It’s the kind of art we all spend time around – whether we’re regular visitors of galleries or museums. From fountains and plazas to avant-garde metal sculptures, public art can be cause celebration and controversy. We talk to resident architect Roger Lewis about how public art shapes the Washington area.


  • Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park


  • 12:06:42

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. When it comes to the way a city looks, there's no accounting for taste. Perhaps, that's why there are commissions, curators and other deliberators when it comes to choosing public art. Whether memorial or abstract, art often serves as a critical mirror on society, a factor that can make a mural or a sculpture treasured or occasionally reviled. But especially when cities and counties are low on funds, should we be spending tax dollars on what some people might think of as decoration, or do the social benefits outweigh the costs?

  • 12:07:32

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday, we discuss this with Roger Lewis, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post. Roger, always a pleasure. Good to see you.

  • 12:07:43

    MR. ROGER K. LEWISLikewise. Thank you.

  • 12:07:45

    NNAMDIWhen people -- when you try to describe public art in Washington, often people's thoughts, especially outside the city, leap to the Smithsonian, the Sculpture Garden, the National Gallery, and that's certainly a part of it, but to what extent does this kind of public art play a role in the daily life of Washington?

  • 12:08:04

    LEWISWell, it depends on whom you're talking to. I would say that there are many people in Washington for whom it plays a very minor role, and there are, of course, millions of people who are visitors to Washington who focus on these public artworks. And I think it depends on who you are. The answer to the question is tricky. I would say that one of the things about Washington, being a resident of the city, is it's -- if you live here, it's very easy to take it for granted, drive by it or walk by it 100 times and pay it little notice.

  • 12:08:42

    NNAMDIMore attention will be paid to that later. But if you like to join the conversation, do you have a favorite piece of public art? Where is it, and how does it engage you? Call us at 800-433-8850 or send e-mail to, a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website,, and participate in the conversation there. Even memorials aren't without their controversies, however, and particular, the Vietnam Memorial Wall didn't always connect with the public as it was meant to. Why is that?

  • 12:09:20

    LEWISWell, I think that the Vietnam Memorial, it's a great example of what can happen. The Vietnam Memorial, a result of a design competition won by a young woman designer, Maya Lin, it was an idea of great simplicity and very abstract, a wall -- two walls actually meeting at a vertex and driven somewhat into the ground. Absolutely different, radically different from what people are used to -- people are used to seeing statues and classical buildings or pavilions. If you think about the Lincoln Memorial or the Jefferson Memorial, here is this memorial of really remembrance of a war, not necessarily a celebration of the war, but a remembrance of those -- remembering those who had fought in the war and lost their lives.

  • 12:10:13

    LEWISAnd it was a very, very new idea for Washington to build this really what was an abstract boomerang-shaped wall with a lot of names on it. That -- there were people who thought it was fabulous, and there were people who thought this is ridiculous. How can you commemorate the lives of over 50,000 men and women with something like that? It ultimately led in fact to subsequent interventions. Traditionalists, let us say, decided that really there needed to be a statue of some soldiers, and that eventually got added. There was much objection to that.

  • 12:10:51


  • 12:10:51

    LEWISMany people felt, including me, that it was a complete work. It needed no further embellishments, and then later, a flag was added. And now, they're talking about putting an underground interpretative center there, which is an even more ridiculous idea, in my opinion, building an underground -- a bunker.

  • 12:11:09

    NNAMDIWell, tell us how you really feel about it, Roger.

  • 12:11:11

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Is there public art that you wish would go away? Have you tired to make it do so? 800-433-8850. Tell us a little about the World War II Memorial because it would appear that there were some people who thought that there was too much of a victorious atmosphere around that memorial.

  • 12:11:30

    LEWISYeah. Again, that was a very controversial design. I think there were questions about the site, about the scale and size of it. It did get scaled down from what it was originally -- what the original design competition winner. It is -- there were a lot of people worried about it interfering with the vista, the view between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument and the Capitol far to the east. They -- I think they did pare it down appropriately. There was to be a 70,000-square-foot museum built under huge embanked structures. That all disappeared, fortunately. Still, it's an extremely large memorial. It's very triumphal in spirit. It's beautifully detailed. I give credit to the architects and sculptors who worked on it. Both of whom -- all of them I know personally.

  • 12:12:21

    LEWISI think it has -- it's -- like so many things that were proven in the long run to become part of the landscape of Washington that's beloved. You know, we -- they wanted to tear down the -- there were a lot of things that have been built that people wanted initially to tear down. The Eiffel Tower was despised when it was built in Paris, and we think of it, of course, now as iconic. No one will even consider taking it down. So the World War II Memorial, it was controversial for a number of reasons, having mostly to do with aesthetics, mostly to do with the fact that it looked to some eyes like something that might have been built by a triumphal Germany or a triumphal Russia or a triumphal state quite different from ours.

  • 12:12:59

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones, Roger. Let's start with Eric in Manassas, Va. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:13:05

    ERICYes. Thank you. My favorite sculpture, public sculpture is the LOVE symbol, L-O-V-E. The letters are separated and then the O is in the upper right, and it's tilted. And this is in Philadelphia, near city hall.

