Monday, July 4, 2016

Old North Church: a modernist prototype?

What is modernism?

Typical architects' responses:

"Clean lines."

"Spatial fluidity."

"Pure geometric form."

"Clear distribution of parts."

"Little or no ornamentation."

"Honest expression of structure."

"Natural light from large windows."

"Exterior expresses interior functions."

"Load-bearing columns yield open space."

Photo by Adavyd, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Oddly enough, all of the above characterize Boston's Old North Church, though it hails from an era almost 200 years before any of the above could cross anyone's mind. After all, brick, wood, stone and slate were the available building materials, and Georgian was the design model. Yet Puritanism checked the ornamental excess of England's priests and bishops, Anglican as Old North was.

Photo by Victor Grigas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
And this is evident the moment we enter Old North. What greets us is not a hefty eyeful of cherubs, scrolls, leaf-moldings, rosettes, frescoes and statues, but a lithe dance of arches, vaults, lines, squares and slender columns that clearly reveal not only the church's structural system, but also the thinking behind the purity and simplicity.
In the name of the Anglicism with which Henry VIII had declared his independence from the Catholic church, Old North's designers and builders forswore the ornamental indulgence that characterized the abbeys, basilicas and cathedrals of European Catholicism for a clean back-to-basics feel that followed Massachusetts' established Puritan aesthetic, blended with the lowliness of North End residential architecture, and saved money to boot.
 
Notice, for instance, the structural simplicity. No Corinthian leaf- carving or Ionic scrolls here; just slender square columns, fluted to stress their verticality, and simple flared capitals expressing their load-bearing. The elliptical arcs articulate the weight distribution fluidly, free of frescoes and moldings.
 
The pews and their paneled doors, too, are straightforwardly geometric: just rows of rectangles expressing their social function and sense of order, like modern office cubicles. Their height and depth signify the security and the foot-warmer heat containment they offered parishioners.
 
The grandeur of the chancel window, in contrast to the human scale of the others, extols the minister's supremacy over the congregation in spiritual enlightenment. Its space-illumination evokes the Light of God falling afresh on the parishioners, aided by the side windows lighting their prayerbooks.
 
The pulpit largely follows the Puritan pattern of the church structure. Its tapering base, culminating in a simple capital upholding the enclosed podium, articulates the solid footing it gives the minister while raising him up to a superior level, which also symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus to a degree. The dangling sounding board and its paneling emphasize the rostrum's hexagonal geometry in a proto-modernist fashion. Only the stair breaks the Puritan rules a bit with turned balusters, giving the minister an iota of the dignity the congregants lavished on him...
 
...in contrast to the simple rod balusters of the back stairs to the galleries and organ loft. No doubt these stairs were built that way to save money, being out of the way of the main sanctuary, and the pews turn the worshipers' backs on the stairs, facing them toward the ceremony. The stairs' simplicity also signifies the lower social rank of those who used them—organist, organ-pumper, sexton, bell-ringers—compared to the relatively well-to-do worshippers. Nonetheless, the barren structure of the stairs elegantly brings out their curves, which gracefully convey a sense of movement (like an ascending or descending scale of organ notes) while cluing us into their structure, as forerunners of the spiral staircases of the modern era.
 
But what they rise to breaks more faith with the Puritan aesthetic: the organ and its guardian angels. Built by Thomas Johnson in 1759 (36 years after the church, hence the stylistic deviation), the organ is richly carved and gilded with scrolls, cherubs and Grecian urns. The angels, possibly carved in Belgium in the 1620s, were stolen by Thomas Gruchy from one of three French ships he had captured as captain of the Queen of Hungary, a ship enlisted in King George's War in 1744 as a British privateer to plunder enemy merchant craft. Gruchy donated the angels to Old North in 1746, though they typified the Catholic excess the Anglicans and Puritans had cast off by coming to the Colonies. 
 
Photo by Victor Grigas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The chancel, too, pumps up the ornamentation, albeit in a chaste way. The four side panels, topped by arch-lintels recalling the organ's scrolling for front-to-back balance, display the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Nicene Creed with English Medieval nobility and reserve. The central portrait of Jesus Christ at table is modeled on...
 
...Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper, an Italian Renaissance-era exercise in elements of future modernism: bare columns, walls and ceiling beams, so painted so as not to divert attention from the central drama of communion and betrayal in the foreground.
 
Likewise, Old North's clean lines, arcs and concavities and ubiquitous pearly-white treatment focus the congregation's attention on the central figure of Christ (appropriate to the building's official name, Christ Church) by eschewing the distracting embellishments of the Old World abbeys, basilicas and cathedrals the first Colonial American settlers had fled. This effect of pure form emphasizes the purity and chastity Jesus preached: "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." (Matthew 5:8) 

The large windows of clear, unstained glass make it easier to "see" this Light of God by flooding the open, fluid white space with light. This is aided by the chancel window's eastern orientation, which catches the morning sun in full force for the service's full hour, thanks to its height. This foreshadowed the high windows and glass curtain walls of modern architecture.
 
