Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Confederacy of Dunces

Tersh Boasberg, chairman of the District of Columbia Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), has gone public to defend the land-marking of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist (see NW Current, 6 Feb 08). In the process, he is ignoring the wishes of the property owners, congregants and neighbors. Boasberg is less than candid on several counts in his defense of this example of "Brutalist" architecture. First, he never identifies the architectural school as Brutalism; to do so would undermine his argument. Then Mr. Boasberg rebrands the church architecture as "Modernist", a mistake that no art history sophomore would make. He goes on to claim the building was designed sometime between 1968 and 1971. He doesn't seem to know when. And in a final sleight of hand, he invokes the ghost of I.M. Pei twice without ever actually claiming that Pei designed the building. Close only counts in horseshoes. There is no historic or artistic merit by association.

Mr. Boasberg and the HPRB are avoiding the Brutalist label for good reason. The term comes from the French beton brut or "raw concrete". Brutalism was originally a mid-century construction technique using forms to pour rough concrete. This technique almost simultaneously became associated with shock architecture and "Utopian social ideology" - a polite phrase for Communism, neo-Stalinism and the associated art schools of social realism (aka propaganda). When dictators are toppled, the second casualty is usually social realism. Most impartial historians define Brutalism as a short lived (25 years at the outside), failed school of architecture and a failed social ideology.

A recent encyclopedia entry describes Brutalism as "striking, blatant, irregular...unfriendly and uncommunicative...disregards the social, historic and architectural environment of its surroundings...appears starkly out of place and alien...uncompromising...anti-bourgeois...claustrophobic...fortress-like and vulnerable to spray-can graffiti...with concrete facades that don't age well...many (Brutalist buildings) have been or are slated to be demolished."

An architectural column devoted exclusively to the criticism of Brutalism is appropriately called "New Barbarism". Prince Charles, of Great Britain, has famously compared Brutalism to the rubble left in London by WWII German air raids. We should also note that a British exponent of Brutalism was Erno Goldfinger, rightly satirized by Ian Fleming as an evil symbol of brutal excess in the James Bond series. We can be sympathetic to the board's hot flashes of socialist deja-vu, but political nostalgia is not a basis for preservation.

The shock school of art and architecture has had many evil stepchildren since the advent of Brutalism. The crucifix in a beaker of urine at the Brooklyn Museum comes to mind. Here again we saw "art" used for its shock value - as propaganda if not bigotry. No serious historian or art critic would defend a similar treatment of the Star of David or the Koran. When artifacts of propaganda are displayed or preserved, the motives are usually political not aesthetic. Brutalism in America was nothing more than the faint failed echo of Utopian European socialism.

The Washington City Paper (22 Feb 08) recently ran an excellent cover story about H.D. Woodson Senior High School, another monument to Brutalism. After only 36 years of public service, the eight story "tower of power" is scheduled for demolition - a victim of poor design, sorry engineering and negligent maintenance. With Brutalism, function is often sacrificed to form. In the design phase, "architectural types", like the Commission of Fine Arts, endorsed Woodson as a "good symbol and an excellent landmark". Why are there no voices raised today to preserve this publicly financed Brutalist failure?

Compare the HPRB defense of Brutalism to their meeting of 27 September 07 when Mr. Boasberg could barely tolerate testimony about the archeology and American Indian history of a Palisades property. The chair would allow only two minutes of testimony about what may have been 10,000 years of indigenous occupation. And those two minutes were not without interruption. The first question from the chair asked about the "relevance" (sic) of American Indian history in the District. The Board 'archaeologist', Mr. Sonderman, went on to use his time to characterize the preservationists as "looters". The Algonquian nation did not have a good day before the board. In all of their deliberations, the preservation board has landmarked hundreds of places and buildings, yet not a single American Indian site has been preserved or recognized on its own merits although such sites abound in Anacostia, the Rock Creek drainage and the Palisades. A few decades of Brutalism is worth preserving but 10,000 years of American Indian history is not?

The only authorities that Mr Boasberg, a lawyer by profession, cites to support preservation of the Third Church of Christ is a cherry-picked group of local architects and the members HPRB. Do the opinions of construction trade technicians and municipal apparatchiks outweigh the property rights of owners and the democratic choices of congregants and neighbors? In nearly all cases, an architectural plan is merely a necessary adjunct to the building trades. Only a fraction of any building designs in any city rise to the level of art. In most cases, the architect is to art what the orchestra pit is to music. Mr. Boasberg and the board's judgements on the Third Church of Christ are not supported by history, aesthetics or common sense.

Today it is difficult to pick up a newspaper without reading about another dysfunctional department within the city government. Yet departmental pathology is only half the story. Boards and commissions, such as the Historic Preservation Review Board, suffer from the same aliments. Indeed, one might argue that competence, the invisible elephant that haunts the District, is a function of the difficulty of firing a unionized municipal employee. But this is not the case with boards and commissions. They do not need to be renominated nor do their terms have to be renewed. Nonetheless, the boards and commissions seem to be peopled by the same "confederacy of dunces" that haunts the unionized departments. Tenure is the permanent enemy of competence. Encouraging the "usual suspects" to spend more time with their families is one alternative to permanent municipal pathology.