Starchitect: The Destroyer of Worlds

In an interview later recalling the first successful nuclear test carried out at Los Alamos in 1945, Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted a line from the epic Hindu poem, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”  An apt description of what he achieved, the line may sound like the sort of bombastic speech one has come to expect from fantasy films and comic books.  In reality, the quotation is even more contextually appropriate for those who destroy in order to create, for it comes at a moment in which a prince realizes that his enemies on the other side of a battlefield are his family and friends.  The prince is reluctant to attack and try to kill them, but he is eventually persuaded by his charioteer to go ahead and slaughter them anyway, as it is his destiny.

In their sponsorship of much of contemporary architecture, this same sense of prideful, purpose-bent destruction seems to have infected the minds of many of those running our public and private institutions.  In the effort to appear hip and trendy, thereby attracting the fleeting attentions of donors and visitors, too many appear to have been possessed by the idea that in order to improve what they have, they must destroy or so alter it as to ruin what they possess.  Oftentimes they are helped in this endeavour by “starchitects”: those world-famous individuals who provide, albeit temporarily, a sense of cachet to a substantial building project.

One very well-known exemplar of this phenomenon is architect Frank Gehry, whose work and ideas I have deplored on this site many times.  A decade ago, Gehry was retained to add an extension to the Corcoran Gallery of Art here in downtown Washington, just across the street from the Old Executive Office Building.  The design, which would have tacked a huge bit of Gehry’s signature crumpled metal onto one of the most elegant Beaux-Arts buildings in the city, fortunately never came to fruition.  This was thanks to many factors, not least of which was the combination of public opposition and the inability of the Corcoran itself to raise the enormous sums required for building a Gehry project.

This week a group of students, faculty, and others filed a Complaint and Petition To Intervene in D.C. Superior Court, seeking to stop the trustees from breaking up the Corcoran.  Although only mentioning the proposed Gehry extension in passing, the pleadings focus on the inability to raise enough funds to renovate the existing museum, known as the Flagg Building, as evidence of the board’s neglect of its duties.  It may seem axiomatic or common sense to state that you don’t start building a new wing for your museum if you can’t pay for the upkeep of the old one, but the siren song of having a famous architect place his imprimatur on your institution appears to be too strong for many to resist.

Another “starchitect” well-known to the intelligentsia is Norman Foster, who turned the courtyard between the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery here in D.C. into a humid, chlorine-scented glass atrium reminiscent of a circa 1986 Marriott resort hotel.  The last time I strolled through the Kogod Courtyard, as the space is now known, I experienced rather an unpleasant sensation, as if I had wandered into an elderly lady’s bathroom.  I also wondered why on earth you would place such a massive, humidity-collecting space right next to two buildings containing art which is highly sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity.  Lord Foster’s work is yet another example of how a structure may look cool, but makes things worse, not better, for the institution that commissioned it.

Yesterday the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow’s great art museum, announced that it had selected a local Russian architect to design its extension, after a very public falling-out with Lord Foster.  The Pushkin and local architects split over Lord Foster’s ideas for the expansion, which would have involved demolition of several pre-Revolutionary buildings on the site, and his refusal to come to Moscow to oversee the gigantic project. which will cost at least $640 million.  For some reason, in this context I can’t help but think of supermodel Linda Evangelista’s quote, “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day.”  To be honest, the design for the new addition is rather inappropriate as well, but I suppose at least it will cost less, since the architect is not at brand-name level as was his predecessor.

Meanwhile, a report in Roll Call this week indicates that investigators from the House Appropriations Committee are now looking into the efforts of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which selected a rather atrocious and expensive design by Frank Gehry to try to build on the National Mall.  Thanks to efforts by the National Civic Arts Society and others, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Gehry’s carbuncle will ever scar the Nation’s front yard.  Yet unfortunately, a few hundred miles away, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has just announced that Gehry’s proposed renovation and expansion of their magnificent temple to the arts, world-famous even to non-art lovers from the “Rocky” films, will involve alteration of its beloved steps in order to accommodate Gehry’s plans.  Although most of Gehry’s work will be subterranean, it will cost the city between $350-500 million *if* there are no overruns.  In a town still reeling from the recession, this seems rather a lot to take on at the moment.

