U.S. Modernist Radio interviewed me for its architecture podcast. I discussed my work at the National Civic Art Society and U.S. Commission of Fine Arts at length. You can listen here.
The National Civic Art Society, along with the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Encounter Books, co-sponsored a panel discussion in celebration of Bruce Cole and his posthumously published book Art from the Swamp: How Washington Bureaucrats Squander Millions on Awful Art. Cole was chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities from 2001 to 2009, and he was a member of NCAS’s Board of Advisors.
In my talk, I discussed the disaster of the Eisenhower Memorial.
Panelists: Roger Kimball, publisher of Encounter Books and editor of The New Criterion
Catesby Leigh, National Civic Art Society Research Fellow
Justin Shubow, President of the National Civic Art Society
Moderator: Ed Whelan, President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center
Date: January 14, 2019
Location: Cosmos Club, Washington, D.C.
In partnership with Rebuild Penn Station: a project of the National Civic Art Society, Agora presented “The Future of Penn Station,” an evening addressing various proposals to fix the station. I moderated the event, which took place on October 24, 2018 at the W83 Ministry Center in New York City.
PANEL OF SPEAKERS
Kevin Baker, contributing editor to Harper’s magazine who is the author of numerous fiction and non-fiction books, including the City of Fire trilogy.
Richard Cameron, a principal designer at Atelier & Co. in Brooklyn.
Wally Rubin, District Manager of Manhattan’s Community Board Five.
Dani Simons, Vice President for Strategic Communications at the Regional Plan Association.
Samuel Turvey, Chairman of the Rebuild Penn Station Steering Committee, and a Regulatory and Compliance attorney at TIAA.
On October 23, 2018, President Trump appointed me to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts for a four-year term. I was sworn into the Commission at its November 15, 2018 meeting.
The Commission of Fine Arts is an independent federal agency consisting of seven presidential appointees who are the aesthetic guardians of Washington, D.C. The Fine Arts Commission has approval authority over the design and height of all buildings (public and private), monuments, and memorials that front or abut the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and White House, Pennsylvania Avenue, the National Mall and its constituent parks, and other similar sites. The Commission also has review authority over the design and aesthetics of all construction within the city.
The Fine Arts Commission was established in 1910 to supervise the design and construction of new buildings in accordance with the 1901-1902 McMillan Plan, which, calling for classical design, created the National Mall and the surrounding monumental core as we know them. The Commission’s first chairman was architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham.
I am continuing as President of the National Civic Art Society while undertaking my role at the Fine Arts Commission, which meets monthly.
On October 30, 2017 in Washington, D.C., I’m going to be speaking at a conference on “Culture and Art in a Populist Age” sponsored by the University of Arizona American Culture and Ideas Initiative and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. I’m going to be the respondent for the presentation by Eric Gibson, editor of the Leisure & Arts page of The Wall Street Journal. To quote the official description:
This one day conference explores the immediate future of the arts within the dynamic and controversial political environment that has emerged in the wake of the 2016 elections. How does the recent strand of populism affect the arts and humanities moving forward? Are the high arts insulated from the vicissitudes of quotidian life? Or does a populist surge speak directly to the arts in a post-Enlightenment era? Conference participants are uniquely suited to address these questions.
Heather MacDonald: “Vandals at the Opera House: Identity Politics Comes to the Opera Stage”
Eric Gibson: “Headwinds on the Road to a Democratic Culture”
Roger Scruton: “Why Taste Matters”
Bruce Cole & Daniel Asia: “Consonance and Dissonance in the Music and Art World”
Robert E. Gordon & Aaron D. Mobley: “The Value of Art and Music in a Popular Culture”
Roman and Williams released the following statement:
In celebration of the new Fitzroy Residences, JDS Development Group and Largo Investments have organized an event to honor the design firm Roman and Williams. In the same spirit of civic pride that motivated the creation of the building, the firm suggested a gift to the National Civic Art Society to mark the occasion.
For Stephen Alesch and Robin Standefer – the principals of Roman and Williams – the National Civic Art Society represents an organized entity that has chosen to stand up against the status quo approach to design in the public realm, fighting the battle to liberate us from the restricting myth that the modernist style is the only acceptable “architectural language of our time,” when many people – including Roman and Williams – express their values and now-ness using a traditional, vernacular and adaptive visual language.
