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Requiem for a monument

March 17th, 2013

This morning I photographed the final stage of demolition of Richard Neutra’s 1961 visitor center at Gettysburg.  The building was commissioned by the National Park Service to be the flagship structure of its Mission 66 campaign, a hugely ambitious program to expand and modernize its park system and visitor facilities for the 50th anniversary of the agency.  The distinctive cylindrical drum of the building was designed to house the Cyclorama, an immense circular panorama painting of Pickett’s charge finished in 1884.

I’m not a huge fan of high modernism, but Neutra’s building was no doubt the most interesting and significant architectural commission in the history of the NPS.  It was a paradoxical program from the start: a signature modernist building designed to house an obsolete Victorian painted entertainment.  But in a way, that paradox perfectly expressed the idea of Mission 66, which blended an ethic of preservation with the goal of bringing the past into the contemporary world. The Park Service carefully chose the location of the building, and Neutra made an extraordinarily site-specific design.  Visitors who entered the drum and saw the Cyclorama came back outside through a portico that gave a dramatic view of the very landscape depicted in the painting; to accommodate the office space and other functions of the building Neutra created a long low wing that hugged the ridge line.  The circulation within the building was both dramatic and smooth, and the spaces managed to be airy and eloquent and understated all at the same time.

I spent part of the day discussing the demolition at a conference sponsored by Gettysburg College and the NPS on “The Future of Civil War History.”  I see the building as a monument, a chapter in the commemorative history of Gettysburg, much like the High Water Mark monument nearby that will never be torn down. But of course Neutra’s monument was immensely more difficult and costly to maintain. The building had some major maintenance problems from the get-go, and there have been charges and counter-charges about who is to blame.  Neutra’s son and fans largely blame the NPS, while the the NPS pins the blame squarely on the design.  I don’t know enough to enter this debate.  I also understand the limitations on the NPS with its perennial budget constraints.  Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater had a major structural flaw in its cantilever system, but the trust in charge of the building had the resources to fix it, at great cost of time and money.  Not so for the NPS, whether it was their fault or the architect’s for the technical failures of the building.

Still, I wish the NPS hadn’t foresaken the very building it once celebrated as its flagship for the future.  The whole episode was a lot like a divorce, with a similar ugliness.  And now we dispose of the remains as mere debris, without any attempt at ceremony.

As Neutra’s grand monument comes down and dies, I think we should pay our last respects.  A great deal of thought, creativity, imagination, enthusiasm, and just plain hard work went into this building.  We should honor its life, and deliver a eulogy.

Social contracts and utopias, embedded in our sidewalks

November 9th, 2012

We’re often told there is a great philosophical divide in the U.S. about the proper size and role of government, especially when it comes to the federal government. If so this past election didn’t clarify much. The Tea Party got trounced while Obama and Obamacare triumphed, suggesting a resurgence of faith in the possibilities of government.  But when asked in exit polls if government should do more or if it was doing too much, 52% chose the latter.

I don’t believe that most of us really think in abstract terms about the ideal role of government.  We tend to respond situationally, at a micro-level, especially to what we see or don’t see.

I was thinking about this as I walked down my street today. Embedded in our sidewalks is a record of some of government’s greatest aspirations and disappointments. Memorials, in effect, to failed great societies and to newer promises not yet tarnished.

A few blocks up the street my late-Victorian neighborhood got hit with urban renewal in the late 1960s.  A fair amount of demolition took place, and some of the street itself was removed to make way for a garden apartment complex.  But even on blocks that escaped the wrecking crew, city planners used their federal money to make over the sidewalks and street fixtures, to demonstrate in sparkling visual terms the new era of healthy, orderly city living that was supposed to flourish in our Great Society. Concrete sidewalks were dug out and replaced with tile, benches installed, and modernist street lamps planted by the curbs, their sleek geometric design a reproof to the messy Victorian clutter of the houses behind them.  None of the lamps work anymore, and only one has its globe left, now weathered green.

Closer to our house the sidewalks are brand new. They have been dug up and replaced to accommodate new gas pipes, and in the process our neighborhood has been introduced to tactile paving, those bumpy yellow pads embedded into curb cuts to warn the visually impaired when they are approaching the street.  If the broken street lamps are a sad memorial to the LBJ administration and its dreams and failures, the bright new sidewalk pads are a legacy of George Bush Sr and his Americans with Disabilities Act, the last great piece of federal social legislation enacted before Obama’s health care reform.

