Thursday, November 21, 2013

On an Arch


The story is something like one of those jokes about a priest and a rabbi and Lutheran pastor walking into a bar together:

You say to a brick: ‘What do you want, brick?’ And brick says: ‘I like an arch.’ And, then, you say: ‘Arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel. What do you say to that, brick?’ And brick says: ‘I want an arch.’

Louis Kahn, the great architect, made up this story and told it to his students. What if you said to an arch: “What do you want, arch?” How would the arch respond?

Arch’s answer, I suppose, might be something on the order of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler’s Auditorium Theatre looming over the intersection of Congress and South Michigan on Chicago’s lakefront. The dominant form in the colossal auditorium is the proscenium arch, echoed by other concentric arches radiating like mighty waves away from the black void of the stage. The arches are gilded and lit by hundreds of bulbs and the glow like the treasure of Tutankhamen in the cavernous hall. The geometry of these arches and their glittering rigor impose a symbolic form on the structure’s interior.

Arches are less voluble than bricks. Bricks are talkative, persistent, stubborn. We will have to tease out the significance of an arch, a form that stands proudly silent.


A man named Peck lived in Chicago at the time of the great fire. Peck was an industrialist. When the fire burned much of Chicago to the ground, a kind of Emersonian idealism took root in the ashes. Chicago’s fire cleared away the teeming and congested city and offered an opportunity to rebuild in a rational, modern, and scientific way. The city was to be the laboratory of the future and, in those days, all of Chicago’s luminaries were utopian idealists: Jane Addams and the railroad car magnate, George Pullman, with his model industrial city in the south suburbs, Carl Sandburg and Corinne True, the woman who brought the immense Bahai Temple to Wilmette, Sullivan and Adler, and, later, Frank Lloyd Wright. Ferdinand Peck must be counted among this number. Peck is the father of Auditorium Theater.

Peck was a businessman. He was concerned that Chicago-style capitalism was driving a wedge between workers and management, that the concentration of money in the hands of industrial technocrats was creating two different classes of humanity – the educated managers and the uneducated disgruntled workers. The Haymarket riots seemed to Peck to evidence this dangerous division in society. Like many 19th century dreamers, Peck thought that art, and our response to art displayed a common humanity between the working classes and their bosses. Therefore, Peck’s solution was to construct a grandiose temple to art, an enormous space in which people of all beliefs and social classes would be united in their appreciation of beauty. The temple to art was to be the Auditorium Theater, a venue for the performance of grand opera, and the largest auditorium in the world. Peck’s solution to social fragmentation, a malaise that he saw as leading to anarchy, was grandiose, Wagnerian, and, characteristically, simple and optimistic: he would underwrite construction of the huge theater and make it possible for workers to rub shoulders with industrialists in a single heroic space dedicated to artistic truth and beauty.

The great engineer, Dankmar Adler, was hired for the project. Adler’s chief architect was Louis Sullivan, then thirty years old. The plan was to erect an entire block containing the auditorium as its core, but producing rental income at street level by an arcade of shops. The great cavity of the auditorium was installed within a grand hotel with enormous banqueting halls, winter gardens, and lounges radiant with skylights and bright enough to grow palm trees in alabaster pots.

The lake-front site was swampy. Adler and Sullivan’s building was a remarkable combination of new and old construction methods. The exterior walls of the structure were Richardsonian Romanesque, hulking walls with cavernous archways built from cyclopean rusticated blocks of Minnesota (St. Cloud) granite. The cavity within this fortress-like shell was airy and light, supported by a grid of structural steel members. But the ensemble was immensely heavy, particularly since Adler and Sullivan planned a six-story masonry tower, a separate skyscraper, perched improbably on the vast cube of quarried stone. All of this weight had to be supported and this posed serious technical challenges since there was no bedrock anywhere on the site. Ultimately, Adler excavated a deep pit in the blue-clay marsh, filling the hole with a crisscross weave of railroad ties coated with pitch. On top of the mesh of tarry timber, Adler built a steel platform. This entire structure formed a barge, floating on the wet clay and, as the building was constructed on top of this foundation, the immense weight of the auditorium forced the support system deeper and deeper into the emulsion of clay silt and water below. Thus, we encounter the first great symbolic aspect of the Auditorium Theater – this gargantuan structure, so heavy that it compresses your chest and makes it hard for you to breathe when you behold the building at street-level (those house-sized rough blocks! those squat, shiny columns bulging with compressive weight! those heavy-lidded half-eye-shaped arches!), this whole immense building floats, like Cleopatra on the Nile, on a subterranean barge, a motionless buoyant vessel tethered in the mud and borne-up by the black, secret waters of the lake below.

