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.
Category Archives: urban design
I was elated when it was announced the Corcoran wouldn’t be leaving its historic home on 17th Street NW. But still, what does it say about the institution that they even considered the idea? With the recent announcement that the Corcoran will seek some kind of partnership or alliance with the University of Maryland, there’s an understandable sense of skepticism about how that will play out. In this Sunday’s The Washington Post, I talk to several people who will be deeply involved in the project. And I come away with a tiny glimmer of hope, so long as the Corcoran opens up the process and allows full transparency as it goes forward.
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.
The Eisenhower grandchildren gave their official response to the latest round of design changes to the proposed Eisenhower Memorial, which came from Frank Gehry’s office earlier this month. It’s distressing to see Interior Secretary Ken Salazar call for slowing the process down, which is exactly what the Eisenhower family wants. It’s distressing to see the Obama administration put the 34th President’s grandchildren in the position of vetoing the work of one of this country’s greatest architects. But the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, and Gehry, have been very gentlemanly about this process, rising above Susan Eisenhower’s invocation of Hitler’s death camps and Stalinist design in an effort to tarnish Gehry’s work. And they are once again attempting to address the family’s concerns and move the process forward. That probably sets a bad precedent in the future for empowering distant family members to determine the shape of what should be public monuments and memorials. But it is the well-mannered thing to do and is no doubt the politically expedient course of action. We’ll see if it works.
Credit: Image courtesy of Gehry Parterns, LLP, May 2012
What a difference a week makes. On March 20, at a Congressional hearing, it looked as if the controversy whipped up by Susan and Anne Eisenhower, and further fueled by the dogged work of a small anti-Gehry group (the National Civic Art Society, which is pretty much anti-everything of or derived from the modernist tradition) might seriously caused headaches for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. The commission’s executive director conceded during the question period that there was not “consensus” among the commissioners, who once numbered David Eisenhower among their members, until his enigmatic resignation in December last year. A week later and the commission has come to consensus again. They stand firmly behind Gehry and his design, according to a letter released yesterday. I blogged it for the Post’s Style blog.
What changed? I wonder if it was the tone of Susan Eisenhower’s commentary, or the general sense that the memorial’s opponents were throwing everything and the kitchen sink at Gehry. Invoking Marx, Lenin, Engels, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Hitler sounded odd and perhaps a bit unseemly.
I wrote last night’s Doug Aitken review on genuine deadline, the manic, hour-to-file craziness that used to be a regular part of my life when I reviewed classical music. Over-night reviews are great for capturing the buzz of a live event, but I don’t think any reviewer enjoys them. Every logistical detail (will it start on time? can I find a cab? will my internet be on the blink?) becomes a potential nightmare, and you find yourself cursing slow moving crowds, narrow escalators and long stoplights. The deeper problem, however, is you have so little time to think you often feel rushed in your judgment. The problem is particularly acute if you feel ambivalent. If the piece I wrote last night reads as if I want to keep my options open, it’s because I do. I look forward to sitting on the grass some warm evening, with nothing else to do but watch and listen, and take in Aitken’s video in a more relaxed frame of mind.
I was skeptical at first, and for a long time. I still wonder about the enormous columns that will support the tapestry with which Frank Gehry memorializes the life and accomplishments of Dwight D. Eisenhower. But the more you think about it–and I suspect I over think it in this piece–the more brilliant a giant, civic tapestry in the middle of Washington seems. After a test of sample pieces of the metal fabric, many of the people who will ultimately have to approve the memorial design were wowed. And now, with the generation that remembers Ike as a war leader and president getting on in years, there is an urgency to see the memorial finished. There are many reasons to stop building memorials, full-stop, in Washington. But based on design alone, this is one that deserves to be realized.
If you think the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is getting cluttered and needs a major makeover, spend some time at Independence Mall in Philadelphia. It was the product of urban bulldozing in the 1950s, and it still looks it. But one building can make a big difference, which is why I reviewed the newest addition to the Philadelphia cultural scene, the National Museum of Jewish American History. It’s well worth a visit.
“The trouble with socialism is it takes too many evenings.” And the trouble with democracy, as practiced by the National Park Service, is that those evenings aren’t worth the bother.
On Monday I drove out to a dark and inaccessible patch of East Potomac Park to attend the NPS public meeting on the security designs for the Washington Monument. I saw taxis and zip cars pulling up because, of course, there was no access to mass transit. It was rush hour and the bridges were jammed.
But the room was full, and people clearly were passionately engaged with how–and whether–the grounds of the Washington Monument will be redesigned to accommodate a magnetometer screening facility. Much of the official presentation was a perfunctory walk through of the legal parameters for public comment. After architect Hany Hassan spoke the Park Service announced that despite the efforts of several audience members to ask questions and make comments at the microphone, the public was very definitely NOT going to be heard except in what the NPS called a “workshop” format.
And what is an NPS workshop? Do you imagine, say, experienced moderators with flips charts, soliciting, clarifying and recording audience ideas? A report back to the whole meeting at the end, with each group sharing its insights? Dialogue? NPS officials making a list of ideas, repeating them back to the audience in a way that assures people they have been heard? A clear statement of how those ideas will be incorporated and used during the decision-making process? An invitation to a regularly scheduled, accessible next meeting, with a clear agenda for future installments of the “workshop” process?
No. The NPS employees didn’t even bother to take notes–and were, in fact, told not to take notes. There were no formal workshop procedures, and the “groups” they asked the audience to join weren’t even given designated places to sit and engage. Instead, people milled around, then left.
It was a farce. The best you can say of this process is that the NPS is incompetent at public engagement and workshops. But I fear it is much worse than that, the process is designed to thwart any chance of a public back and forth between the audience and the NPS. They didn’t even keep a transcript of the meeting. What’s the point of coming out?
We live in a busy, complicated democracy. People don’t give up two hours of their evening easily unless they are very committed to a cause. If you call a public meeting, then use it to thwart the very reasons that people come out and engage–the right and the opportunity to be heard–you are abusing the public and the public trust. The NPS should be ashamed of this kind of event, and they should change their policies to institute a clear, meaningful and effective platform for true public engagement.
Yes, I got a “wag of the finger” from Stephen Colbert last night. Unfortunately, I was watching “My Fair Lady” at the time and didn’t know about my new pop-culty cred until this morning. But it’s just as good as a rerun web clip. He singled out my review of the Park51 community center for attention. It starts around 3:50.