Googies and Other Edifice Complexes

This is a very hot, humid summer in Pittsburgh; so hot you feel like a character in a Tennessee Williams play. It makes you want to sit on a porch with a gin and tonic and gaze out to sea. I am doing something similar but gazing into my neighbor’s cutting garden instead of the sea. Despite the unusually hot weather my house is quite comfortable. I often think of the architect who designed it and how their long ago choices affect me today. This is on my mind because of a question in The Literature of the Later Middle Ages Study Guide: ‘Discuss how architecture and visual arts are used in texts from this period.’ Keeping in mind Kermode’s advice to consider the effects on the reader, I started to think about how architecture affects me.

 I decided to visit an exhibition at The Heinz Architecture Center called ‘Architectural Explorations.’ It is a visual analysis of architectural representation from sketches to video games. This helped me to start thinking about space and the sculptural elements of architecture. For me, a well designed building is like inhabiting sculpture. My background in studio art means that art is very tactile for me so architectural space is tactile by extension. HAC’s exhibit helped me engage with the conceptual elements of architecture too.

 The conceptual and sculptural elements of architecture are something to think about in literature. Pittsburgh has many architectural gems and traditions from Southern, German and Scandinavian Colonial to LED certified twenty first century colossi.  The Georgian Colonials interiors are like Jane Austen’s interesting architectural imagery.  There are Victorian homes with the en suite interiors that remind me of Charlotte Bronte’s complex characters.  It is interesting to think about how these different architectural styles affect mood, attitude and lifestyle. The house where I now live is best described as modern. It is like a Yeats poem, complex, pleasantly emotional and ultimately refreshing.

 Though my house is of no particular architectural distinction it is exceptionally well designed and built by real craftsman about 100 years ago. Pittsburg is chock full of significant modern architecture. After HAC I visited Edgar Kaufman’s Fallingwater and Hagan’s Kentuck Knob in the wild Allegheny Mountains; then Walter Gropius’s ‘AluminumCity’ and his Frank House in my urban neighborhood. The properties are very different but  share a relationship to nature and the landscape. It reminded me of what Park Hanon said about Tudor gardens; they are full of eccentric topiary and walled with hedges as Tudor gentlemen link life lessons to lessons learned from the soil. His description of Shakespeare’s Late Medieval home inspired my last visit to Philip Johnson’s neogothic PPG Place. It looks like Westminster and was inspired by Victoria Tower. For me, it is a very disturbing, un-nerving structure covering five city blocks.

 This building has the greatest effect on me of all the architecture I regularly visit in Pittsburgh. Johnson’s design is powerful and dominating, much like I imagine architecture must have been to people in the Later Middle Ages. Its relationship to power is inescapable; its religious signature inevitably inspires ‘contemptus mundi.’  In Johnson’s urban landscape I can put myself in the place of a medieval woman and experience the sheer emotional impact of architecture. That is an ‘Edifice Complex’ unlike Kaufman’s, Hagan’s, Frank’s or their architects’. Back in my lounge chair I am quite ready to think about architecture in my texts.  As if in a mid twentieth century Googie I am ready to be transported, if I can only stop thinking about the architecture in my neighborhood.

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