After the building’s perimeter walls were set in place, Adler left Chicago and traveled to Europe. Sullivan supervised the adornment of the structure with his vegetal filigree fantasies and raised the mighty concentric arches in the auditorium. He configured a cooling system that used 15 tons of salted ice hacked from the nearby lake and stashed in the auditorium’s ceiling, chilly mist emerging from bulbous fixtures between the lights on the concentric arch-rings overhead. Thousands of the latest carbon filament light bulbs were set in the arches to illuminate the place. By present-day standards, the cavernous interior of the auditorium seems dim and the array of lights defining the concentric overhead arches doesn’t read as source of illumination but rather as ornamentation, an universe of glowing golden gems imparting a semi-mystical Pythagorean aura to the half-circles outlining the stage and the vaulted space. But to 19th century visitors, unused to Edison’s new electric light bulbs, the interior of the auditorium was positively radiant, a temple of light. Sullivan wanted the tower atop the auditorium to be the highest point in Chicago and so, without consulting Adler, the engineer on the structure, he added another floor to that skyscraper. This hubris proved to be almost catastrophic.

Adler said that he had spent five years in computations, calculating the weight-bearing capacity of the floating barge, to determine how much it was likely to settle under the downward thrust of the auditorium block. Sullivan’s impetuous decision to add an additional level to the skyscraper tower, a place to be occupied proudly by the architectural firm of Adler and Sullivan, imposed additional weight on the foundation. The building was supposed to settle about nine to eleven inches – this was taken into account by Adler’s computations. In fact, the building settled for a number of years, ultimately sinking into the earth at its perimeter more than thirty inches. As a result, the building has a peculiarly bowed floor – the auditorium’s center is higher than its edges and the perimeter aisles are almost yard lower than the seats in the middle of the orchestra section. The great and carefully designed overhead arches, accordingly, are mirrored by an accidental arch, flatter and more sinister, the middle of the auditorium forming a low crown that slips downward on all sides to where the heavy perimeter walls bear down on the submerged barge.

Sullivan’s hubris provides us with the second symbolic aspect of the building. It was, in effect, almost a ruin from the day that it was completed. Cracks threatened to unzip the side-walls of the auditorium block and some of those fissures zigzagged like lightning across the facade of the skyscraper tower atop the structure. Sullivan and Adler’s own office was imperilled and the crevasses in the building were said to be visible within their suite of rooms. With each passing year, the structure settled a little more and, for a time, it was surmised that the entire building might simply collapse into the voracious blue clay on which it was built. Some writers, half-seriously, I think, impute Sullivan’s lifelong alcoholism to his attempt to allay with whisky anxiety that his magnum opus was fatally flawed and destined to fail, that the mighty structure lacked Vitruvian “firmness,” primarily due to his own arrogance. Like the house of Usher, Sullivan and Adler’s Auditorium Theater contains a rift that may one day be its undoing.

The auditorium is acoustically superb, transmitting sound outward from the stage through the megaphone-shaped arches, a kind of huge conch-shell. Out of egalitarian considerations, Sullivan disdained the notion of box-seats for elite audience members. He was advised, however, that integral to the experience of 19th century Grand Opera was the display of glittering friezes of society women in low-cut and elegant gowns, their throats and bosoms bedecked with expensive gems. Working class people wanted to see these women on display just as surely as did members of the haute bourgeoise. Accordingly, Sullivan was moved to compromise – he reluctantly installed box-seats but positioned them so that their sight-lines were inferior to the general admission seating in the center of the auditorium. Sullivan’s notion was that if you came to see the opera and were more concerned with the music and art than the social occasion, you would elect to sit in the middle of auditorium and avoid the box seats. The conceptual distinction between seeing and being seen remains to this day. When I toured the auditorium in early November 2013, the guide showed us where Michelle Obama and her daughters sits when the Joffrey Ballet and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company come to town. Mrs. Obama eschews the box-seats and sits in the center of the orchestra section.

The auditorium was complete in 1889. The room seated 4300 people. Before the seats were installed, Benjamin Harrison, a Republican nominee for president, spoke in the half-finished building at his party’s national convention. It is said that 11,000 people crowded into the space to hear his oration. Almost from the outset, the theater was an economic failure – the place was simply too large, too much a white elephant to support itself. Not only displaying structural fissures portending failure, the auditorium enterprise collapsed economically under its own weight.

