I 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.
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.
I think this show is better than it might seem on superficial first glance. Richard Ross’s photographs of institutional spaces include interrogation rooms, prisons and execution chambers. But also high-school corridors, hotel phone booths and religious spaces. If you take these connections too seriously, it seems like Ross is making silly, agit-prop connections. But if you stand back and allow the show some irony space, it begins to make distinctions that are much more interesting. The show, Architecture of Authority, first appeared in New York and is now in Washington, DC, at the National Building Museum. And as most things at the NBM, it’s worth some attention. My review is here.