On September 16, I’m going to be the keynote speaker at Common Dialogue Day at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. It’s a day the school sets aside each fall to discuss a major theme. The theme this year is “Getting Perspective,” which I will discuss both philosophically and architecturally. After the lecture, students, faculty, and members of the local community will head to breakout sessions to continue the conversation. It’s an honor to have been invited to speak.
Representing the National Civic Art Society, on November 21, 2013 I testified about the Eisenhower Memorial at the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the aesthetic guardians of Washington, D.C. The text of my speech is below.
In the ensuing discussion, a number of the commissioners referred positively to my remarks, and two said they found my handout particularly persuasive. At one point Commissioner Alex Krieger, a professor of design at Harvard (and a friend of Gehry’s), said:
The fact that you would be approaching a memorial looking as this describes–this is very effective [pointing to my handout], actually, especially the second and third page–you are approaching this memorial with a gigantic column in your view of the memorial. It just seems actually, at that moment, a lot less poetic . . .
At the end of the meeting, Chairman Rusty Powell, the director of the National Gallery of Art, held up my handout and said “this was a telling photograph.”
All seven commissioners criticized the design–some of them in withering terms. The transcript does not do their comments justice. You must listen to the recording (84-meg MP3) to hear just how harsh their tone was. The commissioners’ discussion begins at the 51:00 mark.
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Mr. Chairman, distinguished commissioners, my name is Justin Shubow. I’m here on behalf of the National City Art Society. I’m glad to see in attendance today Bruce Cole, President Obama’s recent appointment to the Eisenhower Commission. Bruce also sits on our Board of Advisors.
As you may know, materials experts from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Smithsonian, and the Department of Defense have expressed serious concerns about the durability and maintenance of the steel tapestries. Their fears are well-founded.
Thanks to a FOIA request we submitted to the National Park Service, we just learned that according to that agency six panels of the tapestries will need to be replaced every five years. Furthermore, approximately 750 support cables will need to be replaced every 25 years, and 250 of those cables run the entire length of the tapestry. They are 444-feet long. We cannot think of another Memorial whose artwork and very structural armature will need to be replaced on periodic basis.
I will focus my testimony on the most important action item from the last Fine Arts Commission meeting regarding the Memorial, namely, the need to review the scale and the placement of the columns, particularly those on the east and west tapestries, Commissioners Krieger, [Elizabeth] Plater-Zyberk, and [Philip] Freelon expressed strong doubts in this area, and it is imperative that the Commission follow up on this crucial issue. I would first like to respond to the applicant’s claim that the column that violates the Independence Avenue setback should not be treated as a building. They make this claim in their booklet.
At a previous meeting of this body, Mr. Gehry specifically said about the columns, “They are almost buildings. They are huge in scheme, so they are more like buildings.” The applicant also defends the invasive column by noting that the street wall is already uneven. This is like a dentist saying, “Well, you have lots of snaggly teeth, so it’s OK if we add one that sticks out far more than all the others.” And if the setback doesn’t matter, why did the applicant make sure not to violate it in all of their prior designs?
The location of that column also violates one of the very principles agreed upon during site selection in 2006. At that time, the Park Service, in association with the Eisenhower Commission, prepared an Environmental Assessment that includes a list of constraints that the Memorial must adhere to. It speaks of the need for the memorial to “conform to the established setbacks of surrounding buildings to maintain the integrity of L’Enfant Streets, including Independence Avenue.”
For the benefit of those who did not attend the last meeting regarding the Memorial, allow me to detail what occurred. Commissioner Krieger, after eloquently describing President Eisenhower’s humility, said that the first impression pedestrians will get of the Memorial was not “one of humility” and is thus incongruous with who Eisenhower was. He said, “The memorial sort of shifts to not being humble enough when you see those side panels and when you imagine that the vast majority of people who are approaching this memorial might first see the back of a column, a very large column, a very sort of unprecedented column unrelated to capitals or buildings. This is a part of the memorial that to me seems now the weakest.
What triggered Mr. Krieger’s remarks was a rendering showing the Memorial from the southwest corner of the Air and Space Museum. He found that rendering in the design booklet the applicant submitted for the Fine Arts Commission meeting. However, the applicant tellingly did not include that image in the booklet for this meeting, nor have they included it in their presentation today, nor downstairs. Indeed, the applicant has previously created a number of directly relevant renderings showing what that column will look like to visitors, yet they have not shown any of them. If I may distribute images of that rendering from the booklet last time. [distributed handout]
The first page here shows the rendering that opened Mr. Krieger’s eyes. I’ve included two other renderings from the applicant from similar viewpoints.
