Architecture of the Stars – Part II
Posted on August 24, 2018
“I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happy, cleaner, and finer city. I wish to pay my debt of duty in this way to the community in which I have prospered.” – Griffith J. Griffith
As Albert Einstein kept his eye on the stars at Yerkes, the rest of the world turned its gaze to Hollywood and the hills above the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California. Built on land originally owned by Griffith J. Griffith, the observatory was completed in 1935 and it is one of the few public museums that still offer free admission. Though he passed away in 1919, G.J. Griffith funded the construction of the observatory before giving it to the city upon its completion.
Griffith was born in Wales but as a teenager came to California – where he worked as a journalist and mining advisor before investing in Mexican silver mines. His speculation earned him a fortune which he used to purchase the remaining land grant of Rancho Los Felis in the hills overlooking the city in 1882. After a tour abroad, Griffith’s admiration of city parks in Europe inspired him to purchase and groom the property as a future gift to Los Angeles.
Upon Griffith’s return, he visited the astronomical section of the Southern California Academy of Sciences reguarly. His fascination with the stars grew as he spent more and more of his time in the observatory established on Mount Wilson. Thus the idea of donating the remaining Rancho Los Feliz land to the city with the intent of constructing an observatory, hall of science exhibits, and a motion picture screen was born. Unfortunately, he did not live to see his dream realized. Griffith passed away on July 6th, 1919 but his will and trust instructed his successors to begin the project in 1933.
Renowned architects, astronomers, and scientists contributed to the design of the observatory. Men such as George Ellery Hale, who had overseen the construction of the Yerkes observatory and its telescope, worked alongside scientists Edward Kurth and Russell Porter “the Patron Saint of Telescopes,” to accurately design the new telescope and overall capabilities. Architects John C. Austin and Frederick M. Ashley were chosen by the Los Angeles Park Commission to design the building itself.
Though they originally planned to include a motion picture cinema, the planetarium was invented four years after Griffith’s death, and the one at Griffith Observatory was the third completed in the United States. By 1935, the facility was completed and the park was soon open to the public.
More than two hundred years prior to the Griffith Observatory’s construction, Francesco Bianchini completed a meridian line in the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. Originally a part of the ancient Baths of Diocletian, the basilica was adapted into a church by Michelangelo Buonarotti in the mid-1500s. The church, with its large, arched, south-facing windows and steady ancient foundation walls was an exceptional location for a sun chart. The pope at the time, Clement XI, wanted to confirm the accuracy of the church calendar and particularly the date of Easter. It was also meant to equal the meridian which had been built at the cathedral in the rival city of Bologna.
The meridian line itself is a bronze bar inlaid in white marble. A ray of light is focused through a lense mounted in the walls of the church every day at solar noon. The light shines onto the bronze bar tracking the summer and winter solstices, their respective equinoxes, and the church calendar. In addition to following the sun, Bianchini included other pinholes placed to track primary stars such as Polaris, Arcturus, and Sirius. These lenses are still operational to this day.
But our fascination with stars doesn’t simply lie in the constellations. In fact, the most important star of all, at the center of our solar system, is the sun. In the Spanish Mission church constructed centuries ago in the United States, we see it used to convey meaning through architecture and its interaction with light.
Perhaps the finest example is Mission Concepción, also known as Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción or Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, was built by Franciscan friars nearly 300 years ago. It is the best preserved of the Spanish Mission churches in San Antonio, Texas.
Recently on August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, two rays of light from separate windows illuminated two important areas along the main axis of the church as they do every year.
One ray of sunlight through the circular window above the main entry lights the central crossing in front of the altar. Another beam of light, from a window in the dome, illuminates the back wall at the center point of the sanctuary arch where an image of the Virgin Mary is now enframed.
The architecture of the church and its interaction with the sun’s rays emphasizes this simple moment as the image of Mary over the main altar is framed by light in a mission dedicated to her on her feast day.
The consequence of timing and circumstance is not lost on me while writing about celestial movements. While we often attempt to predict nature on both the personal and cosmic scales, I myself am still continually surprised by it. Following that evening on the porch with my friend it stormed the entire night and drizzled most of the following morning. However, unlike the intentional crowning of Mary with light or the linear mapping of the sun’s progress in Rome, few could have predicted the sudden clear skies that arrived just before his outdoor wedding that afternoon. Men like Griffith teach us the importance of learning about things larger than ourselves–like the stars and planets–and then sharing that knowledge for our own improvement as individuals and as a society.