richard-meier-athenium

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Part 2: BODY
Meier_Atheneum
Richard
Talicia Wagner
“We do not merely behold as spectators the relations
between the parts of our body and the correlations between
the visual and tactile body: we are ourselves the unifier
of these arms and legs…”( M. Merleau-Ponty ,150).
“Body is not an object for ‘I think but, it is a grouping
of lived through-meanings which moves towards its
equilibrium” (M. Merleau-Ponty, 153).
Throughout
the
historical
discourse
of
architecture,
the theme of body has been
considered in a multiplicity
of ways. From the earliest
writings
of
Vitruvius
and
Venturi, to the mid-twentieth
century
theories
of
Le
Corbusier
and
M.
MerleauPonty, to the contemporary
critique
of
Eisenman,
the
concept
of
the
body
in
architecture has taken on a
range
of
different
meanings
in
ranging
from
representation
to
phenomenological. The Atheneum, by Richard Meier is an
example of a modern style building, built in the postmodern era, deals with body in “not (simply) a single body,
but a multiplicity of bodies” (Columina, 235).
In The Medical Body in Modern Architecture, Beatriz
Columina
states
that
architecture
has
a
historical
relationship with medicine. She likens the modern building
to bodily fitness as she states, “The buildings became
unconsciously identified with the healthy body” (ibid,
232), free of rotting and
expired
Victorian
architectural ideals.
As mentioned in section
one [form}, the town of New
Harmony,
Indiana
was
established
as
a
utopian
community in 1814 by a group
of
separatists
from
the
German Lutheran Church.
In
1829 Robert Owen, a Welshborn industrialist and social
philosopher,
purchased
the
town. He brought a group of
scientists and intellectuals,
or
a
“boatload
of
knowledge”(191)
as
Meier
refers,
as
the
founding
citizens
for
his
communitarian
experiment.
Even
though
the
social
experiment
failed,
the
community still embodies a
cultural and cerebral wealth.
New Harmony is the site of
the early headquarters of the
U.S. Geological Survey and
provided
the
earliest
geological
and
natural
science collections for the
Smithsonian
Institute.
This
history
was
deliberately
embedded in the Meier’s Atheneum.
“In its formal structure the Atheneum recalls the
1920s work of French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) of
the
"International
Style"
school, by its use of ramps,
glass
walls,
columns
and
graceful curving lines.”(JAF,
1998). The modern form of the
building, the pristine quality
of the white porcelain panels
helps enhance the building’s
legibility
“as
a
kind
of
medical equipment, a mechanism
for protecting and enhancing
the
body”
(Colomina
232).
Meier describes the interior
as also having effect as he says, “the white interior and
gray carpeted floors and seating enhance the stark
simplicity of the theatre” (Meier, 1984, 212). This
statement also alludes to the building as being a body
“naked in the sun, washed, muscled, supple” (Columina,
235).
The skin component of this naked body is represented
in as a modern and ordered grid that can be likened to the
cells of the epidermis.
The continuous circulation can be directly related to
the human circulatory system, which makes the interior
ramp, which Meier says is the “chief mediator and armature”
(Meier, 199) the heart.
Columina
also
discusses
Charles
and
Ray
Eames.
Charles
Eames
describes
the
architect is as a
surgeon,
as
he
states,
“The
preoccupation with
self-expression is
no more appropriate
to the world of art
than it is to the
world of surgery”
(235).
In
The
Building
in
Pain
Anthony Vidler also
talks
about
the
transformation the
body has undergone
in
regards
to
architecture.
The
Atheneum, arguably
fits most closely
with the ideas of “the building as body”(Vidler, 4), where
it is closely tied to classical architecture, geometry and
the Vitruvian man, as well as the “building epitomizing
bodily states, or, more importantly, states of mind based
on bodily sensation” (ibid).
In regards to the latter, the plan of the Atheneum is
an honest and obvious correlation. The plan consists of two
orthogonal grids, one, which responds to the grid of the
town of New Harmony, and one that is shifted five degrees
which takes its cue from the nearby river. While it seems
Meier has rationalized his form based on adjacencies, the
proportion and disposition of these two intertwining grids
closely resembles the Vitruvian Man.
Relating to the former, The Athenium demonstrates the
modern move of abstracting the human form. It is not
difficult to see how the geometric arrangement of shapes
could be directly viewed as a physical deconstruction of
the human form. What is less visible, but still present, is
the relative projected mental state or psyche of the
building. He describes it in terms of “a moment of
opportunities, allowing for a universalizing abstraction
and a psychology of sensation and movement, epitomized in
architecture that mirrored all the states of a regenerated
and healthy body, but also corresponded to a similarly
healthy
mind”
(ibid, 6).
This idea of a
healthy
mind
is
especially
fitting
in connection with
this building, as
it is a place for
orientation
and
learning.
The
auditorium
inside
the
Athenium
functions almost as
the brain of the
building as it is
the
first
stop
inside the building
where
a
visitor
becomes oriented. A
specially made 17minute film titled
“The
New
Harmony
Experience”
is
screened there for
every
tour.
This
film also functions
as
the
first
interface
between
the people of the
New
Harmony,
who
helped
make
the
film,
and
the
visitor.
If
this
auditorium is the
brain,
then
it
seems
Meier
has
also adopted Le Corbusier’s regard for the psyche, more
than just his concern with form and body.
The building also operates relative to Michael Feher’s
concerns for the modes of construction and moves on the
axis of history (Feher, 1989). Vertically, Meier has
strived to find a proximity to the divine. On the top end,
the building is literally built on a podium of earth, as so
to protect it from the flooding river, and to give it a
sense of grandeur on the landscape. The vertical axis is
also exploited in terms of circulation with the climax of
the journey being the arrival at the roof terrace. Here
they can become completely oriented with the town as well
as enjoy an expansive 360-degree view of the natural
landscape. On the other hand, the building acts as a kind
of machine-interface. The specified circulation path and
program forces the user to engage in the building in a
particular way, and frames certain specific views (like the
river from the river shaped window). The Atheneum also
engages the transversal axis in the way that the
circulation continuously flows from the inside to the
outside of the building. Meier explicitly states that his
circulation is designed for the user to have, upon arrival
of the exhibition space on the third level “the visitor can
look back on the internal route he has traveled, through
staggered interior slots and windows framing the essential
spaces, as well as forward to what is to come” (Meier,
199). As the visitor exits the building, they are left
walking straight towards the town, where they will engage
in a now informed social interaction.
work cited
Colomina, Beatriz. “The Medical Body in Modern
Architecture” in Anybody, MIT PRESS, 1997. 232-235.
Feher M, ed. Fragments for a History of the Human Body 3. New York:
Zone Books, 1989
Meier, R. Richard Meier Architect. 1976, Oxford
University Press, New York. 196-203.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. "The Synthesis of One's Own
Body", in Phenomenology of Perception, 1962, 148-153.
The Athenuem/ Visitors Centre. 2009.
Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, University Library.
21 September 1998, JAF. Web
http://www.ulib.iupui.edu/kade/newharmony/atheneum.html.
http://liberalarts.iupui.edu/maxkade/newharmony/home.html
Accessed 11-01-10
Vidler, Anthony. “The Building in Pain: The Body in
Architecture” in AA Files 19, Architectural Association. 310
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