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.
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.
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 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.
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.