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