Architecture is much more than just shelter – it teems with symbolism. One of the first principles I learned in graduate school was the power of a building, and what messages the style, form, and materials convey about the owner or user. During the heady years after World War II, the United States boomed, and an air of optimism and innovation filtered into many facets of everyday life, including design. Paducah, Kentucky, embraced that palpable sense of possibility in 1962, declaring that “A new, well-planned, well-designed city hall will be a symbol of Paducah’s economic resurgence. It will be an indication to citizens and visitors alike that something new is happening in Paducah. The psychological effects of such a new building, having good land-use planning, and architectural design, will be of considerable value in changing Paducah’s image from that of just another Ohio River town to that of a community which has taken hold of its problems and is working toward their solution.”
That is one of the most direct and succinct statements I’ve ever read concerning a building and its intended role and message. Paducah was following the lead of cities across the nation (and across generations) in a cycle of rebuilding and re-branding, using architecture as the tool to shape perception for both citizens and visitors alike. And lofty as those words from 1962 are, Paducah (with the help of some federal funds) carried through with its mission, hiring internationally-known architect Edward Durell Stone to design the new city hall.
Stone, a native of Arkansas, never received a degree (like many other modern architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff) but is widely considered one of the most influential American architects of the 20th century. He was the principal designer of Radio City Music Hall and the 1939 Museum of Modern Art building, his first venture into designing in the tenents of the International style. During the 1950s and 60s, Stone churned out an impressive array of commercial, residential, and public buildings around the world. The 1959 American Embassy Building in New Delhi, India, increased Stone’s popular appeal while drawing the rancor of many in the architecture world.
Does the Embassy building look familiar? The cantilevered overhang, the horizontal emphasis, and the columns – all are elements Stone used in the Paducah City Hall. The patterned concrete screen is one of my favorite feature of the Embassy Building – similar screens showed up on countless suburban homes across America in the mid-20th century. Although the screen minimized India’s sometimes oppressive heat and glare while still allowing light into the building, it was ridiculed by architectural critics.
Paducah’s City Hall merges modern materials with traditional ones, just as the design combines historical elements in a new, modern fashion. Stone covers concrete, and the original lighting plan made the building look like it was floating. Light penetrates the building, eliminating dark hallways and corners, and on the interior, Stone designed a sunken central atrium with a fountain.
But a bold vision of the future is not always the most palatable – and the notion that buildings of the recent past are now considered historic horrifies many people. And just because a building is designed by a world-famous architect doesn’t mean basic maintenance isn’t required or that certain aspects of the construction method, materials, or design may need to be tweaked as a building ages (hello Fallingwater and an untested use of concrete…and a roof with many leaks). Paducah’s grand scheme of the 1960s now appears close to collapse, as the city cites that building is “showing significant signs of its age and limited functionality.”