Thursday, April 19, 2012

Concrete Byzantium

In 1908, Henry C. Mercer wrote an essay “Where Concrete Stands for Concrete,” in Cement Age 6 (1908) pp. 9-20. Published in an engineering journal, the essay has been forgotten by scholarship. I would argue that it must be included in the anthologies of modern architectural theory. The essay tackles the perennial conflict between modern material (concrete) and medieval crafts (ceramic tiles). Rather than covering up the concrete with plaster or paneling, Mercer argues that the concrete should remain exposed. To hide concrete’s imperfections behind a false layer of false perfection was not only dishonest, but a lost aesthetic opportunity. By theorizing the aesthetic qualities of concrete, Mercer becomes a forefather of Brutalism, which blossomed half a century later. Rather than hiding the concrete, Mercer thought that it could be elevated into a nobler material if decorated by the similarly earthy medium of ceramic tiles. He recommended covering no more than 10% of the surface area with colored tiles. The essay is illustrated with an application of this strategy in a Philadelphia club house. Mercer’s idea was soon fulfilled in his Fonthill construction.

Equally important in Mercer’s solution to concrete is the choice of historical tiles that would complement the new form, namely Byzantine decorative patterns. These abstract Byzantine borders are placed on the critical edges of the interior space, such as capitals for the concrete piers, fireplaces, and are complemented by Gothic borders. My sketch is based on Fig. III “Column of Byzantine pattern in original plastered concrete supporting heavy ceiling.” I love the casualness by which an iron skillet is hung on the pier. Mercer replicated this arrangement in the Saloon of his house, whose electrical illumination I discussed in the earlier posting "Illuminating Byzantium". Here, too, an electrical light bulb adorns the exterior and tightens the conceptual depth of the installation.

In addition to its pioneering significance on the theories of form and function, Mercer emerges as an interesting spokesman for a Byzantinism radically different from the Byzantium that figures in Louis Comfort Tiffany work. This other and more famous figure of the American Arts-and-Crafts also experimented with the visual qualities of Byzantine surface and the optical effects of glass and mosaic. For Tiffany, however, Byzantium was not a 10% application, but a complete cover-up of every visible surface. If Mercer's Byzantium is about conflict and dialectic, Tiffany's Byzantium is about surface and illusion. If Mercer's Byzantium is haptic and embodied, Tiffany's Byzantium is optic and disembodied.

Tiffany's concrete column (ca. 1905) is exactly contemporary to Mercer's. Rather than exposing the cement, Tiffany covered it up with favrile-glass mosaic and topped it with a plaster capital. The column now resides at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but it used to stand in the Tiffany Studios showroom at Madison Avenue and 47th Street.

Hence another distinction between Mercer and Tiffany is one of exposure, or between Bucks County, Pennsylvania and Madison Avenue, New York. Mercer never reached the commercial success and visibility of Tiffany's.


Richard M. Rothaus, PhD said...

Minnesota Brutalism:

Tyko said...

Given the connection of Kahn to material honesty and early Brutalism + his geographical proximity to the Mercer Museum, it might be that he, too, read (or simply was influenced by) Mercer.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States