Shubow on WWI memorials

One of the less-ridiculous non-classical WWI memorial competition entries.

One of the less-ridiculous non-classical WWI memorial competition entries.

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!

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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8 Responses to Shubow on WWI memorials

  1. lux-et-veritas says:

    David,

    After our last Kerfuffle, I thought long and hard about whether to participate on your blog. While my prior post was in fact Blocked, I am now convinced that you were not the Blocker but rather the WordPress program you use. My posts contained a number of links to sites relevant to my post. I have learned that WordPress Blocks posts which contain more then the number of links the blog owner sets. The posts are sent to the moderator for moderation. you should consider increasing the links allowed from zero to a more reasonable number.

    As to your comments on the WWI memorial, it may surprise you that I agree with much of your criticism. You thought they were “Mawkish”, I would go further, I found them morbidly depressing and defeatist. In the case of the three BEST classical proposals hope that better ones emerge. I found the three to be, by turns, maudlin, using non durable material and pornographic considering the raison d’etre of the memorial. World War 1 deserves better, whether the idiom is classical or otherwise.

    best wishes
    Lux

    Like

    • Kerfuffle’s one of my favorite words. Glad I am absolved! Glad you will continue to contribute. I will make that change on my WordPress links limit. I agree that even some of the classical entries were maudlin – the one with all the soldiers’ heads bent down, for example – bad karma (but maybe that’s inevitable in any attempt to memorialize war).

      Like

  2. lux et veritas says:

    so Shubow gets instant attention and yet my comment on your july ww1 blog has lavished since Aug 3rd “Your comment is awaiting moderation.” – an oversight perhaps?

    Like

    • I don’t know why your comment is in moderation. Nobody goes to moderation. Was it something you said? Did you use a dirty word? I’ve replied to at least one of your WWI comments, so I will go look. Your comments should go right in.

      Like

      • lux et veritas says:

        The suggestion is insulting. I did provide an alternative point of view – perhaps —nah, you wouldn’t do that.

        Like

        • What suggestion is insulting? The only comments I trash are commercial spam. I certainly would not kill a comment just because it poses an effective argument against a point I’ve made in one of my posts.

          Like

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