The Great Hall: Wallace K. Harrison, ArcAttack, and the resuscitation of Architecture

By September 27, 2010blog
The interior of the Great Hall with lightning by ArcAttack, photo by David Grider

The New York Hall of Science’s Great Hall has been closed for years but for those of us Maker Faire attendees who witnessed this weekend’s Tesla-coil performances of ArcAttack, the effect was haunting: suddenly, out of the refined, proper modernist manners and child-oriented design of the institution’s recent additions, this space from another world crackled to life and struck us dumb: here was a great work of Architecture.

Designed by Wallace K. Harrison for the 1964 World’s Fair, its magisterial presentation of blue stained glass owes a debt to Paris’ 750-year-old Sainte Chapelle, and has much in common with the 1961 Chapel by Egon Eiermann at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin.

But the Great Hall’s catechism is Science. Its curved walls are willful, playful, the deliberate venture of a rational mind seeking spatial affects within the limits of the concrete grid construction system. Its interior is outer-space itself, a luminous deep blue curtain flecked with bits of ruby red glass like so many planets. It is a far-out, space-age geode that is puzzling at the exterior and jaw-dropping beautiful inside.

And animated by the live wire sounds of ArcAttack it fulfilled the highest sensory aspirations: a concert of pure abstraction, of deep physical and aural quality, thickly layered sounds heard and felt as the lightning crazed against the deep blue backdrop, a unity of space, sound, light and theme as inspired as Bach in Reims.

The present institution’s well-intentioned additions and exhibits are sorely missing the messy heart of science: a sense of Wonder. ArcAttack’s 1/2 million volts just restored its pulse; lets hope they keep it alive by keeping the Great Hall open!

The interior of the Great Hall with lightning by ArcAttack, photo by David GriderThe interior of the Great Hall with lightning by ArcAttack, photo by David Grider

Detail of colored glass, photo by David GriderDetail of colored glass, photo by David Grider

The Plan of the Great Hall showing the undulating walls atop a hexagonal baseThe Plan of the Great Hall showing the undulating walls atop a hexagonal base