  • 12:13:20

    NNAMDIWell, you should know that there was a recent love sculpture that pop up in DuPont Circle here in the District of Columbia last month. It was an ad for Virginia tourism, Roger. Did you happen to see that one, Eric, by any chance?

  • 12:13:33

    ERICNo, I didn't. No, I didn't. This is, as far as I know, I've never seen or heard any other love sculpture like that.

  • 12:13:43

    NNAMDIThank you very much. Roger?

  • 12:13:45

    LEWISWell, I was going to -- I think that that's a good segue into categorizing public art. You know, there's -- there are a lot of -- in Washington, in particular, lot of public art is really commemorative sculptures or other such things, usually three-dimensional structures that are commemorating someone or some event as opposed to decorative art. We have a lot of art in Washington and other cities that are often abstract sculptures that are not necessarily commemorative at all but which are -- have been acquired by an institution or by a private entity and displayed essentially as a form of ornamentation of the public realm, of the landscape. And also that happens inside buildings.

  • 12:14:31

    LEWISI always like to remind people I was in the Hart Senate Office Building recently in which there is an immense in the atrium, an immense Calder mobile black steel. It's about five stories high that is probably one of his largest stabiles as opposed to a mobile.

  • 12:14:47

    NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned buildings because buildings are in fact a form of art in and of themselves. Aside from the occasional flourish on a column, how are architects expected to balance art or to blend art with function?

  • 12:15:02

    LEWISWell, first of all, I will tell you being an architect that most of us like to think that our buildings are in fact art.

  • 12:15:08


  • 12:15:08

    LEWISI mean, we try and design artfully and really good architecture is in and of itself a form of art that has all -- serves all these other purposes, but there's also art often applied to buildings, carved into buildings, inserted into buildings, painted on buildings, put adjacent to buildings. And one of the issues that always arises is do you -- how integral is the art to the architecture, and now, I'm differentiating the building from those things that might be commissioned and executed by a separate author, by an artist, a sculpturer, a painter or a muralist. One of the things that is often a source of friction is that sometimes the artists are brought in after the architect has made all the decisions about the building and has to kind of retrofit the art to the building as opposed to working with the architect from the get-go to integrate the art with the building.

  • 12:16:08

    LEWISIf you go back historically, of course, there was no separation. The masons and craftsmen who built the great cathedrals of Europe, they sculpted and carved and made all of these wonderful things we see on antique buildings as they built the building. The art and the architecture were absolutely unified.

  • 12:16:28

    NNAMDIAre there buildings around town that you feel incorporate elements of art particularly well?

  • 12:16:33

    LEWISWell, I think probably the most notable ones are the various neoclassical federal buildings that have been built during the 19th and 20th centuries where you see sculptures embedded impediments you see, friezes and tablatures. You see carvings that have been, again, integrated into the architecture in the way the Romans and the Greeks and the Renaissance architects and builders executed that work. I -- that's certainly the most notable, the most unique attribute of Washington's public art, but there are some buildings where artists have come in and done mosaic sculptures on walls, mosaic -- murals, I should say, on walls or where the owners have in fact acquired pieces of art that looked very good inside the buildings.

  • 12:17:30

    LEWISI mean, I think the -- I go back to the Hart Senate Office Building, which is one of the most in-your-face examples of a work of art inserted into the interior of a building. I have no -- I don't know that I have any favorites. I do enjoy seeing, though, the sculpture that is present in so many of the federal neoclassical buildings.

  • 12:17:53

    NNAMDIIf you like to join the conversation, do you feel that the public has a fair say in public art, or do you think citizen curators would lead substandard results? 800-433-8850. I think Maya has something to say about that. Maya is in Silver Spring, Md. Maya, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:12

    MAYAHi, Kojo. This is my -- nice to talk to you.

  • 12:18:15

    NNAMDINice talking to you.

  • 12:18:16

    MAYAI want -- I -- first of all, I agree with so many things that your guest said. And living in Washington is about the most wonderful thing in the world because Washington is a beautiful city, and the people that have given us art have done a great job. However, I do believe that there should be some way for the public to veto even in a line item way any public works, any kind of public works that we believe are frivolous...

  • 12:18:51

    NNAMDIAnd what would you see...

  • 12:18:51

    MAYA...especially now.

  • 12:18:53

    NNAMDIAnd what would you see as the process by which we would -- we should be able to do that, Maya?

  • 12:19:00

    MAYAWell, that would be a tricky, a very, very tricky thing and would be take a lot of engineering, a lot of political engineering. However, I think more and more we're going to find that the public is going to have to become more powerful. I mean, we can vote for the -- our favorite idol online. We ought to be able to vote for simple things like artwork online. Or...

  • 12:19:25

    NNAMDIRoger, those -- I suspect it's much easier to get public input than it is to get a public veto.

  • 12:19:32

    LEWISOr a public consensus. Yeah.

