Continuing on the them of memory from my last post… Some thoughts about the National Mall.
I was riding my bike earlier this week and snapped a few quick shots of buildings along our very own Forum Americanum, The National Mall. At first I was playing a game of “Which of these ones is not like the other one. Taking in the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was a little startling to say the least.
(Disclaimer: I have no problem with dedicating a museum on the Mall to the history of any particular culture . Admittedly I wish we Italian-Americans had gotten a prime spot, but that’s neither here nor there.)
The museum’s jagged motif and bronze coloring are startling in the midst of the classical splendor that characterizes the Mall. The shock value of the building inspired me to do some research. The NMAAHC’s design is drawn from a traditional three-part column characteristic of the Yoruban culture of Africa, as well as the motif of a crown. For more details on the building philosophy, see this LINK for the Architect’s vision. Unto itself, I’m actually somewhat impressed with the museum’s design concept. So why do I still recoil?
Relative to it’s neighbors the NMAAHC doesn’t seem to match… but riding along further I was reminded that other structures on the Mall also don’t seem to fit. The Air and Space Museum, East Wing of the National Gallery, the Hirshorn, American Indian Museum and even the Smithsonian Castle. Under closer examination I realized that MUCH of the National Mall doesn’t match DC’s general Greco-Roman theme. So what does pull the Mall together?
I.M. Pei’s East Wing of the NGA is built along the angles characteristic of DC’s squares and traffic circles. An unorthodox structure perhaps, but thoroughly Washingtonian even if only subconsciously. Also it’s facing stones match the white-gray color scheme of classical architecture. The building is part of who we have been.
Color and general shape links the air and Space Museum to the rest of the Mall as well. It’s proportions and building materials help it blend in. As to it’s actual design, simplistic and brutalist architecture represent a major movement in post-WWII western art, which fled from the ornament of previous ages for a highly utilitarian (if not exactly exciting) design. Similar principles inspired the Hirshorn Gallery’s geometric purism. Both buildings are thus part of who we have been.
The American Indian Museum is clearly drawn from the native cliff dwellings of the pre-colonial southwest. It is a part of what America was long before it was America.
The Smithsonian Castle looks NOTHING like the Mall today… but the Mall once looked much more like the Smithsonian Castle. It’s a leftover from the Victorian-age of red brick neo-gothic architecture (still with us in the turrets and brick faces of our townhouses). Like Augustus in Rome, FDR found Washington a city of brick and left it a city of Marble. The Castle is certainly part of who we have been.
In the end, the unifying principle behind today’s National Mall seems to be a memory of who we have been. My anxiety, I think, springs from the past tense of that sentiment: who we HAVE been… because putting it in the past tense leave open the question: Who are we today? and Who will we be?
As Catholics we believe in a hermeneutic of continuity guiding us as a Church. There’s no rule binding DC or even the US to a hermeneutic of neo-classical continuity… but the questions remain, “Do we know who we are anymore?” “Are we running toward a positive new identity, or just fleeing from an old one?” I don’t have answers but I think these are all questions worthy of examination through eyes of faith.