Thursday, October 14, 2010

Train Wave

The main decorative motif at Pennsylvania Station in Lancaster is a stylized wave that runs around the entire waiting room. Although Pennsylvania Station in Philadelphia is sparsely decorated, the same motif is visible inside the marble door frames. Here is a sketch of Philadelphia's train wave (1930):
... and Lancaster's train wave (1929).
I do not know enough about the Pennsylvania Railroad company to identify the wave as a corporate logo. But I do find it very evocative of the notion of movement through space, the blowing of steam and the rolling wheels articulated through the static language of classical architecture. Lancaster's station replicates the wave throughout the station, on the wooden seas and on the exterior facade:

Location: 40°03'25.70"N, 76°18'27.60"W
53 McGovern Avenue, Lancaster, PA 17602

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fleshing Out the Byzantine House

Yesterday morning, I gave a paper at the 36th Annual Byzantine Studies Conference. My paper included archaeological data from Athens, Corinth, Chersonesos, Sicily and Egypt and focused on fetuses buried under house floors (not uncommon). The introduction and the conclusion of the paper were formally written but the case studies were extemporaneously presented from the slides. The paper was just the beginning of a longer article that I hope to write soon, but I offer the draft here. One can cite the paper as, Kostis Kourelis, "Fleshing Out the Byzantine House," Byzantine Studies Conference Abstracts 36 (2010) 117-118, where the following text is published. I should also note that this paper originated from this blog, see Byzantine Children Burials (Aug. 28, 2008). I want to thank all of you who responded in person or by email to that posting. It illustrates for me the value of blogging and the free exchange of ideas.



The mutable nature of domestic architecture has guaranteed the disappearance of most houses from the extant material record visible to the architectural historian. Thanks to commemorative and ritual functions, on the other hand, churches survive in greater numbers and are deployed to tell the whole story of Byzantine architecture. Recent efforts to fill this domestic gap have produced a corpus of houses excavated with greater sensitivity towards anthropological rather than formal architectural questions.

New archaeological evidence allows us to, literally, flesh out the Byzantine house through its engagement in precise ecologies, its inclusion of organic matter and even its incorporation of human bodies. A softer archaeological lens reveals soft tissues of domestic architecture less evident under the harder lens of architectural studies. We look at three categories of artifacts. First, we consider the burial of family members within the house floors. Fetus burials from Athens, domestic family tombs from Chersonesos, or hospice burials from Corinth highlight the Byzantine practice of in-house burials. Second, we consider other living forms involved in the construction of Byzantine houses. A geological study of mortar samples from the Peloponnesos reveals the incorporation of organic material in the making of the walls, typically collected from the community’s own trash heaps. Such organic inclusions complement our knowledge of animal sacrifice during foundation rituals. Third, we consider the ecological niches that different Byzantine settlements engage and the environmental exploitation evident in the houses, from the woods used in construction to the woods used in firing the hearths.

If we admit all this organic evidence into the discussion, we can stipulate an anthropological tension between hard and soft architectural entities. Walls, floors and ceilings formed the physical envelope of Byzantine life. Houses prescribed social life (eating, sleeping, working, playing, praying, procreating) but also embodied deceased organic life. Investigating this type of flesh more broadly allows us to challenge our assumptions of architectural meaning in Byzantium. Masonry was not an inert as the modern scholar would have it. Masonry lived, breathed, listened and occasionally spoke.

Houses are a paradigmatic building type that cannot be separated from the processes of developmental psychology. From early childhood, houses articulate the distinction between animate and inanimate powers that culture proceeds to formulate. To use Sigmund Freud’s terminology, our notion of home incorporates its correlate, “the unhomely” or “uncanny.” Contemporary architectural theory has embraced Freud’s canonical essay on (“Unheimlich,” 1925) in the postmodern armature. Marrying the theoretical uncanny with new archaeological data sheds light on the Byzantine house and throws a wrench (perhaps a toy-wrench) into the stony assumptions of Byzantine architectural history.