  • 12:19:34


  • 12:19:34

    LEWISI -- we have to talk about the word frivolous.

  • 12:19:36


  • 12:19:36

    LEWISWe have to talk about that because that's a judgment.

  • 12:19:38


  • 12:19:38

    LEWISAnd one of the challenges of public art, of judging it, acquiring it, paying for it, is that we have different eyes through which we look. And what is perhaps frivolous to one might be not at all frivolous to another. I mean, you know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I know that's trite, but that's a very -- that's a truism. And I think that -- it means there is a challenge always for whoever is sponsoring the creation of public art to make a valid judgment.

  • 12:20:13

    LEWISUltimately, the decision moves from the head to the stomach, I think, (laugh) or the head to the heart because, just as with the Vietnam Memorial or any other work that you would like to point to, there are going to be some people who find the work not beautiful or jarring or inharmonious and others who say, no, no, this is -- this fits or -- and certainly the artist. Most artists would, I think, argue that they're not working frivolously. That even though we might think something's frivolous, they probably don't see it that way at all. I think this is a -- this opens a whole area of discussion here about who makes the decision, what is art, what isn't art.

  • 12:20:51

    NNAMDIAnd, I guess, when we come back, we will talk to a public art administrator in this area to talk about who makes the decision and how that decision is made. Maya, thank you so much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. It's Roger Lewis on public art. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:22:52

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Roger Lewis. He is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park and writes the "Shaping the City" column at The Washington Post. We're talking about public art. And joining us now by telephone is Angela Adams, public art administrator for Arlington County. Angela Adams, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:23:13

    MS. ANGELA ADAMSIt's my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

  • 12:23:15

    NNAMDIWell, in terms of our last caller, Maya, you can tell us a little bit about the process that a public art administrator goes through.

  • 12:23:23

    ADAMSAbsolutely. Well, we are blessed in Arlington County, where I've had the privilege to work with public art for the last decade or more, of having some very forward-thinking citizens who, in the late '70s, asked for public art to be part of the private development process. It took the county actually about 20 years to catch up with citizen demand for public art when, in 2000, our county board approved a public art policy. And after that, a public art master plan, which speaks to guiding principles for how we implement public art here.

  • 12:23:55

    ADAMSGuiding the whole program, we have a professional staff of four, but we also have seven very knowledgeable citizen leaders who form our public art committee, which is a subcommittee of our arts commission. And so those folks working at the direction of our county board, using the guiding documents of the policy and the master plan, help guide the selection of art and artwork for Arlington County.

  • 12:24:20

    NNAMDIAnd Arlington, it's my understanding, is currently home to 56 permanent public art projects. But what happens if a citizen, group of citizens or some specific institution hates a particular piece of public art in Arlington? What can they do about it?

  • 12:24:37

    ADAMSWell, there are two ways we address that, Kojo. One is in the process itself. We have a very involved process, again, led by our public art committee of experts working in the various design fields, architecture, landscape architecture, as well as art, and these folks lead community processes for each and every project. So we have good citizen input with each and every project that's usually tied in an integrated fashion to our civic projects, infrastructure, buildings, parks.

  • 12:25:09

    ADAMSAnd we also have, in our guidelines, the condition that if a public artwork receives adverse reaction for five years in a sustained fashion, that the citizens can petition to have it removed or, most likely, relocated.

  • 12:25:27

    NNAMDICould you explain negative reaction in a sustained fashion over a period of five years for our audience, please? (laugh)

  • 12:25:34

    ADAMSFortunately, I don't have to because we haven't had that. So I -- we don't know exactly what it would look like, but I can tell you, when we wrote our policy, we -- in our guidelines, we researched extensively what the field was doing across the country. We are one of about 300 programs that provide public art through local government. And we did a best practices survey, and we found that this was something that we should offer the public. But then, if we did our job right on the front end, we wouldn't ever have to employ it.

  • 12:26:06

    NNAMDIRoger, two questions in that regard, the first one, very specific. Would the FBI building in Washington be one of the institutions that, if it were subjected to that five-year negative reaction process, would now be gone?

  • 12:26:19


  • 12:26:21

    LEWISThat's an easy call. Hi, Angela.

  • 12:26:25

    NNAMDIThe other question is what does, in your view, public art do for the quality of life of residents in a particular jurisdiction? That's for you, Roger.

  • 12:26:36

    LEWISWell, I think that probably -- I think maybe the greatest benefit is that people will -- people see art as an expression of culture and an expression of ideas and principles, et cetera. And I think that there's a sense of -- I would think, a sense of pride. And I hope Angela will address this, speaking for Arlington. I mean, I think that I always -- I mean, there's an aesthetic appreciation that obviously comes with it. But I think a lot of people, depending on their -- where they -- how they're situated in society, see public art as something that is akin to public transportation and the air we breathe and the trees we enjoy, that it's part of the metropolitan landscape that they can brag about for that matter.

