The Political Symbol We Need

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On January 21, 2017, hundreds of post-Inauguration Day protests, rallies, and marches took place across the US and around the world. Largely organized by women and around “women’s issues” (which are not really only pertinent to women), the Women’s March on Washington and its related events served a smorgasbord of issues that were probably not all, entirely, to the taste of every participant–which did not keep them from coming out by the millions. Such is the nature of progressive politics in its sweeping gestures toward inclusion and diversity. Even so, the various marches were alike in several factors, including their overwhelming numbers, their overwhelmingly peaceful character, and their overwhelming pinkness. The latter was in part due to many artifacts in the crowds utilizing that color so long associated with all things feminine, but one item rose above the rest: the headwear that many of the participants wore. Simple in shape, the flat, boxy hat, when slipped over the head, reveals pointy “ears” that gives rise to its name: the pussyhat.

Given the success of the marches and ubiquity of the hats within them, the pussyhat may become one of the great examples of political headwear in the history of this sub-sub-sub-set of material culture history, which is a long one. Hats have enjoyed a rather rich association with politics through time, as their meanings might be casually hewn or (as in this case) intentionally sewn. Ancient Greeks recognized different tribes by their chapeaux, especially those who donned a pointy cone later called Phrygian caps, which were later embraced to signify freedom and the pursuit of liberty during various eighteenth-century revolutions: Americans called it them Liberty Caps. In the early twentieth century, hats were intentionally wielded within the strive toward Turkey’s westernization during the establishment of the Republic when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk required men to wear European-style hats in replace of the fez that had been traditional for about a century, thinking that modern hats would modernize their wearers. Meanwhile, Americans popularized straw boaters, usually festooned with bunting and buttons, as the canonical rally and convention hat. Again in the 1960s, activists and revolutionaries countered the decorum of broad-brimmed hats by donning berets to conjure a militarist attitude, famously captured in the Guerrillero Heroico.

Hats have only gained prominence at political rallies–especially televised ones–in the most recent decades, as a way for individuals to draw media attention to themselves (and, of course, their party), and for organizers to indicate solidarity among a crowd. Such was certainly the case during the 2016 presidential election, when the platform of the candidate who ultimately won the Electoral College became closely identified with a red trucker hat bearing an ostensibly, but backwards-looking and nostalgic, patriotic slogan. Reaching a certain portion of the electorate that was clearly feeling left out of global change, its form identifies with traditional masculinity and blue-collar labor, while its color is associated with the American flag but, perhaps more to the point, is also the shade favored by bullfighter to enrage their prey and thus may likely pump up (if not help to flat-out enrage) rally attendees. The factory-made hat (sometimes labeled “made in the USA,” but not necessarily so and not entirely so) was a tremendously successful element of the campaign, yet as ill-fitting and foreign in its candidate’s wearing–one might argue–as are the values it symbolizes within his actual life experience.

How different, then, is the hat we saw amidst the crowds flowing through the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Boston and beyond on January 21: not a device shrewdly chosen and mass-produced to elicit common response among a crowd of followers, but the result of a totally grassroots campaign, like the rallies themselves. While the innocent (or out-of-touch) might see their shape as having some vaguely feline-feminine quality appropriate to a Women’s March, no one was calling these kittyhats; they of course were a direct response to one of the most degrading and disparaging comments to come out of the red-capped candidate’s mouth. In no way is the pussyhat’s hue a washed-out, weaker version of the candidate’s hats; in this context, pink is potentially more biologically referential than generically pretty–although it’s that, too (and, depending on the wearer, ironically so–or not).

hatsAlso unlike the uniformity of the manufactured red hats, the pussyhats reveal a variety of shades and patterns of pink, as diverse in their slightly different shapes, fabrics, and methods of fabrication (some real works of art by skilled knitters and others clearly a person’s first go at a sewing machines). This too is significant, for the making of these hats is as important as their wearing. The real gist is for them to be handmade–so much so, that knittters took pity on their non-needlework-able sisters and passed them around both through small social circles as well as through a well-organized online campaign (no doubt the need also drove some robust Etsy traffic).

The mass creation of hundreds of thousands of pussyhats in a relatively short time frame is a testament to both contemporary social media and age-old needlework technology. The two merge in what may be the biggest global act of Craftivism in history: a pointed use of handicraft for the cause of activism, oftentimes (maybe usually) from a feminist point of view and making use of crafts that have been traditionally associated with the feminine sphere. In the best Craftivist practice, the pussyhats accomplish both goals by merging the advocacy of voice and hand, while also bridging the divide between the personal and the global.

