A monumental carbuncle

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Actual photo of new visitor screening center at Washington Monument. (AD)

After years of closure pending repair of cracks in its shaft after a freak 2011 earthquake centered in Virginia, the Washington Monument reopened last week. I was aware of the repair but unaware that it entailed that obligatory inducement to ugliness, the addition. An addition to the dear Washington Monument? An addition to the purest of forms in the classical canon? Perish the thought! It could not be.

So imagine my horror last night when I saw the photo above with news of the reopening of the monument in the Architectural Record.

A disaster, a blight, a blemish, an eyesore, a deformity, a disfigurement, a disgrace, a poke in the eye of every U.S. citizen, a carbuncle of national consequence, a blotch of God’s wrath on architecture, an insult to our first president: in short, a visitor screening center.

Worse: an addition designed by the architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle.

But don’t blame the architects. They are merely the National Park Service’s willing executioners. They were just following orders.

(By the way, the new addition replaces a temporary one up since 9/11. By the way again, the project also fixed the monument’s balky elevator, but it broke down for an hour just a couple days after the reopening. Not a good sign.)

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Underground screening option. (NPS)

The National Park Service’s lengthy 2013 assessment of alternatives for a screening center could stand as the dictionary definition of the obtuseness of “expertise.” In its hundreds of pages, its authors do not grasp that, short of removing the monument itself as a way to up-yours the aspirations of terrorists (or earthquakes), an addition attached to the world-famous obelisk was clearly, obviously, the worst alternative possible.

The only good thing about the screening center is that visitors looking out from the top of the monument will not be able to see it. But what the Park Service missed altogether is that the most important constituency of the Washington Monument is not tourists but the population of the nation’s capital, of the nation itself, and of the world – people who see it rising skyward from the outside, not those who look out from the inside. From now on the monument’s symbolic profundity is marred for good, unless someone in authority comes to their senses and removes this obnoxious authoritarian box so that one of the other much more sensible alternatives in the NPS assessment may be called up to do the job right.

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Monument Lodge (NPS)

An obelisk is a pure form whose spare lines resist interference from embellishment. A classical carbuncle would be no more desirable at its base than the modernist carbuncle that has been inflicted upon the monument. The alternatives rejected by the Park Service include a screening center on the edge of the monument grounds and a screening center sunk gently into the edge of the monument plaza so it would be invisible from the circumference of the grounds. Why was neither option embraced?

A building already exists on the edge of the grounds that could perform such a task, a classical structure called the Monument Lodge. It would have served perfectly and still could, from both an aesthetic and a functional standpoint.

But noooooo!

No! Let’s build a garish contradiction to the abstract ideal of the obelisk.

Yes! That will do just fine!

Wikipedia defines an obelisk as “a tall, four-sided, narrow, tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape or pyramidion at the top, with a pile of shit at the bottom.”

No, I’m sorry, that is not the definition. I added the last phrase myself in order to upgrade what must be the Socratic ideal of “obelisk” in the minds of the Park Service and its hired assassin, Beyer Blinder Belle (the last word in the firm’s name, which is French for beautiful, is explained by the word before it – which ought to be not Blinder but Blindest).

Of course, scroll Google through the articles on the Washington Monument’s reopening and you find no discussion of the design, let alone condemnation. Typical. A thumbs-up from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (which also finally approved the design for the National Memorial to Frank Gehry now being built to honor Eisenhower) is clearly an effective cork in the mouth of discourse. Where was the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art? Never heard of it? Maybe that’s because it doesn’t do advocacy. Where was the D.C.-based National Civic Art Society? It’s a wonderful organization that came this close to blocking the Gehry fiasco. It does do advocacy, but this screening center apparently squeaked under its radar, though perhaps I missed it. Anyhow, I can’t point fingers because it squeaked under my radar, too.

I am so mad that I am trying to locate the depth of my outrage in a piling up of words to describe the stupidity, the blindness, the asininity of everyone who had a hand in this cockamamie scheme. So far as I can tell, aside from a 30-day comment period to respond to the NPS assessment, there was little or no public input into the monstrosity. It was, or so it would seem, purposely directed under everyone’s radar. That is a scandal. Do we need another scandal in Washington? Well, this at least is a real one.

