This animation visualizes 272,000 data points spanning 220+ years of the U.S. census since 1790. With data from the National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS) at the University of Minnesota, I geo-referenced racial dot maps for all ten year intervals since 1790. Overlaying and fading time-lapse cartographies into each other reveals the scale of environmental and urban change.
● Each dot represents 10,000 people.
Top ten largest cities for each decade are labeled in orange.
Musical accompaniment by Philip Glass from the 1982 experimental film Koyaanisqatsi. In the Hopi language of the indigenous peoples of Arizona, the word koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance.”
As you watch the map, ask:
1. How is the transformation of Indigenous lands into ranches and farmlands made visible in this film?
2. How do immigration and state policies change the built environment? In what ways are immigration and the law visible from the bird’s eye view of this film?
3. How has slavery influenced the demographic landscape and sequential racial dot maps shown in this film?
4. How do changes in transportation technology – in the sequential eras of the canal, the railroad, the highway, the airport, and now the internet – impact how people settle and distribute themselves across the built environment?
1. Steven Manson, Jonathan Schroeder, David Van Riper, Tracy Kugler, and Steven Ruggles. IPUMS National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 17.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS. 2022. http://doi.org/10.18128/D050.V17.0
Of all the stories of the greatest Gothic cathedrals, the tale of Beauvais is the most exciting. Construction of the Gothic cathedral began in 1225 at a time of bitter turmoil when France was establishing itself as a nation within its familiar modern geographical bounds. Beauvais, the tallest cathedral in France, was never completed, having endured two major collapses and a series of structural crises that continues to this day. Our Sketchup animation follows this dramatic narrative, allowing the viewer to experience and understand the famous collapse that brought down the upper choir in 1284 as well as the underlying design features that led to that disaster. Particularly intriguing is the visualization of the short-lived crossing tower constructed in the mid-sixteenth century and the rivalry between S-Pierre of Beauvais and Saint Peter’s in Rome.
It is hoped that besides appealing to a general audience of cathedral fans, this movie will be useful in the context of the classroom at high-school and university levels.
Directed by Stephen Murray
Produced by Myles Zhang
Special thanks to Étienne Hamon
Further reading: Stephen Murray. Beauvais Cathedral: Architecture of Transcendence. Princeton University Press, 1989. Visit Mapping Gothic for further photos and a panoramic tour of the cathedral interior. Visit this link to download image stills of the cathedral at various stages of completion, for reuse in print publications.
Creating this animation required creating a computer model of the entire cathedral at all stages of construction. This model is shared below; click and drag your cursor to move around this virtual space.
This digital model and film show, for the first time, the entire Model T being assembled from start to finish in a single time-lapse shot of the Ford factory in Highland Park, Michigan. Numerous photos were taken and some films were made in the 1910s and 1920s, but no film from the time tracks the entire car’s assembly from start to finish. There were many types of Model Ts produced, but the specific car shown here is the 1915 Model T Runabout. Watch the film and see as the various car components are hoisted over and bolted into place. Or walk across the factory floor in the virtual reality computer model.
The film’s audio replicates the sound of Model T production. The accompanying music at start and end is from the 1936 film Modern Times, where comedian Charlie Chaplin parodies Ford’s assembly line production methods.
Henry Ford did not invent the car, nor he did invent the assembly line to produce the car. For years before Ford, cars were being built in small numbers at local workshops. For centuries before Ford, assembly line production was being used to make all manner of goods like pins, fabrics, and steel. At the same time as Ford, others were making cars and building assembly lines.
Ford was not the first, but his car and moving assembly line were certainly the most successful and memorable. After creating his version of the automobile in 1896, Ford moved workshops first to Mack Avenue and later to Piquette Avenue in Detroit. These first two factories were small-scale structures for limited car production. Only in 1913 at Ford’s third factory at Highland Park did mass-production begin on a truly large scale. As shown in this film, here Ford applied assembly line methods throughout the factory to all aspects of car production.
