Optics are so important… those lenses through which we see objective realities. Do I see life through rose-colored glasses? Do I see principally through eyes of revolution and discontinuity (i.e. Marx)? Do I see through a lens of deconstruction, as might a physicist? or through a transcendent holistic lenses as might an impressionist painter? Two exhibits currently on view at the National Building Museum (NBM) offer starkly contrasting lenses for viewing city life. Both are powerful, and very much worth a visit. Today we’ll cover The Architectural Image 1920-1950. Tomorrow I’ll offer reflections on the second exhibit Investigating Where We Live: DC Now and Next.
The Architectural Image 1920-1950 – gives us an impressive array of cityscapes that show the King Kong-like mark made by the rise of the International Style in architecture. The prints, mostly black and white, represent several twentieth century evolutions: The artistic medium of etching (see an earlier post on J.M. Whistler’s 19th century contributions to this same art form), the growth new architectural and engineering techniques which birthed the skyscrapers that characterize most of these works, and finally (perhaps most intriguing of all) an evolving urban vocabulary.
The NBM’s prints represent a cap on an exhibit I saw in London ten years ago. In the summer of 2005, the Tate Britain mounted a beautiful historical retrospective. Paintings of the UK from the 17th through the 20th century were presented, showing the evolution of the island. Predominantly pastoral scenes from the agricultural era gave way to the development of 18th and 19th century technology. At first, the shift was benign, almost romantic: a blacksmith teaching his son the trade amid bucolic splendor. Benign gave way to intriguing ingenuity as railroads and lone steamboat cut across later landscapes. Eventually the full flowering of industry replaced the lilies of the field and smoke stacks from Dickensian workhouses rose where forests once stood.
At the NBM, characteristic human words like “pastoral,” “romantic,” or even, “inventive,” are wholly blotted out in the displays of Howard Cook, Louis Lozowick, Leon Gilmour and Carles Turzak. They’ve been replaced by more modern descriptors: “Hard,” “Indomitable,” “Mechanical,” characteristic of Gotham. Sky scrapers dwarf citizens, trees, even earlier technological innovations (automobiles, elevated trains etc.)… The buildings have become the new citizens, the new focus of the city. Also interesting, the role of light in these prints. So many of them are set at night when spot lights struggle to illumine the mammoth proportions of the sky scrapers. Consider that for a moment… when even light itself struggles to encompass something you know that thing is BIG. Note also that both sun and moon have been replaced by man-made spotlights. Note most of all… that man is nowhere represented among these man-made things.
The Architectural Image reveals a disturbing reality of the twentieth century: that in our engineering genius, our creations have perhaps overcome us. Mensch and ubermensch have been dominated by “uberskyscraper.” In some ways it makes sense. These prints were being developed at exactly the same time as the atomic bomb… No other technology has so threatened to overcome its creators. St. John Paul II addresses such concerns in his Encyclical “Laborem Exercens,” on the dignity of human labor. There, he reminds us that ultimately, man is the subject of labor… he is its originator, and his good is its ultimate goal.
I know next to nothing about the artists who made these powerful architectural images. Today’s reflections should in no way suggest that Cook, Lozowick et al. were intentionally promoting man’s subjugation to his creations. But as the holiday season comes to a close and we return to the daily routines that we sometimes describe as the “rat race” “daily grind” or even “hamster wheel” the images at the NBM might be a timely reminder to reflect on our priorities and ask, “Is my labor working for me… or am I working for it?” See this exhibit. It’ll make you think.