Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dis Connecticut--Part Three

Over lunch, we discussed our plans for the remainder of the day. I think by the time we finished up in Litchfield, it was already around two o'clock, perhaps later. I had actually made a list of a number of different sites we might see, too many, not knowing how long everything would take and wanting to make the most of the day. The original plan was to head west from here--to see what, I'll let be a surprise for later--and then head back south toward home. Since it was getting a bit late in the day, we decided to head south and see something different, instead. So after bombing out at the Daniel Libeskind house, we headed for Stamford. This worked out quite well because we ended up so much closer to home that, after we had dinner and exhausted ourselves, we wouldn't have such a long drive ahead of us. And what we saw there was absolutely magical.

First I wanted to show this picture I took at the New Milford Hospital. Not to make light of terminal illnesses, or offend anyone with loved ones who've passed, or to suggest that the hospital is not a perfectly good one, but I thought this was really funny...or at least an unfortunate coincidence: a hospital with a cemetery directly across the street. I also decided it really needed to be made into a macro.

Our destination was the First Presbyterian Church of Stamford (FPC) by Wallace Harrison, completed in 1958. Harrison said it was the most satisfying project he'd ever worked on.

The first thing you see, though, well before you ever see the church building itself, is the astonishing Maguire Memorial Carillon Tower, which was finished in 1968.

The sculptural presence of this tower on the property strikes me as a similar gesture to the water tower announcing the entrance to Saarinen's Bell Telephone Labs.

Even with creative math, looking at Harrison's biography, I'm unable to determine how tall this is. It's probably 255-feet tall (78m) but could be as high as 380-feet tall (116m), depending on how you want to read it. The problem is that Harrison's biographer, Victoria Newhouse, says the four corner posts rise 255 feet up and then she discusses the spire separately. Measuring the spire by eye from the top of 255-foot-high corner posts, it would be at least 125 feet above that. Sources online say 260 feet (79m), but I'm always wary of that. In any case, it's tall. The stainless steel pinnacle of the spire had to be lowered into place by helicopter, which evidently saved money over the scaffolding that would have been required to get it up there. 

It's named after Walter Maguire, a prominent member of the congregation who donated considerable money to the church, and was among the youngest to ever graduate from Yale Law School. He worked fairly closely with Harrison on the new church building.

For anyone who doesn't know, a carillon is basically a keyboard that mechanically rings bells in a bell tower like a piano. They can have as few as twenty-three bells. FPC's has fifty-six, the largest of which, called the bourdon, weighs 6830 pounds (3100kg). The eleven largest bells are in the lower space, the remaining bells in the upper, with the keyboard--properly called the console--in the enclosure between them. I was very excited to discover a video showing not only the interior of the console chamber, but a carilloneur playing this very carillon. Here's carilloneur Ellen Dickinson playing the Maguire Carillon:

Harrison's first tower would have been a tight web of structural beams rising in a cylinder. Then he was shown a photograph of a sculpture in brass and copper wire by Richard Lippold called Primordial Figure (1948). Inspired by the sculpture, he opened up his tower structurally to what we see today. I could find no images of it online, but the similarities to Lippold's sculpture are obvious, especially in the wooden frame of the tower's staircase.

There was one thing I found very interesting about the carillon tower's construction. From anywhere besides right next to it, veining in the corner posts make it appear to be made of marble, or perhaps that it's cracking or weathered. When I was right underneath it, I suddenly noticed that they are, in fact, made of concrete. The "veins" are actually lines made by fingertip while the concrete was still wet, no doubt specified for aesthetic reasons. I should have gotten my finger in the shot to show scale, but perhaps the texture in the concrete goes some way toward indicating the lines are the exact width and shape of a fingertip.

When we arrived, there was a band called The SuBourbons setting up on the grounds to do a little outdoor concert, but they hadn't started yet.

They played this song, and the camera shows the crowd (bigger than when we were there), so I thought it would be very funny if I were in this video, but this is from a year earlier on not as sunny of a day.

The church is shaped like a fish and so has been nicknamed "The Fish Church." FPC has embraced the nickname; in fact, it's their web address. Taking on a cross shape, but looking vaguely like some ancient symbol for Christianity that I can't quite pinpoint, the wonderfully sculptural entrance is at the crook between the body of the fish to the left and the tail to the right.

We went to see the inside of the church first before exploring around the outside. Walking out of the bright sunlight into this dark space was a little disappointing, because you couldn't really see much. Most of the lights were off and as you can see from the outside, it doesn't really have any normal windows. I decided to take a look at the sanctuary, anyway.

This is what I saw when I first walked into the space.

I just stood there in the doorway with my mouth gaping open. I think I literally could not breathe for about thirty seconds. My mom came in behind me and later said she "choked" when she first saw it. I'm a spiritual though not particularly religious person, but it's at times like these that you're tempted to believe God is right there in the room with you. I also believe that only the most truly talented architects in history were really able to do this, and far less so when it concerns church architecture after around 1915. Furthermore, the real magic of this is something you could never see on paper, certainly not in a blueprint. It transcends the reality of what it is, materially speaking.

