Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Inauguration

I have been glued on the TV all day watching the inauguration of Barak Obama. Tomorrow, I start my history of architecture class at Connecticut and I am simply overwhelmed with the richness of America's architectural tradition unfolding in front of the television. From Saint John's Episcopal Church (Benjamin Latrobe, 1815), and the Capitol Building (William Thornton, Benjamin Latrobe, Charles Bulfinch, William Strickland, 1791-1863), its Statuary Hall and its featured painting View of the Yosemite Valley by Thomas Hill (on loan from the New York Historical Society), to the Beaux Arts buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue swarming with people, The Old Post Office Pavilion (Willoughby Edbrook, 1880), the National Gallery East Building (I.M. Pei, 1968), the Canadian Embassy (Arthur Erickson, 1989), the White House (Benjamin Latrobe, 1801), its Miesian viewing stand, the Washington Monument (Robert Mills, 1848) and, of course, the Lincoln Memorial (Henry Bacon, 1922), the most central building in Barack Obama's architectural iconography, see Democratic Classicism post.

Emotionally overwhelmed by the momentous event, I turn now inward and confront my own civic responsibilities. How can I contribute to the Change heralded by Obama's presidency? Re-reading Howard Zinn, People's History of the United States: 1492-Present, was the first thing that came to mind for guidance. But ultimately, I feel my commitment is to teach through architectural history. I set my fir
st goal as follows. To give my students the necessary vocabulary so that they could truly understand how radically different the White House is from the Lincoln Memorial, even though superficially they seem similarly traditional. I am afraid that the nuances of Washington's architecture was lost to most viewers because it has been generically labeled "all American." Perhaps here I can make a modest contribution. Two weekends ago, I gave a walking tour "Archaeology into Architecture" for the Annual Meetings of the Archaeological Institute of America in Philadelphia. The attendants were all non-specialists. For 2 1/2 hours we traveled across American history, from the colonial Independence Hall to the modern PFSF Building, showing the consecutive but radically different archaeological inspirations for each of the various American styles. We also visited the 2003 excavations of the slave quarters behind the President's House, published in Rebecca Yamin's Digging in the City of Brotherly Love: Stories from Philadelphia Archaeology (2008). Perhaps change can come through architectural knowledge and archaeological discipline.

My favorite images from the Inauguration festivities came from two days ago, with Bruce Springsteen performing "We Are One" at the Lincoln Memorial, flanked by its Doric colonnade and a red gospel choir. The image (above) was published in the New York Times (January 19, 2009, p. C1). I have some hope in these white columns, at least in as much as they can be understood. Let's look beyond the iconic and understand the substance.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States