April 30, 2009

Great Buildings of the Past Century: The National Gallery of Art

It seems to me that a great bulk of my critical writing here is often profoundly negative towards the practice of architecture. Frankly a lot of the blogosphere tends to be that way, and its human nature to complain and in architecture particularly there tends to be a lot less good news going on than bad. I've therefore decided to be a bit more positive and seet out buildings that are really great and give some good reasons why. I've decided to limit myself to building from the last century or so, roughly from 1900 on, I think it might be interesting to see how many great buildings I can find from this era.

The National Gallery of Art - 1941 - John Russell Pope

The National Gallery of Art was one of the last built works of the great classical architect John Russell Pope. Derided by his critics in during the rising tide of modernism as "the last of the Romans" Pope was a master of a sedate and serene classicism that one could adequately call modern.

This modern classicism is typified by Pope's use of the more robust classical orders such as the Doric, and greater ratio of wall to openings than other more Beaux-arts architects. His use of articulations tends to be more subtle, preferring slight changes in plane rather than deep bays and openings like one might find at Burnham's Union Station. Ornament, while not absent, is less used, but only at points of emphasis, and in proportionate manner, and like so much ornament of the interwar years, tends to be more planar and more spartan.

Corcoran gallery

Comparing his National Archives to Ernest Flagg's victorian 1897 Corcoran Gallery, the Archives appears lighter, with broader expanses of stone, widely spaced and small widely spaced acroteria and a shallow simple cornice. The Corcoran's use of deep recesses, heavily sculpted and staccato use of acroteria and festoons on the cornice and particularly the rusticated base give this smaller building a very heavy presence.The National Gallery continues Pope's style to its logical end. No figurative ornamentation is found on the exterior of the building, and only small wreaths in the frieze and small leaf patterns ornament the doors. This points to the idea that Pope saw this building not like another work of art on display, but rather as the frame.

Exterior ornament is limited to architectural detail.

The parti or plan of the building is remarkably clear and orderly. The central rotunda clearly modeled on the Pantheon flanked by block wings, each with long corridors ending at light courts is both pleasing and easily understandable. Comparing this to the often confusing layouts of so many museums its not hard to see why it's considered the best museum in the world. Other details make this building a remarkably wonderful place to view art. Diffuse light streams from above in the galleries, courtesy of the double layer of skylights brilliantly designed to bring in light but not cast shadows or cause glare.

The Pantheon-like central hall.

The building is despite it's appearance also extremely modern in a technological sense. The museum was one of the first buildings designed to be entirely air conditioned. The brilliance is found in that the air vents are placed above the cornices of the interior doorways, concealing this unattractive detail from the viewers standing on the floor below. The returns are tasteful grilles placed behind benches that sit in the halls.

The Pantheon oculus motif, giving beautiful diffuse light.

There is one final amazingly brilliant detail that no one sees, and probably only a very few people even know about is the use of expansion joints on the facade. Most buildings built today need expansion joints, this is due to the different materials that go into a modern building, usually a steel frame with stone as durable exterior material. The problem is when the building heats up the steel and the stone expand at different rates, necessitating some sort of joint to allow the expansion to be absorbed. Without this the stone would crack and fail.

Expansion joints are hid behind changes in plane.

Normally when a building has a long expanse of wall, like at the National Gallery, these expansion joints are simply run right down the front of the building. Pope however, just like he does with the skylights, and the AC vents, conceals this. Here it is concealed behind the places on the facade where the planes slip behind each other. The joint runs from top to bottom of the facade, but BEHIND the folds of the building. Simply brilliant. Without the flexibility of the classical language, this detail would be difficult, if not impossible to pull off, leaving the usual nasty looking line of plastic grout.

The National Gallery is a great example of how to build a truly modern building, with all of the conveniences necessary to its operation and construction, but yet maintain the dignity and beauty of the classical language.


Margaret E. Perry said...


i have a friend who worked there, and said she overheard some of the kitchen staff saying they had worked there for years and never ever been up to the rotunda. shocking.

Anonymous said...

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