  • 12:27:39

    LEWISI mean, I think, you know public art -- the thing is public art can range from things as large as the Statue of Liberty -- I mean, if you look at the Statue of Liberty as a work of art given to us by France -- down to some very subtle things, some very small things. So I -- my answer is that it's really a source of cultural pride and cultural stimulation. I think art is also something that stimulates us intellectually. It makes us think about things we might not otherwise think about.

  • 12:28:12

    NNAMDIIn addition to that, Angela Adams, to what extent is public art seen, especially by a public art administrator, such as yourself, as attracting people to your county?

  • 12:28:23

    ADAMSWell, I really appreciate the question, and I want to say -- first of all, I didn't say hello, Roger. But I do want to just commend Roger for all that he's taught me, both through reading his columns through the years and also some work that he's done with us in really helping to make the connection between public art and good urban design practice. And I think Roger -- we're really fortunate to have Roger in our community because he is really wonderful at connecting all of the dots of what makes for a great place.

  • 12:28:55

    ADAMSAnd I think that public art is one of those tools in your urban design toolbox for what makes a great place. And I think that's what we are focusing on here in Arlington, again, in our public art master plan, you know, concentrating our efforts on our more dense areas, our metro corridors, where people congregate for various reasons throughout the day and, in some cases, need reasons to want to come and stay in the civic realm.

  • 12:29:24

    NNAMDIAngela Adams, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:29:26

    ADAMSMy pleasure. Thank you for having me.

  • 12:29:28

    NNAMDIAngela Adams is public art administrator for Arlington County. Roger, you wanted to say something to Angela?

  • 12:29:33

    NNAMDIWell, I should thank Angela for that promotional announcement. That was very nice of her to say that. I think Arlington -- Arlington is a very unique place, by the way. We talked, in working in Arlington, about the Arlington way, and this gets back...

  • 12:29:47


  • 12:29:47 your question about -- people -- one of the things Arlington does, they're very good at seeking consensus, at getting people to understand what's being proposed and to get behind to find out how they feel and to make it happen only when there is a very clear and substantial consensus. So I do very much respect what Angela and her colleagues have accomplished over there. You know, there are all -- there are so many opportunities to make public art really part of our daily experience.

  • 12:30:17

    LEWISFor example, I wish that every time I came out of a Metro station, you know, as you come up, you know, you arrive -- you come from the underground. You're coming out into the daylight. The first thing you see, of course, before you get to the top, is the canopies that have been built, which, by the way, were the subject of a design competition. And those glass arched canopies that are all over Washington are themselves quite wonderfully designed. I have to say they were designed by someone who had been a student of mine at Maryland. But wouldn't be wonderful as you came out and you stepped onto the plaza -- there should probably be some work of art right there.

  • 12:30:57


  • 12:30:58

    LEWISSomething doesn't have to be a statue of anybody, but something that you wouldn't miss. You'd notice. It becomes a landmark. We haven't talked about the landmark and quality that public art can be to help you navigate. Those are benefits of public art.

  • 12:31:13

    NNAMDIAnd it would really help when the escalator is not working to have something beautiful at the top...

  • 12:31:18

    LEWISYes, yes.

  • 12:31:18

    NNAMDI...when you finally make it up there. We are being deluged with phone calls and emails. So if you'd like to join the conversation right now, you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or you can go to our website, Let's get to our listeners. First, with Steven in DuPont Circle. Steven, your turn.

  • 12:31:35

    STEVENHi, Kojo. Thank you for having me on the show. I'm a faithful listener. My question is -- well, two. First, I love public art that's functional like DuPont Circle where people can gather and enjoy it. The second question I had is art censorship in public places, like the statue of Neptune outside of Library of Congress where they placed -- strategically placed fig leaves over the statues, which when they were cleaning, they removed. But after they got through cleaning it, they've put them back. Why?

  • 12:32:11

    NNAMDII couldn't answer that question for you. Roger, can you care to answer?

  • 12:32:15

    LEWISWell, your -- Steven, thanks for your call. You've introduced the issue of censorship.

  • 12:32:20

    NNAMDIOh, big time.

  • 12:32:21

    LEWISAnd we know we've had some recent examples...

  • 12:32:25

    NNAMDINational Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian decided...

  • 12:32:28


  • 12:32:28 remove a controversial piece of video art from the gallery. That piece of art was depicting -- a piece that was David Wojnarowicz, who was a gay man who eventually dies of AIDS. His piece of "A Fire In My Belly" used uncomfortable images in order to convey his suffering and the suffering of the gay community. The Smithsonian has been criticized for it. So what about public art that's controversial and offends some people religious or a moral responsibility?

  • 12:32:54

    LEWISWell, I think you've summarized it very well. I mean, I -- you know, we can go up to Maine. You remember the recent case in Maine where a mural that was painted not too many years ago by a woman depicting, essentially, labor -- people working, working-people. The Republican governor of Maine decided that it was too one-sided. It only represented labor where it was capital. And...

  • 12:33:17

    NNAMDIAfter somebody said it looked like communist North Korea.