Final Stage of Model T Assembly in Highland Park c.1915, David Kimble’s illustration for National Geographic
Between when the first Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1913 and when the fifteen millionth rolled off in 1927, the car’s appearance did not change significantly. The car chassis, motor, and color-scheme in 1927 were almost identical to 1913. Despite variations in the number of seats and exterior of car, the motor and chassis beneath were consistent and unchanging over time. Henry Ford liked it that way to bring down costs and to produce the greatest variety of car types with as few variations as possible to the car’s internal structure.
However, although Ford resisted changes to his car design, he was always redesigning the factory floor and assembly line to produce the greatest number of cars with the least amount of human labor. In this same period from 1913 to 1927, the Highland Park factory was constantly redesigned and expanded. Few records survive of all changes to the factory. However, the 1915 book Ford Methods and the Ford Shops includes detailed plans and photos of the factory at one point in time. Ford was still tinkering with the assembly line, as Model T production had begun just over a year before this book was printed. Within a few months of these photos, assembly line methods had improved once again as Ford redesigned the factory floor shown in this film. Rather than documenting Ford production for all time, this film captures Ford production the way it looked in the months it started.
Assembly line flowchart of River Rouge c.1941, showing Ford’s production methods applied to the design of an entire complex. The ideas in embryo at Highland Park become fully visible at River Rouge.
After Ford stopped producing Model Ts in 1927, newer models started production at the new and larger factory at River Rouge, where Ford makes cars to this day. The Highland Park factory switched to producing other goods like tractors and later tanks for WWII. Within a few years, production methods had so quickly improved under Ford that Highland Park became too small and obsolete. The factory was largely demolished, and with its demolition the initial appearance of Ford’s first and greatest invention was lost for all time: the moving assembly line.
Some of the factory buildings still stand, and the specific part of the factory shown in this film still exists. But the buildings were all cleared of their original machinery, and the most impressive part of Ford’s invention was not the factory itself but instead the equipment and processes within that factory that are no longer visible. The buildings themselves were simply functional warehouses designed with large open spaces to allow the easy movement of machinery.
The entire complex covered many acres, and the other factories that supplied the Highland Park factory with materials and components created a web of trade that spanned the globe. Instead of filming the entire process, this film focuses on the final and most important stage of production where finished parts from all over the world and factory complex came together for final testing and assembly.
Main reference text: Fay Leone Faurote and Horace Lucian Arnold. Ford Methods and the Ford Shops. New York, Engineering Magazine Company: 1915. See esp. Chapter V on “Chassis-Assembling Lines” that includes factory floor plan and photos from pages 131-57. Also see pages 142-150 that describe the 45 steps required for chassis assembly. Link.
Main reference photo: David Kimble. “Exploring the Model T Factory.” Motor1.com. September 1, 2017. Link. Kimble’s image originally published in June 1987 National Geographic centerfold.
Animation opening image: Postcard of Highland Park in 1917. Link.
Animation opening music: Factory Scene from Modern Times, directed by Charlie Chaplin in 1936. Link.
Model T shown in film can be downloaded as a computer model at this link.
Adapted from Shlomo Angel and Patrick Lamson-Hall’s NYU Stern Urbanization Project, here and here.
The animation at left shows street grid development from 1801 to 2011, mapping Manhattan’s gradual expansion north. The animation at right shows the population density over time of each census tract in Manhattan. Notice how Manhattan’s population density rises and peaks around 1900 before falling to present levels. Despite Manhattan’s appearance of being denser and more built up with skyscrapers than ever before, the island actually has a lower population density than a century ago.
Before the introduction of subways in the early twentieth century, the difficulties of commuting distances over land and water drove a denser form of urbanism than today. By 1900, the island of Manhattan had over 2.3 million residents in comparison to only 1.6 million in 2020. These people were crowded into dense blocks with upward of half a million people per square mile. The subways had not yet opened, suburban sprawl had not yet arrived, there were no rail connections under the Hudson River, and Manhattan had few or no road connections with the other boroughs and the mainland. This produced an island of remarkable density with the Lower East Side the densest place on earth, while only a few miles north, Harlem remained almost rural.
