The Atheneum, located near the banks of the Wabash River at the edge of New Harmony, is the starting point for the tour of the historic town, and is intended to serve as a center for visitor orientation and cultural community events. Its architecture is conceived in terms of the linked ideas of architectural promenade and historical journey of one of America’s most significant utopian communities. The ideal vision of the relationship between habitation and social life exists in the restored architecture of New Harmony.
Visitors arriving by boat land on a path that leads through a field to the building. A three-story plane set at a forty-degree angle to the podium acknowledges the point of arrival.
Once the visitor has crossed the threshold, the entry box propels him to the foot of the internal circulation ramp. From here, the pedestrian circulation through the building is a continuous experience, of which the interior ramp is chief mediator and armature. As the ramp winds upward from the orthogonal grid and regains the five-degree offset orientation of the path from the river, the entire building is set in motion; the geometry of overlaid grids inducing a sense of spatial compression at certain points, tension at others, with grids almost colliding. This collision resonates throughout the complex interior as the ramp, illuminated by light from above, resolves the two grids in plan and section.
Upon reaching the exhibition space on the third level, the visitor can look back on the route he has traveled, through staggered interior slots and windows framing the essential spaces, as well as forward to what is to come. Framed views to the exterior allow controlled glimpses and anticipations of the town and the landscape.
At the uppermost roof terrace, the visitor finds himself confronted with the town. This small space affords a panoramic vista like that from the prow of a ship. Visitors descend by way of a second ramp – this one elongated and stepped, an uncoiled version of the interior one – leading out of the building and into New Harmony itself.