  This museum was like none other, due to the authorship of Furness (1839-1912).  Parts of it are recognizable enough–the mansard roofs that would characterize the Second Empire City Hall then under construction; the massive medievalness of the Masonic Temple just down the street; symmetry that spoke of the long Classical heritage and a mélange of materials reflecting picturesque theory.  Stone and brick expressed a Ruskininan concern for handicraft, machined granite and iron trusses revealed an adoption of industrial methods. Parts of it are recognizable; the ensemble something out of this world.

In short, the building was (and is) unique in the universe of architecture; specific only to the wildly fertile imagination of Furness.  If Furness’ architecture is a language, it is a synthetic, invented one: parts of it vaguely or specifically familiar, with structure and cadence that is legible, but an overall expressiveness that requires careful study and consideration to understand.  And like Esperanto, it was initially unsustainable–scores of his public buildings have been demolished when they were viewed as aesthetically incomprehensible.  Fortunately, the Academy has been both resident and preserver of the monument, which continues to challenge easy categorization and reward the student who makes it her study.

image: the PAFA in 1876; photo by Frederick Gutekunst (from this source)

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You are currently reading April 22: Architectural Esperanto at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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