February 26, 2009

CFA Denies Inharmonious Addition to Library, Post Writer Denounces CFA

Proposed addition to Mt. Pleasant Public Library in DC by CORE Design

Last week the US Commission of Fine Arts denied a plan by DC Public Libraries to add the above addition to its historic 1920's Mt. Pleasant branch. Marc Fisher of the Washington Post called the move "stomping on innovation and the faint whispers of home rule." Fisher couldn't be further from the mark, both in terms of architecture, but moreover why the CFA is justified as a Federal Commission to do such a thing.

First of all let me say before I get accused of politics, I don't intend to use this article as a springboard for ANY discussion about Home Rule, Statehood, or DC Voting rights. I only intend to respond to Fisher's and others' attacks on the CFA's authority as arbiter of architecture within the Capital independent of whatever political definition it has. I believe my arguments would stand (or fall) equally well for any Capital, be it DC or Berlin or Tokyo.

Fisher tries to net the CFA with the claim that it "serves mainly to prevent the city from evolving over time as any living place must." He says because the Library had three community meetings and "responded to neighbors' complaints" the CFA overstepped its bounds by denying the approval of this addition. Now these may be a fine and justified reasons in any normal city would respond merely to its own citizens. However, Washington DC has a special standard of aesthetics to uphold, by virtue of it being not just any ordinary city but our nation's Capital.

To see DC as "Our Nation's Capital," is to see it as not just for those who live there, but indeed everyone's home. Indeed the "neighbors" who need to be consulted are not just those who live nearby, but also those who live from Maryland, Virginia and indeed from sea to shining sea.

To understand DC as a home for the whole nation is to know it as a work of art, and as such has a symbolic end first and foremost. DC as a Capital ought to tell something to us about us, and it can do this by being more than just a collection of parts, but as one great piece of art in the form of its architecture and its urbanism. That architecture can tell a story, and like any story told anywhere in all of human history, needs to be whole, unified and cohesive to tell its story to us.
This is how L'Enfant saw the city, built apart from any of the already existing cities, a new work of art, symbolizing the new Nation formed by the Constitution. Indeed the city is itself the bond between the states, a seal of confirmation pressed in stone, stating that we were then and are now One Nation.

DC symbolizes this best where the McMillan Commission - the predecessor to the current CFA - did its finest work creating the Mall as we know it today. The Mall as the scene of all of our greatest aspirations and dreams as Americans is the great stage that politicians use to arouse our passions, that leaders of all kinds call to our patriotism to think of the common good of our whole nation.

But it could not do this without a unity of form that the McMillan Commission created. A unity of form that resonates in a particular way with the idea that here no one man or woman's interests are to be placed over the interests of the nation. Monuments are erected only to those who, rather than placing themselves above the people, gavethemselves for the greater good of all. The McMillan Commissions genius shows clearly where, despite monumental buildings and memorials being built, the dome of the Capitol - the Hall of the People - still dominates over all other monuments and buildings of the city, reinforcing that it is to the people all deference is to be given.

The symbolism of our Constitutional City is what the CFA is charged with defending. In DC the symbolism of the city ought to apply to every neighborhood, not just the core of the Federal area. The architecture of our nation's Capital ought be harmonious and beautiful, mixing with its immediate neighbors but also with the city as a whole. From the monumental core to the smallest street, DC ought to be a symbol of harmony and a well ordered city like it ought to be, even if it falls well short of those aspirations.

The CFA is right in rejecting this and other buildings like it because rather than being harmonious with a work of art that the city, they point to themselves and say "look at me!" Folks like Marc Fisher know that when they say designs like this are "striking and inviting mix of old and new" and want architects to "push the decrepit system into a new era," they are pushing their own agenda, not the ordered harmony of L'Enfant and the McMillan Commission but disharmony and discord.

This addition proposed is not something that defers to the city and its order, but it rather pushes itself as "innovation" and "evolution." It is, frankly neither innovative or an evolution, but rather another bland glass box calling attention to itself like so many others. The architects of this building are like a mischevious trumpeter in the midst of a symphony who begins to play his own tune, trying to focus the the attention of on himself, rather than on creating together a work of true beauty.


Anonymous said...

For centuries, architects thought it best to add harmoniously to cherished landmarks much the way one would try to harmonize into a social group. That's not to say you check your individualism at the door, just that there might be a greater good than just ones own particular view point. In our culture this is asking for a lot but I think this Linear Progression modernists are wedded to will be proven as a false narrative as we truly progress as a society. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

The priority of the Library is to provide the best possible service to the public. I'm really sorry that you don't like the balance of the design or that you think it detracts from the style of the city in which everything is supposed to blend in together.

But give me a break. We need a decent space to hold community meetings. We need more room to house additional materials for children and young adults. We need more space for people to use computers. We need a much wider stair well, etc.

