Category Archives: Architecture

Do we need it?

800px-District_of_Columbia_War_MemorialThat is the common question behind two recent pieces I wrote for The Washington Post. Do we need a national World War One memorial, and do we need a new stadium for the offensively named NFL team, the Washington Redskins? In an age of environmental crisis and grave economic inequality, it is the most basic and fundamental question architects should consider. There will always be a valid argument for building things that are simply beautiful and inspiring, and have no other purpose than to channel emotions and bring delight. But today, the bar is much higher for building things that don’t directly serve a need, that don’t improve lives and contribute to the sustainability of the man-made environment.

As I argue here, Washington is already full of World War One memorials, as is the rest of the country. Bringing the “forgotten war” into what one supporter of the new memorial calls the “modern practice of war memorialization” simply isn’t necessary. Let’s not forget the merits of the way we “remembered” things a century ago, and above all, let’s be skeptical about the very idea of national memory:

We use such words as memory and memorial and remembrance too casually. Of course, no one “remembers” the First World War anymore, at least not in the visceral, personal sense of those who lived through it. And there is no such thing as a collective memory of anything. Rather, there is rhetoric, history and mythology, which memorials attempt to fix in some kind of permanent form, beyond emendation or contradiction. At a local level, this effort to forge a historical sense of events is to some degree constrained by actual memory, by the memory of survivors, and by children and grandchildren. At the national level, it devolves into a meaningless language of heroism, valor and sacrifice, often in service to a larger and menacing nationalism.

The commission designated to organize and build the new memorial estimates the cost to be between $21 and $25 million dollars. That is negligible compared to the cost of a new football stadium. Price-tag estimates for recent NFL stadiums run in the $1.3 to $1.6 billion range. So rebuilding stadiums every 20 years is an obscene waste of resources–especially when franchise owners squeeze much of that money from municipalities. So what does one make of a seemingly progressive architecture firm that decides to take on an NFL team as a client? I am deeply skeptical.

Architects aren’t saints. They serve power, and always have. And BIG has served some shady patrons in the past. Different firms negotiate the ethical challenges of serving the corrupt and cruel differently. Some see themselves as merely providers of a technical service and don’t claim any particular ethical high ground. Too many overestimate their own powers, and they assuage any concerns about the client with the moral fable that someone has to build the building, so better that it be built right.

People become impassioned about memorials, which offer a rare but powerful opportunity for everyone to think about the connection between design and cultural politics. But let me gauge my dislike of these two different cases of unnecessary building. I think it’s a mistake to create a new national memorial to World War One; but I think it’s an outrage that we tolerate the egregious upward wealth redistribution, moral obliviousness and environmental destruction baked into every billion-dollar NFL stadium project.

Images: The Washington D.C. memorial to World War One, By 350z33 at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

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Filed under Architecture, Culture, Memorials, Uncategorized

BIG transforms the National Building Museum

NBM Interior_Great HallI was skeptical of some of what the Smithsonian proposes to do to its campus near the Castle on the National Mall. Over the fifteen years I’ve lived in Washington, I’ve watched gardens grow along the Mall, and watched how people flock to those gardens. The Mall is good for framing views of the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, and it is an historically and symbolically powerful place to gather and address the seat of national power. But it is an oppressively rationalized landscape, and the emergence of small gardens at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Botanical Garden and the Bartholdi Fountain has begun to humanize the Mall. That’s why I so strongly support the Frank Gehry design for the Eisenhower Memorial, the core of which is another park-like space with a human scale, yet another possible escape from the barren reaches of the Mall. And that’s why I’m skeptical of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) design unveiled by the Smithsonian last November. It would disrupt this trend toward smaller, secluded and contemplative spaces along the Mall for something more connected, “vibrant,” and open.

But the exhibition designed by BIG that opened at the National Building Museum on Saturday offers encouraging insight into the firm’s thinking. For the first time, an installation has been designed that actually engages with the monumental architecture of the Pension Building. And it also makes a strong case for the intellectual seriousness and adaptability of the firm’s design process. I recommend it highly in tomorrow’s Washington Post. And I feel a little better about how the Smithsonian project may turn out.