  • 12:33:19

    LEWISYeah. I mean, you know, I mean, that -- I find that tragic. I mean, I think that a more -- a fair approach by the governor might have been just find an artist and say, okay, let's -- why don't we do another mural if he really felt that it was needed. I mean, that was raw censorship. That was absolutely the kind of thing that shouldn't be going on in America. I think that this gets back to Maya's call about what do you do if something is frivolous or if something offends someone's particular political beliefs or someone's religious ideas or whatever. I mean, I think it's a very tricky thing.

  • 12:33:59

    LEWISI tend to believe that most censorship should be -- should not be done because for the very reasons that we've been discussing, which is that -- which is the eye of the beholder phenomenon that would some people might view as offensive, others might think a very stimulating and very interesting and worth looking at. So there you are. Who -- ultimately, it's a matter of deciding who's in-charge, I mean, who can make it happen.

  • 12:34:32

    NNAMDISpeaking of which -- and thank you for your call, Steven. Let's go to Elizabeth in Springfield, Va. Elizabeth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:34:40

    ELIZABETHHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I was calling about what you were just speaking about, that I didn't feel that everyone needs to have consensus on a piece of art within a community, because art itself is provocative. And it should cause people to talk about it and there should be people that love it and people that hate it. And that's what art is. And if it didn't have that, it would just be, you know, something you could buy at a decorative store or something, you know, that everyone loves.

  • 12:35:09

    ELIZABETHSo my example of that was that I had taken 91-year-old grandfather to the World War II Memorial. He loved it. He was moved to tears. All his peers, they loved it. And then a few weeks ago, I just took my in-laws, who are baby boomers, and they hated it. They said, oh, it's, you know.

  • 12:35:27


  • 12:35:27

    ELIZABETHI can't even understand why exactly they had such a visceral reaction, but they did. They viscerally did not care for it. As soon as they came -- and they're different generation...

  • 12:35:34

    NNAMDIWell, Elizabeth, allow me to interrupt and ask you if they said anything like this comment we got from Rosanne who said, "Listening to the show, I thought of the many artistic features in the city that I admire, but my strongest thought was how much I disliked the World War II Memorial. The first time I came upon it, I was horrified. It is arrogant, too large and clunky of line, a blight on the previous simplicity that defined them all. When in the center, you are completely obstructed from other vistas." Is that anything like what your relatives had to say, Elizabeth?

  • 12:36:08

    ELIZABETHWell, she must be a baby boomer and also thought that the World War II Memorial is taking away from her generation. I don't know. That was my only thought on, like, during my in-laws, you know, thinking it was too grand was that it wasn't about them.

  • 12:36:22

    NNAMDIHow about the alleged obstruction of the vista that is caused by the World War II Memorial, Roger?

  • 12:36:26

    LEWISWell, they did a fairly good job, I think, in setting the elevations and designing it, so that when you're standing -- when you're at the Lincoln Memorial or when you're anywhere along that grand east-west access, it doesn't really block or obstruct the vista. It does occupy a portion of this. I mean, it's there. You know it's there. I think that's been fairly well handled given the overall scheme. But certainly, we could debate ad nauseam whether we needed to build something that large.

  • 12:37:00

    LEWISI -- this is another subject, but we've been building some very big memorials, chewing up a lot of acreage. The FDR Memorial is far bigger than it needs to be. Even the Marin Luther King Memorial that's under construction where it -- that's going to be very controversial. I mean...

  • 12:37:17

    NNAMDIAs big.

  • 12:37:17

    LEWIS..Chinese sculpture. The stone is -- we could get into all...

  • 12:37:21

    NNAMDIOh, in that case, you'll really appreciate this email we got from Blake in Annapolis who says, "You two gentlemen repeated the typical and usual omission of the Korean War Memorial. It does not have the triumphant grandeur of the World War II Memorial but is very moving and captures the grim reality of that forgotten war."

  • 12:37:39

    LEWISWell, I happened to have written an article years ago for architecture record about the Korean Memorial, which is much more modest in scale, but it has a lot of elements. I think one of the problems with the Korean Memorial is that it has slightly too many things going on. It has the statues of the soldiers. It's got the striated ground playing of stone and planting. It's got a wall, a little bit akin to the Vietnam Memorial. It's got a fountain. It's got a flag in a fairly small area. I mean, the Korean Memorial, I think, is another one of those things that, over time, will become beloved, but I actually think it's over-designed. I would love to have seen it somewhat simpler in the number of elements that are there.

  • 12:38:23

    LEWISThere's just no way you're going to ever get -- I think this is the consensus issue. You'll never gonna get 100 percent of the people loving or hating anything. And so the best we can do, I think, in terms of public art is to make the best judgment we can with some number of people who have good judgment or whose judgment is respected, and then give time -- allow time to pass. So that as we live with something for a longer period, we get to know it better and either embrace it fully as happened with things like the Eiffel Tower or just taken as part of the landscape, look at it as something that is there, and we don't worry about it.