After having critiqued the unhumble columns, Mr. Krieger went still further and asked the applicant to reconsider the side panels altogether. He explained that those panels aren’t necessary to establish the urban room since, “The sides seem to be framed reasonably well by large scale buildings.” Ironically, he said it is the side of the memorial facing Independence Avenue that is poorly framed and for that reason the applicant’s prior design, which had those two tapestries turned parallel to the Avenue, was to that extent better.
Commissioner Plater-Zyberk seconded him on the side panels. She said, “I think some of the points Alex has raised on the side panels may in fact be a very good suggestion because the original concept of enclosing those four acres and making the precinct has already been largely taken away. In fact, it may be becoming much stronger in thinking of it as primarily a park with a backdrop.” She also criticized the scope of the design, which is so big that it could two Lincoln Memorials. “Maybe this would be a good lesson for the future about big can be too big and hard to deal with. There has been memorial sprawl among the various monuments that have been built to recent decades, that this in a sense is part of.”
Commissioner Freelon agreed, “Some of these scale issues have to do with the fact that the site is so large. I understand that the screens were reduced and the columns were reduced, but perhaps not enough to make a difference. So I would concur with my colleague about the scale issue and also maybe not the need to constrain it with the side panels.” At the conclusion of the meeting when discussing the phrasing of the motion to be voted on, Mr. Krieger said in no uncertain terms, “The side column I want to get rid of, not the tapestries. But, they seem to be related to each other.” Ms. Plater-Zyberk seconded, “I think that comment should stand as a request for consideration of that. I am supportive of it.”
I look forward to hearing the Commission’s discussion of that action item, particularly since the applicant has not altered the side panels since the last meeting, nor has it been forthcoming about what they will truly look like. I do not need to tell you that this Commission is vested with the authority, and the responsibility, to protect the L’Enfant and McMillan plans, and to ensure that Eisenhower gets a Memorial respectful of his humility. Only the elimination of the side panels can make that possible. Thank you.
On Saturday, September 28, 2013, I’ll be giving a talk at the biennial conference of the Michael Oakeshott Association. (Full conference program here.) The theme of the conference, which is being held at Colorado College, is Modernity and Its Discontents. Here’s the abstract of my presentation, which alludes to Oakeshott’s essay “The Tower of Babel”:
The Tower of Wreckage: The Triumph of Nihilism in Architecture
Outside of academia, architecture is the field in which deconstructionism has achieved the greatest success: buildings that vandalize our cities and monuments that subvert the very ideals they are supposed to represent. The effect is to disorient, threaten, and demoralize the public, which has no choice but to be exposed to such structures. Deconstructionist architects are praised by global elites, win the profession’s highest awards, and obtain many of the most important commissions, including those where the client is the state. If architecture is the embodiment of a civilization, what does such actually existing nihilism portend for the future? What is to be done?
Focusing more on Oakeshott’s political philosophy, in 2005 I published a review-essay in The Common Review titled “Philosophers and Kings: A Review of Paul Franco’s Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction.” And in 2012, I contributed “Oakeshott on the Rule of Law” to Liberty Fund’s Library of Law and Liberty.
Here’s the National Civic Art Society’s press release regarding my July 18, 2013 testimony to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. My speech was quoted by the Associated Press, U.S. News, and the Washington Times. Curbed blogged about it under the headline “Nine Brutal Lines From the Latest Eisenhower Memorial Critique.”
National Civic Art Society Slams Ike Memorial at Fine Arts Commission, Says Central Statue Belongs in a Snow-globe
On Thursday, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts–the federal agency tasked with protecting the aesthetics of the National Mall–took up the planned National Eisenhower Memorial.
After Gehry’s presentation, National Civic Art Society president Justin Shubow delivered a statement (included below) lambasting the design as the architect looked on from just a few feet away (see above photo).
Fine Arts Commissioners Alex Krieger and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk said they agreed with Shubow’s concerns about the titanic size of the Memorial’s “columns,” though they said, diplomatically, that they did not want to associate themselves with his remarks. Due to the their concerns, both called for Gehry to remove the Memorial’s enormous side panels (each bigger than a basketball court)–even though Plater-Zyberk actually approved them at the Commission’s prior meeting. By opposing those panels, the Commissioners are putting into question Gehry’s very concept of the Memorial as an “urban room” or a “temple with an object.” They are backtracking on over two-and-half years of planning and approvals. Krieger also said he agreed with Shubow that the teen Eisenhower statue is too small.
Although the Commission ended up voting in favor of the Memorial design, it approved only an anodyne generality of a generality–and even then, without unanimity. To quote the official record:
Alex Krieger: “Motion to approve the concept for the memorial and the general disposition of the landscape elements pending all those qualifications that you [Secretary Thomas Luebke] identified.”
Motion is seconded by [Commissioner] Phil Freelon.
After discussion by [Commissioner] Beth Meyer on her objection to the schematic quality of the landscape design, Krieger clarifies that the motion is for “general support for the general organization of the site plan.”
