Leaders in our region grapple with the debate around Confederate symbols after Charlottesville. We speak to D.C. Councilmember David Grosso (At-large, I), chair of the Education Committee and U.S. Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Va.)
Summer travel might take you to Europe, where you can marvel at Italian Renaissance palaces, wander through 19th century Parisian neighborhoods, or visit old Lisbon’s Manueline buildings. Modern architecture fans might be drawn to Tokyo, Berlin, Cape Town, or Sao Paolo. In the U.S., visitors can take in the mid-century masterpieces in Los Angeles, French colonial facades in New Orleans, or even the neoclassical buildings right here in Washington, D.C. Join us and share your favorite architecture from around the corner or around the world.
- Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park
Photo Gallery: Global And Local Architecture
From the Red Square in Moscow to art deco in Miami, a sampling of architecture from around the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Roger Lewis is here. People visiting D.C. come to see the neoclassical monuments and federal buildings arranged around the Mall. It's an architectural style that unifies official Washington and makes it unique among American cities. But visitors here are also likely to discover some unexpected gems that are decidedly not neoclassical, starting with the elegant glass and steel arch of Dulles Airport.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe old and the new coexist here as they do in many cities around the world, and it's worth remembering that places known for their historic sites and ancient monuments, like Paris, Moscow or Beijing, are also home to some of the most innovative contemporary architecture in the world. Joining us to explore historic and modern sites around the globe is Roger Lewis. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, good to see you.
MR. ROGER LEWISGood to see you. Thank you for having me again.
NNAMDIYou can join this conversation at 800-433-8850. What buildings, neighborhoods or monuments do you show visitors who come to Washington, D.C.? 800-433-8850. Roger, let's start, indeed, with D.C. since millions of people visit these neoclassical monuments and government buildings here every year. You've written about this recently. For the past few decades, D.C. has been debating what architecture should look like here, and it's an ongoing debate that you said really isn't happening anyplace else in the country or really in the world. Talk about that.
LEWISCorrect. Well, I think that in the column you're referring to I pointed out that in places like New York or Los Angeles, Boston, Miami, Houston, there's no debate. Essentially, most of the architecture that has been developed in these places is what most people would label as modern, which is not -- doesn't define a style. It just means that it's not traditionally designed or historicist. But Washington, we're unique. Washington is not just the capital of the United States.
LEWISIt's also a city that, after its founding in 1793, became the place where the preferred style for civic buildings, federal buildings, buildings that had public -- high public visibility, the preferred way to design them was classicism or neoclassicism or derivatives of Renaissance architecture or beaux arts where sometimes we talk about it as beaux arts. The ecole des beaux art in Paris is where they taught architects how to design neoclassical buildings or neoclassically-inspired buildings.
NNAMDIAnd we seem to be, well, stuck in that mode. Washington have a -- has a great collection of classical buildings and monuments, along with historic neighborhoods that people do come to see. And, apparently, many people still feel that civic buildings and even their own homes should look, well, old.
LEWISWell, there's no accounting for American taste. I -- again, I think that some -- one explanation that I've talked about and heard others talk about is that our history being relatively short compared, let's say, to Great Britain or France or Germany, we seem to be more inclined to want to create history, borrowed admittedly from Europe for the most part. And I -- there may be some other -- there are other explanations.
LEWISI mean, there's no question that that the language of classicism that is so much in evidence in Washington is very familiar. It's very understood. When you go and see a building here in Washington or a structure such as the Lincoln Memorial, you don't need an explanation. Most people, even if they've never studied architecture, know this is a classical temple in which the image of President Lincoln sits.
LEWISAnd they -- I don't know that they think a whole lot about the architecture, but they -- it isn't alien to them. So there's a familiarity. I think there's a nostalgia. I think there's a -- there are a lot of reasons why people appreciate antique architecture, but I also think there are reasons why people also appreciate architecture that is "modern," which is not...
NNAMDIPeople do like to move on, and this is really about what Washington will look like in, oh, 30 years or so. And this question is playing out in a lot of current debates over proposed monuments and new developments. Talk about that, please.
