July 21, 2010

Washington Monument Grounds Competition, Why Bother?

The vision for Monument Gardens from the McMillan plan by Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens Commision of Fine Arts

Last week a coalition of Washington DC planners announced the National Ideas Competition for the Washington Monument Grounds. The announcement of this open design competition to redesign the grounds surrounding the Washington Monument, has prompted a lot of response from commenters on Greater Greater Washington and elsewhere, but I simply ask, will it be worth the bother? I am apathetic about this competition for two reasons, one based on my knowledge of the current state of architecture, and second because there already is a great plan for the site.

I’m afraid this competition, like the recent Eisenhower competition, and African American Museum competition, will be an exercise in playing with a stacked deck, stacked only for the modernist. The Competition states that a jury of “respected Americans who are leaders and creative thinkers in the fields of history, design, civics education, art, and science” will be judging the multitude of entries to whittle the competition down to twenty-five semi-finalists and then five finalists that the public will be allowed to vote on.

Will this be the vision for the Washington Monument as well?
Eisenhower Memorial proposal by Frank Gehry

While having the appearance of public input, the jury will have complete discretion to choose which entries will make it to the finals. The steering committee appears to have not a single prominent classical architect involved, leaving me with the distinct feeling that the result will be another confused and ridiculous modernist accretion to our beautiful, classical, city. The shame is that the professionals and academics running this competition will claim to have chosen what the people want, but will undoubtedly chose what they want, ignoring how poll after poll have proven the public’s love of the classical.

The biggest reason however is that the grounds of the Washington Monument already have a tremendous, beautiful and amazing plan, just one that has not been realized. In the 1901 McMillan Plan’s re-envisioning of the original L’Enfant layout of Washington DC, the Monument was to be centerpiece of the Mall, terraced fountains and railings and a large triumphal stairway descending towards gardens and parterres beautifying the center of the city. Not only is it part of the original plan that so many architects and planners profess to have a reverence for, but moreover it’s simply the best solution to the problem.

In 1900, the Monument Grounds were not so different from what we see today, described by many then as now as a wasteland of open space. The plan developed by Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim and Augustus Saint-Gaudens well researched and planned to be the symbolic heart of a great nation and everything from the width of the Mall, the spacing of the trees and the heights of the buildings along it was considered so to create a unifying, beautiful and magnificent effect.

One of the pavilions of the Monument Gardens from the McMillan Plan, which would have provided shade and visual interest for those strolling the grounds. - from the Commission of Fine Arts

This part of the mall is the keystone to the entire plan, one that not finishing leaves the entire work much the poorer, like not painting the nose of the Mona Lisa. To instead propose an alternative plan of modernist architecture hatched in the halls of architectural academia would be to deface this magnificent work of art with a monstrous carbuncle.

Finish the Plan, don’t destroy it.

July 12, 2010

Orange Diocese Selects Same Architect from Oakland for New Cathedral

When I read the other day that the Diocese of Orange California had chosen Craig Hartman of Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) to design the new Christ Our Savior Cathedral in Santa Ana California, I was not at all surprised. Several months ago, Bishop Tod Brown tipped his hand that he had something in mind for the Diocese of Orange when he sent a request to Rome to remain in his office for five years past mandatory retirement age of 75 so that he might guide the long stalled Cathedral project.

What is surprising however is that a Bishop would chose to be swayed by today's latest architectural fads rather than engage and embrace the
interest in beauty and tradition in architecture and art growing amongst the laity of the Catholic Church. On the contrary, Bishop Brown has chosen to use the Cathedral as quite strident rejection traditionally-minded people when the diocese stated "Bishop Brown has emphasized the diocese has no interest in copying the past."

So far nothing is known about the design other than this statement and what can be assumed from the portfolio of the architect and his well known (and widely criticized) design for the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland California. It is likely that the design for Orange's Cathedral will be in many ways entirely similar to the sleek modernist glass and steel monstrosity in the Bay Area. Like Oakland we can assume that the Cathedral will be devoid of all traditional indications that it is a church, both in its overall plan or liturgical layout, but also that apart from a few out of place works of ethnic or abstract art placed in random corners, the only thing that will say "this is a church" will be the sign on the highway.

Cathedral of Christ the Light by Craig Hartman of SOM

From the perspective of modernist architects, the elimination of ornament and beauty has been the modernist ideal for almost a century, but it is particularly disturbing that the church, or rather a few misguided members of the older "progressive" generation have embraced this line of reasoning for the purposes of being "culturally sensitive."

Recently I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Hartman speak about the Cathedral of Christ the Light at a conference at Catholic University of America. Hartman spoke in his talk of how when designing the Cathedral in Oakland of the need to build a church that was sensitive to the dozens of different cultures and ethnicities found in the Catholic population of the Bay area. Of course the most appropriate way he found to fill to that need was to create... a glass and steel box. To Hartman, the only way to create a building is of course to strip it of any symbolism or meaning that might refer to any particular culture. The reasoning according to Hartman and other modernists is in order to create a church that is culturally sensitive to all ethnic groups is to create a church that refers to the traditions of none of them.

If such a sophistical line of argument were genuine, (which I believe it is not, it's simply finding a convenient excuse to create what they always would have done), the argument is condescending to the point of being downright offensive, as they essentially are arguing that ethnic minorities are so unsophisticated as to be unable understand any other culture than their own.

Los Angeles' Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is also stripped of cultural symbols.

Experience however has proven the converse to be true, that diverse ethic communities embrace and love aspects of other cultures when they are introduced. For instance where large immigrant populations from Central America have settled in formerly Polish neighborhoods of Chicago, the Polish icons and paintings still hang proudly.

But as the saying goes: "if your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail," the modernist architect argues that stripping a building of all cultural meaning and symbolism is the only way to make it speak to a "universal" audience in the Church. The truth is that beauty is the most universally known thing to all human beings, and a beautiful church is the most culturally sensitive church one can design, so that all people may love it. Beauty and the embrace of traditions, rather than creating division, are capable of creating a deeper, richer and fuller synthesis of cultures than the cold, bare and lifeless designs modernist architects dream up for the Church.

Sadly, should Bishop Brown stay on for the next five years, this is precisely what the parishioners of the Diocese of Orange will get. This however is in my mind the last gasp of the generation of Church leaders enamored with the modern. Indeed I believe that Bishop Brown knows this and that he is taking on this project in his twilight years because he knows it is the last chance to impose his particular idea of the Church and what it's art should be.

Proposal for Oakland Cathedral by Domiane Forte (courtesy of the designer)

However, the people of the Diocese of Orange still have a chance, before it's too late, to express a desire for a beautiful Cathedral worthy of the traditions of the Church. While in Oakland the people spoke up too late, as the grass-roots campaign to have Dom Forte's design for Oakland replace Hartman's came very late into the process, people still have a chance to speak out in Orange. Perhaps a number of traditional designs be proposed and the people of Orange decide whether any of them or Hartman's design are better? Of course Bishop Brown and Hartman won't let that happen, as we all know what the result would be. As always, true beauty wins.

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