DC’s Underground “Cathedral” To Be Revealed

One of the most iconic structures in America may be about to reveal its hidden depths to the public.

The Lincoln Memorial, which opened to the public in 1922, is well-known to anyone who has visited the Capital or seen it on film. It was designed by architect Henry Bacon (1866-1924), working with his frequent collaborator, sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931). As a monument to one of our greatest Presidents, it stands as a singularly impressive piece of architecture at the western end of the National Mall here in Washington. As a public gathering place, its steps have served as a podium for significant historic events, such as soprano Marian Anderson’s legendary performance of 1939, or Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963.

The building has long served as a backdrop in popular films and television, as well, from “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” to “Forest Gump”. Clint Eastwood and Rene Russo sat on its steps eating ice cream at the end of 1993’s “In The Line Of Fire” for example. Mark Wahlberg came upon an unpleasant surprise there at the conclusion of the 2001 remake of “The Planet Of The Apes”, where director Tim Burton chose to play with the monumental sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, rather than the Statue of Liberty, as had been the case in the 1968 original.

What most people do not know however, is that this massive Greek temple – Doric on the outside, Ionic on the inside – sits atop an equally massive foundation which is, if not as impressive as the structure which it supports, nevertheless a work of wonder in itself. The undercroft, as this area is known, has been described as a “cathedral-like” space, and with good reason. Rising to three stories in height at its highest point, what is essentially a concrete basement has some rather grand passages, that would look perfectly at home in one of the dwarf kingdoms in “The Lord of the Rings”:


Thanks to a gift from philanthropist David Rubenstein, who wants to see the Lincoln Memorial fully restored for its 100th birthday in 2022, the National Park Service is now planning to rehabilitate this underground space in order to expand the useable footprint of the building. Currently a warren of crisscrossing pipes, electrical conduits, and – presumably – rat holes, the hope is that the undercroft could be reconfigured to permit areas for exhibition space and visitor facilities. This would hopefully allow the main floor of the building, which houses the monumental statue of President Lincoln, to be freed from the ignominy of pedestrian things such as a gift shop.

In order for this to happen, a number of bodies charged with preserving DC’s historic buildings will need to give approval, and that is no small thing. Previous attempts to make use of this invisible, wasted space have been shot down before. Yet given the new underground visitors centers at the Capitol (currently open) and the Vietnam Memorial (opening in 2020), it is not hard to imagine that a similar solution may be forthcoming for the Lincoln Memorial.

Filmmakers should not get too excited however: as of 2017, filming from within the Memorial is currently banned, and presumably that ban would extend to any basement rehab, as well.

​So Long, Serota: Another Art Museum Returns To Reason

With the stepping down of Sir Nicholas Serota, after a thirty-year effort to turn the Tate Gallery from a dull if respectable art museum into a schizophrenic, self-congratulatory fashion brand, the art world has been relieved of one of the most overrated talents to strut upon the world stage since Herodias persuaded her daughter to commit murder through striptease.

Although he was not the first person to implement it, one of Serota’s most influential legacies was the thematic “re-hang”, which was adopted by many collections around the world. This involves the rearranging of works in a museum’s permanent collection to more resemble temporary, thematic exhibitions. The resulting juxtapositions are based not on the chronological and stylistic developments which provide a logical framework for the study of art history, but rather on an attempt to explore idiosyncratic subjects or even personal feelings, often as selected by a particular curator.

To be fair, there are merits in not always sticking to a strictly linear timeline in the display of art, at least in certain circumstances. Historic homes are one instance; temporary exhibitions exploring particular subjects are another. For the most part however, at least before Serota et al, public institutions usually stuck with logically-assembled displays for the works in their permanent collections. Thus, if you visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Egyptian art collection is – surprise – displayed in the Egyptian galleries, while the French Impressionists are not.

Like all fads however, the a-historical display of art seems to be headed to the clearance racks. Regular readers will recall that a couple of years back, I reported on how Tate Britain, which was the original nucleus of Serota’s powerbase, rejected his policies and went back to its role as a preserver and educator on the subject of British art history. About a year later, I applauded the new chairman of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Met, who rejected the idea of turning the public art museum into something “mushy”.  