In 1903, the Williamsburg Bridge over the East River linked the Lower East Side with undeveloped Brooklyn. The trolley lines, subways, and roadway that stretched over the Williamsburg accelerated the development of Brooklyn, first in the higher density parts of Brooklyn closest to Manhattan and later to the distant parts of Brooklyn and Queens with suburban population densities. Suburban growth started earlier than the 1950s image of Levittown, and with the movement of people outwards from Manhattan, the centers of immigrant cultural life shifted, too. In every following year, the Lower East Side lost people, arriving at a density in 2020 only a sixth of what it was in 1900.
Over the following decades, improvements in public transportation and the introduction of the car “smoothed” out the population density. At the same time, Manhattan’s street network expanded to cover the whole of the island from end to end. As the subways made commuting easier, people no longer need to live within walking distance of where they worked. As a result, many industries remained in Manhattan while their workers moved to other boroughs, and later still to the more distant suburbs. As a result, the population densities of Manhattan today are more consistent from one end of the island to the other. Unlike in 1900, Harlem today is about as dense of the Lower East Side because transportation has made one part of the island almost as accessible to work as any other part of the island.
This animation illustrates Manhattan specifically, but Manhattan’s growth and population densities were influenced by larger population and technology changes in the New York region.
This film traces Detroit’s evolution from its origins as a French trading post in the 1700s, to its explosion as a metropolis, followed by its precipitous decline as a symbol of America’s post-industrial urban landscape. The film weaves in details about the city’s politics, population, and technology – all of which influenced the city’s geography and built environment. At each phase in urban history, the built environment grew and was modified in direct response to political events like racial segregation, population changes like the Great Migration, technology developments like the mass-produced car, and government interventions like urban renewal.
The animation tells the story of Detroit specifically and the story of American cities more broadly. To varying degrees, the path of Detroit’s development mirrors hundreds of other smaller cities and towns scattered across the American Northeast and Midwest. No other American city witnessed as large a population loss, as dramatic 1960s racial unrest, or as radical a transformation from symbol of progress into symbol of decay. To a lesser degree, other places in America followed Detroit in lockstep. Urban renewal projects, highway construction, racial tensions, suburban growth, and infrastructure under-investment happened across America, and in parallel to Detroit.
However, the most dramatic transformation of Detroit is left unwritten in this film. Beneath the surface-level events of political conflict and urban change, the largest event in Detroit is not unique to Detroit. As filmmaker Godfrey Reggio describes, the most important theme in the history of civilization is “the transiting from all nature, or the natural environment as our hosts of life for human habitation, into a technological milieu into mass technology as the environment of life.” European cities developed slowly and gradually over centuries, in the process removing all memory of the natural landscape before civilization. American cities are unique in their youth and speed of growth. They are new enough that an active memory survives through place names and written records of the landscape and indigenous peoples who lived there before colonization. As the oldest colonial settlement west of the Appalachians, and as the city that perfected the mass-produced automobile, Detroit becomes the prime symbol of man’s transformation of his home from a natural world into a technological society removed from nature.
The accompanying music is by composer Philip Glass and was written for Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 experimental documentary Koyaanisqatsi. The shifting layers and repetitive phrases of Glass’ music accompany Reggio’s montages of natural landscapes, factory assembly lines, and chaotic city streets. Koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance” in the language of an indigenous American tribe called the Hopi. In the original documentary, Glass’ music was paired with scenes of desolate streets in the South Bronx, the abandoned Pruitt-Igoe public housing in St. Louis, and ruined skyscrapers falling in slow motion. In my reinterpretation of Glass’ music, the imagery is now of Detroit in maps. The pace and events in the animation are tied to the structure of the music. As the volume and speed of the music increase and decrease, so too does the growth and decline of Detroit.