This institutional obsession with engaging in destruction for the sake of self-promotion is a disturbing way of going about getting people’s attention, a bit like getting a face or a neck tattoo.  In light of the fact that so often the architects being selected for these projects are chosen because of their fame, rather than their merits as a talented and competent practitioner of architecture, engaging one of them for a project which is supposed to last for generations seems the height of folly. In destroying what such institutions are supposed to be preserving and honoring, the only purpose they serve is the further inflation of their own egos.

Entrance steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Entrance steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

 

 

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Batman and the Basilica

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Tim Burton’s Batman, hard as it is to believe that so much time has passed.  At the time of its premiere, “Batman” was a revelation for many reasons, not least of which was the design of the film.  From lighting to sets to costumes, the movie continues to draw the eye even today, a combination of 1940′s film noir with the shocking colors of comic book exaggeration, reflecting the era in which Batman himself first appeared on newsstands.  Even the look of Vicki Vale, as played by Kim Basinger – full confession: I had a poster of her as Vale in my room as a teen – owed much to film noir actresses of the 1940′s, like Barbara Stanwyck and Veronica Lake.  Basinger of course, would later go on to win an Oscar for portraying a Veronica Lake call girl look-alike in the movie L.A. Confidential, itself an homage to the films of the 1940′s.

On a seemingly unrelated note, yesterday was the 162nd birthday of the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1956), whose work the reader is already very familiar with if he is a regular visitor to these pages.  Combining a host of design influences from Gothic castles to Hindu temples, Japanese forts to Arabian palaces, his work is impossible to categorize, but never fails to make a profound impression.  Interestingly however, one of the centerpieces of Burton’s take on the story of the Dark Knight owes a great deal to the uniqueness of this architect.

British designer Anton Furst was charged with helping bring the Gotham City of Burton’s imagination to life on screen, and managed such a remarkable achievement that he won an Academy Award for his efforts.  Mixing various elements from the history of architectural design into a stunning, if oppressive whole, Furst’s greatest challenge would prove to be that of Gotham City Cathedral, where the climactic final conflict between Batman and The Joker takes place.  In trying to come up with a design for the building, Furst realized that the right reference for this singular element was the work of Antoni Gaudí.

In an interview he gave for a book accompanying the release of the Burton film, Furst explained how he tackled the problem of creating a structure which would fit into the world of the Caped Crusader, as envisioned by Burton:

The problem here was to create a cathedral which was taller than the tallest skyscraper and still make it credible. It had to be over 1,000 feet (330 metres) high. I then remembered that some of the 1930s skyscrapers in New York produced a cathedral effect at the top by means of interesting gothic detail. I began to solve the puzzle…I basically stretched Gaudi into a skyscraper and added a castle feel which was especially influenced by the look of a Japanese fortress.

Gaudí himself was strongly influenced by Japanese design in his own work, a fact which is not lost upon the Japanese themselves, who are among the most enthusiastic patrons of his work and legacy.  Japanese individuals and corporations have been particularly generous over the past several decades in their contributions toward the ongoing work of completing the architect’s magnum opus. the still-under-construction Basilica of the Sagrada Familia.  When completed, the Basilica will be the tallest church in the world at 560 feet (170 meters), although that is nowhere near the height of the fictional cathedral created by Furst for the film.  Fortunately, despite its massive size, the completed Basilica will be nowhere near as dark and frightening as Furst’s creation.

Interestingly enough, just a few years ago DC Comics came out with a special one-off Batman adventure, which was set in Barcelona and featured a climactic encounter between Batman and Killer Croc at the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia.  In doing so the comic’s writers and designers referenced the tale of St. George and the Dragon, one of the favorite legends for Catalans since St. George is the patron saint of both Barcelona and Catalonia.  However one wonders whether they were aware of the fact that they were not the first to see the potential connection between the Dark Knight and Catalonia’s most famous architect.

