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Polygonality

July 23, 2017

There were any number of polygonal or point-generated radial buildings in the post-Civil War era to serve as inspiration for the “auditorium” component of a typical A-A church. Some are obvious, probably because they are so plentiful and prominent. Others are more obscure, even obtuse. Polygonality has been in my mind lately [wordpress spell-checker doesn’t like that word at all] and I thought it might be time to post a few notes and observations.

Centripetal vs. Centrifugal

Recall from your last encounter with solid geometry that a sphere is the shape with the most interior volume and the least surface area. I an era of decreasing energy resources, this would be the ideal shape for most buildings — were floors and walls not a high priority. Nearly two hundred years ago, that great experiment in American spirituality, the Shakers, understood those practicalities and developed an architecture of elegant, exquisite efficiency — almost Zen — perhaps best illustrated by the 1826 Round Barn at Hancock, Massachusetts.

Note the gravity feed system, with a circular driveway for delivery of hay, the dairy cattle feeding radially below and manure storage in the basement. At the center, both structure and ventilation. Waste not, want not.

Public libraries became another typically American architectural type after the Civil War, driven by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who eventually underwrote the construction of 1,800 libraries in the English-speaking world. Carnegie’s benefaction stimulated architects to “invent” forms for a new function. The best of the series — from Carnegie’s own point of view — were economical and efficient, housing maximum resources and requiring minimum staffing, resulting in plans like this for a unit of the Broolyn library system:

On the obscure end of the spectrum, consider the gymnasium as a building type, especially those with indoor running tracks. They have every functional reason for round or polygonal ends and longitudinal plans. The technology for these — limited as it may be — could have derived from the American dairy barn but didn’t have to. There were other experiments more directly involved with 19th American spirituality.

Harmon Gymnasium for Men, University of California at Berkeley (1879)

The Chautauqua Movement began on the shores of a lake in upstate New York unofficially in 1874 as a training academy for Sunday school teachers. It grew in scope and audience, becoming a nationwide movement intimately connected with the A-A phenomenon. And like the A-A, it generated its own architectural expression, drawn from the need for a space to provide large audiences with good acoustics and sight lines.Remember “audit” is Latin for “he/she hears.”

Just as “Our Gang” comedies were perpetually “putting on a show” in someone’s barn, long-span agricultural buildings like the Shaker barn were easily adapted for Chautauqua purposes. Yet they, too, were capable of adaptation and improvement. The 1903 Chautauqua facility at Shelbyville, Illinois was custom designed by architect Morrison H. Vail, who patented its structural system — a bicycle wheel placed horizontally:

Chautauqua Shed, Shelbyville, IL (1903); Morrison H. Vail, architect

With precedents like these and an audience eager for the expression of new ideas and innovative systems, it’s no wonder that our database has grown to nearly 3,700.

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