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Post-9/11 screening center at base of monument; Monument Lodge at center right.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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6 Responses to A monumental carbuncle

  1. Eric Daum says:

    Oh, wait, I just noticed the airfoil shaped benches in the top photograph! That’s the kind of “cool idea” that should have been deleted and the Recycle Bin emptied,. What do they have to do with anything? Stone airfoils? an architectural oxymoronic idea.

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  2. Eric Daum says:

    Considering that Robert Mills, the designer of the Washington Monument, had initially conceived of a pavilion at the base of the obelisk (a damned fine word and the right one), I think an opportunity has been lost. The screening center, as erected, should inspire a collective face-palm.

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  3. William S. Kling says:

    Oh, my, “shit” doesn’t do it justice. In my opinion shaping it like a huge cowpat might actually have been less obtrusive. MoveOn.org is always encouraging me to start a petition of my own, but what to choose…flood Congress or the Office of Architectural Ethics (hah) with signatures, impeach (fill in name), ask the courts…never mind.

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  4. At least the Screening Center looks like the temporary addition we can all hope it will be.

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  5. LazyReader says:

    The Washington Monument is not a obelisk, it’s a masonry tower. Obelisks are monolithic, made of a single piece of stone. That being said DC is a nightmare of a city. Design wise it’s a mess. It’s large expansive avenues were easily adapted to auto usage. The low widely separated buildings whose heights restricted by law render building residences overpriced catastrophe. While DC has many places beautiful enough for a walk. There’s little to walk to out of necessity. The city is difficult to get around on foot. The traffic circles, big lawns, huge plazas and massive public squares provide little activity. Parks and open spaces are pretty, but they’re also vacuums which don’t attract human activity, especially at night. At night, heavily wooded areas in major cities are nothing but drug, rape and sex havens. Look no further than Portland, whose small city square layout and obsession with green has made heavily wooded parks with pitbull wielding drug addicts camping in the squares.

    Plenty of dignified public buildings, but they serve only one purpose, to cater and serve the federal bureaucracy, Residents, Good luck finding a dry cleaner, chinese takeout, movie theater, or daycare center or grocery store. Aesthetically the city has become a bigger mess. Post WWII, the government expanded to the point it had no space left to occupy, solution BULLDOZE whole neighborhoods to build the massive bureaucratic power complex.

    Before the massive growth of government, Washington DC was nothing more than a Podunk town. The city was populated by brothels, saloons, freed slave quarters and Marylander and Virginians escaping the grit and gristle of Baltimore and Annapolis. A festering humid marsh, no body gave two shits about.

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    • Lazy, I think you are confusing the ideas of obelisk and monolith. Early obelisks tended to be monoliths, carved from solid stone, but later obelisks were not necessarily monoliths. So an obelisk can be but need not be a monolith. Every learned description of the Washington Monument calls it an obelisk.

      And I must rise to the defense of the city where I grew up. Like many and indeed every other city, it has urbanistic problems, but you are mistaken in some of your charges. Outside the monumental core and the Federal District it is like many other cities with tall downtown buildings (by law not as tall as in most major cities), but that has not proved problematic. You complain that its broad avenues facilitated auto traffic as if that were a flaw. In the federal and the monumental areas it can be hard to find shops and services to fill everyday residential and commercial needs, but these are not residential or commercial areas. The residential and commercial areas have all of this stuff. Most cities don’t have and should not desire such single-use districts as D.C.’s federal and monumental areas, but Washington is an exception. These districts may in time evolve, indeed in some cases already have been evolving for decades, to be more diverse, but they can’t at this point be criticized for not being residential neighborhoods or commercial districts. That would be absurd.

      When I was very young, Washington was often referred to as a sleepy Southern town, but that was always an exaggeration, as it always had a lively nightlife, music scene, theater scene, art and cultural scenes downtown and in the neighborhoods, often in places such as Dupont Circle or Cleveland Park (I’ve lived in both places) and of course Georgetown, which today are as lively and as lovely as any neighborhoods in any U.S. city (though the commercial aspect of Georgetown has become more chainly, like most other places. I’ll agree that a lot of bad architecture has gone up since WWII, but the older Washington you describe (“brothels, saloons, freed slave quarters”) was not of the mid-20th century but of the mid-19th century, the District not of FDR or LBJ but of Abraham Lincoln. Not even Foggy Bottom is a “festering marsh” anymore, although it is part of a large swamp.

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