Hover over infographic for details of each census year.
The influx of Black people during the Great Migration and the outflow of cars from Detroit’s factories reshaped the city’s built environment and the American public’s perception of Detroit. Detroit is now thought of as a majority-Black city surrounded by majority-White suburbs. Today, 83% of Detroit’s population is Black, and only 11% is White. But the graph above shows that Detroit was majority-White until the 1980 census. For most of its history, Detroit was 95 to 99% White. Today, the majority of the metro region’s population lives in the suburbs that surround Detroit. But until the 1960 census, the majority of the population lived within the city limits. Today, Detroit is so reliant on the car that it has no commuter rail network, no subways, and limited public transportation options. But until the 1950s demolition of Detroit’s light rail network, a majority of residents lived within walking distance of a light rail station for commuting. Detroit’s demographics, suburban sprawl, and transportation options have all flipped in the past century. From a high-density, transportation rich, and majority-White city in 1920, Detroit has become a low-density, transportation poor, and majority-Black city in 2020.
A lot of people say Detroit has terrible public transit design. But from the perspective of car companies, the real estate lobby, and fearful Whites, the system does exactly what it was intended to do: to segregate and divide our country by covert means long after Jim Crow officially “ended.” Failure by design. The failure of Detroit is, in large part, planned and a consequence of government policy decisions that: prioritize suburban growth over urban development; benefit suburban Whites over urban Blacks; and encourage private cars at the expense of public transit.
As the Detroit Evolution Animation plays, the map key on the lower right hand corner indicates Detroit’s demographics at each decade in history. Try to link changes to demographics with changes to the urban form. Ask yourself the questions: How were technology, transportation, and demographic changes imprinted on the built environment? How does the built environment, in turn, shape urban and suburban life?
Decaying home near Detroit’s abandoned Packard Automotive Plant
This construction time-lapse illustrates the history of Notre-Dame from c.1060 to the present day, following ten centuries of construction and reconstruction. Model is based on actual measurements of the cathedral and was peer reviewed for accuracy by scholars at Columbia University’s art history department and at the Friends of Notre-Dame of Paris.
The film was created in the computer modeling software SketchUp, based on hand-drawn image textures. The ink drawings of nineteenth-century architect Viollet-le-Duc were scanned and applied to the model surfaces, so as to transform the two-dimensional artwork into the three-dimensional digital. I believe computer models should preserve a certain handmade quality.
4. Computer model and construction sequence sources
– Dany Sandron and Andrew Tallon. Notre-Dame Cathedral: nine centuries of history. – Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Drawings of Notre-Dame. From Wikimedia Commons.
– J. Clemente. Spire of Notre-Dame. From SketchUp 3D Warehouse.
– Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Ferdinand de Guilhermy. Notre-Dame de Paris.From BnFGallica.
– Caroline Bruzelius. “The Construction of Notre-Dame in Paris” in The Art Bulletin.From JSTOR.
– Michael Davis. “Splendor and Peril: The Cathedral of Paris” in The Art Bulletin. From JSTOR.
The converging and ongoing crises of COVID-19, climate change, radical economic inequality, pervasive racism, and racist violence require that all systems, infrastructures, and institutions, including architecture, space, and cities, be reimagined. This reimagining must include how and to what ends architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design can act in the world.
This workshop, organized by The Architectural Leagueof New York, brought architects, planners, and historians in conversation to listen to each other, identify critical issues, and develop ideas about what might and should be done.
After the virus ends, millions will become used to – and even prefer – work from home. Employers downsize offices. Fewer people commute by car. Our now overbuilt highways and airports will be restored to nature.
Now thousands of vacant offices and buildings will be too expensive and energy inefficient. Abandoned towers, malls, airports, and arenas will become ruins, a modern Acropolis.
Instead of flying to Europe, eco-friendly tourists visit this new “Museum to American Civilization.”