According to NCAS president Justin Shubow, “The National Civic Art Society is proud to be recognized by the distinguished firm of Roman and Williams. Their widely acclaimed work demonstrates that traditional, beautiful architecture is alive and well – and highly desirable. They are rebels in defense of tradition who reconcile past and present in exciting and innovative ways.”
On April 23, 2016, I’m going to be delivering the keynote address at the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art-New England’s 2016 Bulfinch Awards. David Brussat announced the winners, which include Robert A.M. Stern Architects, at his blog.
For more information on the Keynote Lecture, please contact David Andreozzi at (401) 245-6800. For more information on the Reception, Dinner and Awards Ceremony Gala, please contact Sally Wilson at (978) 578-7129.
Foster Reeve & Associates, Inc.| Merritt Woodwork | Openings Millwork & LePage Millwork
Payne Bouchier | P.E. Guerin
Atlantic View Landscape Lighting, Paragon Landscape Design, Perfection Fence
AW Hastings & Co. | Tischler Windows
Boston Design Guide | Builder+Architect | F.H. Perry Builder
New England Home | New Old House | Northshore Home
Pella | Clem Labine’s Period Homes | Clem Labine’s Traditional Building
By Matthew Disler – July 19, 2015
Tourists milled around the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial last Friday, snapping photos in front of the 30-foot tall granite statue of the civil rights leader standing, arms folded, facing the Tidal Basin and the Washington Monument. Rapturous visitors wandered along the wall encircling the figure of King emerging from a mountainous slab of rock, engraved with a passage from his “I Have a Dream” speech: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
Justin Shubow was having none of it.
“I think it’s an embarrassment for numerous reasons,” he stated bluntly, ticking off a litany of criticisms of the monument’s design: it was sculpted by a Chinese artist who didn’t speak English or know much about King; it ignores his religious background; it makes him look too angry. Shubow termed the quotations “second-rate” (“It’s as if you go to the Lincoln Memorial and don’t get the Gettysburg Address”) and noted that King is not wearing his wedding band.
This fierce critic is the president of the National Civic Art Society, an organization with some 100 members that has been at the forefront of the opposition to Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. The non-profit’s mission states that it is focused on educating the public about the classical tradition in Washington’s memorials and buildings and helping policymakers and planners continue this practice. Shubow and his organization decry the recent series of modernist memorials, which they think is highlighted garishly in famed architect Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial.
It’s not the only one Justin Shubow disdains. The World War II Memorial? Shubow finds it “reminiscent of the architecture of fascist Italy,” with “Germanic wreaths,” “creepy eagles,” and a pointless fountain.
“It could easily be a Wehrmacht memorial,” he said.
Franklin Roosevelt’s Memorial? “I think it’s defeatist,” Shubow said, later adding, “The focal point [of the central statue] is his little dog. Everyone squats down and takes cutesy photos with it. It’s a piece of kitsch.”
The proposed Eisenhower Memorial, however, currently bears the brunt of his ire. Shubow and his group have become go-to sources for criticisms about the memorial in papers like The Washington Post, New York Times, and The Daily Beast, largely through their sheer doggedness. In 2011, the organization ran a shoestring-budget competition for an alternate to the Gehry design, “to suggest what a classical or traditional alternative might look like,” in Shubow’s words. He started submitting Freedom of Information Act requests about the Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s design competition, run by the General Services Administration, and in 2012 he penned a 154-page report disparaging the Gehry plan, from the design competition process (which critics like the group Right by Ike denounce as closed and unfair) to the ballooning costs for the project. In 2013, he testified against it in a House Committee on Natural Resources subcommittee hearing.
“I think we have been focused and unrelenting, and I think we’ve had an excellent champion with Justin Shubow, who really has been a very capable leader in this endeavor and has been tenacious in his fight,” said Milton Grenfell, a director of NCAS and a Washington, D.C.-based architect. “We’ve sort of moved into de facto leaders.”
The NCAS derides the Gehry memorial as ungainly and ill-befitting the man who led the Allied Forces to victory in Europe in World War II and became the 34th president. The design’s most recent iteration features a 447-foot long, eight-story metal tapestry depicting a landscape in Eisenhower’s hometown of Abilene, Kan., as well as two free-standing columns and a “core” of statues depicting Eisenhower as general, president, and a young man gazing out at his future achievements.
