A building’s design usually begins with the plan that sits on the ground. Above it are rooms, above them are ceilings, and above them, sometimes after more ceilings but certainly above the roof, is the great vault of heaven. Here we are reminded that the word ceiling comes from the Latin for that vault, coelo, and cielo in Italian.
In earlier eras, traditional societies looked to the heavens for the largesse that would guide and fulfill their aspirations. Ancient Rome and China from remote times down to 1912 carefully aligned the plans of their cities with the regular geometric movement of the sun through the heavens to make imitations of the domain of their gods. The floors of the most important buildings did the same. The Pantheon’s pavement is an ordered arrangement of squares and circles. Above, its dome has five layers of coffers formerly with stars, one for each planet, and the oculus is situated to produce a shaft of light through the entrance’s transom at the vernal equinox.
When possible, Christian churches are oriented with celebrants facing the direction of the rising sun symbolic of Christ’s and the Christian’s resurrection. To look up into the dome was to look up into the heavens, no longer that of pagan gods but of Christian saints and angels. In the post-Trent era in 1568 Giorgio Vasari and Frederick Zuccari portrayed the Last Judgment from Hell to Heaven on the interior of the cathedral dome in Florence above the faithful gathered below.
Now on Pentacost or Whitsunday, fifty days after Easter when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples of Jesus after His Ascension, the Pantheon’s dome opens up heaven with red rose petals, the color of charity and love, are dropped in profusion down on the faithful.
Other domes show the presence of the Holy Spirit as a dove while the Assumption of the Virgin into Heaven in the Catholic Cathedral in Baltimore dedicated to that event. Begun by Benjamin Henry Latrobe and recently beautifully restored, the building presents the chaste lines of the era of his training in England and that Thomas Jefferson used to give his buildings a distinctively American character.
Secular representations of the linkage of Heaven and Earth were also common in earlier centuries in the United States. The seat of the legislative branch where the representatives of “We the People” pursue their duty to protect the endowment by Nature and Nature’s God of the rights enjoyed by every individual irrespective of religious belief or disbelief. It occupies the crossing of sidereal axes that guides the sun through the heavens from east to west as it illuminates the novus ordo seclorum. A pediment greets the rising sun while an unpedimented garden façade looks across the city and eventually the continental nation stretching across the continent.
Inside, we stand on a no-nonsense paving-stone floor as we look up into the Capitol’s towering dome where, beyond five tiers of fictive coffers and through a large oculus, to see the Apotheosis of Washington, not as a god but as an exemplum virtutis, a person who amply fulfilled his duties as a citizen of a nation. Washington looks down to us, perhaps to see how we are handling his legacy, perhaps to encourage each of us to be a model citizen. It was painted in 1865 by Constantine Brumidi, an immigrant from Rome where he had perfected his skill that is also displayed elsewhere in the Capitol in his celebrations of his new nation’s statesmen and achievements.
For a long generation, Americans gave rich ornament and decoration to the pavements, walls, vaults, and ceilings of important public buildings. We see it in McKim, Mead, and White’s Boston Public Library, begun in 1888 while in Chicago, not to be outdone, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge built the Chicago Public Library (1892-97) with mosaics and two glass domes by Tiffany and Co. For the Chicago Art Institute, they proposed a large dome above the grand stairs, but it has yet to be built.
Today public and important commercial buildings routinely slather fluorescent light fixtures, ventilation grills, and other paraphernalia intended for our comfort and safety but, as in the building as a whole, no decoration or ornament telling us where this building stands among others that are touched by a public interest.
When we try something better, we often fail. At Berkeley, one man and then another ended his life by jumping from the University’s campanile rather than from the Gold Gate Bridge. As a prank, some frat boys painted a target on the brick pavement. John Galen Howard’s familiar landmark had been shedding bits of granite from the steel tower’s cladding due to the unequal heating of the corners. To ensure public safety the powers that be soon surrounded the tower with a planting bed where the chips could harmlessly fall, and at the entrance the power that be built a porch to protect those going to the top to enjoy the view from behind a newly installed glass enclosure. A simple structure, four undecorated, non-classical columns supported the porch’s concrete slab roof. For ornament, the University’s crest was to be visible in brass in the soffit. When the forms were stripped away, it was, but in mirror image. The workman had followed the construction drawing when he had placed them on the formwork from above.
Ceilings, like so much else in architecture, have been stripped of meaning although are sometimes used to display prowess in handling technology that elevates a building to above a mere product of the art of building and makes it architecture.
In his exhibition hall and lecture room at the School of Architecture at the University of Miami, Leon Krier carefully designed the steel components of his rafter roofs with the simple geometry that he used for the exterior’s enclosure, and he artfully integrated the lighting and the HVAC into the ceiling. One of the characteristics of American architecture is the translation of lithic forms into wooden components, as we see in the wooden versions of the orders. Here Krier has taken American stick built vernacular technology and translated it into a sophisticated steel system.
The Richmond firm of Glavé and Holmes has done something similar but with the many metal shapes used for light steel construction. A complex ceiling with a monitor roof over the visitor’s center at James Madison’s Montpellier captures the spirit of American’s rural inventiveness. This is appropriate for an ancillary service building within a program that has given care and attention to this shrine to America’s fourth president.