Meet the Anti-Modernists
My column this week is about D.C.'s spate of new libraries, and as usual, some of the interesting things won't quite fit. Among them: A chat with Jubal Biggs, chairman of the board of directors of the National Civic Art Society.
Along with the Ralph Nader-founded D.C. Library Renaissance group, the NCAS has been sharply critical of Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper's building blitz. Founded in 2002, the Civic Art Society is dedicated to the preservation of classicism nationwide, focused in particular on the District's public buildings and monuments. Naturally, Biggs–whose day job is foreign policy research for the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute–hates the new glass-and-steel constructions, and thinks surrounding residents do too.
"Everybody thinks it looks like a McDonalds playhouse," he says of David Adjaye's design for the Washington Highlands Library. "It's urban junk. They don’t want it cluttering up their neighborhood. They don’t want that being the focal point of their community."
Biggs' critique is that the architecture actually isn't new, but rather a throwback to "antique modernism" that subordinates form to function. Instead, he says, the District should be innovating upon more traditional design fundamentals, holding up the Alaska state capitol as a model contemporary civic building.
"There are buildings which, through generations, people have always found value in, years after they were built, centuries after they were built," he says. "Washington is a classical city, everything was designed on a classical layout. The entire central core of the city, everything that’s iconic about Washington, that people remember, it’s all classical."
And you thought the Committee of 100 was old-fashioned.
To that end, the NCAS is advocating on a few fronts. Locally, they'll be preparing design alternatives for large new monuments, starting with the Eisenhower Memorial, which Biggs thinks "doesn't live up" to the former president. On the federal level, Biggs sees a problem with entrenched ways of doing things at the National Endowment for the Arts, and says he and his board are going "over the heads of the bureaucrats" to push for a public policy environment more friendly to traditional architecture with members of Congress directly. He wouldn't say who specifically, except that members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus have been particularly receptive.
And perhaps they do have the connections to make some headway. One of the NCAS' founding directors–and the owner of its headquarters at 904 Massachusetts Avenue NE–is conservative lobbyist Howard Segermark.*