So the pink hat is at once an individual, unique artifact in the making and a communal event in the wearing, much as the marches themselves joined vast swaths of people from broad demographic representations. As a specifically feminist strategy they reclaim and repurpose a word that had been used to belittle and degrade while claiming and proclaiming a color that is a powerful, clashing counterpoint to last summer’s red hat and its regressive attitude. With varying levels of craft expertise, fiber, fabric, pattern and color, they announced diversity within overall unity, perfectly symbolizing the recognition of plurality’s strength within any movement–or society–that hopes to march forward.

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‘Death by Designer:’ Aaron Schock and the Downton Downfall

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The Red Room’s to Blame

How often does a piece in the Style section tank a Congressman’s career?  What started as a pretty mild inquiry by Washington Post writer Ben Terris in early February, blossomed as his visit to the congressional office of Rep. Aaron Schock apparently accidentally but very importantly overlapped with one by its eager designer, Annie Brahler of Euro Trash, prompting a major PR fumble and more serious investigations into the Republican’s finances and travel, leading to the all-too-predictable dénouement (the media are distracting me from my job, blah blah blah).

The story of Rep. GQutiepie’s plummet from power might have happened eventually, given all the apparent financial malfeasance, but it sure does look like it’s the office that precipitated his sudden and very public demise: by all accounts, a stunning fall (we will avoid the obvious pun and you’re welcome!).  Surely the private planes, concert tickets, and dubious mileage math might have been enough to swat his erstwhile meteoric rise out of the political stratosphere.  But the story that took root was about the office: brilliant red rooms with a hefty sprinkling of gilt (or at least gold-painted), lavish crystal, multiple urns of pheasant feathers, a table with flying-eagle legs.  Of all the possible reasons for Rep. Xtreme to meet his end, how was it design that did him in?

Was it just the ridiculous crudeness of it all?  A suite of rooms that were more akin to an Old West Madame’s Saloon than the meeting place of a legislator?  (But then, Rep. Glossypage did not accomplish much during his tenure in office.)  Note to future office holders: avoid associations with businesses that feature the words “Euro” and “Trash” in their names.

Was it somehow the style itself: sort of Neo-American-Classical-Exceptionismesque, with vaguely traditionalish pieces glamored up and arranged in wacky, unexpected ways?  That’s especially true of the overlapping frames and floating pictures of presidents that hover within them (ostensibly sourced by staffers from the print-on-demand station at the National Portrait Gallery).

Was it the way this suite stood so brashly out from the pack, its red color not only generally announcing soe kind of rebel spirit manifesting Rep. Abulous statement that he wasn’t one of the “old crusty white guys” and dismissing critics of the office with a bon mot featured in a Taylor Swift song, but specifically disregarding the paint color guidelines set down by the architect of the Capitol?  (Yes of course there are rules about these things, even if the Washington Post calls them “arcane.”)

Or might it have been the description of the room that took hold in the media as “based off of (sic) the red room in Downton Abbey.” This statement, told to reporter Terris by an unamed “woman behind the front desk” of Rep. Instagram‘s office, struck a nerve with the public, even though it seems like a false comparison.  The Congressman’s denials of having ever seen the show are probably true, since PBS rarely plays at 24-Hour Fitness.  Likewise, designer Brahler has huffed at the comparison, demanding the design is her own, with no inspiration from the show or otherwise.  This seems reasonable too.  By her own admission, Brahler is not a designer: she rather proudly proclaims to have avoided being “classically trained” (whatever that means), in other words, she is uneducated in design.  She describes her work as being a purchaser and arranger of stuff, kind of like the people who load up TGIFs and Chili’s restaurants with garage sale loot–just with more crystal and feathers.  And now, political scandal.

For Unnamed Lady Behind The Desk to make the remark with such certainly, there must be something to the comparison, and something that triggers the real criticism and outrage over a lavishly decorated room that perhaps represented a misuse of taxpayer money but is by no means one of the grossest expenditures on office equipage by Congressional representatives.  Perhaps it’s not the dough, or the degree to which Schock’s office simulates the alleged original English estate, but the fact that the comparison can be made at all.

The backlash is one more example of a sentiment rooted in the aspirational, chip-on-the-shoulder aesthetic desires of a certain brand of striving, self-loathing American for the elegance and taste that the landed, royalist Brits seem to do so easily.  Since we cut the cord back in 1776, Britain has been a source of admiration and scorn, longing and denial.  Although (often) unconscious, this national tendency may explain why this extravagant room, which might have been just a source of eye-rolling without the allusion to a television show, became such a lightening rod once it was tied to the story about English elites.  Not only that, but Downton is of course the biggest hit on PBS: the visual equivalent of NPR, the station of Prius-drivers and soy latte-drinkers; it’s not the network for real red-meat guns-rights ‘Merika.  A $40,000 design that emulated Duck Dynasty would have a been a different thing all together.

