St. Paul’s Cathedral Dome: A Synthesis of Engineering and Art

Developed with James Campbell, architectural historian at Cambridge University
Inspired by taking George Deodatis’ lectures on The Art of Structural Design
at Columbia University’s Department of Civil Engineering

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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).

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Animation from Stephen Murray

Although the history and origins of Gothic are likely 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.

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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.

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Music from the organ (William Tell’s Overture) and bells of St Paul’s (recorded 2013)

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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.

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Virtual Reality Model
(click to play)

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The cathedral in the city: Rhinebeck Panorama of London dated 1806-07

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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 largely 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.

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Comparative cross sections of old (left) and new (right) St. Paul’s (link)

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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. But 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 thought, even if the building exterior evoked very different and seemingly opposed classical traditions.
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 carefully 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 markedly 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.

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The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral
(painted by Canaletto c.1747-48)

London from Greenwich Park
(painted by Turner in 1809)

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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 distinctly eighteenth-century tension between ancient traditions and modern technologies.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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One of Gaudí’s string structures

The same structure upside down
models the form of the ideal dome

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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 only seemed to support. Inside the brick cone, which was effectively too steep and too tall to paint a convincing ceiling mural on, Wren erected a decorative arched roof 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 merely inventing the most stable and economic way to cover the cathedral. However, the implications of this engineering were to influence the city and society at large.

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Architecture of Redemption?

Contradictions of Solitary Confinement
at Eastern State Penitentiary

Master’s thesis at Cambridge University: Department of Art History & Architecture
Developed with Max Sternberg, historian at Cambridge University

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The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly. A central point would be both the source of light illuminating everything, and a locus of convergence for everything that must be known: a perfect eye that nothing would escape and a centre towards which all gazes would be turned.
– Michel Foucault

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Abstract

Prison floor plan in 1836

In the contemporary imagination of prison, solitary confinement evokes images of neglect, torture, and loneliness, likely to culminate in insanity. However, the practice originated in the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century as an enlightened approach and architectural mechanism for extracting feelings of redemption from convicts.
This research examines the design of Eastern State Penitentiary, built by English-born architect John Haviland from 1821 to 1829 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This case study explores the builders’ challenge of finding an architectural form suitable to the operations and moral ambitions of solitary confinement. Inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Haviland’s design inspired the design of over 300 prisons worldwide. With reference to primary sources and to philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault, this research interrogates the problematic assumptions about architecture and human nature encoded in the form of solitary confinement practiced at Eastern State Penitentiary, which has wider implications for the study of surveillance architecture.

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Click here to read

Opens in new window as PDF

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Acknowledgments

I am indebted to Max Sternberg for his attentive guidance throughout this research, and his support of my experience in providing undergraduate supervisions at Cambridge. I am grateful to Nick Simcik Arese for encouraging me to examine architecture as the product of labor relations and relationships between form and function. I am inspired by Alan Short’s lectures on architecture that criticize the beliefs in health and miasma theory. My research also benefits from co-course director Ronita Bardhan. Finally, this research is only possible through the superb digitized sources created by the staff of Philadelphia’s various archives and libraries.
I am particularly indebted to the guidance and friendship of Andrew E. Clark throughout my life.
The COVID-19 pandemic put me in a “solitary confinement state-of-mind,” allowing me to research prison architecture from a comfortable confinement of my own.

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Related Projects

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Digital Reconstruction
of Eastern State: 1836-1877

Digital Reconstruction
of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Exhibit on Prison Design
Research begun before MPhil

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New York City Water Supply: Animated History

Developed with Gergely Baics, urban historian at Barnard College

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New York City has some of the world’s cleanest drinking water. It is one of only a few American cities (and among those cities the largest) to supply completely unfiltered drinking water to nine million people. This system collects water from around 2,000 square miles of forest and farms in Upstate New York, transports this water in up to 125 miles of buried aqueducts, and delivers one billion gallons per day, enough to fill a cube ~300 feet to a side, or the volume of the Empire State Building. This is one of America’s largest and most ambitious infrastructure projects. It remains, however, largely invisible and taken for granted. When they drink a glass of water or wash their hands, few New Yorkers remind themselves of this marvel in civil engineering they benefit from.
This animated map illustrates the visual history of this important American infrastructure.

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Sound of water and ambient music from Freesound

New York City is surrounded by saltwater and has few sources of natural freshwater. From the early days, settlers dug wells and used local streams. As the population grew, these sources became polluted. Water shortages allowed disease and fire to threaten the city’s future. In response, city leaders looked north, to the undeveloped forests and rivers of Upstate New York. This began the 200-year-long search for clean water for the growing city.

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Credits

Gergely Baics – advice on GIS skills and animating water history
Kenneth T. Jackson – infrastructure history
Juan F. Martinez and Wright Kennedy – data

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Interactive Map

I created this animation with information from New York City Open Data about the construction and location of water supply infrastructure. Aqueduct routes are traced from publicly-available satellite imagery and old maps in NYPL map archives. Thanks is also due to Juan F. Martinez, who created this visualization.
Explore water features in the interactive map below. Click color-coded features to reveal detail.