Cover art for "Batman in Barcelona" by Jim Lee (2009)

Cover art for “Batman in Barcelona” by Jim Lee (2009)

Making the Case for a New Georgetown Fountain

With news that EastBanc may be purchasing the site of the gas station across the street from the Four Seasons,  Georgetown developer Anthony Lanier finds himself in rather an important position, when it comes to the impression that both residents and visitors have of one of the Nation’s Capital.  For starters, EastBanc is already at work on plans to redevelop the site currently occupied by another gas station at the opposite end of M Street, the neighborhood’s main East-West thoroughfare, right across from the Key Bridge.  As travelers come into D.C. from the GW Parkway, it will be, along with the Car Barn and the spires of Georgetown University, one of the first impressions they get of the city.

This second project, at the other end of what Georgetown residents refer to as our “village”, is positioned on a parcel of land sandwiched between M Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where they cross over Rock Creek Parkway into the city proper.  EastBanc will be building directly across from arguably the most prestigious hotel in town, at least if you are one of the foreign heads of state or movie stars who regularly stay or dine there.  It’s a given in the life of the village that at least several times a week, a motorcade or flock of black SUV’s will be tying up traffic around the entrance to the Four Seasons for several minutes.  Even yesterday, coming home from church, the blare of police sirens clearing a path for a visiting V.I.P. swept up behind me on their way to the hotel.  The gas station however, has long been a curious eyesore, a leftover of what Georgetown looked like decades ago, when its commercial district had become somewhat seedy and run-down.

Mr. Lanier, himself a Georgetown resident, has done a great deal to provide both new and renovated, updated, retail and residential space in a nearly 300-year-old neighborhood where completely new construction is very rare, thanks to the entire 1-square mile area being listed as a historic district.  Although a few pockets of seedy Georgetown remain, largely concentrated within a 2-3 block stretch of the area’s primary North-South axis, Wisconsin Avenue, on the whole the commercial district is much improved in appearance.  Blocks where once there was nothing apart from warehouses or industrial buildings have been converted to modern hotels, apartments, and condominiums.  Because of the possibility of Mr. Lanier now redeveloping this prominent “gateway” site in Georgetown,  now seems as good an opportunity as any to bring up a project which would not only make this development look better, but bring a much-needed public space back into use for the area.

Directly abutting the land which EastBanc is looking to acquire is a somewhat desolate, hemispherical public plaza, occupied by some benches, a lot of brick pavers, and weeds.  In the past however, this spot used to feature a fountain which was considered one of the best in Washington, and DC has a lot of fountains. The piece was originally installed in the 1880′s, but was replaced with a smaller fountain decades later.  Both of these fountains are now long-gone, but the former, larger one still exists, sort of.  After leaving Georgetown, it went on to grace the now-vanished Truxton Circle, in a different part of the city.  Sadly, the fountain is now in pieces, crumbling away in Fort Washington National Park in Maryland.

Although the original fountain is apparently irretrievably damaged, I for one would like to renew my call for making this, one of the most important entries to Georgetown and indeed the Capital City, a more inviting place.  Would it be possible for EastBanc to bring back the fountain which used to stand here – or rather, a reproduction of it?  Or perhaps a more modern fountain would be possible?

The impression that so many visitors, both drivers and walkers, form of Georgetown when they enter from either end of M Street is hugely important.  The soaring spires of the university at one end cannot, of course, be replicated at the other.  However, given the comparatively lower elevation of the Rock Creek end of the neighborhood, and the proximity of the parcel in question to that body of water, it would only seem appropriate to bring back a public space with the kind of splashing, elegant water feature which previous residents and visitors enjoyed.  On a hot summer day when everyone, tourists and townies alike, is desperate for a place to rest in the shade and cool off, the return of a fountain-park would be a welcome addition to a place which, because of its 18th century village layout, has so relatively few open areas for people to congregate.  And of course, for EastBanc’s new development, if it happens, having an attractive place for residents of your new building to look at would make sense, as well.

So just a thought for you there, Mr. Lanier; now, the ball’s in your court.

Remnants of the former M Street fountain in Fort Washington, Maryland

Fragments of the former M Street fountain in Fort Washington, Maryland