LEWISWell, I think it's a -- the debate doesn't affect everything that's being built. I think there -- I think, by and large, most of the new architecture being developed in Washington, in the nation's capital, is decidedly modernist and not classicist. But I think, for example, right now, the -- there is a critique that's been leveled at the Frank Gehry design for the Eisenhower Memorial that -- it's a critique that says this memorial, like other memorials, should be inspired by the traditions, the language and vocabulary of classicism. So that -- there are other -- I have other concerns about the...
NNAMDII am familiar with them, yes.
LEWISYeah. Other concerns about that other than the style of the memorial, but that's a -- yeah, that is in fact a stylistic issue. I mean, I think the debate here in Washington persists, again, because we have this long history, this tradition, going back to the beginning of the city of building classically inspired structures.
NNAMDIWell, other cities are clearly not having these debates. And after reading your column, I have to wonder, why is it that we are so insistent on trying to stay with classical structures? Why is it that we seem to think that only things that are well-known, only classical kinds of architecture really belong in this city?
LEWISWell, I think a part of it is just inertia. You know, I think that we have a lot of them, and it's understandable. People -- a lot of people, not all people, a lot of people resist change, and I think when you drive around Washington and see something like the Newseum, the East Building of the National Gallery, the new Arena Stage over in Southwest. I think there are people who look at those things and really appreciate them and like them, or maybe they don't like them.
LEWISBut I don't think everybody in the city wants us to have nothing but neoclassically inspired buildings. On the other hand, I think there are times when it's the appropriate architectural language to use, but I would say that there -- right now, there are very few architects who -- and not so many clients have subscribed to that theory. I think most people who are building buildings, most entities building buildings are building buildings that are not antique looking.
NNAMDIYou can find links to Roger Lewis's articles at our website, kojoshow.org, where you'll also find several photos of buildings in major cities around the world, especially modern buildings in major cities around the world. And you pointed out that when architects came into town for a convention here last month that they were -- I guess, they would have been surprised to know that we're having these debates at all because these debates are not taking place in L.A. They're not taking place in Miami. They're not taking place in New York or even in your hometown of Houston.
LEWISCertainly not. Well, let's face it. Houston is a -- compared to us, is still a relatively new city. No, they -- I also pointed out -- I mean, I think it's happening -- the way it's happening here, again, because of our history, our architectural history, whereas in places like Houston or Los Angeles, they're -- that history, that tradition doesn't exist at all. Plus, you know, after the industrial revolution, the kinds of possibilities that arose from making architecture because of new materials and new programs, new kinds of building types, capability to explore form that was not possible before.
LEWISWe had these technologies, naturally motivates architects and their clients to want to do something other than build yet another Roman or Greek temple, and, I think, which doesn't mean that classical buildings are bad or ugly. It just means that I think the normal evolution in architecture, going back thousands of years, really, has been that periodically people would like to try something different or something new.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're talking with Roger Lewis. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Do you think that D.C. should follow the style of many of the neoclassical buildings already here, or should it embrace the modern? Do you prefer historic buildings or modern ones?
NNAMDI800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Before I go to the phones, Roger, you point out, however, that D.C. does have its share of modern architecture and that the list is growing. What are some of the highlights for you?
LEWISWell, I've mentioned a couple of them. I mean, I think that...
NNAMDIYes. You mentioned the Newseum.
LEWISYeah. I mean, I think there are -- I think the -- one of the most recent additions that I think really is -- it's not perfect, but it has, I think, gotten a lot of attention because of its design is the Arena Stage complex over near the Southwest waterfront. I think there have been a number of, believe it or not, a number of the new office buildings that have been built in the last few years in Washington that are quite striking, even though they're all in many ways a variation on the box because of the zoning in the height limits there that -- there are some constraints.
LEWISBut I think there have been some very nice buildings. I think the Finnish embassy and the German chancellery on Reservoir Road can -- the German chancellery was built in the 1960s, still one of the best modern buildings in the city, as is the Finnish embassy and a couple of other embassies. I've mentioned the East Building of the National Gallery. Certainly, there are some aspects of National Airport that Cesar Pelli's firm designed that are interesting.
LEWISThere are some things there to not like, by the way. By the way, I should keep reminding the audience that there's almost always something you can find to like and something you can find to question in any work of architecture no matter what its style. But I think we have -- we now have buildings, big and small -- there's a new bicycle pavilion next to Union Station. It's an all-glass structure. It's very -- it sits there next to this very impressive Union Station, which is, of course, one of our best beaux arts buildings designed by Daniel Burnham.