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Watersheds   Subsurface Aqueducts   Surface Aqueducts   Water Distribution Tunnels   City Limits

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▼ For map legend, press arrow key below.

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Sources

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For such an important and public infrastructure, the data about this water supply, aqueduct routes, and pumping stations is kept surprisingly secret in a post 9/11 world. However, the data presented here is extracted from publicly-available sources online, and through analysis of visible infrastructure features on satellite imagery when actual vector file data or raster maps are unavailable from NYC government.
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Contemporary Maps
NYC System and Shapefiles – Juan F. Martinez
Watershed Recreation Areas – NYC Department of Environment Protection (DEP)
General System Map – NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)
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Historic Maps
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Texts
Water Supply Fast Facts – NY State DEC
Encyclopedia of the City of New York – Kenneth T. Jackson
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Animation music – Freesound
Audio narration – Myles Zhang

What’s wrong with Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon?

Postmodernist thinkers, like Michel Foucault, interpret Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, invented c.1790, as a symbol for surveillance and the modern surveillance state.
This lecture is in two parts. I present a computer model of the panopticon, built according to Bentham’s instructions. I then identify design problems with the panopticon and with the symbolism people often give it.

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Related Projects

– Computer animation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
View the panopticon in virtual reality
Explore about Eastern State Penitentiary, a building inspired by Bentham

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: a Computer Model

Created at the University of Cambridge: Department of Architecture
As part of my Master’s thesis in Architecture and Urban Studies
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To say all in one word, it [the panopticon] will be found applicable, I think, without exception, to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection.
– Jeremy Bentham
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Since the 1790s, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon remains an influential building and representation of power relations. Yet no structure was ever built to the exact dimensions Bentham indicates in his panopticon letters. Seeking to translate Bentham into the digital age, I followed his directions and descriptions to construct an exact model in virtual reality. What would this building have looked like if it were built? Would it have been as all-seeing and all-powerful as Bentham claims?
Explore Bentham’s panopticon in the animation above or in virtual reality below:

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c.1791 plans of panopticon, drawn by architect Willey Reveley for Jeremy Bentham

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Panopticon: Theory vs. Reality

Central to Bentham’s proposed building is a hierarchy of: (1) the principal guard and his family; (2) the assisting superintendents; and (3) the hundreds of inmates. The hierarchy between them literally maps onto the building’s design. The panopticon, quite literally, becomes a spatial and visual representation of the prison’s power relations.

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To his credit, Bentham recognizes that an inspector on the ground floor cannot possibly see all inmates on the upper floors. The angle of view was too steep and obstructed by stairs and walkways. To this end, Bentham proposes that a covered inspection gallery be erected for every two floors of cells.
By proposing these three inspection galleries, Bentham addresses the problem of inspecting all inmates. However, he creates a new problem: From no central point would it now be possible to see all activity, as the floor plans below show. The panoramic view below shows the superintendent’s actual field of view, from which he could see into no more than four complete cells at a time. The view from the center is not, in fact, all-seeing. Guards would have to walk a continuous circuit round-and-round, as if on a treadmill.

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The intervening stairwells and inspection corridors between the perimeter cells and the central tower might allow inspectors to see into the cells. Yet these same architectural features would also have impeded the inmates’ view toward the central rotunda. Bentham claims this rotunda could become a chapel, and that inmates could hear the sermon and view the religious ceremonies without ever needing to leave their cells. The blinds, normally closed, could be opened up for viewing the chapel.

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Bentham’s suggestion is problematic. The two cross sections above show that, although some of the inmates could see the chapel from their cells, most would be unable to do so.
In spite of all these obvious faults in panopticon design, Bentham still claims that all inmates and activities are immediately visible and controlled from a single central point. When the superintendent or visitor arrives, no sooner is he announced that “the whole scene opens instantaneously to his view,” Bentham writes.

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Despite Bentham’s claims to have invented a perfect and all-powerful building, the real panopticon would have been deeply flawed were it built. Although the circular form with central tower was chosen to facilitate easier surveillance, the realities and details of this design illustrate that constant surveillance was not possible. It is, therefore, no surprise that the English Parliament and public rejected Bentham’s twenty year effort to build a real panopticon.
However flawed the architecture, Bentham remained ahead of his time. He envisioned an idealistic and rational, even utopian, surveillance society. Without the necessary (digital) technology to create this society, Bentham fell back on architecture to make this society possible. The failure of this architecture and its obvious shortcomings do not invalidate Bentham’s utopian project. Instead, these flaws with architecture indicate that Bentham envisioned an institution and society that would only become possible through new technologies invented hundreds of years later.

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Related Projects

My computer model is open source and free to download here.
Read my research on Eastern State Penitentiary, a radial prison descended from Bentham’s panopticon

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Credits

Supervised by Max Sternberg
Audio narration by Tamsin Morton
Audio credits from Freesound
panopticon interior ambiance
panopticon exterior ambiance
prison door closing
low-pitched bell sound
high-pitched bell sound
The archives and publications of UCL special collections

California Waterscape: time-lapse history of water supply

California Waterscape animates the development of this state’s water delivery infrastructure from 1913 to 2019, using geo-referenced aqueduct route data, land use maps, and statistics on reservoir capacity. The resulting film presents a series of “cartographic snapshots” of every year since the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913. This process visualizes the rapid growth of this state’s population, cities, agriculture, and water needs.

