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The Court of the Ages
As we turned from the Avenue of Progress toward the Court of the Ages the architect said: "The workmen about here call this inner court 'Pink Alley,' not a bad name for it, though its real name is the Court of Mines. Throughout the Exposition Guerin shows that he is very fond of pink, probably on account of its warmth. He has been criticised for using it so much on the imitation Travertine for the reason that there is no stone of exactly this color. And yet there is pink marble. But even if there weren't any pink stone in the world, Guerin would be justified in his use of the color for purely decorative purposes, just as he was justified in using it on his four towers."
Inside the Court of the Ages the architect drew a long breath.
"In this court we architects feel puzzled. We think we can read new architectural forms like a book, and find that they are saying things repeated down the ages. But we can't read much here. In that lovely round arch there are hints of Gothic, and yet it is not a Gothic arch. Throughout the treatment there are echoes of the Spanish, and yet the treatment is not Spanish. The more one studies the conception and the workmanship the more striking it grows in originality and daring. Mullgardt has succeeded in putting into architecture the spirit that inspired Langdon Smith's poem 'Evolution,' beginning 'When you were a tadpole and I was a fish.' In the chaotic feeling that the court gives there is a subtle suggestiveness. The whole evolution of man is intimated here from the time when he lived among the seaweed and the fish and the lobsters and the turtles and the crabs. Even the straight vertical lines used in the design suggest the dripping of water. When you study the meaning of the conception you find an excuse for Aitken in flinging his mighty fountain into the center of all this architectural iridescence. He caught the philosophy of Mullgardt without catching the lightness and gaiety of the execution. In that fountain he has brought out the pagan conception of the sun, and he has used the notion that the sun threw off the earth in a molten mass to steam and cool down here and to bring forth those competitions between human beings that reveal the working of the elemental passions. Aitken is material and hard, where Mullgardt is delicate and fine. How subtly Mullgardt has interwoven the feeling of spirituality with all the animal forces in man. That tower alone is a masterpiece. I know of no tower just like it in the world. From every side it is interesting. And at night it is particularly impressive from the Marina."
The architect went on to explain something of the court's history. "When Mullgardt started to work out his plans he must have had in mind the transitional character of an exposition. He knew that he could afford to try an experiment that might have been impracticable if the court had been intended for permanency. He evidently was determined to cast tradition to the winds and to strike out for himself."
"I should think most architects would like to work in that way."
"The usual process is very different. As soon as an architect decides to design a building. he first chooses a certain type of architecture; then he saturates his mind with designs that have already been done along that line. Out of the mass of suggestions that he receives he is lucky if he evolves something more or less new. Often he merely re-echoes or he actually reproduces something that he is fond of or that has happened to catch his fancy. The chances are that Mullgardt will go down into history for his daring here. It isn't often that a man takes a big biological conception and works it out in architecture with such picturesqueness. It's never intrusive and yet it's there, plain enough for anyone to see who looks close. It represented a magnificent opportunity and Mullgardt was big enough to get away with it."
Then the architect told me the human story behind all this beauty as we wandered back into the center of the court and stood there. "Notice the incline," he said, "from the entrances? It reminds me that Mullgardt had originally intended to have the floor of the court like a sunken garden. And remember that the name expresses the original idea. The Court of Abundance, that it is wrongly called, would have applied much better to the Court of Four Seasons. Well, after the notion came to Mullgardt to suggest in the court the development of man from the life of the sea to his present state as a thinking being, less physical than spiritual, he planned to build a court that should be the center of the pageants for the Exposition, where art should have its living representation in the form of processions and of plays, some of them written for the purpose. In the sunken garden there should be plenty of room for the actors to move about, using it as a stage. There should also be room for the sculptured caldron that was to be an architectural feature and that later developed into Aitken's massive evolutionary fountain. For the base of the tower there was designed a gorgeous semi-circular staircase, which was to serve as an entrance for the actors. Around the court there was to run an ornamental balcony, covered with a great canopy in red and gold, making an effect of Oriental magnificence. The people were to watch the spectacles from the balcony and from between the arches. In addition to the main tower, very like the present tower, but to contain a great pipe organ, there were to be two others, in the corner at right angles, to be called echo towers. The music of the organ was to be transmitted to the echo towers by wires and the echoes were to serve as a sort of accompaniment. The effect, if it had been managed right, would have been stunning."