Maybe Rep. Fancypant’s office was a misguided, silly, excessive recreation of the Downton set; maybe not.  Surely it is a fitting tribute to a (former) congressman who placed high priority on sizzle and appearances, one who was expert at gobbling up power rather than wielding influence.  And fear not, fans of Schock, for this is not the death of a congressional career, but–we bet dollars to doughnuts–rather the birth of cable-channel personality, once the inevitable cross-over travel/design/political programming is launched.  Stay tuned.

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the other tastiest place in the world

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Arts & Crafts gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum

Back in 2010 we named the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna as the tastiest place in a very, very tasty city, but must report that its crown is challenged by one single room in London.  (Surely a topic of such weight merits the esteemed position of this post, which is our 100th, thank you very much & you are welcome!)

During our most recent jaunt through Dear Old Blighty, which was awash with Artsy-Craftsy wonderfulness, we swooned in the Arts and Crafts galleries of the Victoria and Albert.  The museum presents, as one might expect, a singular collection of this great movement that we’ve been increasingly obsessed about (and that we’ve talked with you about before, like here, here, here, and here).  Any reasonable gallery with a reasonable nineteenth-century design collection will have a bit of Morris, maybe some Voysey; perhaps something shiny by Archibald Knox if they’re really fancy.  Well howzabout all of that, and then some, gathered up in one place at one time.

That image at the top is a veritable family picture: Burne-Jones glass, Liberty & Co. washstand, Voysey owls & clock, Farnham pottery, Knox pewter, Webb candlesticks & chair, De Morgan pottery, Ashbee decanter, Townsend fabric, a Morris cabinet and carpet and, of course, the movement’s unofficial mascot, the Strawberry Thief.

Seriously, just look at this stuff:

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in the Medieval Gallery

And because it’s the V & A once you’re finished swooning here, you can walk yourself down to the medieval stuff and see their inspiration. Or over to an adjacent room for Pugin and the Crystal Palace.  It’s almost too much for nineteenth-century people to bear.

Just one downside to the V & A.  Unlike the KM in Vienna, the environment of its wonderfully-designed cafes trumps the nosh.  Such a pity.  Then again, and while there are probably scones to be had in Kensington, why not make your way two miles to Conduit Street, where you can have the cream tea at the Sketch cafe and commune with other tasty ghosts at this former home to the RIBA?

why not, indeed

why not, indeed

 

a walk on Brick Lane

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Brick Lane is not unique among the streets of the world in the fact that it bears the evidence of shifting demographics, but it is certainly a fantastically diverse and colorful example of the phenomenon.  Even a short walk along part of this long street, which runs mostly north-south-ish in London’s East End, passes through divergent communities and multiple layers of cultural archaeology.  And while it might be short in distance (say, 1/3 of a mile), this walk is long in experience and deep in delight.

Our walk began at Fournier Street, on the corner of which stands an appropriately bricky eighteenth-century building whose tenant list already reveals part of the history of the district.  The Brick Lane Mosque has been used as such since 1976, but was formerly a synagogue (from 1898), before that a church (used by Methodists since 1819), before that serving for a decade at a time as the headquarters of the “London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews” and a Wesleyan chapel; originally it was built as La Neuve Eglise for French Huguenots in 1743.  To further complicate (and/or enrich) matters, its minaret (which lights up at night) was added in 2010, paid for by the Bishops Square development near Liverpool Street Station.

This section of the street is pretty much free of architectural monuments after the mosque, leaving one tempted to fall back on the old chestnut of describing the 3- and 4-story structures that line Brick Lane as “nondescript buildings.”  Maybe once upon a time these (mostly) 18th- and 19th- century blocks were unremarkable, but by 2014 they have achieved an impressive patina through use by layers of use through the centuries.  Not much reflects the earliest history of this road that is really, really old and gets its name from a brick factory that was built before the first Queen Elizabeth took the throne.  Successive groups of immigrants have moved to this part of the city, oftentimes to take over the silk and weaving shops that were prevalent through the nineteenth century, when the business dried up.  In the 1970s Bangladeshis became the predominant ethnic group in Brick Lane.  Their presence is evident in the street signs written in Bengali and lamp posts painted in the colors of the flag of Bangladesh, as well as the preponderance of curry shops along the street.