LEWISNext to it is this glass -- it almost looks like an insect body, but it works by contrast. I mean, it sits there, and I think the architects were very wise not to imitate or mimic the surrounding neoclassical architecture. They said, no, let's make a bicycle pavilion that's sort of like a bicycle wheel. It has some of the characteristics, geometrically, of a bicycle. It's a very nice little pavilion.
NNAMDIYou mentioned one of the words that is at -- how can I put it? Well, the height of conflict in Washington, D.C., and I think that's what Tom in Washington wants to get to. He wants to cut to the chase, so to speak. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMHi, Tom. Hi, Kojo. How are you?
TOMYeah. I wanted to just briefly comment. I think that Washington, D.C. has to be very careful on the style and on the height limit. And the reason for it is because we have a unique style in the city, which is very majestic style. And the height limit has allowed that majestic monuments to continue to be seen and be -- and I have an example, which anybody can go and consult, how a majestic city that doesn't respect height limits and that doesn't control the aesthetic, how the cityscape can be ruined, and that's Mexico City.
TOMMexico City had very old colonial palaces and buildings and was a very beautiful city that didn't have height restrictions and allowed new buildings to come up right next to old ones. And the result has been, I think, very negative overall.
TOMIn Mexico City, you can see these beautiful monuments, the statute of the Angel of Liberty, for example, which is on a very -- in a similar place to the Washington Monument on the Mall, except the difference is that they build all these huge buildings that are far bigger than the monument itself around the monument. So now the monument looks puny. And this has happened throughout the city, and so I think that Washington needs to be very careful because what we already have, we need to conserve...
NNAMDIWell, allow me to interrupt and read to you a piece from the Architect magazine that was in response to one of Roger's columns, a piece by Kriston Capps, in which Kriston Capps said that, " So long as development in D.C. is still capped by the Height of Buildings Act, which restricts building height to no more than 130 feet in most places, the kind of density that Roger Lewis envisions will remain always out of reach. The Height Act hampers growth in more dimensions than the vertical." Roger?
LEWISWell, I -- first of all, I agree with Tom's comments about the fact that you can mess things up seriously if you build the wrong things in the wrong places at the wrong -- with the wrong dimensions. I would like to reassure to him, I think the -- I think there is no chance that the historic center of Washington is going to suddenly have tall skyscrapers popping up. I don't think it's ever going to happen.
LEWISI think that -- I'm about to -- two days from now, I'm flying to Saint Petersburg, Russia, which is another city, very -- it's a world monument, the whole center of the city, 3,000 palaces, all of which are less than 80 feet tall. There's no way ever anyone is going to allow a tall building like the skyscraper that was stuck in Paris at Montparnasse, if any of you have been to Paris. You know, there's a -- on the left bank of the center, there's this building sticking up even worse than the Cairo here. I mean, it really sticks out.
LEWISI think that what -- on the other hand, La Defense, somebody mentioned something about Paris. The Defense development just outside the municipal boundaries of Paris, where there are some very tall buildings and some very striking modern buildings, it's far enough away that it doesn't spoil historic Paris, visually. And I would make the same argument about Washington. I haven't been to Mexico City, but I suspect that what -- or my advocacy of height limit revisitation here really applies to those areas of the city that are quite remote from the downtown historic core.
LEWISAnd I don't think of us who are advocating the reconsideration or height limits, none of us were advocating -- putting up 30, 40-story buildings. Although I must tell you there are people who come back from Chicago and tell me what a fabulous place this is. Why can't we be like Chicago? We are not going to be like Chicago.
NNAMDIWould you agree with this comment from Susan in Manassas, who writes, "I think you can have both. New architecture can reflect aspects of the historic architecture, and additions to old buildings can respect the existing architect."
