The latest debate in Washington concerns Frank Gehry’s controversial, non-traditional design for the Eisenhower Memorial. The design has attracted much criticism from many quarters, and for many different reasons. But it has been especially condemned by those who assert that classicism is the only appropriate design language for creating a national memorial or monument in Washington.
In fact, some classicism advocates do not limit their critique to memorials or monuments. Dismissing much modern architecture, they believe that new buildings, particularly in Washington, should be clones or derivations of Greek, Roman and Renaissance antecedents.
Members of the Washington-based National Civic Art Society are among the most outspoken critics of the proposed memorial, and of modernism in general. The society is “dedicated to the traditional, humanistic practice of architecture, urban design and the fine arts, advocating the humanist tradition as the unrivaled source of artistic forms and conventions.”
The “humanist tradition” cited by the society refers to the classicism of antiquity rediscovered and reinterpreted by Renaissance, post-Renaissance and Beaux Arts architects and scholars. Humanism was the rational antidote to anti-humanistic deism and mysticism of the Middle Ages and Gothicism.
But the society’s exclusivist credo tolerates no deviation, asserting that humanist tradition is “unrivaled.” Clearly, “unrivaled” means that non-traditional concepts for creating art and architecture are inferior and must be rejected.
Classicists predicate their argument on notions of familiarity, tradition, nostalgia and meaning. Universally recognized classical motifs and ornament have been around for more than 2,000 years. People presumably associate classicism with stability, permanence, authority, elegance and grandeur. National Civic Art Society members believe that modern architecture is devoid of these attributes.
Thus, the society argues that Washington has been and should continue to be a city of classically inspired architecture. They support their argument by pointing to countless classically styled government and civic edifices such as the U.S. Capitol and White House; the Supreme Court; Union Station; the National Gallery of Art West Building; the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials; and the Federal Triangle. All were built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as were thousands of traditionally ornamented residential and commercial buildings.