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Music: Panning the Sands by Patrick O’Hearn

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Dams and Reservoirs

^ Created with open data from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics and visualized in Tableau Public. This map includes all dams in California that are “50 feet or more in height, or with a normal storage capacity of 5,000 acre-feet or more, or with a maximum storage capacity of 25,000 acre-feet or more.” Dams are georeferenced and sized according to their storage capacity in acre-feet. One acre-foot is the amount required to cover one acre of land to a depth of one foot (equal to 325,851 gallons or 1.233 ● 10liters). This is the unit of measurement California uses to estimate water availability and use.

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Aqueducts and Canals

^ Created with open data from the California Department of Water Resources, with additional water features manually added in QGIS and visualized in Tableau Public. All data on routes, lengths, and years completed is an estimate. This map includes all the major water infrastructure features; it is not comprehensive of all features.

 

Method and Sources

The most important data sources consulted are listed below:

This map excludes the following categories of aqueducts and canals:

  • Features built and managed by individual farmers and which extend for a length of only a few hundred feet. These features are too small and numerous to map for the entire state and to animate by their date completed. This level of information does not exist or is too difficult to locate.
  • Features built but later abandoned or demolished. This includes no longer extant aqueducts built by Spanish colonists, early American settlers, etc.
  • Features created by deepening, widening, or otherwise expanding the path of an existing and naturally flowing waterway. Many California rivers and streams were dredged and widened to become canals, and many more rivers turned into “canals” remain unlined along their path. Determining the construction date for these semi-natural features is therefore difficult. So, for the purposes of simplicity and to aid viewers in seeing only manmade water features, these water features are excluded.
Download and edit the open source QGIS dataset behind this animation.

Manufacturing the Picturesque at Central Park

Written with Zeynep Çelik Alexander, historian at Columbia University
Inspired by Elizabeth Blackmar’s inspiring lectures on urban development and Central Park

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Download this essay as a PDF file

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Figure 1. Map of completed Central Park in 1873

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Central Park is not only the major recreational facility of Manhattan but also the record of its progress: a taxidermic preservation of nature that exhibits forever the drama of culture outdistancing nature. Like the [Manhattan] Grid, it is a colossal leap of faith; the contrast it describes – between the built and the unbuilt – hardly exists at the time of its creation.
– Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York1

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Koolhaas presents one of the challenges core to Central Park’s construction: the tension between natural and manmade, urban and rural. What sets this park apart from most other parks is its yearning to seemingly become something that it clearly is not: natural. Many other pocket parks in this city incorporate existing topography and trees into their design – yet they are smaller. And from the confines of their interior, the sights and sounds of the city are hard to escape. Central Park succeeds in permitting its visitor to make-believe, at least momentarily, that they have left the city and are immersed in the countryside. The original park contained, for instance, a sheep pasture and barn, a nature preserve called “The Ramble,” and a dairy for urban mothers to buy fresh milk.
The scale of Central Park and the engineering that went into its creation is not unprecedented – architects and engineers have completed far larger infrastructure projects. The New York City watershed, for instance, catches all the rainfall within a 2,000 square mile area, stores this water in 19 reservoirs, and then transports this water up to 150 miles in underground pipes that serve nine million people.2 Central Park, by comparison, was built by some of the same engineers but is a mere three-square-miles of “improved” wilderness. However, what is surprising is the degree to which Central Park’s landscape features seem natural, as if land speculators and developers had chanced upon the park and left it as untouched as they had found it, except framed on four sides by the city grid (figure 5). So successful is this intervention that there is often the popular misconception that it is natural. This Huffington Post article, for instance: “I know that it may come as a shock to some, but New York’s Central Park is not an act of God. It might seem that way, especially in the woodlands, which appear so authentically, well, natural.”3

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Figure 2. Earthworks projects in 1858, most likely in the vicinity of 72nd Street

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In the 1857 text entitled “The Plan for the Park,” the project’s landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted (b.1822-d.1903), writes that it “seems desirable to interfere with its easy, undulating outlines, and picturesque, rocky scenery as little as possible, and, on the other hand, to endeavor rapidly and by every legitimate means, to increase and judiciously develop these particularly individual and characteristic sources of landscape effects.”4 Olmsted’s claim is a good place to start because it expresses a paradox central to the design. Olmsted’s project “interferes” with the landscape “as little as possible” simultaneously with large-scale efforts to move soil, blast rock, and plant trees that employed – at the height of work – some 4,000 men.5 Around five million cubic feet of rock and soil were blasted and removed from the park. Rem Koolhaas interprets this quote from Olmsted as follows: “If Central Park can be read as an operation of preservation, it is, even more, a series of manipulations and transformations performed on the nature ‘saved’ by its designers.”6
How can we reconcile these two seemingly opposed tendencies in Central Park – natural vs. manmade – when almost all manmade features are disguised as natural? I propose that we can better understand the park by dispensing with the pretense that it is in any way natural.
Central Park presents an unusually refined interpretation of nature. Of the approximately 20,000 trees of 175 species, solidly 60% are non-native to New York.7 Of the seven lakes contained within the park, none are natural to the terrain and are mostly the result of damning existing streams. Of the paths, trails, and roads winding through the park – with curves to match the contours of hills and valleys – none are original, nor do they correspond to pre-development dirt roads and Lenape Indian trails.8

