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




The Statues That Washington Forgot

Now that the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery has announced it will be closing for major renovations for the next three years, it seems an opportune moment to address a subject which one of my readers alerted me to some time ago.  The grand museum on Pennsylvania Avenue here in Washington, across the street from the even grander Old Executive Office Building, was known as “The Louvre of Washington” when it opened in 1874, thanks to its combination of French Second Empire style and luxurious gallery spaces.  It was the first home of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which by 1897 had grown so large that it moved to its present location a block away.

However the keen-eyed  observer of the building will notice something amiss on its imposing red brick and sandstone: why are there only two statues, when there appears to have been space for so many more?  The answer, as it turns out, is that the museum was originally adorned with many over-life-sized statues of important figures from Western civilization.  So where have these works gone?

The eleven statues that originally stood along the facade, each standing around 7 feet high, were carved in Rome to order for William Corcoran by American sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1844-1917).  After the Corcoran collection left the building in 1897, it was turned over to the Judiciary, and served as a Federal courthouse for the next 50 years.  Ezekiel’s statues were subsequently removed from the exterior, since it was determined that they had no relevance to the new use of the building, and in 1901 they were sold at auction to local heiress Evelyn Walsh.

Walsh owned what was formerly known as the Friendly Estate in NW Washington; a gigantic expanse of land that was later sold off and subdivided into numerous communities.  She arranged the Ezekiel statues around her swimming pool, and presumably bathed under the appreciative gaze of Da Vinci, among others.  Through subsequent auctions after the sale of her estate, the collection of statues was eventually split up among several owners in Virginia.

Meanwhile, by the 1950’s and continuing through the Kennedy Administration, Congress began to consider a proposal that the old, crumbling Corcoran museum be demolished, so that a new and more efficient courthouse could be built in its place.  Eventually LBJ intervened, thanks to lobbying pressure from people like Jackie Kennedy, historic preservationists, and S. Dillon Ripley, the influential Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution for many years.  In 1965 the building was turned over to that body, and following renovations it opened to the public in 1972 as the Renwick Gallery, a museum of American craft and design.

Today the statues carved by Ezekiel for the facade of what is now the Renwick Gallery stand in the Botanical Garden of the city of Norfolk, Virginia, hundreds of miles away.  An owner of six of the sculptures donated his to that city, for placement in the public garden back in 1963.  Eventually the owners of the remaining five were located, and persuaded to donate their statues to the city of Norfolk as well.

Several months ago a friend from Twitter alerted me to the fact that he had taken his family to see these same gardens, and while admiring the statues was surprised to learn that they had been transported to his city from Washington.  While originally these sculptures would have had at least some protection from the elements, standing in their covered cubbyholes studded across the facade of the Renwick Gallery, for decades now they have been completely exposed to the elements, standing out unprotected in the snow, rain, and summer heat which characterize this part of the country.  No doubt standing around Mrs. Walsh’s swimming pool did not do them much good either.

While the Ezekiel statues are no longer the property of the Federal government, it is a pity in some ways that they cannot be returned to their original home on the facade of the building for which they were designed.  Today, copies of two of the statues – those of artists Peter Paul Rubens and Esteban Murillo –  stand in their original niches on the facade.  They seem isolated and forgotten, without purpose, particularly without their brethren.

Admittedly, the Renwick, unlike the Corcoran which preceded it in the space, is not an institution that attempts to provide a reasonably encyclopaedic overview of the history of Western art.  However one cannot help but think that those empty niches ought to be filled with what was originally placed there by the architects, artists, and donors who built it.  Instead, these original works of art are now covered in mold, crumbling away in a public park, leaving the building originally designed to display them lacking a crucially important part of its intended decoration.


“Leonardo Da Vinci” by Moses Jacob Ezekiel (c. 1871)
Botanical Garden, Norfolk, Virginia