Thursday, June 03, 2010

This Is What Abraham Lincoln's Memorial Said

Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for the New Yorker, wrote a book last year (for the local book-makery) that I devoured on Tuesday, in between the end of the long weekend in Pittsburgh. (It was time for some much-enjoyed quiet time, first at Pamela's Diner in Oakland over coffee, then in a characterless reading room of the Carnegie Library, and finally in a couple of airports and planes.) I found it to be a great read, particularly since I love the arts but know next to nothing about architecture. Goldberger gives a fine introduction, not in a didactic way but by suggesting a bunch of avenues of approach when you think about architecture. And crucially for any writer about anything in the world, he constantly expresses both the excitement of appreciating his topic at hand, and he makes you immediately want to experience the tangible discussion pieces firsthand. (Good food writers do this and good music writers do this, in particular.)

He makes a particularly generous example of the Lincoln Memorial. Here's this completely familiar structure, which doesn't immediately suggest architectural daring, particularly for the early 1920s, when it was built. Goldberger:
The Lincoln Memorial ... is obviously a Greek temple in one sense, and in another it is not a Greek temple at all. The architect Henry Bacon created a masterwork that in many ways is as inventive and original as the modernist buildings created in Europe at the same time. ...

Bacon started with the Parthenon, yet he all but turned it inside out. The Lincoln Memorial is not a structure supported by columns, like a Greek temple, but more of a marble box surrounded by a colonnade. The walls are set inside, behind the columns, and they shoot straight up beyond them. The effect ... is of a classical coating applied to a brooding, almost primal geometric form. There is no attempt, then, to mimic the appearance of a real Greek temple; it is hard not to think that Bacon's real interest was to communicate the power of abstract form and the strength of silence. ...

To better balance the Capitol at the other end of the Mall, Bacon rotated his temple so that the long side served as the main facade and entrance, not the short end as at the Parthenon. He also eliminated the gabled attic present in real Greek temples ("attic" means Greek top), replacing it with a flat roof, rendering the building all the more abstract. ... The vocabulary of historical style can be used much more creatively than pure replication. In this case Bacon combined urbanistic concerns with scenographic ones to yield a building of startling grandeur and self-assurance.

The picture of the Lincoln Memorial immediately "pops" for me after this -- the austere central box, the structurally separate columns solemnly clothing it. The perspective changes the gravity of the building and its experience in general. I'll have to see it again now, possibly (as Goldberger notes a couple of times) at night, when its contrasts are played up even more.

Goldberger also has very positive things to say about Yale's famed neo-gothic architecture, which I'd really written off in my mind by now as ridiculously pretentious (except for buildings containing particularly good carillons.) So I will need to look around with a more open mind again. Grudgingly, I may even try the same for Paul Rudolph's concrete eyesore of a School of Architecture building. The Ingalls Rink I've got plenty of existing enthusiasm for already.


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