Perhaps like pizza being taken over by Americans from its Italian immigrants, curry rose in popularity along with the multiplication of Bangladeshi restaurants in Brick Lane, through the rest of London and wider in the country.  So popular did the immigrant cuisine–admittedly with some alterations–become, in 2001 British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, in a speech to “celebrate Britishness” and its longtime multicultural character, claimed that “Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.”  The acknowledgement of Bangladeshi culture as an integrated part of Britishness was made official by the renaming of the district as “Spitalfields and Banglatown,” also in 2001.

Recently, Brick Lane has continued to show signs of change as its character (and relatively cheap rents) have drawn the attention of artsy types.  Just off the path of our walk, the Rag Factory, a repurposed building housing studios, performance and exhibition spaces, is not far from the intersection of Brick Lane and Fashion Street (originally the Hugeuenot name “Fossan” Street, the word was later corrupted into “Fashion,” and recently became a magnet for designers).  Walking north, such establishments as the Cafe Mumbai, Mango Masala, Eastern Eye Balti, Bengal Village, the Curry Bazaar, and Cafe Bangla cede way to the Vibe Bar, the Laden Showroom, Rockit, Vintage, the Brick Lane Gallery, the venerable Beigel Bake.  What might seem like a rather abrupt transition between the Bangladeshis and the more recent settlers, around Woodseer Street, is visually bridged by a new scrim on many of those old buildings.  The once-plain walls along the path have been turned into a fantastic open-air street art gallery. The big crane by Belgian artist Roa is probably the most notable work in the gallery above, but we are partial to the portrait of local hero Charlie Burns (d. 2012) by Londoner Ben Slow–it’s beautiful, and painted to look like its fading away, along with Charlie’s Brick Lane.

Having started at the church-synagogue-mosque at the intersection with Fournier Street, the walk ends at a rather different, and rather new, cultural icon just below Bethnal Green Road.  Fika, named after the tradition of Swedish coffee break and opened some five or six years ago, is a bar and restaurant that is pretty serious about its Nordicness, featuring kladdkaka and gravadlax on the menu.  We might be just a few blocks north of the mosque, but it feels farther away.  Not as far as Stockholm is from Dhaka, the difference between the ends of this short walk is better measured in messier terms than mere miles.  The self-consciousness of cultural construction to the north is palpable, but maybe that’s been the case whenever a new wave has flowed down Brick Lane, going back to the Huguenots.  Regrettable neighborhood gentrification?  Maybe.  Expected urban evolution?  Undoubtedly.  It’s the natural way in these unnatural things that we call cities and that are, afterall, the artifacts of everyone who passes through them and takes the time to leave part of their story behind.

the image of International Women’s Day

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Happy Women’s Day, Dear Women! (1964)

As its name suggests, International Women’s Day is, indeed, a global event.  Yet in spite of its reach–and age (almost a century old)–recognition of IWD in the US is almost nil.  In spite of efforts by various presidential administrations to turn up the volume on “women’s issues” during the month of March, acknowledgement of the month, and more precisely the day (March 8), are pretty much ignored.  This is not the case in nations with a long history of observing the date, including eastern European countries and Russia (where it began), Scandinavia, Australia, and recently in Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Cambodia, Angola (among dozens of others).  It’s notable that in the latter countries–none of them the picture of civil rights awesomeness–that IWD is an official national holiday, not just a day for potential local celebrations, which is the way it is observed, hit or miss, in many industrialized, democratic nations of the west, where it enjoys prominence neither on the national calendar nor in the national consciousness.

1970

1970

In the places where it is observed, the manner in which IWD is recognized has, and does, differ across time and geography, from a highly politicized event marked by marches and protests, to a holiday that prompts the gifting of flowers to ladies.  This variety of interpretations and manifestations is clear in the great variety of graphic art–much of it pretty wonderful–related to IWD.  Much of it runs in the vein of the image on the left, celebrating IWD as a kind of happy and feminine (rather than feminist) holiday.  Lots of flowers and ethnic frocks, images of women isolated in abstracted backgrounds: no context of work or even home life, no men to suggest father/husbands, no children to make this another mothers’ day.  These are lovely images, some of them more graphically superior than others.  (We like the clever figure eight in this card from 1970, suggesting a dance as well as the date of the holiday.)  Such an image is there to remind you, if you are not a woman, you’d better go buy some bouquets for someone who is.

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which arm holds the cell phone?

Another common theme in the IWD posters, and Revolutionary art overall, is the elevation of women from traditional spheres of work in the home and recognition of the huge amounts of labor required of running a household.  The Russian image on the left shows a multi-limbed mom, each of her arms indicating the amount of time required of various tasks, leaving only 17 minutes per day to care for her child.  Surely what is required is for this femme-mill to be energized by winds of change, both to alleviate the drudgery of home labor (other graphic messages demonize “kitchen slavery” and encourage literacy among women) and focus her domestic tasks not solely on upkeep of the house, but instead on raising the next generation of Bolsheviks, as one of her contributions to the state.

