Henry Mercer’s Fonthill Castle, Doylestown, PA (photo by Jared Kofsky used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).
I previously mentioned how central the idiosyncratic work of Henry Chapman Mercer was to Bill Kleinsasser’s conception of richly developed buildings and places. During my studies under Bill, I considered Fonthill, the Mercer Museum, and Mercer’s Tileworks to be ugly and unworthy of his extensive attention; however, since then I have come to understand what Bill appreciated about these curious buildings. Bill repeatedly cited Mercer’s eccentric designs to illustrate his lectures about response to place, historical continuity, and—most intriguingly—the construction of mental maps in the process of comprehending the places we experience.
The following excerpt from the 1981 iteration of Bill’s self-published textbook, Synthesis, speaks to Mercer’s highly personal and unaffected approach to design and construction. There’s little doubt in my mind that a vivid frame is vastly superior to a mute and impoverished one.
The constructional framework that forms the spaces of buildings and places is a permanent, all-encompassing, pervasive setting. As such, it influences all that takes place there. It may be vivid or it may be dull and confused.
In Mercer’s buildings, construction is revealed by surface marking, irregularity, and evidence of spontaneity. There are many anecdotal expressions of the building process. In colored tile on a ceiling in Fonthill are the names of all the construction workmen and the jobs they did (including “Lucy,” the horse “who uplifted” the concrete). Cast into the concrete of two stairways are the footprints of his dogs, Rollo and Larry, who were with him daily during the work. Still visible in the concrete are traces of experiments, innovations, and mistakes. High on the west wall of the Museum is Mercer’s right hand-print, cast in the concrete (studies of symbolism state that the right hand represents the rational, the conscious, the virile signification of action, husbandry, and manifestation). These silent expressions combine to recall vividly the human involvement in the work: the ideas, the difficulties, the occasions, the joys.
Mercer’s buildings are full of invitations to feel and to imagine. Surfaces are varied and rich, yet subtle, soft in appearance, and quiet. Light is generous and varied, yet controlled. Colors are abundant and of clear hue, but always low in value and warm, and never garish or glaring. Elements are powerful, yet capable of dissolving out of the way. Spaces are clear, yet often ambiguous and always complex.
In Mercer’s buildings each stairway and corridor and entryway is unique. Each window and room embodies and expresses its positional uniqueness and function. Each tile is handmade and tells a different story. Each fireplace is special in shape and proportion.
Mercer’s buildings are full of evidence of his day-to-day development of ideas and responses, and as they make “an occasion of every place,” as the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck would put it, they tell of an exuberance and caring that is very rare.