The extreme difference in character between this project and so many of the other things Harrison did is truly remarkable. Certainly he had isolated sculptural moments--the auditorium at Rockefeller University, the Met's grand staircase, the "Egg" in Empire State Plaza, or the UN's General Assembly (which, granted, could just as easily be attributed to Corbusier or Niemeier)--but this church, in its entire conception, is something else altogether. The view from the altar end shown here, sunlit in a direction the camera much preferred, shows better the sight seen with eyes adjusted to the darkness. Also the shape of it, almost identical to the altar end, is seen more clearly to intentionally resemble two hands pressed together in prayer. Also quite apparent are the similarities between the character of light here and the inside of the Hall of Science at the 1964 World's Fair, also by Harrison & Abramovitz.

The sanctuary is different in practically every possible way from the surrounding building: cool grey and deep blue, sculptural, iconic, contemplative, enclosed, somber yet awe-inspiring, irregular yet coherent and orderly, and entirely sublime. The surrounding facilities, on the other hand, are restrained corridors, earthly in appearance and materials, domestically scaled, almost entirely walled with glass in warm wooden frames, punctuated by rusticated stone and the slate shingles.

Having explored more of the church facilities, better yet getting to know them as well as the ongoing congregation surely has, the sanctuary becomes even more an entirely different world. The sanctuary, like the inner contemplations in the souls of the pious, is a private, enclosed space. The surrounding facilities serving church practicalities are as transparent as the Protestant Reformation demanded of religious institutions and as visually accessible as the printing press made the dissemination and secular understanding of the bible, so fundamental to the principles of the Reformation.

At the end of this lovely coat rack corridor is a small wing that I'm ninety-nine percent certain contains the pastor's offices. I got a few shots of that façade from the outside, but the shadows were remarkably dim. And since it's likely never seen by anyone, it wasn't as meticulously maintained as the front.

The coat corridor, pastor's offices, and the end of the classroom wing enclose a small grassy courtyard. On the other side of the corridor leading to the classrooms is a much larger courtyard, open on its one long side. I'm not sure why there's a sunspot where it appears in the photo, since the sun is clearly shining in the opposite direction. So I'm going to say that that's the Holy Spirit, captured for the first time ever in a photograph.

Here's the entrance to the classrooms and likely the pastor's residence on the opposite side of the courtyard, wonderfully domesticated as well, in a decidedly late-1950s kind of way. Very nice detailing of the doors with cross-shaped windows.

Fortunately, this whole wing was bathed in sunlight as it was no doubt intended to be in the mornings. One of the most brilliant things about the siting of the church was its relationship to the sunlight.

It occurred to me that this building would be most glorious, most functionally successful in the morning hours, when most churches have at least one of their services, if not their most prominent ones. At this time of day, mid- to late-afternoon, the western façades for obvious reasons were the most illuminated and picturesque. This particular angle I think shows maybe more than any other how Harrison was borrowing forms very carefully from the medieval canon and making them not only entirely Modern but also, in their own distinctive way, suburban New England.

On a sunny Sunday morning, on the other hand, the entire entrance façade (facing east), the courtyard, classroom corridors, and pastor's residence all benefit from direct sunlight. Here's the entrance facade, as seen here cast in shadow in the afternoon hours, but of course no less sculpturally striking.

And the entrance proper, at the crux of the body and tail of the "fish." The use of slate tiles as a cladding material is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, it renders the entire enclosure a roof. In other words, there are no walls of any conventional material like masonry. A building's walls--especially in the modern era where they mostly serve to reveal--can no longer be read as protective in any strict sense. But going back into antiquity even, the roof was the primary protecting feature of a building where the elements were concerned. Walls merely served to structurally support it.
At the southern end of the fish, it all comes together perfectly. Applied as shingles on a façade simplified into a sort of forced-perspective of a traditional, gabled New England farm house or barn, the shingles look surprisingly contextual. Appropriately, while the rest of the building essentially opens up onto its own grounds, this façade is the one that would be visible from the main road. Who knows if those slotted window openings have any practical purpose on the interior, or if they ever did. On the inside, it appears not. But one might guess ventilation for a room with apparently no operable windows otherwise.

What I'm assuming is the pastor's residence, although connected to the rest of the building, very smartly reads as its own independent structure. Much like the mostly unseen wing containing the pastor's offices at the other end, it has this very Brady Bunch, late-'50s suburban domestic style to its architecture.

If I'm correct that that enormous, pointed front glass wall opens into a living/ dining space, it must be a truly spectacular interior, like some great futuristic hunting lodge. The use of seemingly randomly-located panes of colored glass is a very interesting detail. It hints subtly at the shocking use of stained glass in the sanctuary next door and also vaguely calls to mind Harrison's Mondrian-esque window mullion pattern on the front of the Metropolitan Opera.

I'd like to point out that the garden in front grows foodstuffs that the church dedicates to humanitarian purposes. I thought to call attention, because I think it's such a wonderful (and very Green) idea.

That concludes this excursion into Connecticut. I hope you enjoyed the journey as much as I did. The state has so much great Modern architecture, somewhat ironically, that there will be a few more stories from there in the future, to be sure. One of them, unfortunately, will not be the Daniel Libeskind House. My request was denied to see it. If the owners of the house or any friends of theirs are reading this, I would still really love to see it! 

Just a little post-script on this story, I got a picture of the now completed Trump Parc (2010) by Costas Kondylis with the Lessard Group. I recognized it immediately from the exposé I wrote about Donald Trump. We passed directly underneath it, so here's the photo I likely would have included in my story had I had it in my files at the time.

All text and images ©2011, Ryan Witte.

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