Demolished highways and buildings in flood zones will become landfill. The sedimentary layers in these landfill mountains will be a geological history of American civilization in the Anthropocene.
Current Garden State Turnpike
Future Garden State Turnpike
Current Meadowlands Sports Complex
Future Meadowlands Sports Complex
Garbage Mountains in New Jersey Meadowlands
Landfill Cross Section
Directed by Tak Ying Chan
Written by Myles Zhang
Narrated by Natsume Ono
Tak Ying Chan (NYC Subway)
Tal Fuerst (Little Italy, Manhattan)
Natsume Ono (Ann Arbor, Michigan)
Hayden Bernhardt (Birmingham, Alabama)
Myles Zhang (NJ Meadowlands)
The Architectural League of New York
This two minute time-lapse reconstructs the 400 year evolution of Lower Manhattan’s skyline. Watch as the city evolves from a small village into a glistening metropolis.
This is also a film about the history of technology. Changing methods of representing urban space influence our perception of time and the city. When New York City was founded, Dutch settlers captured their town’s appearance through seventeenth-century drawings and paintings. As the city grew, people started using printing presses to reproduce images of the city in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the twentieth century, photographers started capturing their city from above through aerial photos. For the first time, New Yorkers could view the entire city in a single panoramic photo.
In tribute to this long artistic tradition, this film constructs the city as each generation of New Yorkers would have represented it: through the subsequent technologies of drawing, printing, photography, and film.
Developed with James Campbell, architectural historian at the University of Cambridge
Inspired by taking George Deodatis’ lectures on The Art of Structural Design at Columbia University’s Department of Civil Engineering
In 1872, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the French author and architect celebrated for restoring Notre-Dame of Paris, wrote in his Lectures on Architecture that the form of the Gothic cathedral was the synthesis of the early Christian basilica and the Romanesque three-aisled church. In this analysis, Viollet-le-Duc reasoned that a thesis (early Christian) plus an antithesis (Romanesque) produced the synthesis (Gothic).
Animation from Stephen Murray
Although the history and origins of Gothic are more complex than Viollet-le-Duc’s formula, this formula provides a method to dissect the Renaissance and Enlightenment counterpart to the medieval cathedral: the Greco-Roman basilica, as embodied by St. Paul’s Cathedral, constructed from 1675 to 1711 by Christopher Wren (1632-1723). St Paul’s is a symbol of Enlightenment-era London, built to rival its medieval counterpart of Westminster Abbey.
In this essay, and in my analysis of this neoclassical cathedral, I will parallel Viollet-le-Duc’s analysis of the medieval church. The thesis is that St. Paul’s is a work of techno-scientific engineering. The antithesis is that this building is a work of art that speaks to the larger cultural moment of Enlightenment London. The synthesis is the dome of St. Paul’s that merges these two forces of engineering and art into a unified and impressive creation.
Thesis: ENGINEERING The engineering of this dome is more complex than meets the eye.
In this animated construction sequence, view how the dome was engineered.
St. Paul’s Cathedral features an innovative triple dome structure. On the circular drum, the inner dome rises and is visible from the cathedral interior. Above this inner dome, a brick cone rises to support the 850 ton lantern. This brick cone also supports the wood rafters and frame of the outer dome, which is covered in wood and lead. This three dome system allows the cathedral to support such a heavy lantern, all the while maintaining the great height needed to be a visible London landmark.
Inner dome – visible from inside and purely for show; height 225 ft (69m)
Middle brick cone – a brick cone that is invisible from below but supports the 850 ton lantern above; height 278 ft (85m)
Outer dome – a wood and lead-roofed structure visible from the cathedral exterior; height 278 ft (85m)
Lantern – an 850 ton stone lantern and cross, whose weight is carried to the ground via the middle brick cone 365ft (111m)
The inner and outer domes are decorative, while the brick cone is the true weight-bearing support. The model below is created from measured plans and is accurate to reality.