The first intimations of economic failure accompanied the “White City,” that is, the Columbian World’s Fair Exposition of 1893. The Exposition broke Sullivan’s heart and began his downward professional trajectory. Sullivan had hoped to win the commission to design the lavish pavilions and exhibition halls to be built in Hyde Park, a hundred blocks south of the Auditorium. But the job was awarded to the New York firm headed by Daniel Burnham. Burnham erected a complex of wedding-cake-white beaux arts palaces around the artificial lagoons gouged from Lake Michigan, the array of carytid-infested pavilions oozing ornament – a spectacle that Frank Lloyd Wright claimed “set back American architecture a whole generation.” Adler and Sullivan had hoped to design the entire ensemble of temporary stucco buildings but, instead, were limited to a commission for a single exhibition hall, the Transportation Building. This disappointment is often portrayed as devastating to Sullivan. In fact, the Transportation Building was no mean project – the structure was the length of three football fields and photographs show that the pavilion was impressive, equipped with an awe-inspiring portal featuring gilded concentric arches, a form similar to the great radiating arches in the Auditorium at Michigan and Congress.

Probably more damaging was the fact that the Columbian Exposition heralded a new era in hotel design. Erected to accommodate the flood of visitors to the exposition, the Congress Hotel occupies an entire city block directly to the south of the Auditorium Building. The Congress Hotel was modern, built with all amenities then-existing and, most importantly, the building’s design was innovative with respect to toilets and baths – each room in the hotel had its own private bathroom and WC. By contrast, the Auditorium Hotel followed the continental model: it was a luxury hotel with elaborate, Pompeian-styled common baths and toilets. Of course, visitors preferred the Congress Hotel and, within, a dozen years, the Auditorium Hotel was bankrupt. The Hotel at the Auditorium occupied the west elevation of the building, rooms overlooking Lake Michigan, and was equipped with lavish ballrooms and reception galleries, as well as an ornate and expensive restaurant. All of these facilities were shuttered when the hotel failed. Later, Congress Street was widened and this project carved away some of the Auditorium’s south elevation, apparently resulting in the demolition of some elaborate, marble lounge facilities and an enclosed greenhouse or Winter Garden.

The hotel enterprise was fundamental to the building’s cash-flow. So the deficit had to be made up elsewhere. The owners of the building increased the rent to the store-front businesses and tenants occupying the west (Wabash) side of the complex. Most of those tenants fled the building, leaving the commercial half of the block vacant. The Chicago Lyric Opera, for whom the building had been erected, found the huge auditorium too difficult to fill and the stage with its massive and unwieldy hydraulic lifts and machinery too large and complex. The great proscenium arch dwarfed most productions and made them seem comically small in the context of the auditorium’s grandiose space. (When the building was resurrected for theater in the late seventies and early eighties, the only shows that comfortably fit the stage were arena rock acts, some of them with laser-light shows, and spectacle musicals like Miss Saigon and Les Miserables.) Although touring companies, particularly the Metropolitan Opera, rented the room for annual road-show appearances, the local opera company departed – by 1910, the Chicago Lyric Opera was at home in a smaller, more custom-built venue. For a dozen or so years, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played subscription concerts in the hall. The size of the place made it impossible to fill the hall, however, and musicians complained that there was no reverberation in the auditorium – the notes that they played departed upward and outward into the vastness of the hall and “did not return”; it was said to be like playing all concerts outdoors and the effect was unsettling to musicians who expected to hear the echo of their playing within the room. So the Symphony Orchestra built a concert hall a couple blocks north on Michigan Avenue and also departed from the Auditorium. Accordingly, by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, when the Auditorium was 21 years old, it had lost the musical tenants that were its raison d’etre.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, the Auditorium had been insolvent for many years. The City of Chicago determined that the empty hulk should be torn down. A few desultory attempts at demolition were attempted, but the structure was too heavy, too colossal to be readily destroyed – indeed, since real estate values in Chicago had collapsed due to the Great Depression, anticipated demolition expenses far exceeded the value of the property and the place was left abandoned, quietly decaying at the south end of the Loop. The skylights over the auditorium theater ruptured and water poured in from outside. Snow drifts were sometimes found among the moldering chairs in the darkened auditorium. Adler and Sullivan were long gone – Adler long dead and buried and Sullivan with Peck dying five years before the Crash in 1924.

During World War Two, the USO commandeered the structure and established offices in some of less dilapidated parts of the hotel complex. Some of the rooms were renovated to serve as temporary housing for troops. Photographs show 12 bowling lanes erected on a false-floor in the auditorium. Soldiers rolled their bowling balls from above the 20th row of seats in the auditorium toward the gaping black void of the stage where pin-handling equipment was mounted on a low scaffold. Elderly women recall that there was a dance-floor in the complex and that they took the El downtown to the USO so that they could dance with lonely GI’s in the chilly gloom of the auditorium – but there don’t seem to be any pictures of the dance-hall.

