Written and contributed by Catesby Leigh, December 2008
Three major developments in and around the nation’s capital highlighted civic art’s sadly debased condition in the latter part of 2008. These developments go a long way towards explaining why the National Civic Art Society exists.
PENTAGON MEMORIAL COMPETITION DESIGN, 2002 DINO MARCANTONIO
We begin at the Pentagon. Driving by the now-reconstructed façade demolished by American Airlines Flight 77, a perplexing landscape confronts the motorist: scores of cantilevered benches in a gravel landscape. They are arrayed in rows with varying numbers of benches, some benches pointed towards the Pentagon façade, others in the opposite direction, each perched over its own miniature pool of water like a surreal diving board. What is this? Some sort of avant-garde parking lot?
No, believe it or not, it’s a memorial — a memorial dedicated on the seventh anniversary of 9/11. Each of the 184 benches represents a victim who was either on the ill-fated jetliner or inside the Pentagon, while the rows correspond to the sundry years of the victims’ births. So this memorial doesn’t really look like a memorial, but that’s what it is. And a high-maintenance memorial it will be, too — and quite possibly a rather short-lived one, what with the complicated water feature. “Even on opening night, the small pools were filling with gravel,” the Washington Post’s sympathetic architecture critic reported.
In sum, the Pentagon Memorial is a fiasco. And the Pentagon was stuck with this fiasco because an Army Corps of Engineers landscape architect picked a design competition jury packed with conceptualist types who are allergic to the contemporary practice of traditional design — or, to put it another way, allergic to common sense. Sensible memorial designs, like the monumental cenotaph submitted by Dino Marcantonio, never stood a chance.
Increasingly, memorial design has become the province of confused theoreticians who haven’t grasped the elementary fact that the esthetic and emotional returns on reinventing the wheel are extremely meager. Such theoreticians have been stuck in the same rut for the last 25 years, always looking for the next Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. The result, as the Pentagon Memorial reminds us — and as the 9/11 memorials at Ground Zero and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, will in due course remind us yet again — has been one exercise in anti-monumental dysfunction after another.
MARTIN LUTHER KING MEMORIAL
On to Case #2: The week after the Pentagon Memorial’s dedication, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts approved the design of the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial, to be situated on the rim of the Tidal Basin. Fine Arts, in case you didn’t know, is the nearly century-old review board entrusted with making sure that architectural and commemorative developments in Washington’s monumental core build on its artistic heritage instead of detracting from it. Alas, that could come as a surprise given the way the commission handled the King memorial’s centerpiece. This is a huge stone mass, over 28 feet in height, with a sculpted relief of Dr. King by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin. Photographs of the sculptor’s model suggest a deeply problematic portrait, rendered in a crude style worthy, as a commissioner averred, of Nicolae Ceaucescu or Saddam Hussein. The Society weighed in witha letter to the commission providing a detailed account of the evident defects in the sculptor’s technique.
And yet Fine Arts did not even require Lei to erect a full-scale replica of the King relief at the memorial site. This is standard practice. As Michael Richman recounts in Daniel Chester French: An American Sculptor, a full-scale plaster cast of French’s Lincoln was shipped down from his New York City studio for erection in the Lincoln Memorial. It was judged too small for its setting — not the likely outcome in the present case, in which the sculptor has mistaken gargantuan size for monumentality. Quite apart from the question of his artistic qualifications, then, if Lei was not going to offer a cast for such inspection, he never should have been allowed to proceed with this project.
The Fine Arts commissioners might have asked themselves whether Dr. King’s memory will be well served by this neglect of due process.
Finally, we come to the $621 million Capitol Visitor Center, which was inaugurated on December 2. The CVC fundamentally alters, and much for the worse, the way Americans will experience their most important civic building, the United States Capitol. They will now approach their Capitol not by way of a magnificent flight of steps, but by way of a vast subterranean infotainment zone including a multi-media, interactive gallery, as well as a 530-seat cafeteria, a pair of “orientation” theaters, and two gift shops. (Nearly one-third of the CVC’s 580,000 square feet has been set aside for Congressional facilities.)
The approaches and entrances to the CVC, not to mention a conspicuously ill-designed pair of elevator pavilions, seriously disrupt Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1874 landscape treatment of the Capitol’s east front. Inside, the architectural design — especially in the 20,000-square-foot Emancipation Hall — amounts to modernized pseudo-classical schlock.
The far sounder solution to the problem of creating a secure new public entrance and waiting facility — without the superfluous high-tech museum and cafeteria — would have been to adopt Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s monumental 1811 design for a propylaea, or gateway, on the Capitol’s west front, facing the Mall. Elegant though they are, Olmsted’s terraces, and Bullfinch’s portico above them, are not calibrated to the Mall’s huge scale. But only the terraces, not the portico, would have been supplanted by the addition of a gateway complex such as Latrobe proposed.
Needless to say, the subterranean approach reflects a lack of cultural confidence in our ability to make a worthy addition to a great building like the Capitol. The visitor center’s design thus treats our premier temple of democracy like the exquisite fossil of some extinct primeval species, rather than the expression of a living tradition in humanistic design that exists to accommodate changing social needs in an esthetically and symbolically satisfying way.
What we’re witnessing, in Washington and in countless cities, towns, and suburbs across the land, is not just the breakdown of standards, but the consequences of the collapse of a whole dimension within our culture — the dimension comprised by the arts of form, meaning architecture and its allied arts. This nation presently does not have a civic-art culture worthy of the name. But it does have a tradition, a classically-oriented tradition, that has been suppressed by misguided élites since the 1930s. The main result of this suppression has been an unprecedented epidemic of banality and ugliness.
To secure higher returns on creative effort, our civic art needs some stable default settings. These only tradition can provide, and they should serve to raise the bar on a range of stylistic approaches without negating the possibility of the occasional conceptualist success — which is what the Vietnam wall is, and what the Pentagon Memorial is not. The Federal government is the world’s foremost patron of art and architecture. Extracting more long-term value from its patronage — whether from the esthetic and symbolic resonance of Federal courthouse buildings, say, or even their structural performance — is a matter of legitimate public concern. More importantly, improving Federal patronage and design review means improving American culture, from sea to shining sea. This is the strategic effort to which the National Civic Art Society is committed.
Catesby Leigh is a co-founder and chairman emeritus of the National Civic Art Society.