Virtual Reality Model (click to play)
The cathedral in the city: Rhinebeck Panorama of London dated 1806-07
Antithesis: ART The cathedral’s location and design reflects its cultural-historical moment of the Enlightenment.
The 1666 Fire of London turned the thirteenth-century medieval cathedral of old St. Paul’s into a charred ruin. As masons demolished the ancient ruins, the opportunity arose to erect a new cathedral designed around new cultural reference points: neoclassical instead of medieval, Protestant instead of Catholic, and with steel and brick instead of stone alone. St. Paul’s reveals what was, for the time, novel ways of thinking about space.
There are three main ways this cathedral architecture reflected its time period.
Firstly, this cathedral embodied an emerging understanding of artist and architectural space. The burned medieval cathedral was built over centuries by numerous masons in collaboration, whose names are forgotten. New St. Paul’s was built in one uninterrupted sweep by a single architect, whose name and biography are known in detail. It was only during the Renaissance and Enlightenment that society began to think of art and architecture as the product of an individual artist’s personality and ambitions. The engineer, artist, and architect were elevated above nameless masons. Historians can describe the relationship between artist and artwork with a degree of detail impossible to attribute to the architects of older, medieval cathedrals. It is to this period in the history of science and philosophy that historians also attribute the cult of personality surrounding individual artistic genius. Also central to the Enlightenment period was the organization and standardization of all human knowledge into encyclopedias and libraries, much in the way that St. Paul’s was centrally planned, designed, and coordinated with more precision than survived from the sporadic organization of medieval cathedrals and monastic libraries.
Comparative cross sections of old (left) and new (right) St. Paul’s
Flying buttresses hidden behind facade at left
Comparative cross sections of old (left) and new (right) St. Paul’s (link)
The irony is that for a building that appeared modern to eighteenth-century eyes, the construction methods with scaffolding and wooden winches to lift heavy stones were mostly unchanged from centuries before. The wooden rafters inside the cathedral roof are from trees planted hundreds of years before during the High Middle Ages. Most telling of all, the vaults of the nave and choir are supported by medieval-style flying buttresses. Fearing that flying buttress – an engineering technique deeply associated medieval architecture – would be inappropriate to a classical basilica, Wren hid these buttresses behind a screen wall. Modern or medieval? The building methods and religious traditions largely descended from late medieval methods, even if the building exterior evoked an opposed classical tradition.
Secondly, this cathedral reflected Britain’s growing interest in European and world affairs. Merchant ships sailing up the River Thames would first see the domes of Wren’s Greenwich Hospital for the wounded and retired sailors in the British navy; around the next bend in the river, the dome of St. Paul’s came into view. With Britain competing with France for colonial power, Wren visited Les Invalides, the Paris hospital for retired sailors in the French navy. Through studying Les Invalides and reviewing prints of French architecture, Wren copied and improved on classical traditions when redesigning London after the fire. St. Paul’s is also similar to Michelangelo’s sixteenth-century dome at the Vatican. St. Paul’s was supposed to be a cathedral, but its dome became an act of one-upsmanship against similar and existing domes in Paris and Rome.
The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral
(painted by Canaletto c.1747-48)
London from Greenwich Park
(painted by Turner in 1809)
Lastly, this religious architecture ironically symbolized the growing power of secular thought and finance over national governance. As capital of England, London’s architectural focal points are split geographically between Westminster to the west and central London to the east. Power in Westminster is, in turn, divided between three main architectural points of interest: Westminster Abbey (symbolizing God), Buckingham Palace (symbolizing the king), and the Houses of Parliament (whose House of Commons symbolizes the country). This maps onto the neat triad of “God, King, and Country” or the three estates of “clergy, nobility, and commoners.”