1914

1914

These are pretty interesting images, but perhaps the most compelling posters are the ones with more overt political significance.  The Soviets have a great number of these, which is not surprising in consideration of the tradition of mass-produced Constructivist art following the Revolution.  Indeed, IWD was launched during those years and as a means to formally acknowledge women’s contributions to the Communist and Socialist movements.  Thus the posters are populated with Frauen waving flags of political change, bolcheviques commanding farm equipment in Ukraine and handling machinery in Soviet factories.  The posters reveal a blend of ideology and reality: women are valued contributors, and expected participants, in all aspects of society.

That is the overall message of International Women’s Day anywhere it is not just a strategy to boost flower sales–and not even to that low status does it reach in the US.  However, for that economic possibility alone, one might expect that the Land of Hallmark to elevate the date.  Think of it: not just the purchase of posies, but the mimosa brunches and gifts of jewelry and chocolates adding to the economy at this heightened season of potential male guilt wedged between the Superbowl and March Madness.  Yet good capitalists steer clear of this thing, probably unaware of the Socialist/Communist history of the holiday, all too wary of the potential of a movement that challenges the longstanding power structures in America: systems firmly rooted long before the advent of IWD in other countries.  The suffrage bill was still winding its slow and tortured way through Congress when the Soviets were calling on women to stand up with men to support and defend their country.  After contributing to the American war effort at a huge scale, helping to enhance the US as the industrial powerhouse it became at mid-century, middle-class female citizens were rewarded with one-way tickets out of offices and factories and into suburban tract housing.  Today, American women are like the windmill-woman above, but with less support from the state: maternity leave lags far behind Canada, Norway and Denmark (usual suspects) and even Mexico, South Africa and Pakistan (that hurts).  A study from 2006 shows that gender pay gap in the US (22.4%) and Canada (27.5%) keeps company with Botswana (23.3%), Madagascar (26.1%) and Singapore (27.3%); it’s not as bad as Kazakhstan (38.1%) but well behind the EU, Egypt, Iran, Mongolia, and Australia (all 14-20%).  Granted, numbers can be beguilingly straightforward, and never tell the full nuanced story–but their consistency certainly refutes the prevailing myths that suggest that the issue is irrelevant or even non-existent.

Overall the data confirms the continued economic and social discrimination against women in the US.  For that reason, IWD could be an important opportunity to raise awareness and prompt change. However, even among the most interested parties there seems to be a split opinion about how to go about making such progress.  Perhaps this is another curious and somewhat ironic manifestation of the general freedoms enjoyed in North America.  Witness the posters below, from British Columbia (left) and Québec: if the real IWD stood up, would she be revealed as a scarf-wearing radical, fist raised before some kind of rising sun motif, à la imperial Japan, leading the charge of eagles and helicopters? Or would she totter between a political rally and a shoe sale on psychedelic go-go boots?  In alternate decades, Russia and Eastern Europe have treated the day either as a celebration of feminine prettiness or female strength; the poster at the top achieves a certain middle-ground, with the pretty lady adjusting a headscarf whose pattern intermingles blossoms and leaves with the hammer and sickle.  L’état est la femme.  Considering the posters below, Canadians might want to work out which way they mean to go, and if it is possible to blend feminine softness with a feminist edge.

Their neighbors to the south might wake up and do something.  But that would take a different kind of political will in the US–where women comprise 18% of the House and 20% of the Senate, and a whopping seven women serve as state governors.  Fabulous as poster artists and local organizers might be, they cannot alone affect the means by which a holiday–Socialist in its roots–might be woven into the national calendar as a symbolic measure of women’s actual participation in American life.  That requires a recognition that Socialism is the enemy neither of capitalism nor democracy.  The New Deal, the Great Society, public education, food stamps, Social Security and Medicare are all pretty Socialist–and pretty American too.  Putting basic human rights aside, it’s also a very American trait to make the most of available resources to achieve economic advance–even when there is little social and political will to invest in other kinds of progress.  International Women’s Day is an opportunity to highlight the wasted resources embodied by 51% of the global population, imagine a way forward to make the most of it and, finally, for heaven’s sake, pave the way to make it happen.

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two recent views of International Women’s Day

Several images are from this interesting blog.

patriotic clothing

the terrorists win.