The tactile pad is a lot smaller scale than the wholesale redesign of the urban environment that planners tried to accomplish a half century ago.  But its aspirations are just as big, if not bigger: to give freedom and mobility to the disabled, to empower them to move through the city and take advantage of its opportunities.  Both the lamp and the pad are products of social engineering, yet with vastly different aims.  One tried to impose its own norms on the rest of the world, to make the world conform to a particular image.  The other seeks to expand access and opportunity, to open up the world to people who were shut out of it.  One is meant to prescribe, the other to emancipate.  If there is a lesson to be learned embedded in these sidewalks, perhaps it is not about how big our society should dream but about the kind of dreaming we should do.

Victimology and the 47%

September 19th, 2012

First there was Occupy’s 99%, now there’s Mitt Romney’s 47%.  This the 47% of the country whose mission in life, he says, is to sponge off the federal government.  The 47% who believe themselves victims, entitled to compensation from the other 53% for the real or imagined wrongs they have experienced.  It’s as if the black welfare recipients once scapegoated by Ronald Reagan as “welfare queens” have multiplied, under our black President, into a vast horde of dependents – nearly half the country clamoring for more taxes and more entitlements to salve their wounded psyches and fund their shiftlessness.

Last spring we heard a similar attack from Romney donor Edward Conard, except that his was directed at art-history majors – the .047%??  That’s his derisive term, according to a New York Times profile, for well-educated people who opt out of competitive capitalism and become café loungers.  Add up these assaults and this poor art-history prof is feeling, well, just a little victimized.

But of course Romney’s attack on the victimhood syndrome is just another expression of his own.  He and the rest of the 53% are, by implication, the real victims – victims of Obama’s legions of parasites.

Victimhood all too often has become a game of one-upsmanship, and conservatives have been in the game awhile.  The Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C. – sponsored by a roster of conservative thinkers and old Cold War hawks, and dedicated by George W. Bush in 2007 – was a direct response to the Holocaust Memorial, with its dramatic new accent on victimization in the landscape of national memory.  We’ll see your ante of six million, the Cold Warriors seemed to say, and raise the pot to 100 million!  This is the number emblazoned on their incongruously small monument, featuring a miniaturized replica of Tiananmen Square’s Goddess of Democracy.  However small the statue, the number is so large that it seems meant to preempt any future competition.

In truth, we do need to have a national conversation about victimology.  As Americans we often focus on our own losses and griefs as if they are exceptional, as if the rest of the world doesn’t know what it’s like to lose job, home, family, and way of life.  Perhaps this is human nature: we only know our own pain, after all, and it’s hard for any of us to see much beyond our own noses.  But if we want to have a politics worth caring about, and if we want to do something about the military and environmental disasters that threaten to engulf the planet, we’re going to have to try to do better.  We need to try our level best to look beyond our own sufferings and honor the values of empathy and reason that should be our guideposts for public rhetoric and action.

Design competitions, part 2

July 18th, 2012

After my last post on design competitions, I got a very interesting response from Paul Spreiregen, who organized the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial over thirty years ago.  Hearing directly from him helped me understand better why that competition was so exemplary.  He was determined to make it, in his own words, “the best goddamned competition ever run for anything.” His hope was that it would become a model for all future competitions. Pity that didn’t happen.

Spreiregen’s main point was that a competitively produced design is no more or less subject to revision than a commissioned design is.  Both require at least some further development and refinement as the designer works with the client.

The difference, as I see it, is more one of expectation.  A designer working under a commission is basically on hire, serving at the clients’ bidding.  Sometimes that designer is given great freedom, sometimes not, depending on the clients’ wishes. The winning design in a competition has been chosen because it best realizes a predetermined program. The clients’ relationship to that design is different: they have an obligation to respect it, otherwise they shouldn’t have chosen it in the first place.  And yet all too often the clients treat the winning designers as “hired guns” and their designs as little more than pieces of paper to be torn up at will.

Now that I’ve re-read Patrick Hagopian’s excellent, blow-by-blow account of the design process for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I’m even more amazed that this didn’t happen to Maya Lin’s winning design – and Spreiregen’s competition program.  The world came very close to losing one of the greatest works of art produced in the twentieth century.

