My favorite type of classical ornament has long been the baluster. I have a very small collection of balusters, including one from the Rhode Island State House, designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim Mead & White and finished in 1901, and another from the John Brown House, also in the state capital, completed in 1788 and designed by Joseph Brown, whose client John, a rich China merchant, was his brother. They both occupy places of honor in my living room, the former serving as a table for an ornate lamp at the end of the couch, the latter leaning (alas, in broken pieces) against a charming cement frog just beneath our television set.
The balusters that welcome readers to this blog are arrayed along the front entrance, on Washington Street, of the Providence Public Library, designed by Stone, Carpenter & Willson and finished in 1900. A set of balusters that form a railing is called a balustrade.
I expect that some readers, as they plowed through the initial paragraphs of this post, will not have been able to prevent their attention from straying back to the photo of the curious balustrade that is its subject. Most balustrades feature a set of identical balusters in a row. This one features two alternating sets of balusters. Look at them closely.
Don’t look at the balusters themselves but at the space between each set. You will see that they frame a pair of figures facing each other with heads bowed. The balusters are not sculptures themselves; rather, they mold the space between them into sculpture. On each a sad look can be seen, half-imagined, on its downcast visage.
A tip of the hat to Roy Lewis, who sent the photo of the balustrade to the TradArch list back in March. Here are Roy’s notes about the balustrade in the photo.
I found this variant of the familiar Rubin Vase figure/ground illusion online, but have not yet found its source. [It is a] great balustrade that has a certain affinity with Jože Plečnik [the famous classical architect of Ljubljana, now in Slovenia]. Perhaps, in designing the fabric of an African American history museum, this could be a way of rendering visible the invisible African Americans who built much of America. All that is required to see is a change in focus, what could be a more apt expression Black History these days?
Roy’s comments manifest the eternally evocative quality of classicism, even though these balusters depart prominently from the Greco-Roman canon both in their moldings and in the stylized alternating pairs that form the balustrade. Roy sent them to the TradArch list during a string of threads about two museums that will commemorate the nation’s tragic legacy of slavery – the National Museum of African American History and Culture, under construction in Washington, and the International African American Museum, being planned in Charleston.
Are these balusters classical? That’s the question often posed to the TradArch list by Andrés Duany, who is working on a treatise, Heterodoxia, to expand the reach of the classical. He wants to include noncanonical orders that would expand the expressive range of classicism. These sad balusters demonstrate the emotive possibilities of their type.
Part of Duany’s quest is to recapture such storied architects as Plečnik, who are considered “pioneers of modernism” for breaking from the classical canon. Maybe he is that, but his work speaks more to the expansion of tradition than to the rejection of tradition that modern architecture represents, so it is appropriate to welcome Plečnik and others back into the fold.
And the balustrade above certainly testifies to the more sensitive language of architecture that ought to be used in the design of buildings whose symbolism will, or at least should, help to guide America’s thinking about slavery for centuries.