The subtitle of “Daniel Libeskind: Architecture for the Angel of History,” the current exhibition at the Goethe-Institut, refers to “Angelus Novus,” an etching by Paul Klee. Or rather, it invokes a famed interpretation of the image by German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin. He described Klee’s angel as being propelled into the future by a storm, which “is what we call progress.”
History, progress and the future are fraught topics in architecture. Some of Libeskind’s best-known works are, in part, memorials to victims of atrocities: He designed the Jewish Museum Berlin and did the 2002 master plan (subsequently much altered) for the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. The Polish-born, American-raised child of Holocaust survivors, Libeskind has worked often in Germany. Most of the projects documented in the Goethe-Institut exhibition are in that country, although the show also includes one from the Netherlands, as well as sketches of the Ground Zero proposal.
Coincidentally, three other local exhibition spaces are hosting shows about architecture and “progress” — sometimes known, more ominously, as gentrification. Sean Lynch’s “Bandits in the Ruins” considers the conflicts between tradition and development. And the two-site “In Our ‘Hood” show takes a street-level approach to the issue, with works by and about residents of central Washington at two venues in that area.
These are all exhibitions of text as well as images. Libeskind, who often places dramatically angular modernist structures next to classically proportioned ones, explains his designs in symbolic terms. “Architecture for the Angel of History” doesn’t feature many of his words, but his futurist-style drawings for the Ground Zero project include some jottings. The height of the main tower will be 1,776 feet — one of the few aspects of his plan that survives — for the purposes of hailing U.S independence and “reasserting the skyline.” The sunken areas of the scheme are for “revealing the heroic foundations of democracy for all to see.”
Yet Libeskind’s buildings are not easy to see. The Jewish Museum Berlin (the only one of these structures I’ve visited) is a tight series of metallic zigzags. These are largely hidden by trees and the 18th-century baroque pile, a former courthouse, that provides the museum’s entrance. The 1999 museum’s overall form is visible only to birds, helicopter pilots and people looking at an aerial photograph (provided here). A subterranean spine, “the void,” offers a suitably stark memorial space, but the cramped galleries are subordinate to an overall design that seems authoritarian.
The architect explains his plan as reflecting “two lines of thinking. . . . One is a straight line, but broken into many fragments; the other is a torturous line, but continuing indefinitely.” Whether that’s genius or nonsense, it’s not evident in the structure’s unseeable design.
Libeskind’s work, like that of other global architecture stars such as Frank Gehry, is bold, striking and very limited. These designers are drawn to museums and other cultural institutions, which are among the few clients prepared to subordinate all other aspects of a new facility to its status as a unique work of art. But for every building to be a unique work is unfeasible and exhausting. And Libeskind’s designs, like much architectural modernism, rely heavily on contrast with existing traditional structures. Perhaps that’s why the architect works so often in Europe, which is lousy with venerable buildings. In the 1920s, the Bauhaus developed an aesthetic that rejected ornamentation. Nearly a century later, Libeskind is still practicing the architecture of reaction, just with a few more oblique angles.
Lynch, an Irish artist, came to the District to teach two lessons, one specific and one much broader. At Transformer, he’s showing a series of photographs of the Renwick Gallery that highlight the building’s vermiculated sandstone trim. The Renwick is the only building Lynch could find in our town that uses vermiculation — irregular patterns carved into stone to represent worms that might someday devour the structure, adding a touch of humility to grand edifices. It’s common in Dublin, where self-doubt was apparently more in fashion in the 19th century than it was in Washington.
Intriguingly, the Renwick was the original location of the Corcoran, which recently floated the idea of leaving its current home. Transformer Artistic Director Victoria Reis says that “artists and art spaces are regularly displaced as part of gentrification and shifting community interests/values.” She says Lynch’s work “advocates a kind of activism toward history, disclosing and building upon fragile stories and objects.”
The show, a collaboration with Solas Nua, also features a video of Irish folklorist Eddie Lenihan. He discusses the significance of bush where, reportedly, two clans of fairies used to battle. Once in a rustic area, the site is bracketed by highways, which were slightly rerouted so as to not destroy the mythic foliage. You don’t have to believe in fairies to appreciate this attempt to leave undisturbed a bit of a land’s cultural legacy.
Such titles as “Old Town Armageddon” and “Occupied (Starbucks)” suggest high emotion at “In Our ‘Hood,” the gentrification-themed show split between ArtSpace and Pleasant Plains Workshop. But there’s relatively little friction on display, in part because many of the contributors use contemporary art’s customary detachment to avoid making judgments. Works such as Freespace Collective’s “Migration Path” — which uses maps, video and census data to chart how the border between predominantly black and predominantly white Washington has shifted since 1990 — “comment” on social change without taking a particular stand.
There are a few bristling remarks at ArtSpace, where one piece encourages visitors to add their thoughts. But at Pleasant Plains, Chanan Delivuk and Alberto Gaitan’s series of short audio interviews with neighborhood residents, both longtimers and newcomers, elicits no antagonism. Instead, the two shows offer photographs, paintings and drawings on urban themes, many by teenagers and varying widely in finesse. There are also more abstract works, such Minda Merinsky’s re-purposing of old phones and faucets as lamps. That’s an effective metaphor for the remaking of cities but a surprisingly mild one.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Aug. 31 at Goethe-Institut, 812 Seventh St. NW; 202-289-1200; www.goethe.de/washington .
on view through July 7 at Transformer, 1404 P St. NW; 202-483-1102; www.transformerdc.org .