Motion carries, 3-1.
Here is Shubow’s speech as delivered:
Thank you, Madam Vice Chairman, for allowing me to speak to today. It is an honor to speak in front of the appointed guardians of the National Mall. My name is Justin Shubow. I speak on behalf of the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit dedicated to the classical and humanistic tradition in public art and architecture.
To use the terms Mr. Bowers [Gehry’s partner] employed last month at the Eisenhower Memorial Commission meeting, the focal point of the latest design is now “more of a teenager dreaming about his future.” It is “a much more casual position and figure.” In other words, Eisenhower is depicted as a lounging adolescent, a juvenile—a teen dreamer.
He is an unrecognizable, generic figurine without personality, character, or gravitas. He inspires not a feeling of awe but of “aww, shucks.” What we see is a not a historical individual, but a stock character in a fable or an episode of “America’s Got Talent.” The statue is a sentimental piece of kitsch that belongs in a snow-globe.
The teen dreamer is not even an original depiction of Eisenhower. In Abilene there already is a so-called “Little Ike” statue of a life-size adolescent seated on a wall. That folksy work was sponsored by the Abilene Kid’s Council. And not uncoincidentally, the Eisenhower Commission has repeatedly stressed that children are the main intended audience for the Memorial. Yet memorials should appeal to all ages. The Lincoln Memorial engages children—and adults—without the need for an overly literal, Disneyfied diorama at its core.
Although in politics Eisenhower played on his mythical bucolic roots, as far back as 1942 he complained in private about what he called the media’s stereotype of him as a “Kansas farmerboy.” Surely we all know that this misconception about his identity was disproven once and for all in the 1982 book The Hidden-Hand Presidency.
I don’t have time to discuss Maryland Avenue sightlines in detail, but I’d like to note that in the slide Mr. Bowers showed us of the view up that avenue toward the Capitol, the Memorial’s columns were hidden by trees in full bloom. I’d like to see that same view in winter. I’d also note that in that slide the trees clearly encroached on the viewshed to the Capitol.
I do, however, urge this Commission to examine the Memorial the way it is intended to be seen—through one’s iPhone. [Pulls out iPhone and peers through it.] I speak of the so-called “E-Memorial” component. Via augmented reality, images of war will be superimposed on the Memorial landscape. Kids no doubt will find the battle scenes super cool, and super solemn and super contemplative. Maybe the electronic goggles will show that one of the statues is in fact barefoot.
But perhaps this is all beside the point. When looking at the gigantic Memorial as a whole, the focal point vanishes to nothing. The towers looming over the boy are so titanic that former Fine Arts Commissioner Diana Balmori said, “You would feel like an ant next to them.” At 80-feet-tall by 10-feet-wide, the towers are even bigger than the interior columns of the building we’re in [the National Building Museum], which are 75-feet-tall by 8-feet-wide. Not just crushingly inhumane in size, the pillars exhibit as much artistry as an incomplete highway overpass.
Those pillars uphold the gargantuan so-called steel “tapestry,” which Mr. Gehry and his team have variously called a “curtain,” a “shroud,” and a “diaphanous membrane.” Depicted on that veritable iron curtain is a landscape of barren trees in permanent winter—an allegory for hopelessness and death.
In sum, Mr. Gehry’s design is topsy-turvy in its scale and symbolism. By inverting the values of our commemorative tradition, it shows itself to be a genuine work of deconstruction. It is a temple, yes, but a destroyed one. It has no roof, no front, no steps, no walls. Living nature has reclaimed it from within. And the Holy of Holies, the sacred object in the temple, is missing. It has been replaced with a profanation, a great man cut down to size. The Memorial is a temple to nothingness, a remnant of a ruined civilization.
At a prior meeting of this body, then-Commissioner Michael McKinnell sensed as much. He said, “[I]f I can be facetious, the tapestry, when you and I are long gone, will disintegrate and the columns will be left and it will be like [the Roman ruins of] Paestum.” So much for the permanence of the tapestries.
We believe that imagery suggestive of an America in collapse makes a mockery of a national memorial and vandalizes Eisenhower’s memory.
For these reasons, we respectfully request that you scrap the design in its entirety. Thank you.
On March 19 2013, in front of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, I testified along with Rep. Darrell Issa on a bill to scrap Gehry’s design for the National Eisenhower Memorial. The New York Times and Financial Times quoted my testimony, which I turned into the essay below.
You can find a video of the hearing here. I begin at the 54:30 mark. At 1:09:00, Rep. Tom McClintock quotes my written testimony on the essential nature of monuments and comments, after which he comments:
That is the most beautiful description of what we ought to be focused on that I’ve seen. In whatever future legislation we adopt, this ought to be the preamble of it. I want to commend you on the most clear-headed statement I’ve seen on the subject.