LEWISWell, absolutely. And the Europeans are very good at this. I -- when you visit a lot of European cities, you -- in many of them, you see a natural evolution of architectural styles that, in fact, or in a way, a documentation of history. So I think that I completely agree that we don't have to -- we shouldn't have an official style. I mean, that's really my bottom line here. I think that Washington does not have nor does it need an official style. And I think we can be intelligent about how we build up the city, both in terms of height limit and in terms of style of architecture.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. If you haven't, the number is 800-433-8850. Where in the U.S. or around the world have you seen what you consider to be the most interesting architecture? 800-433-8850, or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Roger Lewis is our guest. He writes the Shaping the City column for The Washington Post. He is also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. We're talking about the architecture of cities around the world and the debate in Washington over classical architecture versus, if you will, modern architecture. And taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Riley in Washington, D.C. Riley, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RILEYThank you, Kojo. I'm calling for two reasons. One is to support height -- the continued height limitations in Washington because I think they permit wonderful vistas in the city and opening up the sky for light. And I would like for architecture critics like Roger Lewis and others to encourage people to simply look up and to see the vistas of urban landscape that are at the tops of buildings whether across the street or as you walk down the street to look up and see what beautiful architecture we really have already.
RILEYThat's number one. Number two, I would also like to encourage some variation and departure from classical architecture. There is nothing, I think, more appealing than the surprise and delight of turning a corner and seeing new materials and new designs by a radical departure from what you already have. And it's like cleansing the palate, and it's breathtaking and can be breathtaking from what is already there. And I can point to the wonderful time that the Washington Monument was ensconced and new materials and designs, and it was just absolutely exciting.
NNAMDIWell, Roger wrote about this recently. He sees Washington as being a great city now but that it's going to reach a new level in a few decades which is where our caller, Riley, seems to want us to go.
LEWISWell, I think Riley's points are well-taken. I think Washington is a city -- of all the American cities, it's unique. I mean, we have -- we built a city which where you can look up, you can -- you have these wonderful vistas. We have incredible park environment. I mean, I think that it would be a mistake not to mention that I biked down to the Hains Point last weekend which is a -- you don't realize how long that peninsula is until you walk or bike to the end of it. And we were in a garden a couple of nights ago by the Smithsonian.
LEWISI mean, Washington is, I think, not in danger of being compromised by suddenly 15-, 20-, 30-story buildings popping up in the center of the city. That's not going to happen. I think as far as the -- and I -- for all the reasons that you and Riley and others have mentioned calling in, I think the variation in styles is inevitable. I mean, I think even -- we're talking about neoclassical buildings. Even in the realm of neoclassical architecture, there's diversity, there's variation.
LEWISWhat tends to be not so varied is the specific vocabulary, the motifs, the reuse over and over again of some of the familiar classical elements. Yeah, I think you're -- what you're recommending -- listen, I love your metaphor, cleansing the palate. I think that's great, the sorbet before you move on to the next course. Certainly, I would say most people living in the city probably are quite in agreement with you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Riley. You took students to Los Angeles on a trip, and you said it was like going, for them, to a foreign country. What's unique about L.A. that makes it so different from around here?
LEWISWell, of course, California -- you commute California to Maryland. It was a field trip of a bunch of University of Maryland students who had never been to California and certainly not to Los Angeles. And they've -- most of them grown up in suburban Washington and Maryland suburbs, and they -- a few of them hadn't even been to Washington. I mean, I had students at College Park that didn't know Washington, and maybe they've been to Baltimore.
LEWISWell, Los Angeles was a shock. I mean, Los Angeles was, you know, the sprawling city, the city full of all these many incredible buildings. This was in the late '80s. And it was eye-opening for them, and they realized that there were -- I think it helped the students understand that there were other ways to think about cityscapes and the making of architecture that they just hadn't experienced here in the Northeast or certainly in the Washington-Baltimore area.
LEWISNot that these are necessarily the templates or the models that we should follow, that is, Los Angeles is not the template, but I've always argued that that architects -- part of the education of an architect is going around the world as much as possible to see what is possible.
NNAMDIIf you travel, presumably, you want to see some of the architectural gems that exist in other places, the art deco buildings in Miami, Notre Dame in Paris, the Opera house in Sydney. Guidebooks are, of course, a great way to learn more about what you're seeing. But what do you do, Roger, when you visit a new city?
LEWISThere is no question...
NNAMDIIf you can't bike, walk.
LEWISNo question, walk. And both my wife and I, when we arrive at a city we haven't been in before, the first thing we do is spend a day or two, especially if we've gotten off a plane after crossing the pond or one of the oceans, we walk around, and we just get a sense of what the city fabric overall looks like. And then generally carrying around some two or three very heavy guidebooks, you know, we will target areas that we want to see and buildings that we want to see and historic sites.