In 1982, as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund came under intense pressure to change her design, or even scrap it altogether, they began to negotiate with their opponents.  Both sides got together quite literally behind closed doors in a Senate committee room and proceeded to revise Lin’s design, without her present, adding various elements to it.  One of these elements was realistic statuary of American soldiers.  The VVMF agreed to search through the losing competition designs for an appropriate sculptural composition to add.  This process was a replay of what had so often transpired in the nineteenth century, to the great dismay of architects and sculptors.  A competition would be held, a “winner” would be crowned, but then ideas would be cherry-picked from several different entries and recombined into one new design – a convenient way to satisfy everyone on a committee.  And a blatant exploitation of the designers involved.

In the end we have Carter Brown and the Commission of Fine Arts to thank for rescuing Lin’s design from this back-door process.  The CFA succeeded in pushing the additional elements far enough away from Lin’s wall that it could be experienced on its own, much as she intended.  While the Reagan administration’s controversial Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, did his best to circumvent the CFA, cooler heads in the President’s inner circle overruled Watt and made sure that Lin’s memorial went forward.

No such luck for the winners of the Korean War Veterans Memorial competition and countless others.  One lesson to be learned is that the more complex and multifaceted the winning design is, the easier it is to monkey with it.  Lin’s design was brilliantly simple.  The major lines of the design dispute were clearly drawn and generally well understood.  Even so, it is mind-boggling that a bunch of politicians and powerful insiders could sit in a closed room, fiddle with one of the most brilliant monuments ever devised, and almost get away with it.  No wonder that less brilliant designs so routinely get warped beyond recognition.

I am not suggesting that the culprits in this case were necessarily acting with malice.  Some of them were, but others probably thought they weren’t really changing Lin’s design, just adding some bells and whistles.  But that cluelessness is itself part of the problem.

It’s an age-old problem.  Designers have ideas and expertise that others don’t have.  The public has opinions.  Both need to be respected.

Design competitions, in theory and practice

June 20th, 2012

I’m sympathetic to a recent piece by Sam Roche on the HuffPost blog which argues against the “closed competition” process used by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to select architect Frank Gehry.  After all, if not for the open, blind-juried design competition organized for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1980, Maya Lin wouldn’t have created her design and the most important public monument of the late twentieth century would never have been conceived.

But it turns out that the issue is not as simple as it appears.  I had a few misconceptions about design competitions before I started to examine how they actually work.

First, we tend to think of the winning design as a final product when in practice it is only the beginning of the design process.  Usually the winning design is a just a concept, with many important details still left to be decided.  There are the inscriptions, for example, which are crucial to the overall message of the memorial.  Most of the time the winning designers have nothing to do with the choice of texts inscribed on the monument’s surfaces.  Even the indomitable Maya Lin, who wanted no text on her walls other than the names, was overruled and had to accept a pair of didactic inscriptions where the two walls meet. Typically, also, sculptural and landscape elements are added later, often by a new set of artists and architects.  The winning design for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, by the design firm ROMA, did not include a portrait statue of King.  This was commissioned later from a Chinese sculptor, without a competition, and the 30-foot mega-statue has become the most dominating element of the entire design.

The second misconception flows from the first.  While we like to think of open design competitions as a fair and democratic way of choosing a design, when the rubber hits the road many of the most important design decisions are actually made by committee, without public input. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the rare case in which the winning design was actually executed faithfully according to the original plan (despite great pressure to alter it significantly).  More often the final monument is so changed that it is unrecognizable, even antithetical to the winning design. The most notorious example is the Korean War Veterans Memorial, where the winning architects became so fed up with the changes made by the advisory board that they sued in federal court, and after losing the suit disavowed the final design.  It’s not unusual for crucial design decisions to be made without the winning designers’ input or approval, much less the involvement of the public.  The design process that follows a design competition is hardy transparent or fair.

Ironically, in high-profile monuments where the designer was hand-picked without competition (as in the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials), he ended up having more control over his design.  With some notable exceptions, design competitions tend to yield to design by committee.

In the end there’s no easy solution.  Designers should be allowed to take the lead, but other stakeholders in the process must have their say too.  How do we balance good design and public involvement?  One way is to hold multi-stage competitions (whether open or closed) in which the public is invited to respond and comment at every stage.  This is time-consuming but it has the advantage of opening the process to public debate while important design decisions are being made.  The recent “ideas competition” and design competitions for the National Mall exemplify this approach. But even with an exemplary process there’s no guarantee that powerful stakeholders won’t hijack it in the end.  That’s democracy in our times.