  • 12:39:07

    NNAMDIIt may occasionally disappoint the public to know that what it considers public art isn't necessarily publicly owned even if the piece is beloved to many. Leona in Columbia, Md. will express a beef that a lot of people have. Leona, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:39:26

    LEONAHello, gentlemen. Good afternoon. I have a quick -- well, I have -- I want to call in and ask about the Awakening. So while I was holding, I had a quick comment. I was thinking about the impressions on art. And I grew up as a child exploring it and I stay a lot of time at the Children's Hospital in Oakland, Calif., which was more of a forgotten part of town. And there were these great murals of whales. And I just remember it bringing me so much joy and a peace of mind on my way to my doctor's appointment. So just want to, kind of, throw that in there. So my...

  • 12:39:58

    NNAMDINow, for the beef.

  • 12:39:59

    LEONA…we're just -- sorry? Come again.

  • 12:40:00

    NNAMDINow, for the beef -- your beef.

  • 12:40:03

    LEONAOh, my beef. My beef is -- "The Awakening," I think that's the name of it, that was in D.C., loved it -- it got moved to the National Harbor, which I think is kind of in a really cheesy location in the sand, near the water. What's the story on that? What's the back story, you know?

  • 12:40:21

    NNAMDIThat's the point I was making about a piece of public art not necessarily being publicly owned. In this case, Roger, it is my understanding that the owner is the one who decided to move it across the river to what Leona describes as a cheesy location...

  • 12:40:36

    LEWISWell, let me...

  • 12:40:37

    NNAMDI...which is Gaylord National Harbor.

  • 12:40:38

    LEWISWell, we can talk -- we can debate that.

  • 12:40:40


  • 12:40:41

    LEWISBut here's the lowdown, the sculpture was actually not ever acquired by the city. The sculpture was owned by the artist who made it. It's - so what happened very simply was that Milt Peterson, who was the developer of National Harbor, very much liked the sculpture and he offered to buy it. He bought it. He paid the money to the owner, which was the artist, and bought and moved it. It's that simple. So there -- I think what you're talking about, of course, is the problem of having something around long enough where you begin to think you do own it.

  • 12:41:21

    LEWISI mean, I've run into that as an architect with people who look at a piece of land that we're about to build something on the land that's been sitting there for years and years with trees on it and they begin -- they think they own it. How can you come in here and build a building on this site? Yes, I don't own it, but it's been there all this time. How can you possibly build a building on it? The solution is, of course, not to tear down all the trees. But, in any event, this is a recurring problem.

  • 12:41:44

    NNAMDIAnd that, as an individual, used to say, Leona, is the rest of the story.

  • 12:41:48

    LEONA(laugh) Okay. Thank you, gentlemen.

  • 12:41:50

    NNAMDIThank you so much for your call.

  • 12:41:50

    LEWISYou're welcome. Thanks for calling.

  • 12:41:52

    NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our discussion on public art with Roger Lewis. Taking your calls at 800-433-8850 or go to our website, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:43:52

    NNAMDIWe're talking public art with Roger Lewis. He is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. He also writes the "Shaping the City" column at The Washington Post. Roger, besides looking nice, public art does have particular social benefits. The D.C. government disclosed an application period from Murals D.C., which installs murals, where graffiti often appears. And we got an email from somebody who wish to remain anonymous who says, "What about graffiti as art, especially in a conservative city like D.C.? It can sometimes be a horrible eyesore or a beautiful inspirational and social commentary, the art of the people." What about graffiti as art?

  • 12:44:31

    LEWISWell, I think it's the old story. Some graffiti, I think, is very artfully done, and I've seen some graffiti that I couldn't wait to get rid off. So, you know, this is (laugh) it's the same old story -- some you could live with and some you can't. And, I guess, one thing that cities can do is perhaps organize to motivate people to apply graffiti where they would like with the city where it makes sense...

  • 12:45:02

    NNAMDIIndeed, Murals D.C. targets high graffiti areas and replaces them with graffiti-inspired murals. So far, 27 of them have been put up here in D.C. since 2008, and apparently, only two have been tagged. Those two were repainted and they weren't tagged again. So there's a useful -- okay, we got an email from Mike in Baltimore about a point that you were making earlier, Roger.

  • 12:45:25

    NNAMDIMike says, "Nothing drives me more crazy than last-minute plop art in architectural projects. The best architects and developers start from day one, partnering with artists and designers so that the art and design elements in a building or environment makes sense for the project to people who use the space or what the space or structure should commemorate. The best public art in D.C. is the Metro. If the great stations are left alone as designed, along with the signage system, it is brilliant, functional, great." What do you think?

  • 12:45:56

    LEWISWell, I certainly -- Metro is a -- the stations, the underground stations, these great vaulted, covered vaults are fabulous and -- but they are very much an architectural element. I wouldn't, I mean, they're public art, but I think that it's important to recognize that there -- that art -- what he's talking about, which is plopping things into spaces, is really not necessarily part of architecture. A good example, he mentioned Baltimore, some people who, you know, Baltimore, Mike, remember that in front of the Pennsylvania station, the railroad station is this giant figure that -- I must -- I forget how high. It must be 50- or 60-feet high -- that is very controversial.