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Why Congress Should Support a New Eisenhower Memorial
By Justin Shubow
May 8, 2013
The proposed design for the Eisenhower Memorial should be rejected for one that accords with our capital’s classical tradition of architecture and with the nature of monuments themselves—to make a simple, clear statement easily accessible to the public.
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As an educational nonprofit dedicated to the classical and humanistic tradition in public art and architecture, the National Civic Art Society (which I direct) believes that our most important monuments play an essential role in defining our national identity and crystallizing our historical memory. Civic art and architecture are the mirror in which the civilization sees itself.
In 1999 Congress authorized the creation of a national Memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and created the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to plan and build it. In 2009, after a closed “competition” that some believe was rigged, the commission selected Frank Gehry, arguably the world’s most famous and fashionable architect, to design the Memorial. His grandiose, deconstructionist proposal—now estimated to cost a staggering $142 million—would fill a four-acre square just south of the Air and Space Museum. His plan is so big it would fit two Lincoln Memorials.
One year ago it was conventional wisdom that the design was a done deal, a fait accompli soon to be cemented with quite real facts on the ground. But what has been groundbreaking is the surge of attention from Congress and the public, and the ensuing barrage of opposition. Even an article in the New Yorker, that indicator of sophisticated opinion, last month called for “rebooting” the Memorial and explained, “in true bipartisan spirit, almost everyone hates it.”
How did we get to this turning point? The bipartisan Eisenhower Commission—comprising four senators, four House members, and four presidential appointees—does not contain a single connoisseur of art and architecture. (By contrast, the commission overseeing the Jefferson Memorial included architect Fiske Kimball, a renowned scholar of American and Jeffersonian architecture.) This lack of expertise left the Eisenhower Commission vulnerable to the influence of architectural high priests and mandarins who have an agenda antithetical to the taste and values of the American people.
The commission made a fateful error by choosing to use the General Service Administration’s Design Excellence Program for the competition. That program was created to select architects for federal office buildings and courthouses, not memorials. The very creator of Design Excellence, former GSA chief architect Edward Feiner, strongly urged the commission not to use the program.
The decision to use Design Excellence represents an utter reversal of our tradition of competitions for national monuments and memorials. Whereas formerly we held competitions of designs, the commission ran a competition of designers. At no point in the competition was an entrant required to submit an actual proposal for the memorial. Instead the emphasis was on the entrants’ previous works and reputations—all factors that favor the architectural elite.
But one does not need to be an established architect to come up with a brilliant design for a memorial. One can be a student, a sculptor, an amateur. The winner of the 1902 open competition for the (superb but overlooked) Ulysses S. Grant Memorial was Henry M. Shrady, a self-taught unknown who went on to become one of the leading sculptors of his time. Likewise, when Maya Lin won the open, blindly reviewed competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, she was a mere college student. A present-day Shrady or Lin could not even have entered the Eisenhower competition.
Not only was the competition limited to architects with substantial portfolios, it was a closed competition that garnered a mere 44 entries. This is hundreds fewer than the numbers of entries in open competitions for previous national memorials. The process was also secretive. To this day we do not know the identities of all the entrants; we have never seen what Gehry submitted; and we do not know who sat on the evaluation boards. However, so far we have been able to determine that the process violated GSA’s own acquisition rules. For instance, the evaluation board was stacked to give the client more weight than usual, which would have helped the commission achieve a pre-arranged outcome.
At the very first meeting of the commission, all the way back in 2001, its chairman Rocco C. Siciliano said it should choose someone like Frank Gehry. And lo and behold, eight years later Gehry won the “competition.” This is the same Gehry who has repeatedly said he does not like entering competitions since he does not like losing. Also note that Siciliano, who serves with Gehry as a trustee of the architect’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, had hired or worked with Gehry on three prior occasions. Informed of such red flags, Representative Darrell Issa, in his capacity as Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has been investigating the propriety of the competition.
The former chief architect of GSA is not the only distinguished opponent of the selection process. Another is Paul Spreiregen, who is perhaps the leading expert on design competitions and author of a book on the subject. Spreiregen served as an adviser for design competitions in Washington, D.C., including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the World Bank Headquarters. He wrote in the Washington Post:
Why weren’t all American designers given the opportunity to submit proposals for the Eisenhower memorial? The method for doing that is a very well-organized and well-managed open-design competition. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, the 9/11 Memorial in New York City and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis are ample evidence of the reliability of open-design competitions. The design process for the Eisenhower memorial should have been open to all. It still can be, if the Gehry design is rejected.
In the 1990s, when the commission overseeing the National World War II Memorial competition held a closed competition nearly identical to the one for the Eisenhower Memorial, there was widespread public outcry and the original competition was scrapped in favor of an open one. The Eisenhower competition has ended up in exactly the same situation. Failing to understand the past, the Eisenhower Commission was condemned to repeat it.