However, the location of St. Paul’s, in the center of London’s financial district and near the commercial hub of the Royal Exchange, competed with Westminster Abbey in size and height. It were as if the commercial interests of bourgeois merchants and industrialists working in central London were competing with and questioning the traditional balance of power between the king, clergy, and nobility that had excluded the merchant middle classes from power. It was as if this cathedral’s architecture asserted the growing importance of London’s businesses and financial district for the governance of a country. Fittingly, as if proof of their success, zoning laws and building height restrictions in much of London are still designed for miles around so as to preserve the visibility of St. Paul’s. Wren was no opponent to the monarchy, and the construction of St. Paul’s, in fact, benefited from royal support. Nonetheless, the architecture still speaks to the eighteenth-century tension between ancient traditions and modern technologies.
Protected vistas radiating out from Westminster and St. Paul’s. The cathedral architecture becomes, in equal parts, the symbolic, physical, and cartographic center of urban life, as if the red lines on these maps were arrows directing our gaze to the center of power.
Construction was funded through a tax on the coal London residents and businesses consumed. In later years, coal became a polarizing symbol of both the dirty, soot-covered injustices of urban poverty and the techno-scientific progress fueling Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Fittingly, the same dark ingredient that powered Britain’s industrial looms and colonial power also funded construction of the cathedral that came to symbolize London and the empire. St. Paul’s is a church, but its neoclassical design and secular location allow it to become much more than just a church.
Synthesis: ENGINEERING AND ART This dome is a synthesis of art and engineering.
In addition to St. Paul’s political and cultural symbolism, this dome also synthesized the most recent advances in building (industrially manufactured brick) with simultaneous techno-scientific discoveries. This cathedral embodied the core beliefs of European Enlightenment thought: the application of science to advance society and the synthesis of Greco-Roman aesthetic traditions with modern technologies.
Parabolic behavior of an unweighted chain
In the years St. Paul’s was under construction, Wren corresponded with his polymath, scientist, and mathematician friend Robert Hooke (1635-1703). From Hooke’s empirical experiments with springs, strings, and weights (see Hooke’s Law), he confirmed that an unweighted chain suspended between two points would form a parabolic curve. Furthermore, the quadratic formula Y = X2 mathematically expressed and modeled the chain’s behavior. Math and reality were, in one formula, linked.
There is effectively no limit to how much weight a chain can hold in tension. A suspension bridge roadway weighs hundreds of thousands of tons, but the steel cables suspending it are usually no thicker than a few centimeters. However, these cables will collapse under the slightest amount of compression.
In contrast to a chain that is strong under tension but weak under compression, stone is the opposite: strong under compression but weak under tension. Imagine the incredible compressive forces of the earth’s crust that compress ancient sand and fossils into solid limestone. When masons quarried this stone into blocks, they were challenged to design cathedrals that minimized any tension on stone. Tension in the horizontal span of the cathedral vault, for instance, caused structural collapse. In response, masons devised flying buttresses and complex structural interventions to prevent stone from cracking under tension.
The genius of Enlightenment architects like Wren stems from their ability to deduce: If a suspended chain formed a parabolic curve in pure tension as modeled by Y = X2, then the converse statement must also be true: A stone arch modeled on a parabolic curve would act in pure compression, as modeled by the reverse equation -Y = X2. Thus, by mathematical logic, the downward and tensile force of chains mirrored the upward and compressive forces of stone. Spanish architect Antoni Guadí (1852-1926) observed similar phenomena when designing his final project, the Basilica of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (begun 1883). Without the benefit of computer models, Guadí suspended weighted strings from the ceiling and then viewed these creations in a mirror, so as to deduce the optimal geometric form for his cathedral vaults.
One of Gaudí’s string structures
The same structure upside down
models the form of the ideal dome
Knowing this, Wren constructed the dome as a brick cone similar in shape to a parabolic arch. Around the base of the dome, where the buckling forces of tension were greatest, Wren inserted bands of steel chain the circumference of the dome. Medieval masons intuited this, too, when they designed pointed arches whose shape was somewhat closer to a parabola than was the traditional and older Roman arch. However, while medieval masons at places like Amiens Cathedral relied on trial and error with few benefits of scientific thought, Wren relied on science and math to deduce the ideal form. Thus, the brick middle dome is only nine inches thick, but it supports a lantern above that weighs 850 tons.
