Saturday, September 06, 2008

Architectural Wars

Perhaps I've spent too many postings worrying about architectural iconography and the presidential election, but it really is getting more perplexing by the minute. Today, I saw the famous McCain "Celeb" ad on television (released Aug. 1, 2008) showing images of Barak Obama from his July 24 speech in Berlin. The image shows Obama directly under Berlin's Victory Column, as if this neoclassical column (surrounded by a colonnade) sprouts from Obama's head. When Obama chose to give the speech in front of the Victory Column, there was some discussion about the appropriateness of the location. The Victory Column was erected in 1873 to commemorate the Prussian defeat of Denmark. It was admired by the Nazis and, in fact, moved to its present spot in 1939; the tunnels leading visitors under the traffic circle were designed by Hitler's favorite architect, Albert Speer. The Obama campaign was obviously concerned over such military associations, which are now exploited by the McCain campaign. Fox News had made an early stab back in June with headlines "Obama Flunks History," essentially identifying the column with Fascism; this was when Obama's speech location had been moved from the Brandenburger Gate (where Ronald Reagan gave his iconic speech in June, 1987). Since 1939, Berlin's Victory Column has acquired newer iconographies that supersede simplistic associations with a regime that didn't even erect it. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the monument represents a unified Germany and the victory of Europe. In 1987, for example, French President Francois Mitterand restored the golden wreaths that had been removed by France in 1945. Moreover, the Victory Column is where the famous Love Parade has taken place since 1989. Thus, the monument has become the Woodstock of the European youth movement. I believe that Obama wanted to tap into this particular nerve when addressing his Berlin audience.

For me, personally, Berlin's Victory Column will forever evoke Berlin's poetic distilled in Wim Wenders'
Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987), one of my all time favorite movies. Those that have seen it will surely remember the angels standing on the Victory Column and overlooking the modern city. Visually, the column reunites Germany's rich neoclassical tradition with modernity (remember the library scene) through a perpetually nostalgic present.

I guess, the McCain/Palin ticket wants to keep alive the image of "Styrofoam columns" and surround it with negative background noise. This is a silly visual strategy, capitalizing on the public's generic familiarity with columns, vague associations with elitism, and now with 19th-century European urbanism. But it really seems very superficial. It's a strategy that should get architectural historians reveled up. Fellow architectural historians, change this week's teaching plan and introduce your students to the new architectural wars. As Newsweek editor Eleanor Clift (NPR, "On Point", Fri., Sept. 5, 2008) commented yesterday, a lot of "cross-dressing" seems to be happening in the Republican camp . If one needs to change imperial clothes, column-bashing may come in handy. More alarming would be what David Kirkpatrick (NYT, Sept. 5, 2008, A23) analyzed as a revival of the cultural wars whose banner was raised by Pat Buchanan in the 1992 Republican Convention. Buchanan saw this new war as the new Cold War. Although predominantly about social values (abortion, gays, religion, education), the cultural war has left wounds on art and architecture (NEH, censorship, funding, public projects, memorials, monuments, etc.) If we are on the verge of such a rekindled battleground, then I urge architectural historians and classical archaeologists to take note and raise their columns in battle formation. Like flag posts and phalluses, columns can sway with equal force to the left and to the right. And they can also fall down and whack you on the head.

Much will surely be reported on Sarah Palin in the months to come. Jon Stewart's piece on gender issues (Daily Show, Sept. 3, 2008) gets a good start.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States