The National Civic Art Society appreciates Roger K. Lewis’s column [“Why classical architecture makes little sense for today’s Washington,” May 19] arguing that we are wrong to think that classical architecture continues to be the proper style for Washington’s civic architecture. This is a debate the public — the victims of contemporary architecture — needs to know about.
For too long, modernists have avoided publicly engaging with their opponents, just as political dictators know better than to ask the people what they want. Professor Lewis noted that today “almost all practicing architects in the United States are, in the broadest sense, modernists.” Yes, and in the Middle Ages all astronomers were astrologers.
While the debate between humanistic and anti-humanistic architecture is an important one, it is not necessary to settle it when looking to the specific case of Washington so long as one accepts that harmony, civility, and indigenous tradition are of the utmost importance to our urban fabric. Also consider that with few or no exceptions, all official U.S. iconography, symbols, music, mottos and ceremonies are traditional or classical in substance and style. Why should our most important civic buildings and monuments be any different?
Suppose the American people passed a constitutional amendment creating a fourth branch of government, and Congress needed to decide what style the headquarters of that new branch should be. Should it blend in with the Capitol, White House, and the “modern-era” Supreme Court (1935)? Or should it be a modernist structure that clashes with those fusty old piles, so stinking of ideas and ideals whose time has passed?
Should the new edifice be white in color and clad in noble materials such as marble and limestone? Or should it be skinned in black steel, gray concrete, and other technologically “advanced” materials, which better capture our disenchanted times? Modernists contend that our age is radically different from the past; they refuse to acknowledge that we are still in our First Republic: the American era began with the Declaration of Independence and continues unabated today.
There is at least one thing Professor Lewis and we agree upon. Frank Gehry’s avant-garde design for the Eisenhower Memorial is wholly inappropriate. This is not surprising since Gehry’s signature works represent the reductio ad absurdum of modernism: deconstructionism. Deconstructionists are to architecture as anarchists are to the state. They reject and seek to tear down the values constitutive of architecture itself — beauty, order, functionality, solidity. Indeed, the leading deconstructionist architect Bernard Tschumi, the former dean of Columbia University’s School of Architecture, has explicitly called himself a nihilist.
What the public senses intuitively, the critics ought to make explicit: The Eisenhower Memorial’s inhuman style, scope and scale represent a fundamental cleavage with — a sundering of the foundations of — our tradition of presidential memorials. It is a deconstruction of our national monuments, and a deconstruction of Eisenhower himself.
The effect is to garble our historic memory, to sow confusion into our national identity. Eisenhower, by contrast, was a unifying figure who unequivocally hailed America’s core values. No memorial to him should do the opposite, no matter what the modernists dictate.
Justin Shubow is chairman of the National Civic Art Society.