Classical architecture has traditionally been taught through the “orders,” set combinations of column base, column, column capital, and entablatures. The Greeks used the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian Orders; the Romans added the Tuscan and Composite Orders; and ever since the Renaissance architects have dabbled in creating new orders for new times. The problem with creating a new order is that there are too many building types and none dominates. The old orders were based on the needs of a classical temple which were, architecturally speaking, fairly simple. What building type today carries the same cultural weight for us?
Just about a year ago, I wrote about my favorite room in the New York Public Library, now known as the Celeste Bartos Forum. (Click on that link if you want to see some cool construction photos showing the steel framing holding up the dome.) I recently came across the picture above, taken shortly after the library opened to the public. At that time, this incredible rom was apparently used for a relatively small circulating collection. The main building is primarily a research library, the majority of its collection is closed-stack, and very little of its collection circulates. The room is at the first floor of the library – about a story above street level, up a grand staircase, and below a light court that provides a place for windows at the floors above. The flat daylight on the left is below a fairly ordinary skylight; the big dome projects up above the roof level at the light court bottom, to get light from the dome above and from the clerestory windows on its sides. Most of the steel is hidden behind ornamental plaster – see, for example, the big ornamented band above the celebratory window and below the dome. But at each corner of the square roof is a group of four columns that are exposed steel:
The riveted column steel is exposed, but we have vestigial plaster capitals sticking out between the flanges, at each of the four corners.
If that’s not the beginning of a scheme for a Steel Order, I don’t know what is. Too bad that it wasn’t more fully developed before the classic revival died out.