Category Archives: Security

The Rant

The Washington Post arts section  initiated a new feature this week, which the editors are calling “the rant.” It’s meant to be a short, impassioned act of criticism that focuses on something that needs to change in world of the arts or the general aesthetic landscape. I wrote the first one, a brief reminder that the security regime of Washington, D.C. has gone overboard, removing from public access important vistas and places that are essential to the symbolic design of the nation’s capital.

Unfortunately, it’s very hard to find online. First, go the The Washington Post website, then click on the “Lifestyle” banner on the top of the web page. Next, click on the “Style” button (it’s in gray and pretty hard to see). Now scroll down the page and look for a small arrow button that says “More Style Stories.” Then scroll down that page and look for the headline:  “The Rant: Security Mania takes away Monumental View.”

Or just use this link.

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Losing the Pearl

The Pearl Statue, better known in Bahrain as the Lulu, was long gone by the time I got there in mid-April. The roundabout where it once stood, and where tens of thousands of protesters gathered to call for democratic reform from Bahrain’s authoritarian government, was a construction site. Red-and-white traffic barriers kept cars away. Taxi drivers refused to go near it. And heavy equipment churned through the old concrete and asphalt, reducing the squared to a dusty, empty field of debris.

When I heard that the Sunni-dominated government had torn down the statue which had become the centerpiece of the demonstrations by the largely Shiite opposition,  I was fascinated. There’s something very Hausmann-esque about destroying your own cityscape in the name of civic order. And something surreal about a decidedly ugly statue, with the bland, modernism beloved by police states, somehow becoming a genuine symbol. I look at the phenomenon in a story that ran in today’s Washington Post.

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The National Park Service “Workshop”

“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.

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Palladio at the National Building Museum

Andrea Palladio was a worthy architect but, please, there were others. So many exhibitions that focus on the American expression of European antecedents take those antecedents as almost God given, as if by divine providence we were blessed to fall under this particular influence rather than any other. Palladio falls into that category. Or as I put in my Washington Post piece today:

History, of course, might have taken a different path. Reading Palladio’s predecessor, Sebastiano Serlio, is a lot more fun and gives you a much better and richer sense of the architectural possibilities of the Renaissance. And architecture before and after Palladio had a grace (in the works of Brunelleschi and Bramante) and whimsy (the splendors of the baroque) that is kept muted in the anal-retentive purity of Palladio’s style.

No matter. The English, and eventually the Americans, were besotted with Palladio and now we live in his world.

Make no mistake, though. I do love Palladio. Just not as much as I’m told I should.

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Which security plan? None of the above.

The Washington Post has a new arts blog, to which I contribute from time to time. This past week, I floated the idea that perhaps it’s not worth spending millions of dollars, and diminishing the beauty of the Jefferson Memorial just to create a car-bomb safety perimeter. I don’t think it’s a radical idea. And I’m quite certain I’m a minority of one, at least in this town.

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