Located near the banks of the Wabash River at the edge of New Harmony, one of America’s most historically significant utopian communities, the Atheneum is the starting point for the tour of the historic town. It is intended to serve as both a center for visitor orientation and a site for community cultural events, with its architecture conceived in terms of the linked ideas of an architectural promenade and a historical journey.
Visitors approach the building along a path leading through a field. Once they cross the threshold, their circulation through the building is a continuous experience, mediated by the design of a complex interior ramp. At the ramp’s culmination on the uppermost roof terrace, visitors find themselves confronted with the town below. This small space affords a panoramic vista like that from the prow of a ship. Visitors then descend by way of a second ramp—this one elongated and stepped, an uncoiled version of the first one—leading out of the building and into New Harmony itself. The heart of the Atheneum is the internal ramp, which ensures that visitors’ circulation throughout the building is a continuous experience. As the ramp winds upward from the orthogonal grid of the ground floor plan, the entire building is set in motion; the geometry of overlaid grids induces a sense of spatial compression at certain points and spatial tension at others. Throughout, the ramp is illuminated by light from above, with staggered interior slots framing the essential spaces within the building and windows offering glimpses of the historic town and the landscape beyond. This timeless design has been recognized by the AIA’s 25-year Honor Award.