Exhibiting one’s patriotism is noble when it’s done in good taste.  Activities that reveal one’s dedication to a nation’s principles and ideals and better angels are in really good taste.  This includes engaging in well-informed public discourse, practicing proper etiquette in the presence of the flag and festooning one’s house with bunting on national holidays.

Festooning one’s self with bunting on national holidays, however, is never a good idea.  It may be a habit elsewhere too, but is definitely a problem in the U S of A where, especially on Independence Day, all across the fruited plains, Americans indulge in bizarre costuming in the name of patriotism by mis-appropriating the flag in hideous garments.  America’s national holidays already teeter on the verge of caricature.  It’s not MoT‘s mission to get preachy about national pride, but we will humbly suggest that the triumvirate of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day ought not to be the days-off-work that define the start, peak, and end of summer, extolled as excuses to have a barbecue.  Of course you ought to have a barbecue–we’ll bring the brownies–, and it would be great if sometime during the day you did something to recognize the intended nature of the day, but it would also be wonderful if you’d not take part in patriotic-dressing-cum-flag-desecration.

It’s not that the American flag is an inviolate symbol, it’s just that its design is really not amenable to attractive clothing.  There’s a reason stars and two-tone striping don’t show up on a lot of your non-holiday-themed garments (unless you wear a certain kind of uniform).  The color combo of red, white and blue is very, very hard to pull off.  So use them wisely.  If you are compelled to decorate yourself like the flag, consider diminutive stars that may be mistaken as polka dots at a distance.  Choose stripes wisely; seersucker is not a bad option.  Flag pins may be required on politicians’ lapels, but giant star earrings are prohibited.  Finally, you can only choose two of the three colors from the flag.  (Alternately, forego the whole walking-flag thing and dress as your favorite Founding Father: this guy and this guy knew how to put together an outfit.)

These are the rules for flag dressing, which has very few exceptions.  You MAY wear flagoriffic clothes if:

1. you’re a little girl

2. you’re a crazy old man

3. you’re an athlete in uniform

4. you’re a superhero

5. you’re a pop star who is basically a cartoon image of a real person

(and then, if you’re going to do it, do it right)

6. we take that back

America is the home of the free and you are free to wear whatever God-awful clothing you like, but please, consider the tender sensibilities of people who have to look at you.  Honor the men and women who have died defending this country and its flag so it can wave proudly from sea to shining sea, not so you can Old Glorify your bottom or star-spangle your bosom.  Those colors may not run, but if we see them at the picnic, we may turn tail, and we’re taking our brownies with us.

Correction: these colors do indeed run, and jump, and also basically look awesome just poised for action.

Gehry, Ike, and the Language of Memory

proposal for Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial by Frank Gehry

The construction of memorials is a tricky business that has only become more complicated in the last decades, especially in Washington.  Desires for inclusiveness of design and transparency of process, set within the quagmire of federal systems and on the always-contested landscape of the capital, ensures that the process, from inception to completion, will be a long, winding, difficult path.  All of those challenges make it harder, but even more important, that we get it right, especially when we consider what is at stake.  Memorials are, after all, the built manifestation of collective memory; that is their point, and it always has been.  Cultures around the world and through all epochs have left reminders of what was important, both to remind themselves and communicate to future generations.  These messages are carried through art and/or architecture, a means that is mutually understood by artist and audience, ideally in a manner (style, if you like) that is, even without the content, inspiring.

Frank Gehry’s design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial falls short both in content and manner–in part because the two are so at odds with each other.  Gehry’s design, which has undergone at least one major revision, spreads a collection of objects across a rectangular four-acre urban park.  Rows of round piers line three of its sides and support metal screens that bear two-dimensional images of his childhood in Kansas.  At the center of the site, an empty space is flanked by skewed planes defined by thick stone slabs with inscriptions and stacked at angles.  Figural sculptures, representing his adult achievements, will stand in front of them.