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Figure 3. Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1857 drawing of the park before and after the planned “improvements.”
The style and content of this image evokes the work of English landscape architects and Humphry Repton.

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Before work began in 1857, the pre-development topography was insufficient for use as a public park. The Manhattan grid – comprising some 2,000 plus city blocks each measuring exactly 200 feet wide – implies a flat terrain and originally made no accommodations for interfering rivers, hills, or marshes. Looking at a street map of the island, one might be surprised to learn that the terrain rises and falls the length of the island from zero feet at sea level to ~250 feet at its highest peak (figures 4 and 16).9 The name “Manhattan” is a Lenape Indian word that means “Island of Many Hills.”10 Yet, despite the variety of sites planners could have chosen from, the park’s rectangular boundaries were not determined by the availability of topographic features appropriate for a park.

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Figure 4. British Headquarters Map of Manhattan Island from c.1789. Only the shaded pink section at top of island is developed at city-level density. The rest consists of rolling hills, forest, and farmland that inspired Henry Hudson, the first European who “discovered” the island in 1609, to remark that: “The land is the finest for cultivation that I ever in my life set foot upon.”11

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Instead of topography, three main factors determined the location: First, planners needed to choose a site close to the expanding city yet far enough away that the land could be acquired cheaply and without displacing large numbers of residents. Second, the city’s population had grown 160% in the twenty years from 1840 to 1860,12 and the city’s existing Croton reservoir (then located in the exact center of the proposed park) was insufficient. The city needed an expanded reservoir; the most convenient location on Manhattan Island for this reservoir was next to the existing one. The otherwise purely practical infrastructure of water supply could thus become a landscape feature.13 Third, the city planned to offset the approximately five-million-dollar price tag of land acquisition and construction through corresponding increases in the taxable property values of land adjacent the park. The architects also went so far as to suggest “a toll of three cents on visitors coming on foot, and six cents for all others” collected on visitors to fund park maintenance and offset construction costs. (This was never implemented.)14 Olmsted also writes:
Land immediately about the Park, the frontage on it being seven miles in length, instead of taking the course anticipated by those opposed to the policy of the Commission, has advanced in value at the rate of two hundred per cent per annum. […] It is universally admitted, however, that the cost, including that of the original off-hand common sense blunders, has been long since much more than compensated by the additional capital drawn to the city through the influence of the Park.15
The park’s location might be strengthened by the simple fact that a linear or smaller park along the waterfront would have fewer miles of frontage of taxable properties adjacent to the park. For instance, locating just one side Central Park along the Hudson and East River (instead of the island’s center) would result in 2.5 miles fewer of abutting properties. Within the following decades, the properties in the Upper East and Upper West Side that overlook the park became (and remain) among the most expensive in the city. This method of development – sacrificing a fraction of the land for park use so as to increase the monetary value of the adjoining lands – was common in New York City (e.g., Gramercy Park) and particularly in London’s fashionable West End and Hyde Park neighborhoods.16 What makes Central Park different, though, is the unprecedented scale of this investment to boost civic pride and to increase property taxes.

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Figure 5. A c.1836 engraved map of mid-Manhattan with the outline of the future park drawn in orange ink c.1858. The incongruity between the park’s outline and the topography is also illustrated by the fact that the park’s northern boundary (originally at 106th street) would require blasting through a one hundred foot high solid-rock mountain to make way for the perimeter street.

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Given these priorities – real estate and infrastructure interests over aesthetics – the choice of location was not ideal (figure 5). The rough terrain was mostly barren of trees and was a mosquito-laden wetland. (More readily converted and forested terrain was originally proposed along the East River in the vicinity of Roosevelt University.) Before beginning the architect’s work of planting trees and building scenic garden features, the first major task was to prepare the land and make it suitable for public use. To that effect, Olmsted contracted the engineer (and later military coronel) George E. Waring to drain the swamp. Waring directed 400 men to construct some 105,000 linear feet (32 kilometers) of drainpipes over two years (figure 8).17 His military-style approach toward clearing the park followed him into later life when he became New York City’s sanitation commissioner. As commissioner, he required all his street cleaners to wear white pith helmets (identical to those worn by European colonists in Africa) and then declared the war on filth. Given his interest in sanitation and dislike of dirt, his answer to the park commissioners’ question is revealing:
Commission’s Question: “To what degree shall the park be drained?”
Waring’s Answer: “Totally.”
Q: “By what form of drains?”
A: “Earthenware, of varying calibers.”
Q: “At what depth?”
A: “Three feet in open glades, four feet in forested areas.”
Q: “For best economy, by contract or days’ work?”
A: By days’ work because of the endlessly varied conditions requiring uncommon on-site super vision.”18

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Figure 6. Buried Pipes in Connection with the New Reservoir, c.1862.