  • 12:46:47

    LEWISI mean, I've heard a number of people wish this thing were removed. It's at least as high as the station, it might even be taller. And I know when -- I've gone up there many times and seen it. It's essentially a kind of abstractive representation of a figure. I can't remember if it's male or female or ambiguous. But it's been plopped, it's been stuck into a position where it looks a little bit out of place. It seems out of scale with the surrounding area. But on the other hand, there are probably some people who think it's -- was a wonderful idea, it's provocative, it's memorable.

  • 12:47:26

    NNAMDIBut you do know about a prominent piece of public art that was removed in Chicago.

  • 12:47:32

    LEWISYes. The -- Richard Serra, who's a sculptor, who's known for these --taking these immense sheets of steel and bending them and twisting them around. There was a plaza with a piece in Chicago called "Tilted Arc" which, again, as I understand it, was very much disliked by a lot of people. I think there was -- there were -- for a number of reasons, I guess it probably affected wind patterns, it probably was -- created surveillance problems. I mean, I -- anyway, it was not beloved. And I think -- I believe they finally moved it. I'm not sure, but I remember reading a couple of stories about how little beloved that particular work was.

  • 12:48:19

    LEWISNow, you can find -- on the other hand, if you go to Bilbao, Spain, and you go into the Guggenheim Museum, there's an entire huge space dedicated to Richard Serra's work with his immense sheets of steel woven and -- or I should say deployed within the space, twisting around, and it's quite provocative, quite (word?)...

  • 12:48:38

    NNAMDIBut that "Tilted Arc" in Chicago didn't work out. Here is Clara in Bethesda, Md. Hi, Clara.

  • 12:48:45


  • 12:48:46

    NNAMDIYou're on the air, Clara. Go ahead.

  • 12:48:46

    CLARACan you hear me?

  • 12:48:47

    NNAMDIYes, we can.

  • 12:48:49

    CLARAYeah. I am a sculptor. I do most of my sculptures in bronze, and I have some in granite. However, I haven't sold any because I don't do it for the business of selling them, but I do art for the art's sake. Anyway, I also have designed a building that I would love to show to somebody. And how can I go about it?

  • 12:49:21

    NNAMDIGo about showing the design of the building?

  • 12:49:24

    CLARAWell, maybe not selling, but showing it because I think...

  • 12:49:28

    NNAMDII didn't say selling. I mean showing. You just like to show it.

  • 12:49:31

    CLARAWell -- yeah, whatever. (laugh)

  • 12:49:34

    NNAMDII'll see if Roger Lewis has any ideas.

  • 12:49:38

    LEWISI'm not sure I understood it. Is it the sculpture you wanna show or a building that you have designed?

  • 12:49:44

    CLARAWell, both. I have lots of sculptures and I have designed a building, that if it ever would get done, it will provide a job for me, thousands of people and for a long, long time. So I would like to show it to somebody.

  • 12:50:04

    NNAMDISounds to me, Clara, as if you need to talk to what competent authorities there are in Bethesda, Md., which is where you live.

  • 12:50:14

    LEWISWell, yeah. I mean, I can't -- it seems to me you're talking about a building that's gonna take thousands of people to build and many years. It sounds like you're talking about the pyramids of Egypt or something pretty vast. I mean, I think that -- my recommendation is that you concentrate on the sculpture. I mean, I think that, at some point, what most artists and sculptors try and do is when they have a reasonably fair sized body of work, then you try and exhibit it, either in a gallery or in a museum or wherever.

  • 12:50:48

    LEWISSo it seems to me that -- certainly, most of the artists I know, their -- one of their objectives is to try and exhibit, have people see their work and perhaps to buy it, but just to see it. So I would say focus -- I would not worry too much about the building. I'd focus on your bronze sculpture and get that out to people to see, and maybe you can do some of that via the Internet.

  • 12:51:15

    NNAMDIClara, thank you very much for your call. Roger, given that a good amount of art in Washington consists of statues in the center of traffic circles, we drive past Revolutionary War figures or foreign dignitaries without really knowing who these people are. So what are those statues for?

  • 12:51:33

    LEWISWell, what has happened -- what happens in Washington, the process is that a lot of this stuff is the result of groups of people, organizations, usually nonprofits, commissions that have been formed, that have come along and advocated a commemorative to who -- to someone, and a place is found in the statue or the work is constructed and inserted. The -- I think the -- what -- there are probably hundreds of these things around the city, most of whom -- most of which I haven't seen or studied, and some of them dedicated to people you -- we've never heard of or who we have trouble remembering.

  • 12:52:18

    NNAMDIWell, you live near Ward Circle.

  • 12:52:21

    LEWISYeah, yeah. I've -- and driven past it many times and I have no idea who Mr. Ward was. I probably should know that. On the other hand, there are statues that...

  • 12:52:29

    NNAMDITurns out that Artemas Ward is a Revolutionary War general and congressman from Massachusetts. One of the interesting things about Ward Circle is that, apparently, there's no pedestrian access to the statue in the center. So how can you find out?