My Powerpoint presentation had 60 slides but, unfortunately, I cannot include it here because much of what I showed is still unpublished. The image above is an Early Byzantine doll excavated in Karanis and now at the Kelsey Museum, see E. Gazda, Karanis: An Egyptian Town in Roman Times (Ann Arbor, 1983) 29, fig. 52, reprinted in Maguire et al., Art and Holy Power in the Early Christian House (Champagne Urbana, 1989) 228, no. 146.

I was thrilled to be included in a wonderful company of papers. The panel was not organized in advance, but was selected from blind abstract submissions. Good job to the program committee and the speakers for a truly thought-provoking morning. Stay tuned because we might be podcasting all the papers.

Session VIIC: Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010, 9:00-11:30

Chair: Ida Sinkevic (Lafayette College)

Fleshing Out the Byzantine House
Kostis Kourelis (Franklin & Marshall College)

The Past is Noise: Architectural Contexts and the Soundways of Byzantium
Amy Papalexandrou (Austin, TX)

The Materiality of Medieval Monastic Spaces in Egypt
Darlene L. Brooks Hestrom (Wittenberg University)

Cave-Cells and Ascetic Practice in Byzantine and Crusader Paphos
Nikolas Bakirtzis (The Cyprus Institute)

Miracle and Monastic Space: Hermitage of St. Petar of Korisa
Svetlana Smolcic-Mkuljevic (Faculty of IT, Belgrade)

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Train Track Classicism

Pennsylvania Station at 30th Street is one of the greatest monuments of Beaux Arts classicism in Philadelphia. Louis Kahn insisted that every visitor to the city enter through this monument (rather than by car or airplane). The building was part of an ambitious urban development project unrealized because of the Great Depression. Its architects, Graham, Anderson, Probst and White were the survivors of Daniel Burnham's firm, founded in 1912 after Burnham died. Burnham is one of the most important urbanist in the U.S., best known for his 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the City Beautiful Movement, the 1901 Washington D.C. Plan, etc. A couple of years before he died, Burnham had also designed the Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia (1910). His firm continued his urbanist ideas in 30th Street Station and the Terminal Tower Complex in Cleveland (1916-34). Both projects explore the movement between town and suburbs, made possible by regional rail lines. For a short overview of this historical moment, see "System and Flow," in Dell Upton's textbook, Architecture in the United States (1998), pp. 197-206.

I have been looking at 30th Street Station for years, but I recently noticed a thought-provoking detail, two pairs of horizontal lines set against the canonical Corinthian base of the exterior facade. They ran along the piers and the exterior wall, across the bases of the 10 large columns that frame the west and east porches. These four lines are the only protrusions in the otherwise flat facade. At one reading, they should be read as streamlined projections of the Ionic and Corinthian spira. Looking at my drawing above, you see that the large Corinthian bases have two scotia and an exaggerated spira in the middle (with two protruding bands). The double scotia is picked up on the wall across from the column base. Interpreted outside the learned rules of the classical orders, however, the four lines are literal translations of tracks, lifted 90 degrees from plan into elevation. They graphically represent the ingoing and outgoing rail lines visible on the ground. Once you recognize them, you find these bands throughout the station. Placed at the level of the human body, moreover, the bands illustrate the rushed passage that travelers take through the station on their way to their train track above or below.

The detail, thus, speaks multiple languages, traditional, modern and phenomenological. This is what I love about 1930s American architecture. It is caught in the tension between traditionalism and modernism, which is usually swept over in the heroic narrative of modernism (thanks to Siegfied Gideion). I hope to illuminate more tensions of this sort in a seminar that I just proposed for the Spring, "The 1930s: Building American Modernity."

Location: 39°57'20.16"N, 75°10'57.47"W
30th & Market Streets, Philadelphia, PA 19104

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States