The result of the poorly run, undemocratic Eisenhower Memorial competition was the bizarre choice of Frank Gehry, an architect known for his subversive deconstructionist style, project-cost overruns, and prior design flaws. Putting aside aesthetics, his poor performance record alone ought to have weighed against him, according to GSA’s own standards. In the 1990s, before the Design Excellence Program went into effect, Gehry said, “My name was put up for a courthouse, and the General Services Administration . . . just laughed at the idea.” On another occasion he said, “The American government won’t even hire me to do anything. In fact we submit for courthouses every once in a while, and we get funny letters back, and people on the selection committee, the GSA guys, just guffaw to think of someone like me doing the project.”
Gehry has well summarized his deconstructionist philosophy:
Life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising. Buildings should reflect that.
I try to rid myself and the other members of the firm of the burden of the culture and look for new ways to approach the work. I want to be open-ended. There are no rules, no right or wrong. I’m confused as to what’s ugly and what’s pretty. [emphasis added]
To be clear, this relativist, if not nihilist, philosophy constitutes a positive feature in the Design Excellence Program, which is explicitly intended to favor “innovation” and “creativity”—buzzwords meaning avant-garde and radical architecture—and to disfavor tradition, the classical American style, and anything “too rooted in the past.”
As one might expect, the style, materials, content, and scale of Gehry’s proposal are totally antithetical to and discordant with the National Mall and the Monumental Core. Indeed, Gehry has repeatedly stated his rejection of harmony as a principle of architecture and urban planning. The largest element of the Memorial’s ugly design is a gargantuan “tapestry” of industrial steel cables. The screen is larger than the iconic Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. Viewed close up, the twisted steel resembles Medusa’s serpentine head. We fear that the tapestry would come to be called the “iron curtain.”
The main tapestry and two secondary ones nearby are supported by ten enormous pillars (so-called “columns”) 80 feet tall and 11 to 12 feet in diameter. They are bare cylinders without any capitals or decoration. Conjuring visions of an incomplete highway overpass or Soviet missile silos, the oppressive pillars would make visitors feel like ants.
Criticism of the memorial has come from architects, pundits, and critics of all political and architectural orientations. Opponents include the entire Eisenhower family, George Will, George Weigel, Roger Scruton, David Brooks, John Fund, David Frum, Stephen M. Walt, Ross Douthat, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Shribman, and former National Endowment for the Humanities Director Bruce Cole.
Newspapers that have come out against the design include the New York Post, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Washington Examiner, and the Kearney Hub (of Nebraska). Articles in opposition have appeared in The New Republic, the Wichita Eagle, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Boston Globe, and Human Events. (A 190-page compilation of articles critical of the Memorial can be found at our website, www.civicart.org.)
As if this criticism were not enough, the durability of Gehry’s experimental structure—a cable wire mesh suspended in tension—has been called into question by the government’s own materials experts. The Department of the Army’s expert, for instance, recommended that an identical set of duplicate tapestries be built to serve as enormous spare parts when the tapestry becomes degraded or damaged. This would be so costly as to be unfeasible.
In short, the memorial design and process have been wrong in their aesthetics, wrong in their economics, and wrong in their physics. And perhaps Rep. Issa will find that the competition was wrong in its ethics.
Since Gehry and the Eisenhower Commission show zero willingness to back down, Congress has no choice but to go back to the drawing board and pass a bill to ensure that President Eisenhower gets the memorial he deserves. We must keep in mind that the client here is not GSA, not Gehry, not the commission. It is Congress, and ultimately the American people. Nothing could be more democratic than an open competition that provides opportunity for comment from both political leaders and the public. At the same time, it is essential that there be guidance from refined judges of taste and learned experts of the caliber of Fiske Kimball.
Regrettably, the legislation must make explicit what used to be assumed without question. Consider the bill that created the national memorial commemorating the passengers and crew killed on United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. Congress explicitly stated, “For the purposes of this Act, the terrorists . . . shall not be considered passengers or crew of that flight.” That Congress felt the need to insert this language shows that something has gone terribly awry among the artistic and architectural elite.
What then are the universal requirements of a monument? Monuments are civic art that cause us solemnly to reflect on who we are and what we value. They are heroic in scale, timeless, and possess dignity, even grandeur. They present an ideal to which we aspire rather than warts-and-all reality. Sacred and transcendent, they inspire instead of demoralizing us. They must honor, not merely remember, their subjects. They must be made of noble materials—such as marble and bronze—that have proven their durability over millennia, not industrial materials such as steel and concrete.
Monuments are permanent and must appear permanent, unlike a scrim or a shroud. Monuments ought to be clear and unequivocal in their meaning: They should evince a few simple ideas in a way accessible to ordinary Americans. They must be legible without a guide or key, and certainly without a visitor center or iPad.