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Figure 7. General View of North Reservoir from 102nd Street, 23 October 1862.
All the land visible here is now buried beneath the reservoir.

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Another requirement asked of the planners was to incorporate a new reservoir into the park (figures 6-7 show terrain now flooded beneath reservoir). The existing stone reservoir and Croton Aqueduct, completed 1842, were no longer sufficient19 despite Walt Whitman’s claim that: “Ages after ages these Croton works will last, for they are most substantial than the old Roman aqueducts.”20 To augment the Croton’s capacity, the new reservoirs combined covered approximately 20% of the park’s surface area over terrain that otherwise would have become parkland. Before Olmsted had even submitted his plan in 1857, the engineer Egbert L. Viele, who had been surveying the parkland since 1853,21 had decided on placing this reservoir on a natural depression in the land, to be augmented by an earthen embankment around the perimeter. Olmsted’s final proposal follows the contours of Viele’s proposed reservoir exactly – illustrating the degree to which engineering needs dictated the landscape architect’s choices.

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Figure 8. Map of drainage system on lower part of the Central Park as far as completed up to 31 December 1858. On the left is 59th Street, 5th Avenue is at bottom, and 8th Avenue (i.e. Central Park West) is at top. This map only illustrates the paths of future carriage roads within the park – that is, the thick white lines that wind through the landscape. Red lines indicate the buried clay pipes that drain water from the marshy soil – and many continue to do so today. Shaded gray areas correspond to areas to be raised with dirt fill. The shaded blotches are for preserved boulders protruding above ground. The slightly off-kilter rectangle in center is for the area drained to create the Central Park Mall – the only geometrically symmetrical part of the park.

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Although the park was extensively surveyed and re-landscaped there was, nonetheless, an attempt to appear rustic and unkempt. The architect, Calvert Vaux, blanketed the park in little pavilions and bridges made from unpolished and rustic wood with bark still on the beams – a nineteenth-century re-reading of the primitive hut.22 The passage from the southern to the northern reaches of the park was also a parable in the march of civilization and progress. By this time, the city was advancing northward up the island from its historic center in Lower Manhattan (figure 9). Within forty years, the island would be completely built-up. With this recognition of urban sprawl, Olmsted named the park’s 16 original entrances to reflect the city’s movement and types of people living in New York. In order from south to north, the names are as follows: Artisan’s Gate, Merchant’s Gate, Scholar’s Gate, Woman’s Gate, Inventor’s Gate, Miner’s Gate, Mariner’s Gate, Engineer’s Gate, Gate of All Saints, Woodman’s Gate, Boy’s Gate, Girl’s Gate, Stranger’s Gate, Warrior’s Gate, Farmer’s Gate and Pioneer’s Gate. This list almost reads as a list of social classes in increasing order of proximity to raw nature.23 The design features also evolve over distance. The southern reaches (also the busiest section due to the proximity to the city center) was built first and included more pruned botanic features, rectangular parterres of trees, and the proposed flower garden. Olmsted thought it appropriate to leave the northern reaches of the park as wooded as possible with a c.1812 fortress left standing atop a mountain as a picturesque ruin in the style of English garden follies. The northern reaches (also surrounded mostly by farmland at this time) were intentionally more heavily forested, had fewer of the park’s signature bridges, retained the park’s largest rock escarpment, and for the first few decades of its life contained no statues, monuments, or plaques commemorating important people. By contrast, about two dozen monuments to Western Civilization’s great cultural and political leaders (all male) were concentrated in the south: William Shakespeare (installed 1872), Thomas Moore (1879), Alexander Hamilton (1880), Beethoven (1884), Columbus (1894), etc.24 Paradoxically, while the south may appear more refined and cultivated than the north, the pre- development terrains in both sections were equally crafted and manipulated. There is, here, the illusion of moving north toward nature, instead of the reality.

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Figure 9. The extent of northward marching urban development by 1857, with the park beyond the developed city. Notice how large the park is relative to the city’s surface area, and how the city becomes rural travelling north. View this animation online.