now THAT’S a colonnade

In that description, we’ve tried to be as accurate as possible given the modernist language of Gehry’s design.  The traditional components articulate something, but the architectural elements do not say much, do they?  Piers, screens, planes.  They have a relationship to neither their immediate context on the National Mall nor any meaningful tradition of memorial design.  The problem with abstraction (well, one of its problems) is that it cannot fulfill the need for significance that people seek in architecture–that was and is the point of Modernism, after all, to break from the past, which makes it antithetical to the memorial function of remembering.  This is especially significant in a project that has as its primary function the communication of an idea.  With a little imagination (which most people have, even non-architect people, which architects sometimes forget), people will surmise their own meaning within the abstract forms, and this can lead to a world of problems.  Detractors have already latched onto Gehry’s metal screens as being evocative of concentration camp chain link fences (architects might be reminded instead of Gehry’s infamous debut with the material).  Other people understand this element to be symbolic of another metallic “cloth:” the Iron Curtain–probably not a desirable image in a memorial to a significant World War II figure.  Others still might be chilled by the formal similarity of the blocky elements to this earlier monument.  The tall–VERY tall (80′ high)–cylindrical piers have been denigrated as looking like missile silos but also described as “columns” in an effort to make them seem more at home among the tradition of Classical memorials all over the Mall.  (Perhaps the same motivation lead some supporters to refer to the metal screens, ridiculously, as “tapestries.”)  That is silly, since they more closely resemble upended culvert pipes than true columns (if you need a refresher, see Henry Bacon’s work above).  Even more absurd is the suggestion that Gehry’s design is a roofless classical temple, a notion that only illustrates how hollow are the arguments that Gehry’s architecture is at home in the Classical city.

These various attempts to stretch language into impossible meanings is distracting and unhelpful, but it also points to part of the trouble with this design.  Even its supporters scramble for language to describe what it is, which is an essential part of explaining what it is supposed to do.  And it reveals a key problem with this design, which is its desire to do two things.  On the one hand, it is a big expensive project by a name-brand architect who is famous for making up his own aesthetic (which, we think, he should absolutely be free to do when he serves his private clients).  On the other, it’s trying desperately to fit into two contexts that are famously consistent in their language: the federal capital, and the tradition of memorial design.  Gehry’s proposal can’t do either.

Union Station (Burnham, 1907)

Both Washington and its Classicism are flexible systems, but they have their limits.  For well over two centuries architects have been working in that particular language of architecture, exercising its consistency and legibility, but also its flexibility.  It’s the langauge of Thornton’s capitol and Walter’s dome, Cret’s library and Pope’s museum, countless other public edifices and private homes, not to mention all those memorials, the most famous (and beloved) of which are truly Classical.

Grant Memorial (Shrady & Casey, from 1902)

Because of those immediate physical (National Mall) and functional (memorial) contexts, designing memorials in a Classical vein is arguably the right thing to do, and thus the popularity of those that have followed this vast precedent–perhaps most recently and most successfully, the National World War II Memorial (in spite of criticism from the professional architectural community).  Here we are not just thinking about the architectural forms that make up a memorial.  Rather, we are considering the Classical manner of memorial-making, traditionally either a building to go into (Jefferson, Lincoln) or an object to look at and walk around (Washington, Grant).  One of the problems with contemporary memorials seems to be the foregone conclusion that a they must be big, and the unfortunate assumption (usually) that they cannot be traditional plazas, and with that, the preference for walk-through sculpture-garden-events (like the semi-successful memorial for the Korean War).  While enlarging the scale and budget of a project, these big landscapes do not inherently make the memorial more effective.  The Eisenhower Committee (and the countless other committees that will doubtless follow their lead) might learn something by considering the strength and impact of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial.  Its three sculptural groups are positioned on piers and define a fine and simple open room.  They effectively communicate the character of fortitude and calm for which Grant was famous especially in the midst of battle, as portrayed in the evocative flanking groups of Cavalry Charge and Artillery on either side of the central equestrian figure.  The sculpture groups communicate their subject brilliantly, without any screens, scrims, pediments or colonnades.  The team of sculptor and architect understood how to utilize their site and the surrounding monuments to enhance their memorial, while their work contributed appropriately to its setting.  Eisenhower might, likewise, be better served by this traditional approach.

As much as we believe that function, meaning, symbolism, and appropriateness are best served with a Classical design, we’re willing cede that it’s not always the only and best thing to do.  Two cases-in-point come to mind.  The Astronaut Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center (1991) effectively melded a high-tech image into a somber monument that was meant to constantly scan the heavens (its mechanical failure is both regrettable and embarrassing); it told a story and fits is place.  Closer to home, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1981) was not the first project that raised the issue of memorial langauge to the status of public debate, but it did so prominently and recently.  Without rehashing the complexities of arguments about that design, suffice it say, the image of a semi-subterranean, black angle with no recognizable imagery was shocking.  But in its muteness it accepts and maybe encourages different points of view, which is appropriate for that difficult war and its aftermath.  One of the problems of its legacy is that it suggests that the mute-modern approach is generally acceptable for memorials, rather than understanding its qualities in this specific social and political context.

national treasure, indeed!