LEWISI think most people when they go visit cities around the world, you don't just go to see buildings. You go to experience the culture of those places to see what's old, what's new, not just architecture but neighborhoods. We, I think we -- my experience has been that you can't do this in a day or two also. To really see what you need to see in a city, take some time.
LEWISSo some of my -- in my travels, some of the most wonderful experiences have been going to one place and really sticking it out there for several days to the point of really getting to know it. And that's one of my recommendations for anybody traveling who's interested also in seeing a lot of sites but also getting a feel for the nature of the city, the culture of the city, the -- how it's -- what its place is in the grand scheme of things.
NNAMDIOf course, now, there are online guides and even new apps for your phone that can point you to the hidden gems in the city you're visiting. Lot of these apps have GPS built in so your phone can actually tell you what's nearby. And some can even tell you what you're looking at just by pointing. And you can find a lot of those apps listed on our website there at kojoshow.org. Roger, is this the future of the travel guy?
LEWISOh, undoubtedly. Of course, my smartphone won't work in Europe or anywhere else if -- the victim of the Verizon system can't take -- and I think that that's exactly what's coming, that you'll be able -- you'll have one of these thin portable devices, whether it's a tablet or a smartphone or whatever. And you won't have to carry around these guide books. And, just as you say, I mean, I can't wait to do this. I mean, to have -- pull this thing out and aim at it at some structure or some place and have -- tell me all I need to know about it.
NNAMDIIt's coming down the pike. A lot of people would like to join this conversation. Let us start with Patrick in Washington, D.C. Patrick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATRICKYes. Thank you very much. I would just like to hear some comments about modern interpretation of classical architecture in terms of, for instance, we have two embassies that are just -- to me are marvelous, which is the new Italian Embassy, which goes back to the Florentine Renaissance, in a very interpretative way, which is I think its just stunning.
PATRICKAnd a building that you have not mentioned but you've mentioned buildings all around it, which is the Canadian Embassy, which to me is such a bow to classical architecture with its copula, with its column but is a modern interpretation of this classical. And one of the things that I find, and maybe I'm reading into it, but ever since the Pei Building and that incredible, incredible angle in the Pei Building, at the east wing, is that I find repetitions of that angle.
PATRICKFor instance, in the Canadian Embassy and, for instance, the Italian Embassy and, for instance, the new Arena Stage, and I would love to hear your comments. And also I'd just like to say I totally agree. I'm a Parisian by birth, and I totally agree about the (unintelligible). And I'll take your answer from the air.
NNAMDIPlease go ahead, please.
LEWISWell, interesting. The -- this notion about interpret -- modern interpretation of classicism, we need to understand that there are -- there's small C and big C classicism. And there are principles of composition or classical principles of composition, like symmetry and axiality and repetition layering, that are not stylistically linked to any style. There are fundamentally ways that we architects compose form, and you can make a modern building of almost any ilk using these compositional strategies.
LEWISThe Italian Embassy is, as you say, there -- no question it's referential in many ways in the use of materials to some of the relative pre-renaissance as well as renaissance era buildings, palazzos in Italy. But it's -- as you say, it's a modern interpretation. It's a totally modern building in many other ways. It has a courtyard in the middle, which is a -- that's another classical device that is not stylistically linked but it's been around for a thousand of years. The Canadian Embassy also, if you think about, has a courtyard in it.
LEWISIt's hollowed out. It's one of the only embassies in which there's a connectivity between the public way on the sidewalk and street and the interior courtyard of that building, which is not really totally interior. And I think, you mentioned the angulation of the east building of the National...
LEWISOf course, that is very directly derived from the L'Enfant Plan. That has to do with the geometry of the plan, the angle of the Pennsylvania Avenue relative to the North, South, East, West Streets. You will see that. That motif or that strategy of composition picked up all over the place in Washington. I mean, I think that's another thing we should remind everybody of. When you go look at buildings, notice -- take note of how the geometry of the L'Enfant Plan has influenced the shape of buildings.
LEWISGo look at buildings on Dupont Circle that are clearly where their facade facing the circle is an arc of the circle, and their facades or radii of the circle, I mean, that -- so a lot of this is not about style. It's about compositional moves that are in part motivated by the urban form of the city.
