Here is the latest column in Forbes magazine by Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society, on the design competition for a monument to World War I: “First Look at the World War I Memorial Competition: All the Best Entries are Classical.” Judges have spent the last few days reviewing over 350 anonymous entries from around the world, of which maybe a score or so are classical. Anyone over age 18 was allowed to submit proposals.
I agree with Shubow’s assertion that the best entries are classical. It is disappointing but hardly surprising that so few are classical or traditional. Our design culture frowns on traditional work as not “of our time” – an intellectually vapid mental buzzword that has been granted influence it does not deserve. Only two or three major universities have classical curricula or even a choice between classical and modernist. Few architecture firms hire any classically trained designers. Now that I am no longer with the Journal, no major American newspaper has an architecture critic who supports traditional work, and all of the major professional groups, especially the American Institute of Architects, are organized not just to support modern architecture but to oppose new traditional architecture.
Thus classical architects are few and far between, though their number is growing, as is the number of artists and craftsmen (and women) who historically have worked alongside classical architects who consider art and craft as part and parcel of good architecture.
So it is sad that given this growing number, so few classical and traditional entries showed up on the doorstep of the World War I Centennial Commission, which sponsored the competition. Only 26 of more than 350 could be said to be classical.
I have reviewed all of the entries and found many of them to be mawkish, tendentious in their “war is bad” theme, and often completely bereft of reference to the First World War. A very, very few modernist proposals were not bad, embracing a stark modernist sense of order. But a shockingly large number of entries stooped to cockamamie sets of shapes, or shapelessnesses, abstract playgrounds of swoopy-doopy, lacking all pretense to dignity or honor. This has become almost the design template of memorials today. By far the largest percentage of entries were of this kind, hoping to ride a strategy of silly harmlessness to victory in the design competition.
Much of this reflects the folly of architectural education today, where learning how to design takes second place (if it places at all) to purging design intuition and inculcating the novelty mania. Which is odd considering how many entries seemed to be channeling Gehry or Hadid. I am sure that the overwhelming majority of the entries to this contest were produced by children. Too bad so few had the wit or the sense to channel someone like Maya Lin and her Vietnam Memorial, which at least has the grace of dignity. By now, that sort of thing probably strikes most conventional architects as boring, and anyway the rules barred listing the 116,516 American dead.
Of the 26 classical entries, maybe 10 seemed of considerably high quality. Seven of them may be seen in my post “Top classical WWI entries,” which contains the ones Shubow initially identified as the best. He has also placed all 350 entries on a 273-meg PDF.
The jury is examining the entries and will select “a handful” of finalists to develop their proposals further and compete in the second round. Good luck to the real architects here!