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The Palace of Machinery
On reaching the Avenue of Progress we found ourselves at the gayest corner of the Exposition, with two fine vistas of the two avenues. To our right stood the massive Palace of Machinery, one of the largest buildings in the world, so successfully treated by the architect that it did not give the faintest suggestion of being cumbersome or monotonous. "It's the Baths of Caracalla in Rome," said the architect, "adapted by a master. Those three gables above the main entrance are taken directly from the baths. See how simple the ornamentation is and yet how satisfying. The building as a whole is a perfect example of old Roman architecture, feeling its way toward the big architectural principles that are in vogue today, among others the economical principle involved in the counteracting of thrusts. If the Roman Emperor who was nicknamed Caracalla on account of the hooded military tunic that he made fashionable in his day hadn't built those baths we should probably not have the glorious Pennsylvania station in New York, that some of the architectural authorities consider the most important building of its kind built in this country. Although the work here is all concrete, Clarence Ward, the architect, says that with care, it could last hundreds of years."
Now we were struck by those vigorous-looking figures, by Haig Patigian, that stood on top of the Sienna columns all evidently designed to express the power of machinery. At the entrance the reliefs of the columns were in the same spirit and, as one might have surmised, by the same sculptor working out the meaning of the buildings in designs that kept the contour of the columns, strong and well-modeled.
"There's distinctive character in this building," said the architect. "It actually conveys the sense of tremendous energy, and by the simplest means. And inside, Ward has done something new and interesting."
When we entered we found the supports of the roof left bare. Instead of being unsightly, they had a kind of beauty and impressiveness. "Observe the magnificence of the spaces here on the floor and up to the ceiling. Some one asked Ward if all this height were necessary. He said it wasn't; but he wanted it for pictorial effect, to carry out the feeling of massiveness and splendor."
In the great figures that stood on the columns in front of the Palace of Machinery the architect found a theme for a discourse on the human figure as the chief inspiration of art. "It is possible that we shall change our minds on that subject," he remarked. "Already the world is showing a tendency to get away from the worship of the body. Ever since the Christian era, of course, the physical has been deprecated. We may come to see that the body is useful as it develops and serves the spiritual, that is, as it subordinates itself. The marvel is that the pagan tradition has persisted so long in spite of the Christian influence. This Exposition shows how strong it remains."
"But what would you have in place of the human figure as the inspiration of art?" I asked.
"Oh, there are plenty of things that might take its place. Flower themes are just as beautiful in decoration as the shapes of men and women. I can conceive of the time when it will be considered uninteresting and commonplace to have human bodies used as a means of aesthetic display. The self-glorification in it alone becomes wearying. We are gradually learning that the best we can do in life is to forget about ourselves and our old bodies. There are even those who go so far as to look forward to the time when we shall escape from our bodies altogether. It would be interesting, by the way, to get the point of view of a very spiritual Christian Scientist on the display here. I suppose that it would see good in the tendency to reach finer and nobler conceptions of art according to our present understanding."
Then the architect proceeded to discuss the artistic superiority of the Japanese. Though they used the human figure in their art, they did not play it up, after the habit of the Western world. They did not make it seem to be of supreme importance. They conventionalized and subordinated it to outline and color. The use of the nude they never cultivated. Their attitude toward the body was characterized by discretion and modesty, qualities that they showed in their dress. You would never see a Japanese woman, for example, wearing a dress that conspicuously brought out the lines of her figure.
"On the other hand," the architect went on, "there's no doubt we've become absurdly prudish in this country. We're afflicted with shame of the body which, in itself, is unhealthy. If art can help us to get back to a more normal attitude it will do a big service. All the more reason then why it should keep within reasonable bounds."