NNAMDIAnd he mentioned, as you did, the east wing of the National Gallery, which was designed by I.M. Pei. Back to that old new discussion, a lot of cities known for their historic buildings also have some of the greatest contemporary architecture. Paris has examples in the same building. Its famous museum, the Louvre, has a modern pyramid entrance, designed by the aforementioned I.M. Pei.
LEWISYeah. Well, that's -- again, Paris is a great example because the French are very good at juxtaposing new and old. I mean, I think they do it about as well as anybody. And you can spend days in Paris, going around and seeing these juxtapositions of very modern, very almost cutting-edge, avant-garde structures that are coexistent with historic buildings. I think it's one of the wonderful things about Paris. So that -- again, turning the corner and discovering the Pompidou Centre or turning the corner and seeing a building that's totally glass.
NNAMDIWhere in the U.S. or around the world have you seen the most interesting architecture? You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is Marion in Washington, D.C. Marion, your turn. Go ahead, please.
MARIONHi, Kojo. Happy Caribbean-American Heritage Month.
NNAMDIThank you. Happy, what -- same Caribbean-American Heritage Month to you, too.
MARIONThank you so much. I'm a native Washingtonian, and I'm really interested in your conversation today. I think that we need to preserve, not just preserve, but Washington is part of the Chesapeake region, and we need to honor our history. My husband is Italian, so I live in Rome, Italy. That's my second home.
MARIONBut instead of us trying to copy Canada or Paris or Rome or, you know, keep referring to them, let's talk about the history and the culture of the Chesapeake region and how that should influence our architecture. Also, the place that I like to take people to is the U.S. Colored Troops Civil War Museum at 11th and U.
NNAMDIYes, I'm very familiar with that. That has a great deal to do with what former Councilmember Frank Smith has dedicated his life to here in Washington, D.C. Marion, thank you very much for your call. The architecture should reflect, in some way, the evolution of the Chesapeake region, Roger.
LEWISWell, that -- she makes a very good point that we haven't talked as much about as we should, which is that architecture, after all, is -- and the physical form of cities, the physical structures of cities are there as vessels in which the history and culture of a people, of a civilization resides. So one of the wonderful things about going -- visiting Washington or any other city is that you -- notwithstanding the architecture and the physical structure of the place, we're most -- perhaps most sensitized by the history and the culture that we associate with those forms of those structures.
LEWISCertainly, Washington -- I mean, people come here to Washington, and we've mentioned a lot of places. They go to see these things. But, let's face it, it's what's in the museums that most draws them. It's seeing places where they know history was made, going to Civil War sites, you know, learning -- I mean, there's -- there is this tremendous amount of cultural history, if you will, that the architecture essentially is acting as a vessel for or is -- prompts us to think about.
NNAMDIA lot of other people are waiting on the phone. We'll try to get to your calls, but first we have to take this short break. If the lines are busy, go to our website, kojoshow.org, and ask a question or make a comment there. Or send an email to email@example.com or a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Roger Lewis about architecture in cities. Roger Lewis writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. On to the telephones again. Here is Claudia in Alexandria, Va. Hi, Claudia.
NNAMDIYou're on the air.
CLAUDIAOK. Thank you. Well, just a couple of quick comments. First of all, I wanted to give my real heartfelt appreciation to Mr. Lewis for giving, I think, such informed discussion to this topic. My -- I really appreciate both very good modern and very good new classical as well as old classical buildings. The one thing I would say, one comment I had, is that to compose well using classical vocabulary takes, I would say, to really get good at it, maybe a good 10 years because it's like composing classical music.
CLAUDIAYou're working with, you know, composition and hierarchy and ornamentation and the comfortable use of all of those things. With modern architecture, I think the -- one of the kickers is that I've seen a lot of what I would call just because you can design it doesn't mean you should. Architecture, OK. So, in other words, I think that because modern architecture can sometimes -- not always -- I think with the best modern architecture, you see a tremendous intellectual rigor, like I. M. Pei, for example.
CLAUDIABut I think that for -- because there aren't some of the same kinds of training parameters that are put on the architects in terms of what they ultimately end up designing, I think you end up seeing oftentimes a lot less successful modern architecture than you would if you gave the same architect a classical training that said, OK, now design me a classical building.
