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.
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.
When the creators of the original main exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum were gathering artifacts in Eastern Europe, much of the material was acquired on a long-term loan basis. Several of those involved in the negotiations say they believed those loans were essentially permanent. But in the case of material gathered in Poland, it turns out the loans were for twenty years and the museum must now renegotiate them. In many cases, that means material must be returned to Poland, and sometimes replaced with similar or equivalent pieces. But what to do about the barracks from Auschwitz, which is a major part of the museum’s “experience”-based exhibition? How can it be returned? And replaced with what? The problem is now vexing the museum, as I report in a piece in today’s The Washington Post. Near the end, I ask the obvious question: Why are the Poles enforcing the legal details? Is it a symptom of yet more Polish discomfort with their awkward historical relationship to the Holocaust? Or, perhaps, something else:
The Polish insistence on the return may also reflect an evolution of its relationship to the past. Museum officials say that Polish conservation and stewardship of Holocaust sites and material have never been better.
The Poles may simply be adhering to what they view as their legitimate conservation obligations.
Warren Rosenblum, a professor of history at Webster University who studies the Holocaust, said there has been “a cultural awakening” in regard to the Holocaust in Poland, including more openness and professionalism in how the country deals with the subject and the material remnants of the genocide. But with that comes “a new kind of self-assertion and pride,” he said, and the sense that Poles want to “be in charge of this history, take ownership of it, be true to this legacy.”
The Supreme Court has decided that you may no longer enter through its grand front portal, the essential feature of architect Cass Gilbert’s design. This is an extraordinarily bad idea, bad for the building, bad for Washington and bad for the country. I called for a line in the sand against this kind of security paranoia in today’s Washington Post, and outlined some of the grave consequences for the Court’s prestige.
This is not an architectural, aesthetic or security decision, isolated from the court’s larger function. The justices have called into question their own ability to rule impartially on cases that balance security concerns with constitutionally guaranteed liberties. The justices, with Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissenting, have made their priorities known, as clearly as if they had they had sold naming rights to the Great Hall to the highest corporate bidder. They stand on the side of security — a regime of absolute and irrevocable decisions often made by unelected officials and not subject to any meaningful public appeal. Beauty, architecture and the need for a democratic people to experience inspiring symbolic public space weigh lightly, if at all, in the scales.
There are unexamined pieties to Washington urban design thinking that continue to hold the city back. Last Sunday, I used my Washington Post column to examine one of the most sacred of these: The fetish for the 1901 McMillan plan, which assumes the National Mall is sacred space and must remain inviolate for ever and ever. Today, I take on the arguments of some historic preservationists who want to hold the District to the letter of an 1889 law that forbids overhead streetcar wires. What’s so ugly about streetcar wires? Done right, they can become an important advertisement for the city’s progressive move toward better and more environmentally friendly mass transit. And by the way: If you believe Washington is a city filled with spectacular vistas down wide open streets, try standing in the middle of East Capitol Street and look to the Capitol. What do you see? Trees. Beautiful trees. That’s what we need to focus on preserving.
Kirk Savage’s Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape, an excellent new history of Washington memorial culture, changed my thinking about the National Mall. I’m afraid I have all too often allowed myself to think of the Mall as sacred space, inviolate and, in a phrase made popular by its most ardent defenders, “a substantially completed work of civic art.” If you suffer from some of this kind of lazy thinking, Savage’s very fine book will help you undo sloppy habits. His history traces not just the physical transformation of the Mall over the last two hundred years, but the philosophical shift from thinking in terms of public grounds to public space that explains how it came to look the way it does today. I reviewed the book for the New Republic’s handsome online book review.
You might easily drive by the little train station near the entrance to James Madison’s Montepelier estate. It is vernacular architecture, built in 1910, to serve the wealthy then-owners of Montpelier, the duPont family. But its restoration, part of Montpelier’s ongoing development of the Madison site, has returned it to its Jim Crow layout, with separate waiting rooms for “colored” and “white” people. That’s a daring move, and an effective one. One must see the obscenity to know its full impact. How odd and tragic that a space which might have been larger and more open and filled with more light was subdivided, to the shame of one group, the insult of another and the inconvenience of both. I wrote about it in Sunday’s The Washington Post and I encourage everyone in striking distance of Orange, VA to pay it a visit. And take in the main Madison house as well, which is looking splendid after the removal of the Pepto-Bismol colored encrustation of the duPont era.
Image by John Strader, courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation
I’m personally allergic to historical reenactments and most forms of interactive history telling. I think all too many museums and historical sites grasp at straws, technically and aesthetically, when they try to recreate the way history is told. But I acknowledge the problem of falling attendance, reduced engagement and the side effects for the history business of living in an over-entertained, over-stimulated, over-busy society.
The comparison between the newspaper business and the history business is telling. Even the attendance figures at a place like Colonial Williamsburg are eerily familiar to the subscription numbers of major newspapers. They peaked at an annual high of 1 million in the 1980s, and have dwindled to about 700,000 recently, a downward curve remarkably similar to that of a large metropolitan daily. Who have they lost? Essentially the same people that newspapers are losing. And on what do they pin their hopes? In many cases it’s technological innovation that is just emerging but has yet to reveal its real impact (subscriptions on Kindle? iPhone aps that turn the museum into an enhanced reality zone?).
I spent a lovely day at Williamsburg earlier this month, and wrote up some the changes that are happening there, in the guise of a story about their most recent addition (the first major reconstruction in more than fifty years) to the storied Duke of Gloucester Street. Williamsburg has the deep pockets to think this through, so their innovations will be closely studied by many less well-endowed museums. I wish them luck.
Richard Moe, for 17 years the head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, announced his plans for retirement today. He’s had some stunning victories since he came to the Trust in 1992-93, including a famous battle against the Walt Disney Company’s plans to build a theme park near some of the most historically hallowed ground on the East Coast. Moe also helped build the Trust into a more powerful, more flexible, more nationally connected organization. I’ve had lunch with him twice, and it was immediately clear that he is endowed with the kind of intelligence and charisma that makes Washington (sometimes) a fabulous place to do power. Here’s my story (with a dramatic recap of the Battle Against the Mouse), which I endeavored to not sound like an obit.