Monuments speak to us even without signage. You can be inspired by a monument even if you do not know who is represented or what that person did. Monuments are not museums and they should not try to tell stories. They are not inkblots that leave things to the interpretation of the visitor. Monuments are statements, not question marks.
In addition to satisfying all of these requirements, the Eisenhower Memorial must continue our founders’ classical vision for the nation’s capital as embodied in the L’Enfant and McMillan Plans and the design of our core buildings of government, as well as the best of our tradition of presidential memorials. There is no better way to honor Eisenhower the general, the president, and the man than in the unmistakably American idiom that we love and cherish.
A traditional man of old-fashioned virtue, President Eisenhower disdained Modern art and architecture, which he did not believe represented the taste and values of the American people. He warned in 1962, “We see our very art forms so changed that we seem to have forgotten the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. . . . What has happened to our concept of beauty and decency and morality?”
America can and will build Eisenhower a monument that will prove his fears unfounded. The talent is there. Now is the time to find it.
I don’t know what to make of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (and perhaps never will), but F.L. Lucas’ 1923 New Statesman review is enjoyably devastating. A poet and scholar, Lucas would during World War II come to work as an intelligence office at Bletchley Park, Britain’s decryption headquarters. In the 1920s, he was already demonstrating his ability to break codes over his knee:
Among the maggots that breed in the corruption of poetry one of the commonest is the bookworm. When Athens had decayed and Alexandria sprawled across the Egyptian sands, when the Greek world was filling with libraries and emptying of poets, then first appeared that Professorenpoesie which finds in literature the inspiration that life gives no more. The Alexandra of Lycophron, which its learned authors made so obscure that other learned authors could make fortunes explaining what it meant, survives as the first case of this disease and the first really bad poem in Greek. The malady reappears in Rome in the work of Cinna and Propertius; it has recurred at intervals ever since. Disconnected and ill-knit, loaded with echo and allusion, fantastic and crude – such is the typical style of Alexandrianism.
Readers of The Waste Land are referred at the outset to a work on the origins of the legends of the Holy Grail by Miss J L Weston, a disciple of Frazer, and to The Golden Bough itself. Those who conscientiously plunge into the former will learn that the basis of the Grail story is the restoration of the virility of a Fisher King and thereby of the fertility of a Waste Land, the Lance and the Grail being phallic symbols. While maintaining due caution and remembering how “Diodorus Siculus/ Made himself ridiculous/ By thinking thimbles/ Were phallic symbols”, one may admit that Miss Weston makes a very good case. With that, however, neither she nor Mr Eliot can rest content. Miss Weston is clearly a theosophist, and Mr Eliot’s poem might be a theosophical tract. The sick king and the waste land symbolise, we gather, the sick soul and the desolation of this material life.
It is hard not to regret the way in which modern writers of real creative power abandon themselves to the illusion that they have philosophical gifts and a weighty message to deliver. In all periods, creative artists have been apt to think they could think, though in all periods they have been frequently hare-brained and sometimes mad. Now, we have the spectacle of Mr Lawrence, Miss May Sinclair and Mr Eliot all sacrificing their artistic powers on the altar of some fantastic Mumbo-Jumbo.
Perhaps this unhappy composition should have been left to sink itself, but it is not easy to dismiss in three lines what is being written about as a masterpiece. For at present it is easy to win the applause of the blase and the young, of the coteries and the eccentricities. But a poem that has to be explained in notes is not unlike a picture with “This is a dog” inscribed beneath. Not, indeed, that Mr Eliot’s notes succeed in explaining anything. The main function of the notes is to give the references to the innumerable authors whose lines the poet embodies, but the borrowed jewels he has set in its head do not make Mr Eliot’s toad the more prepossessing.
In brief, in The Waste Land Mr Eliot has shown that he can at moments write real blank verse; but that is all. For the rest he has quoted a great deal, he has parodied and imitated. But the parodies are cheap and the imitations inferior. Among so many other sources Mr Eliot may have thought, as he wrote, of Rossetti’s Card-Dealer, of Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, of the Vision of Sin. But the trouble is that for the reader who thinks of them the comparison is crushing; The Waste Land adds nothing to a literature which contains things like these.
Below is an essay I published in Public Discourse last month. It is an adaptation of the June 1, 2012 testimony I delivered before the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands on “The Future of the National Mall.” (C-SPAN video here.)
We Must Preserve the Founders’ Classical Vision for Our Nation’s Capital
By Justin Shubow
January 17, 2013
The plan of our nation’s capital and the architecture of its core buildings and monuments must carry on the classical vision the Founders intended as the physical manifestation of America’s form of government and political ideals.
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The National Mall and surrounding Monumental Core is arguably the greatest work of civic art in the modern era. To preserve and protect this man-made masterpiece, the National Civic Art Society, of which I am president and chairman, recently produced the documentary film “Washington: The Classical City,” which may be watched on our website, www.civicart.org.