The Library design we currently have serves the needs of an early 20th century world that no longer exists. Your organization serves a useful purpose, but frankly you need to reassess your values. Preserve the past, by all means, but not at the expense of the future. Don't stagnate, evolve.

Erik Bootsma said...

There is nothing in a classical scheme that would be prohibitive of the programatic needs of today.

Certainly when the library was built, it had a lot of "new" needs that weren't to be found in precedents to be found in antique libraries.

It is the great lie of modernism that says ONLY glass and steel Modernism as a style can serve the needs of our contemporary life.

A classical building would have been approved by now, would have had the support of the community and would have served the needs of the library.

The real question is why doesn't the city solicit bids by the classical architects who work today that could build it.

Look at Beeby's Washington Library in Chicago, and Franck, Lohsen's Library at Mundelein Seminary. Also see how NY's public library has evolved to current use, at least as well as our Mod MLK Library.

Anonymous said...

It's ironic that modernists still equate architectural/societal progress with style while they make the functional case for modernism. The world of the early 20th century has changed technologically, but the light, wind, and basic human mind has remained the same.

Needless to say the modernist style was born in the early 20th century so the evolution question is just as pertinent if you buy into this determinist ideology.

BTW, how on earth is a glass cube a functional solution for anything buy a green house?

Anonymous said...

Here's where you lose me:

>In DC the symbolism of
>the city ought to apply
>to every neighborhood,
>not just the core of the
>Federal area.

Yes, DC is the symbolic heart of the country, and debates about architecture here should keep that fact in mind. But DC is not ONLY a symbol of the country; it's a real city of hundreds of thousands of citizens who already put up with a municipal form warped to fit national needs. Let's not let a vague commitment to symbolism stand in the way of necessary additions and revisions to fundamental neighborhood institutions, such as libraries, community centers, police stations, etc.

There may be plenty wrong architecturally with the proposed addition to the Mt Pleasant library, but let's debate the proposal on its own merits. There's just no argument that the addition would have any effect on the symbolic value of the District in our national consciousness. Not even close. And if we're really worried about the symbolism of DC's neighborhoods, how about we start by attacking the poverty and crime that blight so many places just a few hundred meters from our monumental core? Attacking a proposed library addition in Mt Pleasant is a sideshow. It's the economic and social conditions of the District of Columbia that don't live up to the ideals of Our Nation's Capital.

Erik Bootsma said...

In truly great cities, Rome, Paris, etc., every neighborhood that is memorable in their nation's memory is one that is a work of art. Look to the Ara Pacis to see how it ruins Rome's heart, as well as others.

The society or politics that inhabits a city is not my business, or at least not my expertise, and I wont comment on it. However, if the society doesn't live up to the nation's ideals, how do we know? We know it does when the contrast between the beauty of the city and the ugliness around it is obvious. But what do we do to remedy this incongruity? Do we make the city ugly?

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I won't comment on the merits or demerits of the proposed addition to the library. And I am respectful of your wish to not turn this into a poltical discussion.

I would like to say, however, that I think that DC's neighborhoods should be off limits to CFA. I know they are allowed by statute to meddle in certain parts of the city like Georgetown and over federal projects (and perhaps city projects--I don't remember), but I think that they often suffer from mission creap.

I also think that it is not appropriate for any city, even a capital city, to become hostage to its own symbolism. London is not all Big Ben, Paris is not all Arc de Triomphe, and Rome, well frankly what is the symbol of Rome. Certainly not the presidential palace, and the ancient Forum is right next to the wedding cake Risorgimento monument, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, the Vatican?

I seem to have gotten off track...My point is that there are neighborhoods in DC (the majority of the city)that are, and should be, about the people who live in them and have lived in them. For those parts of the city I am not saying that there can't be planning and, yes, aesthetic safeguards, but they should not be governed by a federal commission. Although it may not be to your taste, there is nothing about the scale and location of the Mt. Pleasant Library addition that would in any way threathen the identity of the "official city" or the city that those of us who live here call home. In fact I would venture to say that a glass curtain wall in that location would be a great way of putting more "eyes on the street" in this oddly secluded and narrow street in an area where street crime is, unfortunately, a far too common occurance.

With no voting representation in Congress we are already second class citizens. Allowing us a little self-determination in neighbhorhoods that are almost exclusively used (and seen) by residents seems like a fairly reasonable request.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

One more thing. Have you been in Beeby's library in Chicago? If I am being nice I could blame the tragic interior finishes on value engineering rather than on Beeby's design. And the signage. yikes. But I don't think you can blame the awkward circulation on VE.

When I was still in high school or maybe even junior high I remember watching a PBS documentary on the competion for the library design. So when I finally saw the place for myself about 20 years later I didn't find the exterior particularly timeless, and the interior I thought was a total dog's breakfast.

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