Eisenhower is a different case altogether.  A two-term president, five-star general, and Allied commander in Europe during World War II are the hallmarks of a heroic figure who ought to be treated as such.  That is where Gehry’s language falls short on several counts.  Although it is not traditional, it is also not the identity-free architecture designed by an unknown architecture student in a competition for the Vietnam War.  It is a monument designed by one of the world’s best-known architects, and we bet you dollars to donuts that people visiting Washington in ten years will ask for directions to “the Gehry monument” rather than “the Ike memorial.”  Gehry is a name-brand architect; that is why he is sought after by clients around the world who want a wow-and-now image.  Selecting Gehry to design a building is like putting Nicolas Cage in your movie.  If you cast him, they will come.  The work of memorial designers, not the designers themselves, should attract attention and visitors; the designers should be invisible–possibly be made famous by a great design (or not, as was the case with unfortunate Shrady), or if already famous, practice in such a way that their ego is subsumed by the project (only Classical architecture geeks who visit Mr. Jefferson’s memorial are distracted by its Popeness), not chosen for already being famous and potentially outshining their subject.

Fred & Ginger (1996)

That is another reason why the Classical language is appropriate to memorial design: we read it as a style, generally; specialists can recognize differences across the decades and between practitioners, but that distinction does not matter in a style that is timeless, and is thus appropriate to communicate timeless values, like heroism.  Gehry’s work is the opposite of that–it is about the spectacle of the moment–, and it should be left alone to do so.  His highly sculptural buildings gain meaning (again, by people who seek for buildings to speak to them) only from other people; he does not engender them with anything.  Other people saw a dancing couple in his skyscraper in Prague (left); after proposing his design for a Guggenheim museum for  Abu Dhabi he spied a consonance between his work and the “domes and things . . . blocky shapes” of Ottoman mosques.  Gehry’s work doesn’t communicate anything more transcendent than the materials available to him at this moment in time; they will age and date and be eventually worn out.  The framework of this memorial will always evoke its decade, distracting from the figural elements that will continue to communicate, albeit in a setting that is hardly supportive of their mission.  Gehry’s idiom is not amenable to the figural additions that are tacked on like afterthoughts; they are post-it notes on a marker board.

In an attempt, perhaps, to put a lid on the controversy, as poobahs like to do, the commission’s “executive architect,” Daniel Feil (awarded a 2012 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture by the AIA–emphasis on the AIA rather than the Jefferson, to be sure), issued this meant-to-be-definitive statement:

Different people like different things.  But this is a design [Gehry’s] that is quite an extraordinary remembrance of President Eisenhower, and that will transform this plot of land.

This is neither an innocent nor a simple statement.  Its bookends are ultimately dismissive: (1) differences of opinion are simple matters of personal taste which aren’t worth talking about (except, we assume, among the professionals who know better), and (2) “transformation,” although it only means “change,” suggests the idea of improvement–highly arguable in this case.  (Construction of a Five Guys would be a really welcome transformation in this neighborhood, too.)  But then consider the stuffing: the design is “quite an extraordinary remembrance.”  Well yes, “extraordinary,” another word which is value-free, but meant to imply a positive idea.  It  simply means unusual, remarkable, sweeping: things that might be said of the design of the QE2 as well as the sinking of the Titanic.  More to the point, what “remembrance”?  The only remembering prompted by this memorial are the afterthought elements–the sculptures littered around and overwhelmed by the huge architectural forms.  They may communicate, but Gehry’s abstractions can only reflect what others see in them; they carry no memory.  They are the surface of the pond, not the well of wisdom.

Memoria is not just a root word taken from a dead language.  Memoria references a canon of rhetoric,  which is about the shaping and presentation of speech.  Memoria is about argument and inquiry; it is the recall of points within a debate.  That is where established languages of architecture are useful for memorial purposes.  We grow up with traditions that seep into our common understanding.  Whether or not a person can articulate the differences between each of the Orders, they usually recognize their general connection with institutions dedicated to the common good, and prevailing, positive values that have been commended since antiquity.  The fact that our institutions sometimes fail us is not a reason to reject this heritage; it is reason to demand that the institutions–and let’s be clear, we’re talking about people who are in charge of them–live up to their promise.  Arguments that these ideals are invalid are cynical at best, and nihilistic at worst.

The Gehry memorial should not be rejected because it is in a modernist style, or because it is too big, too expensive, or will be too hard to maintain.  It should be rejected because it fails to do its job to contribute to contemporary public discourse on its subject and will not share that understanding with future generations.  It communicates a trendy image that is destined to be outdated, which is not just disrespectful of its subject but an indictment of our public attitude toward history.  And if in that way it is indicative of the zeitgeist, it is the emblem of a people who have given up caring about and learning from their own legacy.

See the Memorial Commission website for best images of the proposal

Ulysses S. Grant Memorial (Henry Merwin Shrady & architect William Pearce Casey, 1902)