Innovation in Practice: Experiment and Improvisation in the Architecture of Henry Chapman Mercer
Phinney, Charles Lucas
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In the opening years of the 20th century, a furor of new and experimental techniques swept the architectural field. The materials and methods of building altered so rapidly that standards of architectural representation and the acts of construction they choreographed appeared for a time to exist without history or precedent. In chaotic times chaos seems all consuming; yet standards are soon established and modes of practice formalized. So it was with the advent of architectural modernity. The beginning of the century was a time of great experimentation and innovation, not only in architectural materials but in the tools and representations of architects, and the methods of building they described. In this exploration of the relationship between material innovation and architectural representation, we examine the case of the Pennsylvania artisan-scholar Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930), and his development of a unique method for construction in reinforced concrete and ceramic tiles of his own design. In the years between 1907 and 1916, Mercer built three buildings of increasing complexity and scale, using methods of fabrication he developed over the course of these constructions. His approach was experimental, innovative, and yet quite different from the prevailing currents in engineering and industry at that time. While Mercer has been studied as a decorator of tiles, as an archaeologist, and as a curator of one the first and finest collections of early American material culture, very little work has been completed on Mercer as architect-builder. In Mercer's building projects we see a scientific mind and an artistic maker explore and experiment freely, building a bridge between his seemingly disparate worlds: from the Arts and Crafts-inspired Moravian Pottery he founded, to the archaeologically rigorous collection of pre-industrial tools. Mercer focused with great intensity on implements and evidences of traditional craft activities, and it is his particular sensitivity to the traditions and forms of craft activity that renders his architectural activity unique, and pertinent to the question of innovation in method. At the center of his architectural activities, Mercer's construction notebooks, in which he worked out plans, details, and many of his most unique procedural innovations, illustrate a novel comportment of architect to architectural representation, and offer a story of how the making of architecture is, itself, made.
- Doctoral Dissertations