After the war, African-American servicemen were entitled to GI Bill college benefits. But, frequently, they found that institutions of higher learning were segregated and that they were denied admission at many colleges and universities. Responding to this injustice, Eleanor Roosevelt founded a college called Washington University and the school was located in the Auditorium Building. The school’s initial Board of Directors included Mrs. Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and the Black operatic singer, Marian Anderson. Washington University was a success and, later, was renamed Roosevelt University. The university continues to occupy the building today and, in fact, has constructed a gleaming skyscraper on an annex next to Sullivan and Adler’s vast granite cube – from south Wabash, a block away from the Auditorium on the corner where Buddy Guy’s Blues Club now stands, the big blue-glass skyscraper, it’s outline fashionably crumpled like a piece of cerulean-bright paper, frames the stocky tower built atop the Theater. It is a very pretty effect and clearly one intended to complement the rather medieval-looking turret rising over the powerful flanks and shoulders of the auditorium.

From my room on the 12th floor of the Congress Hotel, I could see across the street and into the upper stories of the Auditorium Building. Students sat at long tables in a dark-paneled hall, probably a library, and to accommodate their work schedules, the place stayed open until the early hours of the morning. The lights were on and students bending over their books after midnight on most evenings – a row of lantern-like lights shining atop the heavy, dark structure. On the weekend, the study hall, apparently, can be converted into some kind of banqueting facility or reception hall – I saw men in elegant suits and women in ball-room gowns outlined in the bright windows across the street. I think that the top floor of the auditorium is occupied by the hotel’s old banquet hall, now remodeled into a facility called the Rudolf Ganz Memorial Hall.


When I toured the Auditorium Theater on the first day of November, Chicago’s weather was a little unseemly, just slightly indelicate – a warm, humid wind blowing off the lake, the smell of earthworms and dead fish faintly sexual between the buildings. At this time of year, it is supposed to be cold and crisp, football weather and beyond, mint-Christmas glittering in the air, festive ozone where the wheels of the elevated trains spark like a welder’s torch on the big curve eastbound to Wabash. But the big grid felt sweaty and the rain that painted the streets with reflections was blood-warm. This kind of weather in the Midwest in late autumn usually presages a sudden, drop in the temperature, a gale, an ice-storm that turns into a blizzard howling across the lake. That calamity also didn’t occur – the weather was stuck in grey holding pattern.
The interior of the Auditorium building was steamy. Fog seemed to drift in the distances. The tour-guide was an elegant woman with a silk scarf tossed across her shoulder, a neat, calm person just about to enter old age. She led us from place to place, reciting facts about the auditorium. When there were steps to be climbed, she pointed us to the cast-iron stairs and took the elevator herself to the structure’s higher levels.

At the outset of the tour, the woman asked us to tell the others where we were from. I wanted to mention that I had come from Austin, only forty miles from Sullivan’s last masterpiece, the bank at Owatonna, but I wondered if the woman would know about that structure and expected that I would, then, have to explain what I meant before the group and that my explanation would sound pretentious and self-absorbed and so I simply named my hometown, saw the people blink a little at me, wondering, I suppose, whether I knew Willy Nelson or George Bush or other politicians in the Texas capitol. The other people on the tour were from Florida, Santa Monica, and there was a female architect from Vienna who spoke with a slight accent that sounded Transylvanian from me – at least, if old horror movies are any indication.

The lobby to the Auditorium is a tiled crypt with a low ceiling supported by a forest of plump columns. The space is gloomy, the entrance on Congress guarded by six stained glass muses, women with pillars of blonde hair heaped up atop featureless pink faces. For some reason, the stained glass goddesses seemed to be eyeless with only the faintest trace of a mouth, lips and jaw probably nonfunctional in any event – like cicadas and butterflies, muses don’t eat. The light in the crypt is orangish and the low crouching vaults, like the inside of the knuckles of a hand, are dim and also orangish and so the experience of walking through the foyer is claustrophobic, something like being confined within a carved pumpkin.

The ascent to the auditorium is dramatic. You walk up a shallow flight of stairs and enter the vast hollow of the theater, impassive armies of seats looming overhead, and high above, the universe of huge concentric arches, pricked out by the dim yellow-orange light bulbs each orbited by one of those carbuncle-shaped bronze-colored air-conditioning vents. Floral arabesques scale the walls and two huge medallions, covered in gold and bearing the profiles of Wagner and Shakespeare, Hayden and Demosthenes like postage stamps at their corners, flank the stage. Gold covers all exposed surfaces at the front of the auditorium and the effect is like a mellow sunburst, an expanse of radiating energy like light propagating in orderly concentric waves away from the cavernous black abyss of the stage.