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At this stage, we might arrive at a better understanding by shifting the descriptive language. Perhaps we should describe the park not in terms of nature or landscape – given that considerations of the natural were not foremost in the design. We might do better to describe the park in terms of infrastructure, engineering, movement, and social class. Indeed, one of the strengths of Olmsted’s proposal – and one of the reasons he won out of the 33 designs submitted – was his decision to separate the park by four different social classes and speeds of movement (figures 10 and 11), each of which corresponded to a width of road and minimum permitted vehicle turning radius (color-coded in figure 12).25 This detailed plan for road separation and drainage were finished before the architects had even begun working on planting diagrams or selecting which species of trees would make for the most varied landscape composition. There were four classes of segregated roads. First, because of the park’s length, size, and location, there would be many vehicles passing through the park, not for leisure, but simply to pass from one side of the park to the other as fast as possible. For these vehicles, the engineers planned four buried transverse roads with entirely separate right-of-way. These straight and wide roads at no point intersected other types of traffic and were entirely below grade level. Second, there were carriage roads for slightly slower carriage traffic within the park. While the relatively straight transverse roads were for practical through-traffic, these carriage roads were for leisure. Third, the next highest speed consisted of a narrower and more curving path than the carriage roads, gravel paths for horseback riders. Horseback riding was a popular leisure and sporting activity – these roads are now largely used for joggers who move faster than pedestrians but slower than vehicles. Fourth, the most ubiquitous road type of all consisted of unpaved footpaths for pedestrians on foot only. With the help of bridges and tunnels (figure 11), at no point did these four systems of conveyance intersect, leading Olmsted to claim: “By this means it was made possible, even for the most timid and nervous, to go on foot to any district of the Park designed to be visited, without crossing a line of wheels on the same level, and consequently, without occasion for anxiety and hesitation.”26

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Figure 10. Author’s diagram of road types

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Figure 11. 1862 cross-section of transverse road. Notice how the trees above the road are drawn small, as if to exaggerate the tunnel’s monumentality.

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WALK          RIDE          DRIVE          TRANSVERSE

Figure 12.

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Incidentally, these separate and unequal paths also corresponded to different social classes. The wealthiest individuals – those who could afford a carriage, horse, and driver – would implicitly have exclusive use of the carriage roads, while horseback riders had their separate right of way, and service vehicles were segregated below grade. The rest of the public and working classes were restricted to the footpaths, where security guards patrolled the park and prohibited them from loitering, picking flowers, picnicking, or forming large groups. Elizabeth Blackmar and Roy Rozenzweig write: “In the decade after the opening, more than half of those visiting the park arrived in carriages (which less than 5 percent of the city’s population could afford to own, and each day there were elaborate carriage parades in the late afternoon.”27 Yet, disproportionate design considerations and park surface area seems to be given to this minority of users on carriages. We should return here to the fact that city leaders intended this park to boost property values and taxes on the wealthy residents who lived adjacent to the park. It is only natural, then, that the park design should reflect their interests and preferences.

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Figure 15. Map of middle section of the park between the 79th Street and 97th Street transverse roads, the empty area at lower left hand corner is the future site of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The blue road corresponds to the horseback trail, now jogging path. After starting at the 59th Street entrance and passing through manmade forests, valleys, and tunnels, horseback riders’ visual experience culminated as they circled this manmade reservoir.

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These maps of the park – color coded by road type – can help us begin to unravel the degree to which the current landscape is manmade. At first glance, the smooth passage of roads and their organic contours may seem effortless, as if they were laid out along existing roads with regards to existing topography. By separating the different grades of traffic by color (figure 14) and upon closer examination, there is a complex and extensive hidden infrastructure beneath these natural appearances (figure 13).

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Figure 16. 1811 Commissioners’ Plan

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These maps also reveal a park that is not separate from or opposite to the city, but instead a continuation of the city. A glance at a map of Manhattan reveals two seemingly different philosophies of urbanism, as imprinted through the laying of road networks. Most of the island is covered in the orthogonal 1811 grid (figure 16). This grid gives no consideration to topography, nature, or aesthetics. And then, there is the three square mile area of Central Park with winding and seemingly organic roads. The absence of symmetry and straight lines might lead one to conclude that the park reflects an attempt to harmonize with nature. Existing popular literature commonly situates this park as a reaction to the grid’s perceived faults and excesses. Upon closer examination, this park’s near obsessive attention to detail, its concern with segregated movement, and its reliance on complex (but hidden) infrastructure reveal the park to be a continuation of the 1811 grid’s interest in real estate, property values, and engineering, more than it is a prosaic and romantic reaction to excessive urban growth. This infrastructure is also wrapped up in a coded message about the progress of civilization. The passage from cultivated south to rugged north can read as a condensed representation of the passage from the center of civilization to its undeveloped edges. One should also keep in mind that simultaneous to the construction of Central Park, engineers and developers were at work on the other side of the country clearing the American West for development. Within the following decades, the extent of farmed land would creep westwards on former Indian soil, generally following the paths of railroads toward California. Does the design of Central Park mirror 1860s American society’s belief in the civilizing power of science and technology to tame the wilderness? Alternatively, is Central Park’s design just a matter-of-fact effort to boost the city’s tax revenues, with no moral agenda intentionally encoded in the park design? Such questions might be impossible to answer, given the lack of conclusive evidence.
Now is the time to return to the question we started with: How can we reconcile these two seemingly opposed tendencies – natural vs. manmade? I posit that by describing Central Park in the language of infrastructure and real estate – instead of nature and aesthetics – we can arrive at a more accurate assessment of the park’s origins, objectives, and construction process. Seemingly, the only way to adapt this ill-suited site into a park that fulfilled the nineteenth-century definition of the picturesque was through public works that, upon their completion, effaced almost all traces of the people, trees, and landscape that existed before. The engineering here succeeds insofar as it is invisible and functions as if no manmade intervention had ever occurred. While at work, Olmsted made this prediction on the future of Manhattan Island:
The time will come when New York will be built up, when all the grading and filling will be done, and when the picturesquely-varied rock formations of the Island will have been converted into formations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface, with the single exception of the few acres contained in the Park.28
The park is an architectural contradiction. On the one hand, its rock formations, hills, and valleys look to a pre-developed and rugged Manhattan in the public imagination, a landscape more fictive than real. On the other hand, the park’s very presence is a testament to the power of real estate interests, engineers, and the water supply board in shaping the city. This tension underlies the landscape features now almost universally praised for their vision, beauty, and harmony.