The exterior reveals this effect. The bulge of the rear bay (left) articulates the volume of the apse, and the size of its window—in contrast to the small gallery and attic windows—gives us a sense of the light the space receives on Sunday morning. These elements also trumpet the apse's importance as the minister's sacred spot. This is one of many ways Old North externally expresses its diverse interior functions with fenestration variation. The oculi in the front pavilion (right) define the staircases to the galleries and organ loft, and window size denotes social rank in general at Old North: tiny oculi for the lower-class hired hands, shorter gallery windows for the servants (and, originally, slaves), taller first-floor windows for the well-to-do laity, and the towering apse window for the high-ranking minister.
 
Photo by Leonardo DaSilva, courtesy of Panoramio and Wikimedia Commons
Furthermore, the protrusion and relative solidity of the church's front pavilion is an early example of a core tenet of modern architecture: the individuation of the service core from the rest of the building. The flights to the galleries, organ loft and steeple are clarified by the semi-autonomous tower—as is the privacy of the steeple stairs. This came in handy for Paul Revere's plans to display the lanterns signifying the British Regulars' procession to Lexington and Concord just before his midnight ride there on April 18, 1775: the tower's minimal fenestration enabled church sexton Robert Newman to ascend to the belfry with the lanterns unseen.
 
Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Boston Eye? Eye say, 'Nay!'

Photo by Kham Tran, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Prends garde: Boston may be getting its own Eiffel Tower — in the form of a Ferris wheel.

Capitalizing on the success of the London Eye (above) in giving the British capital an iconic funfair focal point akin to Paris's Eiffel Tower and Seattle's Space Needle, Delaware North Cos. of Buffalo is proposing an observation wheel as part of its City Hall Plaza revitalization plan, touting it as "an unexpected option, but it might just be the concept that will jumpstart the vitality needed for City Hall Plaza."

Unexpected, indeed — and unwarranted.

Photo by Ernst Halberstadt, courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Wikimedia Commons
For one, a Big Wheel in the Plaza would divert attention from City Hall as the colossal cynosure of I.M. Pei's original scheme for the area. (True, many wouldn't care, as City Hall is now one of Boston's most reviled buildings. And, yes, a ride to the Boston skyline would be more fun than a scurry through City Hall's maze of bureaucracy.)
 
Photo by Charlene McBride, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Second, wide open as the Plaza may be, it is still too limited a space to allow Ferris wheel passengers the best eyeful from terra firma to firmament. On one side, the wheel would be so hemmed in by the blockades Center Plaza and the JFK Federal Building put on the surrounding cityscape that Boston's skyscape couldn't be fully taken in until passengers are about halfway up.

Photo by Scott Taylor, courtesy of the U.S. Navy
Photo by MarkGGN, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons



















Observe how the sweeping parkland-riverfront sitings of the Eiffel Tower and the Space Needle and the Thames river-edge of the London Eye, almost unobstructed by skyscrapers and streetwalls, allow visitors to experience the expanse of the landscape virtually from the moment of liftoff. Furthermore, such open spaces are necessary for these structures to fully reveal their sculptural presence from many directions: the Eiffel's parabolic "arc de triomphe" grandeur, celebrating the mathematical wonders of engineering; the Space Needle's outerworldly soar, symbolizing America's quest for space travel...

Photo by The Narratographer, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons




...and the London Eye's Claes Oldenburg giantism, taking the form of a titanic bicycle wheel, as a monument to the tensile elegance and cooperative strength of spoke-structure in transportation engineering. By contrast, the barriers of Center Plaza and the JFK Building and the cluster of Financial District skyscrapers would limit views of an observation wheel to only a few directions — and doubtless its design would not match the London Eye's refinement. 
 
Third, the Plaza has already been invaded by too many techno-trifles that are intrusive, not constructive. The new Government Center MBTA station headhouse blocks key views of the Sears Crescent from Cambridge Street and City Hall from Tremont Street as a big glass thing of unclear purpose.  
Also, the string of poles and benches along Cambridge Street has become a folly; nobody ever sits there or flies flags there. And, like the headhouse and the polechain, a Ferris wheel would screen out City Hall from one angle; Pei intended its prominence from all angles along Tremont and Cambridge.

Besides, in the wintertime the wheel would become as useless as the poles and benches, just sitting and rusting while waiting for spring. Not a very elegant use for such a costly venture.

So: Eye say "Nay" to the Boston Eye. City Hall Plaza should be transformed into a vibrant, attractive center of culture, community and commonwealth — not another Six Flags.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!