The memorial has changed substantially since it was introduced and given preliminary approval by the Commission of Fine Arts in 2011 (it needs approval from both the CFA and the National Capital Planning Commission before construction starts). Initially, metal tapestries surrounded the memorial’s inner core on three sides; the statues of Eisenhower as general and president were bas-reliefs; and the statue of Eisenhower in the center of the memorial depicted him as a “barefoot boy,” in reference to a speech he gave soon after World War II.
Soon after the design was unveiled, Eisenhower family members began voicing their disapproval. That December, a Washington Post story quoted Susan and Anne Eisenhower, two of Ike’s granddaughters, speaking against Gehry’s proposal. After the piece ran, David Eisenhower—the only member of the family who sat on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission—resigned, explaining that he was concerned about a potential conflict of interest between his position and his new role as chairman of the Eisenhower Foundation (which runs the president’s library and museum).
In June of this year, the House Committee on Appropriations stripped all funding for the commission for the next fiscal year in its Interior-EPA appropriations bill and called for a “reset” on the memorial process, while the Senate committee allotted $1 million. In contrast, the NCPC had said that more than $70 million would be needed this year for construction to start.
“We’re hoping that in the budget compromise, the Senate will side with the House and call for a total reset of the design with an open, democratic competition,” said Shubow. “And that’s going to include a classical design, one that comports with the best of our memorial tradition.”
On July 9, the NCPC approved the final design for the memorial, with only one member dissenting. Former Sen. Bob Dole was one of the leading voices in support of the memorial, calling on the commissioners in a written statement to approve the design quickly in the name of World War II veterans—“a million aging American heroes who revere Ike and want to honor him before we are all gone.”
In his remarks at that meeting, Shubow attacked the nighttime lighting plan, arguing that the steel tapestry “will look like a glowing billboard or movie screen. It’s distracting brightness will undeniably ruin the vista to the Capitol.”
Broadly, the NCAS’s principal grievance is aesthetic, although both Grenfell and Shubow admitted that their complaints go deeper. To them, Gehry’s memorial is too modernist, and in its attempts to be something new and never-before-seen it misses the point about what a monument is supposed to do.
A good monument, Grenfell explained, should be easy to understand and beautiful.
“In terms of beauty—frankly, most modern artists don’t even think of the word,” he continued. “They think of the word ‘challenging’ and ‘cutting edge’ or something, but not ‘beauty.’ I think we need to reconnect with the great tradition of monument and architecture to go forward—not to reject it wholeheartedly, but to continue with it and evolve with it the way civilizations have always addressed monuments and art.”
Shubow concurs. “For what the public knows, it’s mainly aesthetic,” he says. “But for people who understand more, it’s about the spending, and also there’s the competition.”
So how about the Jefferson Memorial, he is asked. Does that pass muster? Shubow doesn’t hesitate: “I think it’s magnificent.”
On April 28 in New York City I’ll be speaking on “The Architecture of Democracy: How the Federal Government Chooses Architects.” My talk is being sponsored by the National Civic Art Society and First Things magazine, and will take place at the latter’s editorial offices. It’s free and open to the public.
My talk will be on the same subject I previously described here.
Date: Tuesday, April 28
Time: 6 PM reception; 6:30 PM lecture
Location: First Things Editorial Offices, 35 E. 21st St., Sixth Floor, New York, NY 10010
On December 17 at the National Arts Club in New York, I’m going to be speaking about federal architecture. Here’s the description from the club’s bulletin:
Justin Shubow: The Architecture of Democracy
Wednesday, December 17, 8:00 PM
The General Services Administration–which oversees the design of all federal buildings and courthouses, including the attendant artwork–is the largest patron of art and architecture in the United States. Its works are the physical embodiment of the federal government, and thus have great symbolic significance and evince America.
In 1994, GSA created the Design Excellence Program to overcome what it perceived to have been the mediocre, uninspiring buildings the government had constructed over the prior decades. The program subscribes to the Guiding Principles of Federal Architecture, which then-presidential aide Daniel Patrick Moynihan created in 1962: “It should be our object to meet the test of Pericles’ evocation to the Athenians: ‘We do not imitate–for we are a model to others.’” The program seeks out “innovation” and “creativity,” and has been successful in hiring some of the world’s most esteemed and cutting-edge architects.
This evening, Justin Shubow will discuss the history and evolution of the GSA’s architectural principles and the agency’s contributions to the American landscape. Mr. Shubow is President of the National Civic Art Society, an educational non-profit dedicated to promoting the classical and humanistic tradition in public art and architecture. Join us as we explore America’s civic architecture.