Extra! Extra! Indeed
Sunday, March 2, 2008
Seen from the front, the large stone tablet affixed to the Newseum building on Pennsylvania Avenue looks like a piece of newsprint. It is 74 feet high, emblazoned with the 45 words of the First Amendment, and its rectangular shape suggests the dimensions of a conventional broadsheet newspaper. But seen from the side, the marble panel looks thicker, with a beveled edge that suggests the lines of a television or computer screen. The folks at the Newseum, which will open April 11, are covering all the media angles.
It's easy to be of different minds about this most distinctive feature of the Newseum, the biggest architectural change on the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route since the Ronald Reagan Building opened a decade ago. It clearly distinguishes the building from those around it and suggests its purpose. The Newseum, run by the Freedom Forum, is devoted to celebrating the history of journalism and by extension the First Amendment freedoms upon which journalism is predicated.
A reminder of the Bill of Rights, writ large as if on the side of a barn, is a good thing, too. Washington has seen imperial presidents come and go, and our basic freedoms ebb from time to time, especially during war. Every future president will now have to pass this blunt reminder of American civics on his or her way home to the White House come Inauguration Day.
But aesthetically, it just doesn't work. The Newseum, a $450 million project designed by Polshek Partnership Architects, faces Pennsylvania Avenue with too much going on. The marble First Amendment panel is to the left of what appears to be a giant glass aperture, or window, through which one can see directly into the very busy central atrium, where a 40-by-22-foot video screen is suspended from the ceiling. To the side, a staircase in a glass box forms its own geometrical element, and there is a canopy extending over much of the front. With a 135-unit apartment building built into the back of the Newseum (with pricey and smallish units marketed as the Newseum Residences) forming its own blocky feature, the building suffers from too much jazz, too much angularity, too much discordant massing.
When the Freedom Forum, a nonprofit journalism foundation, began the process of building a flagship home on one of the most desirable plots of land in the city, it wanted the building to be an "icon," says Charles Overby, the organization's chief executive officer. It wanted a building that would express the virtue of transparency, hence the large glass front. And the foundation really wanted to emblazon it with the First Amendment.
Other architects might have balked at the challenge, especially the idea of plastering the First Amendment on the building in such literal fashion. But not Polshek, the same firm that is building the unfortunate and unnecessary addition to Maya Lin's utterly self-sufficient Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
On the most basic level of architectural success -- pleasing the client -- Polshek delivered. The building does everything it is supposed to do. It contains a conference center, a 250,000-square-foot museum space with 15 theaters, office space for the Freedom Forum, kitchens, a restaurant at ground level (a Wolfgang Puck operation), various terraces and balconies, parking and an apartment building. All of this is contained within an irregularly shaped footprint.
But it's hard to find an angle from which the building is beautiful.
Had the architects openly embraced the overwrought plan, the multiple functions, the strange angles of the plot, they might have responded with something more aggressive, daring and legitimate within the fading postmodern tradition. But instead, they chose to wrap it all up in a rather corporate-looking skin. Take off the First Amendment panel, and the Newseum could be the office of a power company, or a mid-size telecom.
With the First Amendment panel, however, the metaphorical reading of the building takes an unfortunate turn. It isn't just corporate, it's a corporate building hiding behind the First Amendment. Cynics might note that, architecturally, the Newseum embodies the big danger facing journalism today: Media consolidation, which diminishes First Amendment vigor not through censorship but through loss of divergent opinion and opinion that falls outside the comfortable parameters of a suit-and-tie worldview.
Unfortunately, the words used when people dream up buildings often bear little relation to the words buildings, when built, seem to say about themselves.
There has been a lot of glass architecture built recently (including some significant projects in Washington), but glass alone doesn't make a building "transparent." Often it just makes a building look "glassy," which is part of the problem with the Newseum.
And transparent buildings don't necessarily house transparent organizations, so the very value of transparency cannot be taken for granted. Putting words on buildings is also dangerous. Chiseling timeless truths into stone has a strange effect on them, often inviting us to think of them ironically, as if they are slogans, not truths. And putting very large words on buildings is even more dangerous, because they can seem to hector. No one wants the Constitution to hector. Guarantee, protect, ensure, yes. Hector, no.
On the inside, the building works better. The pressure to be dignified and iconic, to get on well with the neighbors, to bear up under the pressure of history and high expectations, is not so oppressive. What dooms the building on the outside, its collection of too many things under a corporate skin, is better managed in the museum itself. A large atrium allows spectacular views of the Mall and is enlivened by several stairways that connect various levels at different angles, suggesting a bit of whimsy that is surprising in Washington.
Journalism is a frenetic profession, caffeinated and hyperactive, and Polshek has responded in kind. The interior has been sliced and diced into multiple small galleries and little theaters, many of them bearing the names of the large corporate donors (Cox Enterprises First Amendment Gallery, Time Warner World News Gallery, News Corporation News History Gallery) that seeded the Newseum. Large open spaces have been set aside for a Journalists Memorial and a section of the Berlin Wall with guard tower (which has something to do with press freedom and democracy). As you move deeper into the building, a gallery of sliding glass drawers contains some of the museum's more fragile and historical objects, away from the light that floods the atrium.
To do justice to the ability to shoehorn functionality into this big glass box, you'd need a long list: three huge, glass-walled passenger elevators, 14 gallery spaces, interactive multimedia rooms, two television studios (one of which will be the new home for George Stephanopoulos's Sunday morning talk show), and so on. The building feels a bit like a machine: It educates, it entertains, but wait, there's more . . . it's also a party venue and a conference center.
For all its failings, it may not be a failed building. The architects have carefully met a number of requirements for improving the cityscape. The Newseum will draw people across Pennsylvania Avenue, away from the Mall and, perhaps, into the Penn Quarter area. It is an active, open building on a block that often feels empty and buttoned up. Its row of display cases with newspaper front pages in them is interactive -- a horrible word -- in the all the right ways. The Wolfgang Puck restaurant is priced beyond the means of most tourists, but it's good to see mixed-use urban planning. Even the apartment units -- a requirement of the city when the Freedom Forum acquired the land from the city in a $100 million deal in 2000 -- are a worthy, if odd, addition to the building. Pennsylvania Avenue desperately needs life, and there's nothing like living bodies going in and out to add life to a block.
All of which leads to the somewhat ridiculous conclusion: It's not a bad building so long as you don't have to look at it. Or perhaps not so ridiculous. The Newseum is a good reminder of exactly how far good intentions -- mixed use, urban planning, careful oversight -- can take you. Which is only so far.