Letters to the Editor

July 18, 2012

Justin Shubow, president and chairman of the board at the National Civic Art Society, responds to RECORD editor-in-chief Cathleen McGuigan’s July editorial, which criticizes his organization’s handling of the Eisenhower Memorial.

To the Editor:

In the lead editorial in the July 2012 issue of Architectural Record, Cathleen McGuigan writes that the National Civic Art Society opposes Frank Gehry’s ugly deconstructionist design for the national Eisenhower Memorial since we seek to protect “the classical city envisioned by Pierre L’Enfant and our nation’s Founders.” She retorts, “Interpreting our founders’ convictions as extending to 21st-century design is an astonishing exercise in fantasy.”

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This is precisely the same argument the Modernist establishment used when it came out against the magnificent classical design for the Jefferson Memorial (completed 1943). The Columbia University School of Architecture pilloried it as “a lamentable misfit in time and place.” Joseph Hudnut (one of the professors Gehry most admired while studying at Harvard) denounced it as “egg on a pantry shelf in the midst of a geometric Sahara.” Frank Lloyd Wright called it an “arrogant insult to the memory of Thomas Jefferson.” Thank goodness the fantasists, led by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, won that battle.

Such unquestioned Hegelianism—that architecture must follow the spirit of the age—was as false then as it is now. Even if it were true, who is to say that the relevant epoch is not that of the first and only American Republic? Modernist architects have a magical belief that ages accord with decades or centuries. Fashion designers have the same primitive mindset: “It’s the 1970s, baby, bellbottoms are in.” Yet the base-10 calendar is a social construction that has no inherent basis in reality.

Toward the end of her piece, McGuigan says that the NCAS is clever, but wrongheaded, in claiming that we represent the anti-elitist new counterculture in architecture. In the same editorial, she praises Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV headquarters (a fearsome alien starfighter straight out of War of the Worlds) and the totalitarian neo-Brutalism of Wang Shu. She also mentions the prizewinning work of Zaha Hadid, whose black and piercing Maggie’s Cancer Centre looks like the place where Darth Vader goes to recuperate (or die). McGuigan specifically highlights a building made of plastic as an example of anti-elitism. 

Yes, all of this is just what the 99% seeks in architecture. This—and no more Jefferson Memorials.


Justin Shubow

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