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Filed under Architecture, Culture, Exhibitions, Museums, Uncategorized

Vernacular Urbanism?

     Vernacular, in an academic or art-speak context, is a word worthy of healthy suspicion. It is used to designate populist styles, to suggest a common language that bubbles up from below rather than a discourse dictated from on high. It’s generally freighted with ideas about authenticity: vernacular styles are authentically of the people, while hierarchical or received styles are illegitimate impositions from cultural authorities. A vernacular urban design is way cool, kind of anarchic, funky, eclectic and free; as opposed to older ideas that are associated with disreputable forms of cultural or social authority. Here’s a classic usage in the catalog to a great new show (originally from the Getty in Los Angeles) at the National Building Museum:

 [Reyner] Banham upended this old-world notion of what defined true urbanity, arguing for Los Angeles’s inclusion within the canon of great cities by virtue of its democratic brand of urbanism, which rejected orthodox urban hierarchies in favor of a sprawling vernacular landscape that upheld the values of an affluent consumer society…”

 It’s worth stopping every time you see the word and asking yourself: Is the thing that is supposedly vernacular really functioning like a language? Is there a real give and take of communication? I tried to do that in my review of the fascinating and ambitious “Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future 1940-1990” exhibition. Thus:

 Calling the sprawl of cheap suburban cookie-cutter houses and trashy commercial signage a “new vernacular” misuses the term vernacular, suggesting that this was a language involving genuine back-and-forth communication. It wasn’t a language at all, or even an architectural style; rather, it was a jumble of commercially dictated architectural styles aimed at gaining and holding consumer attention. Mostly people adapted to it. If they now embrace it, it’s because it feels familiar and they have few other options.

That’s no reason not to see the show. But better to give L.A. it’s due as a great city despite its failures of urbanism, rather than attempt to elevate sprawl to something like an admirable, democratic vernacular. Ugly is ugly, and environmentally unsound, too.

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Filed under Architecture, Culture, Exhibitions, Museums, Preservation, urban design

Fit for a Tsar

    When I visited St. Petersburg last May, the Mariinsky 2 was still a work zone. Now it’s open. The new building is undistinguished and even quite ugly from the outside. I haven’t seen the inside yet. But I did write about the controversy over its site, cost and design in this month’s issue of Opera News. A chance to look at the deep authoritarian habits of mind that still rule so much of Russian culture.

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Filed under Architecture, Music, Opera, Preservation, urban design

Frozen music, unheard too

Dwell magazine has posted a story I wrote about a new house in Seoul, designed by the magnificent architect Steven Holl, who was recently chosen to reconfigure parts of the Kennedy Center campus. Holl was looking through a book called Notations, a compendium of contemporary music edited by the composer John Cage. Struck by the unique graphic design of Istvan Anhalt’s 1967 Symphony of Modules, Holl used Anhalt’s score as inspiration for the new Daeyang House and Gallery. Anhalt’s score, one of those everything-and-kitchen-sink beasts that composers loved to write in the 1960s, has never been performed. But the composer’s widow was pleased to see her husband’s work memorialized in Holl’s design, and sent the architect a note saying so. In my article I look at the unique design, its inspiration, and the complicated question of how, or if, music and architecture are related.

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April 13, 2013 · 8:12 am

Liking the Bubble

An article by Kriston Capps in the City Paper sets up the next few months as critical for the fate of the Bloomberg Bubble, the proposed temporary inflatable event space for the Hirshhorn. I like the bubble, and explain why on the Post Style  Blog.

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Filed under Architecture, Art, Museums

At the Aspen Ideas Festival

Last week, I spent two and a half very pleasant days at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual meeting of intellectual leaders from around the planet, with a focus this year on China. I moderated two panels, one on telling stories through film, another on re-imagining public space. I wrote up a few thoughts  I brought home from my time there at the Post’s The Style Blog.

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Filed under Architecture, Culture, Documentary, film, Museums, urban design