Now the Art Newspaper is reporting that, a little more than a decade after The Getty “Serota-ized” itself, the powerhouse Los Angeles museum is going back to an historically-grounded display of its permanent collection:

The Australian director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Timothy Potts, proposed the rehang when he was first recruited to lead the Los Angeles institution in 2012. Themed galleries are “fine as a social history of art”, says Potts, who is a specialist in ancient art. But chronology, he says, is “the only way you can understand the direction of stylistic change”.

The Getty’s return to chronology is part of a wider trend in US museums. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, reopened its East Building last September with a clear historical narrative of Modern art. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art recently closed a year-long presentation of works from the 1960s, installed by year across nine galleries.

Hopefully even more institutions will be following suit, now that Serota is gone, and the teachings of his disciples have been anathematized by more traditional cultural institutions. I could care less what happens in museums of contemporary art, of course. But it would be nice if the leadership of traditional art institutions such as The Prado, a museum whose re-hang becomes a more painful experience every time I visit, would realize that it is time to abandon the faddish, and return to the serious study and presentation of the works entrusted to their care.

Piano Ignobile: An Ugly New Home For Ugly New Art In Spain

With tomorrow’s opening of the Centro Botín, a contemporary arts center in the Spanish city of Santander, the art world will have another ugly space in which to display ugly art, and the architecture world will have another white elephant to fawn over. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Italian starchitect Renzo Piano, perhaps most infamous for the Centre Pompidou in Paris and The Shard in London, this is Piano’s first building in Spain. Hopefully it will also be his last in that country.

In this museum Piano has succeeded in marring the already not-terribly-pretty waterfront of the city of Santander as he has that of other cities, such as his hometown of Genoa. There, in addition to the usual ugly pavilions that one has come to expect from contemporary waterside redevelopments, he constructed a giant terrarium which has nothing at all to do with the sea, and a rather pointless rotating crane with an observation capsule attached. Presumably he did this so you can see just how bad an architect he is from a great height.

While designing the Centro Botín, Piano maintains that he was consciously avoiding the so-called “Bilbao Effect”. As I’ve explained previously, this is a touchstone in contemporary architecture which takes its name from the impact of Frank Gehry’s (awful) Guggenheim Museum in another northern Spanish city, where a singular structure was built to draw in the gawkers, and hopefully revitalize both its neighborhood and the city as a whole. Such a structure has been the unholy grail of mayors, city councils, and museum boards for nearly two decades now.

Unfortunately, Piano’s conscious decision to avoid the showmanship of a Gehry or Zaha Hadid-style building does not mean that he has built a better building. The assymetrical halves of the Centro Botín, with their flimsy-looking posts and exposed gangways, look cheap and shoddy. They resemble an abandoned airport terminal more than a cultural institution built to stand for generations.

Anyone with a basic understanding of construction can tell you that you cannot build a glass structure supported on metal, plop it by the seaside, and expect it to long survive the corrosive effects of salt water and sea air. Keep in mind that Santander is not in the hot and perpetually sunny south of Spain, where it hardly ever rains. Rather, it is in the north of the country, where it rains roughly every other day between October through April, and has an average humidity of over 70%. In addition, furious winter storms come barreling in off the Atlantic with hurricane force winds during the winter months.

Lest you think that this scrivener is alone in his mocking of this building, a Spanish blogger has extensively catalogued some of the weather, public safety, and other concerns that may turn this contemporary carbuncle into a disaster for the city and for the project’s investors. Click through the pages and you can see how the museum will cause a myriad of problems, even as revised from the more blocky, original proposal. Whether or not you can read Spanish, you can clearly see from the illustrations how the net effect of the building will be decidedly negative.

It’s regrettable that the officialdom of Santander has decided to mar the coastline of their city for at least another 30 years or so, until the museum has to be pulled down for structural failure – as will inevitably happen. Fortunately I will never have to see this thing, but personally, it gets rather tiresome reading over and over again about how a spectacular new cultural institution has been built which is utter rubbish. It happens so often that I could probably blog about it every day and never run out of material.

So rather than fight against the inevitable, I can simply chalk up the expense and waste of this structure to the old adage, stupid is as stupid does. Let the contemporary art establishment have its way, and let us laugh at their expense. For when the sea eventually comes in and destroys their latest bibelot, it will at least have the added benefit of destroying a lot of garbage art along with a garbage