CLAUDIABecause the training itself puts a kind of a freedom within limits, if you will, in that vocabulary that allows even a very sort of medium talented architect to produce a pretty good-looking, acceptable building that people would find, you know, worthy of note. So it's really just that, that it's -- oftentimes I find that there are some modern buildings that look, to me --you know, not to be unkind -- but sometimes they look like parts for the inside of an air-conditioning unit, you know?
CLAUDIAAnd I would just love there to be real space for both so that new classical architecture is not perceived as antique, OK, if you're using that vocabulary in new ways.
CLAUDIAThat's all. Thanks.
NNAMDIParts for the inside of an air-conditioning unit, Robert -- Roger. I've never heard that analogy before, but go ahead, please.
LEWISWell, that's been used to describe the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
LEWISWell, Claudia, I think she makes a very -- she's talking about something that we in the academic world have been talking about for a long time, which is that one of the great pluses of classicism as an approach to architecture is it does provide, if you will, discipline and a vocabulary -- I use that linguistic analogy -- that does enable people, who may not be great design talents, to nevertheless produce something that looks more or less reasonable as a work of architecture because it is formulaic, or it is quasi-formulaic.
LEWISAnd modernism, which is not a style, is not a -- you know, modernism means nothing more than not doing something that is derivative of antique architecture. I think -- I completely agree. A lot of modern buildings -- not just recently, but going back over the 20th century -- are not very good architecture. And so the -- and I think that the challenge for us who teach is, of course, to help students develop the critical faculties and the judgment and the knowledge so that in whatever style they choose to design, they do reasonable composition and if not brilliant composition.
LEWISI also think there's -- there is an awful lot of willingness to accept things that are bizarre, unusual, iconoclastic. The media certainly loves to write about that without people being -- exercising judgment to say, wait a minute. This may be a stupid idea. You know, let's, you know, the emperor has no clothes here. This -- how -- why are we doing this?
NNAMDIClaudia, thank you for your call. We got an email from DeWitt, (sp?) who writes, "It's really upsetting to see when an old building is removed to build modern styles. I remember, perhaps more than 10 years ago, an old church was destroyed to build the World Bank in downtown D.C. I really believe that Washington, D.C. should remain traditional." But, Roger, tearing down old buildings generally doesn't happen without a fight nowadays. But that wasn't always true, was it? Historic preservation is a relatively new concept, is it not?
LEWISIndeed. When I was in architecture school in the 1960s, I never heard the word historic preservation. I mean, you know, we came -- much of the 20th century and certainly before and after World War II, the sight guys, the spirit of the times was about the future, about modern, you know, doing things that were unprecedented. And that led to the destruction -- perhaps the poster child for idiocy was the destruction of Pennsylvania Station in New York City, this extraordinary Beaux-Arts railroad station.
LEWISYeah, historic preservation was something we began to think about as a culture, as a society really only after the '60s. And, of course, now today, we realized that it's part of our legacy, and we understand better that it's something we might not like today, we might feel quite differently about in 50 years. So, yes, historic preservation is very much a part of our DNA now when it wasn't before.
NNAMDIOK. On to Tom in Alexandria, Va. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMThank you for taking my call. I live here. I live in Alexandria, but I'm in D.C. a lot. And I love looking at all the buildings, and I like what you're talking about. One building that I think is interesting 'cause you guys have been talking about all the other good ones is the American Indian Museum. You know, the stones, the design, it seems like not -- I'm not sure, but I think they took in consideration native design, native materials and all the landscaping around the building, and it's a beautiful place.
NNAMDIWell, Tom, allow me to share with you and Roger the opinions of two others about the Native American Museum or aspects of Native American concepts. We got an email from Omar who says, "Please ask your guest about the lack of use of Native American concepts or designs in U.S. architecture while Native American names have survived in towns that may not be on reservations.
NNAMDI"There was little intellectual engagement or use of Native-American concepts -- buildings or designs in general -- in great U.S. monumental architecture, whether from North, Central or South America. I note that the New Zealand Embassy incorporates aspect of Maori style and technique." And, finally, this email from Amy, "Are you so distressed by the form of the museum of the American Indian as I am?" Roger.
LEWISWell, this is a very...
NNAMDIFrom love to distress, yes.
