One Ring To Rule Them All: A Monumental Controversy In Wales

In the world of galactically stupid public art projects, we may have found a new frontrunner.

The government of Wales recently held a competition to design a monument and visitor enhancements on the site of the ruined castle of Flint, in the northern part of the country. The winning entry, called “Iron Ring”, features a giant, cantilevered metal bridge in the shape of a partially-buried circle. The design was submitted by an English architectural firm based in London, which in and of itself seems rather bizarre – there are no competent architects or gifted artists in Wales? – and which may, in part, explain why many people find this proposed structure deeply offensive: not so much on a design level, but on a cultural one.

I must admit, as much as I instinctively dislike “Iron Ring” to some degree, there is something rather cool about its design, or at least in how it will appear at night (see accompanying illustration below.) Given all of the inscriptions running around it, I can’t help but think of The One Ring from J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic novels. With its dramatic, ruined castle backdrop, I could see future LOTR-themed cosplay weddings taking place on or beneath it.

There’s a slight problem here, however, which brings us out of the world of nerd fiction into that of serious history. For you see, the “Iron Ring” is a term used to describe the group of castles built in Wales by an invading England, as part of the latter’s efforts to conquer and subjugate their neighbors during the Middle Ages. If you are a Welsh nationalist, or even just a proud Welshman, you can well understand why the reference to Sauron is perhaps an all-too-apt one in this set of circumstances.

England’s King Edward I subdued the pesky Welsh by systematically building a series of massive fortifications which allowed his armies to quash any resistance. At the same time this allowed English settlers to move in and take land for themselves, at the expense of the local population, who were forbidden to live in the towns that sprang up around these military installations. Flint Castle was among the first of the structures in the “Iron Ring” to go up as part of that process of colonization.

What’s even weirder than a modern-day Englishman building a monument to the crushing of the Welsh people, is paying for it using Welsh taxpayer money. As one Welsh professor commented, hundreds of thousands of pounds in public funds are “being spent on a sculpture that is essentially a monument to Wales’ conquest.” Interestingly as well, despite the somewhat clumsily organized phenomenon of Welsh devolution over the last 20 years, the Welsh government has failed to commission any substantial monuments to commemorate Welsh history…up until now.

Here in the U.S., we are ourselves are going through a period of reconsideration with respect to monuments that were constructed in the South long after the end of the Civil War, specifically those that honor rebel leaders. As David A. Graham writes in The Atlantic, there are fine distinctions to be drawn in the discussion about what to do with monuments to individuals or causes that are now considered to be controversial or deeply offensive. Yet the difference between the U.S. and Welsh situations is sharply delineated by the fact that in this country we are talking about already-existing structures; in Wales the issue is about something which has not yet been built. It would be unfathomable, I suspect, to a majority of Americans living in the present-day to use taxpayer money to construct a brand-new memorial to Robert E. Lee, for example.

So far over 10,000 people have signed an online petition against the construction of what we might call “Iron Ring 2.0”, and there have been a raft of complaints about the proposed monument popping up in the international press from more outspoken Welsh historians, politicians, and opinion makers. It remains to be seen whether the National Assembly will pay more than lip service to any of these complaints. But whether from a lack of sensitivity, or out of utter stupidity, they have certainly put themselves into quite a pickle.

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.

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