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List of figures

  1. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library, “Map of the Central Park” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/4e6a6080- 3569-0134-549e-00505686a51c (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  2. Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library, “View in Central Park, Promenade, June 1858,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1- 0fb6-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  3. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (designers); Calvert Vaux (artist), Greensward Plan presentation board with “Present Outlines” (above) and “Effect Proposed” (below): No. 1. From Point A (view at Fifth Avenue entrance), 1858, graphite, wash and white lead on paper, New York Municipal Archives.
  4. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Map of New York City and of Manhattan Island with the American defences in 1776,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/ee2f1060-d488-0135-3577-67321a8090bc (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  5. David H. Burr (cartographer), Topographical Map of the City and County of New-York and the Adjacent Country (proof impression of center sheet), published by J.H. Colton and Co., New York, 1836, engraving, ca. 1836, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  6. Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library, “Pipes in Connection with the New Reservoir,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-6289- a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  7. Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library, “General View of N. Reservoir from 102nd St. October 23, 1862,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-6288-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  8. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library, “Map of Drainage System on Lower Part of the Central Park as far as completed up to December 31st, 1858,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/7fe3e680-0c6a-0132-bc3c- 58d385a7bbd0 (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  9. Author’s illustration from Here Grows New York animation, https://youtu.be/f6U7YFPrz6Y?t=226 (retrieved 5 May 2019).
  10. Author’s diagram of road types
  11. Calvert Vaux (architect), W.B. Swan (delineator), and Sarony, Major, and Knapp (lithographers), Bridge “E” over Transverse Road No. 2, 1861, lithograph, from Fifth Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park, January 1862, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  12. “Map of the Central Park” New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1873, modified by author with blue, red, and green color-coding.
  13. “Map of Drainage System on Lower Part of the Central Park as far as completed up to December 31st, 1858.”
  14. 1873 map of Central Park, color-coded by author to indicate types and widths of roads
  15. Ibid.
  16. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, “Plan of Manhattan Island,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/26e27e80-be8a-0131- bf1a-58d385a7bbd0 (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  17. Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library, “Central Park Tunnel,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/a44288b4-9bdc-b31f-e040-e00a18060314 (retrieved 5 May 2019).
  18. Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library, “Men standing on Willowdell Arch,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/94b7acd9-dc81-74f7-e040- e00a18063585 (retrieved 5 May 2019).