On the sides of the auditorium, two huge landscapes slumber, half-shrouded in the upper darkness. One of them shows an image of Spring, a young woman in a Grecian tunic wandering a meadow painted in the silvery, wind-swept colors that you find in a Corot canvas. The woman has entered the landscape but stands apart from it, a stranger in the chilly vacancy that still seems icy with the winter that has just departed. Across from the Spring landscape, another mural shows a gloomy landscape, rocks and stubby cliffs, a mourner departing through a maze of fallen timber – the image is distinctly funereal, an impression furthered by the motto inscribed beneath the painting said to show a “dell in Wisconsin”:
A great life has passed into the tomb
And there awaits the requiem of Winter snows.

Nature, Sullivan thought, was the fundamental inspiration for all artistic expression and provided forms in which we express our creativity. The energies of nature are birth, death, and change: Spring brings new life; Autumn decimates the landscape and opens into the grave of Winter. Above the proscenium, a frieze decorates the first of the great half-circles, the arch immediately over the stage. The mural is elongated, like a ribbon, both heroic and morose. At the right, where the arch springs upward, a muscular angel, sinews taut like a flexed bow about to fire an arrow, gestures upward some half-naked women, girls dancing on a meadow, youths prancing in procession behind an infant riding barebacked on a leopard. At the apex of the arch, a statuesque angel with the wings of condor and a spiky halo presides over a scroll that reads: THE UTTERANCE OF LIFE IS A SONG / THE SYMPHONY OF NATURE – a peculiarly awkward motto. To the left of the domineering angel, the arch declines through a dark-robed mob of priests to some naked girls, apparently, grief-stricken and comforting one another with ambiguous caresses, falling toward another angel, this heavily winged creature leaning forward to scatter the ashes of a great man on the dim and flowery turf. The angel at the right, aimed like a bow and arrow upward, is the angel of birth; her sister on the left, where the arch dives down to the ground, is the angel of death. The entire program represents the stages of human life: birth, childhood, the glory of youth, and, then, the religious regrets of middle-age, death depicted in the mourning girls and the corpse reduced to ashes strewn into the flowers in which the great arch is rooted.

In the upper galleries, the highest heights seem to shudder a little. The aisles are steep and descend precipitously to the cliff-edge of balconies. Iron columns are stuck like lances into the ceiling and the seats here are ancient, the original auditorium furniture embossed with floral initials A and T, naming the place, ranks of cream-colored tiny chairs hanging from dark roof, the steps tilting downward uneven and terrifying. For some reason, the structure quivers and you can feel the weight and immensity of the building in this place, its exuberant too-much-ness, the power of abundance that seems over-ripe and about to fall, like half-rotten fruit, from the tree. The funereal motifs inscribed into the walls and the melancholy procession of the mural over the proscenium creates the impression that one is touring a vast mausoleum, the tomb of some oriental despot like Halicarnassus or Sardanapalus, an enormous ornate sarcophagus. The air is ancient in these heights, among the Gods as the British would say. Periodically, footfalls are heard, something shudders and creaks in some mysterious recess of the huge vault, and a man as small as a figure lost in a Brueghel landscape navigates across the deep black void of the stage. Apparently, crossing the stage is the shortest route from one place to another in Roosevelt university and, every five minutes or so, someone appears, wandering across the stage, pausing, perhaps, to look out over the great echoing hall. Merely by appearing on the stage, these figures become allegorical –they are minute, unheralded Magellans traversing the great blankness, the tiny figure of a man or woman poised against the encompassing dark.

It is inevitable that I see the arch, particularly the huge half-circle over the proscenium with its parades of naked figures and its shrouded holy men, as representing Louis Sullivan’s life. Springing from the earth, he was young and vibrant and created great works – the auditorium is one of the apogees of his art. Then, fissures sliced through the masonry and Sullivan began to drink heavily and, in the end, after years of failure, he built a small bank in Owatonna, a brick mastaba like the final resting place for a minor pharaoh, that structure designed as a jewel-box sepulcher with another great arch within a square of masonry.

So what does an arch want? An arch wants to embody the course of human life. It wants to spring from the earth and rise proudly to heights that are lofty, but, nonetheless, precisely constrained by its specific geometry – neither too high nor too low – and, then, curve sinuously downward to be buried in the earth

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