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Everyone’s a Critic

It’s possible to rule out much of the so-called criticism of large, high-profile design proposals as “internecine” squabbling (professional jealousy and etc), but it is not possible to pass judgement so easily on the increasing public interest in design — especially urban design — and most especially when design includes the now-ubiquitous memorial, monument, or icon gratuitously placed in a prominent “public” space — the Mall in Washington, Hyde Park in London, the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, or the grave and historic open spaces of Florence, Rome, or Venice.

The WW II Memorial, the proposed WTC Memorial, the Princess Diana Memorial, the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, and a new entrance to the Uffizi Galleries in Florence are all cases in point. What they have in common is that everyone is now a critic, and this everyone transcends the usual authorized mouthpieces of design — architects, historians, cultural figures, etc — and includes “the people”.

In the case of the WTC process, this has taken the form of informal and formal “pulse-taking” — viz., ad hoc groups supposedly representing the “will of the people”, leading to a statistical take-down of the first six plans from Beyer Blinder Belle and the LMDC (and Port Authority). In the sense that this statistical “consensus” might actually represent “the public”, there is something useful to extract. In the case of the WWII Memorial (and Senator Dole’s heavy-handed role in premiating the St. Florian proposal) one can only wonder about representative government. With the brouhaha in Florence (lead by Franco Zeffirelli), over the Arata Isozaki proposal for a new loggia/entrance to the Uffizi Galleries, a different set of problems emerge.

Isozaki’s loggia is clearly a bizarre manifestation of post-modernism. It is part neo-rational urban icon and part stage set. Perhaps this makes Zeffirelli an appropriate critic. Isozaki’s estranged urbanism — his hyper-conscious sensitivity to form and to the hegemonic essence within such forms — makes his proposal something to look very closely into. Is it not somehow, bizarrely “appropriate”, in the sense that it appropriates a language that aggrandizes the very thing it is critiquing?

Anyway, it is time for architects to get over the fact that the public now cares about such things. Most of these projects either utilize public monies or public resources (including public space) to merely exist. They quite often are gestures of supposed magnanimity as well. That they are thrust into the public sphere at all tells us a great deal about how the icon or the model (or the monument) literally rules (divides and conquers) the landscape of things (that in most all cases is an amalgam of mostly-mute signs avant la lettre).

RES PUBLICA It may be time to properly “socialize” the public interest in things public versus pay that interest lip service. Sure, let the authorities of culture continue to premiate designs, deliberate, and act through the process of the commission, but, at the end of this process, there may be yet another process long overdue. This follow-on process might be the “referendum” where the statistical pulse may be taken without the preliminary selection of the voting members determined by a pre-selection process or a vainglorious fiddling with demographics in pursuit of fake heterogeneity. This referendum might be the ultimate payback for the authoritarian mode of operation — either the so-called public process, or the flipside, the cultural apparatus of the well-heeled and elite. The fake-populism of certain critics and journalists would in this case be overridden by the very real (and no doubt frightening) prospect that the public might simply vote “None of the Above”.

Gavin Keeney is a landscape architect in New York, New York. and the author of On the Nature of Things, a book documenting the travails of contemporary American landscape architecture in the 1990s.

He can be reached at: ateliermp@netscape.net

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OUTTAKES

The WWII Memorial Fiasco – “The National World War II Memorial will be funded almost entirely by private contributions, as specified in Public Law 103-32. Through the generosity of a variety of giving constituencies, the campaign has received more than $186 million in cash and pledges, enough to cover current estimated project costs. Support has come from hundreds of thousands of individual Americans, hundreds of corporations and foundations, veterans groups, dozens of civic, fraternal and professional organizations, states and one territory, and students in 1,200 schools across the country.” (National WWII Memorial)

National Coalition to Save Our Mall “The Fine Arts Commission; however, rejected architect Frederich St. Florian’s original design for the complex because, the commission said, it was too large and imposing. Critics complained that the massive ring of towering columns proposed by St. Florian were reminiscent of the Nazi-era edifices of Adolf Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer.” (The Chicago Tribune, 07/06/00)

Monument to Diana – “The committee had been unable to choose between Gustafson, known for her glasshouse at the National Botanical Gardens of Wales, and Anish Kapoor, the Turner prize winning British sculptor, who proposed a dome of water. The committee suggested the two designs should be exhibited for the public to decide. That did not happen.” (The Guardian Unlimited, 08/01/02)

Uffizi Imbroglio – “Florentine film director Franco Zeffirelli, who studied architecture in the city, has labeled the avant-garde design, which won an international competition in 2001, a ‘shameful horror,’ and has appealed to those who love the city to speak up and defend its artistic heritage.” (Wired News, 07/29/02) – Arata Isozaki &Associates

Nuova Uscita su Piazza dei Castellani (Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali)

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