"Mullgardt has kept the spirit of the pageant in his court," I said. "Just as it is it would make an ideal setting, particularly for pageant with music, opera, for example."
"Of course," said the architect. "But the music ought not to come as it does now, from a band. It ought to come from the orchestra. Violins belong there. Put brass never!"
"Well, what happened to the pageant scheme?"
"Oh, when Mullgardt showed the preliminary sketches it was ruled out as too expensive. Then he removed the balcony and the staircase and, in place of the staircase, he introduced a cascade, keeping the rest of the court as it had been before. His idea was to use the water in the cascade only in a suggestive way. It was to be almost completely hidden by vines, after the manner of Shasta Falls, and to symbolize the mysterious appearance and disappearance of water that came from - one didn't know where. But that scheme was rejected, too, as too expensive. However, Mullgardt accepted the situation. He was so interested that he worked out himself many of the details that most architects would have left to subordinates. He really cared enough to make the whole effect as close to perfection as he could. Everything he did he had a reason for doing. Not one thing here did he use gratuitously. He evidently doesn't agree with the idea that, in architecture, beauty is its own excuse for being; he wants to make it useful, too."
Then I was initiated into the details of the workmanship. "Observe how the ideas in the structure of the walls of the court are carried on in the ornamental details and in the tower." The primitive man and primitive woman repeated in a row along the upper edge had been finely conceived and executed by Albert Weinert. And the nobility of outline in the tower was sustained by the three pieces of sculpture in front made by Chester Beach. That top figure some people believed to be Buddhistic in feeling. But it belonged to no particular religion. It stood for the Spirit of Intelligence. The ornamentation on the head was not an aureole, as bad been reported, but a wreath of laurel, symbolic of success. The group beneath was mediaeval, depicting mankind struggling for the light, expressed in the torches, through those conflicts that so pitifully came out of the aspirations of the soul, expressed in religion. The lowest group showed humanity in its elemental condition, related to the animal, close to the beasts. So, to be followed in sequence, the groups ought to be studied from the lowest to the highest, and then the eyes should be able to catch the meaning of the lovely ornamentation, crowning the tower, the petals of the lily, emblem of spirituality, the arrow-like spires above expressing the aspirations of the soul.
On the sides of the tower the symbolism was consistently maintained, war and religion marking the progress of man toward the state indicated by the single figure of The Thinker.
"And, speaking of the soul," the architect went on, "Observe these great clusters of lights that illuminate this court and the approach on the other side of the tower. They look like stars, don't they? And the intention evidently is to use them for their star-like character. But there is history behind them. They are like the monstrance used in the Catholic Church, to hold the sacred host, the wafer that is accepted by the faithful as the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Since the sixteenth century it has been used by the church, a beautiful emblem, made of gold and designed to suggest the prayer of the sun, the Spirit of God in radiance. Its use here helps to give the court its ecclesiastical character."
As we made our way toward the Marina we noted how much the court gained by its general freedom from color. In the colonnade, to be sure, Guerin had been particularly successful with the shade of blue. But he would have done better if he had omitted the color, in fact all color, from the niches in the tower.
Viewed from the Marina, the entrance to the court proved to be a vision of loveliness. There was only one intrusive note to jar the harmony, the coarse sea figure by Sherry Fry, presumably Neptune's, Daughter, standing in the center, with a great fish at her feet, plainly out of place here, in spite of the court's celebration of the sea as the source of human life.