Friday, August 2, 2013

"She's a Brick House"

     This week we return to our more Modern buildings. Here is the former ACME Brick showroom building on Victory St in Little Rock, AR. This building is really a step beyond the International Style movement that we have been discussing. It contains many elements found in the International Style, but there are a few ornamental touches that would have been somewhat sacrilege in the International Style movement. However, we will discuss the architectural elements of the building in a moment. First let me tell you a bit more about the building's history. The ACME Building was designed by the firm of Eherhart, Eichenbaum, & Rauch and was constructed in 1958. Eherhart, Eichenbaum, & Rauch is the firm that is responsible for buildings such as Beaux-Arts Parnell Hall at Arkansas School for the Deaf (1931), the Art Moderne styled Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanitarium in Booneville (1938), and the original International Style St. Vincent's Hospital (1958) at the corner of University and Markham in Little Rock.The ACME Building was designed to serve as the showroom for the various products that ACME Brick had to offer. To this end, the firm designed the building in such a way that the exterior became as much a showroom as the interior was.  We see the dark, almost black brick on the majority of the facade. The inset on the West facade is accented by yellow and golden bricks with concrete textile blocks creating sun screens in front of the windows. The floating steps are even made of bricks which were set into a cantilevered metal frame. When looking at the building with this mindset, it fully exemplifies the Modern architectural concept of the function or purpose of a building being evident on its exterior. ACME stayed in the building until 1996 when they sold it to the state for offices. Various different agencies have been housed in the building since then, most recently the Arkansas Asphalt Pavement Association. However, there will never be a more appropriate inhabitant than ACME Brick. Now, let us discuss the architecture of the building, from top to bottom.
     Starting with the roof of the ACME building, we find our first significant feature. While it may appear as your standard floating, flat roof, the same sort of roof seen in hundreds of other Modern buildings, it is in the construction of it where we find its significance. It was created use of what is called a "lift slab" system. This is done when the roof plane is poured on the ground and then lifted up by means of hydraulic jacks to rest upon the structural columns which are installed after it is lifted. To my knowledge, this was the first building in the state to have this construction system implemented on it.

    Next, let us move from the roof to the body of the building. Other than the beautiful, if not a touch gaudy, metallic gold bricks, the most noticeable feature on the building's main facade is the concrete textile block screens that adorn it. This elements, which constitute a departure from the strict ornamental minimalism of International Style, serve a function beyond just aesthetics. These screens not only provide a bit of privacy to the offices beyond the windows which sit behind the screens, but they also provide a bit of shade without completely blocking the light. Similar design elements were used in the highly popularized Palm Springs Modern houses of A. Quincey Jones, Palmer & Krisel, and George & Robert Alexander. We also see this architectural feature locally in Arkansas. Architect Dietrich Neyland of Ginocchi, Cromwell, & Associates used a very similar concept in his designs for Reynolds Elementary in Morrilton (1956), UALR Commons (1956), and two buildings at Philanders Smith College in Little Rock (1957). The internationally renowned Arkansas architect Edward D. Stone was also known for commonly using a concrete textile block screen. Some notable examples of this from him are his designs for Carlson Terrace Apartments (1957) and the Sigma Nu Fraternity House (1953), both at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The likelihood that the designers at Eherhart, Eichenbaum, & Rauch were familiar with these building is pretty high, but no direct connections can really be made on influence. However, it is a functional as well as beautiful element to include on any Modern building, and it certainly does help this one to stand out a bit more.
UALR Commons by Dietrich Neyland (1956)

Carlson Terrace Apartments by Edward D. Stone (1957)

     Finally, we come to the base, or more specifically, the stairs. This is actually my favorite element on the entire building. They were designed by a young Gene Levy who was interning with Eherhart, Eichenbaum, & Rauch while he was in school. Mr. Levy went on to work directly under Dietrich Neyland at Cromwell, and later to become a partner at Cromwell, but I digress. While Mr. Levy describes the stairs a series of geese looking over one another, I think there is a more famous source of inspiration for these stairs. A similar set of floating stairs were designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for his Farnsworth House (1951). Young Mr. Levy, being a good architecture student, would have known of this elegant staircase. Now whether Mr. Levy was conscious of this influence is unknowable, but the staircase that came out of young Mr. Levy's mind is a source of joy for me every time I drive by and see them.
Gene Levy's design for the ACME Building staircase
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's staircase at Farnsworth House (1951)
   As we have seen, though this building may have intended to be just a simple showcase, the resulting composition is one of lasting interest and significance.

A detail shot of the golden brick and concrete textile block screen

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