New Harmony, IN
A group of Lutheran Separatists led by George Rapp established New Harmony in 1814. The planned town served as a place where the community could efficiently provide for themselves while awaiting the millennium (Neary). Industrialist Robert Owen of New Lanark, Scotland purchased New Harmony in 1825 with the hopes of creating a model community where education and social equality prospered. Although Owen did not entirely realize his utopian dream, his attempt contributed towards the first golden age of innovation in American science and education (Historic New Harmony).
When geologist and philanthropist William McClure joined Owen's venture in 1826, he brought along his protégés of creative men and women such as early feminist Francis Wright, American naturalist Thomas Say, and Dutch geologist Gerard Troost-Dutch. Their pioneering contributions made a national impact on education and women's suffrage (Historic New Harmony).
The Atheneum (a place of literary and scientific learning) functions as a center for visitor orientation and community cultural events and acts as a lens through which the spiritual, social, political, and architectural history of the town is viewed (Goldberger). The building is situated on a raised podium near the banks of the Wabash River. The river is the source of the town's beginning, and its presence can always be detected through the many windows framing various views of the river and the surrounding landscape.
The Atheneum, designed by Richard Meier, represents Postmodern Architecture at its highest. A three-story plane set at a forty-degree angle to the raised podium acknowledges the point of arrival to the building. The orthogonal order (referring to right angles or perpendiculars) of the building is set in accordance to the original, perfect Harmonist street grid of the town as well as the direction of the river (Meier).
As with all architects of the Postmodern Era, Meier includes some nonfunctional spaces and the use of natural lighting. Upon entering the Atheneum, a low ceiling heightens the visitor's anticipation of what is to follow. A wall of undulating glass mimics the direction of the river's current while it serves as a frame for the spectacular view of the river itself. Just beyond the vestibule, an interior ramp presides as the mediator of the visitor’s progress through the building. The ramp, winding upward, sets the entire building in motion to open and close, contract and expand, like a great rib cage breathing (Goldberger).
Gypsum wallboard, illustrious maple wood flooring, and multiple windows characterize the open floor plan of the interior. Framed views to the exterior throughout the three floors of the building allow controlled glimpses and anticipation's of the town and landscape (Meier). Each floor is distinguished by an array of spaces varying in the purity and simplicity of their shape while changing in interest according to the amount of natural light coming through, making it a unique experience for each visitor. The largest enclosed interior space is the theater/auditorium, which is used for film presentations to orient the visitor on the history of New Harmony (Goldberger). Artists also show slides and discuss their work here when visiting the University of Southern Indiana.
The exterior is a complex set of planes and projections highlighted by crisp, white, porcelain enamel panels. Upon reaching the exhibition space on the third level, the visitor can look back on the internal route that has been traveled through the staggered interior slots and framed spaces, as well as forward to what is yet to come. The town confronts the visitor on the uppermost roof terrace, affording a panoramic vista like that from the prow of a ship. From here, the visitor descends by way of a second ramp- this one elongated and stepped, an uncoiled version of the interior one, leading out of the building and in to New Harmony itself (Meier).
The Atheneum serves as a buffer to ease the transitional period of old, rough-hewn fences and clapboard houses to the Postmodern era characterized by its attempt to reinstate symbolism in architecture. The building is a lesson in the possibilities of architecture, a collection of spatial and processional experiences that teaches us the richness of architectural space and structure (Goldberger).
Upon completion in 1979, the national architecture magazine, Progressive Architecture, honored the Atheneum. In 1982, it received the coveted American Institute of Architects Award, which states, "The American Institute of Architects is honored to confer this AIA medal on Historic New Harmony, Inc. for the stewardship and dedication that have made New Harmony, Indiana a unique, living museum of American Architecture. Blending the original Harmonist constructions, lovingly preserved, New Harmony is a peaceable kingdom, a continuum of past and present that gives new meaning and added luster to its name."
In 1991, Historic New Harmony combined with the New Harmony State Historic Site to become a unified program of the University of Southern Indiana and the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites (Historic New Harmony). Today, all parties combine their efforts to continue the restoration of important structures in New Harmony.