  • 12:52:44

    LEWISWell, that's true in a lot of the circles. I mean, I think the -- in fact, you really take your life in your hands to try and get into the middle of Ward Circle. Again, there's a tradition of plunking down sculptures, statues, commemorative statues in the middle of squares and circles or within the interior. It doesn't have to be in the middle. And there are a lot of them that we just -- we go by year after year after year and not really take notice of. How many people, for example, know that at the south end of 17th Street, overlooking the Tidal Basin, there is a memorial to John Paul Jones? I doubt...

  • 12:53:23

    NNAMDII did not know that.

  • 12:53:23

    LEWISThere are probably not 100 people in Washington who know John Paul Jones, who they perhaps have heard of, is in fact commemorated there. There's just -- there's a long list of people. I mean, we've got -- I wonder how many people know that Adm. Francis Du Pont, the fountain in Dupont Circle is -- he was a Civil War-era admiral. But we've got McClellan, we've got Gen. Winfield Scott commemorated, a lot of generals. By the way, if you wanna be remembered in Washington, be a general or an admiral.

  • 12:54:03

    NNAMDIOkay. On then to Andrea in Washington, D.C. Andrea, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:54:11

    MS. ANDREA SEABROOKHi, Kojo. It's Andrea Seabrook. I'm actually a reporter for NPR and...

  • 12:54:14

    NNAMDIHi, Andrea.

  • 12:54:16

    SEABROOK...and I just love your show. It's one of the best.

  • 12:54:19

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 12:54:19

    SEABROOKThank God for local NPR. I wanted to say that I'm one of the people who loves the giant 60-foot person in front of Penn Station up in Baltimore, because as you drive past it on 83 North, it changes from female to male. That's probably why you couldn't remember which sex it is. And it reminds me a lot of one of my favorite pieces of art down here, which is -- I think it's the Air Force Memorial that's down in Virginia. As you go past it on 3-95, it changes and it looks -- it changes its shape and it's just almost as if it were a piece of kinetic art, except it's you that's moving instead of it. And I just think there's marvelous and wonderful ways to make our landscape important and interesting to us.

  • 12:55:18

    NNAMDIAndrea, you seem to like stuff that moves while you're looking at it.

  • 12:55:21

    LEWISWell, Andrea makes a good point. Andrea, I'm glad you mentioned the Air Force Memorial. Some people may know that. It's essentially three arching, essentially, trails. There are -- the notion, the metaphor there was to make those look like the contrails that would be left by three jets going vertically and diverging. That was sculpted -- that was created, I think, about 20 years ago or designed about 20 years ago. And it doesn't move, but you're absolutely right. I mean, you -- as you move, as one moves around Northern Virginia, it's -- the perspective on it always changes. It's a very effective piece of art.

  • 12:56:05

    NNAMDISpeaking of changing perspectives, Chinatown in Washington wouldn't be the same without the glaring lights, many of which are emitted by ads. To what extent can ads, in one way or another, become a form of public art?

  • 12:56:18

    LEWISWell, that's a great question. I mean, I think the -- that we should recognize that in cities, and perhaps the ultimate examples are places like Tokyo, Hong Kong and Manhattan, Times Square, many of the vertical surfaces really become tableaus that are composed with color and lights and information. I think we have to recognize that, in other words, that part of our world of public art includes everything from a poster to a giant billboard, to these wonderful, I think sometimes wonderful signs that fill up thousands of square feet on the sides of buildings.

  • 12:57:04

    LEWISAnd I dare say anyone who walks around Times Square in New York, or if you -- or walks along a street in places like Hong Kong or Tokyo, you can't help but feel, I think, to some extent, that you're looking at a world of incredible animated, lighted electronic murals and getting information while doing it.

  • 12:57:28

    NNAMDIAndrea Seabrook, thank you for your call. We're almost out of time, but this we got from Ed. "I think the most attractive and underappreciated statue in the D.C. area is the Navy Merchant Marine Memorial along the GW Parkway near the 14th Street Bridge. Most people know it as the seagull statue. My other favorite is what I think is called Cupid's Garden in Rosslyn. It is a bunch of arrows going every which way. However, I think it is better representative of how Washington works." (laugh)

  • 12:57:58

    NNAMDIWith that comment, I'm afraid we've come to the end of this conversation. Roger Lewis is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. He writes the "Shaping the City" column at The Washington Post. Roger, see you again soon.

  • 12:58:11

    LEWISLikewise. Thank you. Thank you.

  • 12:58:12

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows

The Politics Hour: July 10, 2020

Friday, Jul 10 2020Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld talks about the future of WMATA and what reopening will look like. And D.C. Councilmember Vincent Gray walks us through city budget and gives us an update on building a hospital east of the Anacostia River.

D.C. Police Reform, Past And Present

Wednesday, Jul 08 2020The D.C. Council's emergency police reform bans chokeholds and the use of pepper spray on peaceful protesters. But D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson says these and other proposed measures are already on the books.