To envision the future of the Mall, we must first understand its past. The Mall as we know it is just slightly over 100 years old. Yet it appears to have been there forever. It is hard to imagine, but at the turn of the twentieth century there was no breathtaking vista from the Capitol building to the Potomac, no graceful boulevard of trees and paths lined with noble edifices, but instead a shabby rambling park, anchored at one end by a soot-spewing train station and at the other by a malarial swamp. Abutting its grounds were flophouses and squalor.
This was hardly the vision for the city that President George Washington had in mind when he directed Pierre L’Enfant to create a master plan for a new capital worthy of a new republic: a grand scheme of radiating streets and avenues whose geometrical arrangement symbolically focuses on the Capitol, the White House, and the Washington Monument.
To this day, these are the landmarks by which we orient ourselves spatially and spiritually. Harmonious, luminous, and orderly, the urbanism of the L’Enfant plan and the architecture of its most important structures were to be classical in design, the physical manifestation of our form of government and political aspirations. This conscious decision linked the city to the ideals of republican Rome and democratic Athens, as well as to the Age of Reason later called the Enlightenment.
The classical tradition is time-honored and timeless. In a letter to L’Enfant, Thomas Jefferson expressed his wish for a capitol designed after “one of the models of antiquity, which have had the approbation of thousands of years.”
To be clear, the founding generation no more slavishly imitated other societies’ architecture than the founders imitated other forms of government when they drafted the Constitution. Instead, they sought and created an unmistakably American idiom. Who would confuse the White House or the Capitol for a building in a foreign country?
The founders intentionally situated their day and age within the two-millennia-long tradition of classicism. They recognized its dignity, its aspiration to beauty, its harmony with the natural world and human perception, and its capability of expressing hierarchy and meaning to the citizens it serves. They were founders and framers not just in government but in architecture. They understood the wisdom of the past and adapted and improved on it. Why should we be any different today?
Alas, by 1900 the L’Enfant plan for our national capital was largely forgotten. It had been compromised by commercial pressure and aesthetic confusion. Thankfully, in 1901 Congress created the famous Senate Park Commission led by Senator James McMillan of Michigan. Serving on the McMillan Commission were some of the greatest architects, landscape designers, and sculptors of their time, all of whom worked within the classical tradition.
Influenced by the City Beautiful Movement, they not only revived the L’Enfant Plan; they perfected it. Among their achievements, they extended the main axis of the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial site. They also cleared trees and leveled the ground to create one of the greatest man-made vistas in the world. It is transfixing. Empty space in and of itself is made electric, with the Washington Monument as the lightning rod. There is no official rule that the American people must congregate there for our most historic events and communal gatherings, but they do so nonetheless. They are drawn in by the Mall’s power, which is welcoming and uplifting, not oppressive or inhumane. It is a vista of optimism and promise.
The McMillan Plan created a symbol and place of national unity, one that even today stands as the embodiment of our collective ideals. The classical L’Enfant and McMillan Plans, together with such masterpieces as the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, have endowed us with the eternal capital of an eternal republic.
Yet beginning after the First World War, some avant-garde architects and theorists wished to replace the eternal with the putative “spirit of the times.” Beholden to an ideology that rejected the past, an ideology that had become fashionable in a crumbling Europe, they asserted that classicism had become passé; it was a death-mask that no longer could express the soul of America. They saw themselves as the vanguard ushering in a Modern Era, the inevitable next stage in the progressive evolution of mankind.
To these individuals, buildings such as the Capitol were musty piles that stank of ideas and ideals whose time had passed. Indeed, these architectural radicals opposed the designs for the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Frank Lloyd Wright called the Lincoln Memorial the “most asinine miscarriage of building materials that ever happened.” Joseph Hudnut, the influential dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, proclaimed the National Gallery of Art a “pink marble whorehouse.” After World War II, the avant-gardist hegemony was complete.
This total rejection of our national heritage caused the Mall to be vandalized by the Hirshhorn Museum, which resembles an alien spacecraft or gun turret looming over the public. This elitist movement gave us the urban-planning disaster of L’Enfant Plaza, as well as the brutalist FBI Headquarters, which looks like the Ministry of Fear. Do the citizens who visit these buildings, and the government employees who work in them, take the same pride in these structures as they do in the National Archives or the Federal Triangle?
Today we find ourselves in a predicament like that of the McMillan Commission: the guiding classical vision for the city and its Monumental Core has once again been forgotten, ignored, and violated by accretions of discordant art and architecture.