Wren was more than a mathematician. He also had a keen aesthetic eye from close study of French and classical architecture. His white limestone buildings all drew inspiration from the classical traditions of Greece and Rome. However, although the brick cone was cheaper, stronger, and used fewer materials than a traditional stone dome, Wren knew that a brick architectural form was too radically modern to leave exposed, and too aesthetically different from the otherwise neoclassical church. Wren therefore hid the true, weight-bearing brick cone. Outside the brick cone, Wren added a lead and wood roof that supported no weight and was in no way connected to the lantern it seemed to support. Inside the brick cone, which was too steep and too tall to paint a convincing ceiling mural on, Wren erected a decorative arched vault within that was merely a decorative surface for James Thornhill’s paintings.
Art and engineering, religion and politics, tradition and innovation were, through the design of one dome, linked. Wren might not have intended to inject his cultural-historical moment into the design. As an architect-engineer, he was inventing the most stable and economic way to cover the cathedral. However, the implications of this engineering reflected the spirit of the city and society at large.
Eastern State Penitentiary was completed in 1829 in northwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by architect John Haviland. It was reported as the most expensive and largest structure yet built in America.
The design featured a central guard tower from which seven cell blocks radiated like a star. This system allowed a single guard to survey all prisoners in one sweep of the eye. A square perimeter wall surrounded the entire complex – thirty feet high and twelve feet thick. The decorative entrance resembled a medieval castle, to strike fear of prison into those passing. This castle contained the prison administration, hospital, and warden’s apartment.
As we approach the central tower, we see two kinds of cells. The first three cell blocks were one story. The last four cell blocks were two stories. Here we see the view from the guard tower, over the cell block roofs and over the exercise yards between cell blocks. Each cell had running water, heating, and space for the prisoner to work. Several hundred prisoners lived in absolute solitary confinement. A vaulted and cathedral-like corridor ran down the middle of each cell block. The cells on either side were stacked one above the other. Cells on the lower floor had individual exercise yards, for use one hour per day. John Haviland was inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. (Don’t know what the panopticon is? Click here for my explanation.)
Over its century in use, thousands visited and admired this design. An estimated 300 prisons around the world follow this model – making Eastern State the most influential prison ever designed.
360° panoramic view from guard tower
Shows prison as it appeared in the period 1836 to 1877 before later construction obstructed the original buildings.
Eastern State Penitentiary’s exterior resembles a medieval castle. More than a random choice, the qualities of Gothic attempt to reflect, or fall short of reflecting, the practices of detention and isolation within. Contrary to the claim often made about this structure that the appearance was supposed to strike fear into passerby, the use of Gothic is in many ways unexpected because of its untoward associations with darkness and torture, which the prison’s founders were working to abolish. It is therefore surprising that America’s largest and most modern prison should evoke the cruelties and injustices of the medieval period. The choice of Gothic appearance, and the vast funds expended on the external appearance few inmates would have seen, leads one to question the audience of viewers this penitentiary was intended for – the inmates within or the public at large?
This essay responds by analyzing what the Gothic style represented to the founders. The architectural evocation of cruelty and oppression was, in fact, not contradictory with the builders’ progressive intentions of reforming and educating inmates. This prison’s appearance complicates our understanding of confinement’s purpose in society. The two audiences of convicted inmates and tourist visitors would have received and experienced this prison differently, thereby arriving at alternative, even divergent, understandings of what this prison meant. More than an analysis of the architect John Haviland and of the building’s formal qualities in isolation, this essay situates this prison in the larger context of Philadelphia’s built environment.
I am indebted to my supervisor Max Sternberg, to my baby bulldog, and to my ever-loving parents for criticizing and guiding this paper.