In two recent articles, Christopher Knight, the Los Angeles Times' art critic, has been lashing out at the National Civic Art Society, the nonprofit I lead. Our sin? We have been among the most vocal and persuasive opponents of Frank Gehry's monstrous design for the Eisenhower Memorial planned for the National Mall. As the Air Force says, "If you're not taking flak, you're not over the target."
A flak it is. A very nervous, increasingly backtracking Gehry appears to have tasked Knight with defending the indefensible. Playing the serf to his lord and master, the critic has abandoned whatever intellectual honesty he previously possessed. Instead of engaging with our formidable and painstakingly documented criticisms of the Memorial -- including the undemocratic, secretive "competition" that selected it -- Gehry's henchman desperately flails at us ad hominem. Alas, he's holding the wrong end of the hatchet.
Knight tries to characterize and thereby dispatch our Board of Directors as a right-wing boys' club. Putting aside the irrelevance of the charge -- are conservatives not permitted a voice regarding our national memorials? -- if he is correct, why is our newest director an African-American Democrat? Why are there a number of distinguished women on our Board of Advisors? And why in our report did we highlight Gehry's own unflattering remarks on women in architecture?: "Ours is a typical male chauvinist pig office, although we don't intend it to be that way, of course. It has not been easy keeping women."
There is no necessary connection between one's politics and one's view of architecture. The membership of a sister organization, The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, appears to be predominantly Democrat and liberal. But it doesn't matter. Like the vast majority of Americans, we do not believe that the design of our national memorials should be a partisan issue. It is Knight and other Gehry lackeys who are trying to make this a matter or identity politics since they know they will lose the aesthetic argument.
Consider that it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself who ensured that the magnificent Jefferson Memorial (1943) was built over the objections of the Modernist architectural establishment. Anything but a political conservative, FDR 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....
Knight attempts to portray my organization as a bunch of toga-clad reactionaries stuck in the marble age -- Cicero or death! We allegedly accept the "kooky, aesthetic equivalent to constitutional originalism" that the "Neoclassical style... should be the visual language of American officialdom in perpetuity." We will bury you in pilasters and pediments! To quote a little blond Celt, "These Romans are crazy!"
If you believe the title of Knight's most recent hit-piece, "Foes of Eisenhower Memorial Design Hit Snag," yes, we have been snagged -- on the tangled steel "tapestry" at the heart of Gehry's design (shocking photos of the rat's nest here). If Gehry's Memorial contains a reference to antiquity, it is Medusa's serpentine hair.
Ever disingenuous, don't expect Knight to tell you what we truly stand for. Herewith our credo (apologies for the Latin): We are defenders of traditional or humanistic architecture, which can be summed up simply. A structure should aim for three qualities:
1) Firmness: It is structurally solid and sound, and appears to be solid and sound.
2) Commodity: It suits its purpose and context.
3) Delight: It pleases the eye.
These three qualities are first recorded by Vitruvius, the ancient Roman architect who is to architecture what Plato and Aristotle are to philosophy. The three qualities have been explicit touchstones throughout the history of Western architecture, including for Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Alberti in the Renaissance; Thomas Jefferson and Pierre L'Enfant in the 18th century; the developers of the National Mall at the turn of the 20th; and the designers of the Supreme Court and Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials in the "modern era." If we are "revivalists" -- which for Knight is a sneer term, the Renaissance be damned -- then so are all of these "retrograde" architects. Even the medal for the Pritzker Prize, the prestigious architecture award that usually goes to anti-traditionalists, contains the motto "FIRMNESS, COMMODITY, DELIGHT" in Roman type. (As we demonstrate in our report, Gehry's ghostly, discordant, and ugly design for the Eisenhower Memorial fails all three tests.)
The classical is one of the world's great traditional styles. So, too, are the ancient Egyptian and classical Islamic styles. But our area of concern is America, in particular our nation's capital. The three core buildings of the U.S. government, our greatest national monuments, and the National Mall are all classical in style, specifically in the American idiom enacted by the Founding Architects. Would anyone confuse the White House or Capitol, eternal symbols of our nation, for buildings in a foreign land? Knight himself has previously praised the classical genius of the Mall:
The National Mall in Washington is the most powerfully designed landscape in the country, the single greatest artistic monument to America's founding democratic principles. Its carefully structured open spaces articulate the framework of our defining open society. As such, it embodies an unprecedented phenomenon in world history.
Knight has also called L'Enfant's baroque plan for the city "renowned" and said that the 1901-2 McMillan Plan, which created the Mall as we know it, was devised by a "brilliant team of artists.... Their inventive ground plan embodies the rational order of Enlightenment thought." With this we heartily agree. One of our gravest charges against Gehry's Memorial is that it does violence to the L'Enfant and McMillan Plans that Knight -- and the entire country -- so admires.
By Jupiter, Knight has gone so far as to have bestowed a laurel on the Federal style:
Not by accident has Neoclassical architecture been the most common building style for museums. In these modernized Greek or Roman temples, where the "forward march" of natural and cultural evolution would be enshrined, the perceived greatness of the present is framed by the established greatness of the past.
Wait, there's more! Said Knight previously:
[The Elgin Marbles'] 1806 arrival at London's British Museum created an enormous stir, fueling a classical revival in everything from art to politics and establishing the foundation on which modern culture in Europe and the United States was built.
So I guess we classicists are the true moderns after all.
Is it "nostalgia" to ask that the Eisenhower Memorial "shall blend with the essential lines of the old"? Would Knight like to see Paris "improved" by some more oppressive skyscrapers à la the Tour Montparnasse, a Modernist middle finger to centuries of humane harmony? Should Venice, Rome, and Florence get with the times, and hire a starchitect to jazz up their hopelessly backwards cities?
Anyone looking to see what happens when civic architecture abandons such traditional values as harmony and beauty need look no further than Boston's Brutalist City Hall, San Francisco's schizo Federal Building, London's City Hall (a leaning tower of pickle), and the truly bizarre Scottish Parliament Building. In D.C., there is the wasteland of L'Enfant Plaza, the alien gun-tower Hirshhorn Museum (straight out of Battlestar Galactica), and HUD Headquarters a.k.a. the Ministry of Monstrosity.
Architectural Modernism and its deformed descendants have been utter failures both aesthetically and functionally, not to mention aberrations from the entire sweep of civilization. Their works and underlying ideas are headed for the scrap heap of history, where they will join Gehry's Eisen curtain.