Monday, July 10, 2006

Interesting Things To Look At

My wife and I like to walk around downtown Fairhaven, Massachusetts. It's a sleepy little place, but still triple the size of our Marion. Our smallest child is barely three, and will go absolutely anywhere and look at absolutely anything. That makes him perfect company.

There's a magnificent Unitarian church in the middle of town, that like most of the buildings of note here was the gift of H. H. Rogers. Henry Huttleston, or Hell Hound, as his business competitors called him, was part of the Standard Oil trust at the turn of the twentieth century, and a close associate of John D. Rockefeller senior. He became a very wealthy man, but he never forgot the very humble place of his birth - Fairhaven. Fairhaven is a lot less humble than it would be, had Rogers not undertaken to build this church, the Town Hall, the High School, and a veritable confection of a building, the Millicent Library. We never tire of walking around, and through, these buildings.

This picture is taken from the most humble angle available on the church. We were in a little courtyard, behing the parish house, unused to visitors. But there are no blank walls, no concrete block, no vinyl siding, no sheets of blank steel or glass, nothing boring or humdrum or brutalist or skimpy. I could simply walk in a circle around the place and point the camera anywhere and you'd see something worth looking at.

Ornamentation is no longer considered a worthwhile endeavor in architecture. One of the great crimes of modern thought was to associate Victorian sensibilities with the gloomy, the haunted, the discredited. Let's face it: Norman Bates wouldn't live in a split level ranch.

Unadorned surfaces are actually fussier to produce than any other. "Minimalist" architecture is very demanding technically, and therefore is a kind of lie. It's not simple, though it tries to give the impression that it is. It's much phonier than any gingerbread.

Look at this little visual vignette, and see how visually simple it is to ken each block sitting atop the ones beneath it; how each shingle overlaps its predecessor from the slater's workday; how the corners are covered and ennobled by the rich verdigris bronze caps; and the finial to remind you: here's the top, the top is important. It draws your eye there like any raindrop, to start your descent -- just as that raindrop does -- visually, physically, one overlapping plane to the next, jostling easily with his brother, to the very earth. Hell, this building even looks back at you a bit here and there, with a kind of egyptian looking deerhead thingie poking out of the top of the wall. And the little cupola peeks out from some structure behind and hints, always: there's more besides. It's like a glimpse of garter.

Or you can go right down the street to the small hideous glass office building and clamber up the rusty spot welded ladder to the parapet and see the flat gravel and tar roof and the air-conditioning piping.

Your call.


Ruth Anne Adams said...

Is that a Francis Ford cupola?

SippicanCottage said...

Um, you spelled his name wrong.

It's Francis Fod Corpulent, I think.

Ron said...

Without the older style of building at the very least we wouldn't have the word 'cupola.'

Corpulent? Probably so...

Pastor_Jeff said...


Either the shadows or moss on the underside make it look like a priest in a collar with an Egyptian headdress -- perhaps a fitting symbol for a Unitarian church.

SippicanCottage said...

Ron- cupola is one of those words - you just love saying it.

Architecture is filled with archaic, foreign, vernacular, and just plain strange names and phrases for things.

Here's my favorite:

"The whole nine yards." The derivation of that phrase is not football. It's concrete. Old mixers held nine cubic yards of concrete.

SippicanCottage said...

pastor jeff- The egyptian motif there is odd and wonderful, aint it?

My pictures so far haven't cpatured the scale of this building. It's enormous! It's got multiple towers, rambling galleries and attached buildings. I'll post more pictures.