LEWISWell, this museum is, in fact, one of the more controversial pieces of architecture that's been erected. You notice I didn't mention it earlier.
LEWISWe could do a whole show about this museum. It's -- you know, it was designed by a Canadian, so you may -- who disavows it now because he was fired by the Smithsonian. But that museum does -- I think we should recognize that, first of all, it is based on a very particular Indian architectural precedent. It's really based on the Southwest cultures, you know, the cultures of -- in which the Indians lived in these structures of stone or on the sides of cliffs, the Anasazi.
LEWISI mean, if you look at the building -- when I look at it, I see the Anasazi tradition, which is very unique to a very particular part of Southwestern United States, not at all representative of the architecture or the culture of a lot of other Native American groups in other parts of the country. The circle -- those of you who know Douglas Cardinal was the architect -- the designer who did for the Indian Museum. It's based on lots of circles. It's really circles are us.
LEWISI mean, it's just -- the circle is very important geometric shape in some Indian cultures but not all Indian cultures. So he made a choice. He chose. He looked at the Anasazi culture. He looked at the circle and said, that's what I'm going to shape the museum. And then he got this beautiful limestone. There's no question it's a very beautiful material. I think that, nevertheless, there are some real questions that I don't think we can go into here about both the form of the building, and I won't even talk about the exhibits, which are -- I think are ill-conceived.
NNAMDITom, thank you very much for your call. Here now is Jesse in Montgomery County, Md. Jesse, your turn.
JESSEThanks for taking my call. A question observation. I spend a lot of time in Arlington, and Arlington, of course, was part of the original District of Columbia. And maybe it's just simply that the Potomac River is such a jarring boundary line, but it doesn't seem to be as much concern about the skyline of Roseland and Crystal City, which is only literally yards from the Mall.
JESSEYet there's this vast concern for the northeast-northwest boundaries of the District. So I'm just wondering about why that is. I know that when I'm at the Kennedy Center, I really do enjoy looking at the skyline of Roseland. So I'm not sure, you know, why...
NNAMDIWell, Jesse, here's an email we got from Jonathan, "Not to insult Northern Virginia, but one need only look over that Roseland skyline to see what we don't want in D.C. It's a mishmash mess. D.C. is very livable, very walkable. What it needs is more trees, not more density." What say you, Roger?
LEWISWell, there's no question Crystal City and Roseland are easy whipping boys. You know, they -- what you're seeing, of course, there in those two places is the result, again, of planning an urban design notions that go back 40, 50 years. And we've -- fortunately, we've come a long way from that, and I don't think we're ever going to recreate that. If you're talking about Arlington, Arlington doesn't have quite the same fabric, of course, as D.C. On the other hand, if you drive a little farther and go to Alexandria, Va., which a lot of people who visit the national capital do, they go to see historic Alexandria.
LEWISThere, you've got this city started as a port town in 1750, and they've done a very good job in Alexandria, I think, of preserving much of that history, much of that city for outbreak in the architecture that makes it up so that you can walk around Alexandria and, in fact, have a very different experience in walking around Roseland. Of course, the problem with Roseland is they haven't even built a good city. I mean, it's -- they're working on it, by the way. They're trying to make it better than it was.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're almost out of time, but I'd like to share this email we got from Boyd in Alexandria in the last minute or so. "I'd like to know what Roger Lewis, who wrote an article supporting the city of Alexandria waterfront plan, now thinks of the possibility of Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Corcoran Art School moving to Alexandria?
NNAMDI"Is the rumor true or just a ploy? And what is the best solution for the Corcoran? And if the Corcoran would work for the Alexandria waterfront, would Mr. Lewis support searching for some other museum to locate there?" I guess it wouldn't work for the Alexandria waterfront.
LEWISYeah, I mean, I think that's an easy yes. I think there might be a great place for the Corcoran. Remember, the Corcoran is two things. It's an art school and a museum. And I actually don't believe they necessarily have to be in the same place, but, yes, Alexandria or -- there might be a lot of places the Corcoran could go. As far as the building there on 17th Street, it was designed to be a museum. It's not very well suited for much other than a museum. Maybe an embassy could use it.
NNAMDIRoger Lewis, he writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post, and he's professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, always a pleasure.
LEWISLikewise. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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