Saturday, August 30, 2008

Democratic Classicism

The discussion that generated around the architectural aesthetics of the Democratic National Convention, especially the set designs at Invesco Field, give me great confidence in my job as archaeologist and architectural historian. Even the most learned members of American society are terribly clueless about ancient Greece and classical architecture. The Doric backdrop, which framed Barak Obama's acceptance speech, was distinctive enough to warrant all kinds of derogatory commentary, called the Temple of Obama, or the Democratic Mount Olympus. In his New York Times opinion column today, Frank Rich noted that the election "isn't about the Athenian columns."Then he wrote, "Barack Obama descended in classic deus ex machina fashion — yes, that’s Greek too — to set the record straight." [Deus ex machina is actually Latin]. Oh dear. Is classical culture such a populist cliche that one can say anything one wants about it?

I found the Doric set design at Invesco Field kind of brilliant. Sure, every political rally can have Nurenberg associations, but the historical cues alluded here were rather interesting. The first intended reference is naturally the White House, whose Georgian design loosely refers to the classical past, setting Obama inside the language of the White House. The classical vocabulary, at the same time, has elitist and exclusive white cultural associations (think antebellum southern plantations, etc.) commonly exploited by the Republican Party.. Philip Kennicott,
culture critic for the Washington Post, got it right in "Obama amid the Pillars of an Ancient Culture" (August 30, 2008), p. C1. The classical vocabulary had been fully co-opted by the Right. The George W. Bush government was most classicist than any, considering the formative influence so many of its members received under Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago. I wish that Departments of Classics in the U.S. would acknowledge this intellectual turn of events more openly and at least comment on this current alignment.

Returning to the set design, the strongest visual referent was naturally the Lincoln Memorial, where on August 28, 1963, Marin Luther King delivered the speech whose anniversary was celebrated during the convention. It was also here that Marian Anderson, the first celebrated African American classical singer, sang in 1939. The Lincoln Memorial represents one of the last gasps of neoclassicism, designed by Henry Bacon in 1922. Frank Lloyd Wright called it the "most ridiculous, most asinine miscarriage of building material that ever happened." Lincoln, the son of the Midwestern prairies was, for Wright, "the Greek antithesis." The Lincoln Memorial is an amazing monument because of its complicated history. We take it for granted today as status quo, but it was quite a controversial monument. For the most thorough coverage of the building, see Christopher A. Thomas,
The Lincoln Memorial and American Life (Princeton, 2002) . For something more immediate, listen to one of my favorite episodes of Studio 360, American Icon series (February 16, 2008). I plan to use this podcast for my art history survey; it's great teaching material.

The Lincoln Memorial has two un-Greek peculiarities that were picked up in the Democratic set. It has a dramatic podium that set it off as an object. The stairs were picked up in Denver as the termination of the walkway from which the speakers delivered their oratory. The Lincoln Memorial has no door. It gapes open in the middle of the facade. This was picked up nicely in the video displays that filled the symmetrical temple fronts.

It would be ridiculous to talk about historicism in 21st-century architecture and dismiss the Postmodern movement. Regardless of its lofty references to multiple pasts, the Denver podium was a postmodern pastiche. Frankly, it was nothing more than a VERY reserved version of Charles W. Moore's Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans (1976-79). The podium itself reflects a trend of truncated pyramidal forms (e.g. Robert Stern's Comcast Center skyscraper in Philadelphia) that fill today's IKEA showroom. Ultimately, the funkiness of this geometry derives from the Italian post modernism, Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Group from the 1980s.

Although I was fascinated by the public attention on Obama's so-called Temple, and the smartness of its referents, I admit that I didn't love it. I suppose political conventions have to be conventional and not the place for innovative risks; that being said, the musical choices were much more daring than the architecture. The whole thing was very 1980s, a decade when postmodernism made even the most puritanical neoclassicism a viable option. Architects like Allan Greenberg thought that this kind of vocabulary was the only antidote to modernism. They dominated some architecture schools (Notre Dame most notably) and read American Vitruvius religiously. Books like George Hersey's The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture, Speculation on Ornament from Vitruvius to Venturi (Cambridge, Mass., 1988) and John Onians' Bearers of Meaning. The Classical Orders in Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Princeton, 1988) were fashionable. Watching Robert Stern dominate commission throughout Philadelphia (Comcast, McNeil Center for American Studies, 10 Rittenhouse Square), I feel trapped in a 1988 time warp. Stern will also be designing three
new colleges at Yale University, where he is Dean of Architecture.


Anonymous said...

A very well-conceived post about the design of the stage. Thanks for the post! Check out a related story about the design of the stage:

Anonymous said...

Just happened to stumble upon your blog; very interesting! Also noticed that you teach at F&M. So I just thought you'd be interested in this discussion.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States