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Works cited

  1. Rem Koolhaas, “Prehistory,” in Delirious New York (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1994), p.21.
  2. Kenneth Jackson, Lisa Keller, et al., “Water Supply,” in The Encyclopedia of New York City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), p.1381-86.
  3. Charles A. Birnbaum, “The Big Task of Managing Nature at New York’s Central Park,” The Huffington Post, 12 September 2012, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/an-unlimited-range-of-rur_b_1870450? (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  4. Kenneth Jackson and David Dunbar (editors), “Selected Writings on Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted (1858, 1870),” in Empire City: New York through the Centuries, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p.279. This anthology of urban history assembles various primary sources from across NYC history into a single book.
  5. Ibid., “Central Park,” p.222-24.
  6. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York, p.23.
  7. Robert Demcker, “Central Park Plant List and Map Index of 1873,” published by the Frederick Law Olmsted Association and The Central Park Community Fund, 1979.
  8. Concluded from comparing maps of the park pre and post construction.
  9. Hilary Ballon, “Introduction,” in The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p.13-15.
  10. Eric Sanderson et al., The Welikia Project, https://welikia.org/about/how-it-all-began/ (retrieved 15 May 2019). – Sanderson created the most detailed visualization of Manhattan’s pre-development topography.
  11. “Early Descriptions of New Netherland,” New Netherland Institute: Exploring America’s Dutch Heritage, https://www.newnetherlandinstitute.org/history-and-heritage/additional-resources/dutch-treats/early-impressions-of- new-netherland/ (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  12. “NYC Total and Foreign-born Population 1790 – 2000,” NYC Planning Department, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/data-maps/nyc-population/historical-population.page (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  13. The old rectangular shaped Croton Reservoir covered 8% of the park’s area. The new reservoir covered about 12%. Combined they covered 20%. Values calculated by author using Google MyMaps.
  14. Frederick Law Olmsted and American Social Science Association, Public Parks And the Enlargement of Towns: Read Before the American Social Science Association At the Lowell Institute, Boston, Feb. 25, 1870, (Cambridge: Printed for the American Social Science Association, at the Riverside Press, 1870), p.35. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008726621 (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  15. Ibid., p.35.
  16. Jon Campbell and Christopher Robbins, “The Origin Story Of Gramercy Park Is A Classic NYC Tale Of Real Estate Hucksterism, Cronyism, And Gate Crashing,” The Gothamist, 28 June 2018, http://gothamist.com/2018/06/28/gramercy_park_history_amazing.php (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  17. Morrison H Heckscher, “Creating Central Park,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 65, no. 3 (2008): p.40, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25434142 (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  18. Ibid.
  19. A mere 94 years after opening, the old Croton reservoir was deemed inadequate, drained of water, and filled with debris from subway excavations.
  20. “Murray Hill Reservoir, November 25, 1849, Walt Whitman,” in Empire City, p.207.
  21. “Creating Central Park,” p.18.
  22. Patricia Heintzelman for the U.S. Department of the Interior, Central Park Nomination Form for NRHP, 1966, https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/NRIS/66000538 (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  23. To my knowledge, the claim that Olmsted named the gates in 1862 to mirror the transition from civilization to nature has never been made before. However, Olmsted describes in writing how the terrain should evolve from smooth to rough during the passage north; it follows for naming conventions to reflect this shift.
  24. Wikipedia assembles lists of monuments, parks, streets, etc. organized as metadata with lat-long coordinates. Plotting these coordinates on a map and eliminating recently added monuments reveals a clear spatial concentration of artwork and sculpture in the south. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sculptures_in_Central_Park (retrieved 16 May 2019). Identical list also found from NYC Parks Department: https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/central- park/monuments (retrieved 16 May 2019).
  25. Landmarks Preservation Commission, Central Park Designation Report for the NYC Planning Department, 1974, http://s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/lpc/lp/0851.pdf (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  26. “Selected Writings on Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted (1858, 1870),” in Empire City, p.281.
  27. “Central Park,” in The Encyclopedia of New York City, p.223.
  28. “Selected Writings on Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted (1858, 1870),” in Empire City, p.279.

The Origins of Gothic at the Church of Saint-Denis

Written with Stephen Murray, medieval historian at Columbia University
This is my Columbia University senior thesis in the History & Theory of Architecture. This work expands on my films about Amiens Cathedral, published here.

Abstract

Around the year 1140 CE, a new style of architecture and way of thinking about how to construct buildings developed in Northern France. This way of building soon spread across Europe, seeding cathedrals, monasteries, abbeys, and churches wherever masons traveled. Centuries later – long after masons ceased building in this style – Renaissance architectural theorists began calling this style the “Gothic.”
The one church traditionally associated with this 1140s stylistic shift from the earlier Romanesque style to the newer Gothic style is a small building just north of Paris: the Abbey Church of S-Denis. However, although the popular narrative of architectural history assumes this building to be the world’s first Gothic building, little structural evidence to this effect survives. This thesis follows two strains of inquiry: 1) why this church is deeply associated with the origins of Gothic and 2) how surviving fragments of the 1140s S-Denis fail to support claims of the structure’s primacy.
Why does this matter? S-Denis reveals a tendency to tell history – particularly architectural history – in terms of individual structures when, in fact, the origins of the Gothic style might be more complex. By abandoning a Paris and S-Denis centric origins story, we might be able to better appreciate the diverse array of local sources from which medieval masons found inspiration to build.

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Read the thesis online

Opens as PDF in new window

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Strangely enough, despite the widely accepted fact that S-Denis’ architecture was significantly rebuilt, numerous sources continue to assume this church to be the first. Copied below is a quote from S-Denis’ official website:

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The birth of Gothic art. The church, designed by Abbot Suger, kings’ advisor from 1135 to 1144, was completed in the 13th-century during the reign of Saint Louis. A major work of Gothic art, this church was the first to place a great importance on light, a symbol of divinity, in religious architecture.

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Or this quote from leading German medievalist Dieter Kimpel:

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Suger, abbot of the most important of all the royal abbeys, that of Saint-Denis, and sponsor of the western part and the sanctuary of the abbey church, works considered rightly as a milestone in the history of the birth of Gothic architecture, left us a detailed account of his activity as abbot.

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Amiens Cathedral: Construction Sequence

Supervised by Stephen Murray, historian at Columbia University
Presentation delivered March 2018 at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University

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My goal is to recreate Amiens Cathedral digitally. My method is to build an interactive and open-source computer model of the entire cathedral that is accurate to the foot and photo-realistic. This project would be impossible without the guidance of medievalist Stephen Murray, who introduced me to Amiens in his fall 2016 seminar at Columbia University.

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Related Projects

This project is published to Columbia’s website. I expanded on Amiens Cathedral for my senior thesis about the medieval church of S-Denis. And I continued building computer models as a research assistant at the Columbia University: Media Center for Art History.
I also researched the construction sequences of:
The Eiffel Tower
Burford Church near Oxford, England
St. Paul’s Cathedral dome in London
Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
– Notre-Dame in Paris (forthcoming)