Sadly, the National Park Service and other agencies charged with preserving the Mall have been neglecting their mission. If any district deserves the stringent protections of a national landmark, it is the Mall as created by the L’Enfant and McMillan Plans. Yet when the Park Service recently approved the design of the planned National Memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower—a deconstructionist eyesore that clashes with our greatest presidential memorials—it did not even bother to consider the design’s cultural and historical impact on the Mall and other protected sites in the area. Stylistic harmony, dignity, and perhaps even beauty are of no concern to them. It is as if the Park Service did not care whether an invasive weed was to be planted in a National Forest of evergreens.
Not only are the National Park Service and others not preserving what must be preserved, they are acting to preserve what is unworthy of preservation. Although it is difficult for us to imagine, in the process of approving the Eisenhower Memorial, the National Park Service, the General Services Administration, and other agencies lavished praise on the adjacent Department of Education Building, which they are now seeking to place on the National Register of Historic Places (a PDF of the eligibility form is available here).
Can one imagine a more sterile, soulless building? It conjures thoughts not of education but of faceless bureaucracy, with all the character and warmth of a computer punch card. Who would miss it if it were demolished? The aesthetic and cultural confusion demonstrated by these sorts of agency decisions is astounding.
The good news is that there is a solution; the future is rooted in the past. What we need is a plan for Washington, DC that carries on the vision set by our founders and their architects: a McMillan Plan for our time that would preserve and extend the best of our capital city into a third century.
It was none other than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who made sure that the magnificent Jefferson Memorial was built over the objections of out-of-touch elites. He explicitly paralleled the importance of continuity of tradition in architecture to that in government:
[T]he principles of harmony and of necessity require that the building of a new structure shall blend with the essential lines of the old. It is this combination of the old and the new that marks orderly peaceful progress, not only in buildings but in building government itself . . . .
Today Washington sorely needs that sort of statesmanship—the cultural confidence to stand up to architects who think they know better than the American people. We believe that the vision of today’s leaders can equal that of our founders, and that offers hope for the future of our capital.
On Friday February 2, 2013, I’ll be giving a talk about Frank Gehry’s design for the planned Eisenhower Memorial to the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society at the University of Virginia. The society, which claims to be the “oldest continuously existing collegiate debating society in North America,” was founded in 1825, the first year the university held classes. The event starts at 7:29 p.m. sharp.
I suppose I’ll be preaching to the choir, alas, since the room in which they meet is Jeffersonian classical (notice especially the rhythmic Chinese railing). A self-taught architect influenced by Palladio (but who sought to create an American national style–cf. the White House and Capitol, the designs of which he oversaw), President Thomas Jefferson designed the building to be a dining hall. However, the university turned it over to the society in 1837. The society’s use of the hall has been continuous except for the Civil War, when the Confederacy used it as a hospital.
To quote Jefferson:
How is a taste in this beautiful art [architecture] to be formed in our countrymen, unless we avail ourselves of every occasion when public buildings are to be erected, of presenting to them models for their study and imitation? . . . You see, I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile them to the rest of the world, and procure them its praise.
By contrast, Gehry has said:
I do think democracy has produced chaos, especially visual. A lot of people don’t like it and yearn for nineteenth-century images, forgetting that the politics of those images were different than the democracy we love.
Most of us believe in democracy, but the system has created a world that looks strange, chaotic, and different, and we do not like it. We are struggling and it is easier to go back to models which are more coherent and seem more seductive now. We have to remember that those models came under a different political time and philosophy. If we are to survive, we need to live in the present and try to work towards the future. I will reiterate what I have said many times: I cannot face my children it I tell them I have no more ideas and I have to copy something that happened before. It is like giving up and telling them there is no future for them.
I think of this in terms of controlled chaos. I always relate it to democracy. Democracy is pluralism, the collision of ideas. Our cities are built on a collision of thought. Look out there. There is a building by [architect I. M.] Pei, there is a bridge, there is that huge hunk in the distance. If it wasn’t for democracy it would all look like one thing. Stata [Gehry’s building at MIT] represents that idea, which is where I think we are in life now.
In his design for the National Memorial to President Eisenhower, Gehry has well-captured what he sees as the ugliness and chaos of democracy–a vision anathema to the Founding Fathers as well as Eisenhower himself. As the former Supreme Allied Commander, who had witnessed true chaos and destruction first-hand, said in 1962:
When we see our very art forms so changed that we seem to have forgotten the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and speak in the present in terms of a piece of canvas that looks like a broken down [Model T Ford], loaded with paint, has been driven over it, is this improvement? What has happened to our concept of beauty and decency and morality?
Note that Gehry, like most leading contemporary architects, believes that architecture ought to slavishly kowtow to the alleged “Spirit of the Times”–no matter how deplorable those times are–as opposed to attempting to ameliorate them. Such architects are passive, feckless fatalists.
Natur und Kultur: Das Weib [Nature and Culture: The Female]. A book of photographs collected by Dr. Peter Landow, Berlin 1925.