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Equilibrium as Improvement

Catherine Bonier

Benjamin H. Latrobe, “Plan and Section of the Basin Wall and Coffer Dam,” in Designs of Buildings Erected in the Year 1799, in Philadelphia, by Benj. Henry Latrobe, Archt. & Engineer (1801) / Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Bonier, C., “Equilibrium as Improvement”
Society of Architectural Historians 66th Annual Conference / Buffalo, New York, April 2013

Benjamin H. Latrobe’s Philadelphia waterworks of 1801 embodies a foundational American approach to improvement: the  integration between the architectural construction of public space and the infrastructural production of public health. In response to devastating epidemics, Latrobe used the newest mechanical means to create an active and universal system designed to recalibrate the city, establishing a new balance between commerce and nature. The waterworks was the center of Latrobe’s innovative system of hydrological civic improvements: a sixty foot high marble rotunda housing a steam engine and reservoir, which fed the city from its center through a grid network of wooden pipes. The grounds surrounding the central infrastructure were designed as a site for peaceful recreation, and the steam engine became a beacon for civic gatherings.

Latrobe’s engineered vision of urban inflammation cooled by an architecturally ornamented municipal system can be read as a transition between pre-modern and Enlightenment ideas about health and cities and the large-scale infrastructural interventions of the later 19th century. Latrobe utilized modern engineering techniques to remedy insalubrity within a Hippocratean framework: health was understood as arising from the particular constitution of airs, waters, and places. Salubrity, whether of body, ground, or republic, was a matter of equilibrium. I maintain that the waterworks operated analagously to Dr. Benjamin Rush’s purgative medical protocols which balanced the body’s inflammation by baths, teas, and bleeding. Latrobe’s system can also be read as a Jeffersonian democratic improvement. The waterworks treated the disease-ridden commercial congestion at the Delaware River by mobilizing the pure pastoral waters of the Schuylkill River via William Penn’s ideal grid. Latrobe’s hydrological design links the ideas of Jefferson and Rush to a Hippocratean notion of disease arising from place. American improvements through the next two hundred years would similarly propose to regain equilibrium by changing the nature of place through universally-applied engineered means.


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